Appellate Judge James A. Stewart regrets to inform you that there isn't an episode on test patterns in this series.
Our reviews of Pioneers Of Television: Crime Dramas (published March 5th, 2011), Pioneers Of Television: Local Kids' TV (published April 10th, 2011), Pioneers Of Television: Science Fiction (published February 18th, 2011), and Pioneers Of Television: Westerns (published February 19th, 2011) are also available.
"There must be a better way of making a living than this."—Jack Paar
Most of us grew up with television. Those of us born before the explosion of cable TV know at least a little bit about television's past, thanks to all those afternoon reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Flintstones, and Lost in Space. The sitcoms and dramas played endlessly—and they often made mention of famous shows that didn't turn up, like Howdy Doody.
Still, it's hard to consider that, in 1948, "overall, the new medium was struggling," as Pioneers of Television puts it. The four-part PBS documentary looks at genres and shows that helped to make television a part of everyone's lives.
Facts of the Case
Pioneers of Television has four episodes on one disc:
• "Late Night." Want to watch something light and funny before going to sleep? NBC exec Pat Weaver thought so. That's why he sent over Broadway Open House and Steve Allen's Tonight. Much of the hour, though, concentrates on Johnny Carson.
• "Sitcom." CBS thought Jackie Gleason should stick to variety shows, but he gave us a season of The Honeymooners instead. Other sitcoms featured are I Love Lucy, Make Room for Daddy, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Dick Van Dyke Show.
• "Variety." Once the toast of the town, this format no longer is a source of star theater, Texaco or otherwise. Ed Sullivan, Milton Berle, Red Skelton, Arthur Godfrey, Perry Como, Andy Williams, Pat Boone, Nat King Cole, Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, Carol Burnett, the Smothers Brothers, Laugh-In, Flip Wilson, and Tony Orlando and Dawn are featured here.
• "Game Shows." Deal or No Deal? It's the sort of question people have been asking since the radio days of the 1920s. Among the games covered here are Truth or Consequences, What's My Line?, You Bet Your Life, Password, The Price is Right, Wheel of Fortune, The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and Art Fleming's Jeopardy!.
You've heard most of the stories here. I hadn't heard about the also-rans for Johnny Carson's Tonight gig or Steve Allen's radio career, but the anecdotes overall will have a familiar feel to anyone who's ever paid attention to reminiscences about old-time TV. What you want is clips, lots of them. For the most part, Pioneers of Television comes across with the goods.
The "Game Shows" segment turns out to be the best part of Pioneers of Television, chock full of clips from games that haven't seen the light of day in years. It talks about the first popular game show, radio's Stop the Music, and goes into the psychology of game shows as well. As Password creator Bob Stewart puts it: "You have a great game show if the person at home is talking to the screen aloud." Clips of clichés like the soundproof booth and the phone call to a random audience member shine new light on some old jokes, and you'll get a picture of how TV production has evolved over the years.
Close behind is "Late Night." I got to see Steve Allen and Jack Paar in action—and late-night also-rans Dick Cavett and Merv Griffin as well. They even dug up a brief snippet of Broadway Open House with Morey Amsterdam and statuesque sidekick Dagmar.
"Variety" has a few good clips—Arthur Godfrey making you want to taste Lipton chicken noodle soup as he describes it and Milton Berle grabbing a guitar to play along with Elvis—and anecdotes, but moves along too fast. PBS could do a four-part series on this near-forgotten genre, and should.
"Sitcom" is the weakest part of Pioneers of Television, mainly because there's not much new that could be said or shown about sitcoms, the most-familiar part of '50s and '60s TV to today's audiences. Yeah, the sitcoms featured were great, but you probably knew that already.
The bonus feature—anecdotes from Betty White, Phyllis Diller, Dick Cavett, Florence Henderson, Tim Conway, Jonathan Winters, and Merv Griffin that didn't fit into the film editors' plans—is only 15 minutes long, but it's 15 really good minutes.
As you'd expect, picture and sound quality are all over the map, since the shows use a lot of old clips. Can't be helped, but be forewarned.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you've heard it all before and aren't a pop culture junkie, some new rare clips won't mean that much to you.
If you really want to know the history of television, you'll want more. Why didn't Pioneers of Television go into some less-familiar corners, like the anthology drama? How did we get from Suspense to 24? Why not take on a less entertaining topic, like the evolution of news coverage? Are there any clips around of Dumont's prime-time NFL football coverage from the 1950s, or a few of those boxing matches that early broadcasters loved? Then there's the vast topic of local television, especially in big cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles that had independent stations with lots of time to fill. How closely does Rachael Ray resemble the afternoon homemakers' shows from 1948? A few more clips in the bonus features would have been nice, too.
It's also odd that the shows aren't on the DVD in the order in which they were broadcast, as the next-episode teasers at the end of the episodes indicate.
When filmmakers Steven J. Boettcher and Michael J. Trinklein promised to deliver the early years of television in four hours, they took on a task that can't be done perfectly. That said, Pioneers of Television is mostly well done. It doesn't give you a full picture of those years, but it does provide a taste.
If you're interested in early television, you probably won't want to stop with an overview documentary, though. One I reviewed in 2007, Suspense: The Lost Episodes, Collection 2, covers the first few years of live TV pretty well, showing how productions improved gradually over those first few years—and including most of the commercials to boot. Thanks to the miracle of DVD, there's a lot more out there to track down.
Not perfect, but not guilty. They did manage to find a clip of Okay Mother, after all.
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