Introduction to Chronovision

Chronovision is my attempt at traveling through the history of television by watching thousands of TV show episodes in chronological air date order.

Why am I doing this?

Well, there are tons of television programs which I've always wanted to see, and many others I've wanted to re-watch, but it can be difficult to choose which ones to watch, and when, so having them available in a prearranged order simplifies that for me, and makes sure I don't miss anything.

Additionally, viewing them all in air date order gives me the benefit of being able to see a clear picture of the progress and evolution of the medium. Since I'll be immersed in a given time period, I'll be able to better contextualize certain shows with the times. It can otherwise be difficult to appreciate how original or provocative a certain show was back in the day, if you're not surrounded by the culture of the time.

And lastly, I think this project will give me a chance to discover a lot of shows that I would otherwise never think to watch, or maybe even never hear of.

Shortly before I was set to begin the project, I realized it might be fun to blog my progress and provide my personal thoughts on the things I'm watching, so I started Chronovision for that purpose. I hope it's an enjoyable read. Each post will cover one month in the history of television.

It's important to note what I'm NOT trying to do here, however. My goal isn't to watch EVERYTHING. That would simply be impossible, even if I had access to it all. I'm also not expecting that I'll ever be able to catch up to present day programming. It's more about the journey and seeing how far I can get. This isn't meant to be a full-time job, but merely a personal challenge and a labor of love.

There are many factors deciding which shows I will be watching, availability being the key one. The lion's share of shows will be those which are currently available on DVD. There are also other shows which I've recorded or otherwise obtained on VHS over the years. Many older shows are in the public domain and available to watch online for free. If a show is on my "want to watch" list, I will make every effort to find it, but I'm sure there will be a lot of stuff I'll reluctantly have to skip over.

So what is my criteria of inclusion? Of all the hundreds of shows available to watch, I'll only be choosing ones that A) I've seen before and know I like, B) I haven't seen before, but think I might like, or C) I consider to be historically or culturally significant in some way.

I'm also reserving the right to "cancel" watching a show at any point if I'm no longer enjoying it. In order to remain motivated, my emphasis HAS to be on enjoying myself. Obviously I'm not going to enjoy every episode of even my most FAVORITE shows, but overall if a show takes such a bad turn that it becomes a chore to watch, I'll likely drop it from my schedule, even if it falls in the "historically or culturally significant" category. There may be exceptions to this, if I really feel it's important to watch a show, or if I know that the quality improves later on.

Additionally, there will certainly be shows that become available after the time period when I was supposed to watch them. When this happens, I will probably watch these shows and go back and edit the previous blog posts accordingly, making a new post noting the edit for those following along who will want to go back and read the new version.

The primary focus will be on American programming, but being from Canada, I'll be incorporating certain Canadian television shows too, whenever possible. There will be many shows from the U.K. included as well, and possibly other English-speaking countries such as Australia, as well as possibly some foreign language shows from Japan, Germany, etc. Again, availability will be the key factor. I will also be incorporating certain theatrical and home video releases which directly tie in with, or spin off from, a TV show, but didn't actually air on television.

Television broadcasts began in the mid 1920s, but the first real television season in the U.S. was in 1946. Unfortunately for us, television was broadcast live in those days and it was several years before there was any means of preserving these broadcasts. As a result, an enormous portion of early television programming has been lost forever. Because of these large gaps, and because older shows hold less of an interest to me, much of the first decade or two will be relatively sparse, I'm sure. But once I hit the '80s and '90s, which were my prime television-viewing days as a youth, and when most of my favorite shows aired, I'm guessing there will be quite an explosion of content.

My Chronovision journey will begin in March of 1949 with a show called Suspense....

Setting the Stage

These days we tend to think of television as film’s little brother. A lot of TV shows have the appearance of theatrical movies, but with smaller budgets. Someone casually flipping through the channels today often won’t be able to identify whether they’ve landed on a movie or a TV show. Until recently, any film actor whose career had turned to television was generally considered washed up, but over the past decade or so, the increased production values of TV programming has led to many big-name stars appearing on the small screen, especially with the advent of less content-restrictive cable networks such as HBO and Showtime. TV shows are even shot in widescreen now to look more theatrical. And as movie series such as Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Saw present us with pre-planned story arcs that span multiple films, the line between these two forms of media blurs more and more every day.

But the truth is that television’s origins stem not from film at all, but rather from radio and from theatre. As television was originally a broadcast-only medium, it consisted solely of live transmissions, with no practical means of pre-recording shows. Naturally, a lot of radio programs were adapted directly to the screen, often with both versions of the show running concurrently for years. And surprisingly, many early television programs were almost indistinguishable from radio programs in that the visual portion was underused almost to the point where it seemed unnecessary. Narrators, hosts and announcers still introduced most TV shows and often continued to needlessly outline the plot throughout the entire episode. It’s as if no one knew how exactly to flesh out the visual advantage television has over radio.

The limitations of the medium at the time resulted in most shows playing like a live stage presentation. The majority of early television shows were variety shows, game shows, soap operas, and actual productions of stage plays. And all of these done live, of course. It would be some time before television provided polished, pre-recorded, edited material on a consistent basis.

It’s also important to note that, aside from some locally-broadcasted programming, television was only available in certain cities on the west coast of the United States until about 1947.

The history of television in the United Kingdom is a little different, but I won’t get into that as much unless needed, since the majority of the shows I’ll be watching for Chronovision will be American. The BBC made the jump from radio to television in 1929 in London, and came to a sudden end in 1939 during World War II when they were afraid the signal would be a homing beacon for enemy bombers. It resumed in 1946 after the war, with the exact same Mickey Mouse cartoon which had been interrupted seven years before!

So with the stage set, I can begin by discussing some of the early shows that I’ll never get to see….

July 1938 – February 1949

Although television had been experimentally broadcasting for over a decade, NBC became the first actual network in 1938, with CBS following them exactly three years later (though it would be another several years before they actually had evening broadcasts). The now-defunct DuMont network began in 1946 and for the next two years, DuMont and NBC were the only two networks with regular evening programming. ABC would make the leap to television in 1948, making a total of four networks broadcasting shows to most of the continental United States. These four networks competed fiercely over the next decade until one of them met their demise in 1956.

Now, I’d just like to clarify here that Chronovision is an entirely subjective project. While I’ll likely touch upon important events in television history as we get to them, and occasionally point out what’s going on in the world at any given point, the goal of this blog isn’t to chronicle the history of television, it’s merely to watch TV shows I love and/or appreciate, in chronological order and write my thoughts on them. I’m certainly no expert on the subject of television history and I’m be learning tons myself as we go along, so although I’d like to try to do a rough sketch of the bigger picture whenever possible, most of the shows selected for this project will be stuff that cater to my own personal tastes.

As such we’ll see a lot of genres that I grew up watching in the ’80s, and one of those genres was the horror anthology series which was having a big revival when I was a kid. In the first half of the twentieth century, horror anthology stories were borne in comic book form and also performed on the radio. When television came along, many of these radio programs were adapted for the visual medium, often with the same scripts being re-used. One of the earliest conversions was a show called “Lights Out,” which premiered on June 30, 1946 as a special four-episode series on NBC. Of course, none of these episodes exist anymore, but the show was revived three years later and I’ll be enjoying some of the surviving episodes starting in a later entry.

Another genre that I spent a lot of time watching in the ’80s and ’90s is the good old-fashioned situation comedy. Probably the earliest show that I regret I'm unable to include in Chronovision is “Mary Kay and Johnny.” It premiered on the DuMont network on November 18, 1947 and was the first American sitcom. The show starred a real-life young married couple living in New York City. Besides being the first sitcom, it’s also noteworthy for a couple of other reasons. It was the first program to show a couple in bed together (something which wouldn’t happen again for a long time), and when the main actress got pregnant, they incorporated it into the show (another TV first) and the child was born in December of 1948. Because of it’s historical significance, it’s terribly unfortunate that little to no footage of the show exists today.

It seems that in the 1950s, television was dominated by the variety show. It makes sense, as it’s an obvious choice of content for a live broadcast. I’m not much of a fan of variety shows, though I will be including a few select historical episodes here and there or whenever a specific guest appeals to me, but the genre really was responsible for television’s early success. Specifically, the popularity of “The Milton Berle Show” led to more sales of TV sets than any form of advertising at the time. The show premiered on NBC on June 8, 1948, originally called “Texaco Star Theater,” with a rotating set of hosts, before Berle permanently settled into the role a few months later. Guests each week covered the entire gambit of talent; comedians, acrobats, musicians, ventriloquists, etc. The show became television’s first hit and Milton Berle was known as “Mr. Television.”

Less than two weeks later, on June 20, another variety show premiered on CBS called “Toast of the Town.” The first episode had Martin & Lewis and Rodgers & Hammerstein among the guests. The show was hosted by Ed Sullivan, and several years later the show would eventually be renamed “The Ed Sullivan Show” and go on to enjoy decades of immense popularity. Again, I’ll only be viewing select episodes I deem worth watching.

Lastly, there are three more sitcoms that premiered in the months before my Chronovision quest begins.

“The Growing Paynes” (not to be confused with the ’80s show “Growing Pains,” of course) was another show about a couple living in an apartment with their child. It premiered on October 20, 1948 on DuMont. A few episodes are in existence, but none have been made publicly available.

“The Goldbergs” was a long-running radio program that began in 1929. It was created by, written by, and starred Gertrude Berg, who played a Jewish matriarch of a poor Jewish family living in the Bronx. After nearly twenty years on the radio, the show was adapted into a stage play called “Molly and Me” in 1948, and premiered as a television program on CBS on January 10, 1949. The complete set of extant episodes was released on DVD recently, so “The Goldbergs” will be Chronovision’s earliest foray into the sitcom.

And finally, “The Hartmans” was another sitcom about a young couple, this time living in the suburbs. It premiered on February 27, 1949 on NBC, and near as I can tell no copies are known to exist.

Each entry of Chronovision will include a list of the episodes I’ve watched from that month, as well as any that are unavailable to be seen.

Shows Unavailable for January – February 1949

January 5 – The Growing Paynes – 1.12
January 10 – The Goldbergs
January 12 – The Growing Paynes – 1.13
January 19 – The Growing Paynes – 1.14
January 26 – The Growing Paynes – 1.15
February 2 – The Growing Paynes – 1.16
February 9 – The Growing Paynes – 1.17
February 16 – The Growing Paynes – 1.18
February 23 – The Growing Paynes – 1.19
February 27 – The Hartmans – 1.1