If you sat through “The Paley Centers Salutes NBC’s 90th Anniversary” in its entirety on Sunday, I salute you. I planned on only watching just the first hour of the three-hour special, which ran on NBC from 8-11PM ET. Am I the only person who assumed it would present nine decades of NBC history chronologically? Watching the first hour, I hoped, would get me through the first few decades.
Instead, the special started with a segment about various 1990s sitcoms (Friends and Seinfeld, among others) before jumping from genre to genre. Segments focused on sitcoms, family dramas, sci-fi, sports, news, etc. I ended up watching all three hours of the disjointed special and live-tweeted the entire broadcast.
For someone like me, obsessed with television history, NBC’s 90th anniversary special was a disappointment. For a number of reasons, it was more frustrating than entertaining or informative. If you didn’t watch it live, it’s available at NBC’s website. You may also be able to find it On Demand.
Keep reading for my thoughts.
All About the 1980s and 1990s
I understand why NBC and The Paley Center focused much of their attentions on Must See TV from the 1980s and 1990s, despite this supposedly being a 90th anniversary special. I really do. But that doesn’t excuse all but ignoring the 1940s and 1950s, not to mention the 1920s and 1930s. The National Broadcasting Company was founded in 1926 and for decades was known for its radio network(s) and not television.
If I recall correctly, radio came up only once or twice during the entire three-hour broadcast. True, a handful of segments highlighted some early NBC TV stars and shows, like the news segment and the variety segment. There was some black-and-white footage–all cropped, of course–mixed in.
Even the 1960s and 1970s were barely covered. Star Trek popped up two or three times. At least a dozen or so sitcoms, variety shows, and dramas from those decades were discussed, like Chico and the Man, Police Woman, and Little House on the Prairie.
But the intent was clearly to highlight the last 30 years of NBC television, not the last 90 years.
From the very start, it was obvious NBC has very little respect for its past. All of the footage from the 1940s through the 1990s was cropped to fit widescreen TV sets. This is typical for retrospectives and documentaries and news reports. It’s not surprising that NBC opted to crop everything. But it is frustrating.
It’s bad enough that NBC offered up cropped scenes from sitcoms and dramas. Time and time again, characters had their heads cut off or quality suffered due to 4:3 aspect ratio video being cropped and blown up to 16:9 aspect ratio. When it comes to news footage, cropping is just plain wrong. From a historical and archival perspective, cropping news footage is inexcusable and inaccurate.
I hesitate to call cropping news footage deceptive but at the very least it is potentially misleading.
Poor Quality Footage
On multiple occasions, NBC utilized poor quality footage. There’s no way to know for sure, but to me some of this footage looked like it came from YouTube. I’m not talking about scratchy film or jittery video. No, these clips looked heavily compressed and blocky. I recall a particularly low-quality clip from Bonanza. And all of the scenes from Julia were in rough shape.
The closing montage included a clip of NBC President Robert Sarnoff speaking during the dedication of NBC’s new TV station in Washington, D.C. in May 1958. It starts in black and white then, after Sarnoff presses a button, switches to color. For the record, this dedication program happens to be the earliest surviving color quad videotape recording. The clip used last night was all but unwatchable.
I did not have high hopes for NBC’s 90th anniversary special. “The Paley Centers Salutes NBC’s 90th Anniversary” failed to meet even my low expectations. The focus on recent, familiar sitcoms I can forgive, grudgingly. Refusing to even acknowledge the early years of NBC is unforgivable. Cropping footage is a major frustration and disrespectful yet also how the TV industry almost always treats pre-widescreen footage. They’ll continue to do it and I’ll continue to gripe about. I’m afraid that ship has sailed.
The poor quality footage likewise reveals a complete lack of respect for TV history. I’m sure it’s cheaper to use readily available footage (perhaps directly from YouTube) even if it looks terrible. It’s a mystery to me why nobody seems to care.
Did I really think NBC was going to spend half an hour on 1940s television? No, I did not. Did I really think obscure and short-lived shows like It’s a Man’s World, Camp Runamuck, or Supertrain would get mentioned? No, I did not.
I wrongly assumed Kraft Television Theatre would come up at some point, however. Rod Serling, anyone? “Patterns” is one of the most famous programs from the Golden Age of Television. I also thought NBC’s role in pushing color television would be worth a few minutes.
Whoever NBC expected to watch its 90th anniversary special, it wasn’t people like me who appreciate and care about the history of television.
Did you watch “The Paley Centers Salutes NBC’s 90th Anniversary” on Sunday? Were you as disappointed as I was? Hit the comments with your thoughts.