PBS and producer Steve Boettcher have put together a rather nice time capsule. This four part series looks at four aspects of television: Late Night, Game Shows, Sit Coms, and Variety Shows. Each hour-long entry looks backward to the very infancy of the medium of television. The pieces examine the pioneers who gave birth to these genres and the innovative people who followed. There’s no question that some of the vintage clips alone are priceless, more than worth the value of a single DVD. You’ll see vintage and more recent interviews with the likes of: Dick Van Dyke, Bob Barker, Johnny Carson, Monty Hall, Merv Griffin, Andy Griffith, Betty White, and literally 100 early television personalities. From the days of live talk shows to the quiz show scandals, the series covers a lot of ground in a short amount of time. It is there that the series faces its most fatal flaw. Each of these segments will leave you wanting to know more. You’ll leave each one feeling like you’ve only heard a small part of the story.
Most of us remember Johnny Carson, and he’s certainly one of the pioneers covered here, but this segment offers you some great footage of Art Linkletter and his creation of the late night talk show. You’ll hear from folks like Jay Leno as they talk about the greats that led the way before them. The shows were live, and some of the best footage here is from when things didn’t exactly go as planned. The early hosts had to be on their toes, able to cover for almost anything.
It was actually the days of radio where these quiz programs were born, and there’s some great audio from those days here. The segment follows the evolution from quiz shows to the almost reality show inventions of Chuck Berris. Many of your favorite hosts are here like Monty Hall, Chuck Woolery, Peter Marshall, and Bob Eubanks, and the segment goes behind the scenes for Bob Barker’s final The Price Is Right appearance. The piece looks at the quiz show scandals, but apparently skips over two of the more famous incidents. The $64,000 Question fraud and the Press Your Luck board memorization incidents have both been made into films but are ignored by the segment.
Dick Van Dyke and Andy Griffith share some fond memories of their pioneering programs. Mary Tyler Moore explains that Lucile Ball used to spy on rehearsals of the Dick Van Dyke Show from the catwalk, and an inadvertent laugh heard by the cast and crew led to a walk on appearance on the show. There are simply a ton of these anecdotes by many of your favorites from television’s Golden Age.
These shows evolved from the early days of stage . You’ll be amazed at how many stars first found their way into Americans’ hearts through appearances in variety shows. From the early days of Ed Sullivan and Milton Berle, there’s an amazing list of stars that made their way on these stages. Carol Burnett brought the best of these early aspects into a variety show that specialized in comedy leading the way to Laugh-In and, yes, eventually Saturday Night Live.
Each segment of Pioneers of Television is presented in its original full frame broadcast format. It’s nearly impossible to talk about video presentation here. Some of this footage is incredibly old and obviously damaged. That it exists at all is a miracle of sorts. Much of the footage is in black & white, complete with scratches and often barely watchable quality video. The recent interviews are in color, and they look pretty much documentary quality. This stuff is strictly for the archivist in us all.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 track is basically two channel mono. Again, since most of this is dawn of television vintage footage, the sound is often pretty rough. Some of it is even difficult to understand. You accept it or you don’t, but do not buy this if you have no patience for low fidelity presentations.
Extended interviews from the segments.
I’ve followed television for many years. I often have to research a particular show or actor for these reviews. Even with a pretty good knowledge of the subject, I was impressed with how much I didn’t know. If you’re at all curious about how these four genres began and evolved, you need to check this out. It will, however, leave you wishing for even more details and information. Anyone with even a passing interest in the history of television will want to spend a little time in an age of often live broadcasts where literally “anything could happen”.