1950s: TV and Radio
1950s: TV and Radio
Television was introduced to Americans in 1939 and began to gain a foothold after World War II (1939–45). In the 1950s, the sale of TV sets and the boom in programming made TV America's favorite source of entertainment. Consider the numbers: in 1946, 7,000 TV sets were sold; in 1948, 172,000 sets were sold; and in 1950, 5 million sets were sold. In 1950, just under 20 percent of American homes contained a TV set. Ten years later, nearly 90 percent of homes contained a TV—and some even had color TVs. The number of TV stations, channels, and programs all grew to meet this surging demand. The 1950s truly were the decade of the TV.
Three major networks—the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), and the American Broadcasting Company (ABC)—provided the majority of TV programming. Early in the decade, the most popular programs were variety shows or serious dramas, such as Texaco Star Theater, Fireside Theatre, Philco TV Playhouse, Your Show of Shows, and The Colgate Comedy Hour. But American tastes in TV changed over the decade. By 1959, the top three shows were Westerns—Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, and Have Gun Will Travel—and other favorites included comedy (The Red Skelton Show) and a game show (The Price Is Right).
Several important TV standards were set in the 1950s. I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners set the standard for situation comedies, which would grow to be TV's most dominant form of programming. Game shows like The Price Is Right and The $64,000 Question were popular and inexpensive to produce. The Today Show pioneered the idea of a morning variety show and remains on the air fifty years later. Moreover, TV programmers began to create innovative programs for kids, including Captain Kangaroo, Leave It to Beaver, and The Mickey Mouse Club. All these shows were loved by advertisers, who profited from their ability to advertise before huge audiences.
Television changed the American entertainment landscape. In towns where TV was introduced, movie attendance and book sales dropped off dramatically. Radio, which had been America's favorite form of at-home amusement, declined in importance in the 1950s. Variety, comedy, and dramatic shows left the airwaves for TV. Radio increasingly focused on news, talk shows, and sports broadcasting. Critics began to worry that TV encouraged passive behavior—it turned people into what later generations would call "couch potatoes." It was a concern that would grow in the coming years.