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….

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