To celebrate The New Yorker’s first-ever Television Issue, we’re looking back on nearly nine decades of television coverage in the magazine.
In 2002, in an article called “The Televisionary,” Malcolm Gladwell told the story of the invention of television. The visionary in question was a man named Philo T. Farnsworth. Farnsworth was born in 1906 and grew up working his family’s potato farm; in 1927, he built one of the first working television cameras. For decades, he was widely known as the inventor of television. The truth was that television was an incredibly complex technology; hundreds, even thousands, of engineers had contributed to perfecting it. “Everyone was working on television and everyone was reading everyone else’s patent applications,” Gladwell wrote. By the time TV became a commercial reality, in the late thirties, its many inventors had learned to accept that no one person could claim to have created it—that, as Gladwell put it, “the machine was larger than they were.”
That turned out to be true for the rest of us, too. For nearly a century, television, like the weather, has shaped our behaviors, our moods, and our desires in ways we don’t always comprehend. The New Yorker, which was founded in 1925, was there from the beginning, covering television from its invention onward. In March of 1928, James Thurber visited Bell Labs, on West Street, to see an early tech demo. “The television demonstration properly awed us,” Thurber wrote. “The lights went out, there was the whirring of a machine, then a long flurry of black and white patterns. . . . Finally these steadied into a picture of a card with the Bell trade mark on it.” At the other end of the auditorium, someone stood before the “sending machine,” blowing smoke rings.
A few years later, in May of 1931, a reporter named Morris Markey returned to Bell Labs for what we would now call a videoconference. Told that he would be meeting “Mr. Sullivan,” he walked into a dark room, where a man appeared on a television screen. “Perhaps I had better explain that I am about three miles from you now,” he said, “and that I can see you quite as clearly as you see me.” Five years later, in 1936, E. B. White went to the R.C.A. Building to see the newest developments. He watched a comedian and a political speech—and then, on the TV screen, saw a picture of another TV screen. “Try and appreciate our situation,” he wrote. “We were in a dark room looking into a television set at a television set which was showing a picture of a moving picture.” “Staggered” by this early moment of meta, White fled to the sixty-fifth-floor observation deck, where he could gaze at Staten Island in the traditional way.
No one knew quite how, but it was clear that television was going to change the world. In 1938, two Talk of the Town reporters consulted a TV engineer, hoping to master the lingo in advance. The engineer explained that people who watched television would be called “lookers-in,” asking one another, “Did you look in last night?” They would comfortably distinguish between “live” shows and “dead” ones, which had been prerecorded; they would know strange words such as “audio” and “video” and understand the new meanings of “ghost” and “noise.” (TV “kits” were expensive: the reporters noted that the term “small down payment” would retain its usual meaning.)
Around the same time, the magazine noted a series of televisual firsts. In April of 1939, Talk of the Town covered the first surgical telecast, which was staged at a Brooklyn hospital and allowed spectators in one building to watch an operation in another. That May, at the New York World’s Fair, ordinary citizens got their first glimpse of television. That same month also saw the first televised sporting event in the United States—a double-header baseball game between Columbia and Princeton at Columbia’s Baker Field. Even though viewers could see the action for themselves, the soon-to-be-legendary sportscaster Bill Stern called the game as though he were on the radio, and discrepancies between his narration and reality were newly obvious: “He had a fellow coming up to the plate when he was already there,” the reporters wrote, “and a ball going through a first baseman’s legs when it had caromed off his glove to one side.”
The Second World War put the ascent of TV on pause, and, for the most part, The New Yorker turned its attention elsewhere. In 1947, however, for a piece called “Diary of a Viewer,” Robert Rice spent a few evenings “in the bosom of a typical American set-owning family.” (“My object is to learn what it’s like to live with that new branch of entertainment which its trade press persists in calling the Video Art,” he wrote.) At the time, there were fewer than seven thousand television sets in all of Manhattan, and an evening in front of the television felt exotic. Over the course of a week, Rice watched a game show called “Cash & Carry,” a production of “Twelfth Night,” a cooking program sponsored by an appliance company, and a baseball game (Dodgers vs. Phillies). During the game, he got a preview of a behavior that was soon to be widespread—a family shouting at the television while eating too much junk food.
Over the next decade, television programming came to assume the familiar shape it has today. In 1950, Thomas Whiteside visited the offices of the ad agency Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborne, which made cutting-edge television commercials for Lucky Strike cigarettes, among other products. (B.B.D.O. became the inspiration for Sterling Cooper, in “Mad Men.”) For a 1952 piece called “No Lobster Men from Neptune,” he attended the filming of the wildly successful “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet,” observing an early writers’ room in action. And, in 1954, he profiled Sylvester (Pat) Weaver, the new president of NBC (and the father of Sigourney Weaver). Weaver helped create the “Today” and “Tonight” shows, launched a number of educational programs, and brought “magazine-style” advertising to television: instead of producing each show in collaboration with a sponsoring client, NBC began producing its own shows, then selling short commercials, which aired during the breaks, to different clients.
By the end of the fifties, The New Yorker was writing about popular television shows that we still remember today: “Sunrise Semester,” “Continental Classroom,” and “Car 54, Where Are You?” In a dedicated TV column, run under the rubrics “Television” and “The Air,” the magazine’s early TV critics, John Lardner and Philip Hamburger, reviewed shows such as “Gunsmoke,” “Perry Mason,” and “Candid Camera.” Hamburger called “Candid Camera” “sadistic, poisonous, anti-human, and sneaky.” Lardner admired “Gunsmoke” but resisted its “literary ingenuity.” “Gunsmoke” was what we might now call a “prestige” Western, and Lardner yearned for the old-fashioned kind, “with its austere pattern of men, horses, chase, and fusillade.”
During the sixties, seventies, and eighties, The New Yorker struggled to make up its mind about television. Was TV a new frontier for dramatic and civic life, or a sign of the decline of civilization? No event embodied the former possibility more than the live telecast of the moon landing. In a special section of Talk of the Town titled “The Moon Hours,” reporters watched the landing on televisions around New York City: from the corner of Fiftieth and Sixth, where a giant screen had been erected for the crowd; from the Eighteenth Precinct, where police watched while booking suspects; from the NBC control room, at Rockefeller Center; from the Chess & Checker Club in midtown, the Lincoln Bar in Harlem, and a house party on the Upper East Side; and from the “Moon-In,” in Central Park, where thousands gathered to watch in Sheep Meadow. “The picture is going everywhere in the world by satellite,” an NBC executive marvelled. “They’re all seeing the same fantastic live pictures at the same time. Nobody any better than anybody else, really. Maybe that holds something pretty good for all of us.”
As TV news came to dominate the reporting landscape, New Yorker writers worked to take its measure. They reflected on the surprisingly raw television coverage of the war in Vietnam (“Television’s War,” 1967); profiled Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, of “The Huntley Brinkley Report” (“An Accident of Casting,” 1968); and investigated the Nixon Administration’s efforts to manipulate TV news (“Shaking the Tree,” 1975). In 1982, E. J. Kahn, Jr., went behind the scenes of “60 Minutes,” which was so popular that it jostled with “Dallas” for the top ratings spot. (Two years earlier, in a lengthy review of “Dallas,” the New Yorker television critic Michael J. Arlen had appreciatively described its villain, J. R. Ewing, as a character with “a touch of Tennessee Williams’s mean-weak young Southern gentleman, a touch of old, snarly Dan Duryea, and a good deal of his own soft, spacy charm.”)
In general, New Yorker reporters admired the TV-news operations they covered, but a tone of wariness suffused their writing about television more broadly. George W. S. Trow’s 1980 essay “Within the Context of No-Context” was an extravagantly mournful, McLuhan-esque aria to the traditional media world that TV had dethroned. Trow connected TV to a “decline of adulthood” in America; on television, he argued, “the trivial is raised up to power. The powerful is lowered toward the trivial.” Trow’s formulation was prescient in how it uncannily predicted today’s reality-TV Presidency, but it also signalled a critical blind spot. The New Yorker was fascinated by television—it saw that TV shows could be occasions for renegotiating, reimagining, and subverting culture—but it was uncomfortable with the idea of television as art.
Even so, New Yorker writers responded to the vitality and creativity that were everywhere on TV. There was, during those decades, a wild, unpredictable, fringe aspect to even mainstream TV culture. Television had once been decorous, glamorous, Hollywood-like; now it was developing its own rebellious vibe, and The New Yorker was drawn to the televisual extremes. In 1972, Renata Adler wrote about both the genius of “Sesame Street” and the country’s obsession with soap operas; in 1975, Arlen cheered the advent of “Saturday Night Live,” which he characterized as “an attempt, finally, to provide entertainment on television in a recognizable, human, non-celebrity voice”—an antidote to “the morass of media-induced show-business culture that increasingly pervades American life.” In 1978, Kenneth Tynan profiled Johnny Carson, who represented the Hollywood version of TV; in 1986, Kahn did the same for Joseph A. Wapner, the judge on the popular show “The People’s Court,” who represented the opposite.
The magazine covered tele-psychics and, in 1990, the televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. James Wolcott, the magazine’s TV critic, reviewed Rush Limbaugh and David Letterman, “Seinfeld” (1993), and “The X-Files” (1994); that same year, Jeffrey Toobin wrote about the O. J. Simpson trial, which was covered live, and John Seabrook visited the headquarters of MTV. In 1995, Stephen Schiff reflected on “trash TV”—Ricki Lake, Jerry Springer, Sally Jessy Raphaël—which he called “the unholy offspring of Marshall McLuhan and Andy Warhol.” John Lahr also profiled Roseanne Barr, who was bringing a new, disruptive feminism to television. Lahr saw “Roseanne” as simultaneously outrageous and realistic, commercial and serious, comedic and intelligent, broad and complex—in other words, he watched it the way we watch many TV shows today.
If you had to pinpoint a year when “prestige TV” arrived, you might choose 1999. That year, Tad Friend wrote about David Lynch’s frustrating attempt to bring a “Mulholland Drive” series to network television; as if in counterpoint, Nancy Franklin, then The New Yorker’s TV critic, noted the success of “The Sopranos” on cable. “It goes out on a limb that doesn’t even exist at the networks,” she wrote. “The word of mouth since it began has caused people to suddenly and urgently sign up for HBO after years of living contentedly without it.” Together, the collected reviews of Franklin and Emily Nussbaum, who took over the beat in 2011, chronicle the maturation of an art form. Even as The New Yorker continued to cover late-night talk shows and TV news and the business of TV—Ken Auletta, for example, profiled Ted Turner, in 2001—it focussed more and more attention on deeply serialized dramas such as “Mad Men” and “The Wire.” Franklin praised shows like “Friday Night Lights,” “The Good Wife,” and “Breaking Bad”; in a 2012 review of “Game of Thrones,” Nussbaum admired the ambitions of the new, multi-character cable dramas. The strength of shows like “Game of Thrones,” “Mad Men,” and “Downton Abbey,” she wrote, is their “insight into what it means to be excluded from power: to be a woman, or a bastard, or a ‘half man.’ ”
Today, television is at the center of culture in ways that its inventors likely never imagined. There is so much good television that even the expanded TV coverage on The New Yorker’s Web site can’t encompass it all. Showrunners such as Jenji Kohan, the creator of “Orange Is the New Black,” are the new auteurs (Emily Nussbaum has profiled Kohan for this week’s Television Issue); the President of the United States, meanwhile, is himself a television star. The technology of television has changed beyond recognition—thanks to streaming and smartphone cameras, it’s now part of the Internet—but that has only made TV more influential. The cover of this week’s Television Issue, by Bruce Eric Kaplan—a writer for “Girls,” “Six Feet Under,” and “Seinfeld”—is called “Screen Time.” It shows a child sitting in front of the TV. His attention isn’t on the big screen, which is blank, but on a small one—a smartphone, held in his hand. Television is still evolving, becoming more pervasive and personal. It will continue to change us in ways we can’t foresee.