Television Comes to America, 1947-57
James L. Baughman
When television finally came to America in the late 1940s, few could disguise their fascination with what some dubbed "the home screen." Many saw their first telecasts in bars, which won or retained customers by installing sets, often tuned to an early filler of the schedule, professional wrestling. In department store appliance departments and store windows, people stared at television sets and asked about prices and installation costs. Many entrepreneurs temporarily entered TV set retailing. In some localities, sets could be bought at beauty parlors, gas stations, and dry cleaners.
Television sales took off in the late 1940s following the start of individual stations in the largest cities. Only in such heavily populated places was the relatively high cost of starting and operating a station considered economically viable. TV set ownership thus initially possessed a big-city or, more accurately, metropolitan-area bias. Of the 102,000 TV sets in the United States in early 1948, two-thirds were in the New York area, from which most of the first TV stations operated. Those living more than seventy-five miles from such urban centers as New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Boston, or Los Angeles could do little more than read about TV. Living in South Dakota, the family of Tom Brokaw, the future NBC news anchor, did not have a TV until 1955. A year earlier, an unpublished NBC study indicated that only 9 percent of all homes in South Dakota had TV sets, compared to 66 percent of all Illinois homes.
The first buyers, in addition to living in or near large cities, were often well-to-do. Such people had the discretionary income and some fascination with what later came to be known as "new technologies." But their decision to buy sets frequently carried an additional cost. Relatives, friends, and neighbors groped for an excuse to drop by to watch TV. In what became "TV parties," the set owner was frequently expected to serve food and drink.
Although the poorest members of communities were among the last to purchase TVs, the upper-class bias to set ownership quickly changed. The number of homes with TVs increased from 0.4 percent in 1948 to 55.7 percent in 1954 and to 83.2 percent four years later. No other household technology, not the telephone or indoor plumbing, had ever spread so rapidly into so many homes. And TV had absorbed evenings that had once been spent reading, listening to the radio, or going to the movies. By the mid-1950s, wrote Leo Bogart, TV's first historian, "Television had established its place as the most important single form of entertainment and of passing the time."
What happened? Some argue that the very coming of a technology like television explains its diffusion. This is a variation on what has been called "technological determinism," the theory that the mere presence of a technology accounts for its spread. Yet recent studies of the popularization of other new technologies in history, including the cheap "penny" newspapers and the telegraph, suggest that potential buyers of such services can and will, for a variety of reasons, resist using them. Consumers must have the time and income; or there must be cultural or social justifications for the purchase of what at the time was an expensive new appliance.
Still other factors having nothing to do with television's sudden appearance rationalized buying a set. The introduction of TV coincided with the baby boom. The Depression and Second World War had caused many couples to delay marriage or starting families. Suddenly in the 1950s and 1960s, every couple (or so it seemed) was having children. According to the 1970 U.S. Census, the number of children under 5 years of age per 1,000 women aged 20 to 44 years, rose from 400 in 1940 to 551 in 1950; ten years later the figure was 667, the highest since 1890. And the baby boom created all sorts of incentives to buy a TV receiver.
Mindful of the baby boomers as a new and ever expanding part of their audience, networks and stations created their own programming for children. On the networks, none had more success than NEC's "Howdy Doody Time," one of many programs that featured puppets. Individual stations had their own shows for children: Chicago's WGN produced "Bozo," with a clown host and, like "Howdy Doody," an audience of excited little ones. Another Chicago station, WNBQ, aired the puppet show, "Kukla, Fran, and Ollie," which enjoyed several network runs. A Los Angeles channel created "Beany and Cecil," which, like "Kukla, Fran, and Ollie," proved appealing to adults as well as children. There were science-fiction programs like "Captain Video."
Stations aired old movie "serials" that had been first produced for children's Saturday matinees at smaller movie houses. The most popular starred Hopalong Cassidy. Through much of the 1950s, Cassidy enjoyed an enormous youthful following and made many product endorsements through the decade. Stations also telecast short film comedies featuring the Little Rascals, the Three Stooges, and Laurel and Hardy. By the mid-1950s came original filmed series intended for kids. The more widely watched were "Lassie," "Rin Tin Tin," "Roy Rogers," "Sgt. Preston of the Yukon," "Superman," and "Sky King."
The most extraordinary programming success involving children came in late 1954 and early 1955, when ABC's new "Disneyland" series aired three
hour-long programs about the frontiersman Davy Crockett. Starring an easygoing and likeable Fess Parker, the Crockett programs not only proved enormously popular, but sparked a huge demand for replicas of the hero's clothing and other paraphernalia. Children, mostly boys, began crying for Davy Crockett coonskin caps, moccasins, toy rifles, lunch boxes, pajamas, and bath towels. Millions learned the words to the program's theme song, "The Legend of Davy Crockett." Many boomers, settled in their middle age four decades later, could still sing the song's first stanza.
Many old TV comedy series were introduced to a new generation of Americans on the Nickelodeon cable channel in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Virtually every Nickelodeon "Nick at Nite" series had originally aired in the late 1950s and 1960s, after televisions were found in most homes.
Other child-related factors caused a TV sales boom. Parents found it hard to deny their children a television, especially as more and more neighborhood families acquired sets. Then, too, parents discovered that the TV, like the videocasette recorder a generation later, kept the little ones entertained and out of trouble. It might even pacify babies. In 1948 a Washington Post reporter realized that his nine-month-old baby would cease crying whenever he was placed before the TV set, regardless of the program.
The baby boom contributed to the success of TV in still another way. The population explosion created a baby-sitter shortage. Parents complained repeatedly of being unable to find baby-sitters for their children, a situation that existed until "boomers" were old enough to be entrusted with their younger sisters and brothers. Parents often had no choice but to stay home. Moreover, many families were moving into new suburbs. Suburbanization complicated going to see a film or patronizing a night club or bar. (Theaters remained centered in downtowns, as did most night spots, until the 1960s.) Commuting time and expenses related to driving and parking a car had risen to a point where many parents collectively threw up their hands and elected to watch television with the kids.
The baby boom and such factors as suburbanization go a long way toward explaining why television entered so many American homes so rapidly.
Among the last people to buy TV sets were those couples without children. A similar pattern developed with the spread of VCRs in the 1980s. Families with younger children were among the most likely to own VCRs.
What did the advent of television mean for Americans? Two generations of research in the social and behavioral sciences make generalizations about TV's effects tricky, if not impossible. Non-academic observers, unburdened by research, simply assume that television was and remains all-powerful. It is best to treat assertions about the medium's effects with care.
One of the more damning treatments of television's introduction came from a 1990 feature film, Avalon. This otherwise touching story of an immigrant family in Baltimore portrays TV as a great destroyer of tradition. The immigrant's son buys a set, which immediately hypnotizes all. Conversations ended. Meals, even ones that had once been joyous gatherings of relatives, were eaten on TV trays.
Still, TV's ascendancy in the 1950s was not absolute. Movie attendance fell sharply, as did radio listening. But Americans continued to read newspapers and magazines, though they appear to have spent less time doing so. Not until the mid-1960s did television begin to eat away at the circulations of some newspapers and periodicals, partly because until then, most Americans considered television to be an entertainment medium. Nightly TV news programs in the 1950s and early 1960s were short—fifteen minutes long—and crudely assembled; relatively few watched the outstanding CBS news show, "See It Now," hosted by Edward R. Murrow.
It is worth remembering that adults in the 1950s had been raised in a different "media mix." They were in the habit of reading the newspaper closely, usually in the evening. Such patterns did not go
away with television. Only after the many boomers themselves grew into adulthood and failed to subscribe to papers did dailies begin to see their audiences decline.
None of this is to say that TV did not affect Americans. It certainly helped, as had radio and as would the VCR, to "privatize" entertainment, that is, cause more and more to stay home and isolated from others. Television altered American politics, mainly by rewarding those candidates able to think quickly and cleverly and those most attractively packaged by advertising agencies. It would even benefit a presidential candidate who played the saxophone on late-night television.