Sunday, September 20, 2009

Lazy Sunday # 85: Capturing Television

The Emmy Awards will be handed out this evening, celebrating the best the last American TV season had to offer. Some of your favorite shows will be honored. Some of them will be robbed. And twenty years from now, the ones that mattered to you will still hold a special place in your heart.

What we watch and why we watch it is always ethereal, always changing. But what remains constant is the drive to communicate, to engage and to bring something special to the screen that abides in those who make television.

Finding a new idea or a fresh take on the oldest one there is and then feeding the voracious machine that churns out the shows millions want to make a part of their lives is a daunting task. And despite what “TMZ” and “Access Hollywood” might lead you to believe, that task is accomplished by intelligent, thoughtful and courageous men and women, who find a vision, follow it and make it real for the rest of us.

Many of these people have been gathered together by those who hand out the Emmys, The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, at a very special site still in Beta called  the “Archive of American Television” at

Stamped with the mandate of “Capturing Television, One Voice at a Time”, the Archive offers hundreds of in-depth video interviews with the legends and pioneers of television – formatted for easy searches by person, show, topic or profession.

Some of these interviews are hours in length, as several generations of the industry explore television from its first days to its current transitions to other media platforms. From writers, actors and directors on the creative side, through the crews and technicians who contributed to and executed the vision to the network presidents and programmers who built and sustained the delivery system for all that creativity, the business of making television has never been so thoroughly examined.

Here you’ll be able to see Elma Farnsworth, widow of Philo Farnsworth, television’s inventor, describe the night her husband showed her the first images ever seen on a cathode ray tube and then sent a telegram to the backers reading: “Well, the damn thing works.”

You’ll listen to James Arness detail the rehearsal process of “Gunsmoke” as the production worked to transform the TV Western from a diversion for kids into an adult drama that would be a ratings leader for 20 years, the longest primetime run in US history.

There’s Walter Cronkite talking about the one and only commercial he did for Winston cigarettes.

Jay Sandrich recalling the 119 episodes of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” that he directed.

Larry Gelbart repeats his favorite line from “M*A*S*H”, The one where Father Mulcahy describes doctors warming their hands over open wounds.

And all of this is mixed with clips and historical footage and anecdotes to die for. It’s the kind of emersion into what it really takes to make great television that no University or Film School can ever hope to provide. All for free and totalling more hours than you’ve probably already spent in front of a television set.

Before you enjoy the glamor and glitter of the Emmys, learn what it really took to get there.

And Enjoy your Sunday.

1 comment:

DMc said...

Oh I starting to think like Jim Henshaw?

I was going to post the same thing tonight - that instead of watching the Emmy's I would probably watch...this.

Wow. Now I'm scared.

Still, imagine how the conversation might go if our Academy had undertaken a similar project -- before the talent of Corner Gas scatters to the States.

Canadian shows don't have the saturation coverage. It might actually provide a useful service.

Nah, probably better to run 10 nights of awards nobody really respects.