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TV History: What's My Line?

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.

The Golden Era is Evident in What's My Line?

by Brennan OMalley

Known as The Golden Era of Television, the 1950’s provided a new medium of entertainment to American Households, mostly through live programming. A popular live game show of the decade, What’s My Line?, brought regular people, just like the viewers, into the studio, where celebrity judges would guess their line of work. Hosted by the personable John Charles Daly, What’s My Line? accumulated countless devoted fans. People were especially entertained when the judges were blindfolded, and a celebrity mystery guest would come out as the contestant. The show is an archetype for all the wonders that 1950’s television illuminated. This clip particularly manifests a few key characteristics of both the television industry in the 1950’s as well as the cultural context of the time. The clip especially highlights the ideologies of consumerism and a potential utopian society that TV offered to Americans.
Advertisements were very pervasive in 1950’s television. They delivered the funds needed in order to create the entertainment programs. There was a large emphasis in America on kick-starting the economy. George Lipsitz discusses this idea in his article, “The Meaning of Memory.” He explains how the government strived to increase consumer spending after World War II, and television was a major tool used to do so. It stimulated consumption. Big Businesses and commercialism at the time focused on making sure everyone had the best product they possibly could. Each time a new version was created, white middle class America was the target. Through television, these citizens were told their quality of life would increase with the addition of the product. The advertisement in this clip is no different. The Remington 60 De Luxe shaver is described to “make all other shaving old-fashioned.” Why would Americans want to be old fashioned? They don’t, and therefore, they need this new shaver in their lives. Television offered this new platform to target American customers, and make them feel as though they needed to buy; as though they needed to be diligent consumers. In effect, this would boost the economy throughout the country.
In addition to offering exposure to the latest products and services, television in the 1950’s offered a picture of this utopian society that America had the potential to become. Many in the industry at the time believed It personified the innovative potential of the country as a whole. This new medium of entertainment presented a completely unparalleled experience for Americans. Never before could you feel comfortable and separate in your own home in the suburbs, while still feeling a connection to your neighbors through what you watched. Lynn Spigel explains in her article, “Installing the Television Set,” that television provided both a private and a public viewing experience. It “allowed people to be alone and together at the same time.” This idea is evident in this episode as well. For example, Eleanor Roosevelt comes on as the celebrity guest contestant. The viewers remain in the comfort of their own homes, simply living a normal night with their families, and there is the great Eleanor Roosevelt in their living room speaking to them and entertaining them. It was a truly remarkable experience for the audience at the time. Even though they watched these episodes separately, it still lead to connections with those around you. The day after this episode everyone would discuss and ask “Did you see Eleanor Roosevelt on TV last night?” and they would rehash the episode together. The show, along with countless others at the time, lead to a sense of community among its viewers.
Furthermore, this new industry provided more than just connection with your neighbors. Coinciding with the ideas of a utopia, and an ideal viewing experience, television blurred the lines between reality and fiction. It differed from both theater and films, incorporating elements from both in order to perfect the medium. For example, this clip displays the main goal of the game show, guessing who the mystery guest is and her line of work. However, the clip goes one step further than simply entertaining when John Charles Daly explains the observance of United Nations Week approaching soon after this episode aired. He utilizes television as a tool to relay this message, with the help of Eleanor Roosevelt’s presence and involvement in the United Nations. This is another example of television’s impact on society at the age. In addition to amusing the viewers, this episode relayed important information to them as well. This combination had never before transpired in the theater or in films, and promoted a unique excellence that only TV could provide.
Overall, this clip from What’s My Line? illustrates several of the driving characteristics of the television industry in the 1950’s. As evident in this clip, the ideologies of consumerism and the potential wonders of television were inescapable when Americans turned on their television sets. However, this clip also displays the prominence of some of the benefits of the new medium of the time, such as providing a sense of community and an ideal viewing experience for both entertainment and receiving information.

Excerpt from WHAT'S MY LINE?

This clip contains an excerpt from WHAT'S MY LINE? with mystery guest Eleanor Roosevelt.

from 'What's My Line'' - 18 October 1953 (1953)
Creator: Mark Goodson, Bill Todman
Posted by Christine Becker