Culture and Recreation

Radio and Television

What was the impact of network television?

The Big Three networks rose to power in the 1950s and dominated television for the next two decades. During much of this period, they captured more than 90 percent of the total viewing audience. Americans had turned away from the radio programs and films that had diverted them in the postwar 1940s and were tuning in to television—“the tube”—at an average rate of 25 hours per week, leaving little time for any other recreational pursuits. In short, television had become not only an American pastime, but an American obsession.

Radio, which had given birth to television (both NBC and CBS were radio networks before they began developing TV programming), saw its revenue cut in half almost overnight. It not only lost audiences and advertisers to TV, but lost popular programs and stars as well. Radio turned its attention to an emerging new art form: rock and roll. The move was a success, as young listeners tuned in to hear the music that was considered too raw to be included in the evening TV line-up.

Film felt the effects of television as well, as audiences stayed home to be entertained. Moviemakers attempted to lure audiences back into the theaters with gimmicks including 3-D movies, Panavision, Cinemascope, and Circle-Vision. Hollywood abandoned the western and other B-movies in favor of big-budget blockbusters, many of which were filmed on location rather than at studios or on back lots. Studios even forbade their stars from appearing on TV, but they soon relented. Cooperation between the two industries is what saved film: Studios sold old movies to the networks for broadcast and provided production talent and facilities to television.

Newspapers were least affected by the tremendous popularity of television, since programming time was at first limited to 8:00 P.M. to 11:00 P.M., which still left time to read the paper. As soon as television expanded programming beyond that three-hour window, however, newspapers felt the pinch—more sharply in 1963, when both CBS and NBC began airing news shows. Daytime programming spelled the demise of the evening paper.

While television had no impact on the number of books published, it did prompt a decrease in the number of fiction titles that were published (and a corresponding increase in the number of nonfiction titles). The upward trend of nonfiction titles is a lasting effect of television on the publishing industry.

Today experts disagree over the impact of television on our lives. Some argue that increased crime is a direct outcome of television since programs show crime as an everyday event and advertisements make people more aware of what they don’t have. Critics also maintain that television stimulates aggressive behavior, reinforces ethnic stereotyping, and leads to a decrease in activity and creativity. Proponents of television counter, citing increased awareness in world events, improved verbal abilities, and greater curiosity as benefits of television viewing. By the end of the 1950s, more the 50 million American families owned a television.

“Mr.Television” Milton Berle (pictured in 1952) hosted a popular weekly variety show.

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