Film Critic Delves Into 60-Year 'Biography' Of Television NPR's Rachel Martin speaks with David Thomson, author of "Television: A Biography" about TV's vast landscape and key moments in the medium's history.

Film Critic Delves Into 60-Year 'Biography' Of Television

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Five thousand years - according to author and film critic David Thomson, that's how much programming has been on television if you played everything that has ever been on every single channel of American TV in its history. Thomson has valiantly taken on a survey of this massive medium in his book, "Television: A Biography." He joins us now from the studios of KQED in San Francisco. Welcome to the program.

DAVID THOMSON: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: This is a huge book about a huge topic, so we asked you to do a little work for us. We asked you to suggest some TV moments that signal important milestones in television. And the first one we're going to play is this one.


MILTON BERLE: (As Uncle Miltie) You're all invited to the farewell surprise party that I'm throwing for myself tonight.


BERLE: (As Uncle Miltie) I'm throwing a farewell surprise party for myself.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) You're throwing the party? Where's the surprise?

BERLE: I'm paying for it.

MARTIN: (Laughter) So why don't you do the honors of introducing who that is and why it's important?

THOMSON: Well, that was Uncle Miltie, Milton Berle, and he started on television in 1948. In all candor, having looked back at it, because I was too young and too far away to see it at the time, I don't think he was that good.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

THOMSON: But he's an example of something that keeps happening in television, which is that people who are not overflowing in talent are in the right place at the right time, and they become identified with the medium. And he was known as Mr. Television.

MARTIN: Let's play another famous moment of TV history. This is Walter Cronkite.


WALTER CRONKITE: From Dallas, Texas, the flash apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2 o'clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.

THOMSON: What you don't quite get on just the soundtrack but you saw, if you saw it, is that there was a tear in his eye. And he's clearly deeply affected and shocked. But for Cronkite personally, ironically, it became a keynote. And people who saw him do it, that were other people doing it on other networks, but they related it to Cronkite.

And I think it had a lot to do with the way in which he would become, in the next 20 years, such a figure of reassurance and reliability. He's probably the classic steadfast newscaster that American television has ever had.

MARTIN: It also stands in such contrast to where we are today in terms of the media landscape and the number of choices and how people feel about those newscasters, the level of trust or mistrust placed in them.

THOMSON: I agree totally. And, you know, what you could hear in him was that instinct that this is a huge event and it needs absolute simplicity. And there is so much shouting and talking down and talking over other people on alleged news programs today. And I think that has a lot to do with the way the public doesn't really trust the news anymore, the TV news particularly. In those days, when Cronkite was so big at CBS, he had a very large audience. And no news network today has anything like that audience. The news has been scattered and blown to the wind.

MARTIN: Next, a part of television history we can signal with just four notes.


MARTIN: There it is.


GEORGE FENNEMAN: (As Announcer) The story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.

MARTIN: "Dragnet."

THOMSON: That's right.

MARTIN: Cop shows. It was - was it the original? Was it the first?

THOMSON: I think there were a couple of others around the same time, but it was the first big one. And you can hear there that it's radio. That's where it had come from. And it was a huge success on television, so incredibly simple that now it has the sort of charm of self-parody, which it never intended. But we still have how many cop shows? Every few years, some great new cop show comes along, although, of course, there is a difference.

Time and again these days, the villains, the criminals, are the central figures in these shows. And if you look at it overall, historically, it is remarkable, I think, how the American audience has shifted its allegiance from the cops who will protect the innocents to people like Walter White in "Breaking Bad," Tony Soprano, who are certainly not the innocents and really don't belong in a world where there is very much innocence. So there's been an amazing shift.


BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Walter White) You clearly don't know who you're talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that of me? No, I am the one who knocks.

THOMSON: We no longer quite believe in the rigid wall demarcation between people who are lawful and people who aren't.


THOMSON: It's a much, much more complicated society, more cynical in many ways, more sad in many ways, too. And the bad cop has become a very key figure in a lot of these series now, whereas Joe Friday, you would never have imagined that Joe Friday would even park illegally.

MARTIN: As a result, Joe Friday wasn't that interesting, was he?

THOMSON: I think if you look at Joe Friday today, it's very hard to believe people watched it as faithfully as they did.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

THOMSON: But again, that's a condition of looking at television historically. You have to say, boy, did my parents love that?

MARTIN: Yeah, it's all relative.

THOMSON: But they did.

MARTIN: David Thomson, author of "Television: A Biography." He joined us from the studios of KQED in San Francisco. David, thank you so much for talking with us.

THOMSON: Thank you so much.

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