Fifties Television

When baby boomers think of fifties television, we'd like to believe that television got started the same time we did---in the early fifties. Truth is, while television did "boom" in the early fifties right along with our birth rates, the real roots of fifties television were actually planted in the late 30s.

Roots of Fifties Television

On April 19, 1938, the New York Times ran an article announcing that "A regular television schedule of five hours a week, for at least a month, begins today under the auspices of the National Broadcasting Company." Programs could be received in the New York metro area within a 50-mile radius

TV test pattern

of television aerials mounted on top of the Empire State Building. That five hour weekly schedule was actually one hour of live talent and films aired from 8 to 9 PM on both Tuesday and Thursday nights, while the other three hours were only still pictures and charts broadcast from 3 to 4 PM on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoons so engineers could study the actual transmissions.

The next milestone for early television was the 1939 World's Fair, when RCA introduced 9" and 12 " sets together with sound, selling for about $600 each. Audiences grew slowly at first, with only about 2000 sets in use by April 1940. Production of all television sets and equipment came to a halt during the war years (1942-45), but resumed in 1946. By the late 40s, RCA and other manufacturers began mass production of TV sets, and by the end of 1950 there were over 8 million sets in the US alone.

Not everyone predicted the success of television the way that RCA and its president at the time, David Sarnoff, did. In 1946, the head of 20th Century Fox Movies, Darryl F. Zanuck,

1946 TV

was quoted as saying, "Television won't be able to hold on to any market it might capture after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night." Well, perhaps Mr. Zanuck underestimated what would ultimately develop inside that plywood box! Seventy years later, we're still staring!

Highlights for fifties television:

  • NBC broadcasts the first hour-long music variety show, "Hourglass", over three stations in New York City, Philadelphia, and Schenectady, on May 9, 1946.
  • 140,000 people watch the first televised heavyweight fight between Joe Louis and Billy Conn on June 19, 1946.
  • The Dumont Network broadcast the first soap opera, aptly named "Faraway Hills", on October 2, 1946.
  • In 1947, radios (40 million) far outnumber TV sets (44,000) in the US.
  • First telecast of a World Series game---New York Yankees vs. the Brooklyn Dodgers---airs on September 30, 1947.
  • Harry Truman is the first American president to appear on television from the White House, discussing the international food crisis, on October 5, 1947.
  • Television's longest running show, "Meet the Press", premiers on a local NBC station in Washington, DC on November 6, 1947, and goes nationwide two weeks later.
  • "Howdy Dowdy Time" premiers
    Buffalo Bob and Howdy Doody

    on December 29, 1947, and in 1949 its merchandise sales tops $11 million.

  • In 1948, only one in every ten Americans had ever seen a TV set.
  • "I Love Lucy" premiers on October 15, 1951, and is seen in a record 10.6 million households by April, 1952.
  • The FCC approves UHF channels 14 thru 83 on April 14, 1952.
  • While its technical standards were approved by the FCC in 1953, color television didn't become profitable until the early 60s.
  • The "Tournament of Roses Parade" from Pasadena on January 1, 1954, is the first presentation in the US televised in color nation-wide (21 network cities). Unfortunately, most sets at the time were black and white, with only about 200 color TV sets in use and able to receive it in color.
  • In April 1954, RCA begins selling its Model CT-100 color TV set for $1000 each; sales increase from just under 5000 in 1954 to 20,000 in 1955.
  • Gunsmoke premiers on September 10, 1955, beginning a twenty year run.
  • The "Mickey Mouse Club" (on ABC) and "Captain Kangaroo" (on CBS) each premier on October 3, 1955.
  • The soap opera "As the World Turns" premiers on April 2, 1956.
  • Admiral TV ad

  • By 1957, over 40 million homes in the US have at least on television set.
  • "Perry Mason" (September 21) and "Leave It to Beaver" (October 4) each premier in 1957.
  • "Bonanza" is the first western to be televised in color, starting September 12, 1959.
  • "The Twilight Zone" on CBS premiers on October 2, 1959.

So, fifties television really began to flourish during the decade, transforming entertainment in American households from radio to that new "plywood box" that everyone would stare at! You remember fifties television---how old were you when you first started watching?

Top Rated Shows

Fifties Television/October 1950 - April 1951 season:

    Lone Ranger

  1. Texaco Star Theatre
  2. Fireside Theatre
  3. Philco TV Playhouse
  4. Your Show of Shows
  5. The Colgate Comedy Hour
  6. Gillette Cavalcade of Stars
  7. The Lone Ranger
  8. Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts
  9. Hopalong Cassidy
  10. Mama
  11. Robert Montgomery Presents
  12. Martin Lane, Private Eye
  13. Man Against Crime
  14. Kraft Televison Theatre
  15. The Toast of the Town

Fifties Television/October 1951 - April 1952 season:

    I Love Lucy

  1. Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts
  2. Texaco Star Theatre
  3. I Love Lucy
  4. The Red Skelton Show
  5. The Colgate Comedy Hour
  6. Arthur Godfrey and His Friends
  7. Fireside Theatre
  8. Your Show of Shows
  9. The Jack Benny Show
  10. You Bet Your Life
  11. Mama
  12. Philco TV Playhouse
  13. Amos 'N Andy
  14. Gangbusters
  15. Big Town

Fifties Television/October 1952 - April 1953 season:

    Arthur Godfrey photo

  1. I Love Lucy
  2. Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts
  3. Arthur Godfrey and His Friends
  4. Dragnet>/li
  5. Texaco Star Theatre
  6. The Buick Circus Hour
  7. The Colgate Comedy Hour
  8. Gangbusters
  9. You Bet Your Life
  10. Fireside Theatre
  11. The Red Buttons Show
  12. The Jack Benny Show
  13. Life With Luigi
  14. Pabst Blue Ribbon Bouts
  15. Goodyear TV Playhouse

Fifties Television/October 1953 - April 1954 season:

    Jack Webb photo

  1. I Love Lucy
  2. Dragnet
  3. Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts
  4. You Bet Your Life
  5. The Chevy Show (Bob Hope)
  6. The Milton Berle Show
  7. Arthur Godfrey and His Friends
  8. The Ford Show
  9. The Jackie Gleason Show
  10. Fireside Theatre
  11. The Colgate Comedy Hour
  12. This Is Your Life
  13. The Red Buttons Show
  14. The Life of Riley
  15. Our Miss Brooks

Fifties Television/October 1954 - April 1955 season:

    Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows photo

  1. I Love Lucy
  2. The Jackie Gleason Show
  3. Jackie Gleason Show
  4. Dragnet
  5. You Bet Your Life
  6. The Toast of the Town
  7. Disneyland
  8. The Chevy Show (Bob Hope)
  9. The Jack Benny Show
  10. The Martha Raye Show
  11. The George Gobel Show
  12. Ford Theatre
  13. December Bride
  14. Buick-Berle Show
  15. This Is Your Life
  16. I've Got A Secret

Fifties Television/October 1955 - April 1956 season:

  1. The $64,000 Question
  2. Ed Sullivan show

  3. I Love Lucy
  4. The Ed Sullivan Show
  5. The Jackie Gleason Show
  6. Disneyland
  7. The Jack Benny Show
  8. December Bride
  9. You Bet Your Life
  10. Dragnet
  11. The Millionaire
  12. I've Got A Secret
  13. General Electric Theatre
  14. Private Secretary
  15. Ford Theatre
  16. The Red Skelton Show
  17. The George Gobel Show

Fifties Television/October 1956 - April 1957 season:

    James Arness

  1. I Love Lucy
  2. The Ed Sullivan Show
  3. General Electric Theatre
  4. The $64,000 Question
  5. December Bride
  6. Alfred Hitchcock Presents
  7. I've Got A Secret
  8. Gunsmoke
  9. The Perry Como Show
  10. The Jack Benny Show
  11. Dragnet
  12. Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts
  13. The Millionaire
  14. Disneyland
  15. The Red Skelton Show

Fifties Television/October 1957 - April 1958 season:

    Alfred Hitchcock

  1. Gunsmoke
  2. The Danny Thomas Show
  3. Tales of Wells Fargo
  4. Have Gun Will Travel
  5. I've Got A Secret
  6. The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
  7. General Electric Theatre
  8. The Restless Gun
  9. December Bride
  10. You Bet Your Life
  11. The Perry Como Show
  12. Alfred Hitchcock Presents
  13. Red Skelton photo

  14. Cheyenne
  15. The Ford Show
  16. The Red Skelton Show
  17. The Gale Storm Show
  18. The Millionaire
  19. The Lineup
  20. This Is Your Life
  21. The $64,000 Question
  22. Zane Grey Theatre
  23. Lassie
  24. Wagon Train
  25. Sugarfoot
  26. Father Knows Best

Fifties Television/October 1958 - April 1959 season:

    Wagon Train

  1. Gunsmoke
  2. Wagon Train
  3. Have Gun Will Travel
  4. The Rifleman
  5. The Danny Thomas Show
  6. Maverick
  7. Tales of Wells Fargo
  8. The Real McCoys
  9. I've Got A Secret
  10. The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
  11. The Price Is Right
  12. The Red Skelton Show
  13. Zane Grey Theatre
  14. Father Knows Best
  15. The Texan
  16. Wanted: Dead or Alive
  17. Peter Gunn
  18. Cheyenne
  19. Perry Mason
  20. The Ford Show
  21. Sugarfoot
  22. The Ann Southern Show
  23. The Perry Como Show
  24. Alfred Hitchcock Presents
  25. Name That Tune

Fifties Television/October 1959 - April 1960:

    Father Knows Best

  1. Gunsmoke
  2. Wagon Train
  3. Have Gun Will Travel
  4. The Danny Thomas Show
  5. The Red Skelton Show
  6. Father Knows Best
  7. 77 Sunset Strip
  8. The Price Is Right
  9. Wanted: Dead Or Alive
  10. Perry Mason
  11. The Real McCoys
  12. The Ed Sullivan Show
  13. The Bing Cosby Show
  14. The Rifleman
  15. The Ford Show
  16. The Lawman
  17. Dennis The Menace
  18. Cheyenne
  19. Rawhide
  20. Maverick
  21. The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
  22. Mr. Lucky
  23. Zane Grey Theatre
  24. General Electric Theatre
  25. The Ann Southern Show

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