Life looks at TV - the first 25 years

My father-in-law is cleaning out his attic (any bids for 50-years-worth of National Geographics?), and I snatched a Sept. 10, 1971, issue of Life magazine off a pile.

I picked it up because the cover promised a special section on "Television: the First 25 Years" - at least for the commercial networks that emerged right after World War II. Flipping through, I spotted an RCA TV ad. With the majority of households still watching in black-and-white, it hawked the excitement of actually seeing football games in living color.

Other things were eerily familiar. In a letter to the editor, Jack Valenti, then as now president of the Motion Picture Association, was defending (then as now) the film industry's beleaguered three-year-old movie-ratings system.

An essay by noted historian Daniel J. Boorstin said TV was alienating us from each other: Gossiping with neighbors across the fence was no longer needed because "television gives the American housewife in her kitchen her own private theater, her window on the world."

That sounds a bit archaic, but many of his concerns still seem relevant. "Almost everything about television," he wrote, focuses "our interest on the here-and-now, the exciting, disturbing, inspiring, or catastrophic instantaneous now."

This "need to offer something for everybody" produces "a constant shifting from one thing to another, an emphasis on the staccato and motley character of experience - at the cost of our sense of unity with the past."

A profile of CBS programming guru Fred Silverman, then a 33-year-old whiz kid, shows him

making some spectacularly correct '- and incorrect - programming hunches. He is axing popular rural hits like "Hee Haw" to re-aim CBS at rising young urban professionals with money, this 20 years before "Seinfeld" and "Friends."

But he also predicts a show starring model-movie star Candice Bergen "would be zilch," missing the "Murphy Brown" that lay within her.

The previous January, CBS had launched a different kind of comedy, "All in the Family." "That show ... is going to bring changes in a lot of shows," Silverman says presciently of what became, arguably, the most important series ever produced on American commercial television.

He also had to deal with a summer replacement that had been an unexpected success, the "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" of 1971. It was a variety show hosted by a relatively unknown but engaging young couple. Silverman thought he'd find a spot for "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour" at midseason. He did - and their "I Got You, Babe" became a national anthem.

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