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Category:    Home > Reviews > Documentary > Television > Media History > Pioneers Of Television (PBS DVD)

Pioneers Of Television (PBS DVD)


Picture: C+     Sound: C+     Extras: C+     Episodes: B



It is hard to believe, but so much great TV history has happened that it is now in danger of being forgotten.  Add the awful programming people will waste their time watching, digital High Definition pushing even color analog tape back a generation to the low-fidelity era of reel-to-reel videotape and the situation can be a disturbing one.  When I heard PBS was doing a program called Pioneers Of Television, I knew it would be a hard concept to live up to.  Would they do their research?  Could they pull it off?


Amounting to four hour-long programs, the series delivers very successfully on the four topics its picks: Late Night, Sitcoms, Game Shows and Variety.  That only the first one is even taken seriously anymore underscores how low standards have fallen and how a great era of entertainment, innovation, art and Americana have drifted too far for all of our own good.


Late Night tells the story of how the networks often thought there could be no audience for late night anything, in which people would just go to sleep and that was the end of the broadcast day.  Thanks to Tonight Show inventor Pat “Sylvester” Weaver (yes, Sigourney Weaver’s dad) trying out a new idea, that false perception changed forever.  It then tracks the talk show hosts all the way to the King of Late Night, Johnny Carson and how he finished what Weaver began.


Sitcoms share with us the forms radio origins and how Jackie Gleason tried to do his full fledged answer with a then-failed series lasting only 39 episodes called The Honeymooners, based on a skit from his previous variety show.  The competition crushed it, but he invented the sitcom, Lucille Ball had the first monster hit with it in I Love Lucy and situation comedies worldwide became an all-time mainstay until recently.


Game Shows also started on radio and some could argue, even in movie houses trying to have contests that kept audiences coming back.  In this, we learn of the groundbreaking work of Mark Goodson, Merv Griffin, Chuck Barris and the big scandal that almost killed them for good.


Variety covers shows (peaking with Ed Sullivan) that featured a mix of comedy skits, dancing numbers, music performances and other special features that started on radio as Your Hit Parade and has its roots back to Vaudeville.  It also shows the rise of a series of hits in the wake of Sullivan’s success with Flip Wilson, Sonny & Cher, Tony Orlando & Dawn and others until the format burned out with the arrival of home video, Music Video, cable channels and MTV.



The anamorphically enhanced 1.78 X 1 image is culminated from various analog and HD sources, from old stretched-around Kinescopes, to film footage, to great stills, to new interviews.  It is well-edited and furthers the defining of this vital early history.  The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo is also varied, with the older audio showing its age, but is as clean as possible and both remind us how important the restoration and preservation of such material is.  The only extra is a good one, extended interviews with all the pioneers.


This is so good, this could have gone on for hours and there is much more to say.  Pioneers Of Television is a must-see mini-series.  Hope we get a sequel!



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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