When Women Invented Television | Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

Summary of: When Women Invented Television: The Untold Story of the Female Powerhouses Who Pioneered the Way We Watch Today
By: Jennifer Keishin Armstrong


Welcome to the captivating world of early television and strong, pioneering women in the industry. In Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s ‘When Women Invented Television,’ explore the remarkable lives of Gertrude Berg, Irna Phillips, Betty White, and Hazel Scott – women who pushed the boundaries and made lasting impacts on television as we know it. Dive into the creation of the first TV sitcom, radio shows, talk shows, and more; this book also explores how women in the industry faced sexism, racism, and anti-Semitism in their efforts to produce groundbreaking work. Together, these extraordinary women defined the era and set the stage for television going forward.

Gertrude Berg’s Revolutionary Sitcom

Gertrude Berg, an East Harlem-born former hotel performer, wrote, created and starred in the radio show, The Goldbergs. Berg requested CBS for a TV show slot in 1948, but they declined because the concept of a situation comedy, an untested format requiring scripts, actors and rehearsals, was new. TV being a visual medium emphasized the Jewish ethnicity of the show during the gray-suited 50s. Despite this, The Goldbergs’ appeal was universal, and CBS finally agreed to produce it after finding a sponsor, Sanka. Within the show, Berg’s character delivered Sanka ads, boosting its sales by 57%.

Radio Legend Becomes TV Pioneer

Irna Phillips, a powerful radio producer in the 1940s, revolutionized daytime TV with her Chicago-based soap opera. As a single mother of two, Phillips portrayed working women balancing career and family, empowering audiences. Although her first show for NBC failed due to unprepared actors, Phillips’ new format for serial daytime production paved the way for many successful TV shows that followed. She faced the challenge of being visually interesting enough for television without missing a plot point, and her expertise helped her create a new genre of storytelling – the TV soap opera.

Betty White’s Rise

Betty White’s journey from a bit actor to a talk show host and her invention of a new talk show format are highlighted. White’s ability to connect with her audience was key to her success.

Making History Through Television

In the late 1940s, DuMont, a TV manufacturing company in America, ventured into creating their own programming. They recruited Hazel Scott, a talented African-American pianist who was renowned for her jazz performances and her image as a model wife and mother. Despite facing racism, she used her celebrity status to make principled stands about equality. DuMont saw her as a top-tier talent and in 1950, she became the first Black woman solo prime-time host of her own show. Her successful show proved that diversity could bring in audiences, and it set the stage for inclusivity in the future of television. With a surge in the sale of TVs from five million in 1950 to 90% of US homes owning a television in 1959, Hazel Scott and DuMont made history by breaking racial barriers in entertainment.

Hollywood’s Blacklist

In the 1950s, America’s entertainment industry faced its greatest crisis as the House of Representatives’ Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) sought to stamp out communism by making false accusations against performers, writers, and broadcasters. Even the slightest whiff of an association with communism was enough to have one blacklisted and out of a job. The blacklist mainly targeted Black Americans, with Philip Loeb, actor in The Goldbergs, being one of their many victims. Loeb’s appearances before HUAC led to CBS canceling the show, despite the efforts of Lucille Ball and others to save it. The blacklist period was one of the most sour and divisive times in the entertainment business, and it won’t be forgotten easily.

The Downfall of Female Entertainers During the McCarthy Era

This book recounts the stories of three successful female entertainers who fell victim to the anti-communist paranoia that swept through 1950s America. Despite their incredible success, Hazel Scott, Irna Phillips, and Gertrude Berg found themselves targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Through a press conference, Scott demanded to speak to HUAC, but her show was canceled a week later. Phillips suffered a nervous breakdown while waiting for a response from Procter & Gamble regarding The Guiding Light. Berg’s health deteriorated as she constantly had to defend herself and replace cast members on her show. The rise of conservatism weaponized fear of communism against Hollywood, leading to increased government harassment and a culture of suspicion and mistrust. These women’s stories serve as a cautionary tale of the dangers of government overreach and the importance of protecting artistic expression and free speech.

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