Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Golden Age of Television?

There seems to be a general agreement among television historians that the Golden Age of Television took place sometime starting in the late Forties and continuing through the Fifties. Beyond this admittedly broad time frame, there have been various time periods offered as when the Golden Age of Television took place. The Museum of Broadcast Communications Encyclopaedia puts what it calls "the 'Golden Age' of Television Drama" as being from 1949 to 1960. Some would extend the Golden Age of Television to 1961, when legendary anthology series Playhouse 90 went off the air. Others have given other dates for the beginning and end of the Golden Age of Television.

While there is some disagreement as to exactly when the Golden Age of Television took place, it is generally agreed it did take place and that it was largely due to the proliferation of dramatic anthology series which often featured critically acclaimed teleplays, as well as various other television events. While there have been naysayers, it is difficult to argue the Golden Age of Television did not take place. Live dramatic anthology series proliferated on television in the early Fifties, such series as The Philco Television Playhouse, Goodyear Television Playhouse, Lux Video Theatre, and, the most critically acclaimed of the early anthology shows, Studio One. Many of the teleplays which appeared on these shows went onto be adapted for Broadway, movies, and often both: "Requiem for a Heavyweight," "No Time for Sergeants," "Marty," and others. The anthology series introduced a whole new crop of talented, intelligent writers, including Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose, Rod Serling, and several others. It was a period when teleplays were often critically acclaimed.

Of course, if there had only been the dramatic anthology series at the time, we might not be speaking of a Golden Age of Television. It must be kept in mind that it was in the late Forties and early Fifties that many classic variety shows debuted, including Toast of the Town (later renamed The Ed Sullivan Show), The Colgate Comedy Hour, The Red Skelton Show, and Your Show of Shows. Classic sitcoms emerged on television, many imported from radio: The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show and The Jack Benny Programme chief among them. Of course, there were original sitcoms as well, chief among them I Love Lucy, but also Make Room for Daddy, Father Knows Best, Topper, Mr. Peepers, and others. While there some of what we would today call "junk," there seemed to be a good deal more quality TV shows on American television at this period than most.

While there can be little argument that a Golden Age of Television took place, there is some argument as to when it precisely took place. Some would begin it as early as 1946, others as late as 1949 (television personality David Susskind among them). Personally, I think the year the Golden Age of Television began could actually be said to be 1948. My reasoning is simple. The Kraft Television Theatre debuted in 1947, ushering in the highbrow, dramatic anthology series. It was followed in 1948 by several similar series: The Ford Theatre, Philco/Goodyear Television Playhouse, Actors Studio, and he legendary Studio One. There would be other legendary anthology shows which debuted throughout the next many years, some rather late (Playhouse 90 would not debut until 1956), but 1948 seems to be the year when the dramatic anthology series really began to take hold.

As to when the Golden Age of Television ended that is a bit trickier.  The Museum of Broadcast Communications Encyclopaedia places it at 1960. Others have placed it at 1961, when Playhouse 90 was cancelled. In a television roundtable in the Sixties, David Susskind placed the Golden Age from 1949 to a terribly early 1954! I disagree with all of these ideas as to when the Golden Age of Television ended, I think most television historians will agree with me that 1954 is much too early for the Golden Age to have ended. On the other hand, I think 1961 is much too late. I know there are those who will point out that was the year that Playhouse 90 went off the air, but I do not think that can be used as it ignores other important events in television. To use it an example from another medium, All-Star Comics, one of the most important titles of the Golden Age of Comic books, persisted until 1951. Most comic book historians do not take this into account for obvious reasons (there were other factors, such as most Golden Age titles having been cancelled well before then), and end the Golden Age of Comic Books anywhere from 1945 to more generally 1948 or 1949. That Playhouse 90 lasted until 1961 really makes no difference. Most other other classic, dramatic anthology series were well gone by then.

The fact is that by the early Fifties television began to give rise to such filmed series as I Love Lucy. Many of these filmed series would prove very popular, gradually edging out the live anthology series. A sure sign of the triumph of the filmed television series would arrive in 1955 when the debut of three different Westerns would signal the beginning of a cycle towards Westerns (those shows were Cheyenne. Gunsmoke, and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp). Westerns would prove so popular that they overwhelmed American airwaves, with as many as eight such shows airing during some seasons. Of course, the dramatic anthology series were in trouble before the Western cycle began, as 1955 is also the year they began dying off.

Both The Kraft Television Theatre (the show that had started it all) and Philco Television Playhouse went off the air in 1955. Goodyar Television Playhouse, The Alcoa Hour, Armstrong Circle Theatre, and Robert Montgomery Presents went off the air in 1957. Studio One lasted until 1958. Lux Video Theatre  until 1959. The United States Steel Hour outlasted them all, surviving until 1963. Given the number of anthology shows that went off the air in 1957, I think it might be a good idea to end the Golden Age of television then. My reasoning is simple. Many of the great anthology shows were already gone. Filmed television series already dominated the network schedules, not just Westerns, but shows like The Phil Silvers Show, The Bob Cummings Show, Medic, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and others. Worse yet, in the summer of 1955 the quiz show The $64,000 Question debuted. By the 1956-1957 season it had produced a spin off in the form of The $64,0000 Challenge, as well inspired such similar quiz shows as Twenty One, The Big Surprise, and Dotto. While many of the filmed shows of the era are justifiably called classics, the quiz shows are one of the low points in television history. Indeed, in 1958 it would become public that most of them had been rigged, igniting the infamous quiz show scandals. Between the live dramatic anthology shows beginning to die off in droves, the domination of filmed series, and the rise of the quiz shows, I think the 1956-1957 season is when the Golden Age of Television ended.

Of course, there would be classic anthology shows which survived the end of the Golden Age and others which debuted after it ended, most of them filmed series. Playhouse 90 debuted the very season the Golden Age ended and lasted until 1961. The United States Steel Hour ended its run in 1963 after ten years on the air. Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the classic filmed suspense anthology show, debuted in 1955 and lasted until 1965. The Twilight Zone, possibly the most famous anthology show of them all, debuted in 1959 and lasted until 1964. The classic horror anthology show Thriller debuted in 1960 and ran two seasons. Anthology series did not die with the end of the Golden Age of Television, although they ceased being produced live for being filmed instead, with but a few exceptions. Regardless, they no longer dominated the television landscape after 1955 and became rare after 1957. By the late Sixties they would be gone.

The Golden Age of Television, 1948 to 1957, was an incredible time for television, when the medium was dominated by writers and there was quality material produced every week. It was brought to an end by filmed series, a cycle towards Westerns which only accelerated the dominance of filmed series, and the birth of the big money quiz show. As television moved into the Sixties, many of the classic filmed series would even end and television would go thought a bleak period from about 1960 to 1963. Oh, there were classic which debuted in this era--The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Untouchables, and others, but shows such as The Phil Silvers Show, Have Gun--Will Travel, and Peter Gunn were replaced by with insipid sitcoms such as The Hathaways, the often poorly made clones of 77 Sunset Strip (Surfside Six and others), and rather bland adventure shows such as Follow the Sun. Fortunately for television, a new Golden Age was dawning, one I call the Golden Age of Series Television, when several classic shows with continuing character would air (a short list--The Beverly Hillbillies, Bewitched, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West, The Monkees, and others). Of course, this is a story for another time.

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