Calling all couch potatoes, channel surfers, sofa sloths, remote hogs and television addicts. Rejoice! We have the perfect museum for you. The Paley Center for Media is a museum devoted to collecting and preserving television, radio and other media (lots of TiVo). There are no exhibits to see, no crowds to push through and we guarantee that you will get no exercise what so ever. Just sign up for “library” time at the front desk, take the elevator to a quiet, dark room, sit down in a comfy chair in front of a nice large computer screen, and the museum docents will hand you the world’s most powerful remote control. Nearly 150,000 programs covering almost 100 years of television and radio history await your viewing pleasure. Sitcoms, comedies, variety shows, news, performing arts programs, documentaries, children’s shows, sports, and even commercials are all available at the click of your mouse. Watch the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate, then switch to an episode of “Bonanza”. Watch the 1991 Super Bowl, then find out who won the Bud Bowl for that year. Look up Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video and compare it to the Beatles on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” Or just sit back and watch a “Gilligan’s Island” episode and see what the Professor makes out of coconuts this time.
This gem of a museum was founded as “The Museum of Television and Radio” as the brainchild of media mogul William S. Paley. At the age of 26, Paley bought a group of bankrupt radio stations and eventually built the media empire that came to be known as CBS. Broadcasting magazine summed up his place in the pantheon of the airwaves as: “Paley became to American broadcasting what Carnegie was to steel, Ford to automobiles, Luce to publishing, and Ruth to baseball.” Paley recognized early on that television and radio broadcasts are an ephemeral art. Once a program is off the air, it’s quickly forgotten and easily lost. Paley founded this museum in 1975 in order to preserve the media that he spent his life developing.
The selection can be daunting at first so start perhaps with some of the curated collections. There is a collection with some of the major shows in science fiction, and I selected parts of my favorite “X Files” episodes. A collection on police dramas caught my eye and I watched a section of the 1950s noir “The Naked City,” a gritty black and white ancestor of “Law and Order.” Paul checked out the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate, watched an episode of “Red Dwarf,” then switched to an Edward R. Murrow historical documentary about Poland in 1958. At some point we both found ourselves cruising through some of the major news broadcasts of the century. I started watching the Challenger Disaster. I got to the point just after the rocket exploded, and the camera focuses on the crowd, watching the astronauts’ families,and everyone begins to cry as debris starts splashing down in the ocean in front of them. I started to cry at this tragic scene and I looked over at Paul to share the moment and saw that he was crying too. However, he was watching “The Miracle on Ice,” a hockey game in the 1980 Winter Olympics. (It’s considered one of the greatest upsets in sports history.) Later he attempted to preserve his sensitive guy image by claiming he chocked up while watching the Challenger Disaster earlier. You can decide whether or not you believe him.
My favorite part of this experience was being able to look up the shows I watched in childhood. I discovered episodes of “The Man From Uncle” that I used to watch with my grandfather. That brought back some good memories of a very good man. I also found episodes of my favorite childhood show, “The Muppets.” I was hesitant to watch them at first, worried that reality would not live up to my very warm memories of the show. However, I chose the episode with guest stars from the cast of “Star Wars” and watched in amazement as the Star Wars crew hijacks Swinetrek on “Pigs In Space”; Miss Piggy pretends to be a karate chopping Princess Leia; Chewbacca gets kidnapped by chickens; C3PO and R2D2’s have a tap dancing solo to “You Are My Lucky Star”; and Mark Hamill dresses in an hideous argyle sweater and gargles a Gershwin tune with Angus McGonagle the Gargling Argyle Gargoyle. Is that not the best half hour of television ever created? Sheer genius.
Paying to watch TV for a few hours may not sound like a good use of your time, but we found it to be educational, often emotional and a very personal experience. We highly recommend this museum if you’re ever in the area.
The Paley Center for Media
25 West 52nd Street
New York, NY 10019-6129