PLEASE STAND BY: A Prehistory of Television by Michael Ritchie

PLEASE STAND BY: A Prehistory of Television

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A well-researched but dull account of the hungry, unkempt days of early television. Written by film director Ritchie (The Candidate, etc.), the book shows the chaotic beginnings that justified the once widely held belief that this gimmicky new technology had no future. A fuzzy picture was first telecast on a bulky monitor with a tiny screen in the 1920s by Philo T. Farsworth, a high school student in rural Utah. But it would be another 20 years before television was taken seriously in America. Ritchie chronicles many of TV's historic firsts. In 1927, for example, future president Herbert Hoover was the first public official to speak in front of a ""televisor"" in Washington D.C., while his wife appeared from New York. They were followed by a comedian in black-face who called his routine ""a new line of jokes in negro dialect."" Television's first commercial was illegal, but this did not stop broadcasters from soliciting commercials. NBC earned seven dollars in 1937 for simply showing the face of a Bulova watch. Many of the early (live) commercials were more than artistic disasters: A newly invented ""automatic"" Gillette safety razor would not open on camera, and the hostess of a Tenderleaf tea commercial mistakenly lauded the quality of Lipton tea. The first television newscasts were also tentative affairs. News was considered the exclusive domain of radio, of which television was then a poor cousin; CBS's first newscast featured Lowell Thomas talking in front of a stack of sponsor Sonoco's oil cans. The BBC was technologically ahead of US companies, but it abruptly stopped transmission (in the middle of a Mickey Mouse cartoon) when WW II broke out. A historical video would be better than written narrative for this material. The 77 black-and-white photos provided here hold the nonspecialist's attention, while the text rarely does.

Pub Date: Oct. 30th, 1994
Page count: 280pp
Publisher: Overlook -- dist. by Viking