November 02, 2007
| by Walter J. Podrazik
Television first entered many people’s lives at the local bar. That’s where people had the opportunity to see first-hand what television had to offer, without taking on the considerable cost of purchasing a set. After all, a TV could cost as much as $1,000 in 1944, equivalent to more than $13,000 today.
With most TV viewing taking place bars, it’s not surprising that sports provided some of television’s first major draws. NBC’s Gillette Cavalcade of Sports featured boxing and wrestling contests three times a week. The limited confines of the boxing ring were ideal for early television. Then in 1946, RCA introduced a new type of television camera, the image orthicon, which was 100 times as sensitive as other cameras in use and opened the door to extensive coverage of college football and professional baseball games.
In June that year, NBC and Gillette used the new camera to present a highly touted heavyweight boxing match from Yankee Stadium between Joe Louis and Billy Conn. The network also took advantage of a new coaxial cable system being put into place to connect stations from different cities. Although the fledgling system connected only four East Coast stations, an estimated audience of 150,000 watched on more than 5,000 TV sets. And they liked what they saw.
In September 1946, the first large batch of postwar television sets rolled into department stores, and they began to sell. Television set production jumped from only about 200 in the first eight months of 1946 to more than 3,000 in the month of September. By the end of the next year, the number of TV sets operating in the United States had ballooned to 170,000.
I can think of nothing more boring for the American people than to have to sit in their living rooms for a whole half hour looking at my face on their television screens.
— Dwight D. Eisenhower
The first World Series telecast in the fall of 1947 reflected that growth. By then, the coaxial cable network had expanded to eight East Coast stations, and the seven game “subway series” between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers reached an estimated 3.8 million viewers, many still viewing from bars and other public areas. Watching sports on television, especially a showcase event such as the World Series, was like getting a free seat in the arena.
Yet while these one-time sports events drew impressive numbers, the real growth in television would come from programs and personalities that invited repeat visits. In June 1948, Milton Berle stepped onto the stage of NBC’s Texaco Star Theater as the brassy ringmaster to a freewheeling comedy-variety hour. Less than two weeks later, Toast of the Town on CBS offered a very different variety program, with newspaper columnist Ed Sullivan serving as a producer and host who stepped aside for his weekly guest talent, including Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis on the first episode.
Television could even function as an electronic baby-sitter. Already programs such as the live weekday afternoon Puppet Television Theater on NBC had established an intimacy with young viewers, offering an appealing cast of characters led by the marionette figure of Howdy Doody.
By the fall of 1948, television was on the verge of expanding into a national mass medium, with 37 stations on the air in 22 cities, and 86 others already approved. But the next step was delayed when the FCC announced a freeze on processing applications for new TV stations while it worked out issues of cross-station interference. By the time the freeze ended in 1952, television had developed into an all-but-irresistible force. New viewers discovered a polished mix of variety, music, drama, news, adventure, games, and, above all, situation comedies with a Hollywood sheen, led by I Love Lucy.
Working on television is like being shot out of a cannon. They cram you all up with rehearsals, then someone lights a fuse and - BANG - there you are in someone’s living room.
— Tallulah Bankhead
Television sales had reached 8 million sets by 1950. Construction of the coast-to-coast coaxial cable system had also continued, tying together stations throughout the United States. On Sept. 4, 1951, 94 of the 107 televisions stations then on the air carried an address by President Harry Truman live from San Francisco.
Television had become the glue connecting the country. When the character of Lucy Ricardo gave birth to her son on an I Love Lucy episode in January 1953, the event nearly overshadowed Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential inauguration the next day.
Television was no longer asking for an invitation into America’s living rooms. It was almost impossible to imagine life without it there.
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.