Viewing popular women’s daytime TV programs of the 1950s from a feminist perspective.
Series: Louann Atkins Temple Women and Culture Endowment, Book Ten
In this pathfinding book, based on original archival research, Marsha F. Cassidy offers the first thorough analysis of daytime television's earliest and most significant women's genres, appraising from a feminist perspective what women watched before soap opera rose to prominence.
After providing a comprehensive history of the early days of women's programming across the nation, Cassidy offers a critical discussion of the formats, programs, and celebrities that launched daytime TV in America—Kate Smith's variety show and the famed singer's unsuccessful transition from patriotic radio star to 1950s TV idol; the "charm boys" Garry Moore, Arthur Godfrey, and Art Linkletter, whose programs honored women's participation but in the process established the dominance of male hosts on TV; and the "misery shows" Strike It Rich and Glamour Girl and the controversy, both critical and legal, they stirred up.
Cassidy then turns to NBC's Home show, starring the urbane Arlene Francis, who infused the homemaking format with Manhattan sophistication, and the ambitious daily anthology drama Matinee Theater, which strove to differentiate itself from soap opera and become a national theater of the air. She concludes with an analysis of four popular audience participation shows of the era—the runaway hit Queen for a Day; Ralph Edwards's daytime show of surprises, It Could Be You; Who Do You Trust?, starring a youthful Johnny Carson; and The Big Payoff, featuring Bess Myerson, the country's first Jewish Miss America. Cassidy's close feminist reading of these shows clearly demonstrates how daytime TV mirrored the cultural pressures, inconsistencies, and ambiguities of the postwar era.
- Chapter 1. Introduction: Daytime Television in the Era of the Feminine Mystique, 1948-1960
- Chapter 2. The Dawn of Daytime: Reaching Out to Women across America
- Chapter 3. Kate Smith: Remembering the Future
- Chapter 4. The Charm Boys Woo the Audience: Garry Moore, Arthur Godfrey, and Art Linkletter
- Chapter 5. Misery Loves Company: Strike It Rich, Glamour Girl, and the Critics
- Chapter 6. Domesticity in Doubt: Arlene Francis and Home
- Chapter 7. Matinee Theater and the Question of Soap Opera
- Chapter 8. At a Loss for Words: Queen for a Day, It Could Be You, Who Do You Trust?, and The Big Payoff
- Chapter 9. Conclusion: Visions of Femininity
- Works Cited
The rise of daytime television in the United States coincided with a monumental period in American culture that reshaped the image of the ideal woman. As the country's new iridescent screen began flickering to life during the day and a nascent industry searched for ways to entice women to their sets before dinnertime, broadcasters beamed home hesitant answers to the question, What is the nature of this new femininity? Throughout the 1950s, the simulated realm of daytime broadcasting continued to inquire, Who is this new woman, and what is her place in postwar America?
The industry's quest for daytime viewers within the private world of the home also confronted the homemaker's uneasy relation to television and its promise of leisure. This book explores the modes and genres of early daytime television that encouraged women to incorporate the small screen into their daily lives and does so within the framework of gender studies. Its purpose is to contemplate the ways in which contested representations of postwar womanhood, broadcast on television in a variety of genres, mediated the home viewer's earliest bond with the new medium.
In 1948, 94.2 percent of homes owned a radio, while television ownership that year stood at a bare 0.4 percent, accounting for only 172,000 households. At the dawn of television, viewers often congregated in public spaces, with taverns demarcated as a significant locus for men, as Anna McCarthy has noted. Even for those few women who had access to TV sets at home in 1948, there was little to watch during the day—afternoon sports for the tavern crowd an occasional exception. With fewer than 50 television stations in operation across the country, radio remained the media outlet most U.S. homemakers tuned in. According to A. C. Nielsen, during the week of 15 February 1948, each of the 15 top-rated programs on daytime radio attracted listeners in some 4 million homes, representing 10-12 percent of the total possible radio audience.
Yet 1948 proved to be a watershed year for television expansion, as new programming stimulated domestic adoption and fostered a pattern of television growth that pulled viewership away from public spaces like the tavern and into the home. Although the government's freeze on new station licenses that took effect on 29 September 1948, was not lifted until April 1952, the television industry multiplied its reach significantly during this period, as William Boddy has documented. Moreover, as Chapter 2 explains in more detail, regulatory and economic factors profoundly influenced the daytime ventures of ABC, CBS, Dumont, Mutual, and NBC during these seminal years.
Between 1948 and 1960, viewers were drawn to the television screen in staggering numbers. Television ownership skyrocketed to 87.1 percent of households by the end of the 1950s—a remarkable 45,750,000 homes—and the number of commercial stations grew tenfold, from 50 to 515. Daytime viewership also leaped from virtually zero in 1948 to 7.61 million homes tuned in every minute, on average, between 10:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. in 1958. That same year, 10.6 percent of the nation's total TV homes were already viewing television at 10:00 a.m. (per minute average), and the percentage of homes turning on their TV sets as the day progressed rose steadily, reaching 23.3 percent between 4 and 5:00 p.m.
What initially attracted so many women to their television sets during the day is the focus of this book. This volume traces an array of modes and genres that first negotiated television's entry into domestic isolation, situates these programs within the economic and regulatory context of the industry's formative years, and critiques the most significant of these examples in light of the decade's historic reinvention of femininity—what Betty Friedan enshrined in the phrase "the feminine mystique." Friedan argued that American homemakers experienced a "sense of dissatisfaction" during the 1950s—even a "schizophrenic split"—because the postwar model of womanhood equated femininity solely with domestic fulfillment. While this book acknowledges the driving influence of the era's gender expectations, it also recognizes (as Friedan did) the conflicts these expectations stirred. The chapters ahead thus reject a feminist history that merely catalogues the years 1945 to 1960 as a period of universal stagnancy. Instead, the epoch of the feminine mystique is reclaimed as a noteworthy stage that connects first-wave feminism (the women's suffrage movement and the early struggle for equal rights) to feminism's second wave (the renewed political activism that began in the 1960s). Within this framework, the programs reviewed in succeeding chapters are shown to express the tensions and contradictions that lay beneath the surface of a transitional period.
The Legacy of Soap Opera and Daytime's Earliest Modes
In March 1948, all but one of the 15 top-rated daytime shows on radio were soap operas, but serial dramas on television did not achieve their unstoppable growth toward dominance until well into the 1960s. Because TV soap opera's fullest propagation was more than two decades away, a variegated tapestry of daytime modes originally fascinated women audiences, with serial drama but one thread among many. Although soap opera and the extensive feminist scholarship about it remain crucial to the understanding of daytime's inaugural years, the chapters ahead single out for analysis prominent examples of other noteworthy genres, recognizing that television's combined array of foundational categories outnumbered soap opera by more than 7 to 1 during the 1950s.
While soap opera remained a vital factor in programming, its infiltration of television's daytime schedule proceeded unevenly across the decade. Measured in quarter hours of programming aimed at women, the standard 15-minute serial provided only 4 percent of daytime fare in 1951, rising to 15.8 percent by 1954, and reaching a decade-high 23 percent in 1955. This fresh influx mid-decade may have seemed a "prodigious" rate of increase to critic Gilbert Seldes, who foresaw a new TV era of soap opera supremacy, but his timing was off by more than ten years. Serial programming dipped back to 11.5 percent in 1956, then remained steady at approximately 16 percent for the rest of the decade. As Robert Allen explains, it was not until the 1960s that the soap sponsors' flight to television began in earnest and programming of serial drama gained swift momentum.
According to Allen, this late conversion was based in part on economics. Because daytime serials generated such enormous profits for the radio networks—profits necessary to sustain television's substantial start-up costs for these same companies—industry executives were reluctant to risk shifting soaps from radio to television too soon. Radio serials were cheap to produce, generated huge ratings, and brought in millions of dollars in sponsorships. The low number of TV viewers, combined with the double or triple monetary outlay for the requirements of a visual medium, delayed soap opera's transfer to the small screen.
But profits were not the only factor. Concerns over audience reception in the home also hindered a rapid shift from radio to television. In September 1948, Irna Phillips, radio's dean of daytime serials, expressed qualms about the promise of television adaptations "unless a technique could be evolved whereby the auditory could be followed without the constant attention to the visual." She was convinced that busy housewives had no time to sit down and pay attention to the screen. In February 1949, Phillips tested this hypothesis when she telecast These Are My Children from the NBC studios in Chicago. Phillips instructed her crew to frame the action performed behind a proscenium arch in an unobtrusive and static long shot. Variety panned the attempt, concluding that the program failed because there was "no visual interest."
Uneasy about serial drama's chance for success on daytime television, other networks approached its production with caution too. In February 1949, DuMont aired its only soap opera, A Woman to Remember, between 3 and 3:15 weekdays on WABD in New York City. After two months on daytime television, the series was shifted to weeknights, then summarily canceled in July, its imaginative premise depicting the behind-the-scenes adventures of a radio soap opera troupe insufficient to sustain it.
On 4 December 1950, CBS premiered The First Hundred Years, network television's only soap opera that year. Although it enjoyed modest success, the program, which aired daily from 2:30 to 2:45, was canceled in June 1952, prompting Seldes to quip that the show's title overestimated "its appeal exactly fifty times." Soon thereafter, Phillips's enormously popular soap The Guiding Light premiered as the first radio serial rebroadcast on television. To protect its radio franchise, CBS aired the radio version at 1:45 p.m. and broadcast a television enactment of the same episode at 2:30. Phillips initially requested that directors employ the same static style she had endorsed earlier, but before long The Guiding Light had adopted camera work befitting new televisual practices.
As the 1950s unfolded, CBS developed the largest number of soap operas of any television network, and its serials attracted strong ratings and coveted sponsors like Procter & Gamble. Yet CBS's other daytime programs also delivered impressive numbers. The yearly average audience for Search for Tomorrow in 1951-1952 was 10.2, while Strike It Rich rated 10.6. In April 1956, four serials on CBS ranked among the top five multiweekly shows, scoring between 9.9 and 12.1, but both Arthur Godfrey Time and The Big Payoff followed close behind, with 9.7 and 9.3, respectively.
The paradigm of serial drama was a vibrant force in daytime programming, as Chapter 7 recounts more fully, and 15-minute interludes of melodrama rippled across the flow of television. Yet in the decade's schedule of programs, serial drama formed but one vital tributary. On one March day in 1955 (the decade's apex year for serials), CBS offered Chicago women four different 15-minute serials in a row from 11:00 to noon, followed by two more at 3:00. Yet The Garry Moore Show, Arthur Godfrey Time, and Strike It Rich flowed directly into the morning serials, while Art Linkletter's House Party, The Big Payoff, and The Bob Crosby Show, totaling 90 minutes, launched the final half hour of afternoon soaps.
With soap opera's dominance a decade away, an assortment of other genres aimed at women gained primacy during television's first decade. Beginning in 1948, programmers at the local, regional, and national levels experimented with a wide range of program types during the hours before 5:00 p.m. Significant among them were homemaking shows, shopping shows, variety-vaudeville combinations the industry called "vaudeo," live anthology drama, feature films edited for television, and dozens of popular programs the broadcast industry broadly categorized as "audience participation shows," a catchall phrase that embraced quiz shows, game shows, stunt shows, human interest shows, and so-called misery shows. The industry's programming pioneers experimented with a variety of strategies, stealing good ideas from evening television, copying innovative schemes that were succeeding in diverse television markets across the country, borrowing an array of tried-and-true formats from radio—and even inventing what seem today to be strange or improbable texts.
Appealing to a predominantly female audience became the prime directive for all these experiments. To this end, women hosts began appearing in local daytime programs across the country within weeks, even hours, of a station's start-up. In Cleveland, six weeks after WEWS-TV signed on, Alice Weston became the city's first female television personality, hosting a one-hour magazine show entitled Distaff (debuting on 14 February 1948). A few months later, in Chicago, Barbara Barkley and her cooking program premiered 30 minutes after WGN began broadcasting its first regularly scheduled day.
At the regional and national level, more famous women stars tested the appeal of their television images in untried regions. Local radio celebrities like Cincinnati's Ruth Lyons, whose program was broadcast on the full NBC network in 1951, as well as national icons like Kate Smith, Arlene Francis, and Bess Myerson assisted regional and national networks in the colonization of the daytime airwaves.
A long line of daytime male hosts, men fondly labeled "the charm boys" by Time magazine in 1954, also capably arbitrated the place of daytime television in the lives of women, skillfully directing their charisma at studio participants, while simultaneously wooing the unseen thousands of women watching from home. Across the 1950s, television's charm boys were called upon to mediate postwar gender relations with deference, seduction, and a brand of chauvinism that preserved the definitive power of male speech.
While this study attends to the gendered appeal of daytime's most renowned celebrities, men and women alike, it also honors television's unheralded stars, the everyday women who populated the airwaves as studio audience members and program participants. On the popular audience participation programs discussed in full below, hundreds of inexperienced and unrehearsed viewers became onscreen celebrities every day, crowding the studios of live broadcasts and starring as contestants in quizzes, interviews, and games. The voices and bodies of these "average" women occupied a central place in television's new daytime sphere. Each day, the significations of a newborn femininity were transmitted onscreen in the retold fragments of women's life stories, in daily images of fresh hairstyles and up-to-date fashions, and in the sum of feminine expressivity, which swung precipitously from laughter to embarrassment, from confession to silent tears. In the abundance of these participation programs, and in the multiple social subjectivities apparent in them, television beamed across the nation both the promises and the limitations of postwar womanhood.
Lessons from Soap Opera
As Charlotte Brunsdon demonstrates in The Feminist, the Housewife, and the Soap Opera, many of the central tenets feminist scholars bring to their study of women and television were generated within the soap opera criticism of the past 25 years. Three of these broadly influential constructs have been deepened and elaborated in recent feminist thinking and are especially pertinent to the study of the other women's genres central to this book.
The first fundamental precept under review here is the notion that women working in the home view television in a distracted state. In support of this idea, scholars have documented early television's introduction of fragmented formats women could watch in spurts as they completed chores, imitating the practices of radio listening. This book reconsiders the question of "just watching" and explores the decade's evolving promotion of television as a new form of leisure, both for women in the domestic sphere and for the hundreds of visitors who assembled daily in the public space of the television studios.
The second key construct that informs this book is the feminist recognition that daytime broadcasting has long been regarded as a subaltern feminine sphere with a debased status in the culture. As later chapters confirm, an attitude of critical condescension during the 1950s gave rise to a clamorous debate over the quality of television programming offered homemakers. To clarify the terms of this debate, this study examines postwar popular discourse that ranked hierarchies of taste as "highbrow," "middlebrow," and "lowbrow" and discusses the ways in which these divisions, considered absolutes at the time, were deployed to differentiate "quality" programs, like Home and Matinee Theater, from those deemed culturally inferior by critics, such as Strike It Rich, Glamour Girl, and Queen for a Day.
A third perspective at work in this book draws upon feminist scholarship that has widened its specific discussion of soap opera to discover melodrama's prevalence across television flow and to relate melodrama's emphasis on "full expressivity" to other "confessional" modes on TV. Application of ideas from this research suggests that the newly acquired power of postwar women to be seen and heard in television's daytime sphere raised familiar contradictions about femininity's relationship to appearing and speaking in public.
On the one hand, early daytime television fostered exacting new standards for women's physical appearance, urging viewers to leave wartime plainness behind and to embrace glamour. Postwar ideologies heralded what Christian Dior labeled a New Look for the "dolls" of the 1950s, and sumptuous clothing, highly crafted makeup, and all the accessories of ornate glamour once again signaled womanhood. With a brand-new category of fashion attire and beauty products to sell after the war, women viewers were interpolated as premier consumers, sustaining a crucial sector of the American economy.
Yet the resurgence of female attractiveness and its spectacle on television screens was counterbalanced by the omnipresence of the speaking female subject. Female hosts and everyday women alike spoke millions of words on early daytime television, and this book confronts the consequent disjuncture between a woman's narrative agency and her presence as a mere image on the screen, sometimes cast as a figure silenced by strong emotion, at other times as the glamorous object of male desire.
These three overarching tenets borrowed from the study of soap opera serve to illuminate the programs reviewed in this volume. Yet each of these ideas must first be framed within the historical context of the postwar era, when wide-reaching economic and societal changes sent women home, redefined their femininity, and steered the future of daytime television.
Daytime Television and Leisure: A Lumpa on the Sofa
As the decade's new domesticated entertainment apparatus, television was ideally positioned to offer women companionate pleasure during the day as an antidote to isolation. Although postwar women were promised "psychic and social satisfaction" as homemakers and consumers within the private sphere, as Mary Beth Haralovich has noted, their lived experiences frequently clashed with these visionary expectations. Elaine Tyler May found that "women in Levittown [the prototypical postwar suburb] often complained about feeling trapped and isolated . . . For them suburban life was not a life of fun and leisure but of exhausting work and isolation." In 1953, daytime celebrity Garry Moore viewed the mission of his TV program in exactly these terms; he believed his task was "to ease the loneliness of women while their husbands and children are away." "I'm convinced," he told Time magazine, that housewives "want to hear the sounds of merriment while they work."
Yet viewing television for fun and relaxation during the day threatened to lure housewives into an unseemly habit that could disrupt family life. As Lynn Spigel suggests, magazines of the decade "showed women that their subjective pleasure in watching television was at odds with their own status as efficient and visually attractive housewives."
Broadcast historians have amply documented early television's consequent dedication to developing programs that complemented the busy housewife's daily routine of work. As Boddy explains, the industry's chief concern during the emergence of television's domestic paradigm was "integrating TV programming into the routines of the housewife's daily chores just as radio had done." To this end, television producers designed daytime programs they believed conformed to a homemaker's distracted state.
Almost immediately, however, ambiguity emerged between the reception model inherited from radio, which accommodated a worker-in-motion, and a fresh paradigm that beguiled a more attentive viewing subject, who turned on television for repose and leisure. The Bob Crosby Show (1953-1957), a daytime variety program on CBS, broached this duality in 1953, when the cast sang the show's closing song (to the tune of "Sing a Song"):
Sing a song, while you're workin' along,
Hum a tune, while you're dustin' the room.
While you're doin' dishes, make a million wishes,
We know they're bound to come true . . .
So tomorrow, listen to Bob
And you'll find it's an easier job.
Or be a lumpa, as you sit down on the sofa,
As we sing, sing, sing you a song."
While the tune accentuated a whistle-while-you-work pose for home viewers, the lyrics also called forth the ominous figure of an indolent lounger. Crosby's rhymes summed up a pivotal confusion over the kind of viewing subject early daytime television hailed: Was she a whirlwind of cleaning and scrubbing or a "lumpa" on the sofa?
The industry's ambivalence between promoting television as a companion to household chores or as a respite from them was further complicated by advertiser complaints that their TV customers were not attentive enough. Concerned that housewives were not watching the visual features of their sales pitches—the product "demonstrations" touted as so persuasive by the television industry itself—sponsors began to balk at television's advertising rates. Leo Bogart wrote in 1956, "There has remained a good deal of skepticism as to whether the housewife actually watches her set—even though it is operating—what with all the other demands on her attention during daylight hours."
A series of studies during the 1950s further aroused industry concerns. One such study in 1957, commissioned by clients of Young & Rubicam, confirmed that there was "a dissipation of attention due to such factors as answering the telephone, the door bell, sewing, ironing, children's cries, etc. . . . which must be taken into consideration in evaluating the use of television and certainly in the pricing of it." One advertising executive concluded, "There is no reason, in our opinion, why we should pay television prices for radio listening."
Studies like these, which were designed to measure inattention, also unearthed the compelling fact that one woman in three was stealing relaxation and pleasure from daytime viewing. With these statistics in mind, the television industry was trapped between marketing the medium as a work companion for women during the day—and alarming advertisers—or furthering viewing habits that could be censured for promoting sloth and idleness in homemakers—by luring more women to the couch.
Despite these concerns about the negative impact of a homemaker's "matinee habit," directives delivered during the shows themselves often instructed women to keep their eyes on the set. As early as 1948, on DuMont's Okay, Mother, host Dennis James ordered viewers to abandon their labors every day between 1:00 and 1:30 and sit down and watch (see Chapter 2). An early radio-TV simulcast of Arthur Godfrey Time helped train radio listeners to switch their daytime allegiance to television. At the moment the televised segment was about to air, the radio announcer instructed, "All right, ladies, out of the kitchen, into the living room. Turn the TV set on now!"
As the decade continued, commands to watch attentively became bolder and more consistent. Before each commercial break in 1956, host Bill Leyden told viewers of It Could Be You, "Maybe our next surprise will be for you. Stay beside that television." The advertising strategy for NBC's Matinee Theater went even further designating it as a "quality" series worthy of commanding a housewife's full attention, and viewers were encouraged to draw the blinds, sit down, and watch. Yet behind the scenes, NBC executive Thomas E. Coffin acknowledged the conflict for viewers in this instruction, wondering if "the major deterrent to watching Matinee Theater is the feeling of guilt it arouses."
The stigma attached to daytime viewing was especially pronounced in programs that could make no claim to quality. In 1958, for example, Look magazine complained that Queen for a Day was a "housewives' schedule wrecker," a "house-keeping interruption": "Mops are dropped and diapers are ditched from coast to coast" when Queen goes on the air. Dismissed as lowbrow forms of feminine entertainment, Queen for a Day and other audience participation shows were not considered worthy of uninterrupted viewing, yet they elicited the discordant impulse to sit down and watch just as predictably as Matinee Theater did.
Daytime Television and Leisure: Fun for All in the Studio
In sharp contrast to the censure-laden ambiguities attached to home viewing, attendance at live broadcasts was celebrated as unequivocally pleasurable. On a daily basis, studio outings validated women's playful relation to TV away from home; at the same time, live television's ability to "collapse space" legitimated the parallel pleasures of synchronous home reception.
The vast majority of daytime television's first genres actively sought out live audiences, and many of the era's most popular programs, notably the vast array of audience participation shows, integrated "plain people" centrally into the text. Of all the major programs under review in this book, only NBC's Home show and (ironically) Matinee Theater were not performed before live studio audiences. By 1954, the New York Times Magazine had concluded, "networks, sponsors and performers all consider a good audience a strong asset for a show." The presence of a live and predominantly female audience, gathered together daily in a celebratory public space, defied the culture's harsher and more contradictory proscriptions for homebound viewing and opened the way for TV pleasure at home.
Writing for the New York Times in 1956, TV critic Jack Gould lauded live television for its capacity to unite "the individual at home with the event afar." While Gould's admiration of this spatial synthesis was directed at the era's much-praised teleplays (Gould scorned most of daytime television), a similar conflation made communities of women intrinsically aware of each other's presence every day, energizing what Boddy calls "a metaphysic of presence."
Daytime television's earliest formats exploited its live nature to connect viewers and studio visitors in synchronous time, establishing an interspatial community of women that was mobile as well as virtual. Programs with live audiences announced a female subject who could freely traverse the home's threshold—materially and electronically—to engross herself in the amusements made possible by television.
The daytime audience represented in this emergent community read feminine and furthered the proposition that homemakers were linked via television to an imaginary social space that promulgated "girl talk," what Mary Ellen Brown has called "feminine discourse." She explains that feminine discourse is "a way of talking and acting among feminine subjects . . . in which they acknowledge their position of subordination within patriarchal society" but are empowered by the comfort of validation. During the long hours of daytime isolation, the homemaker could find solace in a fabricated community of like-minded sisters.
Live studio broadcasts drew women together from all walks of life and were reminiscent of the old nickelodeon, whose open accessibility during the day drew diverse audiences to what Miriam Hansen has called "a space apart and a space in between." This social diversity in the TV studio was not only apparent visually, as cameras panned across a collection of disparate faces, but was even more discernible during individual interviews. While there were certainly women who identified themselves as the wives of bankers or army officers, many audience members came from more needy backgrounds, especially on the misery shows, where it was not uncommon to meet women who were too poor to own a washing machine or who were holding down a job while raising seven children alone. Occasionally, minority women also appeared on camera. On an episode of It Could Be You, a Cherokee contestant was honored for her missionary work and was awarded an organ to provide music on her home reservation, although not without first having to endure an offensive joke about the time she "couldn't get the flap in her wigwam open." Afforded greater respect, Loretta Williams, a "full-blooded Pima Indian," competed on Queen for a Day in March 1956, while a Mexican American contestant, a widow with three young children, was voted "queen" on 24 February 1956. Strike It Rich especially welcomed a full range of participants, from the African American winner, Loretta Danny, whose victory in the summer of 1952 is discussed in Chapter 5, to a steady stream of persons with disabilities. Men who had been wounded in battle and the women who loved them, or women and children who were ill or disabled, appeared almost daily on these shows.
The diverse social collectivity of women gathered in the national television studios also demonstrated a geographic variety. In contrast to the local studios that attracted resident audiences in communities around the country (in Cincinnati, Chicago, Washington, DC, and St. Louis, to name a few), the network television theaters were anchored in the entertainment capitals of America, and participants from around the country made pilgrimages to these media meccas. Daytime programs prided themselves on the geographically heterogeneous crowds that assembled daily. Art Linkletter explained that tickets for House Party were distributed all over Los Angeles three or four days before a broadcast but were concentrated in locations where tourists congregated. If interviewed, participants were asked to declare their town of origin. Although the composition of audiences shifted from day to day—at times two-thirds local residents and at other times three-fourths out-of-towners—producers in New York and Hollywood routinely preferred featuring "people from far-off places," a production strategy that further joined television pleasures to far-flung travel. In just three episodes of It Could Be You, home viewers and studio participants represented San Diego, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Grand Rapids, Omaha, Columbus, Dubuque, St. Paul, and a small town in Pennsylvania. This new form of commercialized leisure, which attracted feminine celebrants from diverse classes, ages, backgrounds, abilities, and localities, built an atmosphere of sisterhood and sociability that seemed freely accessible to any woman.
As an emergent mode for women's leisure, daytime participation shows of the 1950s deployed an electronic circularity that conjoined two parallel but mismatched realms—studio space and domestic space—and in linking them devised an imaginary sphere dedicated to women's enjoyment.
By taking into account both the public space of the television theater and the private space of the home—and considering how these two spaces are mutually inflected—this books follows Anna McCarthy's rejection of an uncomplicated "privatization thesis" that sees television as "an apparatus which merely domesticates public life." Daytime TV's earliest and most prosperous formats invited women into the television studio to join a "public collective engagement" that promised nonstop entertainment. When television projected images of these same engagements into the domestic arena in synchronous time, the prospect of TV pleasure during the day was extended to home viewers and thus served to reposition television's place in everyday leisure.
Mediocrity and the Feminine
Daytime television's earliest programming was measured against a system of taste values that ranked the quality of texts against a scale that was held to be immutable. Dwight Macdonald, whose writing about cultural anxieties took shape in 1944 and was expressed in the harshest possible terms by 1953, articulated the trend to classify and judge popular texts that soon encompassed television within its critical glare. Macdonald roundly berated "Mass Culture" and its capitalist aims, and bemoaned a rapidly emerging "homogenized culture" that "destroys all values." For Macdonald, and for the many cultural elitists whose thinking caught the public's attention during the 1950s, the popular media corrupted and vulgarized High Culture. "There is slowly emerging a tepid, flaccid Middlebrow Culture," Macdonald lamented, "that threatens to engulf everything in its spreading ooze."
In February 1949, when television's place within these cultural strata was still unclear, social critic Russell Lynes published an essay in Harper's magazine that suggested the class structure of the United States was no longer pinned to wealth and family birth but to intellectualism and its tastes, what Pierre Bourdieu would later call "cultural capital." The article specified a hierarchy of four levels of taste in American society—highbrow, upper middlebrow, lower middlebrow, and lowbrow.
To Lynes, the highbrow was a self-avowed intellectual who fought to protect the arts from the "culture-mongers" and philistines (20-21). He divided the middlebrows into two camps. The upper middlebrows encompassed the "natural gamblers in the commodities of culture" (23). Comprised of publishers in the popular press, movie producers, editors, and the like, they served as the "purveyors" of highbrow ideas and the creators of those cultural products that were offered for consumption to the rapidly expanding mass of lower middlebrows. Caught "between the muses and the masses," the upper middlebrows "straddle[d] the fence between highbrow and middlebrow" and "enjoy[ed] their equivocal position" (25).
The true philistines, according to Lynes, were the lower middlebrows, who were perpetually unsure about what they liked and were forever the target of advertisers (27). It was their taste that the "Lords of kitsch" were always pandering to, Macdonald mused later, and their cultural gauge tended "always downward toward cheapness" and "standardization." The lowbrows, who remained closest to "folk culture" and expressed their art in an authentic "vernacular," were not philistines, in Lynes's view. Because the lowbrow "knows what he likes and he doesn't care why he likes it," he remained a friend to the highbrow.
By April, in consultation with Lynes, Life magazine popularized the Harper's essay in a playful mass-market translation, presented as a cartoon grid. Accompanying the Lynes summary was a harsher essay by Life's senior writer Winthrop Sargeant, a self-proclaimed highbrow. Sargeant lamented that "[b]eneath the upper middle-brow there yawns an awful chasm," peopled by cultural oafs who make up some 90 percent of the population. He deplored the fact that profit motives pressed the media industries to pander to the oafish classes and to produce for their enjoyment an "overwhelming flood of cultural sewage."
As television appeared on the cultural horizon in the late 1940s, social critics were thus apprehensive—uncertain if Lynes's upper-middlebrow purveyors of culture would use the new medium to "upclass" Americans' tastes or if "downclassing" to the masses was inevitable. On the one hand, in accordance with what Macdonald later called "the democratic-liberal proposal" (which Macdonald ridiculed), television carried the potential to enlighten the masses by offering elite culture to everyone; on the other hand, television threatened to propagate the dreaded lower-middlebrow culture many feared would further vulgarize the nation.
It was within this context that the country's earliest television producers and critics assessed program value. Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, the legendary NBC program chief, advanced the first potential in what he called "Operation Frontal Lobes," an agenda of uplift whose metaphor was not based on "brow height" but brain anatomy. Elite New York critics joined this chorus when they supported the cultural products of television that furthered a set of aesthetic principles they endorsed; TV's "golden age" dramas, for example, brought legitimate theater, an upper-middlebrow favorite, to the small screen, and these plays were further praised for exploiting artistically the new medium's qualities of liveness, intimacy, and immediacy. In Bourdieu's terms, Weaver and New York's like-minded coterie of critics and producers were "cultural intermediaries," who surrounded "themselves with all the institutional signs of cultural authority" and offered "guarantees of quality" to the masses. Within this perspective, programs extolled for their quality during the 1950s were organized "to give the impression of bringing legitimate culture within the reach of all."
Conversely, television's penchant for "vulgarity" shocked and offended these same taste-protectors. For the defenders of High Culture, it was alarming that radio programs popular with the "masses," like quiz programs, misery shows, and giveaways, were transferring their mediocrity straight to television. Chapter 5 explains the depth of outrage critics directed at daytime's misery shows and the legal action eventually taken against them (on the technicality that they collected charity funds without a license). These programs seemed to offer proof that television was a grand debaser, dumping cultural sewage into American homes.
Both "democratic liberals" like Weaver, who esteemed television's utopian potential, and the cultural pessimists who foresaw in television an imminent degradation shared the common conviction that taste categories were distinct and immutable.
The application of these rigid cultural values during the 1950s was especially acute in the assessment of daytime television. Even though soap operas filled comparatively few daytime hours, the stigma attached to them tarnished the entire daytime realm; like daytime radio, daytime television was marked as feminine and thus debased. As Lynes proclaimed in 1949, "In matters of taste, the lower-middlebrow world is largely dominated by women."
The contest over these competing taste cultures, articulated in 1957 by ABC's Leonard Goldenson in terms of "Woolworth's" versus "Tiffany's," reverberated across the 1950s. Under Weaver's direction during the first part of the decade, NBC's daytime shows were associated with the Tiffany's approach. The Kate Smith Hour, Home, and Matinee Theater were all promoted and reviewed as big-budget prestige programs that honored the intelligence of the American homemaker and contributed to the elevation of her taste. Kate Smith's producer, Ted Collins, spurned the "froo-froo" he deplored in other daytime programs; Home, under the sophisticated eye of Arlene Francis, was widely praised for its urbane virtues; and Matinee Theater, produced by the visionary Albert McCleery, sought to broaden "the cultural tastes" of its viewers.
In the Woolworth's category were the audience participation shows, vehemently dismissed by critics as middlebrow and lowbrow kitsch. Defenders of true culture leveled their most animated outrage against daytime's misery shows, with Strike It Rich, Glamour Girl, and Queen for a Day offered up as the worst offenders.
Predating a postmodern sensibility that treasured the collapse of the low into the high, 1950s America clung fast to hierarchical absolutes of taste and judged television accordingly. As Bourdieu suggests, however, taste distinctions that are used to demarcate social class are not immutable but time-bound and ever changing. In Bourdieu's reasoning, "what makes middle-brow culture is the middle-class relation to culture." Legitimate or authentic culture (high culture) is not made for the middle-class consumer, and "it ceases to be what it is as soon as he appropriates it." For Bourdieu, taste for authentic culture is, by definition, "the sum of the refusals of all socially recognized tastes," especially middlebrow tastes.
Approached from this perspective, it becomes clear that cultural mavens in the 1950s, like Weaver, McCleery, Francis, and their colleagues, were doomed from the start, for as soon as the middle class was introduced via television to the fine points of modernist staging, or the cameo shot, or Picasso's paintings, or the Eames chair, elite thinkers inverted television's cherished hierarchies to laud the TV commercial and to welcome a new postmodern era.
As Boddy has documented, for political as well as economic reasons, the most powerful men in television were reciting the catechism of quality during the 1950s. Upper-middle-class taste-mediators, comprising an elite in-crowd of critics, producers, politicians, and regulators who were centered in New York City and Washington, DC, dictated the aesthetic criteria against which the new medium would be judged. The chapters ahead, particularly Chapters 5, 6, and 7, unravel in more detail the ways in which the decade's pervading concepts of fixed taste values were imposed upon daytime programs.
Glamour and the New Femininity
The famous World War II poster of Rosie the Riveter declaring, "We can do it!"—her sleeve rolled up to display the strong flexed muscle in her arm, her dark hair flattened under a polka-dot bandana—gave way to a reshaped femininity after the war. At the same time that television promoted ideals of womanhood that celebrated a "new and improved" domesticity, the small screen also advanced a new vision for the female form—what Karal Ann Marling describes as a sensuous "molded, hourglass shape," clothed in the era's glamorous new contours. If "all the Rosies who had riveted had to find something else to do" after the war, as Elaine Tyler May explains, they also had to find something new to wear.
In this spirit of transformation, Christian Dior succeeded spectacularly when he introduced his "New Look" for the American woman. Marling observes that the New Look represented "a form of living sculpture . . . a kind of body engineering" that exuded the decade's "palpable optimism." If the basic shape of fashion could change the "soldier woman" of the 1940s into a flower, as Dior desired, then the human condition could change too, or "at the very least, the life of the lady in the son-of-Dior suit." When station WBKB in Chicago premiered a local daytime series in April 1948, it surveyed 2,000 women who owned television sets in the viewing area to ascertain their interests. "Fashions" led the list.
The cosmetics industry mirrored this fashion renaissance. During the war, the government had asked women to curtail their purchases of cosmetics, and manufacturing plants warned against glamour on the job. Once the war ended, sales of beauty products skyrocketed. Kathy Peiss calls the postwar years "a rococo period" for the beauty industry, with the war's end serving as a "catalyst for [a] psychological interpretation of cosmetics," promoting the fantasy of feminine beauty as an antidote to the harsh transitions women endured in the shift from war to peace. Consumers were now offered a limitless array of beauty products, and the two Titans of the cosmetics world, Hazel Bishop and Revlon, invested richly in television sponsorships.
According to Marling, the beautification of American women demanded artful coordination and design. Yoking femininity to the opulence of 1950s consumer products, television from the start devoted itself to beauty and fashion advice and to the quest for glamour. One of television's earliest primetime successes was Fashions on Parade, which debuted in April 1948 and aired every Thursday evening on DuMont's WABD-TV in New York City. Adelaide Hawley, representing Bonwit Teller, emceed the program, which showcased "a half hour of attractive girls and gowns," supported by Vincent Lopez at the piano and woven together by a wandering fantasy mannequin.
By promoting glamour to the masses, television opened up a fresh category of consumer products it could advertise during the day—everything from hair coloring and chic hats to Fifi hosiery and Trapeze sports shoes (see Chapter 8). To this end, glamour advice filled daytime television across the country, locally and nationally. In San Francisco, KPIX aired Your Beauty Clinic as one of its first women's shows; Chicago's WGN-TV scheduled a 30-minute fashion consultation entitled Individually Yours beginning in March 1949. Sponsored by the Blair Corset Company, whose commercials boldly featured girdles and bras in close-up, the program featured guests adorned in outmoded clothing who sought tips on how to accomplish stylish alterations. In Washington, DC, Inga Rundvold, a former model and fashion columnist for the Washington Times-Herald, hosted Inga's Angle on WNBW; she conducted a regular "beauty school segment" that emphasized elements of cosmetology, charm school, and the beauty pageant, and featured on-air makeovers for selected women.
Other formats also integrated glamour into their consumption message. Magazine formats like Vanity Fair (1948-1951), home shopping programs, NBC's Home show, and even The Kate Smith Hour directed the camera's eye at the decade's lush new beauty ideals in discrete fashion segments, while the defining structures of other programs—Glamour Girl, Queen for a Day, and the Big Payoff—centrally glorified the stylish makeover as redemptive.
Postwar television proffered the housewife a lavishness associated in earlier decades with Hollywood stars. Denise Mann calls this the "spectacularization" of the everyday, in which Hollywood's entry into the television industry evoked nostalgia for "an opulent world that existed outside the home." In Mann's view, postwar beauty standards conflated "the star's wardrobe with that of the average suburban housewife" in a two-way leveling effect, which superficially homogenized class difference. On a daily basis, daytime television propagated the fantasy that every woman could be as regal and glamorous as a Hollywood star. As host Jack Bailey exclaimed at the end of each episode of Queen for a Day, "We wish we could make every lady in America a queen for every single day!" Routinely, ordinary women who appeared on television were permitted to intermingle with film celebrities or were pampered as one themselves. One winner on Queen for a Day earned a dance with Clark Gable; a contestant on It Could Be You flirted onstage with George Raft (see Chapter 8); and on Glamour Girl, contestants were treated to a makeover by Mary Webb Davis, beauty consultant to the stars (see Chapter 5).
Through its female celebrities as well, the "oomph" or "it" of Hollywood was self-consciously transplanted to the small screen. Projecting audience desires, the glamorous women of television recirculated the escalating promise of personal sumptuousness now available to everyone. By 1956, actual beauty queens even dazzled the airwaves as feminine paragons, including Mona Young (Miss Norway); Kathleen Crowley (Miss New Jersey); Anita Ekberg (Miss Sweden); Lee Ann Meriwether (Miss America, 1955); and, of course, Bess Myerson (Miss America, 1945).
Yet the truly glamorous TV star exuded "zip and zoom" as well as beauty. The viable feminine star on television was most emphatically required to radiate personality and charm as an integral part of her attractiveness. An early portrait of Bess Myerson in TV Guide summed up this winning combination: "Put together a striking amount of beauty and more than a dash of charm, and you have Bess Myerson, the girl who parlayed both into a TV career."
Charm and the New Femininity
The era's "femcees"—a term reportedly coined by agent Martin Goodman to describe talented women hosts like his client Arlene Francis—were all "charm girls." Like the many "charm boys" who beguiled women during daylight hours in the 1950s, TV's feminine emcees were also called upon to exude the traits of likability, magnetism, and amiability.
Unlike the masculine version, however, feminine charm was an elusive quintessence linked to authentic loveliness, what Arlene Francis called in her 1960 book about charm "that certain something." As a founding charm girl, Francis was asked to write That Certain Something: The Magic of Charm at the close of the decade, and her work encapsulates the cult of charm and its relationship to attractiveness that had helped define femininity in the postwar era.
For Francis, charm was inextricably connected to good grooming and outward attractiveness (16). Learning how to walk with an "uplifted carriage" (145) and a sense of grace ("don't pull your girdle down every time you get up") (16); smiling often (144); applying makeup artfully to enhance one's best features (149); wearing classic, comfortable clothing, selected for its elegant simplicity at an upscale store (148-149); and speaking in a "well-modulated, controlled and quiet voice" (150) all contributed to the attainment of a charming aura.
Yet Francis positioned this intangible essence within true-felt individuality and self-knowledge. Francis's certainty that being oneself was inherently charming linked "authentic charm" to therapeutic introspection and the Golden Rule (21). "Charm is self-deep," Francis mused (69), and one must actively develop "one's best self."
These therapeutic precepts for all women applied especially to the person who appeared on television. "The TV camera has an X-ray attachment," Francis remarked in TV Guide. "It pierces, it penetrates, it peels away the veneer. It communicates the heart and mind of man, and makes crystal clear the fact that the only charm is genuine charm, the charm that emanates from a person who is completely true to himself."
Francis accepted the cherished views of the era's most influential critics and writers that television unveiled "authenticity, depth, and truth" in performers and was capable of separating genuine charm from the counterfeit variety, in both men and women alike (masculine pronouns notwithstanding). As Susan Murray observes in her study of Arthur Godfrey, if cinema fans were forever searching for the "real" identity of a star as revealed outside the media text, prevailing attitudes about television promised viewers that star identities generated within the television text were authentic.
Yet early television personalities were required not only to project their best selves; they were also obligated to sell consumer products in direct appeals to viewers. In this role, a star's alignment with "averageness" enhanced his or her credibility for selling products. Murray notes that Arthur Godfrey, for example, served as a "stand-in" for the consumer, and his remarkable sales record derived in part from his habitual deflation of prepared advertising copy and the interjection of improvised product endorsements drawn from his personal experience. While other TV salespeople were less obstreperous than Godfrey in their cynicism about advertising, many successful hosts allied themselves with the viewer by publicly avowing they never endorsed a product they had not used and liked. Arlene Francis, Ruth Lyons, Garry Moore, and Art Linkletter all asserted their full confidence in the products they sold.
The pressure to sell products thus shaped the image of female TV celebrities in a nuanced way. While women performers were expected to be attractive, the most endearing saleswomen also conveyed a wholesome naturalness that appealed to female consumers. According to audience research, viewers of the era resisted sales pitches from overly formal or supersophisticated women. The portrayal of women hosts as glamorous spectacle was tempered during the 1950s by the simultaneous transmission of a charm that radiated grace and naturalness. In 1956, the industry's top saleswomen struck a balance between glamour and unpretentiousness. A TV Guide article entitled "Profits and Lassies" photographed six of the industry's best-paid "salesgirls"—Joanne Jordan, Julia Meade, Mary Costa, Barbara Britton, Betty Furness, and Bess Myerson—whose salaries ranged from $50,000 to $150,000 per year. The two-page spread captured the attributes of this ideal feminine peddler. She was model-perfect in her appearance, but each woman also projected an arresting and friendly gaze into the camera's eye, as if she had just drawn a breath and was ready to converse warmly, intimately, and persuasively with the viewer at home.
These exacting new standards for feminine glamour and grace permeated the atmosphere of daytime television like a fragrance (to paraphrase Francis on charm). While femcees especially were measured against the emerging visions of the ideal woman, photographs and kinescopes from the period also record the lavish display of dressed-up 1950s femininity visible in the era's studio audiences. Lynn Swalbe remembered that she and her mother got "all dressed up to the nines, with hats, gloves, and suits, because they knew they'd be on TV" when they attended a Queen for a Day broadcast in 1954. Crinoline skirts, pinched waistlines, tailored dresses, gloves, purses, and a sea of hats filled the daytime airwaves with femininity's new designs.
The New Femininity and the Speaking Subject
At the same time that TV focused its lens on the new adornments of womanhood, early programs also reverberated with the sound of women's voices, as speaking subjects related the details of their lives to interlocutors of every stripe. In these repetitive declarations, the misery shows and other "confessional" game shows of the 1950s that centered upon women's stories complied with a television mode Mimi White calls "therapeutic discourse." For White, who traces this form across multiple television genres of the 1980s and 1990s, confession mediated through television is "repeatedly linked with consumer culture and social subjectivity." As she explains, "Self-identity and social recognition within familial and consumer networks hinge on participation in the process of mediated confession." The programs under discussion in Chapter 5 and 8, while predating White's examples by many decades, affirm this confessional pattern. In varying degrees on each show, female subjects were required to reveal personal details about their lives in the presence of interlocutors, and winning confessions merited restoration by means of money or consumer goods.
On postwar TV misery shows like Strike It Rich, Glamour Girl, and Queen for a Day, the quandary of the confessing female subject also resembled her dilemma in earlier film melodramas or on TV's soap operas, in that overbearing narrative frames constrained her expressivity and thereby served to dramatize what Sarah Kozloff has called the "pressure between speech and silence." On the misery shows, women were obligated to recite their personal stories, yet their narratives were continually interrupted and reworked so as to accent the hysterical gesture and scenarios of "tears and fainting."
If the misery shows epitomized the repression of speech and its consequence in hysterical signs, other confessional game shows that centered on an aura of cheerfulness—notably Who Do You Trust?, It Could Be You, and The Big Payoff—also furthered a female subject who was split between speaking and appearing (see Chapter 8). As Mary Ann Doane has noted, women who assume the agency of speech do so within well-controlled strictures of enunciation. Programs that placed women's life experiences at their center to lighthearted ends reproduced the same tension between confession and its curtailment found in the misery shows. In each case, a privileged masculine voice suppressed and reframed the words of women.
Just as Thomas Elsaesser and others have interpreted 1950s Hollywood family melodramas as "critical social documents" whose falsely happy endings expose the powerlessness of women in patriarchy, the confessional shows of the same decade lay bare the fault lines beneath the decade's dominant thinking about gender. The stories of women's distress on the misery shows and the record of their visible entrapment in a masculine web of speech on many other daytime participation programs continued ad infinitum, and this very seriality serves to spotlight the plight of women in postwar patriarchy. The new daytime sphere devoted to the visibility and expressiveness of women could not escape the contradictions of its historical era.
Postwar Femininity on View
Although history fails to organize itself into neat thematic intervals, the chapters that follow are arranged in approximate chronological order, overlaps intact, to convey the dynamism of the past. Chapter 2 traces the complex mix of women's formats and programs that began to flourish in local markets across the country as early as 1948 and notes the temporary but significant impact of the era's also-ran networks—DuMont, ABC, and Mutual—on daytime's earliest history.
The siren call of daytime's women was irresistible to NBC and CBS as well, and the historic rivalry between these well-matched networks dominated daytime competition across the decade. In 1950, NBC premiered its first grand entry into daytime television, The Kate Smith Hour (1950-1954), a spectacular vaudeo program that integrated elements of "variety-vaudeville-comedy" into a daytime mix. Chapter 3 explores the contested signification of Kate Smith and her program in the country's transition from war to peace and from radio to television, with special emphasis on her body and voice.
Variations and permutations of the supple audience participation format, so familiar from radio, also began to blossom on daytime television as the 1950s began. To demonstrate the format's mediating possibilities and its fusion of daytime television to visions of participation and general pleasure, Chapter 4 examines three of the country's original "charm boys"—Garry Moore, Arthur Godfrey, and Art Linkletter—and their successful programs on CBS. Chapter 5 turns to a converse example of audience participation—the misery show—and explains how Strike It Rich (CBS, 1951-1958) and Glamour Girl (NBC, 1953-1954) became lightning rods for public censure, caught in the decade's hierarchies of taste.
Chapter 6 singles out another familiar daytime format reworked by NBC. Re-creating the locally prosperous homemaking format on a grand scale, NBC introduced the Home show in 1954, starring the Manhattan sophisticate Arlene Francis. The inevitable clash between her upper-middlebrow persona and the country's emergent models for suburban domesticity is the subject of Chapter 6.
As Chapter 7 explains, television theater was an especially esteemed genre of the moment, and NBC turned to the prestige of live anthology drama when it developed the ambitious series Matinee Theater (1955-1958). Because the program positioned itself as antithetical to soap opera norms, this chapter examines the battle over taste dichotomies that structured late-decade thinking about daytime television and discovers in retrospect an unexpected affinity between NBC's "quality" series and the humble soaps.
The last chapter reviews four participation programs that were flourishing as the decade ended—Queen for a Day (NBC and ABC, 1956-1964), Who Do You Trust? (ABC, 1957-1963), It Could Be You (NBC, 1956-1961), and The Big Payoff (NBC and CBS, 1951-1959) and addresses the tension women on each program faced between speaking and appearing.
The empire of daytime television arose during a momentous time for American women. Women's voices, women's bodies, and women's selves were transfigured by the decade's emergent gender ideologies, and television was complicit in this transfiguration. The evolution of daytime television paralleled and intersected the lived experience of 1950s women as cultural expectations shifted around them, and TV's earliest daytime modes deciphered and reinterpreted femininity's transformation. As this book will show, thousands of women populated daytime television's glowing screen. For the first time, the intimacy of the television camera permitted an unprecedented close-up look at postwar femininity, and millions of women around the nation tuned in to watch.
“Cassidy's impressive, copious research has produced a new angle of vision on early television. . . . The book will be welcomed by numerous disciplines: film and television studies; journalism, communication, and media studies; women's studies; and American studies.”
Martha P. Nochimson