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TV History: What's My Line?

by Christine Becker

This clip was uploaded for an assignment in Prof. Christine Becker's FTT 30461: History of Television class at the University of Notre Dame. A student will be adding the commentary to this clip by March 1.

The Impact of an Active Audience

by Colleen Iannone

The interactions between audiences and hosts on live television in American 1950’s programming represents television as a participatory medium through which audiences are exposed to far off places, feel part of a national community, and can influence programming. This clip from an episode of "What’s My Line?" stands as an example of the unique relationships created between audiences and television stars. Hosted by John Charles Daly, the show consisted of a panel who guessed a challenger’s occupation through a series of yes-no questions. Because of the live nature of this television program, audiences were ultimately granted the opportunity to have a more active than passive experience with television in the 1950’s.

Similar to the way in which radio linked communities, language used to address guests on "What’s My Line?" allowed at-home viewers to feel connected to foreign parts of America. In Michele Hilmes’ piece "NBC and the Network Idea," Hilmes addresses the implications of the title National Broadcasting Company. Although "What’s My Line?" was produced by CBS, radio’s ability to reach audiences meant that listeners were connected through this audible medium with local and national communities (Hilmes, 10). As television supplemented radio’s abilities with visual components, television became a means to partake in another national activity and see people from across America. In this clip, Daly welcomes Carl Mills, a Prison Warden from Atlanta, GA. Daly first asks if Mills would be “good enough to tell us where” he’s from. By initiating their conversation with discussion of Mills’ hometown, Daly privileges the audience with the knowledge of another place of origin than their own and an opportunity to visually welcome others into their home. Additionally, Daly uses directional terms to orient his guest and viewers. Next, Daly instructs him to walk “West, South, and...slightly East...in front of the panel.” Daly’s play on words organizes the physical space of the set for the audience and notes the variety of people welcomed onto the program. As the navigator of the show’s course, Daly demonstrates the sense of proximity television allows viewers to experience.

Interactions between the live audience and its host in the studio also demonstrate television’s ability to facilitate the creation of a unique relationship between those on and off-camera. With information pertaining to Mills’ occupation, the live audience can infer that his job isn’t the most glamorous, setting up their energetic reactions to Hal Block’s unpredictable questioning. As Block begins his questioning, the audience laughs quietly; Block smiles in confusion as he doesn’t understand why his simple questions are so funny. After Mills confirms that he has a “sort of steady clientele,” Block nods his head in satisfaction that “it must be a nice place” to work at! The audience revels in Block’s misunderstanding, prompting Block to reply to their laughter and state, “well quiet I can’t think!” A connection between the live audience and hosts is developed as Block acknowledges that all who are present in the studio are part of the experience.

Block then changes his questioning according to the live audience’s reactions as it gives him clues as to if he’s close to guessing Mills’ occupation. When asking, “Would you have anything to do with curbing their boisterousness?,” the audience becomes silent; Block has engaged in calming their excitement, and they have reacted by silencing their laughter. Throughout his questioning, Block invites the live audience to participate in and direct his interrogation. The joking between hosts and the live audience acknowledges a live audience’s ability to influence television production in 1950’s game show programming.

Lastly, at-home audiences were inspired to partake in the show’s live programming as television stood as an accessible public service across America. At the start of this clip, Daly allows “folks at home to have a further look at Mr. Mills” with superimposed text on-screen telling viewers his occupation. By reaching the public audience, television entertainment itself became a public service, as argued by Hilmes (22). Television “broadcasting” was able to to pass through cultural barriers and become accessible to audiences, supporting continued programming viewership (10). With the ability to watch the show and react to audible and visual stimuli, at-home audiences were able to “now forge a permanent relationship” with television according to Gary Edgerton’s work, "The Columbia History of American Television" (Edgerton, 110). The dual function of television to expose as well as unify audiences ultimately wouldn’t have been possible without audience participation, particularly in "What’s My Line?". As a result of audience engagement, television facilitated relationships among people from across America and gave television viewers the privilege to direct the content of shows, the experiences of on-camera individuals, and the continuation of programming in the 1950’s.

Works Cited:
Edgerton, Gary. Columbia Histories of Modern American Life : The Columbia History of American Television. New York, US: Columbia University Press, 2010. ProQuest ebrary. 78-110. Web. 25 February 2017.

Hilmes, Michele, "NBC and the Network Idea," in Michele Hilmes, ed., NBC: America's Network. Berkeley, CA: UC, 2007. 7-24. Retrieved from Notre Dame Hesburgh Libraries Course E-Reserves. 25 Feb. 2017.

- Colleen Iannone

What's My Line?

This is a clip from an episode of WHAT'S MY LINE? that aired on October 5, 1952

from What's My Line? (1952)
Creator: CBS
Distributor: RerunCentury.com and archive.org
Posted by Christine Becker
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