Sunday, April 4, 2021

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong's "When Women Invented Television"

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is the New York Times bestselling author of Seinfeldia: The Secret World of the Show About Nothing that Changed Everything; a history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and TedSex and the City and Us: How Four Single Women Changed the Way We Think, Live, and Love; and Pop Star Goddesses: And How to Tap Into Their Energies to Invoke Your Best Self. She spent a decade on staff at Entertainment Weekly and has since written for many publications, including BBC Culture, The New York Times Book Review, Fast Company, Vulture, and Billboard. She also speaks about pop culture history and creativity.

Armstrong applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, When Women Invented Television: The Untold Story of the Female Powerhouses Who Pioneered the Way We Watch Today, and reported the following:
Page 99 of When Women Invented Television might just sum up my entire life’s work so far: It is a testament to the immensely personal power of television.

On this page, we see the triumph of TV’s first family sitcom, The Goldbergs, after its 1949 debut. This story of a Jewish family living in a Bronx tenement, created by and starring Gertrude Berg as matriarch Molly, has transitioned from radio to the new medium of television and shot to the top of the Hooper Ratings, the audience measurement service of the time. And viewers were going wild with a sensation we’ll never fully understand in our audio-visual-soaked era: They could not get over being able to actually see the Goldbergs rather than just hearing them, like they had for 17 years on radio. The Goldbergs were talking and laughing and moving in their very own living rooms, and it was mind-blowing.

A 67-year-old fan made Berg an apron and sent it to her; she cried when she saw Berg wearing it on TV, as she relayed to the star in a letter. Another fan, a Mrs. McInerney, wrote from Chicago, “A shut-in who wants to thank the Goldbergs for coming into our homes each Monday evening over WGNTV, surely the greatest thrill I have received was their friendly voices returning to us through television and seeing all of them was just so much more thrilling. … Little did we think we would get to see them on our television screen just one year after my husband got me the set to keep me company while he was away to work, and television has played a great part in my lonely life, for I have been a heart patient for the past six years.”

This was Gertrude Berg at the height of her powers. Unfortunately, as the book details, she didn’t stay there. The world, particularly as the 1950s progressed, was not welcoming to women as ambitious as Berg, and the Hollywood Red Scare ensnared her career. While she wasn’t personally blacklisted, her TV husband, Philip Loeb, was. Her sponsor, General Foods, asked her to fire him, and she refused. The decision got her show kicked off CBS, and while she eventually returned on NBC—without Loeb—The Goldbergs never recovered from the loss of momentum. I Love Lucy ran on CBS on the night once inhabited by The Goldbergs and became a lasting phenomenon for the ages.

But those early days of The Goldbergs, when fans were so entranced by the sight of their favorite characters, also show us something I’ve always tried to highlight in my work about TV history: Television isn’t some brainless trifle. It’s often brainless, sure. But the right show at the right time can affect us deeply. Its characters are people we know, and they change the way we feel and think. It’s easy to take that for granted in an age of streaming on demand, but it’s as true as ever.
Visit Jennifer Keishin Armstrong's website.

My Book, The Movie: Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted.

The Page 99 Test: Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted.

The Page 99 Test: Seinfeldia.

The Page 99 Test: Sex and the City and Us.

The Page 99 Test: Pop Star Goddesses.

--Marshal Zeringue