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TV History: American Bandstand

by Christine Becker

This clip was uploaded for an assignment in Christine Becker's FTT 30461: History of Television class at the University of Notre Dame in Spring 2019. Check the commentary dropdown menu for a student's analysis of the clip.

American Bandstand and the Teenager Viewer

by Taylor Koewler

There may be no comparable phenomenon that shaped American life in the 1950s more than television. Television programming in the 1950s would become what we know as the Golden Age of Television. Television in the earlier part of the decade included a variety programs: anthology dramas, westerns, and sitcoms, all of which would challenge conventionality to their predecessors. American Bandstand would follow this unorthodox trend. American Bandstand would come to embody the teenage revolution and shape the way Americans think about pop culture and rock’n’roll in the midst of a social climate ready to embrace a new era of liberation among youth.
Dick Clark is the man to thank for this said cultural movement with the creation of National Bandstand. Beginning broadcasting nationally in 1952, average teenagers across the United States would take the screen by storm. The show that evolved into American Bandstand appeared on Philadelphia's WFIL-TV, just a few years before the rise of rock and roll. Hosted by local radio personality Bob Horn, the original Bandstand established the basic format of its later manifestation. In the first year after Dick Clark had taken over as the host in 1956, Bandstand remained a popular local hit; however, Clark’s ambition made it become the classic show we know today. When the ABC television network polled its affiliates in 1957 for suggestions to fill its 3:30 p.m. time slot, Clark pushed hard for Bandstand, which network executives picked up and scheduled for an August 5, 1957 premiere; thus, a new genre of TV was formed. Instead of witnessing your favorite movie star on anthology drama, teenegers would now be able to tune in and watch their peers dancing on television: a relatability factor that could not be matched prior to this pioneering show. The “trends” in the world of the teenager would become the heart of American Bandstand. The most popular music combined with the sight of the show’s unpolished teen “regulars” dancing and showing off the latest fashions in clothing and hairstyles would pave the way for pop culture as a phenomenon, and ultimately the invention of music television. When Dick Clark acquired his nickname as “America’s oldest teenager,” the concept of a teenager was still foreign and even a bit racy; however, he helped make this term into the adolescent stage we know today. Dick Clark understood the social climate of the average American teenager and the rising teenage rebellion to parents all over the nation. He acted almost as a wholesome mediator between the defiant youth and the concerned parents of the 1950s in the midst of the rock'n'roll era. Further, Mr. Clark saw the specific type of audience that Bandstand attracted that would lead to the formation of his television-based empire, Dick Clark Productions, that produced thousands of hours of television. Renamed American Bandstand, the newly national program featured new elements that would revolutionize why a niche audience would watch a TV show.
The genre created by American Bandstand would have a legacy of it its own in a era of television. Music television has shaped pop culture as we know it today with the creations of shows like Soul Train in 1971 and stations like MTV. When we think of American Bandstand, we do not necessarily think of “reality television.” However, viewers of the time followed it in the way contemporary Americans watch reality TV. Viewers would watch their favorite couples and follow the relationships day to day or week by week. An average teenager would now be able to tune in and view high schoolers doing the same activities that they enjoyed doing without leaving the comfort of their own home. This notion of feeling involved with the outside world by just watching strangers socialize on TV is reflected in Lynn Spigel’s Installing the Television Set: “This interest in bringing an illusion of the world into the home can be seen as a larger historical process[…]” American Bandstand especially allowed for this type of cultural atmosphere. Teenage television watchers could learn how to dance the way that “regulars” did while simultaneously creating a sense of inclusion in activities without actually being on the show. In this particular clip of the show, the teens are dancing the “Rock & Roll” dance, one that would become popular at high school dances around the nation.
American Bandstand defies the norms of television that dominated the 1950s. Teenagers all over the nation would tune in everyday and watch kids just like them dancing on the television screen. While it shared the nature of live television with a number of shows during the 1950s, its legacy lives on through its cultural impact on how we think about adolescence. The genre of television created by Dick Clark can be seen today with stations like MTV that capture the social aspect of pop culture. Overall, we can thank American Bandstand for many American cultural and social aspects today in the teenage stage of life.

Spiegel, Lynn. Installing the Television Set . University of Minnesota Press .

Excerpt from American Bandstand

Excerpt from a 1957 episode of AMERICAN BANDSTAND.

from Rock & Roll Dance 1957 (American Bandstand) (1957)
Creator: Louis M. Hayward, Charles Reeves
Distributor: YouTube (User: Vintage Swing Dance)
Posted by Christine Becker