In the Beginning
Television programs were first broadcast in the 1930s, but there were few people with sets to watch the broadcasts. There were very few stations and most were located on the East Coast. Since television was a new medium, there was really nothing for them to model shows after. Radio had only been on the air for a little over 20 years, but the paradigm was pretty well established for daily broadcasts of news, soap operas, sporting events, and comedy shows.
With television came the opportunity for people to SEE what was going on and not just hear it. This came as a big bonus for sports fans, who could now see the home runs hit by their heroes on the New York Yankees baseball team, and they could watch the boxing matches and see the punches thrown. Despite the addition of video, however, sports announcers made an easy transition from radio to television as announcing a game on the radio was really no different than announcing it on TV.
Likewise, it was easy enough to produce soap operas and comedies and dramas on TV, as this was simply producing a play as it was done on the stage, and filming it for TV. If you look at the sets for early TV shows such as The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy, you can see that the actors are simply acting on a set that is very much like the ones found on any theatrical stage in the country, as you can see In the image below.
If you look closely at the photo you can see the wainscoting is painted on, and the realism off the set is nothing like the sets on television today. This was possible because of the low resolution of early television cameras and the fact that the shows were filmed in black and white.
But while sports and traditional dramas made an easy transition from radio to television, news reporting had a bigger challenge. Radio news reports were simply someone reading the news of the day and allowing the listener to imagine the scene. With the advent of television, the need to include images in a news report became paramount. Newsreels had been shown in theaters for years, but the format did not fit the needs of a daily news broadcast.
NBC was one of the first networks on the air, and also one of the first to premier a news show whose format was unique to the medium of television. Take a look at the clip below and identify some of the elements of a morning news show that are still the same, and those that are different. Write these down in your notes as observations about the changes over the last sixty years.
If you haven’t watched a morning news show recently, you can GO HERE to see a more recent episode of The Today show.
One of the first programs to cause Americans to go and and buy televisions in droves was The Howdy Doody show. This program, which featured genial host Buffalo Bob Smith, and a cast of Marionette puppets, was originally on the air three nights a week, from five to six pm. After the show’s popularity exploded, the show was changed to a half-hour format and run five nights a week from 5:30 to 6:00pm. For many families this was when mom was traditionally preparing dinner, and the show served the purpose of entertaining the kids while mom cooked and dad relaxed after a long day at work. Kids would sit mesmerized in front of the screen, and the digital babysitter was born.
By today’s standards the show seems rather crude and the jokes aren’t often that funny, but in the early 1950’s this was the height of entertainment for kids between the ages of five to ten, and many popular phrases of the time came from the show.
Be sure to read through the Wikipedia entry linked above, as there will be questions on the test about the show. Also, as you watch the video linked below, think about the following: (Put your answers in your notes).
- What do you think of the show’s production value? (how well did they do in creating the show?
- Do you find this entertaining? Do you think a seven-year-old in 2015 would enjoy this? Why or why not?
- Why do you think kids in the 1950’s found this so entertaining?
Click to watch an episode of The Howdy Doody Show from 1954.
Commercials have been around since the beginning of television broadcasting, and just as much of the radio programming paradigm was used to create the paradigm for television programming, so was the use of sponsors brought over from radio to television. In the early days of television, a specific show was sponsored by a company and that company’s name was often part of the show’s name. For example, The Texaco Star Theater was a television show that featured a variety of acts and was hosted by comedian Milton Berle. The sponsors held a great deal of power over the show, and could even say who should or shouldn’t be on the show. Often they were the ONLY sponsor on the show, and in the case of Texaco Star Theater, the show’s theme song was all about the services you could get at a Texaco gas station, and barely mentioned the star of the show.
Initially commercials were longer than they are today (sometimes as long as 90 seconds) and would often feature stars from the show promoting a company’s product.. Take a look at this commercial from a television show you have just recently watched yourself:
To most modern viewers this seems long-winded and, honestly, pretty dull. What’s important here is seeing the use of characters from the show to promote a sponsor’s product. Here’s another look at a commercial from a few years later than the last one:
Not only is the practice of using sponsors to sell a product gone into disuse, but cigarette advertising on television was banned starting in 1970, and the idea of a cartoon character lighting up a cigarette in an advertisement seems very anachronistic to modern viewers.
On a side note, The Flinstones originally aired in the evening hours and was geared at adults as well as children. It was a cartoon take-off of The Honeymooners, and, like The Simpsons and Family Guy would do years later, had humor that appealed to parents and kids.
Changing the Ad Paradigm
This use of exclusive sponsors lasted only a few years, as advertisers soon came to realize that they could get a better exposure for their products by running commercials on a variety of shows. Commercials were produced independently of the shows, and were sold to different shows and networks as well. Originally commercials ran as long as 90 seconds, but eventually the 30-second commercial became the norm, and in recent years many commercials run for only 15 seconds.
Modern television relies heavily on commercials to pay for the programming, but with the advent of the DVR (which allows viewers to fast-forward through commercials) advertisers have had to find creative ways to keep people from avoiding their commercials. Still, the ads that we see on television today are direct descents of those you’ve seen on this page, and while the length and the styles may have changed, the purpose–to sell a product– is the same today as it was 50 years ago.
Questions to Consider:
- What commercials do you enjoy the most? Why do you enjoy them?
- What makes a commercial effective in selling a product?
- Why do you think we no longer have commercials that are 90 seconds long?
- Can you think of other reasons that commercials might have changed over the years?
- What is another way that advertisers now work their way onto television shows?
Videos used on this page are done under the Fair Use section of US Copyright law.