When women invented television By Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

When women invented television

When women invented television – There was a time during the early days of the golden age of television (1948-1955, to be exact), when many of the pioneering figures who developed many of the formats and genres that viewers enjoy today were women. They played a major role in developing the formats, writing the scripts, making the major programming decisions with the network and advertising suits, and appearing in front of the camera on a daily and weekly basis.

However, by 1955, the major roles these pioneering women played during television’s genesis as a mass medium virtually disappeared, and for the next 20 years or so, fell into the hands of the white, male-dominated broadcasting executives who were perched in their ivory tower executive suites.

When women invented television
When women invented television

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, who has become a leading TV history chronicler with her acclaimed bestselling tomes about the history of such milestone TV series as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Seinfeld and Friends, has decided for her latest TV history book to pay a long overdue tribute to four women who blazed four trails to the way TV shows are created and enjoyed today, which is called When Women Invented Television.

The book focusses on four women whose contributions to the evolution of television are now seen as important and ahead of their time, as well as sadly overlooked. They are Gertrude Berg, Irna Phillips, Hazel Scott and Betty White. It’s like four books in one; although they never worked together in some way, shape or form during the near decade-long period that the book covers, their individual accomplishments during the early days of television had a common bond: that women can break the glass ceiling and be a business and creative force in a new medium on their own … about 10 years before the women’s liberation movement emerged and demanded that the glass ceiling be broken.

And what Berg, Phillips, Scott and White accomplished during this period was not only impressive, but also way ahead of its time. Gertrude Berg became widely known – and forever associated with – her role as family matron Molly Goldberg for more than 30 years on her sitcom The Goldbergs. Thanks to her creative and business acumen, The Goldbergs became a hit sitcom on both radio and television, became a virtual cottage industry of merchandising, held sway with network executives when it came to negotiating broadcast and sponsorship deals, and pioneered the idea of product placement when it ran on CBS television, especially its first sponsor Sanka Coffee, in which a Sanka Coffee can doubled as a flowerpot on the ledge of the window of Molly’s apartment, not to mention the subtle mentions of the product that were done throughout the course of a typical Goldbergs broadcast.

Irna Phillips managed to turn real life tragedies and personal difficulties into serial dramas for radio during the 30s and 40s with shows she created on her own like The Guiding Light; and because their main sponsors were household soap and laundry detergent products, these serials were dubbed “soap operas”. By the time The Guiding Light made it to television around 1951, Phillips was a one-woman soap opera empire, creating more new shows and churning out scripts in her large Chicago apartment that was converted into a home office … while raising two children as a single mother at the same time.

Hazel Scott was a renowned jazz pianist and recording artist before television came calling. She toured across the U.S. and Europe to sold out crowds to watch her unique piano playing style, which included the feat of playing a tune simultaneously on two pianos (which was recently accomplished by Alicia Keys when she hosted the Grammy Awards ceremony). In 1950, she became the first Black person to host a prime time television series with her self-titled variety show on the DuMont Television Network – which always played a poor cousin to CBS and NBC – and whose other show of note was Cavalcade of Stars, hosted by a Brooklyn-born comedian named Jackie Gleason.

Betty White grew up in L.A. and became a TV superstar from the beginning, first as a host of “Hollywood on Television”, which aired on a local L.A. television station and was a daily variety/information show; White and her co-host wrote and performed their own skits, interviewed celebrities, did free form banter and in-studio commercial pitches … for five-and-a-half hours every, five days a week, on live television with no studio audience. Her multi-talents (which included singing), endless charm and energy, and ability to multi-task regularly earned White instant fame and two more shows during the early 50s: a filmed sitcom called “Life with Elizabeth” and her own self-titled variety show on NBC (where she got the chance to exhibit her love of animals and champion the cause of animal welfare).

However, regardless of the popularity and fame that their respective television productions brought to these four women, they directly or indirectly became victims of the turbulent social circumstances that were part of the world of the early 1950s that unfortunately hobbled or ended their careers in television at a time of its rapidly growing popularity as a mass medium.

Although Gertrude Berg was a powerful and influential figure as an actress/writer/producer, in 1950 she had to buckle down to network and sponsor pressure to fire veteran actor Philip Loeb – who played Molly’s long-suffering husband Jake since the program aired on radio – because a government publication called “Red Channels” accused him of being a Communist sympathizer (Loeb was eventually fired, and took his own life in September of 1955). Irna Philips, who was a one-woman soap opera industry and single mother of two adopted children, felt enormous frustration about the repeated attempts to get the networks to adapt her soap opera creations from radio to television, and developed a number of cardiac-related health problems as a result. Hazel Scott, her fame as a jazz pianist aside, experienced her share of racism and segregation as a touring musician, but because of her outspoken progressive stances on certain issues, being Black and a popular entertainer, as well as the wife of a rabble-rousing New York congressman named Adam Clayton Powell, her name was added to the list of Communist sympathizers on Red Channels, which led to her blacklisting and cancellation of her TV show on DuMont. And Betty White struck an early blow for civil rights during her time as host of The Betty White Show; when a number of Southern stations threatened to boycott her show if she featured Arthur Duncan, a Black tap dancer, on her show, her curt, to the point response to those threats was “I’m sorry. Live with it.”

Ms. Armstrong has done an exceptional job unearthing this piece of hidden TV history with When Women Invented Television. Her journalistic (and somewhat archaeological) skills in bringing out all this unknown information has made this book quite a fascinating – and sometimes tragic – read that classic TV buffs will want to discover if they want to get a much balanced, fuller knowledge of the medium’s history. Although their tenure as leading TV personalities lasted barely a decade, Ms. Armstrong has put Gertrude Berg, Irna Phillips, Hazel Scott and Betty White on much deserved pedestals in the pantheon of television not for what they achieved on the tube, but for giving that early push for woman to break that glass ceiling (or picture tube) in the world of television, both in front of and behind the camera.

Stuart Nulman
By: Stuart Nulman – [email protected]

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