As the Dial Turns

By Gomery, Douglas | The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 1993 | Go to article overview

As the Dial Turns


Gomery, Douglas, The Wilson Quarterly


It was a defining moment in American history, albeit one run over and over, like an episode of "Star Trek." Into the tidy living room of a young family's suburban home, usually just days before Christmas, came the electronic marvel. The old mahogany radio set, already seeming a bit antique, was shoved into a corner, and two hefty deliverymen struggled to position the bulky new console across from the couch, between the easy chairs. Everyone gathered around as the first test pattern came on. Then the fun began--perhaps with giggling children on "Howdy Doody" or the Top 40 beat of "Dick Clark's American Bandstand" or the stars on "Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town" or the magnificent coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Thus was a new age born.

Pictures flowing through the air. That miracle had been much sought after and anticipated since movies and radio transformed American popular culture during the first quarter of the 20th century. And like those two earlier marvels of mass communication, and with many times more power, television has so refashioned and reshaped our lives that it is hard to imagine what life was like before it.

During the Great Depression and World War II, families gathered in crowded city apartments or in the parlors of distant farms to listen to the radio. But TV was instantly and unalterably linked with midcentury America's rising suburban ideal. Indeed, certain TV offerings, such as "Ozzie and Harriet," became synonymous with the ideal. Along with closely cropped lawns, two cars in the driveway, and a single earner so well paid that no one else needed to work, TV became a symbol of the "good life" in modern America.

The TV boom was delayed first by the war and then for several years after 1948 by what might be called "technical difficulties." By 1948, the number of stations in the United States had reached 48, the cities served 23, and sales of TV sets had passed sales of radios. Coaxial cables also made possible fledgling networks, relaying live shows (there was no tape then) from the East to the Midwest. But as more and more stations went on the air it became clear that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had not allowed enough geographic separation between stations to prevent serious interference. The agency froze TV-station allotments and redrew the maps. It was only on April 14, 1952--with the FCC's Sixth Report and Order--that TV as we know it first began to flow to all sections of the United States.

So rapid and complete was TV's friendly takeover of the American imagination that when Lucille Ball gave birth to her second son the "same" night in January 1953 that her Lucy Ricardo character on "I Love Lucy" gave birth to "Little Ricky," it caused a national sensation, including an article in Life and a cover story in TV Guide, itself newly born.

Ubiquity may be the medium's leading characteristic. In 1950 far less than 10 percent of Americans owned sets. Those were folks lucky enough to have the $500 that a black-and-white receiver cost at a time when $3,000 was considered a good yearly salary and $5,000 would buy a splendid Cape Cod in Levittown. But TV's allure was powerful. By 1955 about two-thirds of the nation's households had a set; by the end of the 1950s there was hardly a home in the nation without one. By 1961, when Newton Minow, the newly appointed chairman of the FCC, proclaimed television a "vast wasteland," there were more homes in the United States with TV than with indoor plumbing. In less than a generation, the TV set had gone from being an expensive, somewhat experimental gadget to a home appliance considered more indispensable than the toaster or washing machine. With the possible exception of the videocassette recorder (VCR) in the 1980s, no other electronic gadget has been adapted so widely and with such alacrity.

Today, 99 percent of all households possess at least one TV, and most have two or more. There are nearly 200 million sets in use. …

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