Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Hitch Your Antenna to the Stars

Susan Murray's Hitch Your Antenna to the Stars provides an interesting blend of straightforward history and insightful analysis of the later popular radio model and the early television model for not just programming but also advertisement. Mainly seen through the lens of the comedians who made up the majority of this early television programming, the text is a fascinating integration of presentation of gender and ethnic-based characterizations and commentary on these representations and how they evolved between the pre- and postwar eras in entertainment fields. Focusing on mainly Jewish performers in the pre-war era and integrating some of Judith Butler's comments on gender representation from her book Gender Trouble (which I have been meaning to finish one of these days), the idea of the masculine feminization is presented as being recurrent and rampant on early television vaudeo programs. While charting the evolving nature of the type of entertainment that was successful in the early years of television, the text does a great job of drawing parallels between this analysis and the analysis of the evolving nature of advertising in a visual medium, as well as the way advertisers' control over content eventually waned once broadcast companies (NBC, CBS) began to accept more than one sponsor per program while simultaneously asserting more saying power behind their performers. In its entirety, Murray's text was informative and an interesting analytic historical look at early television stardom.

I especially enjoyed the portions of the book that focused in detail on personal stories of performers, mainly Berle and Godfrey. Godfrey is incredibly unique in that Murray's analysis focused less on aspects of his straight performance and much more on qualities indicative of his style of product pitching, something that is not often seen on television today due to the decline of vaudeo and variety show performance styles, and due to the breaks in current television programming designated specifically for advertisements (commercial breaks). Another factor that I found incredibly interesting is a short block quote found on page 109, where a trade press states "Television in the short span of 18 months has practically gone through what it took radio 25 years to exhaust". I thought that this quotation certainly smacked of the increasing momentum found in the entertainment as well as the technology industries, especially in modern times. Television exhausted the radio model quicker, probably because their formats were both so similar. And now the model of the sitcom, which has experienced far more longevity, is being replaced with reality television models, which will also soon be exhausted by a more popular, of-the-moment form of entertainment. It seems to me that the evolutionary nature of effective advertising and entertaining television programming are quite parallel to each other...

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