teachout defends “civilization”


Television can make you famous, but it can’t keep you famous. It’s a bit like heroin: No sooner do you stop taking your daily fix than you get all pale and clammy, after which you vanish in a puff of smoke. So far as I know, there’s never been a TV star who lingered in the public eye for very long after departing from the airwaves—least of all Kenneth Clark. Even among his fellow art historians, Clark is only modestly well remembered. Most of his books are now out of print, and you’re not likely to know his name if you’re much under the age of 50. But Clark became a full-fledged celebrity in his late 60s when, in 1970, the newly hatched Public Broadcasting Service aired a 13-part TV series called “Civilisation: A Personal View” in which he escorted his viewers through a thousand years of cultural history. The program had been a huge success when broadcast by the BBC the preceding year, and it made a similar splash in America: In addition to launching PBS with a bang, “Civilisation” spawned an eponymous coffee-table book that cracked the best-seller list. It was the first time that PBS aired the kind of show that has since been dubbed “appointment TV.” Everybody felt they had to see it—and talk about it.

more from Terry Teachout at the WSJ here.