No American invention multiplied in production and use as rapidly as the television. In a five-year span -- 1946 to 1951 -- the number of television sets in the U.S. increased from 6,000 to 12 million. Television's seemingly overnight transformation from an experimental gadget to a fixture in American homes was due to a parallel increase in availability of television service, network programming and the post-war population boom. By the mid-1950s, there were more TV shows to watch and more people to watch them.
The Most Popular Neighbor
Television programming was available on a daily basis by 1948. However, early TV signals could only reach those who lived in or near large cities, such as Chicago and New York, where TV stations were located. In 1954, 66 percent of Illinois residents were tuning into television while only 9 percent of homes in South Dakota owned a TV set. The first buyers of televisions were those who could afford them. Once installed, however, the television became the family's most important form of entertainment. It was not unusual for new television owners to also discover they had more friends and relatives than they realized and frequently were coaxed into hosting "TV parties."
America's Favorite: Uncle Milty
In the 1950s, families typically watched the most amount of television in their first year of ownership. Television viewing became so important that even the most essential of activities became secondary. The "TV dinner," invented in 1954, was an entire meal contained in a foil tray. After baking, it could conveniently be eaten while watching television. When the novelty of a new TV wore off, family members became more selective about television viewing and arranged their schedules to watch certain programs. In 1950, the Nielsen ratings began measuring the number of people watching a particular TV show. That year, more than 62 percent of television set owners, tuned in each week to watch the hour-long variety show "The Texaco Star Theatre," hosted by Milton Berle.
Quality Family Time
The baby-boom of the post-war years coincided with the television boom and directly influenced the amount of time families spent watching television. Parents of young children found it easier and less expensive to stay at home and watch TV with their children than taking them out to a movie or hiring a babysitter to watch the children while they went out. By the mid-1950s, movie theaters saw a drop in attendance because of television. Parents also found that televisions could act as babysitters. TV shows kept young ones occupied while parents did chores or entertained other adults. In some cases, TV programs pacified crying babies.
TV for All
In 1951, child psychologist Eleanor F. Maccoby found that children were watching about 2 1/2 hours of television a day during the week and as much as 3 1/2 hours on Sundays. About six million teenage television viewers were captured for 2 1/2 hours every weekday by "Bandstand," which debuted locally in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1952. When the show was renamed "American Bandstand," shortened to 90 minutes and broadcast nationally in 1957, daily viewership increased to 20 million. Adults began treating television stars as family members. In January of 1953, about 44 million people tuned in to "I Love Lucy" to watch Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz bring baby Ricky Jr. into the world.
- Illinois Periodicals Online: Television Comes to American, 1947 to '57
- Wessel's Living History Farm: Television
- Library of Congress: Bob Hope and American Variety
- Northern State University: Television: History and Production; Larry Wild
- AMC Filmsite:The History of Film: The 1950s
- HistoryMatters: "One Should Not Look to Research as a Kind of Panacea": Social Scientists in the 1950s Discuss Studies of Television Viewing by Children
- The Encyclopedia of Great Philadelphia: American Bandstand; Jordan McClain, Amanda McClain
- Hollywood Reporter: "I Love Lucy": Five Things to Know About the Series
- Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Getty Images