Massed media

Chronomedia is a very nicely done chronology of developments in just about all forms of audio-visual mass media, covering a wide span but inevitably concentrating on Britain and America in the 20th century. Lots of interesting little tit-bits: the first film shot from an aircraft in flight was in September 1908; while in September 1939, British cinemas were closed to prevent mass casualties in the event of air raids - after a couple of weeks, they were open again, which I guess shows just how long it took people to realise that the knock-out blow wasn't actually imminent!

One thing I find fascinating is how rapidly television was developing in Britain (as well as in Germany and the United States) before the war: John Logie Baird's London studio broadcast a television play as early as 1930, entitled The man with a flower in his mouth (about which, see The World's Earliest Television Recordings Restored); while the BBC's first female television presenter was a Miss Elizabeth Cowell in August 1936. Of course, many of these transmissions were just experiments, but a regularly scheduled service from the Alexandra Palace began later in 1936, which continued until 1 September 1939.

There are some reminiscences of these pioneering broadcasts at Television Heaven, culled from a book by television critic Kenneth Baily, Here's Television (1950). There was no nightly news, but the latest Gaumont and Movietone newsreels were shown several times a week. Other than that, current events and concerns were addressed, after a fashion. The programme for Armistice Day 1936 was described in the Evening News:

From the London Television Station last night was broadcast the most deeply-moving Armistice Day programme I have ever heard from the BBC. It took the form of scenes from the German film 'West Front 1918,' followed by scenes in England in peace-time, and it ended on that note of dedication for the prevention of another catastrophe which most people have felt so strongly this Armistice anniversary. These vivid, and at times terrible pictures, were accompanied by an admirable commentary spoken by Cecil Lewis . . .

As that page also notes, one of the first outside broadcasts featured a very small-scale air raid defence exercise!

Within ten weeks of the start of television, Cecil Lewis had taken cameras outside, at night. He provided an actuality programme about anti-aircraft defence. The 61st (11th London)AA Brigade RA demonstrated two ack-ack guns; and the 36th AA Battalion RE handled three searchlights, while RAF planes were specially flown over the Palace.

This co-operative "exercise" staged "a short action repelling the attack of hostile aircraft." The very wording of that programme announcement breathed something of the oddity which most of us found in an exploit that seemed far from reality in 1936. Four years later the flash and crackle of a much mightier barrage surrounded the Alexandra Palace, and echoed through television studios emptied by a real war.

One would like to know why this subject was chosen ... was it just because the sounds and images were dramatic, or was it intended as a reassurance that all was well (since the bombers were repelled)? Maybe both.

Finally, an indication of just who was watching these shows can be found from a BBC viewer survey in mid-1939 (by which time the total audience was an estimated 20,000):

The returns surprised the BBC in showing that television viewing was not confined to any one income group. Taking a sample of 1,200 of the questionnaires, it was found that 28 had been filled in by labourers; and scores were returned by shopkeepers, salesmen and school teachers.

There were more working- and lower middle-class viewers than expected (though still a minority), which is interesting given the expense involved (eg 48 guineas for a 15-inch 1939 Cossor - though it also doubled as a radio! See Television History - The First 75 Years for more.) Still, 20,000 is a tiny number of viewers, especially when you consider that in 1939 there were 990 million cinema admissions! That's a whole lotta Clark Gable.

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