The Trailblazing Women Who Created Television as We Know It

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In Jezebel’s newest series Rummaging Through the Attic, we interview nonfiction authors whose books explore fascinating moments, characters, and stories in history. For this episode we spoke with Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, author of When Women Invented Television: The Untold Story of the Female Powerhouses Who Pioneered the Way We Watch Today, a nonfiction work that explores how four women shaped the television industry as we know it today.

Many know that the iconic Betty White has had the longest-running television career in history, with over 82 years in the business—and counting. But her place in TV history is so much more than simple longevity: “She was one of the first people on television, period,” says Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, author of the new book When Women Invented Television. Noting how new television was in the late 1940s, Armstrong notes, “The extraordinary thing about this is that [the executives] didn’t know what to do, especially during the day on television. The answer was, ‘Put Betty White on.’” Hollywood on Television broadcast White and co-host Al Jarvis to living rooms across Los Angeles for five and a half hours a day, six days a week, live and with no script, making it up as they went along.

“They tried out everything from riffing on the local news, to doing sketches,” says Armstrong. Pointing to the Today show’s format of merging news and entertainment, Armstrong makes the case that White was the first to form what we now think of as the daytime talk show.

But White wasn’t the only television trailblazer. Gertrude Berg, for instance, had her own 17-year long radio show about a New York City Jewish family titled The Goldbergs, before adapting it for television and pioneering the family sitcom. Irna Phillips was the mother of the soap opera genre, creating it for radio and then bringing it to the TV screen and pioneering the very concept of the TV cliffhanger. Hazel Scott, a prolific jazz singer and musician, helmed her very own variety show in 1950, the first Black person to do so on national prime time television.

The book delves most deeply into the lives and accomplishments of White, Berg, Phillips, and Scott, but Armstrong acknowledges they weren’t alone. “There is a woman named Faye Emerson who had a nighttime talk show, which to me is crazy if you think about how difficult it has been in modern times to get a woman on late night,” Armstrong notes. “There was a woman named Amanda Randolph, who had a daytime talk show extremely early and was the first black female star of a sitcom.”

“There were these other women who also contributed incredible amounts to what we actually watch now,” said Armstrong. “It’s so big in our lives that it’s important for people to understand the women who helped to create it.”

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