You’ll have to put up with
lots of dross to find the choice stuff in NYTV: By the People Who Made It, a windbag of a documentary airing on WNET December 14, about how the city was the making of television back when most television was made here. Producer-director Philip Marshall can’t decide if he wants to trace the medium’s technological and economic development (a fascinating
story we see in driblets),
celebrate its Golden Age (Milton Berle and Sid Caesar—now we know how Trotsky would have looked if he’d lived—are on hand), condemn its failure to uplift (lots of wistful blather about “culture,” as if this ain’t it), or indulge in dopey civic boosterism; even half kiddingly, it’s inane to pair Newton
Minow’s overrated “vast
wasteland” quote with a
reminder that TV had moved
to the West Coast by the time Minow said it. For more of
that jocular touch, host Al
Roker does the bulk of his
commentary from inside
various vintage TV sets, most
of which make him look

Even so, for every fatuous moment—inevitably, the
quiz-show scandal of the
’50s gets termed “a loss of
innocence”—there’s a fun fact, like the news-to-me that both Hugh Downs and Mike Wallace launched their careers as game-show hosts. (Not hard
to imagine with the genial Downs, but with Wallace, a frightening thought.) The many interviewees, including pretty much everybody you’d want
to hear from, are generally sharp, although the jokes,
unsurprisingly, are better than the pontifications—even Nipsey Russell made me laugh with his rendition of Ed Sullivan editing a script. While viewers may
pine for some classic moments that only get described (why couldn’t they dig up Merv
Griffin singing the blues on a Sunday-morning religion show? Why leave us with that dream?), the few old clips we do see are enjoyable too. Among the best is a circa-1970 car commercial starring a very young Robert De Niro, which in one sense is more revelatory than any of his movies: man, is he short.