Screen Memories: The Pioneers of Television

When I was a kid, January routinely saw the appearance of a seasonal television announcement, reminding nonimmigrant aliens to register their addresses with the U.S. government. Failure to do so could result in immediate expulsion from the country. I didn’t know what “aliens” meant—other than creatures that turned up with great regularity on The Twilight Zone. And I would have been amazed to learn that half of my neighbors and many of my friends met the government criteria for nonimmigrant alien status. What I did understand—from the graphics of the ad, the soundtrack, and the stern voice of the announcer—was that there were beings living among us so potentially dangerous that the government had to keep track of them.


Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz

This was the era of Conelrad (Control of Electromagnetic Radiation) System tests. At the time, it was assumed that Soviet bombers could hone in on American targets by using radio or TV Stations as beacons. And the Conelrad system had two purposes: 1) to thwart Soviet missile tracking through a timed relay of broadcast signals and 2) to provide civil defense information in the case of an emergency.

During a Conelrad system test, television and radio stations would shut down for five seconds, return to the air for five seconds, then shut down again for five seconds and finally transmit a high-pitched tone (the kind that sends dogs into a pained barking frenzy) for 15 seconds. This procedure was followed by the familiar announcement—“this has been a test.” If it had been a real alert, the announcer informed us, if missiles were really coming at us, we would have been told to switch to the specially marked numbers on our little civil-defense portable radios, and to head for bomb shelters.


Johnny Carson

In the early 1960s, the nation was in the throes of Sputnik-envy. Public Service Announcements from the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, exhorted us to buff up for America, and the space race was big news. The National Council of Churches advertised regularly. In San Francisco, nightly station sign-offs were packaged as an affair of State. The National Anthem played, while onscreen the flag waved proudly “o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” On some stations, this flag shot was followed by images of planes flying in formation, a visual reminder of the Armed Services that watched the skies (aliens and missiles again) and kept us safe while we slept. Television did not resume until about 6 a.m., and it resumed with a similar nationalistic tribute.

I begin with these reminiscences for several reasons. The most obvious is that serialized TV histories (histories of TV) tend to leave out the most interesting aspects of TV flow, what might be called TV’s excess or its historical paracinematic (or perhaps para-televisual) appeal. In fact, they tend not to treat TV flow at all, opting instead for a discussion of celebrities, genres and specific programs. The Pioneers of Television (PBS and Boettcher Trinklein Productions; currently running on most PBS stations) is no exception in this regard, dividing the history of early TV into eponymous genre episodes and focusing primarily on celebrities and beloved programs, rather than on networks, institutions, ephemera, ads, PSAs, or programming trends. The clips of the individual television shows themselves are wonderful, but the way the series constructs TV history is highly problematic. Even within the framework of exemplary actors, genres and programs, a great deal is omitted. Not a word about the innovative Ernie Kovacs show in the Variety segment, for example (aired January 16, 2008 PBS), even though the show ran off and on for 5 years on NBC and CBS (1951-56). Nothing about Amos and Andy (1951-1953, CBS) during the Sitcoms episode (Sitcoms, January 2, 2008 PBS); nothing really about any African-American performers with the notable exception of Nat King Cole.


Tommy Smothers and Carol Burnett

More troubling is the way the series constructs the historical TV-viewing audience and the way it depicts the cultural work of TV itself. Toward the end of Sitcoms, the narrator tells us the genre would change in the 1970s; “innocence,” he opines, “would be replaced by relevance” as shows like All in the Family (1971-1983, CBS) succeeded the Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966 CBS). That notion of an early innocent or naïve viewing audience has driven much of the Pioneers series to date. And, of course, such a view can be constructed only through the careful generic exclusion of documentaries and anthology dramas, the political exclusion of the Red Scare, and the celebrity exclusion of Edward R. Murrow, Rod Serling, Paddy Chayevsky and Ida Lupino—to name just a few. Even the discussion of the Quiz show scandals (Game Shows, January 23, 2008) does little to trouble this tale of an idyllic and child-like televisual past, as images of Mark Van Doren segue seamlessly into an explanation of Standards and Practices, and finally into a discussion of the panel shows (whose format did not allow for cheating, the announcer tells us). The entire episode is orchestrated to prove the voiceover claim, made early in the hour; namely that Americans love to play.


Bob Barker

The Pioneers of Television is vested, then, in an image of TV as what Richard Dyer might term “utopian” entertainment—entertainment that makes us feel wonderful. There is a certain irony in this, since the utopic value of Broadcast TV is precisely the quality which PBS generally critiques when it cites its own difference from “regular,” commercial broadcasting. What Pioneers ignores is what I tried to re-introduce at the beginning of this essay; namely, the degree to which television of the 1950s and 60s was invested not only in utopic entertainment and in information, but also in the production and performance of nation, nationalism and notions of citizenship.

In fact, the presumption behind Conelrad was not only that television should be used to inculcate notions of citizenship, but that television itself—its transmitters and broadcast signals—could be used as both weapon and defense. Civil Defense procedures outlined for stations were detailed and frightening. In the event of an attack, all television and FM radio stations were required to stop broadcasting. Most medium-wave radio stations were also required to shut down. The radio stations remaining on the air would transmit on either 640 or 1240 kHz (and every radio set had these frequencies clearly marked—with a special civil defense logo—on the radio dial). Each station would stay on the air for several minutes, then it would go off the air, and another station would take over broadcast responsibilities—in a round-robin transmission chain.

Then duck. cover, and kiss your sweet bippie goodbye.

Image Credits:
1. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz
2. Johnny Carson
3. Tommy Smothers and Carol Burnett
4. Bob Barker

Please feel free to comment.


  • I appreciate the insight into the reasons for the Conelrad tests and the historical importance of them. It seems to be another part of television is left behind by popular histories of television. While I am sure The Pioneers of Television had some interesting material and great clips, the knowledge that so much was going to be missing made it hard to sit down and watch the show.

  • Great piece. It’s amazing how much more historical nuance emerges from the disjunctures, rather than continuities, in popular historiography. It also raises interesting questions for the academic, particularly when those disjunctures remain outside some of our own living memories. How much are we responsible for perpetuating these silences?

  • Wonderful piece. Thinking back to my own childhood I wonder whether the audience would remember television only as entertainment, as espoused in Pioneers of Television, or would have taken away from their viewing the deeper sense of challenge and change.

  • Thought-provoking essay! I haven’t watched Pioneers of Television, though I feel I’m getting a secondhand immersion in it from coverage and reviews of the PBS project. It’s an interesting example of TV not just eating itself, but eating its own act of eating itself (if that image isn’t too gross and autocannibalistic).

    You help us see how such ceremonial enshrinings of TV history reorder and hence destroy the experience and effects of flow. By passing the heterogenous blendings of programming through a selection filter — nominating this series or that celebrity as exemplar of a certain era or aesthetic — these meta-texts ironically erase what was so powerful, and singular, about the original broadcast experience.

    It seems similar, though also a contrast in some ways, to the work done by concordances and episode guides for cult shows like Star Trek and Buffy. There the orderly & indexed layout of episodes and characters, magic spells and Klingon weaponry, serves both to efface the more ephemeral aspects of watching (promos for upcoming episodes, network bumpers, etc) but simultaneously reconstructs the textual universe in terms that are closer to the committed fan’s subjective experience of the text as unbroken and endlessly connected to itself, a kind of higher-order flow, perhaps.

  • Heather Hendershot

    Terrific essay, and great comment by Bob. Joan makes us try to remember all that we have forgotten (those of us ancient enough to remember tests of the Emergency Broadcast System, that is). I have to wonder how we can construct a history of interstitials–PSAs, promos, etc–given that they seem to be a low-priority for archives.

    A related issue is the rise of DVD and the death of VHS. Those of us lucky enough to have an attic or a garage can put our old tapes out there when we trade up to DVDs; the rest of us throw them out, or, if we are lucky, have easy access to the means to digitize them. I recently spent a ton of time digitizing, editing, creating menus, etc. for one 6 hour SLP video of G.I. Joe from the USA Network from 1993. So now I have all the toy ads, “after these messages we’ll be right back,” etc. I wish I could do that with my whole decaying VHS collection!

    Finally, to turn to Bob’s comment, it seems that more and more of us are experiencing a “higher-order flow” and bypassing all the promos and ads by using TiVo, watching DVDs, or accessing content in other ways. So in 20 years we simply won’t have memories of many of the ads, promotional campaigns, and other interstitials linked to our favorite shows.

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  • As a media student I have been learning how television had such an impact on my ideas of America as a whole growing up. Television has incredible impact on viewers, whether it be the news, a TV drama, or ads promoting the armed services between programming. I cannot imagine seeing that graphic on my TV screen accompanied by the high pitched and piercing tone specifically designed to create uneasiness and fear to all who hear it. To be honest, that sounds like something straight out of a horror movie. We like to say things have changed, but I don’t think that is true. I believe the people who produce media have just gotten better at hiding it. Whether it be the red, white, and blue color scheme on Fox News or the ads for the Air Force and Navy I saw every time I went to a movie theater growing up, nationalism surrounded me in all forms of the media. These things shaped me as a child, as I’m sure your childhood exposure to media and television did too.
    I have found it very interesting how the armed forces and war in general are represented in entertainment media. What started as comedic relief in the show M*A*S*H which included a laugh track, has now turned into high-stakes action movies featuring Bradley Cooper and Mark Wahlberg. I don’t think either of these styles of entertainment are depicting war correctly, but who am I to say for sure? From what I have gathered thus far in my life, war is horrific experience for anyone and everyone who is involved. War isn’t about strong men fighting for glory and walking away from explosions in slow motion. War is about men and women working together to engage in armed conflict. All together fighting a common “enemy”. What kind of attitude are we putting on war, the armed forces, and our country as a whole with entertainment’s version of war whether it be television, film, or a video game? I want to see a big-budget, Hollywood horror film about war. Why haven’t we been shown what war really is: horrific. Why haven’t we seen depictions of PTSD that create legitimate fear in us like horror movies do? The people who experience that are living in a horror movie everyday. I don’t want to see Bradley Cooper shooting people in action and avoiding explosions. Give me Bradley Cooper successfully portraying the effects of PTSD caused by combat. Actually, at this point, give me anyone but Bradley Cooper.
    Entertainment only makes up so much media, especially on television. The news was on every night in my house growing up. All night long. Television doesn’t stop late at night anymore. The news has to report 24 hrs a day. Thinking about it now, I don’t know what’s worse between the blatant nationalist visual propaganda or the 24/7 news schedule… Growing up I had a very one-sided view of America in general because my parents only watched Fox News, which has proven to report with extreme bias. As I have met people in college, I have found it shocking how many of my friends’ parents didn’t support George W. Bush. I am not a very politically minded person, but I have found it fascinating talking to my friends about how they viewed politics growing up. One thing that is painfully clear is that whatever visual media news sources my friends grew up absorbing heavily impacted their “political views” as a child, thus affecting their perspective on how they initially view the world in the process of developing a sense of self. As I watch Fox News now I realize how the overt nationalism affected me greatly. I find it crazy that I didn’t say I was a feminist until I was 20 because I grew up absorbing information that led me to believe sexism didn’t exist and feminism wasn’t necessary. I nag on Fox News because it is what I grew up with, but other media sources are just as guilty of promoting their certain biases and a definite nationalist agenda.
    I guess what I want to say after all this word vomit in a comment box on an article written 6 years ago is: thanks for writing a thought provoking article that made me think when I didn’t need to this Friday afternoon.

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