‘The Box’ Tells the History of Television From Creation to Vast Wasteland

Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box: An Oral History Of Television 1929-1961 is an interesting read on the early days of everyone’s favorite box with pictures — or at least, everyone’s favorite for a while. Kisseloff goes from the early experiments with TV and the invention of — not to mention RCA’s attempts to squash Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor, since they’d been working on a version too. In these early chapters, Kisseloff strikes a good balance between giving the proper scientific background of how the various attempts at television worked without being too dry and technical that it sails over people’s heads.

In The Box, once TV’s been invented, the early “experimental” classed stations are covered in detail by many of the people who were there, going over some of the techniques we take for granted today were created — typically via a happy accident, experimentation, or just goofing around. (One of my favorite stories was when the early Dave Garroway show was being broadcast in Chicago, before he’d gone to start the Today show, the cameramen found a glass brick and shot through that for a multiple-image effect. NBC, their network, was so taken with the image, they insisted to know how it was done. Initially they resisted, but when the network demanded the piece of equipment that gave them the shot, the Chicago station mailed them the glass brick. One hopes, postage due.)

As the FCC allowed stations to go commercial (and therefore actually have a shot at making money), there was the initial rise in quality programming — typically live dramas and anthology series — where the famed Marty and 12 Angry Men started before becoming critically loved films — which petered out as sponsors demanded more changes and control over the programming. Naturally, after that, the quality went down the chute.

The rest of the book goes through the quiz show scandals, the rise of children’s programming and the troubles therein, and the growing influence of advertisers on programming; the occasional good that would come — like Alcoa’s prestige-sponsorship of Murrow’s See It Now — but mostly the bad — like the enforcement of blacklisting out of fear people wouldn’t buy products sponsoring a show starring someone declared Communist (typically by someone who was trying to shake them down for money), the sloth when it comes to racial issues (mustn’t offend Southern consumers!), the watering down of content (people who don’t get a show won’t buy the product!), ad nauseam.

The book ends at a great stopping point: Newton Minow‘s famous “Vast Wasteland” speech. (Amusingly, if it weren’t for Minow’s wife, it wouldn’t have been the “Vast Wasteland” speech — everyone he tested the speech out on advised him to cut that line — only his wife told him to put it back in.)

The strength of The Box is its format — compiled of interviews with the author, it lets those who were there tell the story. Sometimes subjects were asked about statements made by others, which gives a conversational tone to the book, almost like a panel discussion. Kisseloff writes an introduction to each chapter, which set the stage. Kisseloff’s is an outstanding editor and does an excellent job combining the different voices into a cohesive, coherent whole. And, as a media junkie, an incredibly compelling one.

Previously published  

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