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Title: Brought To You In Living Color - 75 Years of Great Moments in Television & Radio from NBC
Author: Marc Robinson
Copyright: © 2002
Publisher: John Wiley & Sons
Relevance: Any writer, ENG, reporter or correspondent interested in the history of television and radio in North America will appreciate Brought To You In Living Color. The "coffee table" book showcases with both well-written text and archive-quality photographs, the early years of both the TV and radio media.
Review: Brought To You In Living Color tells the story of the National Broadcasting System -- the broadcast entity we now all know as NBC. The formation and growth of both the NBC radio and television networks is well-told through the book’s ten chapters.
With a foreword by Tom Brokaw, a preface by Suzanne and Bob Wright (Bob Wright is NBC's current Chairman and Chief Executive Officer), and an introduction by Kelsey Grammer (TV's Dr. Frasier Crane), the book has a steady NBC spin on broadcasting.
Readers can find few, if any, references to rival networks, such as CBS, ABC or CNN through the 75 years of broadcasting the book covers. Indeed, at some points, this book could be mistaken for a NBC corporate brochure or shareholders' giveaway. This should not, however, dissuade the interested reader from plowing through Brought To You In Living Color. There are many behind-the-scenes stories and rare photographs chronicling the inception and growth of NBC (and indeed the entire American broadcasting industry) within the book’s 236 pages.
Designed as a glossy "coffee table" style book, Brought To You In Living Color is a beautiful yet informative tome about how NBC moved in the early twenties from a vague, yet innovative idea, to the broadcasting behemoth it is today.
Chapter 1 appropriately takes us back to the years of 1926 to 1938, clearly the formative years of commercial radio (and to a much lesser extent television) within America. Author Marc Robinson writes: "As early as November 1916, a young Russian immigrant and radio fanatic named David Sarnoff had proposed to executives at American Marconi a ‘radio music box’ that would bring entertainment and information into the home."
The book further explains that Sarnoff's bosses initially scoffed at the idea, but when presented with it again in 1920 -- after American Marconi had been purchased by General Electric and had been renamed Radio Corporation of America (RCA) -- his superiors realized Sarnoff was onto something big. By 1926, GE spun off the burgeoning broadcast concern into a separate division called the National Broadcasting Corporation.
Immediately, radio broadcasting lit the imagination of millions of people in what is now called the roaring twenties. The pioneering Amos 'n' Andy show was heard on NBC’s Blue network in 1929 after launching as Sam 'n' Henry; Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy kept millions of listeners roaring with laughter from 1937 to 1948; and Abbott and Costello performed their classic burlesque routine "Who’s on First" on NBC's Kate Smith Radio Hour. The Golden Age of Radio had arrived!
News added after entertainment
Initially an entertainment-only medium, network news quickly entered into radio’s dominion. Just how much network news began to shape the American psyche can be found in one of the book's many anecdotes: the network’s broadcast of Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic flight in 1929 and later, his son’s kidnapping in 1932. Network news came into its own during the Munich crisis in September 1938 when Hitler’s armies raced toward Czechoslovakia. News radio had finally come into its own!
The beginnings of sports broadcasting are also covered in Brought To You In Living Color. For example, Robinson writes that in 1927 the legendary rematch between Jack Dempsey and heavyweight champ Gene Tunney caused NBC to link its Red, Blue and Pacific network stations making 69 stations in all -- as commentators Graham McNamee and Phillips Carlin excitedly covered the fight.
Politics and music round out the first eclectic chapter of the book. Robinson notes that many celebrities, including Tommy Dorsey and Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Bing Crosby, Rudy Vallee, and Eddie Cantor came into their own during this period -- and all stared on NBC.
Chapter 2 deals with the period 1939 to 1945. Not only is NBC's Second World War news coverage showcased, the network's contributions to the war effort of stars such as Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and Jimmy Stewart are introduced.
Impressive design and layout
One of the major draws of Brought To You In Living Color is the book's high artistic quality and impressive layout. Serious broadcast historians might be somewhat disappointed by the glossing over of many key details and the lack of a serious chronological treatment of the growth of television in the book. While many dates are mentioned, readers will likely get the impression they are anecdotal to the book’s main focus which is the book’s beautifully illustrated and photographed record of the industry.
Although there are many double-paged spreads on important and seminal moments within television and this will prove interesting, informative and entertaining to anyone connected with broadcasting or writing -- there are no chronological timelines, employee lists or station call letter lists to completely satisfy serious broadcast history buffs. That said, even people outside our industry will be struck by the heavy influence that television, and to a lesser extent, radio, have exhibited over America -- and the world.
Readers under the age of 50 are not likely to understand the power and personality of Milton Berle, a physical comic who learned his craft in Vaudeville. Berle's Howdy Doody time, for example, greeted millions of children when they came home every day from school. Characters such as Buffalo Bob, Clarabelle the Clown, and of course, Howdy Doody enjoyed an uninterrupted run from 1947 to 1960 eventually airing more than 2500 episodes. Meet the Press made its television debut on NBC in 1947 and still lives on over 55 years later! Both NBC shows proved the staying power of the media, and how old shows have shaped generations to come.
With Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows also seemed to spawn a generation of up-and-coming writers. For example, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H), Sheldon Keller (The Dick Van Dyke Show), Aaron Ruben (Sanford and Son), and Gary Belkin (The Carol Burnett Show) wrote for Sid.
You Bet Your Life, This Is Your Life, The Kate Smith Hour, and Dragnet also all made their television debuts during the fifties. Interestingly, although the book does mention that Dragnet was brought back to life in 1967, it does not mention its more recent incarnation starring Ed O'Neill on rival ABC. The book touches upon, but does not reach any significant conclusions upon, Dragnet's socioeconomic view of the time: that American justice will always prevail if given enough time and perseverance.
News broadcasting, current events, and analysis also are addressed within Brought To You In Living Color. The Today Show, for example, first made its debut on January 14, 1952 in a time where people thought a live two-hour early morning news and entertainment program was just plain weird. After all, who would want to watch TV before they went to work? Its host, Dave Garroway, cheerfully greeted bleary-eyed viewers with a large wooden set board of photos, newspapers, and early morning stories.
The Today Show story illustrates how far we’ve come in broadcasting. This true from a sociological point of view (after all, how many of us would dress for work these days without listening to the weather and check the news headlines for local events of the day), but from a technological point of view as well.
"Old timers" will recall Dave Garroway literally standing in front of his large board that would be neatly festooned with a newspaper fastened solidly to the set with thumbtacks, as well as 8" by 10" glossies of faces in the news. For sports coverage, Garroway would point to a black and white still picture (again tacked to his events board) to show the sports figure currently being discussed. Many a broadcast old-timer might remember The Today Show's buxom weather girl, Estelle Parsons, chalking in the weather for cities across America by hand -- all while keeping a huge smile on her face and standing precariously on a step stool in full heels and tight knit sweater!
Back to entertainment
Westerns including the perennial favorite Bonanza and the now-infamous Quiz Show Scandal are also covered. Children's programming, including NBC's original Bullwinkle (first introduced as a hand puppet) were first shown in 1961.
The Tonight Show (debuting in 1957), the Nixon/Kennedy debate (1960), and Kennedy's subsequent assassination (1963) also serve to show how TV molded audiences to what they are today. Social issues -- always on the fingertips of TV writers -- were covered by NBC shows such Star Trek (the excitement of the late '60s space race), The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (cold war espionage), and Get Smart (a spoof on the seriousness of the James Bond films). Comedy, such as Laugh-In, and drama, such as soap operas, also came into their own on NBC..
The book covers the "Me Decade" of the '70s in a chapter entitled TV Gets Real. Robinson argues that TV reflected the social and societal troubles and insecurities with shows such as All in the Family, Real People, and Saturday Night Live. He writes "the painful social issues of the sixties were fodder for the seventies laugh track."
While Robinson doesn't draw the specific conclusion that progress was being made by TV to reflect a wider view of America, it was true that the '70s brought a new self awareness of diversity of the country. For example, the first successful Hispanic sitcom, Chico and the Man, reached out to a previously unknown demo of American Hispanics and Latinos. Cop shows such as Columbo, Police Woman, and The Rockford Files presented our changing view of police and authority figures. Emergency (1972 to 1977), McCloud (1970 to 1977), McMillan and Wife (1971 to 1977), CHiPs (1977 to 1983) premiered during this time and gave us interesting and, with the benefit of hindsight, a somewhat over-the-top view on these type of shows.
Full of trivia
Family Ties (1982 to 1989) airing right after hit The Cosby Show again echoed the changing family values and socioeconomic changes during the turbulent Reagan years. While The Cosby Show showed that African-Americans could have an affluent lifestyle, interact with the community and have upper middle-class expectations, Family Ties underscored traditional look and feel of middle class America: white, well off and a solid, albeit somewhat unrealistic, nuclear family unit.
Throughout the book, Brought To You In Living Color introduces enough trivia to keep readers turning pages. For example, few people know that Matthew Broderick was originally intended for the role of Alex P. Keaton in Family Ties. Since Broderick was unwilling to move from New York to Los Angeles to do the show, the part went to Fox.
In another interesting piece of Family Ties trivia, Courtney Cox, who the book says had been spotted by the show’s producers in the Springsteen music video "Dancing in the Dark", played Lauren Miller, Alex's second serious romance. His first love, Ellen Reed -- played by Tracy Pollan -- eventually left the show, but Fox and Pollan eventually married in real life.
Miami Vice, Remington Steele and A-Team also echoed our changing culture, as well as the inspirational genius of then NBC president Brandon Tartikoff. According to the book, Miami Vice sprang from two words scribbled by Tartikoff on the back of a cocktail napkin: "MTV Cops". The rest, as they say, is TV history.
Other NBC ventures, such as CNBC, the financial network, and of course, MSNBC (NBC's partnership with software giant, Microsoft) are covered within the book, but only sparingly.
Hit NBC shows such as Friends, of course, get special mention. Ditto the NBC hits Frasier, Seinfeld, Mad About You, Night Court, Third Rock From The Sun. The book also remembers a few last shows that in themselves made news: Johnny Carson's proud send-off in May 1992, the anti-climatic Seinfeld episode in 1998, and the April 1992 ending of The Cosby Show. The book finishes up with a brief history of the events of September 11th as reported by NBC News. Finally, Brought to You In Living Color is ended with an afterward with NBC's President and COO, Andrew Lack.
Brought To You In Living Color presents a picturesque, yet informative, history of the National Broadcasting Corporation. Although it has a clearly NBC spin -- no other broadcast networks get any real mention -- the book does serve as a time capsule of sorts for the broadcasting industry in general and, of course, for NBC in specific.
Readers wishing to understand how NBC came to be, learn about the key players (at least in front of the camera), and read some of the network folklore will clearly appreciate this book. Those looking to gain more specifically detailed analysis of the industry and especially the men (and recently, women) who have been pulling the strings behind the camera, will have to look further than this book.
Highly recommended for those reporters, correspondents, ENG crew members, writers and production staff who work at NBC (or aspire to do so). Trivia and nostalgia buffs will also like the book because it harkens back to a more innocent day of black and white TV, chocolate milk and fathers walking around the house in a dinner jacket and mothers fully coifed for supper, strolling around the house in a evening gown.
End of Review
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