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Is It Live, or Is It...

''The Jonathan Winters Show'' -- Videotape made its first appearance on the show 35 years ago

Those clunky live broadcasts back in television's early days sometimes seemed like one long episode of TV's Bloopers & Practical Jokes. There was, for example, the detective drama in which Lee Marvin jumped into a phone booth — and it promptly sailed across the set. On another show, the camera accidentally caught a corpse coming to life and crawling away. Eventually, network execs had had enough of the uh-ohs. They decided to try videotape, a brand-new invention that was both cheaper and faster to edit than film.

Viewers of NBC's manic The Jonathan Winters Show saw the first less-than-ambitious experiment with videotape on Oct. 23, 1956. Unless, of course, they'd left the room for a seltzer: The segment, a number by guest singer Dorothy Collins, a regular on Your Hit Parade, was only 2 1/2 minutes long. NBC and 3M, the manufacturer of the tape, monitored viewers around the country to see if they noticed a difference between Collins' song and the rest of the 15- min-ute show. No one did. Winters' show became the first entertainment program to start using tape regularly, and television toddled out of its infancy.

''It completely revolutionized the medium,'' says Mark Schubin, author of the upcoming Schubin on Television, a historical look at TV technology. ''TV was much more like live theater in the early days. After that, it became much more movie-oriented.'' Dragnet, for example, gave up its small interior sets and headed outdoors, where the action was. By the late 1960s, almost all shows were being taped. Gone were the giddy days of live blunders, and gone as well were great writers, such as Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling, whose words were often worth a thousand exterior shots. ''We've lost a tremendous amount of dialogue,'' says Schubin. ''It's been replaced by the car chase.''



TIME CAPSULE
Oct. 23, 1956

Teens were anticipating the next Tab Hunter vehicle, The Girl He Left Behind, also starring Natalie Wood. Patrick Dennis' novel Auntie Mame had hit the best-seller lists. I Love Lucy was the top TV show, and Elvis pleaded ''Don't Be Cruel'' in the top record.

Originally posted Oct 18, 1991 Published in issue #88 Oct 18, 1991 Order article reprints
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