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October, 2009 : Feature:

Waiting for the Innovators

Signals 25

Lately, I've had the urge to read about the early years of television. Not about what aired, but about how television evolved from radio with pictures into the medium we see now.

Some of this comes from the deaths of Walter Cronkite and Don Hewitt, two very influential men from the early years of television. But most of this urge comes from the rapid change that's happening in my life—and yours as well.

Mine is dramatic. I went from a near Luddite who used her cell phone only as a phone (imagine that) to a woman who routinely carries two computers in her purse and thinks nothing of it. I have a Kindle and an iPhone, a laptop and a large computer. I read on screen a lot, which I never used to do, and I get irritated when something isn't immediately at my fingertips, whether it's a recently aired episode of a television show or just a piece of trivia that I need the answer to right now.

We're in the early days of e-entertainment. While some of this will stick, some of it won't, and I'm not sure which is which. It still feels to me like we're filming radio plays—the actors stand in place and utter lines not necessary to the visual medium.

The true innovators are out there, either gearing up or already working. They need to reach the rest of us, though, and convince us that the newest thing will become the thing that we're still using 20 years from now.

Generally speaking, these innovators aren't the guys sitting around some table trying to game the system. The futureologists or whatever these folks call themselves these days will probably have the same track record the ones in the 1950s had—which is to say, rather poor.

The true innovators will be people like Sid Cesear, who took his collection of Broadway actors with vaudeville backgrounds and brought their zany madcap ways to television—making Your Show of Shows the biggest hit of the 1950s, and introducing the variety show. The variety show, which still exists, got another spin in prime time this fall when Jay Leno hit the 10 o'clock time slot on NBC. Cesear and his amazing team of writers were the innovators, but mostly what they were trying to do was fill their nightly air time every week.

The same could be said of Don Hewitt. His obituary reads like a primer on how to invent something from nothing. He worked as a photographer in 1948 when some TV execs at CBS hired him to graft pictures onto their sound programming, thinking that would equal good television. Think about it: the execs wanted static pictures with dramatic sound. But Hewitt seemed to understand the medium, inventing the television newscast as we know it with video and interviews and active images. He also invented the strangely stylized presidential debates, and those lovely news magazines, like 60 minutes, among other things.

He didn't sit around and discuss the future of the medium or have those "what television needs" discussions. He had to fill air time, and he had to do it on the fly. We owe all-day coverage of major events to Hewitt—a good and bad thing as the summer's "Michael Jackson is dead" debacle showed us—who kept Cronkite and the CBS news team on the air from the moment Kennedy was shot until the funeral ended days later.

Hewitt didn't say that we needed wall-to-wall coverage. He just did it.

As people are just doing things right now, combining video with words, making books easy to download, inventing new ways to use Twitter. Will there be Twitter novels twenty years from now? Not a clue. Will we all watch cats flushing toilets on YouTube like too many of us do now? I dunno. Will we all be following our favorite bloggers? I don't know that, either.

Certainly, though, some of these things will last.

(How much you wanna bet it'll be that cat flushing the toilet?)

It amazes me how rapidly all of this change is progressing. The speed shouldn't surprise me, though. Not as an SF reader, a news junkie, and a historian. Change always progresses quickly. But it astonishes me how quickly some of these things have become essential to my life.

For example, I live on the Oregon Coast. Every winter we get one major storm, often with hurricane force winds (and because we don't call those storms hurricanes in the Pacific, the national media ignores them). Because we're at the end of all the major power lines, our electricity goes out at least once a winter, sometimes for days.

We bought our iPhones this summer not because we wanted nifty new toys (although we did), but because we can get our e-mail and surf the web even during a power outage. We have our trusty car charger. We will remain connected unless the cable lines (and cell towers) go down as well (like they did two years ago—that was hell, let me tell you). And remaining connected has become very, very important—not just for business, but for life itself.

I know that science fiction forsaw this. I also know that the SF writers of the past saw it as a bad thing. Those SF writers believed we would become slaves to our machines and learn to think exactly like each other, with no individuality left.

Which is not happening. Instead, our diverse voices are being heard again. We're talking more—even if it is on screen. I'm having conversations with old friends from high school. I'm exchanging Dr. Who trivia with people from England whom I've never met. The last time I did that was the 1970s, and my Scottish pen pal Elspeth Wilson (are you out there, Elspeth?) and I sent pen and ink letters back and forth, waiting months at a time for each other's responses.

I know that innovation follows a pattern, just like historical events do. I'm hoping that if I dive back into the history of television (and of the movies and of radio), I'll be able to figure out how this whole e-entertainment thing will go.

But I have a hunch I'll be as off-base as the old futureologists. Still, it would be nice to have an inkling, which I can claim as prescience years from now.

Or maybe so that I can fumble my way into innovation.

Or at least, pretend to know where we're headed. The future seems vast and unknowable, surprising, but oddly, no longer frightening. Maybe that's because I know the innovators will come along. Maybe because I know that fifty years from now, we'll accept all of this as normal—and be looking toward the next new and surprising thing.

Copyright © 2009, Kristine Kathryn Rusch. All Rights Reserved.

About Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Kristine Kathryn Rusch is a Hugo award-winning writer who was, once upon a time, a Hugo award-winning editor. She has published fiction in almost every genre under a variety of names. Her most recent science fiction novel is Diving into the Wreck which Pyr
published in November. Her novella, "Recovering Apollo 8," won last year's Asimov's Readers Choice Award and was nominated for a Hugo. The novella has just been reprinted in Russian. For more information, go to her website at


Oct 8, 07:06 by IROSF
Comment below!
Oct 16, 21:37 by Jason Ridler
Hi Kris,

On the history of television innovation, there was a great bio on Rod Serling, a TV pioneer long before he did The Twilight Zone. I believe it was this one:

Sander, Gordon F. (1992) Serling: The Rise and Twilight of Television's Last Angry Man.

It might provide interesting analogies. Ditto Don Hutchinson's Pulp Heroes, which looked at how radio fare like the Shadow became enshrined in the medium of the pulps.


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