Television Broadcasting, History of

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The first flickering shadows of television were already in the ether before radio was well established. In 1923, Vladimir K. Zworykin, an employee of Westinghouse, patented the icono-scope television picture tube. Four years later, at about the time when NBC was organizing its radio network, Philo Farnsworth improved the system and patented the dissector tube. While others had experimented with ways to broadcast an image, these two independent inventors share credit for the birth of all-electronic television transmission.

The Great Depression of the 1930s slowed down television development, but the 1939 World's Fair in New York gave Americans their first look at the medium that would dominate the second half of the twentieth century. The Radio Corporation of America (RCA), owner of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and its radio networks, sponsored a Hall of Television that gave fairgoers a glimpse of the future. Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first president to appear on television when NBC broadcast the opening of the fair. The only viewers were the lucky few who gathered around a handful of sets in the New York area. A few weeks later, the first sports event was telecast when a New York station showed the Princeton-Columbia baseball game.

These historic broadcasts were among the first regularly scheduled television broadcasts in the United States, but other countries had already been on the air for years. Germany began broadcasting its nonexperimental national television service in 1935, while England's British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) began broadcasting the following year. The first U.S. commercial television licenses were issued in 1941, when WCBW (later WCBS-TV) and WNBT (later WNBC-TV) began broadcasting to the New York City market.

Before television became a firmly established medium, however, the United States entered World War II, and television set production halted. In 1946, television sets went on sale again, and network television began to provide programming, although there were only ten licensed television stations in the country. At the time, radio was the dominant broadcast medium, already in almost thirty-four million homes, but it would soon experience a mass exodus of its audience.

By 1948, only two years later, almost one million homes had televisions, and there were 108 licensed television stations. Later that year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ordered a licensing freeze to address interference issues. With the Korean War taking much of the country's resources, the ban lasted until 1952. During this time, some cities had only one or two stations, and reception was often poor. Other cities, including Denver, Austin, and Little Rock, had no television. Dozens of areas established community antenna television (CATV) systems to receive and distribute distant television signals. These CATV systems would eventually develop into the extensive cable television business.

In the 1950s, the new medium of television was replacing the old medium of radio. Attendance dropped at movies and sporting events, and once-popular radio shows saw their ratings plummet. In 1950, movie attendance among adults dropped 72 percent. Radio use fell from 3 hours and 42 minutes each night to just 24 minutes. By the time President Dwight D. Eisenhower took office in 1953, about one-half of the homes in the United States had television sets, and American mass media was changing forever.

By 1965, 94 percent of American homes had television sets; by 1990, more than 98 percent had televisions, and more than one-half of all U.S. homes had more than one set. While professional sports, the movie industry, and radio have regained popularity, television continues to dominate home entertainment.


By 1952, television broadcasts were reaching 15 million television sets in 64 cities. the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), NBC, and DuMont offered a wide variety of programming choices, though DuMont ceased operations in August 1956. Although programming was in its infancy, the 1950s were considered to be the "golden age" of television. Some of the earliest entertainment programming on television came directly from radio, including such popular programs as Amos 'n' Andy, The Adventures of Superman, The Lone Ranger, and a number of soap operas.

Original variety shows such as Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, Texaco Star Theater with Milton "Mr. Television" Berle, and Toast of the Town with Ed Sullivan (later The Ed Sullivan Show) were popular draws. Programming also included dramas and westerns, such as Playhouse 90 and Gunsmoke, respectively. Situation comedies, led by the still popular I Love Lucy, and quiz shows, such as The $64,000 Question, attracted large audiences. Children watched Kukla, Fran, and Ollie and, later, Captain Kangaroo and Howdy Doody.

While many shows were broadcast live during the golden age, I Love Lucy was produced with a new technique. Three cameras caught the action, which reduced interruptions and retakes. The filmed episodes could then be rerun by the network and sold into syndication for extended profitable runs. This and other similar production techniques continue to be used.

In the 1960s and 1970s, as color televisions became more prominent, westerns declined in popularity, but medical dramas thrived and realistic police dramas such as Police Story found audiences. Even the science fiction and fantasy genre carved out a niche audience with programs such as Star Trek. Feature films were popular, and by 1966, the networks were airing their own made-for-tele-vision movies. In the early 1970s, the networks also began producing "event" programming in the form of limited-run series. Following the success of Roots in 1977, the miniseries became a mainstay of prime-time ratings sweep weeks (the periods that are key to the determination of the amounts that can be charged for commercial time).

By the 1980s, the audience for network television was diminishing as cable networks and pre-recorded home video began to lure viewers. In addition, a new television network, the Fox Broadcast Network (Fox), debuted in 1986 and found success in the 1990s by targeting young audiences with shows such as Beverly Hills 90210 and The Simpsons.

The television programming landscape has changed much since the golden age. Variety shows, so prevalent in the early days of television, were all but extinct by the 1990s. Prime-time network programming maintained its sitcoms and dramas (including the seemingly ever-popular police and medical shows), but it also showcased a number of reality-based programs. ABC, CBS, and NBC increased their newsmagazine offerings by 1993 and with good economic reason—a news-magazine show is cheaper to produce than an hour-long drama, and the network does not have to share profits. By the end of the 1990s, quiz shows had even made a successful return to prime-time network schedules. The 1990s also saw increased competition from new broadcasters, as the United Paramount Network (UPN) and the Warner Bros. Network (WB) debuted in January 1995. Paxson Communications' PAX-TV debuted in 1998.

Television News

As television was coming of age, so was television news. Just as the first programs came from radio, so did the first newscasters. Edward R. Murrow, who gained his reputation as a "newsman's newsman" for his coverage of Europe on CBS Radio during World War II, took his talent, and many of his colleagues, to television in the 1950s. His See It Now, which started as a radio news special titled Hear It Now, was the forerunner of many of the magazine shows that appear on television. Murrow was the first television reporter to take on Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin senator who falsely accused many people of having Communist sympathies (giving rise to the expression "McCarthyism"). Many people credit Murrow with helping to expose McCarthy.

Murrow also hosted Person to Person, which featured celebrity interviews rather than hard news. Murrow, in a New York studio, would be linked with people in their homes for a casual conversation. Among the celebrities who appeared on this program were Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, and John F. Kennedy when he was the newly elected senator from Massachusetts.

Television newscasts were short and lacking in much film coverage in the early days. In September 1963, CBS expanded the network newscast from fifteen to thirty minutes, with Walter Cronkite as the anchor. NBC, with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, followed one week later. ABC did not expand its newscast to thirty minutes until January 1967. The basic formula for the modern nightly network newscast is little changed from those days.

When President Kennedy was assassinated about two months after CBS and NBC went to a thirty-minute newscast, television devoted the next four days to live coverage of the nation in mourning. This brought television into a new age. People no longer relied on their newspapers; instead, they turned to television for information in a crisis. Television news would further mature during the Vietnam War, which some have dubbed "the living room war," since it brought the war home to Americans each night as they ate dinner and watched the news. Antiwar demonstrations and the civil rights movement also gained wide exposure on television. The nation again found itself glued to the television in the summer of 1969 as live pictures were beamed back from the surface of the moon.

In the 1970s, television broadcast the Watergate hearings. "What did the president know and when did he know it?" and "smoking gun" became household expressions. Americans watched as President Richard Nixon resigned and as Gerald Ford assumed the office, assuring Americans that "our long national nightmare is over." By the end of the 1970s, Americans were held hostage in Iran and a popular news program was born. ABC started out counterprogramming The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson on NBC and old movies on CBS with a twenty-minute nightly news special called The Iran Crisis: America Held Hostage. U.S. State Department correspondent Ted Koppel soon became anchor of the program. When Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter and assumed the presidency in January 1981, the fifty-two hostages were released, and the program became Nightline.

Satellite technology started to come into frequent use by the news networks in the 1980s, allowing live or same-day recorded broadcasts from remote parts of the country and the world. In 1986, the U.S. Senate joined the U.S. House of Representatives in allowing broadcast coverage of floor debate. By the 1990s, satellite technology allowed live coverage of missile attacks and fighting during the Gulf War. Portable satellite dishes allowed transmission from Kuwait before the first liberation troops arrived. In 1994, the nation and the world watched the slow-speed chase of O. J. Simpson on a Los Angeles freeway. The subsequent live coverage of the Simpson murder trial attracted large ratings and a loyal following.


Much of the immediacy of the modern broadcast news environment can be attributed to advances in videotape technology. The first magnetic videotape recorder (VTR) was demonstrated by Bing Crosby Productions in 1951. Five years later, Ampex introduced the first commercial VTR, a 900-pound machine that recorded black-and-white images on two-inch tape housed on fourteen-inch reels (at a cost of $75,000 per unit). As technology progressed, VTRs became more portable, videotape became smaller while providing better resolution, and equipment prices dropped sufficiently to make video a viable alternative to film.

Sony debuted its U-Matic videocassette recorder (VCR) in 1972. The new format used a 3/4-inch tape in a $1,600 deck and soon became the industry standard. It continues to be used by some broadcasters, though Sony's Betamax SP format dominates the news industry. More recent digital tape formats, including Sony's DVCAM and Panasonic's DVCPRO, are also being integrated into electronic newsgathering (ENG) and other video productions. The new tape formats provide portability.

Videotape also found a prominent place in U.S. homes. Though earlier attempts at home video had flopped, Sony introduced its Betamax "video time-shift machine" in 1976. VHS, a rival system from JVC, debuted the next year, boasting longer recording times at a lower price. Television set manufacturers were divided in their support of the two formats, but VHS dominated the market within a few years. By 1983, VHS had more than 80 percent of the market. Sony finally withdrew Betamax from the United States in 1986 and began selling VHS VCRs in 1988. Despite several home-video formats on the market, consumers have remained loyal to VHS. According to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), VCRs were in 91 percent of U.S. homes by June 1998, and 40 percent of all households have at least two VCRs.

Audio, often considered an afterthought of television broadcasting, has also been improved. Stations began stereo broadcasts in 1985. In the 1990s, as stereo television, stereo VCR, and home theater sound system sales continued to increase, stereo surround sound became common for network programming. CBS, for example, broadcast all of its college and professional football games in stereo surround sound for the first time during the 1999-2000 season.

Television began as a black-and-white medium. Color television technology had been demonstrated in 1929, and equipment had been developed as early as the 1940s, but the legal battle over color television took several years. Originally, the FCC approved a CBS-sponsored system in 1950. The National Television Standards Committee (NTSC), which included many companies with a financial interest in the decision, then researched the system, and in mid-1953, the committee recommended that the CBS system should be rejected. In December 1953, the FCC reversed its decision and approved RCA's color system, which was supported by rival network NBC. This NTSC transmission standard, which broadcasters adopted in January 1954, remains in use, though color sets did not see extensive U.S. household penetration for more than a decade. By the 1990s, almost every home in the United States had at least one color television set.

Looking Ahead

The future of television broadcasting is already here. Digital television (DTV) is nothing less than a revolutionary new way to broadcast television, replacing the NTSC analog standard that has been in place since 1953. The FCC adopted the new system in 1996, following more than a decade of development. Dozens of stations across the country are already broadcasting digital signals (in addition to their regular NTSC signals) in accordance with the FCC mandate. The FCC, which mandated the move to DTV and set 2006 as the date for completion of the transition from NTSC to DTV broadcasting, does have the option of reviewing and changing the DTV timetable, if necessary.

DTV promises improved pictures and sound for viewers, as well as greater flexibility in signal distribution for broadcasters. Stations will have the option of broadcasting more than one programming feed over the same channel simultaneously through a process called multicasting. High-speed data services will also be possible. High-definition television (HDTV), which provides outstanding picture resolution and a wider aspect ratio (an HDTV screen is 16:9, compared to NTSC screen, which is 4:3), is another potential service. All four major networks, ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC, have already committed to prime-time HD programming. On April 26, 1999, NBC became the first network to provide regularly scheduled HD programming when it began to simulcast The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in both NTSC and HDTV.

See also:Cable Television, History of; Digital Communication; Farnsworth, Philo Taylor; Federal Communications Commission; Murrow, Edward R.; Radio Broadcasting, History of; Satellites, History of; Television Broadcasting; Television Broadcasting, Careers in; Television Broadcasting, Production of; Television Broadcasting, Programming and; Television Broadcasting, Station Operations and; Television Broadcasting, Technology of.


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Richard Landesberg

Mark J. Pescatore

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Television Broadcasting, History of

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