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Television 1950 - Is It Good or Bad?

America's Town Meeting of the Air

Television 1950 - Is It Good or Bad?

Jan 03 1950




GEORGE V. DENNY, moderator


AL CAPP, cartoonist

MILLARD C. FAUGHT, economist



TOWN CRIER: Town Meeting tonight! Town Meeting tonight! From Town Hall, New York! All about "Television 1950 - Is It Good or Bad?"! Hear Al Capp and Norman Cousins! Hear both sides and make up your own mind! Town Meeting tonight! Town Meeting tonight! Everybody listen!


ANNOUNCER: And welcome, friends, to historic Town Hall in New York City, to the five hundred and ninety-third broadcast of America's Town Meeting. After nearly fifteen years on the air as an hour-long forum, we're changing tonight to a new streamlined format of thirty minutes. As you know, nearly all of the full-hour programs on the air have been condensed to a half an hour with great success. To keep in step with the times and in consideration of your own valuable time, we're presenting this half-hour program for your enjoyment and profit. On future Town Meetings, you'll hear the nation's leaders of thought and opinion in lively but orderly discussion of subjects of greatest interest to you, the American people. You've helped us select these subjects and you've helped us make Town Meeting the nation's most popular radio forum. For your past and continuing interest, we're most grateful. And now to preside over our discussion, here is your moderator, the president of Town Hall and founder of America's Town Meeting, George V. Denny, Jr. Mr. Denny. (APPLAUSE)

DENNY: Good evening, neighbors. We're beginning the New Year and the second half of the twentieth century with a discussion of television for a very important reason. In our opinion, television--good or bad--will be the most powerful single medium of communication and, therefore, the greatest influence among the peoples of this earth that we shall know during the next fifty years. Now we've not asked our speakers to prophesy, but, in the highest interest of the human race, we've asked them to examine television in the light of what we've done with it to date and where we seem to be headed. Both Mr. Cousins and Mr. Capp have watched television's development with eager and friendly interest. While Mr. Cousins views much that he's seen with alarm, Mr. Capp has seen much to applaud and that's what makes a good Town Meeting. In the last analysis, we, the people, will decide the future of television by the way we exercise our freedom of choice. I'm sure that at this stage of the game those who are preparing the things we choose--both those who manufacture sets and those who build television programs--will be glad to know your opinions after you've heard both sides on this Town Meeting. So listen carefully and let us know what you think. We'll hear first from the editor of one of the great cultural forces of this country, The Saturday Review of Literature, which reaches one of the most influential audiences in America. Mr. Cousins, we invite you to tell us freely and frankly the things you think that are bad about television today. Norman Cousins. (APPLAUSE)

COUSINS: Mr. Denny, I hope that Al Capp will make television-- rather, make radio history here tonight--Town Hall Meeting history--by agreeing with me. You see, we both like television; we both have faith in its future; we both see it, as Mr. Denny says, somewhat differently. My feeling about television right now is that it's being murdered. Now I'm not talking about television as a gadget. I am talking about the promise of television. 

Let's think of television in terms of what it could do and what it can be--and ask ourselves whether television is living up to its early promise. Now is the time, while TV is young, for the American people to speak up about television. And when we do speak up, I hope the first thing we hit and hit hard, Mr. Capp, is the notion, now apparently governing television as it has governed the movies, that the American people must be talked down to. You know the theory--it's the idea that the average American has the mentality of a 12-year-old child and you've got to spoon-feed him with entertainment that makes no demands on his supposedly limited intellectual resources. I contend that this theory--this idiot's fable--is one of the biggest myths of our time. I contend that it is a blunder and a billion dollar blunder. It is a blunder that has already come close to putting the skids under Hollywood, has devitalized and disfigured much of radio, and has already wrecked some of the largest pulp magazines in America. And despite all the evidence, television today is apparently repeating that blunder, and I am afraid with the same results.

Out of the wizardry of the television tube these days, there is coming such an assault against the human mind, such a mobilized attack on the intelligence, such a mass invasion against good taste, as no communications medium has known. There are millions of dollars for perfecting television mechanically, but only pennies, comparatively, for programs. Expensive research and equipment will make color on television possible within a year or two. But a Grade C program in Technicolor is still a Grade C program. What television needs right now--even more than Technicolor and mechanical improvement--is better programing, more respect for the intelligence of the average American, more imagination, more originality, more of the pioneering spirit that was behind much of TV only two years ago.

Television needs to get over the notion and get over it fast that all you have to do to have a successful television programing schedule is to take mediocre radio shows and put them before a TV camera. Increasingly, the fabulous possibilities within television are being brushed aside in favor of radio stereotypes--dramatizations that stick to the usual patter and pattern: get-rick-quick, get-kissed-quick, get-killed-quick. (LAUGHTER)

It isn't as though TV lacks the people who realize this, people who believe that television is an art of its own and not the visual extension of radio or another outlet for Hollywood. But these people need front office backing. Even more than that, they need the support of the American people. Incidentally, if you enjoy Kukla, Fran, and Ollie--to my mind the best program on TV for children, and I confess it's one of my own favorite programs--write to them and tell them so. I'm sorry that more people haven't written to the Jon Gnagys and the Ivan Sandersons and the Roy K. Marshalls, just to mention a few whose programs gave some idea of the promise of television but who haven't had the support from the television industry itself.

Am I arguing here for television without starch or dramatic appeal? Certainly not. Am I arguing for highbrowism in television, or for converting it into an extension of the classroom? Certainly not. I expect my television set to bring me entertainment, bring magnificent entertainment to my home, but I said entertainment, not an endless procession of murders, gang wars, terror and horror specials, substandard variety shows, and wrestling matches.

I expect TV, too, Mr. Denny, to live up to its billing as the supreme triumph of invention, a magic eye that can bring into the home the wonders of entertainment, information, and education; something that can be a tool for the making of an enlightened democracy, such as the world has never known. But, Mr. Denny and Mr. Capp, I am afraid there is no point right now in painting any rosy pictures about the future of television, the promise of television, until we face up to the hard fact that right now it is being murdered in the cradle. (APPLAUSE)

DENNY: Thank you, Norman Cousins. Well, like all pictures on Town Meeting, there's another side of the ball, so let's take a look at the other side with one of the most successful creative artists in one of the greatest mass media of communications--the comic strip. Mr. Al Capp, creator of Li'l Abner, the Shmoo, the Kigmy, and now a contributor to the Atlantic Monthly magazine. Al Capp. (APPLAUSE)

CAPP: Thank you, Dick Tracy fans. (LAUGHTER) I agree with Mr. Cousins--and isn't that a lovable way to begin an argument, to agree with the other guy? I agree that the American people should not be talked down to. Well, all of us are Americans and quite a few of us here are people. And I'm afraid that Mr. Cousins has been talking down to us, so I'm going to raise the level of this discussion. I'm going to bring it up from the murky depths of Mr. Cousins' vague generalities, his over-all damning, up to the revealing sunlight of fact. I'm gonna compare Mr. Cousins' beef that television programing is substandard and mediocre with the facts of television life.

Oh, yes, I've done research. I've gone into this thing fully. There's no sacrifice too great for me to make for you. I spent three seconds clipping out tonight's television program. (LAUGHTER) And it proves-- It proves that anyone who takes the trouble to get off his canvas-backed chair (LAUGHTER) and turn a knob can get from television tonight, and any night, the most fabulous, the most imaginative, the most varied entertainment, delight, and culture ever offered by man to man.

You've heard Mr. Cousins' picture of television. Well, here's television's record. From six to seven tonight, American kids--that is, good little kids who've finished reading Li'l Abner (LAUGHTER)--have a choice of the most charming juvenile entertainment--Kukla, Fran, and Ollie; Lucky Pup; the Small Fry Club. Now as one whose profession is whomping up wholesome fantasy--well, pretty wholesome fantasy--I'm amazed and I'm a little frightened at the consistent goodness, the endless invention of the artists who created these things for our children.

At seven, the littler kids should be put to bed, and the adults and older kids ought to dine. That is, if they can tear themselves away from this monster called television. But if they can't, there's a solid scientific film, "The How of Television." There's Doug Edwards' news show. There's sweet music by Sonny Kendis and Vincent Lopez. There's honest and wholesome humor by a wonderful guy named Herb Shriner.

Then at eight o'clock, television tonight brings you the most beloved funny man of our time--Milton Berle--and with him the opera star, Patrice Munsel. Or, if you want ideas and free and authoritative debate from eight to nine, there's The Court of Current Issues. This is television's record. This is what's true. This is what's true tonight. There's The Court of Current Issues with two college professors--two! count 'em, two--and Robert Nathan, one of America's great economists. Or, if you want the finest in music at eight o'clock tonight, there's The Sylvan Levin Opera Concert with a soprano, Ann Ayres. At nine o'clock, the Actors' Studio gives you, as it always does, excellent drama, with Broadway's best actors. Or, if you want sports, there are the fights from Westchester. At nine-thirty, there's a film with a couple of substandard, mediocre hams named Lawrence Olivier and Gertrude Lawrence. (LAUGHTER) Later-- Later, there are more sports. There's a charming light comedy show. There's news. What do you want, Mr. Cousins, an egg in your beer? (LAUGHTER)

The record shows that television will give you whatever you want. If you want the light entertainment and information, television will give it to you. If you just want to gripe about it, you can. By carefully manipulating your dial so that you bypass all the wonderful things of television, you can find murder and horror and ugliness. Now, to me, that seems like being confronted by Rita Hayworth in a bathing suit--Mr. Denny made me put a bathing suit on her (LAUGHTER)--to protect your morals or your sanity (LAUGHTER)--to see a picture of Rita Hayworth in a bathing suit, but refuse to look at anything except a wart on her thumb and insisting that that's what all of Rita Hayworth looks like. (LAUGHTER)

Television isn't being murdered in its cradle, Mr. Cousins. Take a good look at it. It's a lusty brat; and it's bright and it's intelligent. Sure, sometimes it yowls, and its bed-wetting annoys sensitive souls like you, but watch it grow. Watch it grow into the greatest blessing and the greatest delight of American family life. Take off, though, those mud-covered glasses and take a good look at the kid. See its wonderful promise and give it a chance. After all, Norman, we--editors, cartoonists, and television producers--are all cousins under the skin. (LAUGHTER) Television-- Television isn't a Kigmy--it's a Shmoo. Thank you. (LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)

DENNY: Thank you, Al Capp. I don't know that I can appreciate your making Tuesday night sound so attractive on television and robbing us of our listeners, (LAUGHTER) but now while we get ready for our question period, here's a special message for our Town Meeting listeners.

ANNOUNCER: Well, friends, what's your opinion now? In today's world we can't be like the judge who said he could never listen to more than one side of a case because it confused him. Take this question, for instance. Do you think the aim of the men in the Kremlin is the conquest of the U.S.A.? Have Stalin and the members of the Politburo launched a program which includes this country -- or will they be content with a lesser goal? Can you guess where the Russian leaders intend to stop? You'll certainly want to hear Congressman Walter Judd and Dr. Frederick Schuman debate this urgent question two weeks from tonight on Town Meeting. Dr. Judd was formerly a medical missionary to China and is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Dr. Schuman is Professor of International Relations at Williams College who has studied and written widely on American-Russian relations. If you'd like to ask a question of Dr. Judd or Dr. Schuman address it to The Moderator, Town Hall, New York, Eighteen, New York. Our Town Hall audience is ready with questions, and so for our question period, we return you to Mr. Denny.

DENNY: Are we ready for our questions here in Town Hall? We'll start with this gentleman right over here. Yes? The gentlemen in the center there. Yes? 

MILLARD C. FAUGHT: Mr. Denny, I'd like to observe offhand first that if Mr. Capp finally gets tired of drawing comics he probably has a great future as a politician. (LAUGHTER) He made a rather magnificent defense of an untenable position, I think, there for a while, if I might sympathize with Mr. Cousins. But I think instead of getting in the middle on this thing, I'd like to ask him a question which maybe he can't answer so offhandedly, that is, to get it down to an economic level. He cited some very nice programs that are on the air tonight on television, but I'm rather curious -- and I think some of 'em are very good programs, too -- but the question is, are any of them profitable? I read the other day that television has lost sixteen million dollars this year and had lost fifteen million dollars last year, and some months ago I got rather curious about how long that can happen. I'm an economist and I get to asking these questions that nobody else wants -- and so I just added up how much it would cost if we had national television of the same kind on a thousand stations, and I come up with the rather gruesome figure of a billion, seven hundred and forty million dollars. That's how much it would cost to give the whole United States these wonderful programs that he's been itemizing. And I just want to know how are we gonna make that pay. And when we answer that question, then maybe we can talk about how we're gonna make the programs better.

DENNY: Mr. Capp, that's Mr. Faught, who has just made an extensive survey of television that's just out this last month. And perhaps you'd like to handle his question.

CAPP: Yes, I read his book and it's an excellent book. (LAUGHTER) As a matter of fact, you've all just heard his book. (LAUGHTER) Well, Mr. Faught, don't expect me to worry about the fact that television is losing fifteen million dollars a year. I'm a cartoonist, and what's a week's pay? (LAUGHTER) I think-- I think that we'll pay for television. We'll pay for television by buying the soap, and the automobiles, and the oil, and the gasoline, and all the things that television sponsors want us to buy to pay for the programs that we like. We've always paid for everything we've gotten. We'll pay for it and it'll be worth it.

DENNY: All right. Mr. Cousins has a comment on that. Mr. Cousins?

COUSINS: Mr. Capp says that a cartoonist makes fifteen million dollars a week. I don't think he was kidding. Mr. Capp, why don't you just take over television and support it? (LAUGHTER) I think that you could probably help it a lot.

CAPP: No, I want to say this fast: To every kid that's throwing his school books away and beginning to draw pictures--cartoonists don't make fifteen million dollars a week. Some of 'em don't make that in a year, kids! (LAUGHTER)

DENNY: We're first gonna call on Mr. Capp to make up our Town Hall deficit. All right.

LADY: Mr. Cousins, would you approve a government-run station for non-profit cultural and intellectual programming to satisfy the so-called malcontents, and, possibly, become a standard or measuring rod for the TV audience, and, accordingly, for the advertisers?

COUSINS: Now, I notice that you were very careful not to say "government-sponsored television or government-sponsored radio" because they're two different things. You said, "a television station," somewhat comparable to the radio station New York City has. I think it'd be an excellent idea, yes.

DENNY: All right, thank you. Now the gentleman back there right under the balcony with a question for Mr. Capp. Right? No, the gentleman in the second row. The second gentleman. Yes, that's it.

MAN: What is the general effect of TV on the high school pupil? For Mr. Capp, please.

CAPP: What's the general effect of TV on a high school pupil? Well, it may seem unbelievable to you who see me, but it's been, oh, five years since I've been in high school. (LAUGHTER) I think the general effect on the high school pupil is fine. For instance, it's got to be dark where you look at television. (LAUGHTER AND DELAYED APPLAUSE)

DENNY: All right, Mr. Cousins, do you have a comment there?

COUSINS: That's one way to get educated, Mr. Capp. (LAUGHTER) But I have here before me a copy--

DENNY: I think that high school students know more about that than Mr. Capp does, don't you? (LAUGHTER) All right.

COUSINS: But Mr. Capp can draw pictures; he has an advantage. (LAUGHTER)

DENNY: (CHUCKLES) All right, go ahead.

COUSINS: I have before me a copy of the Congressional Record of early last year which publishes a speech by the Chairman of the Criminal Law Section of the American Bar Association in which he says that no one medium--television, radio, or comic books--damages the child by itself. But he makes this very good point: "No one of the media alone at any one time or over any extended period can be said to be more harmful than another, but the insistent and continued repetition of these influences, each complementing the other, must produce a deteriorating effect upon the minds of the impressionable. Immature and undeveloped minds are molded to the concept that crime and criminal conduct is the norm of human behavior. Ethical concepts are twisted from reality, weakened, and all too frequently destroyed." This was based on a very careful study.

DENNY: All right, thank you, Mr. Cousins. Now that you've raised that question let me bring up this one here. This is the same kind of thing, Mr. Capp. It's a question from Mrs. Clara S. Logan, the president of the Southern California Association for Better Radio and Television. And she sends in this question: "In one week's time over six stations, there were ninety-one murders and numerous other crimes shown on the television screen during children's listening hours. Should we excuse this breach of its pledge 'to operate in the public interest' because of present financial difficulties?" That's for you, Mr. Capp. Would you comment on that?

CAPP: Yeah. Let's go ahead on Clara's reasoning--or Mrs. Logan's reasoning--that anything with murders in it isn't any good, so we chuck out all the radio shows that excite us. Then we get on to Shakespeare, "Romeo and Juliet" goes out--poisoning, stabbing; Macbeth--lots of innocent Scot soldiers are killed--let's toss that out; Huckleberry Finn--there's a grave robbing, there's truancy--let's chuck that out. Let's chuck out the dictionary because it explains very carefully "communism" and "free love." (LAUGHTER) This sort of reasoning is idiotic. It's as idiotic as the reasoning in the Congressional Record. No, I'd like to know what would happen to those kids' minds if they didn't listen to television shows, if they didn't read comic strips--if they just read the Congressional Record. (LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)

DENNY: Mr. Cousins?

COUSINS: That sounds pretty good, doesn't it, Mr. Capp? Let's think what you have said. You have said, in effect, to throw out all education--education is not important. That no influence on a child's important. I think, Mr. Capp, that we can't burlesque what is happening today. Let's read the rest of that total. You gave a very good summary before of what goes on on television. The organization that Mr. Denny quoted before, the Southern California Association for Better Radio and Television, lists the following: the week's total--ninety-one murders, seven staged holdups, three kidnappings, ten thefts, four burglaries, two cases of arson, two jail breaks, one murder by explosion of fifteen to twenty people, two suicides, one case of blackmail. Cases of assault and battery too numerous to tabulate. Also cases of attempted murder. Much of the action takes place in saloons. Brawls too numerous to mention. Crooked judges, crooked sheriffs, crooked juries. Now, Mr. Capp, I think it's very easy to brush this all aside and say, "Sure, it doesn't make any difference; the children aren't influenced by this." But you know it as well as I do, Mr. Capp; this is serious. So serious is it that, in radio, the National Broadcasting Company has agreed to suspend all programs of this nature until after nine o'clock at night. Now, if radio does it, apparently there must be something to it. (APPLAUSE)

DENNY: Mr. Capp? Yes? Go ahead.

CAPP: All right. One thing I will say is that the Southern Association of the Ladies Upward and Onward League--I think I have the name right--must have had a wonderful time listening to all that stuff. (LAUGHTER) I bet they had to belt their kids out from in front of the television machine. But, here, American kids have been reading comic strips. They've been listening to radio shows. Now, they look at television. As a whole, American kids are pretty decent kids. They're pretty decent. There was a whole nation of kids who never saw comic strips, who never saw television, who never heard horror radio shows--a nation of kids under Adolf Hitler. They grew up to destroy all civilization, to murder, to burn, to destroy, and to kill. That's my answer. (APPLAUSE)

COUSINS: Question of fact, Mr. Capp. Let's get this down. The medium most used by Joseph Goebbels in propagandizing the German youth was the technique of the comic strip. Now, I am not opposed to comic strips as such. I think Mr. Capp does the best comic strip in America and I'm all for it. My only regret-- My only regret is that there aren't more Capps who have good taste and real imagination, and do not have to rely on the stereotypes of bloodlust in order to get an audience. (APPLAUSE)

DENNY: Thank you. A question from the gentleman up in the balcony. Yes?

MAN: Mr. Cousins, is it necessary to pose an artificial dilemma of control of programming by government versus control of programing by advertisers when instead we might have television programming as magazine content is produced? For example, each magazine determines its own editorial content. Advertisers buy only advertising space. Couldn't we have television on that same basis?

DENNY: All right, sir. Mr. Cousins?

COUSINS: I don't know about that. The one thing I am certain of is that the worst solution for this would be to have the government take over. What I am anxious to see happen is to have the television industry itself raise its own sights, recognize that there are certain limitations at present, and that it is actually endangering the future of television by not putting it on a higher level. And by a higher level I am not -- again -- I am not talking about a highbrow level. I don't think that you can use any other technique--the magazine technique, or the radio technique, or the movie technique. Television is an art of its own and must be so recognized.

DENNY: Thank you. Mr. Capp, we have time for this question: "With the high cost of entertainment and the high cost of baby sitters, don't you think that television will be a big factor in eliminating boredom and monotony for parents with babies and young children?" (LAUGHTER)

CAPP: Well, one thing I say is that I think all parents should have children. (LAUGHTER) I haven't much time left, and so I want to end this with a summation of everything I've said: "Television, you're misshapen, you're small, you have warts, but, gee, I love you." (LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)

DENNY: Thank you, Al Capp, and thank you, Norman Cousins. Now, in just a moment, I'll tell you about our subject and speakers for next week.

ANNOUNCER: Would you like to have a printed copy of this important Town Meeting, complete with questions and answers? Well, of course you would. It's very simple to get it. Just address an envelope to Town Hall, New York, Eighteen, New York, and ask for the Town Meeting Bulletin on "Television 1950" -- that'll help you remember the new year -- and enclose ten cents in coin, not stamps. And please, friends, be sure to give us your own name and address; you'd be surprised how many people forget that important detail. And if you'd like to have this Town Meeting Bulletin come to you regularly for a whole year, enclose your check or money order for four dollars and fifty cents. Or you might like a sample subscription at one dollar for any twelve consecutive issues. This bulletin is published each week, entirely for your convenience. Now, remember, the address is Town Hall, New York, Eighteen, New York. I'll repeat that. Town Hall, New York, Eighteen, New York. And now, to tell you about next week's program, here again is Mr. Denny.

DENNY: Before I tell you about next week's program let me suggest that if you have suggestions or opinions that you think would be of interest to the people who are building television programs and manufacturing sets in the light of what you've heard here tonight, send these suggestions along to us here at Town Hall, New York, Eighteen, New York, and we'll see that they are properly distributed. 

Now, next week, Town Meeting moves to Washington, D. C. for the convenience of the two leading participants in the debate which is to be the first order of business in the United States Senate. The question is: Should the Senate remove restrictions on margarine now? The speakers will be Senator William Fulbright, Democrat of Arkansas, who says "yes," and Senator Alexander Wylie, Republican of Wisconsin, who says "no." The program will originate in the Department of Interior Auditorium in Washington, D. C. Free tickets may be obtained through Station WMAL in the Trans-Lux Building in Washington. So if you want tickets, communicate with Station WMAL in the Trans-Lux Building in Washington. The following week, here in Town Hall, New York, Congressman Walter Judd, Republican of Minnesota and Dr. Fredrick Schuman of Williams College will discuss the major problem in world affairs: Is the Kremlin's aim the conquest of the United States of America? So plan to be with us next week and every week at the sound of the crier's bell.


TOWN CRIER: Town Meeting next week! Town Meeting next week! Should the Senate remove restrictions on margarine now?! Town Meeting next week! Town Meeting next week! Everybody listen!


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