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This Day in Music History - November 14, 1954

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The Golden Age of Television

To appreciate today’s TDMH post, we must take a few moments to discuss what has come to be known in North America as the Golden Age of Television, that time span between, say, the first broadcast of the Texaco Star Theater (starring Milton Berle) and the Kennedy assassination.

In 1947, there were about 44,000 TV sets in the US, vs 40 million radios. By 1959, total sales of TV sets reached 67 million! In that 15-or-so year period where television became a household fixture in the US (and Canada, starting in 1952), television had to decide whether it would be “radio with pictures” or “cinema on the small screen”.

Television programming evolved considerably during those years, and many of the approaches that were adopted by the television networks at the time involved “migrating” successful formulas from radio – thus came things like the soap opera, personality-driven programs featuring the likes of Arthur Godfrey and Edward R. Murrow and a formula that has since disappeared from the television vernacular the anthology series.

Anthologies were sponsored 60 to 90-minute live programs, which primarily were used to promote arts and entertainment. The subject matter included plays (adapted from stage or especially written for television), musicals, opera and concerts. The NBC network, and its famous in-house symphony orchestra led by Arturo Toscanini or sometimes rebranded “NBC Television Opera Orchestra” was a major player (as it was during the Second World War years on radio) in promoting classical music on television. US regulators made sure that network programming balanced “popular” entertainment, sports, news and current events programming and arts and entertainment, something that in today’s thousand channel universe has long since changed, relegating specific tranches of programming to specialty channels.

Another important point to note about the Golden Age is technology. Television in those days was primarily a live broadcast medium and, unlike radio, the ability to record live television for subsequent rebroadcast (or for delayed transmission on multiple time zones) was a very hairy process. Until the advance of videotape in 1956, the only option available was a contraption known as the kinescope.

The kinescope was, essentially, a standard a 16 mm or 35 mm movie camera mounted in front of a video monitor, and synchronized to the monitor's CRT scanning rate. The image quality was dodgy, but so was the image quality of over-the-air broadcasting, so the re-use of kinescope film for re-broadcast didn’t mean much of a video quality loss for viewers.

(UPDATE 2011-11-19: Here is a short video demonstration)

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, in the early 1950’s, made a historic decision to film their new television series I Love Lucy on a sound stage in front of a live audience using multiple cameras because they had the foresight to see how good quality film production (which came at a premium cost) would provide a better quality product for broadcasting and re-broadcasting, sngle-handedly creating the “re-run” and “syndicated re-broadcasting”.

One of the reasons why Golden Age broadcast archives are scant is because kinescope film wasn’t necessarily treated with much TLC, and was often considered disposable. However, many kinescope films are available in archives all over the world, and many of them can be found on YouTube, which gets us (finally) to today’s TDMH post…

The Anthology series Omnibus

Under the sponsorship of the Ford Foundation, Omnibus (hosted by Alistair Cooke in his American television debut) featured diverse programming about science, the arts, and the humanities. Broadcast live on Sunday afternoons, Omnibus ran from 1952 until 1961.

On November 14, 1954, Omnibus aired what has come to be viewed as a historic broadcast, featuring the young, telegenic and affable Leonard Bernstein and the members of the post-Toscanini NBC Symphony (now known as the Symphony of the Air) in what Bernstein would himself call “a curious experiment”.

The following is taken from Leonard Bernstein’s official webpage:

On November 14, 1954—the anniversary of his surprise, nationally-broadcast debut conducting the New York Philharmonic—Leonard Bernstein made his first television appearance as a musical educator. This event, while less celebrated in the press than that momentous concert event, launched a new and significant facet of Bernstein's career.

[…] At the suggestion of [Omnibus’] producers, he put together a program about the genesis of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony using sketches discarded by the composer. The scholarly nature of this material could have been seriously dull, and was something of a gamble for the mass medium of television. Bernstein, however, made the subject seem vivid and vital through his clear, unpretentious writing and clever metaphors.

The floor of the television studio had been painted with a huge blow-up of the first page of Beethoven's score. Bernstein had the musicians stand on the lines of music representing their parts to illustrate, visually as well as aurally, the changing colors of Beethoven's orchestration.

[…] The program was widely acclaimed as a model for quality, educational television programming. Over the next few decades, through more Omnibus programs and the many Young People's Concerts, Bernstein set the standard for effective music education, not only on television, but in the classroom as well.
More notes, pictures and artifacts at

Before handing the floor over to Alistair Cooke, Leonard Bernstein and the Symphony of the Air, a few words of warning: the document is a restored kinescope of the live 1954 broadcast. There are some “live TV bloopers” (including a major one by Cooke himself in the first minute – can you spot it?), and the video features the at times annoying “bloom and shadow” typical of recording from a phosphorous monitor. The pacing is generally good, but the YouTube clip is split into three sections, which will disrupt the flow.

The video playlist:

Mr. Bernstein regaled us with the first movement of the C minor symphony. Now, let’s hear a complete performance by Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia in a 1970 broadcast performance:

Happy viewing (and listening)!

November 18 2011, "I Think You Will Love This Music Too" will be adding a new montage "World War Two" to its Pod-O-Matic Podcast. Read our English and French commentary November 18th on the ITYWLTMT Blogspot blog.

Updated Nov-20-2011 at 00:40 by itywltmt

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Classical Music , Composers , Conductors