3.1 THE 50's: Bored in the USA

When television arrived on the scene as a commercial reality in the fifties, it dramatically altered the way people would entertain themselves ever after. Suddenly there wasn’t any need to go out to the movies on Saturday night, or any night. Entertainment was available right in the home, every night of the week, and even during the day. This could be said to have already been provided by radio but TV was radically different. It was at once more exciting and more demanding.

Couch potato

TV was a form of entertainment that demanded no active participation from the viewer, no need to dress up or mind your behaviour (any more than normal within the family), but it did demand attention. Its visual nature denied book reading or any other task that might draw your eyes from the screen. Night-time programming could capture and hold its audience for the evening, day-time programmes focused more on the house-wife who listened in, stealing occasional glances at the screen while doing the housework.

Television was egalitarian entertainment that anyone, but especially the whole family, could enjoy. By encouraging viewers to stay at home and gather as a unit around the TV set it promoted and reinforced the desire for middle-class, suburban, secure family.

The 50s in America saw the meteoric rise of the middle-classes in the post-war boom. As this group grew in influence it's desires for, above all else, a stable, secure and predictable society in which they could make money to the best of their ability, shaped the national psyche. The ideal lifestyle was a house in the suburbs, two cars, two kids, and a quiet, convenient life. This generation became such a dominant sector of American society during this period that even those who did not share the dream were forced to pander to it for commercial survival.

Television, as the pre-eminent medium for selling to this generation became the ultimate representation, of traditional, conformist, 'moral', and family nuclearised America. As this group aged and established themselves in positions of power and control throughout society, including those in the television business, the representative media became not so much an instrument for reflecting their vision of what America should be, as one for perpetuating it and trying to make it real.

TV for me

The new vision of a suburban America demanded new rules of socialisation, with the emphasis shifted away from the community and the extended family (a rural ideal). In the new urban America it was no longer necessary to know the grocer or the electrician, they just did their job and you did yours. Social structure moved towards social interaction based on the individual and his job, her home and his and her immediate family. The chosen entertainer of the new vision had to actively support and encourage this movement. Television was ideal. It created entirely new sets of rules for what was acceptable social interaction, and especially within the family. It drew families away from wider social interaction towards family-only, domestically based entertainment. Television very soon replaced the theatres, dance halls, cabarets, and cinemas as the primary site of family / adult entertainment.

Television's passive nature did not encourage audience involvement or activity and consequently limited the opportunities for families to react together in any extended way[^1]. Its constant attention seeking largely denied any extensive inter-familial interaction beyond the odd passing comment. In depth discussion was limited to the three minute ad breaks which were more usually occupied with some form of physical relief from the extended periods of motionless concentration watching the programmes. TV conveniently brought the family together without the inconvenience of forcing them to get along.

But not for me

For the adults, having things made so easy was a relief from the competitive interactive battleground they faced at work or club during the day. For young Americans, too young to enter bars for chemical stimulation, not yet allowed to engage in ‘immoral’ extra-marital hormonal stimulation (even with themselves), and desperate to forge identities for themselves as separate from the mass uniformity of the suburbs, television offered no alternatives, nothing but a view of the exact same world that was boring them stupid.

Television was designed to provide soporific relief from the adult knowledge of the world as an uncertain, strange, and confusing place. Pubescent teenagers, for whom the entire world had become very suddenly confusing, and quite inexplicably so, had a desperate need to find out exactly the information that television sought to cover over. And then came rock’n’roll.

The broken hearts, the tragedies of true love, the pumping sex rhythms of the music, and the wild physical relief of the dancing, all made basic connections with the troubles of puberty that were elsewhere being so vehemently denied existence.

Rock 'n' roll's popularity as a means of noisy rebellion created an enormous quandary for television. American youth represented a highly significant potential commercial market. Bored and affluent they not only had present value, the market decisions made early on could in the longer term decide where their increasing incomes would go in the future. Rock was easily the easiest, most popular hook to use to pull them in with and yet its inherent anti-family, anti-conservative stance made it anathema to the style of programming that had made TV successful. This, combined with the extremely poor sound reproduction on early TV sets, made it difficult, if not impossible to use, even though it was quite obviously the only real option available. Failing to come up with a workable solution the major networks opted (in the US) to largely ignore the live rock phenomenon.[^2]

The only time rock made it to early network TV in the States was when it was safely packaged in a highly controlled environment, as on Patti Page's The Big Record[^3], where occasionally, well-groomed rockers were allowed to perform in mime. Even this much was relatively unusual and the most successful program formats tended to avoid the difficulties of 'live' performance, even when mimed. Your Hit Parade used its own in-house performers who mimed along to their recordings of arrangements of popular hits[^4]. To avoid total dullness they used a variety of props and scenery to create moods and mini-narrative for the songs they were singing to. The most successful American format was that of the 'dance party' where teens danced to the hits, one or two of which would be mimed live by the bands. Dick Clark's American Bandstand[^5] was the first and still the most successful.

For the most part rock musicians relied on interviews and guest spots on variety shows as the only way to promote themselves effectively on TV. Occasionally a wild subversive like Elvis would get on a show like Steve Allen's and actually perform but only on TV's terms, dressed in white tails, singing Hound Dog to a basset hound on a pedestal (Shore p.25) or Ed Sullivan's where he was shown only from the waist up (Schwichtenberg p.118).

TV rockettes

By the mid sixties, television was slowly coming to grips with rock. The British Invasion came with programming as well as groups. Shindig and Hullabaloo were both programs started as a result of the success of similarly styled programs showing in the UK. Essentially they remained close to the American Bandstand format but allowed the performers a little more freedom (still mimed, however). Hullabaloo took on some of the ideas used in Your Hit Parade, getting the Beatles to perform Day Tripper in a railway car for example (Shore). Television wanted to accommodate rock now more than ever as its audience grew in numbers and purchasing power, and yet it seemed incapable of finding ways to do it. It incorporated rock stars into sitcoms, creating the Monkees virtually from scratch (Schwichtenberg). The basic attraction of rock n roll however, the raw live event was still just too scary. By the end of the sixties it was really too late anyway.

  1. [^1]Only in its game show programming did early television provide any opportunity for interaction as the viewers had the option of playing along at home. Not surprisingly they were and indeed remain enormously popular.
  2. [^2]It is important to note that in the fifties, rock was a strictly teen phenomenon. Those in their twenties were either already at work and leading the lives of the parents, or in the universities, hanging out in bars and cafes reciting beat poetry and listening to jazz. For the first group television was as relevant (and rock as irrelevant) as it was to their parents, to the second both TV and rock’n’roll were something totally outside of and irrelevant to their world.
  3. [^3]Screened 1957-58. (Shore)
  4. [^4]Interestingly Your Hit Parade (1950-59) was one of the first TV shows to present rock music in a way that sought to add to the mood and themes of the song by the use of sets and props and special effects to create visual mini-narratives. The idea of a conceptual performance video may have seemed revolutionary when in 1975 Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody clip appeared but in many ways shows like this had been doing it for years.
  5. [^5]American Bandstand premiered on ABC in 1957 and worked with the recording industry and Top 40 radio stations in a symbiotic relationship promoting various target artists.