Monday, August 03, 2009

Recollections of TV’s Golden Age

Phantom TV

“Hey! Bob Hope’s on tonight on Channel 5.”

The 1950s TV viewer puts down his newspaper and turns on his set. Reception is fuzzy, faint on Channel 5. The viewer walks over to the remote control for a contraption on his roof called an aerial. He twists the dial back and forth, manipulating the rotary motor built into the aerial. He aligns the antenna’s metal rods to pick up the station broadcasting the comedian’s appearance.

“That was funny. Let’s see – Lawrence Welk is on Channel 8. I like his orchestra.”

The 1950s TV viewer changes the channel to 8. Bad reception. Time to turn the aerial again.

But no matter which way he turns his aerial, he will never pick up special appearances by Bob Hope and Lawrence Welk intended for an exclusive audience. Call it phantom TV.

Retired advertising copywriter / copy supervisor William Lowell worked with phantom TV presentations back in the 1950s-1960s. Unlike the major networks who tried to draw in the widest audience – thus the term broadcasting – phantom TV was narrowcasting, aimed at a specific audience.

Carried on a closed circuit television system, the specific audience was the employees of a major American automobile company. Arrangements would be made with a local TV station to carry the program that introduced new cars for the upcoming model year. A special viewing room with a large TV would be set up for the employees at the station.

“This went on behind the scenes,” recalled Lowell while I sat down with him recently for an interview. “It took a lot of preparation.”

As part of the big push, Bob Hope or Lawrence Welk might appear.

“[The car company] would present the advertising plan and promotion for the new model year,” recalled Lowell about his work with an ad agency. “That would involve whatever television personalities the company had contracted for. For example, Lawrence Welk and his band would be there to promote the new Chevrolet or whatever it would be. Or the sales manager for Plymouth would be bantering and swapping jokes with Bob Hope. And of course, by the means of television, all the dealers and salesmen around the country would be tuned in to see all that.”

One time Lowell worked with Bob Hope’s writers. One would think comedy writers would be outgoing, jovial types cracking one-liners.

“They were businesslike,” explained Lowell. Someone would offer a line for Hope to deliver. His writers might reply that it wasn’t appropriate for their boss.

Another line would be offered. “The writers would look very serious and nod their heads that it was acceptable,” said Lowell. “And if it was acceptable it meant sooner or later someone would type it all up and take it to Hope and let him read it. If he liked it, fine. If not, we made changes.”

While making the initial cuts the writers remained sober, intent on the process. If the writers liked a line, they wouldn’t laugh or smile, they would flatly state: “That’s funny, that’s funny, use that.”

From what I gathered from Lowell, putting together a routine with Hope’s writers was just as mechanical as putting together a car on the assembly line. If the part passed inspection, it was added.

It’s been decades since Lowell was involved with phantom TV. Maybe film or kinescope copies might have been made, documenting those narrowcasts. It would be interesting to see if such recordings do exist.

The Seer With The French Cuffs

Lowell recalls walking down a city street in the early days of TV, seeing the first sets with their round screens on display in store windows. He sensed that TV was going to become the next big thing.

But not everyone was so impressed by the new technology and its format.

In the late 1940s - early 1950s Lowell was working for an advertising agency that had arranged presentations for its employees to learn about new research or what the latest trends were. Writers and artists would visit and make presentations.

One time the head of the agency’s New York City office gave a talk about what some predicted would be a major trend: television.

The expert was well dressed, wearing a three-piece suit with French cuffs. Lowell and his fellow admen were in awe of the expert because of his position in the industry.

But their awe soon turned to surprise.

Recalling that incident, Lowell paraphrased what the expert said:

“Now, listen, there’s a lot of talk about television. Don’t let it go to your head. It’s never going to take the place of radio because with television you have to sit down there and watch it. With radio, you can walk around, you can do the laundry, you can wash the dishes. You can listen to radio. Television you have to sit there. Television isn’t going to last long. It’s a flash in the pan. It won’t take the place of radio.”

“We looked at each other,” said Lowell about the admen at the meeting. “ ‘Who is this guy, what was he saying?’ We were all enamored by the idea of television.”

Lowell knew the early television receivers with their small round screens would improve. The screens would get bigger, better.

And as time passed, it was obvious the prediction against TV was wrong.

“[Clients would say] put my account on television or else,” explained Lowell. “You couldn’t get on television fast enough.”

And as for the expert with his “Don’t get excited about television” viewpoint? He had to find work elsewhere.

Go West, Young Adman

Lowell caught the TV bug but as a writer, not as a viewer.

In the 1950s he took a six-month leave of absence from his advertising job and moved to LA, trying to break in as a screenwriter. His wife was happy about his decision and was supportive. She knew her husband was interested in writing fiction.

“It was very competitive,” Lowell recalled. “But very stimulating. Because every day something new was coming along. Somebody new was coming along, and had starred in this, starred in that, and this was developed and that was developed, everyday something new.”

Lowell mentioned the movie, Sunset Boulevard, starring William Holden as a struggling writer in Hollywood. In the film Holden meets a secretary who wants to also become a writer. He teams up with her, working nights on preparing a script, hashing out the plot and story details.

“That gave a pretty good impression of what was going on,” said Lowell

But after six months in LA Lowell had only sold one treatment; he had only made $700.

Lowell was hoping to break in with one of the half-hour westerns that were popular at that time, programs such as “Have Gun, Will Travel,” “Tales of Wells Fargo,” and “Wanted: Dead Or Alive.”

“But all those shows were canceled,” said Lowell. So he returned to his former job, advertising, leaving behind treatments and ideas for TV shows never produced and seen.

Another type of phantom TV.

But Lowell didn’t give up on writing. He kept pressing on, creating short stories that were published in a leading mystery magazine, some based in the Adirondack region where he retired.

And with television as popular as ever with hundreds of channels available, the demand for material still great, maybe one day Lowell’s work, perhaps a mystery set in the Adirondacks, will make it to the TV screen.

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