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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.

You explain on pages 82-85 some pretty appalling changes forced on programs by advertisers. My favorite was about the American Gas Association wanting the word “gas” removed from a presentation of ‘Judgement at Nuremberg.’ What changes of this type did you find most startling? 

The most depressing example of sponsor censorship to me was the U.S. Steel Hour’s presentation of the story of Emmitt Till, told so that it was completely unrecognizable. The most comical episodes were “fording” the river and Edgar Bergen’s asking a quiz show contestant for her sign. 

From the book:

It was also creative thinking on the part of the Ford Motor Company to agree, on another occasion, to sponsor a program only if the Chrysler Building were painted out of a backdrop of the New York skyline. No less creative was it to “automatically and arbitrarily delete from the English language any words that suggests a competitive product. You can’t ‘ford’ a river if it’s sponsored by Chevy; you can’t offer someone a ‘match’ if it’s sponsored by Ronson lights.” In fact, “in some cases you can’t even use the word American. It might be in the name of a rival Tobacco company,” such as the American Tobacco Company, which manufactured Lucky Strike

When a guest on the quiz program Do You Trust Your Wife? was asked his mate’s astrological sign, he said Cancer. The host thought nothing of it. The producer thought nothing of it. The studio audience, as far as anyone knows, made no untoward associations. But the tobacco barons who paid the bills for the show gulped in resounding unison. Cancer? they said. What the hell kind of sign is that? They ordered the episode to be re-shot; in the new version, the spouse was an Aries.

I found the second part of your book the most fascinating as you talk about messages sent by TV on topics including politics, religion and advertising. Can you talk about whether you think TV did more harm than good regarding the issues of race, gender, and class? 

Television did more harm than good, not because it portrayed women and blacks as second-class citizens, but because it so powerfully reinforced the truth in society that women and blacks were second-class citizens.  And it did far more harm than good to the political process by insisting that it adopt the standards of television; i.e., short, simple-minded “sound bites,” entertainment above substance.

Is it accurate to say that if the shows of the ‘ 50s had not been so sexist that Betty Friedan would not have written the article in the ‘TV Guide’ that became ‘The Feminist Mystique,’ which some would call the start of the women’s movement? 

One can never be certain what would not have happened; it is the problem of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”  But it is certainly accurate to say that Betty Friedan would probably not have written The Feminine Mystique had she not been so appalled by fifties sitcoms, and that, as a result, the women’s movement would have been delayed.

I realize your focus was on the ’50s but as someone born in 1968 — who was also a reporter for some time — I’m curious how you think things have changed since that time with regards to the topics mentioned above, namely television’s role and relationship in regards to politics, religion and advertising?

Politics:  Little has changed. Television forced politics to become an adjunct of show biz in the fifties and so it remains. 

Religion: It is far less influential on television now than it was in the fifties, and was not terribly influential even then, with the three exceptions of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, Oral Robert, and Billy Graham.  But only Sheen appeared on television weekly for most of the decade. 

Advertising:  Advertisers are much less interested in television than they used to be for two reasons:  1. The remote and TiVO have enabled many viewers to skip commercials.  2. There are so many shows and so many networks today that few shows can deliver large audiences to sponsors.

Do you consider it ironic that you’re writing books about a medium which some would argue is responsible for why more people don’t read books? 

No, not at all.  I would assume people who read Invasion of the Mind Snatchers are largely people who’ve grown disaffected with television, and thus are receptive to a book that analyzes the medium’s excesses and faults so perceptively.

I was appalled reading about the shows ‘Strike It Rich’ and ‘Queen for a Day’ where people essentially shared how bad their life was and hoped to win some money. But then I thought about reality TV shows and I can’t say that those shows were any worse than some shows I have seen and been appalled by on TV today. Do you think those kind of programs were precursors to the so-called reality shows of these days? 

In a way they were precursors, Scott, because they are similar types of shows, playing to similar kinds of vile emotions in the audience.  But they were certainly not direct precursors because so much time elapsed from Queen for a Day to Fear Factor.

Why do you think people have trouble distinguishing between characters on television and reality, be it the school teacher you discuss as receiving school job offers, to TV doctors? 

It is important, if not virtually impossible, to understand the impact of television in the fifties, its ability actually to bring other human beings into our houses.  Nothing like this had ever happened before.  We were captivated, mesmerized, hypnotized. Thus, Eve Arden, who played a school teacher, received offers to be a school teacher in real life. 

From the book:

The medium was an irrestistible force. But what kind of force? How were people to think of television? As an appliance? A piece of furniture? A sort of player piano with more to offer than merely aural gratification?

Actually, it makes less sense to think of TV as something mechanical than it did as something almost human. New neighbors perhaps, a few of whom had moved in next door and a few of whom had commandeered the next block — and all of whom were constantly dropping by to visit. They might have been, as the New York Times Magazine put it in the late fifties, ‘loud-mouthed, sometimes delightful, often shocking, thoroughly unpredictable.’ But they were also astonishingly versatile.

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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.