Land of Television

Perhaps no phenomenon shaped American life in the 1950s more than television. At the end of World War II, only a few thousand wealthy Americans had televisions. Within a decade, nearly two-thirds of American households had a television.

In a nation once marked by strong regional differences, network television programming helped forge a national popular culture.

Television forever changed politics. Political advertisers quickly understood the power of the new medium. Dwight Eisenhower's campaign staff generated sound bites — short, powerful statements from a candidate — rather than air an entire speech.

America Loves Lucy

Americans loved situation comedies, known as sitcoms. In the 1950s, I Love Lucy topped the ratings charts.

Shows such as Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best created an idyllic view of what the perfect family life should look like, though few actual families could live up to the ideal. Television's idea of a perfect family was a briefcase-toting father who left daily for work, and a pearls-wearing, nurturing housewife who raised their mischievous boys and obedient girls.

Members of minorities rarely appeared on television in the 1950s.

The Wild West

Television brought Western heroes into American homes, as cowboys and lawmen such as Hopalong Cassidy, Wyatt Earp, and the Cisco Kid appeared on televisions every night.

Saturday morning television showed children the West in The Roy Rogers Show and Rin Tin Tin. Long running horse operas, such as Bonanza and Rawhide, were popular.

Westerns reinforced the '50s notion that everything was OK in America. Most programs of the early 1950s drew a clear line between the good guys and the bad guys. There were few instances of injury or death, and good always triumphed in the end.

By the late '50s, though, Westerns had become more complicated and the lines between good and evil became blurred. America entered the more turbulent '60s with heroes such as the black-clad mercenary Paladin and the gambling Maverick brothers who put money above virtue.

Variety Shows: Vaudeville in American Living Rooms

Because most early television was broadcast live, the major networks used people who already had experience with live performance: vaudeville. Television and vaudeville combined to created the form of entertainment known as the variety show. These shows presented a number of short acts — musical numbers, comedy sketches, animal tricks, etc. — usually emceed by an engaging host. The influence of vaudeville on television was so strong that television critics called the shows "Vaudeo."

Nat King Cole became the first African American host of a television series when his variety show appeared in 1956.

The most influential variety program on American culture was The Ed Sullivan Show, which ran for 23 years beginning in 1948. The show combined sophisticated and popular entertainment, featuring both established performers and young, new artists. Watching the Sullivan show was usually a whole-family event. He attracted the teen audience by including rock-and-roll acts like Elvis Presley.

Commercials: Selling through the Screen

Television commercials gave manufacturers a new way to sell their products. By 1950, sponsors were moving from radio to television at an unstoppable rate.

The most advertised product was tobacco. TV Guide voted Lucky Strike's "Be Happy, Go Lucky" ad commercial of the year for 1950, and Phillip Morris sponsored I Love Lucy for years, inserting cartoon cigarette packs in the show's opening animation.

By 1954, television commercials were the leading advertising medium in America. The life of the American consumer would never be the same.

The New News

The modern television newscast was established as early as 1951 with Edward R. Murrow’s See It Now. The NBC Nightly News with David Brinkley and Chet Huntley introduced anchormen reporting from two cities simultaneously.

Two major developments in the 1950s helped television become the news medium of the future: coaxial cable linking the East and West coasts, which enabled footage to be moved electronically, and the invention of videotape, which allowed the use of prerecorded footage.

Children's Programming

Television producers developed a host of children's programs for the baby boomers with shows such as The Mickey Mouse Club and Howdy Doody.

During the 1950s, few households owned more than one television, so viewing became a shared family event. The TV dinner was first introduced in 1954.

Source: Land of Television
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