Television struggled to become a national mass media in the 1950s, and became a cultural force – for better or worse – in the 60s. Before these two decades were over the three national networks were offering programs that were alternately earth shaking, sublime and ridiculous.
In the 1940s, the three networks – NBC, CBS and ABC – were “networks” in name only. All of the programming originated, live, in New York. The only way the networks had to distribute the shows to the rest of the nation was to point a film camera at a television screen and convert video to film. These 16mm films, known as kinescopes, were then duplicated and shipped to the few affiliated stations for broadcast later. By necessity, most programming was local, and cooking shows, wrestling and cartoons took up most of the broadcast day.
The networks became true networks when AT&T finished laying a system of coaxial cables from coast to coast. Coax – the now familiar cables the run from cable TV wall outlets to today’s tuners – has enough bandwidth, or electrical carrying capacity, to transmit hundreds or even thousands of telephone calls as well as television signals.
In 1952 for the first time, television news was able to broadcast the Republican and Democratic conventions live from Philadelphia to the rest of the nation. The importance of that event for rural America went beyond the fact that rural residents knew in real time that Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson were running for President against each other.
- TV signals that could reach into the most remote corners of the U.S. broke down the last vestiges of isolation in rural America.
- Common national carriage of popular TV shows, news and sports events meant that there was a shared national experience. The day after major televised events, researchers found that almost everyone was talking about the event. They weren’t saying the same things, but there was a sense of national dialog.
- The visual and aural experience together that television allowed – especially after the advent to color TV in early 60s – meant that regional cultural differences were ironed out. A more generalized “American” culture co-opted regional subcultures.
- Television familiarized rural residents with other regions making migration even more appealing.
Between 1949 and 1969, the number of households in the U.S. with at least one TV set rose from less than a million to 44 million. The number of commercial TV stations rose from 69 to 566. The amount advertisers paid these TV stations and the networks rose from $58 million to $1.5 billion.
Between 1959 and 1970, the percentage of households in the U.S. with at least one TV went from 88 percent to 96 percent. By 1970, there were around 700 UHF and VHF television stations; today there are 1,300. By 1970, TV stations and networks raked in $3.6 billion in ad revenues; today, that figure is over $60 billion.
Television programming has had a huge impact on American and world culture. Many critics have dubbed the 1950s as the Golden Age of Television. TV sets were expensive and so the audience was generally affluent. Television programmers knew this and they knew that serious dramas on Broadway were attracting this audience segment. So, the producers began staging Broadway plays in the television studios. Later, Broadway authors, like Paddy Chayefsky, Reggie Rose and J. P. Miller wrote plays specifically for television. Their plays – Marty, Twelve Angry Men, and Days of Wine and Roses, respectively – all went on to be successful movies.
As the households with TVs multiplied and spread to other segments of society, more varied programming came in. Situation comedies and variety shows were formats that were borrowed from radio. Former vaudeville stars like Milton Berle, Sid Caesar and Jackie Gleason found stardom after years of toiling on the stages. Ernie Kovacs was one of the first comedians to really understand and exploit the technology of television and became a master of the sight gag.
During the 50s, quiz shows became popular until a scandal erupted. For three years, producers of “The $64,000 Question” supplied an appealing contestant with the answers to tough trivia questions to heighten the drama.
During this time, many of the genres that today’s audiences are familiar with were developed – westerns, kids’ shows, situation comedies, sketch comedies, game shows, dramas, news and sports programming.
In the 1950s and 60s, television news produced perhaps some of its finest performances. Edward R. Murrow exposed the tactics of innuendo and unsubstantiated charges that Sen. Joseph McCarthy used to exploit the country’s fear of Communism. The televised debates between Kennedy and Nixon were credited with giving JFK a slim election victory.
Filmed coverage of the civil rights movement and live coverage of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington brought those issues into sharp focus.
When President Kennedy was assassinated on Friday, November 22, 1963, most Americans immediately turned on television sets to get the news. The networks devoted days and days of airtime to coverage of the tragedy, the funeral and the aftermath. Many Americans (who may have come home from church early) were watching live coverage on Sunday morning November 24, when they saw Jack Ruby kill the alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
Later, coverage of the Vietnam War was credited with, for the first time, bringing war into the living rooms of citizens. When CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite editorialized against the war, Pres. Johnson was reported to have said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.” Within weeks, after also learning he had lost the support of key players on Wall Street, Johnson decided not to run for re-election.
Yet, this was also a time of abundant escapism on television. Producers added science fiction to the mix of genres on TV, perhaps in response to the NASA space program. This era produced some of the most enduring reruns in television history. “Star Trek” is the prime example.
In the midst of the turmoil of the 60s, it’s fascinating that some of the most popular shows were firmly set in a rural past that was fast disappearing – if, in fact, it ever existed.
In 1960, the “Andy Griffith Show” – with its small town sheriff, his son, his deputy and a cast of stereotypical rural characters – was the fourth most popular show on television. It stayed in the top ten every year until it reached number one in 1967.
Then came the “Beverly Hillbillies” in 1962. The premise was simple. Farmer Jed Clampett discovers oil on his worthless land, packs up daughter Elly May, nephew Jethro, Granny, all their belonging and millions of dollars and moves to California – in a scene that was eerily reminiscent of photographs of Depression-era Okies moving to California.
The show was an inspired piece of silliness, produced by Paul Henning, a Midwesterner from Missouri who spent 30 years in Hollywood mining his rural roots. The “Beverly Hillbillies” shot up to number one in the ratings the first two years it was on the air, and stayed in the top fifteen for most of the rest of the decade. Critics have called the show, “equal parts Steinbeck and absurdism, the nouveau riche-out-of-water.”
Producer Henning followed that up with “Petticoat Junction” from 1963-70 and “Green Acres” from 1965-71. Both shows proved to be almost as popular. The petticoats in the first show belonged the blonde, brunet and redheaded daughters – Billie Jo, Bobbie Jo and Betty Jo – of Kate Bradley, the proprietress of the Shady Grove Hotel. The daughters gave the writers ample opportunity for thinly veiled farmer’s daughters jokes while the hotel’s isolation created a rural milieu that didn’t exist in reality anymore.
“Green Acres” went even further into silliness. One fan web site, “Memorable TV,” calls the show, “a flat-out assault on Cartesian logic, Newtonian physics, and Harvard-centrist positivism. Lawyer Oliver Wendell Douglas (Eddie Albert) and his socialite wife Lisa (Eva Gabor) come to Hooterville in search of the greening of America and lofty Jeffersonian idealism. What they discover instead is a virtual parallel universe of unfettered surrealism, rife with gifted pigs, square chicken eggs, and abiogenetic hotcakes – a universe which Lisa intuits immediately, and by which Oliver is constantly bewildered.”
Beulah Gocke (left) was one among many rural residents who appreciated the inspired silliness of these shows. “They poked fun at us,” she recognizes, “but that’s part of a good personality, if you can laugh at yourself.”
William Luebbe (right) points out that two of his sons have gone to college and one has a doctorate degree. The TV shows “portrayed the farmers as being backward, uneducated [people]. But that wasn’t fair to the farmers.” William has only owned two television sets in his life.
Even critics at the time recognized the curious popularity of these rural shows. “A few TV critics,” reported Newsweek in 1969, “argue that many newly affluent Americans, bewildered by the technological ’60s, see themselves as bumbling hillbillies lost in suburbia.”
“Petticoat Junction” was cancelled in 1970 after the show’s star, Bea Benaderet playing Kate, died of cancer. Despite continued good ratings, the “Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres” were cancelled the next year when CBS decided it needed to attract a more youthful Baby Boomer audience. Instead, the network began to produce such shows as “M*A*S*H,” “All in the Family” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”