Developing a television genre: Table Talk with Helen Sioussat.

Author:Brinson, Susan L.
 
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The television tube warmed, the black-and-white screen flickered, and the image of four people sitting around a coffee table soon appeared. "Ladies and gentlemen," a male voice with a slight New England accent announced, "the people you see but do not at this moment hear very clearly, do not know whether they are visible or audible or neither. They are having coffee after lunch and for some minutes past they have been talking to one another and to their hostess who is Helen Sioussat. They do not know exactly when you will begin to see or hear them" (Sioussat, 1941). Over the course of the following 30 minutes the four discussed national defense issues. When the broadcast ended, the first television talk show had premiered. The date was July 2, 1941.

Commercial television launched between 1941-1942 in the United States, a period that has received Spartan attention from historians. Most histories of television programming ignore this first year and start with the immediate post-World War II era, as though commercial television commenced in 1946. While NBC's first year of television was dominated by entertainment such as sports, movies, and variety shows, CBS developed more public affairs programming. (1) One genre it developed was the talk show. Previous research suggested that talk shows emerged on CBS around 1948 (Timberg, 2002), and focused on individuals or their programs in the late 1940s or early 1950s, such as Arthur Godfrey or Arlene Francis (Baughman, 1981 ; Cassidy & White, 2002; Crosby, 1999; Francis, 1978; Merron, 1988; O'Connor, 1986; Paar, 1960, 1961, 1983; Pinsker, 1996; Rosteck, 1989; Wallace & Gates, 1984). Not surprisingly, Edward R. Murrow's programs received the lion's share of attention, particularly Person to Person and See It Now and, most specifically, his McCarthy broadcast. Timberg provided the most comprehensive overview of the early years of the genre and its development at CBS, DuMont, and NBC between 1948-1962 (Timberg, 2002).

In addition to the historical overview, Timberg (2002) asserted that four specific characteristics are endemic to the talk show genre. The first principle is that the talk show is hosted by a single person who directs the discussion and insures participation by each guest. The second principle asserts that the talk show "is experienced in the present tense as 'conversation'" (p. 4). The third principle recognizes that the program is a commodity, just as all television programs are products used to entice viewers to advertising. The final principle asserts that "the give-and-take on a talk show, while it must appear to be spontaneous, must also be highly structured" (p. 5). Finally, Timberg further asserts that the talk show is comprised of three sub-genres: news talk, entertainment talk, and socially situated talk. The following article traces the development and production of Table Talk with Helen Sioussat and demonstrates that the genre characteristics identified by Timberg were first revealed in this program rather than post-World War II shows. Thus, Table Talk with Helen Sioussat was the first TV talk show and likely the progenitor of all others.

Table Talk with Helen Sioussat

Table Talk with Helen Sioussat premiered on Wednesday, July 2, 1941, on WCBW, CBS's Channel 2 station in New York City. It was broadcast live from the CBS studio in the Manhattan Grand Central Terminal. The program was regularly scheduled for 2:45 every Wednesday afternoon, although it moved to 3:15 in 1942. The program ran for 48 weeks, with new discussion topics and guests every week. Thus, Table Talk premiered during commercial television's first year of broadcasting.

Commercial television was introduced slowly to the U.S. public, although they read about the wonders of the new medium for several years before. Charles Jenkins and Bell Laboratories experimented with mechanical television in the 1920s, while Philo T. Farnsworth provided the first public glimpses of electronic television in August 1935 during his demonstrations at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute (Godfrey, 2001). Throughout the World's Fair in 1939, RCA and NBC broadcast newsreels, live shows from Radio City, and interviews with fairgoers to viewers at the Fair and in the New York City area (Becker, 2001). After the much-ballyhooed demonstrations at the World's Fair, however, the promise of television broadcasts collapsed under the combined weight of industry infighting and government regulations (Brinson, 2004; Edwardson, 1999). Although everyone in the television industry wanted to recoup their considerable research and development costs as soon as possible, the industry disagreed on the technical aspects to be established as the standard. RCA favored the 441-line technology while Zenith, DuMont, and Philco believed that a 525-line transmission would soon be perfected and should be set as the standard. After a year of considerable controversy and conflict, the industry and the FCC agreed on the 525-line standard. In allowing commercial broadcasting to go forward, the FCC stipulated that broadcasters had to provide a program schedule of at least 15 hours per week, confined programs to the hours between 2:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m., and required a schedule that covered at least 6 days a week. The Commission set July 1, 1941, as the start date for commercial television broadcasting (Eighth Annual Report, 1942; "Go-ahead," 1941; Stewart, 1941; "Television To Go," 1941).

Table Talk was a roundtable discussion program developed by CBS to help fulfill the FCC's program schedule requirements, but it also was an experiment in determining how to televise a talk show. In the late spring of 1941 when it appeared as though the FCC would authorize commercial broadcasting, CBS executives Gilbert Seldes and Lawrence Lowman asked Helen Sioussat (pronounced SOO-suh), the network's Director of Talks, to develop a roundtable discussion television program and "work with [the idea] and find out what we could do to make it interesting [for] people to see" (Sioussat OHI, 1979).

Helen Sioussat was CBS's highly capable Director of Talks. She was born in 1902 in Baltimore, Maryland, and grew up in a wealthy family. After graduating high school and dropping out of college after 1 year, she worked in a variety of jobs around the country, including a year on the vaudeville circuit as a dancer (Booth, 1938). Afterward she took a series of clerical jobs that eventually led her to New York City in 1934. Sioussat was hired by Phillips Lord in 1935, who was better known as Seth Parker, producer and star of several popular radio crime dramas such as Gangbusters and G-Men. Sioussat worked as Lord's business and production manager, developing new programs and scripts (Sioussat OHI, 1979). Although she knew nothing about writing or the radio industry when hired by Lord, she quickly learned the intricacies of programming strategies, managing on-air talent, the network-affiliate relationship, and developing industry and political contacts. For example, Sioussat formulated script ideas for G-Men by working closely with J. Edgar Hoover, who was interested in promoting the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hoover gave Sioussat an office near his in order to feed "real world" ideas to render G-Men more realistically. Sioussat's talent and skill at developing relationships eventually served her very well at CBS. By 1936, Sioussat tired of the frenetic and demanding pace of working for Lord and applied for a position at CBS. She was hired to assist Edward R. Murrow, who was then the Director of Talks for the network (Halper, 2001; Hosley & Yamada, 1987). When Murrow was sent to Europe in 1937 to develop public affairs programming, Sioussat succeeded him as director. Thus, in the space of 3 years she progressed from novice to the first female network executive at CBS.

Sioussat became a highly organized administrator who developed a network of powerful and prominent people on whom she relied to produce CBS public affairs programming. Her appointment as one of the first female network executives was somewhat controversial, especially with Ed Klauber, William Paley's influential chief assistant (Metz, 1975). But Sioussat proved her mettle by significantly increasing CBS public affairs broadcasting. The radio network averaged about 67 talks per year with Murrow at the helm, but by 1941 was averaging approximately 300 per year under Sioussat's guidance (Talks Department, 1946). She determined who among the hundreds of speakers requesting airtime would be granted such on the CBS network (Helen J. Sioussat, 1955). Anyone who wanted her/his speech broadcast by CBS had to petition approval from Sioussat. In addition to presidential and congressional requests, prominent politicians such as Alf Landon, Cordell Hull, and Henry Wallace (to name a very few) had to get approval from Sioussat to be on air. Journalists such as Murrow, William L. Shirer, Dorothy Thompson and Elmer Davis, and leading citizens such as Nelson Rockefeller, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Charles Lindbergh had to pass through Sioussat's gate before their speeches were carried to the national audience via CBS. Once on the air, their speeches fulfilled CBS's commitment to balanced coverage by encompassing a wide range of political, social, economic, religious, and cultural issues.

Sioussat's gatekeeping decisions were based...

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