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An Interview with Eric Burns, Author of Invasion of the Mind Snatchers: Television’s Conquest of America in the Fifties

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I heard about Invasion of the Mind Snatchers: Television’s Conquest of America in the Fifties and its author Eric Burnswhile listening to one of my favorite NPR programs On the Media. You can hear its interview with the author, Eric Burns, here. I quickly got in touch with the author and arranged an interview of my own, after I first had the chance to read the book myself.

Invasion of the Mind Snatchers is a must-read for those fascinated by American society and/or television. What happened on television in the ’50s is still impacting us today, from shows that appear to be precursors to today’s reality shows to the portrayal of women on television that led to Betty Friedan writing her book, The Feminine Mystique, the unofficial start of the feminist movement.

I could say more but I think I’d rather, after excerpting the book’s note to readers, cut right to the interview. I’ll include with the interview a few excerpts to provide more depth on a few topics.

The book has this “note to readers”:

Invasion of the Mind Snatchers: Television’s Conquest of America in the Fifties, is about the way Americans reacted to TV in the decade when we reacted most strongly – which is to say, when the new medium was at its most powerful, its most preoccupying, its most life-altering. The book has little to do with technology, much to do with the men, women and children who so willingly yielded to the spell that the technology cast in their homes.

I was one of them … We watched television daily, played our own version of the shows that were our favorite, purchased the merchandise they promoted, and observed the behavior of the adults around us who were just as deeply under the medium’s spell as we were. But since they tuned into different programs than we did, they revealed their subservience in other ways.

Scott: Can you begin by talking about your own transition from being a TV viewer to being a TV broadcaster to being an author of books about TV history? How did that come about? 

Eric: I was a rabid TV viewer as a child, as were most children of my generation.  In my case, though, the fascination was due to the newness of the medium, and once I got used to it, I lost interest.  True, I worked in television news, but had no interest in other kinds of programs, and now that I no longer work in television news, I have little interest in that field, either. 

I wrote Invasion of the Mind Snatchers: Television’s Conquest of America in the Fifties, because I wanted to tell the history of that seminal decade in a different manner from previous histories.  Thus, I told the story through the prism of television, perhaps the most appropriate way to view the decade because everything that happened in the United States in the fifties was filtered through the television screen.
 
What made you decide to focus a book on this decade? Was that always the plan or did the plans for this book evolve and stretch and change over time?  

Most of the histories I’ve written have been, at least in part, about colonial times.  I wanted to move closer to the present, and since the fifties were the most formative years of my life and television the most formative of influences, the decision was easy.

Do you plan to write about other decades of TV as a follow-up or is that more of a one-off? 

My plans now are to write fiction, and I have completed my first novel.  I might return to history; I might not.  At present, after all my years in journalism and eight volumes of history, I need a break from the truth.  I want to tell some lies.  I want to make up stuff.

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.