Two looks at the history of that box with lights and wires; Prime-Time Television, by Fred Goldstein and Stan Goldstein. New York: Crown Publishers Inc. 384 pp. $25. A Pictorial History of Television, by Irving Settel. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Company. 290 pp. $12.95 (paperback).

By , Randy Shipp is a free-lance writer living in Boston.

Together, these quite different volumes give us a better overall understanding of the medium that has had a tremendous impact on life over the past 35 years.

As an unabashed nostalgia-trivia buff whose earliest memories coincide with the first decade of television, I must admit that I find ''Prime-Time Television'' delightful fun. The text, with its season-by-season summary of programming, is informative. But it is the 2,000-plus photos that fascinate me more.

Where else could you find a 1954 shot of ''Earn Your Vacation'' host Johnny Carson or a shot of Mike Wallace, the ''60 Minutes'' reporter, in the 1952 ''General Electric Theater'' performance of ''The Half-Promised Land''? There are also photos of: the 1949 ''Admiral Broadway Review'' with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca; ''See What You Know?'' (1956) with Bennett Cerf; Dennis Weaver and James Arness in a 1955 episode of ''Gunsmoke''; and Mary Martin as Peter Pan.

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There are tidbits for trivia lovers, too. Do you remember, for instance, who lived at 119 North Weatherly Street, or the family at 607 South Maple Street? Answers: Mary Richards in ''The Mary Tyler Moore Show'' and the Andersons in ''Father Knows Best.'' (But, because only scanty information is available here about the lesser-known shows, the inveterate trivia lover may want to get a copy of a more thorough encyclopedia, ''The Complete Directory to Prime-Time Network TV Shows 1946-Present.'')

''Prime-Time Television'' helps you realize what an omnipresent force the medium has been in our culture. Even undistinguished shows (My own favorite was ''The Hathaways,'' 1961, featuring Peggy Cass and the Marquis Chimps) elicit an ''I remember that!''

The first glance at ''A Pictorial History of Television'' reveals that this book is of a different ilk. Turning to the section on television's beginnings, one sees prehistoric cave drawings, Hawaiian war idols, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and American Indian sign languge.

Originally published in 1969, this book focuses more on TV's impact on culture. That means discussing its role as an entertainment medium that alters our thought processes and as a news medium ''adding a dimension of national tragedy that unmistakably affected the national character.''

The book notes that ''because of television's impact, the world will never be the same again.'' It goes on to explain television's technical beginnings as far back as 1884 and its sociological influences through the 1960s and '70s.

Only the last chapter - dealing with television since the '60s - is new, and the book as a whole suffers from outdatedness. Essentially, it is a book that reflects the late-'60s concern over the social upheaval then occurring.

There are statements such as, ''Since 1960, while the nation's population grew 10 percent, the crime rate had risen 86 percent. Furthermore, the fastest growth in crime statistics occurred among the youth who had grown up with TV sets as their baby sitters.'' And, discussing the revolt in the '60s, the author notes that it ''meant a rejection of middle class values extolled daily on the television screen. . . .'' That may have sounded good 14 years ago, but it won't do for '80s readers.

The book would have had more immediacy had there been more revision - for instance, dropping the word ''Negro'' for ''black'' and upgrading Ronald Reagan's status from governor to President.

Ironically, perhaps, in a book about television, one of the most enjoyable parts of the text is the part on commercials. Included are both a review of a year's Clio awards (the advertising industry's equivalent of the Oscars) and a humorous 1957 essay on the influence of commercials on children.

Of particular note in this book is the use of photos. But some sharp-eyed viewers may note some captioning gaffes (such as the reference to Barbra Streisand's TV special as ''My name is Barbara''). While not as extensive photographically as ''Prime-Time Television,'' ''A Pictorial History of Television'' shows an excellent choice of photos that help trace major trends and events in the medium.

And one comment, a 1952 quote from Edward R. Murrow, helps put the technical marvel and industrial giant into very clear perspective: ''This instrument,'' Murrow said, ''can teach, it can illuminate, it can even inspire, but only if human beings are willing to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is only wires and lights in a box.''

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