Directed by Steven J. Boettcher
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 220 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo English
MSRP: $ 24.99
Release Date: January 29, 2008
Review Date: January 22, 2008
For those of us who tune in today to watch the latest episodes of The Office, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, American Idol, or Deal or No Deal, we owe a long, low bow to the men and women who got the television industry to where it is today. Pioneers of Television is one such long, low bow. It’s a love letter to the men and women who truly forged a new frontier in entertainment beginning in the late 1940s, and the innovations they created then lead clearly to the shows we all now can enjoy and appreciate on a regular basis.
Pioneers of Television is comprised of four episodes each running about 55 minutes. Each episode provides an overview of the beginnings of a particularly popular TV genre. Not all genres are covered, and in 55 minutes, only the biggest names and most famous programs could begin to be given their due. Still, the four genres are still more or less still present in our modern TV terrain though only a few still resemble their illustrious ancestors. For others, the times have dictated changes in format and presentation that leave the pioneering efforts looking very different indeed.
Perhaps the genre which gets the shortest shrift is the one which has undergone the most changes over the years: variety shows. All the usual suspects are covered: The Ed Sullivan Show, Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theatre, Your Show of Shows, The Red Skelton Show, The Perry Como Kraft Music Hall, The Andy Williams Show, The Carol Burnett Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, The Flip Wilson Show. Still, the greatness of these shows can only be hinted at by the lack of time in which to show vintage clips. Berle and Skelton’s clips are seconds long, and Your Show of Shows is rhapsodized about with very little proof for someone unaware of its brilliance. In this segment, the time limitations stifle the ability of the show to illustrate what made this genre one of the most prolific in TV’s early years.
Sitcoms focuses on five classic comedies, all timeless and still incredibly funny: I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, Make Room for Daddy, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Dick Van Dyke Show. These five programs certainly do represent the best of what TV had to offer in situation comedy during its first fifteen years of existence. No complaints about this segment of the program.
No complaints about the Late Night segment either as the early Broadway Open House gives way to the three giants in late night talk: Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Johnny Carson. And we also get some really fascinating glimpses at others who tried to unseat these three kings: Merv Griffin, Joey Bishop, Dick Cavett, and more. A nice selection of excerpts from their programs helps those who never saw particularly Allen or Paar to understand how very different they were from Johnny Carson.
The final segment is Game Shows, and here the producers reign supreme: Mark Goodsen, Ralph Edwards, Bob Stewart, Chuck Barris. The quiz show scandals of the 1950s get mentioned, of course, but naturally entire programs could be devoted to that one aspect of this segment. More time, however, is spent going through many of the genre’s most familiar titles: Truth or Consequences, What’s My Line, Hollywood Squares, The Price Is Right, The Dating and Newlywed Games, Password, Jeopardy, and Wheel of Fortune.
All four programs in the series are peppered with excellent recent interviews with many of the parties connected to the shows. Their astute comments add greatly to the understanding of what made these programs so unique and such standouts in their various genres. Though I noticed an error or two in research (Dick Van Dyke didn’t make a hit on stage in Bye Bye Birdie in 1963; that was the year of the movie version. He won the Tony in 1960 for the musical which aided in his being cast in the television show that ended up bearing his name in 1961.), for the most part, the episodes are well written and put together lovingly. With so much available material on which to draw, it’s a shame each segment couldn’t have been two hours long.
The program’s 1.78:1 aspect ratio is delivered in a strong anamorphic transfer. Of course, the episodes are composed with all manner of kinescope, film, and videotape materials, and quality will vary depending on which source is being used. Anamorphically enhanced 4:3 film programming (e.g. Lucy, Van Dyke, Griffith) within the pillar boxing looks stunning while videotape and especially kinescope material looks soft and often horribly scratched, dirty, and with blown out contrast, all to be expected. The interviews were filmed in widescreen and look very sharp and feature very natural colors and pleasing texture. The Variety Show and Game Show episodes have been divided into 15 chapters, while Sitcoms has 7 chapters and Late Night 6 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track serves its purpose, once again faithfully representing the sounds of programs stretching back sixty years. Obviously, there is distortion on some of the oldest material, but the audio track is clear enough to be heard throughout.
The disc offers one bonus feature: 15 minutes of interview footage not used in the making of the four documentaries. Among the celebrities recounting these additional unused stories are Betty White, Phyllis Diller, Tim Conway, Dick Cavett, Florence Henderson, Jonathan Winters, and Merv Griffin. The interviews are presented in nonanamorphic widescreen.
Unless you’re an expert on early television, these four installments of Pioneers of Television offer some terrific clips of memorable moments from the first thirty years of national television broadcasting along with some fond reminiscences from many who were there during these groundbreaking years. It’s a most entertaining trip down memory lane for older folk and a good primer for the younger on the earliest years of one of the 20th Century’s most important mediums.
[PG]PBS Pioneers of Television[/PG]