The Social Influence of TV in the 20th Century


By Lynne Ann HartnettVillanova University

Media scholars consider the introduction—and widespread dissemination—of television to be one of the most significant social forces of the 20th century. It revolutionized how people thought about the world and spent their leisure hours. The 20th century television reflected popular culture and redefined it. It reported political developments and influenced them.

An old television set
The more popular television shows became, the more disposed American consumer-oriented corporations were to invest in them. (Image: Fletcher6/Public domain)

First Broadcast

Unlike other revolutions, the transformative changes that television brought took place not behind barricades or in governmental halls of power but in the living rooms of nearly every household. It was a revolution we all made, and that affected us all. Stated another way, television was both locus of a cultural revolution and an agent of political change.

Image of David Sarnoff
David Sarnoff worked to develop broadcast television in the United States. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

On November 2, 1936, the British Broadcasting Corporation inaugurated the world’s first regular television service from its studios in North London. Meanwhile, in the United States, a Russian-American named David Sarnoff, who was the president of RCA, had also been working to develop broadcast television. 

Sarnoff allied with the Westinghouse engineer Vladimir Zworykin, who’d seen a rudimentary TV in the lab of the inventor Philo T. Farnsworth. But the Great Depression, and battles over patents, delayed the US debut of over-the-air television.

Sarnoff arranged a promotional telecast from Radio City at Rockefeller Center in 1937. Then, on April 30, 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a speech at the fairgrounds in Flushing, Queens, that NBC broadcast via television. The address reached viewers only in the immediate New York area. But the broadcast portended worldwide significance.

Conquering Time and Space

A few days later, Forbes magazine reported that television was about to become a commercial reality after millions of dollars in research and development. In its infancy, the cost of buying a modern TV was prohibitively expensive for most families. But by the late 1940s, engineering and economic advances had made the new appliance a more reasonable and compelling indulgence.

In June 1948, the Texaco Star Theater comedy-variety show premiered on NBC. Vaudeville standouts Milton Berle, Henny Youngman, and Morey Amsterdam made it a quick success. Within a year, five million Americans were watching the program each Tuesday night at 8 pm.

The New York Times critic Jack Gould immediately identified television’s revolutionary possibilities. Describing an invention that conquered time and distance simultaneously, he wrote that the medium was unique in its ability to reach an audience “so quickly and so graphically.”

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The American Middle Class Loved Television

Coinciding with the postwar baby boom, Americans left urban areas for the suburbs in droves. And a growing number of suburban families were enjoying rising income levels driven by postwar prosperity. They invested in TVs to replace the entertainment they’d left behind in the city.

TV ownership and viewership became a marker of middle-class American life. Production companies targeting this most basic social unit—the single-family household—depicted idealized versions of white, middle-class American families. And conservative values and stereotypes of nuclear families were affirmed through such domestic comedies as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best

A vintage photo of a family of 6 watching TV.
Statistics show that 20th century television had a strong foothold in American middle-class households. (Image: Evert F. Baumgardner/Public domain)

As Americans watched these shows, which supposedly depicted the lives they were living or at least aspired to, they began to interpret their own lives and expectations based on what they saw on the small screen.

In turn, the more popular television shows became, the more disposed American consumer-oriented corporations were to invest in them. This paid for increased programming and produced still more advertising revenue. The television revolution grew exponentially as a result. In 1950, 9% of American households owned a television. By 1953, 50% of American families had a TV. By the end of the decade, that number was about 90%.

The Golden Age of American TV?

In addition to Texaco Star Theater with its stars Milton Berle and friends, NBC also pioneered political programming when Meet the Press moved from radio to TV in 1947. And the company also initiated children’s television shows with Howdy Doody the same year. Then in January 1952, NBC debuted the first early-morning television programming, the Today Show.

Three other television networks—CBS, ABC, and Dumont (the last which stopped broadcasting in the mid-1950s)—competed with daily and prime-time programming of their own. Radio entertainment declined, as did ticket sales at movie theaters. American cultural habits were in the process of a revolutionary transformation, and the 1950s would become known as the golden age of television, in spite of the newness of the medium.

CBS held the distinction of airing the most popular program of the 1950s: I Love Lucy. The real-life couple and production partners Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz performed as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, accompanied by their best friends and landlords Fred and Ethel Mertz. The plot followed Lucy’s dream to make it in show business while her bandleader husband invariably stood in her way. 

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz realized their creative and entrepreneurial visions through their own company, Desilu Productions, which infused the lives of post-war Americans with sentimentality and laughter. In this way, it set a standard for situational comedies (or sitcoms) to this day.

I Love Lucy was the first show to be seen in 10 million American homes. Indeed, the April 7, 1952, episode was seen by more than 30 million people, almost 20% of the country’s population.

Common Questions about the Social Influence of TV in the 20th Century

Q: In what way was television both the locus of a cultural revolution and an agent of political change?

The television was a kind of revolution that happened in the center of living rooms in the 20th century. In this cultural revolution, everybody was influential, and yet everybody was also influenced by it.

Q: What did David Sarnoff do as part of his work to broadcast television?

Responsible for broadcasting television in America in the 20th century, David Sarnoff worked with engineers to make TV a reality in America, but the Great Depression and conflicts over patents delayed work. Sarnoff also arranged a promotional telecast from Radio City at Rockefeller Center in 1937.

Q: Why did the American middle class invest in TVs?

The postwar baby boom meant families wanted to live in the suburbs, and with better incomes and postwar prosperity, they could afford TVs. Thus, television was a way to replace the entertainment they would miss out on in the city.

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