The advent of television brought huge changes to the post-World War II economy. Here was a new medium of entertainment in people's homes that supplanted radio as after-meal entertainment for the family. Besides changing the postdinner habits of America, TV affected the 1950s economy in several areas.
Home Sweet Mortgage
Many 1950s TV shows centered around families. Situation comedies featured families that were like no normal household: "I Love Lucy" sandwiched wacky slapstick around the parenting of little Ricky, and "Leave It to Beaver" presented the near-perfection of the Cleavers, in which pain was confined to skinned knees. Spending habits during the 1950s tried to imitate these families. Houses like the Cleavers' were bought on time, with low-interest mortgages and down payments. In addition, more money was being spent on cleaning products; TV homes were spotless, after all, even if Lucy was the homemaker.
A Moment From the Sponsor
Television as a product itself influenced the economy, creating what quickly became an essential household item. By 1957, over 40 million TVs were in American households. Businesses around the country readjusted their advertising budgets to include TV commercials, making the new medium a fountainhead for marketable products. The set itself sold items during commercial breaks, decreasing the need for door-to-door salesmen. Now, it's rare to have a single room in any American house without a set, often one that dominates the walls like Orwell's "1984" tele-screens.
The advent of TV and ready advertising also created a less positive byproduct, the beginnings of another economic crisis. With postwar prosperity, it was inevitable that Americans with more time and money would start spending more. City University researchers Matthew Baker and Lisa George reason that this period was the beginning of credit card debt, an astronomical problem in the present-day economy. Credit card transactions began in the 1950s; they inevitably escalated when viewers saw commercials for new products -- all temptations to spend -- transmitted over their TV sets.
Teens Tune In
One beneficial economic impact of the "tube" was the financial boon it gave to the entertainment industry, which boosted the economy in turn. The most spectacular example of this is Elvis Presley, who, despite being censored from the hips down during his Ed Sullivan debut, enjoyed huge financial success from his TV appearances. Record sales soared and, coincidentally, the country enjoyed an economic boom in 1957, around the time Elvis showed up.
- New York University: History of Television: The Beginning of Commercial Television
- Tripod: The Economy of the 1950's and Its Effects
- Northeastern Regional Information Center: Section 3: Popular Culture in the 1950s
- Television and the Moral Imaginary: Society Through the Small Screen (1st ed.); Tim Dant, p. 118
- City University of New York: The Role of Television in Household Debt: Evidence from the 1950s.
- Huffington Post: Money: U.S. Credit Card Debt Grows, Fewer Americans Make Payments On Time
- PBS: Culture Shock: Music and Dance: Elvis Presley
- Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images