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How Interactive TV Is Older Than TV Itself


This is FRESH AIR. The more complex our personal technology gets the more eager television is to take advantage of it. In the case of interactive TV that now means the ability to vote on contestants and otherwise affect the outcome of what transpires, often in real time. But as our TV critic, David Bianculli notes, this new interactive wrinkle actually is as old as television itself. In fact even older.


JOSH GROBAN: And voting couldn't be easier, with a simple swipe, blue for yes, or red for no. These performers dreams are in your hands.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: "Rising Star" which premiered this summer on ABC is the latest singing competition series in prime time. It takes advantage of smartphone technology by offering viewers a special app with which they can vote in real time. And it sounds spiffy and new, a high-tech upgrade of the voting methods of shows like "The Voice" and "America's Got Talent," and the granddaddy of them all "American Idol," which relied on interactive phoned in votes from viewers to declare its first winner a dozen years ago. As announced by then co-host and now host Ryan Seacrest.


RYAN SEACREST: The winner of American Idol 2002 is


SEACREST: Kelly Clarkson.


BIANCULLI: But these modern shows the conduct their talent auditions in private or allow judges to cast heavily weighted votes during early rounds, aren't really as interactive as they could be, or as they once were. The interactive talent show, it turns out, predates TV itself. In 1935 a local New York radio show when national. First on NBC then on CBS and offered listeners a chance to both phone in and write, to determine the fate of its eager contestants. The program was called "The Major Bowes Amateur Hour" and it quickly became one of the most popular radio shows of the 30s and 40s. That first year in 1935 the show spotlighted four young men, one of whom was a 19-year-old kid named Frank Sinatra.


MAJOR BOWES: We have now the Hoboken Four, they call themselves the singing and dancing fools. Who speaks for the group. I will, I'm Frank, we're looking for jobs how about it?

BIANCULLI: How about it indeed? Before long Sinatra didn't have to beg to get work. And Amateur Hour kept finding other talent, including a 10-year-old singer named Beverly Sills. In 1946 Major Bowes died, but his musical director, Ted Mack, transplanted the show's legacy to television in 1947, where "Ted Mack's Amateur Hour" became the first genuine hit on that new medium, even before Milton Berle. And TV's "Amateur Hour" was interactive from the start.


TED MACK: Well, it just wouldn't be fair if I started counting the votes that are coming in. I will tell you all about it next week. As I say, they've all tried awfully hard, as far as you folks in the theater are concerned I want to thank you for encouraging them. You folks out there, well you know how we feel about the amateurs. We want very much for you to support them with your votes. Let me repeat it once more because you do have a new telephone number. It's plaza seven, four, 100 here in New York. We have all the (Unintelligible) operators up there waiting for them right now and they'll be on duty for another half-hour.

BIANCULLI: Another type of early interactive TV also coming from radio was "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts." A top rated show that began on CBS Radio in 1946, moved to CBS Television in 1948, the first year CBS-TV began operating and lasted a full ten years. Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney were among the acts that broke out on this show. Which measured the applause of the studio audience to crown its weekly winners. Arthur Godfrey, the host, relied on a machine called the clap-o-meter to gauge the response to each contestant.


ARTHUR GODFREY: Thank You. The violinist Joseph Bernstein .


GODFREY: And Joy Carol (Ph).

JOY CAROL: (Singing) There's no business like show business, like no business, I know.


GODFREY: And Ingeborg Nordquist, the soprano.



GODFREY: Well, there's no mistake about that one. The audience reaction indicator shows the winner tonight to be, Ingeborg Nordquist.

BIANCULLI: The same clap-o-meter gimmick was used on "Queen For A Day," another TV show that made a successful transition from radio in the 40s. The horrible premise of this popular show was that women came on to compete for specific prizes of their choosing. But the winner was the woman whose life was deemed by audience applause vote to be the most pathetic. Here's host Jack Bailey interviewing one typical contestant.


JACK BAILEY: How about chilled?

VIVA BURK: I have two.

BAILEY: Good for you. How old are they.

BURK: Thirteen and five.

BAILEY: Well, that's just wonderful. Now, Ms. Burk (Ph) I think you wish you had something to do with one of children or both?

BURK: My boy?

BAILEY: Yes, What's his name?

BURK: John Burk (Ph).

BAILEY: (Unintelligible) John, What's the matter with old John.

BURK: Well, he's crippled up from (Unintelligible).

BAILEY: Is that so? And he's how old? Thirteen?

BURK: Thirteen.

BAILEY: He's had it quite awhile. How can we help John?

BURK: Well, he needs a wheelchair and he needs a special bike for exercising.

BAILEY: Had you promised this by any chance?

BURK: Yes, I had?

BAILEY: Well, why didn't you keep your promises mom?

BURK: Well, I had to go to the hospital to have my legs operator on. Had to quite work?

BAILEY: What we're you doing?

BURK: (Unintelligible) work.

BAILEY: Oh, boy.

BURK: Twenty five years of it.

BAILEY: Twenty five years and that did it to your legs.

BURK: Yes. (Unintelligible)

BAILEY: And now you have to take it a little easier yourself.

BURK: No, I (Unintelligible) work, or I can't keep my promise.

BAILEY: Oh, I bet you'd keep your promise. Now your 13-year-old boy then, do you want a sort of special bike?

BURK: Well, he needs it for exercising his leg. He's had had quite a lot of surgery.

BAILEY: Viva Burk(Ph) if you're our queen we're going to get a wheelchair and a special bike. OK.


BIANCULLI: She won that week. Which means she not only got her wish but on TV she was given a crown, a robe and a royal fanfare.


BAILEY: I crown you Queen Viva - Queen for a day. Queen Viva Burk.


BAILEY: Now, Your Majesty you must take your place up there on the throne, here comes the Duchess with your first gift, a queens bouquet of four dozen red roses form our royal florist.

BIANCULLI: The clap-o-meter was interactive in spirit but not always in practice.Where the dials often were manipulated by a crew member to rig the results. Finally there was one other example of interactive TV from the early days of television. It was a CBS children's cartoon show from 1953, featuring a live-action host and a high-tech gimmick. The host was Jack Barry, the show was "Winky Dink And You" and the gimmick was that young viewers were encouraged to get their parents to send away for a Winky Dink viewing kit, which included erasable crayons, a cloth and a sheet of plastic to put over your TV set to draw things when you were instructed. In this episode of "Dusty Dan Goes To Hollywood" for example, the cartoon character of Dan, peaks through a hole in a wooden fence and witnesses a robbery taking place. He seeks help from the TV host, Jack Barry, who in turn seeks help from kids at home with their Winky Dink kits.


UNIDENTIFIED CHARACTER: I'm giving you exactly one minute to turn over the rest of your money. I know you have more than this.

JACK BARRY: One minute? Boys and girls I have an idea. Dan can't find something to throw over that fence, who ever has the yellow Winky Dink plan at home stand by, you're going to draw right with your Winky Dink kits and draw that rock. Use your yellow Winky Dink crayon and draw a round circle, (Unintelligible), just a round circle, make it any size you want. Doesn't matter how well you draw it as long as you complete it as soon as possible, only one minute and time is flying by. Use your yellow Winky Dink crayon.

BIANCULLI: The troubling thing about "Winky Dink And You" was that whether you drew anything or not, Winky and his friends still went on about their business. And today's interactive TV shows work the same way. Even if you don't cast any votes for "American Idol" or "Rising Star" there will always be a winner, until the show itself is canceled, which of course is the ultimate exercise in interactive television, you can vote by not watching.

GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. Coming up Ken Tucker reviews the new album by Spoon. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.
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