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Eric Burns

Invasion of the Mind Snatchers
Television's Conquest of America in the Fifties

Eric Burns

In this Q&A, Temple University author Eric Burns talks about TV, the subject of his new book Invasion of the Mind Snatchers

Q: You were part of the first generation to grow up watching television—acting out your favorite programs and buying the merchandise the performers promoted. What do you recall about television’s early days? 
A: What I recall most is watching cowboy shows, then donning my cap and holster and running outside to play with my friends.  I was the oldest, so I got to pick the good guys and bad guys and even decided on most of the dialogue.  I was also the arbitrator when there was an argument about whether or not someone had been killed and how long he had to wait until he could come back to life again.

Q: What were some of your favorite—“can’t miss” programs? 
A: Wagon Train ; Gunsmoke; Have Gun, Will Travel; and others that my parents watched, primarily The Ed Sullivan Show and What's My Line.

Q: How much do you think things have changed since then? Are viewers more involved in their programs and personalities—especially given the increased number of channels, or less so?
A: Viewers are less involved in the fictional characters than they used to be, less likely to believe them to be real.  Back in the fifties, the Lone Ranger got letters about life in the Old West, Captain Video got letters about life in outer space, and Eve Arden, who played the title role of a schoolteacher in Our Miss Brooks, received offers to teach in various schools. Today it is the non-fictional characters who seem to stir viewers most, especially the controversial political commentators.

Q: As someone who worked in broadcast journalism, did watching TV influence your career aspirations?
A: I never aspired to be on TV (and hope never to be on again, except to promote a book).  Being a reporter was simply a way to make a living by writing until I could figure out how to be an author.

Q: How else did television influence you? Your book tells both personal and universal stories? How much of what people saw on screen reflected their own lives?
A: I don't know what else I can say about TV's influence on me, but I can say that television was a remarkably accurate reflection of life in the fifties, primarily as it portrayed the secondary roles of women and African-Americans in our society.

Q: Where did you do your research for Invasion of the Mind Snatchers? 
A: Most of my research came from 2 sources: newspaper and magazine articles from the fifties about the effects of television, especially on education and the cohesiveness of the family, and from watching old TV shows at what is now called the Paley Center.

Q: What did you learn that surprised you—since you lived (with/in?) much of the history you’ve written here. 
A: The biggest surprise was the bravery of journalists covering the racial uprisings in the South in the fifties.  It was the noblest episode in the history of television news.

Q: You include social/cultural political touchstones throughout the book to remind readers of what life was like in the 1950s—an age before cable TV, much less the internet!  How great was television’s influence?
A: Only the automobile can be compared to television in terms of impact in the 20th century.  It changed everything from family dynamics, social events, role models, conversations at the office, clothing styles, hair styles and, eventually, race relations.

Q: You champion Eve Arden, Bob and Ray, and Soupy Sales as well as Ed Sullivan, Lucille Ball, Burns and Allen, etc. Do you believe these performers might not have been the household names there are now were it not for TV? 
A: These people were all stars before television, some in the movies, some on radio.  Television executives were as timid then as they are now; they did not want to take a chance on unknowns.

Q: The second part of your book focus on the messages TV sent—from politics, to advertising to religion. How did politicians, advertisers (Mad men), and the church harness the power of television to communicate their messages? 
A: It is hard to say whether television changed politics or vice versa.  It was some of both, but the latter was probably the greater truth. Television introduced the techniques of show biz into politics: jingles, shorter sound bites, more glamorous surroundings for the candidates.  Religion was also a powerful force on television in the fifties, although it is impossible to say how influential it was. But all three major networks carried religious programs in those days.  Today, none do.

Q: You also indicate that messages about race, class and gender were not thinly veiled. Do you think this did more harm than good? 
A: Television did more good than harm with regard to race and gender.  It did so deliberately with regard to race, in covering the civil rights disturbances in the South in the fifties.  It did so inadvertently with regard to gender, as it portrayed women as such submissive beings that Betty Friedan was moved to write The Feminine Mystique, the unofficial beginning of the women's movement.

Q: What do you think television’s greatest and worst conquests over Americans were in the Fifties? 
A:
Television's greatest conquest in the fifties was bringing serious news events into the home without schtick or contentious debate.  Its worst conquest was over good taste, as it helped to lower the common denominator of American literacy by providing such a powerful alternative to the book.


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