Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

It's January 1951 and Alistair Cooke muses on the burgeoning American TV industry.

Broadcast on: BBC Radio 7, 1:45pm, Tuesday, 18th November 2008

Duration: 15 minutes

NB: I made this transcription whilst listening to the programme on BBC iPlayer

Letter from America, January 1951

“Well the winter is really on us and the life of anyone living in the North Eastern States is settling down to a routine very, very different from the life of last summer and autumn. I mean the cyclical life, not just because they’re air raid shelters going up and signs all over town. The Department of Sanitation in New York, for instance, once again has its night staff on call in case of a blizzard. It has, as usual, a whole new set of gadgets, some new style snow ploughs with electronic buzzers out front that thrash through snow drifts and pile everything in neat rows on the side along the gutter. The newspapers are running their perpetual winter series on the common cold, which, for all the wonderful advances in bacteriology of the past thirty years, defies any form of treatment but hacking, and snuffling, and watching and waiting.

"For the third year in succession, New York is full again of sun-tanned young beauties from the West Coast. Girls who have given up struggling up the Hollywood ladder and have come to New York – or have come back to New York – where there are jobs galore for them in television. For the first winter in history, the papers print a daily half-page, in fine print, of television programmes; just as long as the radio list. It used to be a little corner in a single column, with the stations opening for business around five in the afternoon and going off at ten. Now, they start at nine in the morning with a programme called Morning Chapel, and the news, and then end at midnight with the news.

"These new habits sneak up on you so slyly and quickly that it’s rather hard to realise what morons we were a couple of years ago. In those primitive days, a housewife had to make her own mind up after breakfast where to shop and what to buy. But now, after Morning Chapel comes: The Television Shopper. There was a time too when housewives, busy sweeping, and washing dishes, and vacuuming, used to have to amuse the baby on the side. But – presto! – 10:00 a.m. – The Babysitter Show, meant to rivet the baby’s wayward attention while Mother gets on with the chores.

"The conscientious housewife, once she’s through the daily dusting and cleaning, used to look over a couple of mixing bowls, an egg beater, and whatever meat was in the ice box, and think about the old man’s supper. Now, between eleven and noon, she has a choice of advice – new wrinkles [sic?], new recipes, all being demonstrated, mixed and cooked – usually looks like lava – on two programmes: Kitchen Fare, and Kitchen Capers.

"If she should begin to feel lonely any time before lunch, there’s no excuse anymore for calling on Mrs Brown next door. Mrs Brown has come to the television screen; and with other unemployed matrons, can be seen prattling over this and that on a programme called The Coffee Club. From noon on, if the housewife isn’t through her work, she ought to be. The networks give themselves over unashamedly to amusement: The Cathy Norris Show; The Joe Franklin Show; The Johnny Olsen Show; and then a few more half hours of intensive cooking lessons and demonstrations and the news is beginning to rear its ugly head.

"Then music, and comedy shows and music and Homemakers’ Guide and interviews with celebrities and models and dress shows and advice to parents. Evening is coming on, naturally. And then, as the twilight falls, a barrage of news programmes. And then, Hopalong Cassidy, and puppet shows and cowboy films and the Weather Man from Chicago. And a quarter hour at the zoo. At this point, by which time, Mother has either turned the darned thing off and gone back to life, or gone into arthritis and lost her wandering baby through the bedroom window.

"At this point I ought to say that one of the discoveries of American television has been an assortment of odd, anonymous characters, usually middle aged and Middle Western, with a genius for rambling on in a fascinating way about some scientific specialty. There is a man out in Chicago who loves animals like nobody since Noah and comes up with little shows about ___ (?) and pandas and racoons and snakes, with all the easy wonder and the proud knowledge of a father of quadruplets.

"The Weather Man is another who comes over one network every night – he’s also from Chicago. He turns to a great empty map of America, empty that is except for the mountain ranges lightly sketched in. He talks about the weather the way some people talk about football and others about murder trials. Of course, he has a continent to play with. And for anybody interested in weather, America is a rich playground. Cattle may be going down for the third time in oceans of snow in Montana, while blondes are frisking in the warm green waters of Florida.

"The Weather Man always licks his lips and cocks his eyebrows, not in an annoying, actorish way, but because he has a genuine relish for the surprises he has in store. “Well,” he says, and he takes a menacing brush – I mean a paint brush, about five inches wide, in his hand: “Well”, he says, “there’s trouble ahead for you people who live in the, uh, North West there, and, uh, up all the way along the Mid-West to the Great Lakes. A full sized blizzard came roaring in from the Pacific last night.” He takes his brush and he paints, in I’m told red paint, a stream of roaring blizzard across the Pacific Northwest and across the Cascades and the bitter routes [?].

"He says, “It’s across the Great Plains today, and it’ll be here in Iowa, and Illinois and Wisconsin tomorrow. But here’s good news for you people on the Lake Shore,” he sweeps his brush right across the western half of the nation and lets it stop short of Lake Michigan. “Seems,” he says with a foxy smile, “there’s a high pressure belt, just an itsy bitsy high pressure belt stuck somewhere north of Milwaukee down through Indiana; it’s gonna hold off that blizzard, it may even divert it north, but for a day or two. So you folks here in town or up in Wisconsin, you don’t have to worry about a thing till I see you again. You oughta be right snug inside that high pressure belt.”

"Isotherms and equinoxes are just a couple of baby bears to this man. And I swear that he teaches more people – adults as well as children – more about how weather is made than all the text books they never looked at. He saves the mean punch-line. Jus before he goes off he remembers something, “Oh, yes,” he says, “the temperatures. Well, let’s see now, through the Midwest it’ll be around twenty degrees tonight, that’s twelve degrees with frost,” a form of expression never used, by the way, in the United States. A number means above zero, thus thirty or twelve; ten below means below zero. Then he rattles off a few significant figures: “Chicago, twelve tonight, up around thirty in the day tomorrow; little higher away across New England. In the Northern Great Plains, it’ll be between twenty and twenty-five below zero. Great Falls, Montana, somewhere down around forty-five below. Miami,” he says, “eighty-five by day, around seventy at night. Goodnight.”

"Television, as you may have noticed, is a great thing to kick around and have fun with. But I think I’d better tell you that, although for hours, it is possible to drown in mediocrity. There are by now quite a lot of first rate programmes, not so much plays and ballets, which are obvious stuff, but nonetheless fascinating, if done thoroughly with lots of rehearsal, something that American television doesn’t go in for so far. The really outstanding things in American television are group discussions of all sorts, big and small; news programmes; and comedy shows. The best comedy shows are not necessarily the ones done by comedians who were famous in radio, or on the stage, though two or three of those big evening shows are incomparable.

"For another animal the television has thrown up is the young man, usually in his early thirties, who is glib, inconsequential in a Groucho Marx sort of way, and very much at home with a microphone wandering around a big studio audience, interviewing people and sometimes the crew, the television crew, talking back at them, insulting them. Now, there’s no point in my mentioning any names, because they would mean nothing to you; they meant nothing to us six months ago. There are about a half dozen of them: spry, easy going, irreverent, who just have a natural sense of irony and rely on it to fill a nightly hour or half hour with a studio audience. Nightly.

"One of them the other night had no set routine, couldn’t think what to do with his audience and just ordered his dinner up. It came in with real, non-actor, waiters and he sat and ate it for half an hour and thought aloud and kidded the waiters in one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.

"Now, it’s obvious by this time that television is murder on anybody who must rely on a writer, on a script. And just as the talking picture doomed to sudden death the beautiful profiles with rasping voices, so television has already registered a high mortality among actors and actresses and comedians who must learn lines; the race is to the quick witted, and there’s already a fine crop of such.

"The news programmes, I think, are just about the best achievement of television so far. The news commentators are beginning to throw away their news tape and talking about the news, some of them, swiftly, easily, and accurately without script. In fifteen minutes, one network opens with its news announcer, he gives you the main headlines, then they switch to Washington for a movie of Congress that morning, and then to a studio in Washington for a couple of minutes with a couple of Senators thrashing over the topic of the day. Then back to New York for spoken news, read against still pictures, maps and diagrams of Korea. Then a three minute shot of Korean news reels flown in that day. And then out to Chicago for movies taken last night of a blizzard, a mine disaster, the British Ambassador making a speech, or whatever. And then back to New York for the late flashes, and so an end.

"There has been quite a bit of comment here in the last week or two on Mr T. S. Eliot’s comment that Britain should beware of television as a grave threat to – these were not his words, but I think his sense – as a grave threat to leisure, to intelligence, and culture in general. The great question: “What will it do to our children?” rocked around the nation last year. A lot of us sympathise with Mr Eliot, but honestly see the facts going against us. For instance, mediocrity practically doesn’t exist to a child. Mediocrity is in the eye and the judgement of the beholder, and I would hesitate to say what is good or bad for a ten year old. I know what’s educational, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the same thing as what is good or bad.

"However, to the dismay of us conscientious, culture-conscious, and perhaps slightly hypochondriacal parents, Northwestern University has just published the results of its survey on what television does to the child. And its answer is: nothing. Nothing that hadn’t already been there or been done before. Television it seems is a reflector of what’s in the child, not a poisonous snake infecting him from outside. They found for instance that the amount of time spent on television by anyone or any hundred of children has no sort of correlation with their marks in school. Perhaps it does, after all, go in through one eye and out through the other, causing no pain, and, I must confess, a lot of pleasure.

"The rising generation then is going to the dogs just as fast, or as slow, as you and I did, remember? It’s a hard world for us moralists, isn’t it?”


NB: It seems that the zoo show was called Zoo Parade with a Mr Perkins who was director of the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and the programme aired on NBC. Additionally, I would like to note that it would be interesting to compare these statements on television to those aired by Edward R. Murrow (as dramatised in the film Goodnight, and Good Luck), those written by Raymond Williams in 1974 in his book Television and by Pierre Bourdieu on French television and transcribed in his book On Television.

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