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Transmission and Transgression

The History of Rock 'n' Roll on Television


Gary Kenton

When MTV (Music Television channel) was established in 1981, an executive claimed that they had "integrated the most powerful forces in our two decades, TV and rock ‘n’ roll." In fact, this problematic relationship began in the mid-1950s, when the advent of rock ‘n’ roll represented a musical and cultural revolution. The backlash against the music and the youth culture from which it emanated, described here as "rockaphobia," was reflected in a process of adulteration, racism, and co-optation by television programmers, spearheaded by American Bandstand. This interplay between rock ‘n’ roll and television played a significant role in alienating baby boomers from the mainstream, motivating them to create their own countercultural identity. This social migration helped to delineate the boundaries that would be identified in the 1960s as the generation gap.

Transmission and Transgression uses an interdisciplinary approach informed by media ecology, the theoretical framework which recognizes that each communication technology, or medium, creates its own unique environment, independent of content. This analysis allows the author to identify inherent technological and sensory incompatibilities between the medium of television and the cultural practice of rock ‘n’ roll, and to place these tensions within the broader shift of physiological emphasis from the traditional, tribal world dominated by the ear to the modern world which privileges the eye. Even in its remediated, diluted form, rock music has occupied a significant niche on television, and this book is the most comprehensive summary, celebration, and analysis of that history.

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Appendix of TV Shows Featuring Rock ‘n’ Roll


NOTE: This listing includes every show that could be verified which featured rock ‘n’ roll or was relevant to the rock audience. In some cases, precise dates were difficult to pin down. The author looks forward to hearing from readers with additions or corrections. With a few notable exceptions, one-time TV specials are not included. There is much to say about Live Aid, The Concert for Bangladesh, and other such events, but not here.

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (ABC 1952–66)

This family sitcom began on radio in 1944. When it went on TV, Dave and Ricky, the sons of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, became the primary interest. When Ricky started singing rock ’n’ roll songs on the show in 1957, the ratings soared and he became a bona fide rock star. On one memorable episode, Dave and Ricky engage in a battle of the phonographs, with Dave edifying himself with classical music in his room while Ricky is downstairs blasting Big Mama Thornton’s original “Hound Dog.” Dave is just about to give up the fight when Ricky’s record player explodes in a cloud of smoke.

Even after the Ozzie and Harriet show went off the air, Rick Nelson continued to make respectable records in a country-rock vein until his death in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve in 1985.←249 | 250→

The Al Benson Show (WGN-TV, Chicago, 1951–52)

Al Benson was a major...

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