A fictional exploration of the dawning of TV
By Frazier Moore
TV is ubiquitous, transportable, even edible (a pill-size camera used in medical treatment gives a whole new meaning to the term "TV content").
Meanwhile, a fine new novel recalls a simpler time, the infancy of television, as told from both sides of the black-and-white screen.
Written by W.D. Wetherell, "Morning" tells of Alec McGowan, who hosts a show much like the circa-1950s "Today," and of the public McGowan captivates with his visionary search for the truth.
NBC introduced the real-life "Today" show in January 1952. With two hours of live TV to fill, and a mission to merge the world with its studio, "Today," led by its host Dave Garroway, forever changed how people both make and watch television.
The fictional McGowan shares many things with Garroway, among them the bow tie; the easy way with a story; the glassed-in, sidewalk studio on Manhattan's 49th Street; a chimpanzee sidekick; a soulful signoff (Garroway: "Peace"; McGowan: "Truth"); and personal demons viewers never saw.
"Morning" is a wistful tribute to early, live TV.
But it's more than a sentimental journey. It also serves as a reminder of an obvious but easily overlooked fact: Now, as then, when you watch TV, you're not just watching shows. You're watching a receiver of those shows that's also called TV.
And the nature of your encounters with that gadget has evolved over time, no less than the shows the gadget transmits.
Consider the description of how McGowan's black horn-rim frames "cut through the fuzziness. Watching out in Peoria ... using only rabbit ears, that's all you could see sometimes."
Sure, each innovation in the TV set (has anyone under 40 ever referred to it as a "TV set"?) provides an improved picture and, presumably, an improved viewing experience.
But what experiences are left behind? Even a half-century ago, McGowan knows "television itself is just another stab at seeing," subject to continuous progress.
But "with each step ahead something vital is lost sight of, so that what is gained in vision is balanced by what goes blind."
Who (until "Morning," that is) has paused to celebrate "the particulate nature" of the early TV screen, whose "picture danced in gritty motes"?
And who has ever recognized the technical demands once placed on the viewer? Hear McGowan growl about his audience's ineptitude: "People out there, you can't trust them on the controls. The instant anything flips, they reach for the horizontal, get us rolling, make us worse."
(Explanatory note to younger readers: If the picture collapsed into a stack of lines, your TV-watching forebears took corrective action by twiddling the horizontal control dial. If the picture began rolling up or down, they went for the vertical. Horizontal and vertical. Ask where any baby boomer learned those words; odds are, from their living room set.)
A television used to be regarded as a major appliance, the one you installed in the living room.
It was the lamp unto the upraised feet of viewers in their easy chairs. But now televisions are everywhere, hence taken for granted, like aromatic candles found wherever you turn, scenting society more than illuminating it.
"Morning" remembers a time when TV was new, unproven and thrilled with itself. When it was beginning its reach across the ether to its viewers. And when, in wonderment, they reached back.