Saturday, August 28, 2010

TV Icons Who Boosted Reading

While television receives a well-deserved beatdown for blasting away the literate skills of Americans, there are a few incidents when the piƱata ducks the stick. The boob tube may not transform into the brain tube anytime soon (not until a handful of adults can actually conquer ‘Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?’ but thanks to some unforgettable TV personalities, there were a few brief moments when America was all on the same page.

King of the Wild Frontier
Eat your heart out, Harry Potter. In 1954, the kids went crazy for a different kind of hero: Davy Crockett. A patriotic little Disney-produced mini-series playing up the mythical status of Crockett hit the waves, causing a year-long Crockettmania that swept the country and cleaned out parents’ pocketbooks. The five-part series starring Hollywood favorite Fess Parker was televised three times over the course of 1954-55, and the reruns pulled stronger ratings than the first showing. For the very first time, Disney’s merchandising reached Hanna Montana-like proportions, and books were an important part of the pre-VCR, whats-the-Internet hysteria. Some reports claim that fourteen million books were sold that year, from re-released biographies of Crockett meant for adults to dime store comic books. One little picture book of Crockett’s television adventures garnered a million pre-orders on its own; not bad for a country with 150 million people and six million television sets in 1950. After the third showing of the series, the fad died out, and people turned their attention back to Ed Sullivan and ‘I Love Lucy,’ storing up those books for countless yard sales.

While the country was infatuated with the late 1700s in 1954, when the seventies came along, America was in a nostalgic mood over the 1950s. The comedy ‘Happy Days,’ and its spinoff, ‘Laverne & Shirley,’ topped the ratings in 1977 and made Henry Winkler’s character, The Fonz, into a television legend. Not only could he light up the jukebox with a slap, he could fill libraries across the country with a sentence. According to Winkler himself in various interviews, after the Fonz received a library card in a September episode that year, registrations for library cards jumped 500 percent. There’s only one catch: neither he nor the American Library Association can prove it. While the actor maintains that his character had a tremendous influence on a reading surge, the ALA admits that new card registration statistics weren’t uniformly collected as data. The ALA even lists the incident in a webpage FAQ, and says while the data isn’t there to back up Winkler’s claim, they can’t disprove it, either. Given the massive influence the Fonz had back in the day, it’s certainly within the realm of possibility. Hey, would you doubt a man whose jacket rests in the Smithsonian?

You buy a book! And you buy a book!
Any discussion on the impact of television on books wouldn’t be complete without the big O herself. Talk shows have featured authors and their books for decades, but in 1996, Oprah Winfrey took it to the next level by starting Oprah’s Book Club, a regular feature on her self-titled show. Each book featured in the club received the host’s personal thumbs-up and more than sixty books in thirteen years were devoured by a cultish, two-million-strong readership. Since each selection also received a re-printing with the official Oprah logo as well, authors saw their books zoom up the bestseller lists. Many became millionaires just from book club sales, and eight books were turned into movies. Although there’s no conclusive data on how many books Oprah is responsible for selling, the total would likely be in the millions. The club hit some bumpy patches, such as Jonathan Franzen’s revolt or James Frey’s slight, ahem, foray into exaggeration. But there’s no doubt that when Winfrey’s show wraps up in 2011, her literary claim to fame will be hard to top.

Photo credit: Flickr:bobster855


weeghosties said...

I can't wait to jump on Oprah's couch when my book is released. Of course, by then it'll be in Kramer's living room...

Amy Mullis said...

If it's good enough for the Fonz, it's good enough for me. Maybe I'll even pay my overdue fines today!