"golden age" of American television generally refers to the proliferation
of original and classic dramas produced for live television during
America's postwar years. From 1949 to approximately 1960, these
live dramas became the fitting programmatic complements to the game
shows, westerns, soap operas and vaudeo shows (vaudeville and variety
acts on TV) that dominated network television's prime time schedule.
As the nation's economy grew and the population expanded, television
and advertising executives turned to dramatic shows as a programming
strategy to elevate the status of television and to attract the
growing and increasingly important suburban family audience. "Golden
age" dramas, quickly became the ideal marketing vehicle for major
U.S. corporations seeking to display their products favorably before
a national audience.
In the early years, "golden age" drama programs such as The Actors'
Studio (ABC/CBS, 1948-1950) originated from primitive but innovative
two-camera television studios located primarily in New York city,
although some broadcasts, such as Mr. Black (ABC, 1949),
a half-hour mystery anthology series, were produced in Chicago as
well. Ranging in duration from thirty minutes to an hour, these
live dramas were generic hybrids uniquely suited to the evolving
video technology. Borrowing specific elements from the legitimate
stage, network radio, and the Hollywood film, the newly constructed
dramas on television (teledramas) fashioned a dynamic entertainment
form that effectively fused these high and low cultural expressions.
radio these teledramas inherited the CBS and NBC network distribution
system, sound effects, music, theme songs and the omniscient narrator,
who provided continuity after commercial message breaks. From film,
teledramas borrowed aging stars and emerging personalities, camera
stylistics, mobility and flexibility. Imported from the theater
were Broadway-inspired set designs, contemporary stage (i.e. realist
and "method") acting techniques that imparted a sense of immediacy
and reality to small-screen performances, and finally, teleplay
adaptations of classic and middle-brow literature. In a statement
that clearly expresses television drama's debt to the stage, Fred
Coe, producer of the weekly NBC Television Playhouse (1948-55),
remarked that "all of us were convinced it was our mission to bring
Broadway to America via the television set."
however, it was live teledramas that helped television to displace
radio, the stage and film as the favorite leisure-time activities
for the nation's burgeoning suburban families in the late forties
to the mid-fifties. This postwar demographic shift from urban to
suburban centers is often credited with creating the new mass audience
and the subsequent demand for the home-theater mode of entertainment
that network television, boosted by the high quality drama programs,
was uniquely capable of satisfying.
first so-called "golden age" drama program to appear was the Kraft
Television Theater, which premiered on 7 May 1947, on the NBC
network. The Ford Theater (CBS/NBC/ABC, 1948-57), Philco
and Goodyear Television Playhouses (NBC, 1948-55), Studio
One (CBS, 1948-58), Tele-Theatre (NBC, 1948-50) and Actors
Studio (ABC/CBS, 1948-49) followed the very next year. In 1951
network television was linked coast to coast and in 1950 Hollywood
Theater Time (ABC) became one of the first dramatic anthology shows
to originate from the West coast (although transmitted to the East
via kinescopes--inferior copies of shows filmed directly from the
important factors contributed to the rise of "golden age" dramas
by the mid-1950s. First, the U.S. Congress issued more station licenses
and allocated more air time and frequencies to the nation's four
networks, NBC, CBS, ABC and DuMont. Consequently, this major expansion
of the television industry necessitated a rapid increase for new
shows. Because this early video era preceded the advent of telefilm
and videotape, the live television schedule was a programming vortex
with an inexhaustible demand for new shows, 90% of which were broadcast
live. The remaining dramas were transmitted (usually from the East
Coast to the West) via kinescopes. Location on the television schedule
was also a key element in the success of anthology dramas during
this early phase. Because the sponsors rather than the networks
generally controlled the programs, teledramas were not restricted
to a particular network or time schedule. As a result of this programming
flexibility, it was not unusual for shows either to rotate around
the dial or to remain firmly entrenched, all in search of the best
possible ratings. In 1953, the Kraft Television Theater aired
at 9:00 P.M. on Wednesdays over the NBC network and aired a second
hour under the same series title on Thursdays at 9:30 P.M. on ABC.
The venerable Ford Television Theater appeared on all three
networks during its nine-year run. The anthology format itself,
which demanded a constant supply of actors, writers, directors and
producers, and was quite different from the episodic series structure
featuring a stable cast, always offered something new to viewers.
And since anthology dramas provided plenty of work to go around,
many actors got their first starring roles in live dramas, while
others gained national exposure that was not possible on the stage
or that eluded them on the big screen.
rotating system of anthology drama production resulted in a creative
firmament for television that many television historians consider
as yet unsurpassed. The fact that these shows dramatized many high
quality original works as well as adaptations of high and middle-brow
literature gave advertisers cost-effective reasons for underwriting
the relatively high production values that characterized many of
the topnotch anthology programs. Many, in fact, were consistent
Emmy Award winners. The Texaco Star Theater won the 1949
Emmy for "Best Kinescope Show." U.S. Steel Hour won two Emmys
in 1953, its debut year, and Studio One received three Emmys for
the 1955 season for its production of "Twelve Angry Men."
the genre matured and traded its amateur sets for professionally
designed studios, it looked good, and by extension, so did its sponsors.
Accordingly, the growing prestige of live dramas enabled established
and fading stars from the Broadway stage and Hollywood films to
be less reticent about performing on television, and many flocked
to the new medium. In fact, some even lent their famous names to
these anthology drama programs. Robert Montgomery Presents
(ABC, 1950-57) is one of the first anthology series to rely on Hollywood
talent. His star-driven program was later joined by the Charles
Boyer Theater (1953), and in 1955 silent film star Conrad Nagel
hosted his own syndicated anthology drama entitled The Conrad
Nagel Theater. Bing Crosby Enterprises produced The Gloria
Swanson Show in 1954, with Swanson as host and occasional star
in teleplays produced for this dramatic anthology series. More commonly,
however, it was the sponsor's name that appeared in the show titles,
with stars serving as narrators or hosts. For example, from 1954
to 1962 Ronald Reagan hosted CBS' General Electric Theater.
As crucial as these elements were, perhaps the most important reason
leading to the success of this nascent television art form was the
high caliber of talent on both sides of the video camera. Whereas
many well-known actors from the stage and screen participated in
live television dramas as the 1950s progressed, it was the obscure
but professionally trained theater personnel from summer stock and
university theater programs like Yale's Drama School who launched
the innovative teletheater broadcasts that we now refer to as television's
1949, 24 year-old Marlon Brando starred in "I'm No Hero," produced
by the Actors' Studio. Other young actors, such as Susan
Strasberg (1953), Paul Newman (1954), and Steve McQueen, made noteworthy
appearances on the Goodyear Playhouse. Among some of the
most prominent writers of "golden age" dramas were Rod Serling,
Paddy Chayevsky, Gore Vidal, Reginald Rose and Tad Mosel. Rod Serling
stands out for special consideration here because in addition to
winning the 1955 Emmy for "Best Original Teleplay Writing" ("Patterns"
on Kraft Television Theater), Serling also won two teleplay
Emmys for Playhouse 90 (1956 & 1957), and two "Outstanding
Writing Achievement in Drama" Emmys for Twilight Zone (1959
and 1960) and for Chrysler Theater in 1963. Serling's six
Emmys for four separate anthology programs over two networks unquestionably
secures his position at the top of the golden age pantheon. For
television, it was writers like Serling and Chayevsky who became
the auteurs of its "golden-age." Gore Vidal sums up the opportunity
that writing for television dramas represented in this way: "one
can find better work oftener on the small grey screen than on Broadway."
Chayevsky was more sanguine when he stated that television presented
"the drama of introspection," and that "television, the scorned
stepchild of drama, may well be the basic theater of our century."
In addition to actors and writers, some of the most renowned Hollywood
directors got their big breaks on television's anthology dramas.
John Frankenheimer directed for the Kraft Television Theater,
Robert Altman for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Yul Brynner
and Sidney Lumet for Studio One, Sidney Pollack for The
Chrysler Theater (1965 Emmy for "Directoral Achievement in Drama")
and Delbert Mann for NBC Television Playhouse. These are
but a few major directors who honed their kills during television's
1955 "golden age" dramas had proven so popular with national audiences
that they became important staples of the network television schedule.
Some of the anthologies were now produced on film, but they maintained
the aesthetic and psychological premises of the live productions
that tutored their creators and their audiences. These drama series
aired on the networks each day except Saturdays and on some days
there were up to four separate anthology shows airing on one evening's
prime-time schedule. One instance of such a programming pattern
occurred on Thursday nights during the 1954-55, TV season. Here,
in one single evening viewers could choose between Kraft Television
Theater (ABC, 1953-55), Four Star Playhouse (CBS, 1952-56),
Ford Theater (NBC, 1952-56) and Lux Video Theater
(NBC, 1954-57). Dramatic anthologies came in various generic formats
as well. The other genres were, for example, suspense: Kraft
Suspense Theater (NBC, 1963-65) and The Clock (NBC/ABC,
1949-51), mystery: Mr. Arsenic (ABC, 1952) and Alfred
Hitchcock Presents (CBS/NBC, 1955-65), psychological: Theater
of the Mind (NBC, 1949), legal: They Stand Accused (DuMont
1949-54), science fiction: Twilight Zone (CBS, 1959-64),
military: Citizen Soldier (Syndicated, 1956), reenactments:
Armstrong Circle Theater (NBC/CBS, 1950-63).
these various titles suggest, the dramas staged on these anthology
programs were remarkably diverse, at least in form if not in substance.
In this regard, critics of the so-called "golden age" dramas have
noted what they consider to be major problems inherent in the staging
of plays for the commercial television medium.
of the criticism of these live television dramas concerned the power
sponsors often exerted over program content. Specifically, the complaints
concerned the mandate by sponsors that programs adhere to a "dead-centerism."
In other words, sponsored shows were to avoid completely socially
and politically controversial themes. Only those dramas that supported
and reflected positive middle-class values, which likewise reflected
favorably the image of the advertisers, were broadcast. Critics
charge the networks with pandering to Southern viewer expectations
in order not to offend regional sensibilities. Scripts exploring
problems at the societal level (i.e. racial discrimination, structural
poverty, and other social ills) were systematically ignored. Instead,
critics complain, too many "golden age" dramas were little more
than simplistic morality tales focusing on the every day problems
and conflicts of weak individuals confronted by personal shortcomings
such as alcoholism, greed, impotence, and divorce, for example.
While there is no doubt that teleplays dealing with serious social
issues were not what most network or advertising executives considered
appropriate subject matter for predisposing viewers to consume their
products, it is important to note that the "golden age" did coincide
with the cold-war era and McCarthyism and that cold-war references,
such as avoiding communism and loving America, were frequently incorporated
in teleplays of the mid to late 1950s.
of the scripts in the live television dramas, however, were original
teleplays or works adapted from the stage, ranging from Arthur Miller's
Death of a Salesman and Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh
to such high-brow and classic literary adaptations of Shakespeare's
Romeo and Juliet and Othello, among many others. This
menu of live television dramas, especially when compared with popular
Hollywood films, the elite theater, or commercial radio, presented
American audiences with an extraordinary breadth of viewing experiences
in a solitary entertainment medium. Moreover, this cultural explosion
was occurring in the comfort of the new mass audiences' brand new
suburban living rooms. While the classics and some contemporary
popular writers provided material for the teleplays, they were not
enough for the networks' demanding weekly program schedules. Moreover,
the television programmers were often thwarted by Hollywood's practice
of buying the rights to popular works and refusing to grant a rival
medium access to them, thereby foreclosing the television networks'
ability to dramatize some of the most popular and classic plays.
In response, the networks began cultivating original scripts from
young writers. Thus, the majority of the dramas appearing on these
anthology shows were original works.
the quintessential "golden age" drama is Paddy Chayevsky's "Marty."
On 24 May 1953, Delbert Mann directed Chayevsky's most renowned
teleplay for NBC's Philco Television Playhouse. Starring
Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand as the principals, "Marty" is a love
story about two ordinary characters and the mundane world they inhabit.
"Marty" is important because its uncomplicated and sympathetic treatment
of Marty, the butcher, and his ability to achieve independence from
his demanding mother and embrace his uncertain future resonated
with many new suburban viewers, who were, themselves, facing similar
social and political changes in post war American society. "Marty"
was an ideal drama for the times, leading one reviewer to write
that it represented "the unadorned glimpse of the American middle-class
milieu." The suburban viewers, like the fictional "Marty" they welcomed
into their living rooms, had become willing participants in an emerging
national culture no longer distinguishable by inter-generational
and inter-ethnic differences. What further distinguishes "Marty"
is the fact that it signaled a trend in the entertainment industry
whereby teleplays were increasingly adapted for film. Shortly after
its phenomenal television success, "Marty" became a successful feature
of the most successful and critically acclaimed dramatic anthology
programs of the "golden age" were, Armstrong Circle Theater
(thirteen seasons), Kraft Television Theater (eleven seasons),
Alfred Hitchcock Presents (ten seasons), Studio One (ten
seasons), The U.S. Steel Hour (ten seasons), General Electric
Theater (nine seasons), Philco Television Playhouse (seven
seasons), Goodyear Playhouse (six seasons), Playhouse
90 (four seasons), and Twilight Zone (four seasons-revived
in 1985-88). In present times, only the Hallmark Hall of Fame (1951-present),
survives from the heyday of television's "golden age." With the
advent of videotape, telefilm and the shift to Hollywood studios
as sites of program production, and the social upheavals of the
1960s, live anthology dramas fell victim to poor ratings and changing
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Company Voice; Anthology
Paddy; Coe, Fred;
Television Theatre; Mann,