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Tubular Tales : THE BOX: An Oral History of Television, 1920-1961. By Jeff Kisseloff (Viking: $37.95; 592 pp.)

February 04, 1996|Eugene Stein | Eugene Stein, an executive at CBS, has written for television programs, including "Cheers" and "Murphy Brown." His first novel, "Straitjacket and Tie," was published by Ticknor and Fields in 1994

Early television, like many entrepreneurial businesses, was randomly cruel and haphazardly kind, rewarding the lucky and the persistent and frequently punishing the deserving and the ingenious.

In 1906, while looking for a job at a newspaper office, 15-year-old David Sarnoff walked into a telegraph company by accident, thereby entering the world of electronic communication; he would later head and build the Radio Corp. of America, now known as RCA Corp. Twenty years later, Philo Farnsworth, a brilliant, hardscrabble college dropout just out of his teens, received the patent for the first all-electronic TV system but was driven to a nervous breakdown by RCA's relentless legal challenges.

In "The Box," oral historian Jeff Kisseloff tells the stories of Sarnoff, Farnsworth and a host of other pioneers, culling more than 500 interviews with the scientists, executives, actors, writers, directors, producers and stagehands who helped nurture television from its infancy to its maturity.

These interviews remind us that originally, television programming was intended not to boost ratings but rather to sell television sets. Yet Kisseloff's work also suggests some of the guiding principles of early television, principles that remain very much in effect today:

* Stars make television. Television makes stars.

The axiom has always been that film is a director's medium and television is a writer's medium. These oral histories, however, show that actors often had the upper hand. "Texaco Star Theater," for instance, airing from 1948 to 1956, became television's first comedy hit and Milton Berle its first comedy star. An outgrowth of Berle's raucous nightclub act, the show is remembered not for its scintillating wit but for Berle's impudent persona. (Indeed, Berle was known as "The Thief of Bad Gags" by other comedians.)

While reports of the show's ability to lower reservoirs when audiences strayed from the box during commercials are vastly exaggerated, Berle did help sell TV sets. According to "The Box," salesmen demonstrated TV in prospective customers' homes and then began packing up the sets just before "Texaco Star Theater"was about to begin. Uncle Miltie closed the sale.

Jackie Gleason, we learn, was the biggest star on the DuMont network. But he wasn't much of a star when he started. DuMont hired him for $750 a week in 1950. Six weeks later, his show was a hit. Nearly everyone interviewed in this book who knew him despised him, although he is given credit for recognizing and nurturing Art Carney's talent on "The Honeymooners." Gleason was always in debt, and at the end of his second year on the network he asked for $30,000 to sign for an additional three years. DuMont, in one of the great network blunders, passed. CBS pounced.

These "star wars" continue today, of course. Brandon Tartikoff, then-president of NBC Entertainment, scheduled "The Cosby Show" after ABC passed on it, and the show became a monster hit. The producers later sought a 13-episode commitment for a comedian named Roseanne Barr. Now it was Tartikoff's turn to pass--in his memoir, "The Last Great Ride," he says he thought she didn't have a twinkle in her eye. ABC, licking its wounds after "Cosby," grabbed the show. Tartikoff claims only half in jest that if "Roseanne" and "Cosby" had both been on NBC, he would have only needed to work two days a week.

* Sports events are not only a mainstay of television programming, they can change the way programs are delivered.

Boxing, as Kisseloff makes clear, has always "rung the opening bell for mass media." Thomas Edison's movie cameras captured the Corbett-Courtenay bout in 1894. And the 1921 Dempsey-Carpentier match was covered coast to coast by the first nationwide radio hookup.

However, it was wrestling that soon dominated early television. According to Kisseloff, Gorgeous George, an early wrestling star, can claim credit for selling far more TV sets than Uncle Miltie. In the 1940s, wrestling was often the most popular program on TV. Wrestling had another advantage over boxing: Because bouts could be controlled (say it ain't so!), they could end at prearranged times, thereby ensuring a smooth flow of programs.

Because sets were so expensive, tavern owners were usually the first to purchase them--football, hockey and boxing brought people in the door. Retailers worked night and day promoting sets before big football games and during the World Series. Decades later, when the Fox Broadcasting Co. got the rights to football games from CBS, a harrowing game of musical chairs among network affiliates ensued. Fox's acquisition of football and its subsequent deal with New World's affiliates constituted "one of the seminal events in broadcasting history," according to Steven Rattner, managing director of the Lazard Freres investment house.

* The government can make you and the government can break you.

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