Book Reviews -- Fifties Television by William Boddy / Make Room for TV by Lynn Spigel

Article excerpt

With 500-channel interactive media networks and an "electronic superhighway" on the horizon, an issue in television historiography is the relevance of TV's two-network early period. While quite different in approach, the works of William Boddy and Lynn Spigel both attempt to retrace the origins of the medium in the context of its recent upheaval. Spigel's is the more stimulating of the two books. Yet each makes an impressive case for why TV's Golden Age will remain meaningful, regardless of where the "electronic superhighway" may lead.

The authors' differing approaches are illustrated in each book's opening pages, where attention is given to whether economic and political factors were the true determinants of TV's early development. Boddy embraces the traditional economic-political parameters and thus offers a traditional interpretation. In contrast, Spigel questions "economic and political causes" and argues that it was what occurred at the receiving end, in "the home," that shaped "television's cultural form."

By examining the origins of TV from the perspective of audience effects, Spigel, an assistant professor at the School of Cinema-TV at the University of Southern California, provides numerous original and thought-provoking insights. Her major achievement is in situating television in the progression of events that advanced the so-called "cult of domesticity," which accompanied the industrial revolution and began to flourish in the United States after the turn of the century. She gives substantial attention to Hollywood's shift from theaters to in-home television distribution and the effect this had on Americans. What she refers to as the "home theater"--television-substituted "for traditional forms of community life and social relations."

After describing at length specific episodes of popular situation comedies, including about ten episodes of "I Love Lucy," Spigel maintains the "early sitcoms typically depicted the family as a theater troupe rather than as a 'real family.'"

A particular benefit of Spigel's work is her broad source work. In addition to reviewing scores of TV broadcasts, she conducted a content analysis of "home" and "women's" magazines published between 1948 and 1955. After examining the ads of television set manufacturers in these magazines, she finds striking similarities between the early promotional ploys and those today used by entrepreneurs in boosting the acceptance of cable TV and video technology. In the 1950s, people were encouraged to purchase TVs because these devices "solve[d] social problems" and "replace[d] the doldrums of everyday life with thrilling...spectacles." That these strategies continued in the 1990s may signal an extension of the cult of domesticity. …