Advent and Growth of Television

Perhaps no phenomenon shaped American life in the 1950s more than television (TV). TV altered most all aspects of American life—its recreation habits, its advertising and shopping, and its politics.

Experimental television was developed in the 1920s. At the end of World War II, the television was a toy for only a few thousand wealthy Americans. In 1946, there were about 7,000 sets in use in entire country. Television was not commercially viable until the late 1940s. Seven million sets were sold during the late 40s with an average price of $500. Sales grew at a rate of 5 million a year, and by the end of the Fifties 50 million families owned TVs. By 1953, when the average family earned $3,000 per year, the average price of a TV was $200. Color TVs appeared on the market in 1953. By the end of the decade, nearly two-thirds of American households had a television. (Century, p. 331; TFC p. 250.) The biggest-selling periodical of the decade was TV Guide. (TFC, 250.) TV dinners were invented in 1954 because people did not want to gather around the dining room table and miss the TV shows.

Until the fall of 1948, regularly scheduled programming on the four networks—the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS; later CBS Corporation), the National Broadcasting Co. (NBC), and the DuMont Television Network, which folded in 1955—was scarce. On some evenings, a network might not offer any programs at all, and it was rare for any network to broadcast a full complement of shows during prime time (8–11 PM, Eastern Standard Time). Radio remained the number one broadcast medium in terms of profits, audience size, and respectability.

In the late Forties, NBC and CBS launched aggressive campaigns to sign up affiliates in other cities. ABC and DuMont, hamstrung by financial and legal problems, quickly fell behind as most station owners chose NBC or CBS, largely because of their proven track record in radio. But even for the “big two,” building television networks was costly and difficult. Unlike radio programming, which could be fed through ordinary phone lines to affiliates, who then broadcast them over the air in their communities, linking television stations into a network required a more advanced technology, a coaxial cable especially designed for the medium that AT&T, the private, government-regulated telephone monopoly, would have to lay throughout the country.

At the end of the War, at the government’s and television industry’s behest, AT&T began work on this project. By the end of the 1940s, most of the East Coast had been linked, and the connection extended to Chicago and much of the Midwest. But it was slow going, and at the dawn of the 1950s, no more than 30 percent of the nation’s population was within reach of network programming. Until a city was linked to the coaxial cable, there was no reason for station owners to sign up with a network; instead, they relied on local talent to produce programs. As a result, the television networks grew more slowly than executives might have wished, and the audience for network programs was restricted by geography until the mid-1950s. An important breakthrough occurred in 1951, when the coaxial cable was extended to the West Coast and made transcontinental broadcasting possible. But until microwave relay stations were built to reach large swaths of rural America, many viewers lacked access to the networks.

Access wasn’t the only problem. The first television sets that rolled off the assembly lines were expensive. RCA’s basic model, the one that David Sarnoff, president of NBC, envisioned as its “Model T,” cost $385, while top-of-the-line models were more than $2,000. With the average annual salary in the mid-1940s just over $3,000, this was a lot of money, even if consumers were able to buy sets through department-store installment plans. And though the price of TVs would steadily decline throughout the 1940s, the audience for television was restricted by income. Most early adopters were from well-to-do families—or tavern owners who hoped that their investment in television would attract patrons.

Still, the industry expanded dramatically. In 1946, there were approximately 20,000 television sets in the U.S.; by 1948, there were 350,000; and by 1952, there were 15.3 million. Less than 1 percent of American homes had TVs in 1948; 32 percent did by 1952. The number of stations also multiplied, despite a FCC freeze in the issuing of station licenses from 1948 to 1952. In 1946, there were six stations in only four cities; by 1952, there were 108 stations in sixty-five cities, most of them recipients of licenses issued right before the freeze. When the freeze was lifted and new licenses began to be issued again, there was a mad rush to establish new stations.