Television, History of

Few inventions have had as much effect on contemporary American society as television. Before 1947 the number of U.S. homes with television sets could be measured in the thousands. Ninety-eight percent of U.S. homes had at least one television set by the late 1990s. Those sets were on for an average of more than seven hours a day. Half of American homes had three or more televisions by 2006. The average American home had more TV sets than people—and TV sets in the average home were turned on for more than eight hours a day. But research also shows that these numbers may be changing quickly: about 52% of the public in a 2009 poll said that a television set is a necessity. This was down 12% from 2006 and was the smallest share to call television a necessity since this question was first asked more than 35 years ago. The economic downturn and the growing use—and relatively lower costs—of the Internet may be reasons for this downturn. The Internet's high-speed connections allow for audio and video that may be even better quality than that of a television broadcast.


Electronic television was first successfully demonstrated in San Francisco on Sept. 7, 1927. The system was designed by a 21-year-old inventor named Philo Taylor Farnsworth, who had lived in a house without electricity until he was 14. Farnsworth—while still in high school—had begun to conceive of a system that could capture moving images in a form that could be coded onto radio waves and then transformed back into a picture on a screen. Boris Rosing in Russia had conducted some crude experiments in transmitting images 16 years before Farnsworth's first success. John Logie Baird in England and Charles Francis Jenkins in the United States created a mechanical TV system in the 1920s that scanned images using a rotating disk with holes arranged in a spiral pattern. But Farnsworth's invention scanned images with a beam of electrons; it was the direct ancestor of modern television. The first image he transmitted on it was a simple line. Soon he aimed his primitive camera at a dollar sign because an investor had asked, "When are we going to see some dollars in this thing, Farnsworth?"

Early Development

RCA (Radio Corporation of America) was the company that dominated the radio business in the United States; it invested $50 million in the development of electronic television. RCA president David Sarnoff hired the Russian-born scientist Vladimir Kosma Zworykin to direct the effort (Zworykin had earlier participated in Rosing's experiments). RCA televised the opening of the New York World's Fair in 1939. It included a speech by the first president to appear on TV, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Later that year RCA paid for a license to use Farnsworth's television patents. RCA began selling TV sets with 5-by-12-in (12.7-by-25.4-cm) picture tubes. The company also began broadcasting regular programs, including scenes captured by a mobile unit. The first televised baseball game was broadcast on May 17, 1939 (between Princeton and Columbia universities). By 1941 the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) was broadcasting two 15-minute newscasts a day to a tiny audience on its New York TV station.

Early television was quite primitive. All the action at that first televised baseball game had to be captured by a single camera. The limitations of early cameras forced actors in dramas to work under impossibly hot lights and to wear black lipstick and green makeup (the cameras had trouble with the color white). Early newscasts on CBS were "chalk talks"; they featured a newsman moving a pointer across a map of wartime Europe. The poor quality of the picture made it difficult to make out the newsman (let alone the map). World War II slowed the development of television because companies like RCA turned their attention to military production. Television's progress was further slowed by a struggle over wavelength allocations with the new FM radio and a battle over government regulation. The Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) 1941 ruling that the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) had to sell one of its two radio networks was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1943. The third network became the new American Broadcasting Company (ABC) in 1945. Six experimental TV stations remained on the air during the war—one each in Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Schenectady, N.Y., and two in New York City. Full-scale commercial television broadcasting did not begin in the United States until 1947, however.

Beginning of Commercial Television

By 1949, Americans who lived within range of the growing number of television stations in the country could watch The Texaco Star Theater (1948; starring Milton Berle) or the children's program Howdy Doody (1947–60). They could also choose between two 15-minute newscasts—CBS TV News (1948) with Douglas Edwards and NBC's Camel News Caravan (1948) with John Cameron Swayze (who was required by the tobacco company sponsor to have a burning cigarette always visible when he was on camera). Many early programs—such as Amos 'n' Andy (1951–53) or The Jack Benny Show (1950–65)—were borrowed from early television's older and more established big brother: network radio. Most of the formats of the new programs—newscasts, situation comedies, variety shows, and dramas—were also borrowed from radio . NBC and CBS took the funds needed to establish this new medium from their radio profits. Soon television networks would be making substantial profits of their own and network radio would all but disappear (except as a carrier of hourly newscasts). Ideas on what to do with the element that TV added to radio—the visuals—sometimes seemed in short supply. On news programs the temptation was to fill the screen with "talking heads" (newscasters simply reading the news). Networks relied initially on the newsreel companies for news events; their work had been shown previously in movie studios. The number of TV sets in use rose from 6,000 in 1946 to some 12 million by 1951. No new invention entered American homes faster than black-and-white TV sets; by 1955 half of all U.S. homes had one.


In 1947 the House Committee on Un-American Activities began an investigation of the film industry. Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy soon began to inveigh against what he claimed was Communist infiltration of the government. Broadcasting also felt the impact of this growing national witch-hunt. Three former members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) published "Counterattack: The Newsletter of Facts on Communism." In 1950 a pamphlet, "Red Channels," listed the supposedly Communist associations of 151 performing artists. Anti-Communist vigilantes applied pressure to advertisers—the source of network profits. Political beliefs suddenly became grounds for getting fired. Most of the producers, writers, and actors who were accused of having had left-wing leanings found themselves blacklisted and unable to get work. CBS even instituted a loyalty oath for its employees. Among the few individuals in television well positioned enough and brave enough to take a stand against McCarthyism was the distinguished former radio reporter Edward R. Murrow. Murrow began (in partnership with the news producer Fred Friendly) the television documentary series See It Now in 1950. On Mar. 9, 1954, Murrow narrated a report on McCarthy and exposed the senator's shoddy tactics. He observed of McCarthy, "His mistake has been to confuse dissent with disloyalty." A nervous CBS refused to promote Murrow and Friendly's program. Nonetheless, CBS offered McCarthy free time on April 6. McCarthy called Murrow "the leader and the cleverest of the jackal pack which is always found at the throat of anyone who dares to expose Communist traitors." McCarthy proved to be his own worst enemy in this TV appearance; it became apparent that Murrow had helped to break McCarthy's reign of fear. In 1954 the U.S. Senate censured McCarthy. CBS's "security" office was closed down.

Golden Age

Television programming began to take some steps away from radio formats between 1953 and 1955. NBC television president Sylvester Weaver devised the "spectacular." A notable example was Peter Pan (1955; starring Mary Martin). The broadcast attracted 60 million viewers. Weaver also developed the magazine-format program Today. Today made its debut in 1952, with Dave Garroway as host (until 1961). The Tonight Show, a talk show with notable guests, was hosted by Steve Allen (1953–57). The third network, ABC, turned its first profit with youth-oriented shows such as Disneyland (which debuted in 1954 and has since been broadcast under different names) and The Mickey Mouse Club (1955–59 ).

The programming that dominated the two major networks in the mid-1950s borrowed heavily from another medium: theater. NBC and CBS presented such noteworthy and critically acclaimed dramatic anthologies as Kraft Television Theater (1947), a series that lasted until 1958; Studio One (1948); Playhouse 90 (1956); and The U.S. Steel Hour (1953). Memorable TV dramas of the era—most of them broadcast live—included Paddy Chayefsky's Marty (1955), starring Rod Steiger (Ernest Borgnine starred in the film); and Reginald Rose's Twelve Angry Men (1954). Fourteen of these live-drama anthology series were being broadcast by the 1955–56 season.

This is often looked back on as the "Golden Age" of television. By 1960 only one of these series was still on the air. Viewers apparently preferred dramas or comedies that may have been less literary but at least had the virtue of sustaining a familiar set of characters week after week. I Love Lucy (1951–57) was the hugely successful situation comedy starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. It had many imitators. The Honeymooners (starring Jackie Gleason) was first broadcast (not live) in 1955 (lasting until 1956 with the original cast). The first videotape recorder was invented by Ampex in 1956 .

Another format introduced in the mid-1950s was the big-money quiz show. The $64,000 Question (1955–58) and Twenty-One (1956–58) quickly shot to the top of the ratings. Louis C. Cowan (by that time, president of CBS television) was forced to resign amid revelations of widespread fixing of game shows. He had been the creator of the infamously tarnished The $64,000 Question .

Television and Politics

Television news first covered the presidential nominating conventions of the two major parties—events then still at the heart of American politics—in 1952. The term anchorman was probably used for the first time to describe Walter Cronkite's central role in CBS's convention coverage that year. In succeeding decades these conventions would become so concerned with looking good on TV that they would lose their spontaneity and eventually their news value. The power of TV news increased with the arrival of the popular newscast The Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC in 1956 . The networks had begun producing their own news film. They began to compete increasingly with newspapers as the country's primary source of news .

The election of the young and vital John F. Kennedy as president in 1960 seemed to provide evidence of how profoundly TV would change politics. Commentators pointed to the first televised debate that autumn between the Democrat Kennedy and the Republican nominee Vice-President Richard M. Nixon. A survey of those who listened to the debate on radio indicated that Nixon had won. Those who watched on TV were able to contrast Nixon's poor posture and poorly shaven face with Kennedy's poise and grace. They were more likely to think Kennedy had won the debate. Television's coverage of the assassination of President Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963 (and of the events that followed), provided further evidence of the medium's power. Most Americans joined in watching coverage of the shocking and tragic events not as crowds in the streets but from their own living rooms.

A newscast that would soon surpass the popularity of Huntley-Brinkley was The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite (1962–81). By the end of the decade Cronkite had become not just a highly respected journalist but also "the most trusted man in America." His role in coverage of the Vietnam War would be important. Whereas the overwhelming majority of TV news reports on the Vietnam War were supportive of U.S. policy, TV news film of the fighting sometimes gave Americans back home an unfamiliar and harsh view of combat. Many believed that it contributed to growing public dissatisfaction with the war.

Moreover, some of the anger of those defending U.S. policy in Vietnam was leveled against television news. CBS reporter Morley Safer accompanied a group of U.S. marines on a "search and destroy" mission to a complex of hamlets called Cam Ne in 1965. The marines faced no enemy resistance, yet they held cigarette lighters to the thatched roofs and proceeded to "waste" Cam Ne. Safer's filmed report on the incident was shown on CBS. Early the next morning the president of CBS received an angry phone call from President Lyndon B. Johnson, accusing the network of a lack of patriotism. During the Tet offensive in 1968, Cronkite went to Vietnam to make a documentary on the state of the war. That documentary, broadcast on Feb. 28, 1968, concluded with what Cronkite described as "a clearly labeled editorial": "It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out will be to negotiate," he said. President Johnson was watching Cronkite's report. According to a then–press aide named Bill Moyers, "The president flipped off the set and said, 'If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America.'"

Administrations in power since the war in Vietnam have worried that TV coverage of war casualties coming home would cost them public support. During the first Gulf War in 1991, President George Bush even curtailed the televised arrival of caskets of war dead. Later, President George W. Bush, who sent American troops to Iraq, made the ban almost absolute. In 2009, President Barack Obama said that he was considering lifting the ban on televising the arrival of soldiers' caskets.

Three Networks at the Height of Their Power

In 1964 color broadcasting began on prime-time television. The FCC initially approved a CBS color system. Then the FCC swung in RCA's favor after Sarnoff swamped the marketplace with black-and-white sets compatible with RCA color (the CBS color system was not compatible with black-and-white sets and would have required the purchase of new sets). During the 1960s and 1970s a country increasingly fascinated with TV was limited to watching almost exclusively what appeared on the three major networks: CBS, NBC, and ABC. These networks purchased time to broadcast their programs from about 200 affiliates each (affiliates are stations in each of the major cities or metropolitan areas of the United States). There might also be a few independent stations in the larger cities (mostly playing reruns of old network shows or old movies) and perhaps a fledgling public broadcasting channel.

Programming on each of the three networks was designed to grab a mass audience. Network shows therefore catered—as critics put it—to the lowest common denominator. James Aubrey was president of CBS television at that time. He doubled the network's profits between 1960 and 1966 by broadcasting simple comedies such as The Beverly Hillbillies (1962–71). In 1961, Newton Minow (who was then chair of the FCC) called television a "vast wasteland."

With the arrival of more realistic situation comedies, programming became a little more adventurous. The first and most notable of these was CBS's All in the Family in 1971 (broadcast until 1979). Along with situation comedies—usually a half hour focused on either a family and their neighbors or a group of co-workers—the other main staple of network prime-time programming has been the one-hour drama. These programs featured the adventures of police or doctors or lawyers (or in the early decades of TV, cowboys). Daytime television programming consisted primarily of soap operas and quiz shows until the 1980s. Then talk shows discussing such previously taboo subjects as sexuality became popular. By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the most popular shows both on network and cable were viewer vote-in contests such as American Idol and Dancing with the Stars; sports events; a plethora of reality television shows that stretched the limits of good taste; and hour-long traditional dramas, such as Grey's Anatomy and House.

The three major networks have always been in a race for ratings and advertising dollars. CBS and NBC dominated through the mid-1970s, when ABC rose to the top of the ratings because of shrewd scheduling. The power of the networks began to fade, and then all three were acquired by major media conglomerates. General Electric purchased NBC in 1985, and the Walt Disney Company acquired ABC in 1995. Viacom bought CBS in 1999.

By 2009 there were several additions: General Electric owned (in addition to NBC) Telemundo, the Spanish-language network; MSNBC; CNBC; Bravo; and the Sci Fi Channel (which became Syfy in 2009). CBS owned CBS, CW (CBS + Warner), Showtime, and almost 30 television stations. Walt Disney owned ABC and the Disney Channel, in addition to cable stations ESPN (originally, Entertainment and Sports Programming Network), A&E (Arts and Entertainment), and Lifetime. News Corp. owned the Fox Broadcasting Company and many other television and cable networks. TimeWarner owned Cable News Network (CNN), a major news service; Home Box Office (HBO); Cinemax; the Cartoon Network; Turner Broadcasting System (TBS); and Turner Network Television (TNT). Viacom owned MTV (Music Television), Nickelodeon, Showtime, and VH1 (Video Hits One). In the new millennium, the competition for television viewers was not only between networks but also between networks and myriad cable stations purchased in packages by viewers.

Public Broadcasting

A Carnegie Commission report in 1967 recommended the creation of a fourth (and noncommercial) network built around the educational nonprofit stations already in operation throughout the United States . Congress created the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) that year. PBS's key stations—many of which produce programs that are shown throughout the network—are spread across the country. PBS comprises more than 300 stations; this is more than any commercial network. Some of the most praised programs on PBS (such as the dramatic series Upstairs, Downstairs, 1971) have been imports from Britain. Perhaps the most influential of PBS's original contributions to American TV were the popular preschool series Sesame Street (beginning in 1969) and a thoughtful news program called The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer (1995–    ; originally, The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, first broadcast in 1975 ). Among the many special series produced for public broadcasting was the popular and highly rated The Civil War (1990), a five-part historical documentary.

PBS funds come from three major sources: congressional appropriations, which suffered substantial cuts beginning in 1982; viewer donations; and private corporate underwriters. None of these types of contributions are problem free. Government funding brings the possibility of government interference. Conservatives since the years of the Nixon administration have pressured PBS to make its programming less liberal. The search for viewer donations has led to long on-air fund-raising campaigns. And some critics contend that the need to win corporate support discourages programming that might challenge corporate values. Public broadcasting in the 21st century has faced competition from many cable channels that offered similar programs. PBS still proffers classical concerts that reach a very specific audience—one that is not large enough to tempt or worry cable or network groups.

Rise of Cable

The force that would challenge the dominance of the three major television networks and offer Americans the choice of dozens and potentially hundreds of TV channels—cable TV—began quietly in a few geographically isolated towns during the 1950s. Large antennas erected in high places gave everyone connected the chance to receive all the channels available in the nearest city. By 1960 the United States had about 640 such CATV (community antenna television) systems. It soon became apparent that the "television deprived" were not the only viewers who might want access to additional channels and additional programming. Cable operators in New York City contracted to broadcast the home games of the local basketball and hockey teams. By 1971, cable had more than 80,000 subscribers in New York City.

The number of cable stations expanded during the 1970s: HBO, the Family Channel, CNN, Nickelodeon, and scores of others vied for viewership. In 1978 only 17% of U.S. households had cable; by 1989, cable penetration had reached 57%. Satellite delivery and the FCC's relaxation of restrictions allowed the cable industry to become a major force in providing programs. As cable TV grew, broadcast networks began to lose viewers. Between 1996 and 1997, in fact, cable viewership increased by another 2 million households while broadcast networks lost almost 840,000 viewers. By the end of the 1990s, more than 65 million U.S. households received cable television service.

One major reason for the rise in viewership was the popularity of the cable news stations during major events. When cable news stations such as CNN and MSNBC covered natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and presidential elections, viewers flocked to their sets. Sometimes cable TV kept those viewers, although during both the 2000 and the 2004 elections, cable viewership diminished once the elections were over.

Modern cable TV delivers hundreds of channels of on-demand programming. And the advent of digital television in the 21st century enabled broadcasters to pack more channels into the same space, along with high-definition images and interactivity.

But viewers hit by the economic downturn that began in 2008 found that the costs for receiving these stations was high. By 2009, some viewers who did not want a monthly fee turned to the Internet for video podcasts, YouTube, and streaming video from Netflix. Time Warner Cable—with more than 13 million basic-cable subscribers in the United States—lost nearly 120,000 cable customers in the fourth quarter of 2008. Some people in the industry believe that it is just a matter of time before much of what is available for free on the Internet will eventually be sold for a fee. Many viewers, however, find that watching programs on a laptop, desktop, or handheld device such as an iPod is not the best viewing experience, as least yet. The future of television largely depends on the quality and the costs of future technology.

International Growth

Television's development followed different patterns in other countries. Often government and not private corporations owned some or all of the major networks. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) retained dominance over British television for much of the late 20th century. The BBC is funded by a tax on the sale of TV sets (as opposed to U.S. public television's reliance on voluntary audience contributions). The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was also freed by government support from many commercial pressures. And it was praised by some observers for the seriousness of much of its news and public-affairs programming. France's major TV networks were supported by the government as well; in France that support was sometimes seen as encouraging a tilt in news coverage toward the side of whatever party happened to be in power. As cable and direct-satellite television systems increased the number of channels during the 1980s and 1990s, the hold of these government-funded networks began to weaken. Most countries around the world began moving more toward the U.S. model of privately owned and advertiser-supported TV networks. A patchwork of government-owned and privately owned television stations and networks exist around the world in the 21st century. Some of these broadcasters combine American shows with local news and entertainment.

Politics Adapts to Television

By the 1980s, politicians and government leaders were familiar enough with the workings of television to be able to exploit the medium to their own ends. This seemed particularly apparent during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Reagan was himself formerly the host of a TV show (General Electric Theater, 1954–62). His skilled advisors were masters of the art of arranging flags and releasing balloons to place him in the most attractive settings. They also knew how to craft and release messages to maximize positive coverage on television newscasts. The Persian Gulf War in 1991 provided further proof of the power of television. There were pictures of U.S. bombs falling on the Iraqi capital broadcast live in the United States. Both Iraqi and U.S. leaders admitted to monitoring CNN to help keep up with news of the war. But the U.S. Defense Department was armed with lessons learned in Vietnam; they succeeded in keeping most reporters well away from the action and the bloodshed. Pictures of "smart" bombs deftly hitting their targets were provided to TV networks by the military.

With the advent of news on the Internet, the networks and government agencies no longer had the power to direct the news. According to a 2008 study, almost 60% of Americans younger than 30 say that they watch most of their national and international news online. Although some news on the Internet is provided by the U.S. networks, much of it comes from other sources. These other sources include independent production companies with local crews, to large international cable/Internet networks (such as Al Jazeera, the 24-hour news and current affairs channel headquartered in Qatar). Yet another source is individuals (dramatically demonstrated when all journalists were banned from broadcasting video after the Iranian presidential elections of 2009).

New Technologies

Home videocassette recorders became widely available in the 1980s. Viewers gained the ability to record and replay programs and to rent and watch movies at times of their own choosing in their own homes. Video games also became popular during this decade, particularly with the young. The television, formerly the site of passive entertainment, became an intricate, computerized game board. The number of cable networks grew throughout the 1980s and then exploded in the 1990s as improved cable technology and direct-broadcast satellite TV multiplied the channels available to viewers. The number of broadcast networks increased as well: the Fox, UPN, and WB networks furthered the variety of stations available to the public. The audience share that the broadcast networks attracted continued to erode, from considerably more than 90% in the early 1980s to less than 50% by 1997. The Nielson Media Research company estimated that fewer people watched the highly publicized final episode of Seinfeld in 1998 than watched the final episode of MASH in 1983. The O. J. Simpson trial of 1994 (he was acquitted) further demonstrated the hold that cable networks had on American audiences. Some stations carried almost every minute of the lengthy trial live and then filled the evening with talk shows dissecting that day's developments.

Cable had another effect on its audience: it magnified the often negative impact of television on children. More sex and violence appeared on cable stations because of less oversight, and more channels were available to tempt children to view more television. Moreover, the problem included adults. With increased competition brought on by the proliferation of cable networks, talk shows and "tabloid" news shows seemed to further broaden frank or sensational on-air discussion of sex.

In 1996, the television industry decided to publish ratings of its programs in 1996. The ratings were designed to indicate the age groups for which the programs might be suitable: TV-G (for general audiences), TV-PG (parental guidance suggested), TV-14 (unsuitable for children under 14), and TV-MA (for mature audiences only). In response to additional complaints, all the networks except NBC agreed in the next year to add V (for violence), S (for sex), L (for coarse language) and D (for suggestive dialogue) to those ratings. The "V-chip" imbedded in new television sets (in accordance with a provision of a telecommunications bill passed in 1996) gave parents the power to automatically prevent their children from watching programs with inappropriate ratings. Critics of the ratings saw them as a step toward censorship and questioned whether a TV-14 rating would make a program seem more, not less, attractive to an inquisitive child.

In 1997 the federal government gave each U.S. television broadcaster an additional channel on which to introduce high definition television (HDTV). Initial transmissions of this high-resolution form of television began in 1998. Congress called for television signals to be transmitted digitally because standard television sets could not pick up HDTV. One reason for this action was that digital signals take just a fraction of the space of analog TV signals and lawmakers wanted to set aside some of the airwaves for police and firefighters. (Of course, profit-making motives were also a factor; other signals were auctioned off to wireless companies for almost $20 billion.) As of June 12, 2009, full-power TV stations nationwide broadcast exclusively in a digital format. Digital television (DTV) is a technology that gives viewers crystal-clear pictures and sound, and more programming choices than were previously available. This allows for further convergence among computers, the Internet, and television.

In 1998 it was already possible to view video on the World Wide Web and to see and search television broadcasts on a computer. By the 21st century, computers were able to handle video as easily as they handled text. Many viewers watch digitally stored and distributed programs whenever they want. Such technological changes have happened all over the world. By the 1990s it became possible for half of the individuals in the world to watch television. Viewers from Abu Dhabi to Zagreb can watch digital broadcasts on television or on their computers—even on their PDAs (personal digital assistants). The attraction of television is still strong. People all over the world watch reality shows and singing contests created locally or in studios halfway across the world. They watch the latest news in real time, as events unfold. Alternatively, they can store the information and watch it in their free time. Television—its technology, its uses, and its impact—will continue to change in the years ahead.

Mitchell Stephens

Further Reading:

Barnouw, Erik, Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television, 2d ed. (1990).

Edgerton, Gary, The Columbia History of American Television (2009).

Fisher, David E. and Marshall J., Tube: The Invention of Television (1997).

Hilmes, Michele, and Jacobs, Jason, eds., The Television History Book (2008).

Parsons, Patrick R., Blue Skies: A History of Cable Television (2008).

Stephens, Mitchell, Broadcast News, 3d ed. (1993), A History of News, 3d ed. (2006), and The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word (1998).

Watson, Mary A., Defining Visions: Television and the American Experience since 1945 (1997).

SOURCE: Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia

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