The United States: The Early Years

By Garel, Alain | UNESCO Courier, October 1992 | Go to article overview

The United States: The Early Years

Garel, Alain, UNESCO Courier

Fiction--notably in series or serial form--is the world's most popular type of television. The international market for TV fiction was long dominated by productions from North America, but today other countries are making their own programmes, often taking the form of family sagas or social dramas which are winning a wide following.

THE outbreak of the Second World War set back the emergence of television in the United States as it did elsewhere. The new medium did not really take off until 1946. It then developed so fast that it was soon seen as a threat by film production companies, already unsettled by the 1949 antitrust law that prohibited the Hollywood studios from combining the production, distribution and exploitation functions.

In 1953, some studios launched a counter-offensive based on technological developments such as CinemaScope, 3-D, Cinerama and stereophonic sound, as well as on superproductions with huge sets, spectacular special effects and casts of thousands. This was a clever strategy, for television with its tiny black and white screen hardly seemed capable of competing with wide-screen epics like Ben Hur, El Cid, Spartacus or The Alamo. It was also shortlived, however, for such productions were by their nature exceptional. Besides, the studios' position was ambivalent: while setting themselves up as rivals of television, they were also signing agreements with intermediary organizations and with the TV channels themselves to produce programmes, sell film rights and hire out equipment.


Television started with one great advantage: the three national channels (ABC, CBS and NBC) were already established across North America. They had run radio stations since the 1920s, and each had a privileged relationship with its financial backers. A fourth channel, DuMont, stopped broadcasting in 1956 because it failed to ensure equivalent technical, financial and commercial support.

Building on their broadcasting experience, the three national channels immediately carved out a sizeable audience for themselves. The 1930s had been the decade of radio. Received in every home, the comedies, dramas, serials, game and variety shows that made up the bulk of its repertoire had an enthusiastic following. Naturally enough, most television programmes started life as adaptations of popular radio shows.

It is hard to imagine what American television was like in the 1940s and 1950s, because virtually all programmes went out live and few were recorded. Most of the recordings have subsequently been lost or else have deteriorated. Nonetheless, the vitality and creativity of the young medium were never in doubt. Nor was there much argument about the quality of the programmes, in particular the prestigious drama series featuring material written by authors such as Gore Vidal and Rod Sterling and directed by the likes of John Frankenheimer and George Roy Hill--who once recreated the sinking of the Titanic live with 700 actors and thirty-five sets.

The film industry soon began to hire television directors both to make original films and to adapt small-screen successes for the cinema. Some of these films became classics. They included Robert Mulligan's Baby the Rain Must Fall, John Cassavetes' A Child is Waiting, Martin Ritt's Edge of the City, Arthur Penn's The Left-handed Gun and The Miracle Worker, Delbert Mann's Marty, Ralph Nelson's Requiem for a Heavyweight and Sidney Lumet's Twelve Angry Men.

Noted film directors such as Tom Gries, Arthur Hiller, Sam Peckinpah, Sydney Pollack and Steven Spielberg started their careers in television. Other directors with established reputations in the cinema followed the example set by many film actors and went to work in television. Veterans like John Ford, Robert Siodmak and Alfred Hitchcock (who even had his own programme), as well as younger filmmakers like Blake Edwards, Samuel Fuller, Robert Parrish and Don Siegel, all worked for the new medium. …

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