The "golden age" of American television generally refers to the proliferation of original and classic dramas produced for live television during America's postwar years. From 1949 to approximately 1960, these live dramas became the fitting programmatic complements to the game shows, westerns, soap operas and vaudeo shows (vaudeville and variety acts on TV) that dominated network television's prime time schedule. As the nation's economy grew and the population expanded, television and advertising executives turned to dramatic shows as a programming strategy to elevate the status of television and to attract the growing and increasingly important suburban family audience. "Golden age" dramas, quickly became the ideal marketing vehicle for major U.S. corporations seeking to display their products favorably before a national audience.
In the early years, "golden age" drama programs such as The Actors' Studio (ABC/CBS, 1948-1950) originated from primitive but innovative two-camera television studios located primarily in New York city, although some broadcasts, such as Mr. Black (ABC, 1949), a half-hour mystery anthology series, were produced in Chicago as well. Ranging in duration from thirty minutes to an hour, these live dramas were generic hybrids uniquely suited to the evolving video technology. Borrowing specific elements from the legitimate stage, network radio, and the Hollywood film, the newly constructed dramas on television (teledramas) fashioned a dynamic entertainment form that effectively fused these high and low cultural expressions.
From radio these teledramas inherited the CBS and NBC network distribution system, sound effects, music, theme songs and the omniscient narrator, who provided continuity after commercial message breaks. From film, teledramas borrowed aging stars and emerging personalities, camera stylistics, mobility and flexibility. Imported from the theater were Broadway-inspired set designs, contemporary stage (i.e. realist and "method") acting techniques that imparted a sense of immediacy and reality to small-screen performances, and finally, teleplay adaptations of classic and middle-brow literature. In a statement that clearly expresses television drama's debt to the stage, Fred Coe, producer of the weekly NBC Television Playhouse (1948-55), remarked that "all of us were convinced it was our mission to bring Broadway to America via the television set."
Ironically, however, it was live teledramas that helped television to displace radio, the stage and film as the favorite leisure-time activities for the nation's burgeoning suburban families in the late forties to the mid-fifties. This postwar demographic shift from urban to suburban centers is often credited with creating the new mass audience and the subsequent demand for the home-theater mode of entertainment that network television, boosted by the high quality drama programs, was uniquely capable of satisfying.
The first so-called "golden age" drama program to appear was the Kraft Television Theater, which premiered on 7 May 1947, on the NBC network. The Ford Theater (CBS/NBC/ABC, 1948-57), Philco and Goodyear Television Playhouses (NBC, 1948-55), Studio One (CBS, 1948-58), Tele-Theatre (NBC, 1948-50) and Actors Studio (ABC/CBS, 1948-49) followed the very next year. In 1951 network television was linked coast to coast and in 1950 Hollywood Theater Time (ABC) became one of the first dramatic anthology shows to originate from the West coast (although transmitted to the East via kinescopes--inferior copies of shows filmed directly from the television screen).
Several important factors contributed to the rise of "golden age" dramas by the mid-1950s. First, the U.S. Congress issued more station licenses and allocated more air time and frequencies to the nation's four networks, NBC, CBS, ABC and DuMont. Consequently, this major expansion of the television industry necessitated a rapid increase for new shows. Because this early video era preceded the advent of telefilm and videotape, the live television schedule was a programming vortex with an inexhaustible demand for new shows, 90% of which were broadcast live. The remaining dramas were transmitted (usually from the East Coast to the West) via kinescopes. Location on the television schedule was also a key element in the success of anthology dramas during this early phase. Because the sponsors rather than the networks generally controlled the programs, teledramas were not restricted to a particular network or time schedule. As a result of this programming flexibility, it was not unusual for shows either to rotate around the dial or to remain firmly entrenched, all in search of the best possible ratings. In 1953, the Kraft Television Theater aired at 9:00 P.M. on Wednesdays over the NBC network and aired a second hour under the same series title on Thursdays at 9:30 P.M. on ABC. The venerable Ford Television Theater appeared on all three networks during its nine-year run. The anthology format itself, which demanded a constant supply of actors, writers, directors and producers, and was quite different from the episodic series structure featuring a stable cast, always offered something new to viewers. And since anthology dramas provided plenty of work to go around, many actors got their first starring roles in live dramas, while others gained national exposure that was not possible on the stage or that eluded them on the big screen.
This rotating system of anthology drama production resulted in a creative firmament for television that many television historians consider as yet unsurpassed. The fact that these shows dramatized many high quality original works as well as adaptations of high and middle-brow literature gave advertisers cost-effective reasons for underwriting the relatively high production values that characterized many of the topnotch anthology programs. Many, in fact, were consistent Emmy Award winners. The Texaco Star Theater won the 1949 Emmy for "Best Kinescope Show." U.S. Steel Hour won two Emmys in 1953, its debut year, and Studio One received three Emmys for the 1955 season for its production of "Twelve Angry Men."
As the genre matured and traded its amateur sets for professionally designed studios, it looked good, and by extension, so did its sponsors. Accordingly, the growing prestige of live dramas enabled established and fading stars from the Broadway stage and Hollywood films to be less reticent about performing on television, and many flocked to the new medium. In fact, some even lent their famous names to these anthology drama programs. Robert Montgomery Presents (ABC, 1950-57) is one of the first anthology series to rely on Hollywood talent. His star-driven program was later joined by the Charles Boyer Theater (1953), and in 1955 silent film star Conrad Nagel hosted his own syndicated anthology drama entitled The Conrad Nagel Theater. Bing Crosby Enterprises produced The Gloria Swanson Show in 1954, with Swanson as host and occasional star in teleplays produced for this dramatic anthology series. More commonly, however, it was the sponsor's name that appeared in the show titles, with stars serving as narrators or hosts. For example, from 1954 to 1962 Ronald Reagan hosted CBS' General Electric Theater.
As crucial as these elements were, perhaps the most important reason leading to the success of this nascent television art form was the high caliber of talent on both sides of the video camera. Whereas many well-known actors from the stage and screen participated in live television dramas as the 1950s progressed, it was the obscure but professionally trained theater personnel from summer stock and university theater programs like Yale's Drama School who launched the innovative teletheater broadcasts that we now refer to as television's "golden age."
In 1949, 24 year-old Marlon Brando starred in "I'm No Hero," produced by the Actors' Studio. Other young actors, such as Susan Strasberg (1953), Paul Newman (1954), and Steve McQueen, made noteworthy appearances on the Goodyear Playhouse. Among some of the most prominent writers of "golden age" dramas were Rod Serling, Paddy Chayevsky, Gore Vidal, Reginald Rose and Tad Mosel. Rod Serling stands out for special consideration here because in addition to winning the 1955 Emmy for "Best Original Teleplay Writing" ("Patterns" on Kraft Television Theater), Serling also won two teleplay Emmys for Playhouse 90 (1956 & 1957), and two "Outstanding Writing Achievement in Drama" Emmys for Twilight Zone (1959 and 1960) and for Chrysler Theater in 1963. Serling's six Emmys for four separate anthology programs over two networks unquestionably secures his position at the top of the golden age pantheon. For television, it was writers like Serling and Chayevsky who became the auteurs of its "golden-age." Gore Vidal sums up the opportunity that writing for television dramas represented in this way: "one can find better work oftener on the small grey screen than on Broadway." Chayevsky was more sanguine when he stated that television presented "the drama of introspection," and that "television, the scorned stepchild of drama, may well be the basic theater of our century."
In addition to actors and writers, some of the most renowned Hollywood directors got their big breaks on television's anthology dramas. John Frankenheimer directed for the Kraft Television Theater, Robert Altman for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Yul Brynner and Sidney Lumet for Studio One, Sidney Pollack for The Chrysler Theater (1965 Emmy for "Directoral Achievement in Drama") and Delbert Mann for NBC Television Playhouse. These are but a few major directors who honed their kills during television's "golden age."
By 1955 "golden age" dramas had proven so popular with national audiences that they became important staples of the network television schedule. Some of the anthologies were now produced on film, but they maintained the aesthetic and psychological premises of the live productions that tutored their creators and their audiences. These drama series aired on the networks each day except Saturdays and on some days there were up to four separate anthology shows airing on one evening's prime-time schedule. One instance of such a programming pattern occurred on Thursday nights during the 1954-55, TV season. Here, in one single evening viewers could choose between Kraft Television Theater (ABC, 1953-55), Four Star Playhouse (CBS, 1952-56), Ford Theater (NBC, 1952-56) and Lux Video Theater (NBC, 1954-57). Dramatic anthologies came in various generic formats as well. The other genres were, for example, suspense: Kraft Suspense Theater (NBC, 1963-65) and The Clock (NBC/ABC, 1949-51), mystery: Mr. Arsenic (ABC, 1952) and Alfred Hitchcock Presents (CBS/NBC, 1955-65), psychological: Theater of the Mind (NBC, 1949), legal: They Stand Accused (DuMont 1949-54), science fiction: Twilight Zone (CBS, 1959-64), military: Citizen Soldier (Syndicated, 1956), reenactments: Armstrong Circle Theater (NBC/CBS, 1950-63).
As these various titles suggest, the dramas staged on these anthology programs were remarkably diverse, at least in form if not in substance. In this regard, critics of the so-called "golden age" dramas have noted what they consider to be major problems inherent in the staging of plays for the commercial television medium.
Much of the criticism of these live television dramas concerned the power sponsors often exerted over program content. Specifically, the complaints concerned the mandate by sponsors that programs adhere to a "dead-centerism." In other words, sponsored shows were to avoid completely socially and politically controversial themes. Only those dramas that supported and reflected positive middle-class values, which likewise reflected favorably the image of the advertisers, were broadcast. Critics charge the networks with pandering to Southern viewer expectations in order not to offend regional sensibilities. Scripts exploring problems at the societal level (i.e. racial discrimination, structural poverty, and other social ills) were systematically ignored. Instead, critics complain, too many "golden age" dramas were little more than simplistic morality tales focusing on the every day problems and conflicts of weak individuals confronted by personal shortcomings such as alcoholism, greed, impotence, and divorce, for example. While there is no doubt that teleplays dealing with serious social issues were not what most network or advertising executives considered appropriate subject matter for predisposing viewers to consume their products, it is important to note that the "golden age" did coincide with the cold-war era and McCarthyism and that cold-war references, such as avoiding communism and loving America, were frequently incorporated in teleplays of the mid to late 1950s.
Most of the scripts in the live television dramas, however, were original teleplays or works adapted from the stage, ranging from Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh to such high-brow and classic literary adaptations of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Othello, among many others. This menu of live television dramas, especially when compared with popular Hollywood films, the elite theater, or commercial radio, presented American audiences with an extraordinary breadth of viewing experiences in a solitary entertainment medium. Moreover, this cultural explosion was occurring in the comfort of the new mass audiences' brand new suburban living rooms. While the classics and some contemporary popular writers provided material for the teleplays, they were not enough for the networks' demanding weekly program schedules. Moreover, the television programmers were often thwarted by Hollywood's practice of buying the rights to popular works and refusing to grant a rival medium access to them, thereby foreclosing the television networks' ability to dramatize some of the most popular and classic plays. In response, the networks began cultivating original scripts from young writers. Thus, the majority of the dramas appearing on these anthology shows were original works.
Perhaps the quintessential "golden age" drama is Paddy Chayevsky's "Marty." On 24 May 1953, Delbert Mann directed Chayevsky's most renowned teleplay for NBC's Philco Television Playhouse. Starring Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand as the principals, "Marty" is a love story about two ordinary characters and the mundane world they inhabit. "Marty" is important because its uncomplicated and sympathetic treatment of Marty, the butcher, and his ability to achieve independence from his demanding mother and embrace his uncertain future resonated with many new suburban viewers, who were, themselves, facing similar social and political changes in post war American society. "Marty" was an ideal drama for the times, leading one reviewer to write that it represented "the unadorned glimpse of the American middle-class milieu." The suburban viewers, like the fictional "Marty" they welcomed into their living rooms, had become willing participants in an emerging national culture no longer distinguishable by inter-generational and inter-ethnic differences. What further distinguishes "Marty" is the fact that it signaled a trend in the entertainment industry whereby teleplays were increasingly adapted for film. Shortly after its phenomenal television success, "Marty" became a successful feature film.
Some of the most successful and critically acclaimed dramatic anthology programs of the "golden age" were, Armstrong Circle Theater (thirteen seasons), Kraft Television Theater (eleven seasons), Alfred Hitchcock Presents (ten seasons), Studio One (ten seasons), The U.S. Steel Hour (ten seasons), General Electric Theater (nine seasons), Philco Television Playhouse (seven seasons), Goodyear Playhouse (six seasons), Playhouse 90 (four seasons), and Twilight Zone (four seasons-revived in 1985-88). In present times, only the Hallmark Hall of Fame (1951-present), survives from the heyday of television's "golden age." With the advent of videotape, telefilm and the shift to Hollywood studios as sites of program production, and the social upheavals of the 1960s, live anthology dramas fell victim to poor ratings and changing social tastes.