Journalist and author Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, a self-described “professional TV nerd,” is an expert on pop culture, the history of television and a few iconic television programs, including the “Mary Tyler Moor Show,” “Seinfeld” and “Sex and the City.” Her most recent book, “When Women Invented Television: The Untold Story of the Female Powerhouses Who Pioneered the Way We Watch Today” was the topic of a presentation and discussion at the Levy Lecture held virtually on Tuesday, Feb. 22.
Armstrong focused on four women who were pioneers in the nascent television industry from 1948 to 1955: Gertrude Berg, Hazel Scott, Irna Phillips and Betty White. It was a time when television sets were still expensive and most families did not own one. The executives at the networks had yet to figure out how to monetize the new medium. According to Armstrong, radio was “where all the power and money was,” especially for the men running the radio stations.
The industry was so new that people with experience in radio could transition over to television. It was seen as a risky career move, but for women and people of color, it represented an opportunity to be a part of a new industry right from the start. Berg, Scott, Phillips and White grabbed this opportunity, making a lot of money for themselves and the networks in the process. In spite of their previous successes, within a few years their careers were stalled, derailed or curtailed.
Armstrong explained in her presentation “how racism, sexism and the Hollywood blacklist toppled the promising careers of women like Gertrude Berg, the first true sitcom superstar, and Hazel Scott, the first Black person to host a national prime time show. … male executives and critics trivialized the work of women like Irna Phillips, who created the longest-running drama in broadcast history, ‘The Guiding Light,’ and even worse, how they came dangerously close to ending the career of Betty White.”
As in radio, advertisers sponsored television shows, giving them complete control over what was watched. That kind of control would be unheard of today, but back then, it led to what Armstrong described as “the first tactic that the industry used to sideline and eventually erase these women from television history … the Hollywood blacklist.”
In 1950, American Business Consultants, which was run by former FBI agents who took it upon themselves to keep television and radio free of Communists, published “Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television.” It comprised a list of “151 actors, writers, musicians, broadcast journalists as possible Communist sympathizers.” The authors never proved or even offered evidence to support these insinuations, but their list took malicious gossip to an entirely new level. It destroyed careers, people’s livelihoods and their lives.
Armstrong described in painful detail how Scott’s variety show, “The Hazel Scott Show,” was canceled and how Berg’s co-star on “The Goldbergs,” Philip Loeb, was eventually fired from the show and his role recast. There had been no boycotts of sponsors’ products, no outcry from viewers and no evidence of any connection between Communist groups and Scott or Loeb. But facts didn’t matter in this situation; the damage had been done.
“This is essentially a story of lost time, opportunity and momentum for Gertrude Berg and Hazel Scott that can really devastate a career trajectory. A legacy. That’s why many people do not know their names today and definitely don’t realize how important their contributions were to early television history,” observed Armstrong.
Throughout Armstrong’s presentation, she showed clips from early shows of these four women. Scott in an elegant evening gown, playing a grand piano, singing and being accompanied by two other musicians in what appears to be a sophisticated penthouse.
Berg in her house dress costume, appearing at the window in her onscreen apartment, surrounded by her stage family, extolling the virtues of Sanka decaffeinated coffee. A clip from the early days of Phillips’ “The Guiding Light.” White, with her beautiful smile and dimples, singing to the camera at the start of “The Betty White Show.” The clips, which were fun and interesting to watch, took on deeper meaning in the context of Armstrong’s narrated research.
A tape of Armstrong’s presentation is available on the Levy Senior Center Foundation’s YouTube channel and her book is available at bookstores and libraries everywhere.