6 Television Firsts (from Canned Laughter to Dropping the "D" Word)
TV has been so ingrained into our culture for the past few decades that we tend to forget that every little detail of the medium was an innovation at one time. Here is a look at some television "firsts."
1. The First D-Bomb
The first prime time sitcom curse word was not uttered by Archie Bunker or Al Bundy, but by Doris Packer. You may not recognize the name, but you probably know her face — whether as school principal Mrs. Rayburn on Leave It to Beaver or the Widow Fenwick on The Beverly Hillbillies. Packer played the role of a society matron with an accent that made Thurston Howell III sound like a Bronx street vendor. Among other roles, Packer portrayed Tim O'Hara's former teacher Miss Pringle on My Favorite Martian. On March 28, 1965, an episode aired in which the imperturbable Miss Pringle received an award as Teacher of the Year. In an attempt to mask her emotions as she accepted a gold watch, she quipped: "Damn thing probably doesn't even keep time." It was later revealed that this line was an ad-lib, but it nevertheless made television history as being the first time the so-called "D" word was said on a prime time sitcom.
2. The First "Eyewitness News"
In the early days of television news, anchormen simply read stories gathered from reporters out in the field. But that all changed in 1965 when Al Primo, news director of Philadelphia's KYW Channel 3, had a brainstorm. Primo had done some market research, and found that viewers preferred "personality" and "warmth" in their newscasters over the straight-laced all-business type. Primo also studied the AFTRA contract, and discovered that there was no union rule against TV anchors going out into the field and reporting stories. Better yet, he found that regardless of job description, a station employee who researched and reported his own story wasn't entitled to any additional compensation above their regular salary. Primo recruited a stable of upbeat, personable reporters and sent them out on the streets with a camera person to where the news stories were breaking. Because the reporting was unscripted and informal, it gave the viewer the feeling of "being there." But that wasn't Primo's only legacy. He coined the phrase "Eyewitness News", and the format was so successful that it eventually became a trademark for ABC stations across the country.
3. The First Credit Squeeze
Once upon a time, when a TV show ended the credits scrolled by much like they do in a movie theater. They filled the screen and moved at a pace that allowed the average viewer to find out who played "Girl in Swimming Pool." By the early 1990s, however, commercial-free cable TV was commonplace, and satellite packages were also infringing on a very tight and competitive market. Networks had to find a way to promote themselves without cutting more time out of their prime time shows for commercials. The logical spot ended up being the closing credits of a show. NBC launched the trend in 1994, when they started showing the closing credit scroll in a split-screen format, with the right half of the screen filled with station promos and snippets of upcoming programs. Of course, the Peacock Network didn't want viewers to think of this as additional advertising, so they promoted it as a "seamless transition" from one show to the next.
4. The First Canned Laughter
The Hank McCune Show ran on NBC from 1950-1951. It was groundbreaking in two ways: it was the first to use canned laughter (since it was not filmed in front of a live audience), and it was the first sitcom to use the "show within a show" premise (McCune portrayed the host of a self-titled variety series). The guffaws heard on the soundtrack were provided by the Laff Box, an invention of Charles Rolland Douglass. Douglass had an engineering degree and developed shipboard radar systems while serving in the Navy. He eventually got a job at CBS as a sound engineer and came up with the concept of providing the mirthful laughter he'd enjoyed on the radio programs of his youth for TV shows filmed without an audience. He diligently attended a variety of radio broadcasts and TV shows and recorded the audience laughter, and then very carefully separated his recordings into different categories: chuckles, guffaws, belly-laughs; male, female, juvenile, etc. His Laff Box had a keyboard that allowed the operator to choose the type/gender/age group of the laugh, and foot pedals that controlled the length of the mirth.
5. The First Commercial
The Bulova Watch Company has always been aggressive in its advertising. In 1931 they launched a million-dollar campaign despite it being the time of Great Depression. On July 1, 1941, the company made history by airing the first TV commercial. Just prior to the broadcast of a baseball game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies, a clock and a map of the United States appeared onscreen, along with the statement "America runs on Bulova time." The 10-second spot cost Bulova a total of $9.
6. The First "Bug"
You know that ubiquitous onscreen station ID graphic that reminds you what channel you're tuned into? They're called "bugs" in industry lingo in the US, DOGs (Digital Onscreen Graphic) in the UK, and "watermarks" in Australia. Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI) in Rome was the first station to use the bug. Their engineers developed it during the 1970s, when other stations in Italy were "borrowing" and re-broadcasting RAI's programming without permission. The onscreen ID told viewers where the content originated, and made it easier to bust any stations pirating the material. As for the US, CNN was the first station in the country to use a bug. They happened to be the only network providing live national coverage of the Challenger space shuttle launch in 1986, and once events took a tragic turn, stations across the country were clamoring for their footage. Like RAI, CNN added the onscreen identifier after dozens of news outlets used their film without providing credit.