To watch TV in the early 1950s was simple: You acquired a television set, plugged it in, attached a receiving antenna, and plucked images from the airwaves.
There were limitations, of course. The images were in black and white. There were only 108 stations on the air in 63 cities. Thirty-seven of those cities had only one station, and in other areas there was no television at all. Sometimes a small set-top antenna (rabbit ears) was enough to bring in the picture. In other cases, an outdoor antenna was needed, eventually creating a forest of metal across the rooftops.
Yet apart from the initial cost of the equipment, there was no additional charge for programming. As with radio, the tradeoff was commercials.
The competition with TV caused consternation at the major Hollywood studios that produced theatrical releases. By the end of the 1950s, though, the studios (starting with Walt Disney and Warner Bros.) had major divisions in place to produce TV programming. They developed a two-tier system: films and stars to attract theater-goers at the box office, and television programming and personalities to lure advertising sponsors. The two worlds crossed only occasionally.
The television universe became more complicated in 1952 when the FCC added 220 stations to the VHF band (channels 2 to 13). It also opened the UHF spectrum (channels 14 to 83), adding 1,400 new stations, and reserved 242 of the channels for independent noncommercial educational stations. This new system offered the potential for a dramatic expansion of content.
I hate television. I hate it as much as I hate peanuts. But I can’t stop eating peanuts.
— Orson Welles
However, the television sets already in use could not receive the UHF channels without adding converter boxes. And adding UHF capabilities on new sets increased their costs. So most of these new channels were ignored until 1965, when set manufacturers were required by law to include both VHF and UHF capabilities.
Viewers during the 1950s also resisted a proposal that would have required them to junk some 23 million black-and-white televisions in order to receive color transmissions. The FCC had approved a color television technology that was incompatible with existing sets in 1951, so the public simply ignored it. After two years, the commission reversed itself and approved a color system that was compatible with black-and-white sets, allowing color TV to phase in over time. And it was not until the mid-1960s that most television content was broadcast in color.
Walter J. Podrazik is co-author of 10 books, including Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television (Syracuse University Press). He is also a media contributor for the Chicago Public Radio program Eight Forty-Eight, and a consulting curator for the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.
Text copyright 2007 by Walter J. Podrazik. All rights reserved.
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