Early Experiments in School Television Production

In his foreword to Kate Moody's Children of Telstar, the noted TV historian recounts overlooking a revolution in his own backyard.

The postwar decades, when television was on the rise and bringing dislocation and mini-revolutions to many aspects of American life, were a painful time for school systems. Administrators and teachers, sensing erosion of their traditional status - and of their influence over students - groped for ways to cope with the monster. As one observer put it: "Television is like a strange animal that has come to live with us. We cannot domesticate it; it domesticates us."

Attempts to hold the creature at bay used various strategies, including indictment - which tended to follow earlier indictments of film, comic books, and radio (in regard to violence, sex, and the debasement of cultural values). The attacks could, once again, cite impressive documentation in the form of scholarly studies and government reports on crime and delinquency. But these had little control over children's television viewing, especially after the multiple-set home became standard.

Others began to put hope in "media literacy." If viewers were aware of the complex assembly lines of television — the influence of investors, advertisers, distributors, pressure groups, regulators — would this not make for more sophisticated viewers, less likely to succumb to slick appeals and simplistic drama? No doubt — but how does one arrive at such sophistication?

In the following pages Kate Moody describes an unusual project that for two decades galvanized the school system of Mamaroneck, New York, and attracted attention from educators in many states. Many educators today find her account fascinating, informative, and relevant.

In an interesting visual irony, a student stands on textbooks (!) to focus his video camera in the first TV studio constructed in an elementary school in the US – Murray Avenue Elementary, Larchmont, NY.

The project was not without its critics. My wife and I were at the time Mamaroneck residents; our children had gone through its schools. We were aware that things were stirring in the school system and that not everyone approved. We heard that a group of enthusiasts had persuaded the school administration to allot space for a television studio and persuaded others to donate television cameras, control room equipment, and then monitors for every classroom. We heard of students busily involved in set building, special effects, announcing, and various performing specialties. Some students, it was said, liked nothing better than pushing video cameras around the studio, stalking the action. Was this what was needed-more amateur theatricals, diverting time, attention, and funds from educational basics? Were Mamaroneck schools actually embracing the monster? We heard before long that a day at Mamaroneck High began with a telecast from the studio to all classrooms, by students. It might include world news highlights, local news, and details of the school schedule for the day. We heard of students staying up to all hours of the night to prepare for the next day's telecast, and others getting up at 4:00 A.M. to complete the work.

Let Kate Moody tell you how all of this evolved, how support was found, how a courageous school superintendent decided to give the green light, and how students, faculty, and parents responded. Her account is full of detailed case histories, of bright students and not so bright students, including some who had been troublemakers and others with learning disabilities. She will tell you what became of a number of them. The experiences of teachers are also described in illuminating detail.

Today's teachers cannot use all this as a blueprint. Once again everything is in a process of flux. But the present period offers parallels to the earlier one. Again school systems are baffled as to how to prepare for an impending communications upheaval. That interactive communications superhighway-how will relate to it and share its benefits? I think many teachers will find ideas here-and inspiration.

Though a Mamaroneck resident, with special interest in the media, I did not become involved in the school television venture. In the 1960s and 1970s I was busy with communications form Oxford University Press, which began with a three-volume history of broadcasting in the United States. It kept me on the go, to New York, Washington, Hollywood, and points between. I now realize I missed an important chapter that took place under my nose in Mamaroneck public schools.

Author Bio: 

Eric Barnouw, Professor Emeritus of Dramatic Arts, Columbia University, is the author of A History of Broadcasting in the United States (3 vols.) Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television (1104), The Sponsor: Notes on a Modern Potentate, and Media Marathon.