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When Women Invented Television

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When Women Invented Television

The Untold Story of the Female Powerhouses Who Pioneered the Way We Watch Today


15 min read
10 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

Gertrude Berg, Irna Phillips, Hazel Scott and Betty White helped invent American television programming.

Editorial Rating



  • Innovative
  • Background
  • Inspiring


When you think of TV’s infancy, you may not think of Gertrude Berg, Irna Phillips, Hazel Scott or even Betty White though she enjoyed TV’s longest career. You might presume that 1950s “mad men” created today’s formats, from talk shows to news hours, but those came later, with less colorful, more patriarchal content. At first, no one knew what to do with the medium, but these women saw its potential and built their careers. They worked for local stations, national brands and upstart networks, creating soaps and sitcoms and ad-libbing for hours. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong weaves their stories together episodically, one cliff-hanger at a time, to portray the mostly unsung women who helped invent TV viewing as we know it.


Gertrude Berg produced, wrote and starred in The Goldbergs, the template for the family sitcom.

Born Tillie Edelstein in 1898 in East Harlem, Gertrude Berg grew up performing at her family’s Catskills hotel, where she met her husband, Lewis Berg. She created, wrote and starred in the radio show The Goldbergs. In 1948, Berg asked CBS for a slot on its TV schedule.

All TV was broadcast live, so networks aired variety shows. A situation comedy – an untested concept – would require scripts, actors, rehearsals and changing camera angles. So, the networks turned Berg down. Being visual, rather than aural, TV as a medium emphasized the show’s Jewish ethnicity, just as entertainment headed into the gray-suited 1950s. However, while The Goldbergs exemplified the Jewish-American tradition, its appeal was universal. Eventually, CBS agreed to produce the show itself until it found a sponsor. Sanka instant coffee stepped in, and Berg’s character delivered ads within the show. Viewers increased their Sanka purchases by 57%.

Showrunner Irna Phillips pioneered radio soap operas and exported...

About the Author

A former staff journalist for Entertainment Weekly, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong wrote Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything; Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And all the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic; and Sex and the City and Us: How Four Single Women Changed the Way We Think, Live, and Love.

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