I was just yesterday compiling a list of the most important technologies of the last 200 years. I was not thinking about underlying technologies like the semiconductor or even electricity, but about technologies that reach us, the final consumers. My list included aviation, the automobile, movies, the personal computer, recorded music, the telephone, photography, and a handful of others. As I looked at the list, I could not help but conclude that the one that has probably had the most impact on our daily lives is television. Certainly I would have to put it right up there with the automobile.
Imagining the world of today without any of these is difficult, but a world without television is almost unimaginable. What would we be doing with all that time on our hands? What would we talk about at the water cooler? Would Aaron Spelling have had to live in a shack?
How television, which is the child of radio, came about is a fascinating story. Here I am not talking so much about the invention of the technology and the gadgets as about the building of the enterprises and the cultural innovations and impact. Of course the story is interwoven with the invention of color TV and better production systems, but to me the most fascinating part is the invention of the nightly news, the creation of the situation comedy, and the birth of the soap opera.
The full story of American broadcasting is well-told in A History of Broadcasting in the United States by Douglas Gomery (Blackwell Publishing, 2008). If you read my posts regularly, you know that I recently recommended Gomery’s excellent history of the movie industry (http://hooversworld.com/archives/3022). The two books together make a great pair – a great way to understand the modern entertainment side of American culture.
In this book, Gomery does a comprehensive job of integrating the stories of the stars, the stories of the networks, the evolution of programming, and the role played by technology. Learn how radio first came into American homes in the 1920s and swept the nation. For the first time, companies could develop national brands and identities in a way that print publications did not allow. Powerful RCA (The Radio Corporation of America) under David Sarnoff created the great National Broadcasting Company and dominated the airwave with his two networks, the Red and the Blue. The government, intent on preventing monopolies, finally made him spin off the weaker Blue Network, and it became the American Broadcasting Company, which was lucky to survive its early years as an independent.
But it was William S. Paley, the heir to a Philadelphia cigar company who took a flyer on the new medium and bought control of the secondary and struggling Columbia Broadcasting System in the late 1920s who, along with a number of talented aides, shaped what we know as modern broadcasting perhaps more than anyone else.
This great book brings the story right up through the glory days of the big three networks from the 1950s through the 1970s, followed by the rise of cable and the birth of the Fox network. Learn about the business of making TV shows, the role of Hollywood, and the history of the different genres, from science fiction to game shows and westerns. Even the story behind NPR. Read the stories of the personalities who invented the world of broadcasting.
To me, broadcasting is one of the most interesting industries one can study. It has played such a huge role in modern culture consciousness, in every corner of the world. But it all started on the US east coast, with the earliest radio experiments, and grew from there. I have a number of good books on the history of radio and the history of TV, but I think this book is the best single-volume place to begin.