America in the Age of Television

The new family hearth: TV in the 1950s.

The new family hearth: TV in the 1950s.

From Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary'' in GoLocal 24.

David Thomson, one of the most respected film reviewers, has written a terrific book about another medium in Television: A Biography (Thames & Hudson), an erudite and yet accessible discussion about the first 70 years of television as a mass medium, focusing on American television. He shows how TV and the broader culture evolved together, and how commercially and politically powerful TV swiftly became, including in electing good and bad presidents and other politicians and informing and misinforming three generations. He does this with numerous enlightening, amusing and troubling anecdotes connected with themes that link  the medium’ s decades.

I’m old enough to have seen most of this evolution, from fuzzy recollections of fuzzy images of Queen Elizabeth II’s  coronation;  the hijinks of Ernie Kovacs and Lucille Ball; the ads for detergents and kids’ cereal that seemed to finance the ‘50s;  Dave Garroway and his sidekick chimp on The Today Show; the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate, whichNixon won on the radio but Kennedy won on TV;  JFK’s assassination; the Vietnam War; the Watergate hearings; increasingly frank “adult’’ crime and other shows;   the rise of highly politicized cable TV news and opinion stations;  an explosion in pharmaceutical  ads (which have helped drive up healthcare costs); 9/11, and the wars and edgy comedy shows since then.

As do most people, I have vivid memories of where  I watched TV – such as the sitting room in our house, smoky from my mother’s Salem cigarettes, looking at thefunny and racist Amos ‘n’ Andy – black and white TV indeed! – to my school’s common room watching JFK’s funeral, with the haunting dirge of The Navy Hymn,  to the  college fraternity house room where we saw our contemporaries get shot at in the Vietnam War, to The Wall Street Journal newsroom hearing/seeing Nixon resign, to,  in a Jerusalem hotel room, learning of Princess Diana’s death, and watching, in The Providence Journal’s commentary department, the collapse of the Twin Towers – an event so transfixing that I had to ask my staff after an hour to turn off the TV and go back to work.

Television has both mirrored and profoundly changed American culture.

Whether you watch a lot of TV or not, you can’t begin to understand America since World War II unless you study the damn thing. Of course, with screens in virtually every residence and public place these days, it’s almost impossible, unless you’re blind, to avoid watching TV these days.

From what used to be a sort of successor to the family hearth, it’s now in so many places that it recalls Big Brother, in Nineteen Eight-Four, blaring, most irritatingly, in most doctors’ waiting rooms.

Mr. Thomson warns, “we are not in charge” of our relations with TV because “technology is less our tool than something that makes tools of us,” to sell products and people, including politicians.  Consider our current, TV-created leader, whom Mr. Thomson calls “an inspired mercurial handler of TV’’ who goes “from The Apprentice to being the apprentice’s sorcerer in one blithe insult.’’