Wednesday, 16 November 2011

TV or Not TV

1948 seems to be the year many people consider the start of network television, but regular TV broadcasts were around before then. Stations went on the air in New York and Los Angeles in 1931 (some having broadcast experimentally in the late ‘20s) and the networks, small as they were, carried programming during the war years.

By 1947, newspaper articles appeared speculating whether—or when—television would overtake radio as the electronic means of choice. There was no Ed Sullivan Show yet, no Uncle Miltie. Instead, you could watch ‘Pulitzer Varieties’ or ‘King’s Record Shop’ on the DuMont Network or ‘Living Room Education’ on W6XAO in Hollywood or the first 15-minute newsreel by the Associated Press on CBS. It’s really an interesting period in television history, rarely explored.

But there was something behind the speculation. The radio networks knew it, the stars on the radio networks knew it and, most importantly, the sponsors and ad agencies of the shows on the radio networks knew it, as they watched sales of TV sets climb in the buoyant post-war economy. The question was, what was a star to do: give up a well-paying job on a radio show with a huge audience, or jump to a shaky new medium that could eventually kill their current big-money employment.

An Associated Press column put that question to a bunch of the stars during the 1948-49 season. By then, Ed and Miltie were on the small screen, cutting into radio’s numbers. Here’s what the top names had to say.

T-V by Fall?
HOLLYWOOD, April 22.—(AP)—When will television become big-time? Next fall perhaps. Fall of 1950 for sure.
That’s the way it looks after a survey of TV plans of most of the big air shows. It’s apparent that most of the top television talent will come from the industry’s older brother, radio. Here is the latest news:
Eddie Cantor —Will definitely jump into TV next fall, with simultaneous radio and telecast for present sponsor.
Amos ‘n’ Andy—“We are working on an unusual idea for television and hope to come up with something in the next few months.”
Burns and Allen — Going to New York in June to discuss a TV deal with CBS’ William Paley.
Jack Benny—May do a monthly videocast in the fall; was happy with his debut on the local CBS station.
Bing Crosby—Definitely plans a TV show, but may wait another year; will do show on film.
Bob Hope—Making big plans for TV; may start in fall.
Duffy’s Tavern—Easily adaptable to TV because of one barroom set; may wait until fall of 1950.
Truth or Consequences — Did one show here on TV; waiting until Kine-scoping is better or coast-to-coast telecasting is possible.
Red Skelton — MGM contract keeps him off TV until December, 1952.
[Lux] Radio Theater—Not adaptable because film studios won’t permit telecasting of movie stories of stars.
Screen Guild Players—Same.
Edgar Bergen—Plans a few telecasts next season, will probably be a regular in fall of 1950.
Al Jolson—Laying plans for a minstrel show on TV.
Ozzie and Harriet — Have put their own children into the show, replacing actors who impersonated them; this is first step toward TV show, which may start in fall.
Dennis Day—Watching situation; may start in fall.
Judy Canova—Same.
Jimmy Durante—Tied to MGM contract.
People Are Funny—Possibility of simultaneous TV and radio show in the fall.
Groucho Marx—Probably not for another year; would be done on film.
Fred Allen—In no hurry; “Let the others pioneer it.”
Fibber McGee — Definitely interested; both son and daughter in TV field; Molly calls herself a “television widow,” since Fibber spends all his time watching the screen.
My Friend Irma—All of cast is suitable for TV; waiting for CBS go-ahead.
Spike Jones—Has been experimenting with show, but no commitments yet.
Faye-Harris—Committed to another year of radio; perhaps TV after that.
Frank Sinatra—Studying the field, but no plans yet.
Take It or Leave It—Garry Moore thinks show readily adaptable for TV, ready to go.
There seems little doubt that most of these names will join Milton Berle, Arthur Godfrey, Perry Como and other air stars who have already leaped into the new field. It will happen when (1) Coast-to-coast telecasting comes in, (2) There are enough sets in the U.S. for sponsors to put out more money.

The list is almost a Who’s Who of the radio people who never quite made the jump. For all their greatness on radio, ‘Fibber McGee and Molly’ and ‘Duffy’s Tavern’ never made it on the tube. Nobody thinks of television when they think of Judy Canova. Phil Harris and Alice Faye decided to enjoy semi-retirement after their radio days and stayed out of it. Fred Allen’s reciprocal disdain for television is well known. Frank Sinatra’s role in ‘From Here to Eternity’ took his career in a whole new direction away from the small screen. And we can only imagine the reaction to Jolie’s blackface act if death hadn’t interfered with his plans for a long career in TV.

On the other hand, Jack Benny never missed a beat, though it’s arguable that he was better on radio than television due to his marvellous supporting cast. Skelton was the opposite; television gave him range to do pantomime and other things radio couldn’t. Groucho shone on ‘You Bet Your Life.’ People associate ‘Truth or Consequences’, ‘People Are Funny’ and even the long-lasting ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ more with TV than radio. ‘Take it or Leave It’ went to television after having three zeros added to its $64 jackpot. You know how it ended. And Bob Hope outlasted them all, though he avoided a regular show and stuck to increasingly tacky, cue card-laden specials on NBC.

Perhaps even more interesting is the names that aren’t on the list. When you think of ‘50s television, you think of Lucille Ball, Phil Silvers, the Honeymooners. You think of ‘Playhouse 90’ and ‘Gunsmoke.’ In other words, television viewers almost had their fill of many of the stars of radio and wanted someone new for a new medium. Perhaps to the display of the Cantors and Wynns, the public looking forward and not back.


  1. We saw something similar in the early 1980s in the music business with the arrival of MTV, when it came to how new stars were created, existing stars disappeared and others struggled to make the transition.

    As it was with television in the late 1940s, the channel initially was scrounging for anyone who had done a music video, so performers/groups that would have been unable to get an opening on radio as it existed suddenly found themselves TV stars from being in the right place at the right time. At the same time, while some groups/individuals were able to transition from radio alone to cross-platform music media, others who were not 'TV friendly' (i.e. someone like Christopher Cross) saw their careers cut short, while others (Madonna) designed their whole persona around the new visual medium.

  2. I would have thought that it was, as ever, all about money. With many of radio's biggest names holding out for more of it (or more confidence that the new medium would present them effectively), it would have been a lot cheaper to build a show around Lucille Ball or Phil Silvers. Thus, by the time your "Who’s Who" sauntered across the hall, they were trying to break into a medium that already had its own established stars.

  3. Dan'l, I don't know which radio stars held out for more money to go into television.
    The impression I'm under is part of the impetus behind the Paley talent raid is he was looking ahead to television and wanted some ready-made stars to instantly attract people but I don't recall him saying that in interviews, certainly not at the time.
    J.L., I never thought of MTV as being an engine for change in the music industry but, yeah, I suppose you're right. And now the next generation's moved on to social media.