"Pioneers of Television
Wednesdays, Jan. 2-23, 8 p.m.
WFYI (Channel 20)
Remember when we had three, four or six channels available on our TV sets? If you do, then you’re going to love Pioneers of Television, a four-week walk down memory lane that begins tonight on WFYI (Channel 20) and continues for the next three Wednesdays. And if you don’t, if the wide world of cable is all you’ve ever experienced, then this series will feel like an exhibit from the Museum of the Hard to Believe.
Hard to believe the public lapped up Andy Williams, Tony Orlando and Perry Como, whose variety show beat both The Honeymooners and The Dick Van Dyke Show in the ratings. Hard to believe that at his peak, Milton Berle had a 95 percent share of the viewing audience. Hard to believe that entertainers smoked on the set of The Tonight Show while they performed. And so on.
Pioneers of Television covers four topics: Tonight is sitcoms, followed by late night, variety and game shows in subsequent weeks. (Why no drama?) The sitcom installment is the only genuinely flawed segment. The filmmakers interview Joyce Randolph (Trixie on The Honeymooners) and, unfortunately, get no useful information, and they waste valuable time on the forgettable Make Room for Daddy without ever mentioning The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, which debuted first and was also a far better show.
But Pioneers improves as it goes on. The late-night hour shows just how much Dave and Jay (especially Dave) owes to Steve Allen, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson. Variety devotes a good amount of time to Ed Sullivan, who was as heavy-handed as he was successful. And the final segment documents not only the transition of game shows from radio to television but how some of the ideas originated.
Throughout, television greats such as Andy Griffith, Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Jonathan Winters, Carol Burnett and more offer stories and reflections that provide the series with necessary perspective. There’s loads of wonderful footage, too, including Arthur Godfrey doing a soup commercial, young Phyllis Diller as a guest on You Bet Your Life with Groucho Marx, Paar interviewing Fidel Castro and John F. Kennedy, and young Merv Griffin, who looked very much like Roy Scheider, hosting a game show. And though the installments generally are tributes to the early stars and shows, the filmmakers acknowledge the ratings slides, misjudgments, nastiness, censorship, racism and other lowlights.
As hard to believe as some of it may be — no company would sponsor Nat King Cole’s variety show (1956-’57) because he was black — Pioneers of Television is almost always great fun.