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Television Transmission Methods for Dummies
or
“Is It Live or Is It Kinescope?”

By Jim Davidson
May 15, 2005

It is a truth universally acknowledged, as Jane Austen might say, that all television was “live” during the glorious Golden Age of Television and that somewhere along about the end of the 1950s, that method of delivery died out.  But just because a truth is universally acknowledged doesn’t mean it’s true.  Fact is, pre-recording has been with us since the dawn of commercial television, and I don’t have to tell you that live TV is still very much with us in the form of news shows, sporting events, awards programs, and many of the ever-ubiquitous reality shows.

Understanding the history of live vs. pre-recorded TV shows isn’t easy, particularly since the technology has changed so much.  Some shows have used a combination of methods, so it’s often hard to say that The Jack Benny Program, for instance, was either live or pre-recorded.

To help you sort it all out, here's a handy dandy guide to the various transmission methods that were prevalent in the 1950s.


Some of the earliest shows on TV – The Lone Ranger, Amos and Andy, and The Adventures of Superman, for instance – were filmed in advance, using methods that were then prevalent in the movie industry.  Scenes were shot out-of-order in whatever sequence made sense according to the budget.  In the post-production phase, a film editor would put all the scenes together in the proper sequence so they could be aired on television.

This method didn’t work too well for a show that depended on a live audience, because they wouldn’t be able to follow a story that was presented out of sequence.  That’s why the three-camera technique was developed, where three cameras would shoot simultaneously from different angles, giving the film editor enough “coverage” to intersperse close-ups with long and medium shots.  The show could be presented like a stage play to the studio audience.

The three-camera method was used on I Love Lucy, but contrary to popular belief, was not developed by that show’s cinematographer Karl Freund.  It was actually worked out in the late 1940s by producer Jerry Fairbanks with his cameraman and film editor.

Film proved popular with entertainers based in Hollywood (like Lucy and Desi) who didn’t want to have to travel to New York, where virtually all shows originated in the early 1950s.  It was also important for syndicated shows, which by their very nature, were scheduled at a different time on each station.


A live broadcast was, of course, the most basic method of disseminating a television broadcast.  It required nothing more than putting actors in front of a camera and transmitting their images to viewers’ TV sets.  Post-production was non-existent because there was no film to edit.  The lack of post-production made live cheaper than film, which was important in the days when budgets were low because the bulk of advertising dollars hadn’t yet migrated from radio to TV.

Live TV required careful planning, because there was no opportunity for re-takes.  If an actor flubbed a line, it went out over the airwaves for all to see.  Not surprisingly, stage actors tended to thrive in this environment, while movie actors often found it challenging.

Two problems quickly became evident with live TV.  The first was that, in 1950, it wasn’t possible to transmit a TV program from one coast to another.  There just wasn’t any way to send a signal that far.  Stations in the east and midwest were connected by coaxial cable, similar to the lines we’re all familiar with that are used today for both cable TV and broadband internet service.

Once a cable line was built connecting both coasts in 1951, simultaneous broadcasting could occur.  Los Angeles-based entertainers were happy because they could now do their shows live from Hollywood.  And a show airing live in New York could be seen at the same moment all across the country.

The other problem was that of differing time zones.  When a show was airing at 8:00 in the east, it was only 5:00 in the west.  As popular as You Bet Your Life was, few Californians would be able to watch it while still at work or commuting home.  To solve the problem, the networks came up with the kinescope, where a live show could be filmed and shown later.


Most live TV shows were really only live for the eastern and central time zones.  To enable a show to air at the appropriate time in other time zones, it was necessary to invent some kind of process for capturing live television.  Due to the limited technology of the day, the best the networks could come up with was the kinescope.

Simply put, the kinescope process involved placing a movie camera in front of a TV set and filming the live broadcast.  The film could then be developed and shown later.

At first, kinescopes were made in New York, and the film was shipped to the west coast and aired a week or two after the original broadcast.  Then, after the installation of the coast-to-coast coaxial cable, kinescopes of live shows originating in New York could be filmed on the west coast and aired three hours later in the proper time slot.  Though the technology has changed, this basic approach is still in use today for shows like Saturday Night Live and American Idol.

The quality of kinescopes was much inferior to the original live broadcasts, and viewers, critics, and stars complained about them.  Writer Hal Kantor observed, "Watching a kinescope was like looking at a bowl of gray pea soup. Here and there you could barely make out the croutons."

It’s important for today’s viewers to remember that live TV looked a lot better than you might think from viewing the old kinescopes.  It should also be noted that most live broadcasts from the early 1950s have been lost forever.  If it weren’t for kinescopes, even the relatively small number that remain would be gone.


The mediocre quality of kinescopes led the networks and other corporations to commit considerable resources to coming up with something better.  That something turned out to be videotape.  By 1956, engineers had developed and perfected a method of capturing both audio and video on magnetic tape.  Just as audio tape had been used to pre-record radio programs, TV shows could now be preserved on videotape.  It was no longer necessary to quickly develop and print a kinescope film for airing a few hours later.  A videotape could merely be rewound and played back immediately.  The savings in both time and cost were substantial.  And as The New York Times noted at the time, “Tape recordings and ‘live’ broadcasts will be so nearly the same in quality that a viewer would be hard put to tell the difference.”


So there you have it. Everything you need to know about the outmoded technologies of a bygone era. Make sure you study up, 'cause there'll be a quiz later.

 

The Quiz

You thought I was kidding when I said there'd be a quiz. Well here goes. Some are easy, some not so. Answers are below.

For each of the popular 1950s TV shows listed below, determine which ones were live and which were on film.

Dragnet
I Love Lucy
The Colgate Comedy Hour
Our Miss Brooks
The Jack Benny Show
The Jackie Gleason Show
Topper
Private Secretary
The Ed Sullivan Show
Alfred Hitchcock Presents
Gunsmoke
Mama
I Married Joan
Treasury Men in Action
Disneyland
The Roy Roger Show
You Bet Your Life
The Millionaire



Don't sweat it.
The quiz isn't that hard.

The Answers

Live

The Colgate Comedy Hour
The Jackie Gleason Show
The Ed Sullivan Show

Film

Dragnet
I Love Lucy
Our Miss Brooks
Topper
Private Secretary
Alfred Hitchcock Presents
Gunsmoke
I Married Joan
Treasury Men in Action
Disneyland
The Roy Roger Show
You Bet Your Life
The Millionaire

Live and Film
(Some Episodes Live and Some Film)

The Jack Benny Show
Mama

 


 

 
 

Copyright © All Rights Reserved. 2005 by Jim Davidson. All Rights Reserved.

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