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NCSS: Science, technology, and society; Culture

SPOTLIGHT

How Television Changed America

The shows we watch have transformed our ideas—and our country 

It’s Friday night at Ella’s house in New Jersey, and each member of her family is enjoying a show. 

Ella, 13, is downstairs studying YouTube baking videos on her iPhone. Her 10-year-old brother, Elijah, is in his room on his laptop, watching the New York Knicks get crushed by the Golden State Warriors. Meanwhile, their parents are upstairs streaming their favorite series on Netflix. 

When Ella’s parents were her age, such a scene would have been unimaginable. When they were teenagers, computers sat on desks and were mainly for doing work, and phones were just for talking. If you wanted to watch a show, you had to watch it on a television set—at the time it was being aired. Plus, there were a limited number of shows to choose from.

The stark difference between Ella’s and her parents’ childhood experiences with TV is not surprising. After all, television has changed dramatically since it was first popularized in 1939 at the World’s Fair in New York. And that evolution has had an impact on U.S. culture. Over the decades, TV has at times divided, challenged, and united us as a society. 

“Television had this kind of cultural glue feature to it,” says Robert Thompson, a professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University in New York. “It brought whole families—and even the nation—together.”

It is Friday night at Ella’s house in New Jersey. Each member of her family is enjoying a show.

Ella is 13. She is downstairs studying YouTube baking videos on her iPhone. Elijah, her brother, is 10. He is in his room on his laptop. He is watching the New York Knicks get crushed by the Golden State Warriors. Meanwhile, their parents are upstairs streaming their favorite series on Netflix.

No one would have imagined such a scene when Ella’s parents were her age. When they were teenagers, computers sat on desks. They were mainly for doing work. Phones were just for talking. If you wanted to watch a show, you had to watch it on a television set at the time it was being aired. The number of shows to choose from was limited.

The big difference between Ella’s and her parents’ childhood experiences with TV is not surprising. Television has changed a lot since it first became popular in 1939 at the World’s Fair in New York. Those change have affected U.S. culture ever since. Over the decades, TV has at times divided, challenged, and united us as a society.

“Television had this kind of cultural glue feature to it,” says Robert Thompson. He is a professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University in New York. “It brought whole families—and even the nation—together.”

More Shows Than Ever
The number of original scripted series—think Young Sheldon and similar sitcoms—has more than doubled in less than a decade.

TV’S Transformation

TVs are found in almost every home in the United States today. But in the mid-1940s, less than 1 percent of U.S. households owned one. At that time, a basic set could cost nearly $400—almost two months’ salary for the average American.

Those TVs looked nothing like the flat-screen sets that hang on our walls today. Televisions were big and bulky, but with screens often no larger than a paperback. Dots of static blurred the black-and-white picture. Most broadcasts featured mainly wrestling, boxing, and variety shows with dancers and singers. And most stars on TV were white. The picture would frequently cut out because of the unreliable technology.

TVs are found in almost every home in the United States today. But less than 1 percent of U.S. households owned one in the mid-1940s. At that time, a basic set could cost nearly $400. That was almost two months’ salary for the average American.

Those TVs looked nothing like the flat-screen sets that hang on our walls today. Televisions were big and bulky. The screens were often no larger than a paperback book. Dots of static made the black-and-white picture blurry. Most broadcasts featured mainly wrestling, boxing, and variety shows with dancers and singers. And most stars on TV were white. The picture would often cut out because of the poor technology.

3.5 HOURS
average time per day Americans watched TV in the 1950s

SOURCE: The Columbia History of American Television

But viewers like Karen Ross didn’t mind. In 1946, her family was the first in their neighborhood to get a TV. She was 8 years old the day it arrived, and she still remembers it clearly. 

“It was an incredible night,” Ross recalls. “My mother made fancy snacks and set up chairs in the living room. My father turned the set on. The picture was terrible, but we didn’t care. We were thrilled.”

It wasn’t long before the quality of TV improved. Sets became cheaper, with larger screens and sharper images. By 1952, nearly one-third of U.S. families owned one. Color sets came along in the mid-1950s. By 1956, three big national TV networks—ABC, NBC, and CBS—were competing for viewers with new programs.

But viewers like Karen Ross did not mind. In 1946, her family was the first in their neighborhood to get a TV. She was 8 years old the day it arrived. She still remembers it clearly.

“It was an incredible night,” Ross recalls. “My mother made fancy snacks and set up chairs in the living room. My father turned the set on. The picture was terrible, but we didn’t care. We were thrilled.”

It was not long before TV quality improved. Sets became cheaper. They had larger screens and sharper images. By 1952, nearly one-third of U.S. families owned one. Color sets came along in the mid-1950s. By 1956, three big national TV networks were competing for viewers with new programs. Those networks were ABC, NBC, and CBS.

iStockPhoto/Getty Images

TUNING IN: Today’s tech lets people watch different shows side by side.

United by Technology 

As Americans’ love for TV grew, the technology became a powerful cultural force that brought people together. Families like the Rosses would rush through dinner so they could watch together. Whether you lived in a big city or a small town, you watched the same shows—mostly because there were only a handful of channels to choose from. Almost everyone viewed—and trusted—the same news reports from the same three major nightly broadcasts.

Meanwhile, technological improvements allowed television to bring major events into American homes—live. In 1963, news anchor Walter Cronkite held back tears as he broke the news that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. The next year, British pop music sensation the Beatles made their wildly popular U.S. debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. And in 1969, nearly 125 million Americans watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. 

These moments of triumph and tragedy helped unite Americans. 

“At least for a few hours a day, everybody was seeing the same thing,” Thompson says. “And it gave them common ground.”

Americans’ love for TV grew. At the same time, the technology became a strong cultural force that brought people together. Families like the Rosses would rush through dinner so they could watch together. Whether you lived in a big city or a small town, you watched the same shows. That was mostly because people had only a few channels to choose from. Almost everyone watched and trusted the same news reports from the same three major nightly broadcasts.

Technological improvements let television bring major events into American homes as they were happening. News anchor Walter Cronkite held back tears as he broke the news that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in 1963. The Beatles, a British pop music sensation, made their hugely popular U.S. debut on The Ed Sullivan Show the next year. Nearly 125 million Americans watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon in 1969.

These moments of tragedy and triumph helped unite Americans.

“At least for a few hours a day, everybody was seeing the same thing,” Thompson says. “And it gave them common ground.”

6 HOURS
average time per day Americans watch TV and videos now

SOURCE: Nielsen Total Audience Report 2016 and Statista

Growing Divisions?

That common ground started to fracture in the mid-1980s, however. Cable TV brought hundreds of new channels and shows. Some channels were dedicated to just one subject. There was ESPN for sports fans, CNN for people who wanted nonstop news, Nickelodeon for kids’ shows, and MTV for music-video lovers. 

At the same time, it was becoming more common for families to own multiple television sets. By 1985, more than one-third of U.S. households had two TVs, and nearly one-fifth had three. 

Instead of watching together, people started to tune in to shows tailored specifically to their interests—alone. 

“If the dad was watching a game on ESPN, the 7-year-old could go watch the Disney Channel, and the teenager could lock his door and watch MTV all day long,” Thompson says. 

The internet, faster computers, and smartphones transformed TV even more. Today, streaming services like Netflix and Hulu let us watch content whenever and wherever we want—with thousands of shows, videos, and movies to choose from. And the number of scripted shows continues to grow, with far more diversity in casting.

That common ground started to fracture in the mid-1980s. Cable TV brought hundreds of new channels and shows. Some channels were dedicated to just one subject. There was ESPN for sports fans. CNN was for people who wanted nonstop news. Nickelodeon featured kids’ shows. MTV was for music-video lovers.

It was becoming more common for families to own multiple television sets. By 1985, more than one-third of U.S. households had two TVs. Nearly one-fifth had three.

People started to tune in to shows tailored specifically to their interests. They watched them alone instead of watching TV together.

“If the dad was watching a game on ESPN, the 7-year-old could go watch the Disney Channel, and the teenager could lock his door and watch MTV all day long,” Thompson says.

The internet, faster computers, and smartphones changed TV even more. Today, streaming services like Netflix and Hulu let us watch content whenever and wherever we want. We have thousands of shows, videos, and movies to choose from. The number of scripted shows continues to grow. There is far more diversity in casting.

Lasting Effects?

But what do these changes mean for our culture? Decades ago, people of different backgrounds and beliefs were brought together through shared love of a particular show. Teens across the country obsessed over the latest Star Trek episode, which they’d all watched at the same time. On Saturday mornings, kids everywhere watched the same cartoons.

Today, studies have found that few shows are popular everywhere. While people in rural areas tend to watch The Voice and America’s Funniest Home Videos, city dwellers are more likely to tune in to Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory. With so many options, even the most popular shows grab only about 18 million viewers—a small fraction of the U.S. population. 

Could all these choices be making our nation—and our families—more divided? 

Some experts think so. 

“When every single person can find their own shows that they want to watch, the good thing is they get to find what they want and people who had no voice before now have a voice on television,” Thompson says. “But at the same time, there are no longer any programs that all of us share.”

That is especially apparent when it comes to news shows, he says. People can tune in to channels that reinforce their political views without ever being exposed to ideas that might challenge those beliefs. That setup has made the political divisions in our country worse, Thompson says.

Meanwhile, Ella has her own concerns. Watching their favorite shows alone means Ella’s family spends less time together, even though they are all in the same house. That’s why they’ve committed to a once-a-month family movie night. They take turns choosing what to watch. 

“I didn’t like the idea at first,” Ella says. “But it’s more fun than I expected.” 

With additional reporting by Laura Anastasia

But what do these changes mean for our culture? Decades ago, people of different backgrounds and beliefs were brought together through shared love of a particular show. Teens across the country obsessed over the latest Star Trek episode, which they had all watched at the same time. Kids everywhere watched the same cartoons on Saturday mornings.

Studies have found that today few shows are popular everywhere. People in rural areas tend to watch The Voice and America’s Funniest Home Videos. People who live in cities are more likely to tune in to Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory. With so many choices, even the most popular shows grab only about 18 million viewers. That is a small fraction of the U.S. population.

Could all these choices be making our nation and our families more divided?

Some experts think so.

“When every single person can find their own shows that they want to watch, the good thing is they get to find what they want and people who had no voice before now have a voice on television,” Thompson says. “But at the same time, there are no longer any programs that all of us share.”

That is especially clear when it comes to news shows, he says. People can tune in to channels that support their political views without coming across ideas that might challenge those beliefs. Thompson says that setup has made the political divisions in our country worse.

Ella has her own concerns. Watching their favorite shows alone means Ella’s family spends less time together, even though they are all in the same house. That is why they have committed to a once-a-month family movie night. They take turns choosing what to watch.

“I didn’t like the idea at first,” Ella says. “But it’s more fun than I expected.”

With additional reporting by Laura Anastasia

Write About It! What are the biggest advantages and disadvantages of TV? List at least three pros and three cons.

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