Sometime in the late 1950s, my elementary school class was loaded onto a bus for the 27 mile trip down the San Bernardino Freeway from Rowland Avenue Elementary School in West Covina, California to CBS Television City in Hollywood.
The media were already in my blood and I just may have been the most excited kid in the class. We were going to be in the audience of Art Linkletter’s House Party to watch several of my classmates appear on a legendary segment of the show called “Kids Say the Darndest Things.”
To this day, it bothers me that I wasn’t chosen to be on the kids segment. I never learned why. I actually remember a counselor at UCLA’s psychological services center in 1969 looking at me like I was nuts when I described it as one of my “fundamental hurts.”
But the real shocker was when we pulled up in front of Television City and my entire class walked onto Linkletter’s soundstage, with the exception of Rachel, Barbara, and me. A nice man in a bow tie who looked vaguely like Wally Cox diverted us into a small screening room studio with wires everywhere and asked us to remain seated and quiet.
I was devastated. No Art Linkletter. No “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” No soundstage.
Then Wally returned and told us that we were going to be part of an important experiment. They wanted to see how a machine that had already been around for a while, a machine that tested whether people did or did not like television shows, would work with kids. And so they gave us each two small devices, one of which we were to hold in each hand.
“Press one button when you like the show, Wally told us, and press the other when you don’t.” Then the lights dimmed and an episode of the not yet broadcast sit-com “Dennis the Menace” came on the screen. For 25 minutes, I watched this ridiculous show and never lifted my finger from the “don’t like” button.
I really thought it was dumb. I was mad at missing all the fun. Story over.
Well, not quite.
Almost exactly twenty years later I was sitting in a graduate seminar on methods of media research at Columbia with a brilliant young professor, Dr. Josephine Holz. And that was the day that I learned that the machine had not been just any contraption, but something called the Lazarsfeld-Stanton Program Analyzer, a pioneering device designed by two towering figures in the history of broadcasting, Drs. Frank Stanton and Paul Lazarsfeld. It may have taken 20 years, but finally it was the other kids who had been the losers and it was me who had been actually hooked up to the machine.
Oh, and I still think Dennis the Menace was a dumb show.
Now if you want to talk about The Jetsons, that was a work of genius.
P.S. This is an old yet fascinating scholarly article about the machine.
Levy, Mark R. The Lazarsfeld-Stanton Program Analyzer: An Historical Note
The Journal of Communication, 1982 VL. 32, No. 4. PG: 30-38.