May 04, 1989 12:00 PM

Look at them! They have no substance, they’re only human-seeming shadows moving on glass, but they can go anywhere and do anything—one minute a male and female shadow will be in a bar and zap!—a second later they’re in a bed together. They disappear at regular intervals and in their place come earnest ones talking about suppressing our odors or keeping us regular. Then the first ones are back, acting as if they never left. They dance, they sing, they drive very fast. They seem sure they can make us laugh, cry and watch them, but if we don’t, they vanish. They have some nerve, coming into our houses and asking for our love, and yet they often get it. Sometimes we grow so attached to them we let them hang around for years, in the living room or wherever a switch can summon or dissolve them. They are the genies of the age, a new, electronic species of genie that dwells in rectangular glass bottles. And they have a secret power that has changed our lives: They show us marvels, they tell us stories.

We’re far too sophisticated, of course, to call them genies. We call them TV personalities, an ambignous phrase that suggests artists and real people tumbled together as one, and that’s how we see them. Their glass home, there in front of the couch, makes them otherworldly friends. They are young as genies go, born with commercial TV when President Franklin D. Roosevelt threw a switch at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and at the time nobody realized that a new creature was being let loose in the land. TV at first seemed a curiosity, just radio with pictures. At the fair, hundreds jammed together to peer at a magnified reflection of a tiny 12-inch screen. There was only a handful of TV stations for the whole country then, and World War II put even those on hold for the duration, but with peace the genies multiplied, grew bolder, talked to us.

And, the changes they worked on our world! Messengers for the kings of old ran or rode hundreds of miles to bring a bit of news. TV’s couriers speed the globe in seconds, bring us sight and sound from the Antipodes and the Hebrides. And storytelling! The story began around a fire, one soul passing a yarn to another, and TV, with its new, cool fire, brought the ancient ritual into every home. Shakespeare and Dickens, had they but seen this miracle, would have rushed to prompt the genies’ tales.

And so television slowly tipped its cornucopia to pour a massive flood of bread and circus into our days. Because it has never known quite what we wanted, it has tried to give us everything. Many of its genies we have come to know on a first-name basis—Lucy, Oprah, Farrah, Edith, Uncle Miltie, Flip, Kermit, Cos, Sonny (Crockett or Bono), Cybill, Cher, Hot Lips, Merv, Rhoda, Imogene, J.R., Luke and Laura, Dino, Chico, Tennessee Ernie, Felix, the Fonz, Kookie, Mork, Gomer, Dobie, Napoleon, Soupy, Vanna—hundreds of them. Somehow we see them as passing fancies, here today, canceled tomorrow, and TV news as the important stuff. Yet the news, with major, infrequent exceptions, is TV’s most ephemeral offering. We can summon up the image of Archie in his armchair from 10 or even 18 years back more readily than we can recall what any anchorman showed us last night. That’s the difference between fact and myth.

As the master mythmaker of our time, TV will multiply and deepen its images. A medium that began with just a few stations in 1939 has grown into a still expanding system of thousands. For nearly every shallow fiction fit only to bore and babysit, TV now offers fare to move, instruct and nourish. Its future is bright. Let us welcome it. And in the meantime, let us pause to celebrate the magical medium born at a fair. Let us praise the wonders that oft-benighted tube already has brought us: a few geniuses, many grand entertainments, joy, pain, tragedy, artistry, memories and far, far more wonderful players and characters than anyone on earth before us could see in a lifetime. Here they are again. Just look at them!

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