Watching TV

Lately I’ve been nerding out with a terrific book: Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television, by Harry Castleman and Walter J. Podrazik. It’s an incredibly detailed history of American television, organized season by season. The first three chapters cover the invention of TV and the beginnings of TV broadcasting, and after that, each TV season is covered in great, engagingly written detail, one chapter per season, from 1944-45 all the way up through 2009-10. (So far I’m up to 1978-79.) Most chapters are about 7-8 pages long, but the book is 8 1/2″ by 11″ and the text is in two columns per page, so on ordinary-sized book pages, each chapter would probably be about 20 pages long. (The chapters have neat titles, too. Here’s an explanation of each chapter title.)

The season-by-season structure lets you follow the story of TV over the years: the rise of the networks, the completion of the coaxial cable that allowed live TV from coast to coast, the move of TV production from New York to Hollywood. You can follow the flow of broadcasting trends over the years: TV experimentation in the 1940s, variety shows and anthologies and Westerns in the 1950s, action-adventure shows and rural escapist sitcoms in the 1960s, smartly-written CBS sitcoms in the early 1970s, and so on. You can follow the changing fortunes of the big networks: CBS was king for the first few decades of TV, but in the mid-70s ABC suddenly rocketed to number one with entertaining escapism like Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, and Charlie’s Angels. (That’s where I am right now.)

The book also covers government regulation of TV and the rise of public TV and cable TV, and it touches on national and world events when relevant. Did you ever wonder why network prime time runs from 8-11 pm (7-10 pm Central/Mountain), except for Sundays when there’s an extra hour? Did you ever wonder why TVs used to have both VHF and UHF dials? It’s in this book.

Each chapter also has a prime-time grid of the networks’ fall schedules for that season, as well as a sidebar listing some important events from the season.

This will sound silly, but I love this book. I’d always been a TV history nerd, but I didn’t know this book existed until a year ago. (It’s actually an updated edition; it was first published in 1982). I haven’t loved a book so much since The President’s House, a two-volume history of the White House, covered chronologically by presidency, that I read a few years ago. I guess I enjoy incredibly detailed, information-packed, well-written chronological narratives about topics I’m interested in.

Yeah, I’m a nerd, and proud of it.