Lynn Spigel. TV By Design: Modern Art and the Rise of Network Television. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Lynn Spigel argues that new movements in painting and modern design were integral to the business success of network TV and by incorporating “high modernist” aesthetics in television, television was conceived with an aesthetic of “everyday modernism.” Spigel is intervening in scholarship by Lewis Mumford, Jules Henry, Herbert Marcuse, Allen Ginsberg, and Theodor Adorno which argues that mass media is not art, television is not film, and film is barely art. Rather, she in essence, wants to show that very incredible intelligent people were responsible for the creation and dissemination of mass media during the network television era.


Over the years, for instance, a slew of television characters embraced modern art. Lucy Ricardo took lessons from a French sculptor in I Love Lucy and Gracie Allen painted abstract portraits of her husband, George, in The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. Early NBC programs, such as the Admiral Broadway Revue (1949) “hailed” modern art by including comics Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca dancing in an elaborately designed set piece singing a song titled “Hail! Modern Art!.”Jazz shows on television, such as Duke Ellington’s 1962 special “The Art of Ellington!” Is entirely organized around the relationship between jazz as the cameraman follows host Raymond Burr walking towards reproductions of Picasso, Gauguin, and Cézanne. Likewise Hugh Hefner’s Playboy’s Penthouse mixed modern design and jazz to appeal to a TV “in-crowd.”

Networks also developed in-house art departments that became centers of modern design. CBS chairman William S. Paley and Dr. Frank Stanton hired William Golden as art director, who designed everything from the famous CBS “eye” logo to company cufflinks. They also hired architects and interior designers such as Eero Saarinen and Florence Knoll to design corporate headquarters such as Television City in California, and Black Rock on 52nd Street. Television City contained “immense interior flexibility” in studio space by using suspended sets, movable lighting, and wiring grids. The architects not only made Television City “function” like a Ford Factory, they made it look aesthetically modern with black and white walls and enormous glass-curtain-wall façade. Of course, the programming shot at Television City incorporated modern design. A CBS trailer for the Edge of the Night shows a scene from the soap opera followed by title art that is an abstract rendering of a sunset composed of two large intersecting circles – one black, one white, and the intersection is gray.

In the 1950s and 1960s, New York’s Museum of Modern Art had sustained and developed interest in using television to communicate the visual experience of looking at a gallery. Broadcast in 1954, NBC’s first nationwide color-compatible show was titled “A Visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art” and on NBC’s Home, a program aimed at housewives, Host Arlene Francis opened the segment saying “Our next feature will be televised in both color and black and white . . . owners of color sets are in for a real treat, because today’s subject is modern art.” The displays included Wasilly Kandinksy and Marc Chagall.

In an argument similar to Frederic Jameson’s in "Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” and Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, modern art played an important role in disseminating advertisements.  Commercials as also incorporated modern art as Duke Ellington’s “A Drum is a Woman” featured two commercials for “Today’s Kitchens” that showcased modern kitchens designed with metal cabinets from U.S Steel. Thanks to the innovations of actor and comedian Ernie Kovacs, Madison Avenue firms such as Doyle, Dane, and Bernbach made award-winning ads for Polaroid Cameras, American Airlines, Cracker Jacks, and Levy Bread which used minimal dialogue within an overall strategy of understatement. In 1966, Goodyear Tires used the innovations of French art-cinema to create a moody suspense thriller in which a chic woman drives in a mist-filled night only to get a flat. The Art Pop of Andy Warhol made its way into television commercials as Andy Warhol made a commercial for Schrafft’s Restaurants who approached the TV commercial as an artist’s medium by including credits running diagonally across the screen.