I recently purchased The Criterion Collection’s The Golden Age Of Television DVD set. It features eight of the classic live teleplays from the 1950s, which were labeled that title during a 1981 PBS rebroadcast of the best of the bunch, those dramas that stuck in the cultural memory over time. The reality was that live television drama was almost akin to what silent films were to film history: a unique early period where a now lost art form seems almost untouchable, or unrecreatable, for it was both unique yet accessible to later art forms in its medium. To think that live drama blended with television camera, in a sort of theater meets film experience, for One Night Only!
The era was a great proving ground for actors and actresses who would go on to later make their marks in television and film, as well as directors such as John Frankenheimer. But, in reality, the live teleplays were the medium of the writer, first and foremost, and names like Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Serling, and Horton Foote, amongst many others, put their names on the cultural map through this medium. Looking about at the shallow, simplistic offerings both television and film churn out, one wonders why, with all its funding and public ‘trust,’ PBS does not resurrect this art form, in a show akin to Masterpiece Theater, but done live, say every Sunday night. Even if just 12 or 15 new 60-90 minute dramas could emerge, supplemented with adaptations of classic teleplays and stage plays, what a boost it would be to young writers around the country. Granted, with public funding, PBS dramas might turn out to be far more preachy and PC than their Golden Age counterparts, but this is where returning to the past could also help. Almost all of the Golden Age dramas had one or two major sponsors, like The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, the program that, on May 24th, 1953, brought the touching yet emotionally gritty drama Marty to screen. By having some large corporations directly sponsor the arts on television, they could do much to reduce the damage the last few years have wrought, and one could even rotate the sponsors for each play, and merely have PBS broadcast them, while keeping their claws off the actual art. Imagine a rotating play series, with individual episodes brought to you by CitiGroup, British Petroleum, Walmart, General Motors, etc. Not that it would mitigate the damage they have done, but it would be a token first step.