Still laboring under the impression that television is not substantially dumbed down from its glorious past as a transmission device for education? Do you confuse the more liberal policy toward adult language, sex and maturity with television being a much more informative medium? Then you need to get to know some of the shows that actually aired on networks during prime time in the 1950s. The very same time slots given over to watching Louie Anderson do a belly flop into a pool from a high platform or women offering themselves up to the highest bidder for romance used to be populated by shows that actually attempted to inform the electorate rather than distract them.
America’s Town Meeting
Between 1948 and 1952 ABC aired “America’s Town Meeting” first on Tuesday nights and Sunday nights. You have to keep in mind that back then Sunday night was not just prime time, it the prime time of prime time because there wasn’t really much else to do on a Sunday night but stay home and watch TV if you happened to own one. “America’s Town Meeting” was already an institution by the time it debuted since it had been a very popular radio show since 1935. So what exactly were TV viewers treated to during “America’s Town Meeting” in the late 40s and early 50s? Debates over issues ranging from utility of the Korean War to the hysterical reaction to communism.
Speaking of the Korean War, “Battle Report” is the type of show that even if a network was willing to air it during prime time on Sunday or Friday, it would never get on the show. Thanks to the crackdown on covering America’s wars during the Bush administration, the very idea of a show like “Battle Report” is just plain silly. From 1950 to 1951, Americans interested in the police in Korea could get information from NBC. The success of the show as a daytime offering led to its spot on the network’s prime time lineup.
Even as late as the mid-1960s, the networks were still willing to give coveted prime time slots to shows intended to educate rather than distract. Sunday nights on ABC during September 1966 were utilized to air four separate documentaries on Asia issues affecting Americans. As you might well expect, some of this public affairs programming was dedicated to informing voters about how the war in Vietnam was going. In addition to Vietnam, “Asia Perspective” also covered the changes taking place in China under communist rule.
No, not the fake newsmagazine on “Murphy Brown” but a CBS show that also took up some time on the Sunday night lineup. The summer of 1960 saw “F.Y.I.” move from Sunday morning to the spot that “60 Minutes” would place a stranglehold on about a decade later. Among the issues covered on “F.Y.I” were urban sprawl and the state of mental health care in America.
Theater of the Mind
One of the most progressive TV shows of the early days of television was “Theater of the Mind.” Although it only aired briefly in 1949, NBC must be commended for giving over Thursday night prime time space to such an innovative approach to utilizing the full measure of the burgeoning medium. The first half of “Theater of the Mind” presented a dramatization of a particular social issue ranging from alcoholism to domineering parents. The rest of the show brought forward actual experts like psychiatrists and scientists to discuss the problem. The first half of “Theater of the Mind” could very easily be duplicated in today’s TV climate. The second half would likely feature “experts” like Kim Kardashian, Danny Bonaduce and Sarah Palin.