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Television’s Golden Age

The 1950s has justifiably been called The Golden Age of Television. With the end of World War II, the economy had recovered and stabilized, and television had become so popular that magazines regularly featured articles on home decorating with the TV set as the centerpiece. The dining room table had been replaced by frozen dinners on a TV tray, and TV Guide, launched in 1953, was on the coffee table. TV producers and writers freely took their programming ideas from radio and traditional theater. TV news, for example, consisted of the anchor simply reading the newspaper and wire reports into camera, with none of the visuals we expect in today’s news broadcasts. CBS and NBC created legendary television with innovative anthology programming.

As programming boundaries expanded, television shows and the creative minds behind them grew bolder. Brilliant young comedic minds like Ernie Kovacs and Sid Caesar wrote witty and irreverent material, and used TV’s technology to produce special effects that played with the material at hand. Television was moving away from simply adapting traditional radio formats to new and innovative programming concepts.

Yet with all its creative departures, the technical limitations of live broadcast had traditionally restricted television’s ability to produce and transmit a show from any location other than from television studios, most of which were then in New York City. However, when videotape was introduced in 1956, this invention allowed programs and shows to be first taped, edited, then broadcast from a wider range of locations. This offered viewers much clearer images and audio. Videotape made it possible to record and archive programs; it was electronic, more flexible, and less expensive than film. Prior to wide use of videotape, the only way to record a broadcast had been to aim a film camera at the television set as it received the live broadcast and to film it; the result was called a kinescope. The first broadcast use of videotape was a segment in color on the innovative Jonathan Winters Show.

Coaxial cable, which had originally connected only New York and Philadelphia, eventually worked its way to the West Coast; its cross-country completion was celebrated in the fall of 1951. NBC could now broadcast coast-to-coast over its 61 stations. The same year, the first experimental color TV transmissions were attempted, but were a failure because black-andwhites sets still couldn’t pick up color transmissions. Although CBS had developed a color disk that could be placed over the black-and-white image, it was NBC who ultimately perfected the technical ability to make a TV set compatible. Two years later, the problem was solved and “compatible color” was successfully broadcast.

The technology of television was getting better, faster, and most important, cheaper. As the sales of TV sets flourished, movie theaters and the established motion picture studio system were threatened by this burgeoning medium. Television’s explosive growth alarmed the FCC. The mounting technological and ethical questions hadn’t been anticipated, and the establishment of monopolies was only a matter of time. It was becoming an overwhelming issue, and in 1948, the government stopped issuing any additional broadcasting licenses and focused their resources on the rapid expansion of television as a powerful business and cultural force to be reckoned with.

It took the FCC four years to draft and finally agree upon a statement of principles that would govern television and the standards with which it operated. The political and electronic complexities were regulated by a set of guidelines established in 1952 that set new standards for flourishing areas of television, as well as for future media advances that were then still theoretical.

The FCC guidelines included the assignment of very high frequency (VHF) and ultrahigh frequency (UHF) channels. These new standards for engineering and technology applications defined public service and educational programming, and set channels aside that were only for educational and public access use. It took the FCC over a year to review the various color systems that were still experimental, finally agreeing on one color system that could be transmitted by all the networks and received by all color TV sets.

Cable TV was launched in 1950 as an effort to provide television to homes in rural areas that were unable to receive broadcast signals due to their distance from major transmission towers. As television viewing exploded in the urban American cities, the demand increased among people who lived in more remote areas for both outlets through which they could buy TV sets as well as ways to receive programming on them. Cable TV was able to provide the programming, and television dealerships in rural areas grew exponentially.

The Golden Age of 1950s television saw the creation of I Love Lucy in 1951. This was the first sitcom shot with the now-standard three-camera setup, along with family shows like The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best. In 1952, Dave Garroway was the original host of the Today Show, the first magazine-format program. One year later, TV Guide began publication. The country’s first “adult western” Gunsmoke, began in 1955 and ran for twenty years. The Mickey Mouse Club put ABC on the map as a youth-oriented network in 1955. The teen hit of the decade was The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis with Warren Beatty and Tuesday Weld, and Rod Serling’s sci-fi series, Twilight Zone, aired from 1959 to 1964 on CBS. It also the first network to introduce 30-minutes soap operas rather than the traditional 15-minute dramas, and both As the World Turns and The Edge of Night began airing in 1956. Broadway Open House with Morey Amsterdam was the first late-night variety show, setting the stage for The Tonight Show and Late Night with David Letterman.

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