The phrase “quality television” is something that critics and entertainment insiders have been saying for decades but it’s kind of an abstract phrase because it’s hard to determine exactly what it means. When I hear it I usually think of shows with outstanding writing that have received a fair amount of acclaim from viewers and critics and many times an award nomination or two. Examples including comedies like Seinfeld, The Office and Veep as well as dramas like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. Although to me, awards and acclaim are secondary to the most important factor: the writing. Pretty much every scripted TV show that has received any sort of fanfare can trace its popularity to the fact that talented writers have been hired. Two of the biggest comedy mega hits on television, Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons, would likely never have reached their status as cultural phenomenons had it not been for writers like Al Franken, Michael O’Donoghue, Sam Simon, George Meyer, Robert Smigel, Conan O’Brien and others. So that’s my definition of quality TV.
A steady stream of quality shows at one time can also lead to another common phrase: “the golden age of television.” According to how TV critics have been responding to commercial television since it was first introduced to the American public, it could be determined that the first of these golden ages was roughly between 1947 to 1960, since this was the period of great entertainment such as The Ed Sullivan Show, Your Show of Shows, I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners plus great entertainers like Steve Allen, Jack Parr, Jack Benny, Jackie Gleason, Ernie Kovacs and Milton Berle.
However, phrases like “golden age” can mislead people who were not alive in the fifties into thinking that most programming back then was great, but this is far from the case. In that decade, television was still a young medium that was trying to figure out what it was and there were probably a hundred average, unmemorable and downright bad programs for every single great show on the air. But selective memory (and syndication) has created the illusion of a golden age. Which is why I tend not to give much importance to the phrase “golden age,” in any period but especially not the fifties.
And I am far from the only person who feels this way. Have you ever wondered why television has nicknames like “idiot box” and “boob tube”? A large portion of the population has always had a low opinion of television since the medium’s early days. That’s why people started calling shows “quality.” Because the things you typically saw on TV were usually far from quality. It was a revelation when people like Benny and Gleason could be consistently entertaining every week!
When commercial television was in its infancy in the ’40s and ’50s, it aired many things that continue to air on television to this day like sports, stage performances, old films and religious sermons, and a lot of these broadcasts were live. But once television started borrowing from the mediums that it most closely resembled, cinema and radio, it realized its potential and started becoming really popular.
Sitcoms, crime dramas, Westerns, game shows, soap operas and variety shows were all introduced on radio before commercial television existed, and thanks to movie theaters, we were all used to seeing moving images tell compelling stories on a screen. Television simply combined the best elements from movies and radio into one wonder device.
Although this does not mean that live programming did not have its fans. Live variety shows and anthology dramas are not as common today but they were around a lot more in this early period and TV critics of the time often gave them more love than the average episodic drama or sitcom (being the main reason why some of them refer to this period as a golden age). The variety comedies recalled the days of Vaudeville with hosts like Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan often introducing performers to a mass audience for the first time. Shows like Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater and Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows were hugely popular. As for the anthology drama, it found more inspiration from Broadway and the theater. Anthology shows like Kraft Television Theater, Studio One, Goodyear TV Playhouse and Playhouse 90 were among the most critically acclaimed shows of the fifties, well-respected and often dubbed, yes, quality!
The critical acclaim was earned. Some of the episodes of these shows were so good that they inspired film adaptations that were just as well-received by film critics. Playhouse 90 episodes that were adapted into films include Requiem for a Heavyweight, Days of Wine and Roses and The Miracle Worker. The movie Marty was based on an episode of The Philco Television Playhouse and Bang the Drum Slowly was based on an episode of The U.S. Steel Hour.
But again, there were a hundred average stage adaptations throughout the fifties for every artistic triumph, so the fact that the fifties are seen as a golden age of TV is, I would argue, nostaligia-blind, rose-tinted and largely selective, but to be fair, many people preferred hundreds of average stage dramas for every Miracle Worker to hundreds of average sitcoms for every Cheers or Seinfeld.
Live broadcasts started becoming slowly less common as the fifties progressed, especially when a workable videotape system was first introduced in 1957 and sitcoms like I Love Lucy and Leave It to Beaver and dramas like Dragnet which featured a consistent cast of characters were attracting bigger audiences and soon became the dominant form of television entertainment. This evolution simply made sense, seeing as how on the production side reusing the same sets every week was much cheaper and on the viewer side, it was more appealing to the masses to watch a TV show and know what you were getting into than hoping for something good with an anthology series.
The fall of the anthology can pretty much be traced back to the mass popularity of television sets in 1954 when the majority of American households finally owned one. And single-advertiser-sponsored programs like Kraft and Goodyear soon gave way to the system of multiple advertisers sponsoring a single program. Some historians say that the fall of these prestige dramas and the invasion of commercials, sitcoms and violent Westerns and crime dramas in the mid-’50s marked the fall of television’s most experimental period and even its most artistic period.
It’s hard to imagine this today, but back then there was no television formula so a lot of people initially saw the excess of commercials, family sitcoms and violence as a terrible direction for television to go even though this would become the norm forever forward. And this would soon be reflected by one of television’s most notorious critics at the time, FCC chair Newton Minow, who basically said that television was garbage back in 1961 when he lamented the excess of commercials, violence, cartoons and unbelievable portrayals of families while challenging station owners to watch their own programming for a day and see if they didn’t agree with him.
Although it’s important to note that TV viewers never stopped loving cartoons, violence or unbelievable portrayals of families, even if many critics and scholars agreed with Minow. Nonetheless, Minow’s speech where he famously declared television a “vast wasteland” inspired a few more sophisticated programs like Dr. Kildare, The Defenders, Mr. Novak, East Side/West Side and even sitcoms like The Dick Van Dyke Show which had more intelligent writing than the average sitcom.
However, the legacy of Minow’s speech that lasted longer than the resurgence of prestige dramas enjoyed by most liberals were rural comedies like The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres and Hee Haw, a result of Minow’s complaints about violent programming scaring networks into innocuous and silly fare that was so far removed from the culture of the sixties that they would end up being the last bastion of traditional content until television executives started targeting baby boomers in the late sixties. In fact, FCC regulations on TV content were less strict during Lyndon Johnson’s administration. Although this decade was nothing compared to the seventies, a decade which I think formed the basis for what quality television would become in the future, which I will discuss in my next blog.