Golden Age of Television Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Between 1950 and 1959, television audiences grew from a small slice of a relatively affluent group of Americans to 90 percent of all American households. The growth of the medium’s reach was mirrored by its development as a tool for telling stories to, entertaining, and informing the public.

Summary of Event

The first public demonstration of television took place at the World’s Fair in New York City in 1939. Before the new industry could get under way, World War II intervened and America’s attention was directed elsewhere. It was not long after the war, however, before the television industry was reborn and, starting in the early 1950’s, began to enter the American mainstream. Television;Golden Age [kw]Golden Age of Television (1950’s) [kw]Television, Golden Age of (1950’s) Television;Golden Age [g]North America;1950’s: Golden Age of Television[03090] [g]United States;1950’s: Golden Age of Television[03090] [c]Radio and television;1950’s: Golden Age of Television[03090] Stanton, Frank Weaver, Pat Gathing, Ezekiel Minow, Newton

Television’s impact started slowly but soon made rapid headway. At the outset of the 1950’s, television sets remained a fairly expensive luxury item, owned by less than 10 percent of the American population. By 1955, television had entered half of America’s homes, and by 1959 it had reached 90 percent. Most of America was watching what many critics consider to be the most innovative programming in television history.

The “Golden Age of television” refers as much to America’s warm embrace of the new invention as to the critically acclaimed live programs that aired during this period. Much heralded were the live, intellectually stimulating weekly dramatic plays, Television;theatrical adaptations which ran the gamut from classics such as Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1880) to works by contemporary playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Rod Serling, and Gore Vidal. Also included among these weekly performances was television’s first ninety-minute live dramatic anthology program, Playhouse 90, Playhouse 90 (television program) voted the greatest network series of all times in a 1970 Variety poll. Also lauded were the live variety shows and comedy routines of the period. The live format constantly tested the quick-witted skills of such performers as Jack Benny, Red Skelton, Arthur Godfrey, Jackie Gleason, Martha Raye, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Sid Caesar, and “Mr. Television” himself, Milton Berle.

There are two reasons for this Golden Age, reasons that also foreshadowed the age’s end. The first was the rapid expansion of programming to meet the seemingly insatiable demand of the public. Programming steadily increased during the 1950’s. In 1950, the four networks combined produced ninety hours of programming a week; by the end of the decade, each of the three remaining networks (DuMont folded in 1955) was producing this much weekly programming on its own. This constant pressure to produce more and more would tax the creativity of the medium’s writers and force network executives to turn from the emphasis on quality noticeable in the first half of the decade to the emphasis on quantity that surfaced later.

Ultimately, the live format of such top-rated shows as Texaco Star Theatre and Colgate Comedy Hour would give way to Hollywood-set shows that took up considerably less of the network’s time and studio personnel. This move away from quality was also a result of the public’s moral sensibilities, which, according to Ezekiel Gathing’s 1952-1953 congressional investigation of television’s effects on culture, were upset because of the moral issues raised by live dramatic performances of works such as A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and the routines of many comedians, whose uncensored remarks and caustic comments sometimes went beyond the bounds of what some considered decent.

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The second reason for television’s Golden Age rests with the rise of the networks, which initially encouraged creativity and spontaneity on television. During the second half of the 1940’s, the networks had little control over programming. What was on television rested largely with the sponsors, or, more specific, with the advertising agencies that handled the sponsors. These agencies and sponsors were notoriously dictatorial; they had little to no interest in the programs other than how they conveyed an image of the sponsor. The sponsors’ rules were simple: Never offend a single viewer. The networks set out in 1950 to destroy the sponsors’ heavy-handed, self-serving policies.

The networks’ war with the sponsors was made clear in policies formulated by Frank Stanton, who headed the Columbia Broadcasting System Columbia Broadcasting System;antagonism of sponsors (CBS), and Pat Weaver, network chief at the National Broadcasting Company National Broadcasting Company;Golden Age programming (NBC). CBS and NBC were the two dominant networks at the opening of the decade. Weaver, in particular, led the charge by assembling some of the best talent available and producing, in the mid-1950’s, big-budget, network-produced, specially scheduled live programs that had no other motives behind them but to build an audience by entertaining the public. The concern of the network shifted, from “Will the public like the product that brings it the show?” to “Will the public enjoy the show?” Of these two approaches, the latter certainly was less dictatorial, freeing program content to tackle more challenging issues and themes.

The Golden Age of television coincides with the decline in sponsor-dominated shows during the 1951-1952 season and stretched into the 1956-1957 season, which saw the launch of the last major live dramatic program, Playhouse 90. The enthusiasm and experimentation with various formats that marked the early 1950’s was already waning by mid-decade. The shift away from quality programs was given impetus by Congressman Gathing’s moralistic crusade, which would result in thematic self-censorship not only by the networks but by the book and film industries as well.

The shift to quantity over quality was prompted further by the demands of the public, which turned away from NBC and CBS’s live formats to the canned, staged-set shows that the rival American Broadcasting Company American Broadcasting Company (ABC) began to offer in the 1955-1956 season with a new Western series produced in Hollywood, Cheyenne. Cheyenne (television program) Television;Westerns Westerns (television) The success of this show soon led to a host of imitators, including seven of the top ten shows in the 1958-1959 season: Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Have Gun Will Travel, The Rifleman, Maverick, Tales of Wells Fargo, and Wyatt Earp. These and similar staid shows led Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minow in 1961 to dub television a “vast wasteland.” The Golden Age of live, provocative, socially relevant plays and comedic satire was officially pronounced dead.

Significance

In the postwar 1940’s, radio Television;relationship to radio Radio;relationship to televison was the primary pastime of Americans, followed closely by attendance at film theaters, which reached an all-time high during this period. As Americans turned increasingly to television in the early 1950’s, spending an average of twenty-five hours per week in front of their sets, their time had to come from somewhere. It came from other leisure-time pursuits and dramatically affected the other forms of pretelevision entertainment, as well as just about every other aspect of American life.

Radio was the parent of television. Both NBC and CBS had invested heavily in radio and even used some of their radio profits to finance the final stages of television development. Television shows themselves at first were little more than radio shows with pictures; Amos ’n’ Andy and Burns and Allen simply transferred their skits to a visual format. Soon the television child was outshining its radio parent. Sponsors, reluctant to leave radio at first, saw the child grow to adulthood and shifted their advertising dollars to television, cutting radio’s revenue in half almost overnight.

Having nothing to play on the air that was not on television and needing revenue, radio appeared to have little future. It was rescued by a new musical format, rock and roll Rock and roll Music;rock , from which television shied away because the new music was too raw and too untamed. Radio itself initially was reluctant to be associated with this scurrilous music for fear of losing listeners and sponsors, but deserted by its primary adult listeners, radio found the teenage market through rock and roll. The dramatically changed format gave radio a comfortable spot alongside television.

Like radio, motion pictures Television;effects upon motion picture industry had been an American obsession almost from their inception. Films remained strong through the Depression and the war years, having some of their best years immediately following World War II. Movie moguls initially ignored television as nonthreatening because of the small picture screen. They soon discovered their error, as audiences deserted film theaters throughout the 1950’s. To stay competitive, the film industry tried all kinds of technological gimmicks: 3-D, Panavision and Cinemascope, and Circle-Vision. The last of these survived for decades at Disney theme parks around the globe. Other strategies also were employed. Lower-quality films (“B-films”), particularly Westerns, had been co-opted by television.

The major Hollywood studios abandoned B-films and tried to make a big impact with multimillion-dollar blockbusters. Additionally, Hollywood films all went to color, and more pictures were filmed on location, leaving the large studio lots looking like deserted ghost towns of the Old West. The days of the film studio appeared numbered. Studios managed to survive by changing their condescending attitude toward television in the mid-1950’s, by freeing their stars from the prohibition against appearing on television and by selling old films to the networks, giving birth to the Sunday night movie. Studios also began using their production talent and stage and sound lots to begin making films designed for the networks.

Unlike radio and films, newspapers were not affected immediately by television, largely because programming was limited in the early 1950’s to the time between 8:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. There was still time to read the morning and evening newspapers before turning one’s attention to television. Television began to expand its programming in the mid-1950’s to “fringe hours” (just before prime time) and introduced fifteen-minute news programs. Formats were extended even further during the late 1950’s to include daytime hours and talk shows, which were peppered with news items.

This expanded programming cut into newspaper readership, especially after 1963, when NBC and CBS debuted the first thirty-minute news segments. Expanded programming and the move into news are considered to be major reasons for the demise of the evening newspaper across America, though they did not affect morning editions dramatically. Nor did television affect the number of books published, since the less faithful book readers had earlier gone over to radio and films. Television did affect library circulation, which plummeted in the 1950’s, most noticeably for fiction. It thus directly affected the type of books published. A move toward nonfiction titles is one of the most prominent trends since the introduction of television.

During the 1950’s, television accounted for one-third of all leisure-time activity, dramatically affecting other forms of leisure. It affected, directly or indirectly, just about every other nuance of life as well. Little remained untouched by television. Family dining shifted, turning many dining rooms into places used solely to entertain guests. Television gave rise to TV dinners and the TV tray. Crime has been found in some studies to be related to television, because television makes people more aware of what they could, but do not, have, as well as showing crime as an everyday event. Television has been found to increase knowledge of the world and its events, curiosity, interest in sex, and verbal ability. It also has been found to increase consumer demand and to stimulate desire for immediate gratification, aggressive behavior, and ethnic stereotyping, while decreasing physical activity, creativity, and attention span. Whether for better or for worse, television has become part of everyday life around much of the globe. Television;Golden Age

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barnouw, Erik. Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television. 2d rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. An outstanding in-depth study of television as it passed through its growth stages. Of special interest because of its discussion of the development and impact of certain shows on television, such as Edward R. Murrow’s confrontation with Senator Joseph McCarthy. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boddy, William. Fifties Television: The Industry and Its Critics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990. One of the most detailed accounts of television in the 1950’s. Boddy challenges the popular critical notion of television’s Golden Age and sees the period less from the standpoint of high cultural, live programming than as a time of trial-and-error experimentation in order to discover viewers’ program preferences.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Comstock, George. The Evolution of American Television. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1989. The dean of television analyzes the medium’s roots in economic and social consideration of the 1940’s and 1950’s as key to understanding the specific form and content of television programming for the next three decades. He appraises the new medium as less revolutionary than evolutionary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Deming, Caren. “Locating the Televisual in Golden Age Television.” In A Companion to Television, edited by Janet Wasko. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005. Examines the formal evolution of television in the 1950’s and the development and use of distinctively televisual elements by the new medium. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harris, Jay, comp. and ed. TV Guide: The First Twenty-five Years. New York: New American Library, 1980. Articles and schedules from TV Guide from the time of its birth in April, 1953. The 16-page color section depicting personalities who have graced the cover of TV Guide is itself an illustrated history of television. Numerous pictures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Steinberg, Cobbett. TV Facts. New York: Facts On File, 1980. A detailed breakdown of prime-time shows on all networks, including DuMont, from 1950 to 1980. The information is presented in six parts: programs, viewers, ratings, advertisers, awards and polls, and networks and stations. Replete with easy-to-read charts and graphs.

FCC Licenses Commercial Television

Variety Shows Dominate Television Programming

“Mr. Television” Hosts the Texaco Star Theater

Kukla, Fran, and Ollie Pioneers Children’s Television Programming

Family Comedies on Television Rise in Popularity

The Red Skelton Show Becomes a Landmark on Network Television

I Love Lucy Dominates Television Comedy

Dragnet Airs as the First Widely Popular Police Show

Amahl and the Night Visitors Premieres on American Television

The Tonight Show Becomes an American Institution

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