The Impact of the Television in 1950s America

By Steve Wiegand

One of the most popular products in the 1950s was the TV. At the start of the decade, there were about 3 million TV owners; by the end of it, there were 55 million, watching shows from 530 stations. The average price of TV sets dropped from about $500 in 1949 to $200 in 1953.

[Credit: © Frank Martin/ Getty Images]
Credit: © Frank Martin/ Getty Images

Like radio before it, the spread of TV had a huge cultural impact. Beginning with the 1948 campaign, it made itself felt in U.S. politics. One wonderful effect was that it made speeches shorter. Politicians and commentators alike began to think and speak in “sound bites” that fit the medium.

By 1960, the televised debates between candidates Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy were considered a crucial element in Kennedy’s narrow victory. TV also helped make professional and college sports big businesses, and sometimes provided excellent comedy and dramatic shows to vast audiences that might not otherwise have had access to them.

But even to its mildest critics, much of what was on the often-aptly nicknamed “boob tube” was mindless junk. It was designed to sell products, it homogenized cultural tastes to the point of blandness, and it created feelings of inadequacy in some, who felt their real lives should compare with the insipidly happy characters they saw on shows like Leave It to Beaver.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Newton Minnow called it “a vast wasteland.” Nonetheless, it was a popular wasteland. Comedian Milton Berle’s show was so loved, for example, that movie theaters in some towns closed down Tuesday nights because everyone was home watching “Uncle Miltie.”

And in 1954, the Toledo, Ohio water commissioner reported that water consumption surged at certain times because so many people were simultaneously using their toilets during commercial breaks on the most popular shows.