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The Rise of TV in the 1950s


The mass adoption of the TV set was one of the most dramatic technological advances of the 1950s. Even though the technology was available in earlier decades, and there were 23 television stations broadcasting in the U.S., World War II postponed development. However, after the war, the industry grew very fast. The TV went from being a luxury item to a necessity. In 1948, less than 6% of American households owned one. The number rose to 42% in 1952, and by1960, almost 90% of households had one.

This growth expanded programming, both regionally and nationwide. In 1953, Walter Annenberg, publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily Racing Form, came out with TV Guide, a national magazine that listed times and dates of television programs for the coming week. The first issue, which came out on April 3, 1953, featured a photo of Lucille Ball’s newborn son Desi Arnaz, Jr., with a small picture of Lucy at the top. By the end of the decade, in 1959, TV Guide had fifty-three regional issues and a total circulation of six million copies each week.

With television entering into the family living room, other forms of entertainment saw a decline in attendance. People went less to movies, sports events, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and even libraries. Television changed the delivery of the news from newspapers and newsreels to networks being reporting and news-gathering entities. And the once-popular radio had to find a new place as a source of entertainment, which it did in automobiles and transistor radios.

The TV set in the house altered the way people ate. People were no longer positioned at a table in the kitchen or dining room. They wanted to eat meals and snacks in front of the television. There were Swanson’s frozen dinners and folding TV tray tables. There were portable TV sets and portable toasters for making snacks in the living room. Mamie and Ike Eisenhower would sometimes eat supper off of matching TV tray tables and watch a bank of TV consoles in a wall of the White House family quarters.


The network-affiliate system allowed Americans across the country watch the same shows and the same commercials. This helped to develop a national culture, with some regional uniqueness being lost. But, for the most part, families watched the TV set together. The popular taste was for variety shows, quiz shows, slapstick comedy, Westerns, and detective shows. There were special programs and commercials for the baby-boomers. Critics complained that looking at the images made people more passive, read less, socialize less; TV made kids harder to educate. The criticisms were not unlike those about the Internet today.




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