Boomers Watched Live Shows Decades Before the Internet

The proliferation of all types of live broadcasting through social media these days, specifically Facebook and Instagram, got Mister Boomer wondering about live broadcasts in the boomer years. Surely, he recalls, there were many TV shows that broadcast live. As it turns out, Mister B remembered correctly. TV was a technological marvel of the boomer era, when the majority of households were finally able to afford TV sets, and broadcasting technology had produced a degree of quality that made people want to watch. Boomers grew up with a burgeoning television industry, but today’s kids don’t know a world where there was no internet.

Prior to the appearance of the first practical videotape, it was common practice for TV shows — from sitcoms to news — to be broadcast live. Like radio before it, television began with live broadcasts. A good portion of scheduled programming was locally-based, so live broadcasts did not have to worry about time scheduling conflicts. The alternative was to use film, like movies. A few famous shows, like I Love Lucy (1951) and Gunsmoke (1955), did employ this method.

A key year in the movement away from live TV broadcasting was 1958. Experiments with forms of videotape had been around in various forms even before the War, but the first practical use of it did not evolve until 1951. At that point, it was far too expensive to purchase equipment and tape itself to be a practical replacement for live or filmed broadcasting. By 1958, the television industry began the shift to videotape, signaling the slow retreat from live broadcasting to arrive at where we are today. Boomers recall 1960s sitcoms opening or closing with a voiceover stating that the show was “taped before a live studio audience.” As shows began using videotape, some were accused of using laugh tracks. The voiceover disclaimer was an effort to dispel that notion to give the TV audience more of the feel of the early days of live broadcasting.

Boomers may not realize it, but they bore witness to many historical events when they were broadcast live on their family TV. Here are a few:

• September 4, 1951: The country’s first national, coast-to-coast live TV broadcast featured President Harry Truman’s opening speech at the Japanese Peace Treaty Conference in San Francisco.

• January 14, 1952: The Today Show debuted, live, to East Coast and Central time zone customers. The show continued live until 1958.

• September-October 1960: The Kennedy-Nixon Debates were the first presidential debates that were televised, and were broadcast live. These debates were instrumental in setting John Kennedy on the path to the White House.

• July 23, 1962: Thirteen days after the launch of the Telstar satellite, the first transatlantic live television broadcast was relayed to a receiving station in England. President Kennedy was to give a short speech for the transmission, but due to its orbit around the Earth, there was only a 20-minute period of time the satellite could be used as a relay. That time window appeared earlier than scheduled, so the first transatlantic broadcast was of a baseball game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Chicago White Sox, live from Chicago’s Wrigley Field.

• November 24, 1963: Following the assassination of President Kennedy the day before, a live broadcast of suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald as he was being moved to a county jail caught the shooting of Oswald by Jack Ruby. Oswald was killed, and Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner, subdued and arrested, on live television.

• November 25, 1963: JFK’s funeral was broadcast live to the country.

• December 24, 1968: As the Apollo 8 spacecraft circled the moon for the ninth time, astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders gave the Earth its first look at an Earthrise view appearing above the lunar surface, live on TV. To mark the occasion on Christmas Eve, the astronauts, in turn, read passages of the biblical creation story from the Book of Genesis in the King James Bible.

• July 21, 1969: The world watched — live — as astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon.

Mister Boomer clearly remembers most of these live historical broadcasts, including the Nixon-Kennedy Debates, the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, JFK’s funeral and the first moon walk. Mister B was at a family Christmas party when the broadcast images of the Earth rising over the moon from Apollo 8 flickered on his uncle’s black and white television.

The next time a grandchild asks what you, as a boomer, watched before the advent of live social media, you know what to tell them.

How about you, boomers? Any live television memories stand out for you?

Boomers Watched the “Vast Wasteland” of TV

On May 9, 1961, Newton Minow, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), delivered a speech at a convention of the National Association of Broadcasters. He had been appointed by President John Kennedy shortly after taking office that January. In his speech, Minow berated and challenged broadcasters by telling them that the current state of TV programming was a “vast wasteland.”

Mr. Minow was 35 years old when Kennedy appointed him as chair of the FCC, despite not having experience in the media industry. A lawyer by trade, Mr. Minow was known to the Kennedys, having worked as a law clerk for Fred Vinson, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and then on the presidential campaigns of Adlai Stevenson and John Kennedy’s successful run for the presidency. Mr. Minow reportedly had frequent conversations with the president’s brother, Robert, then the Attorney General of the United States, about children’s television programming. The two men shared a concern that children (baby boomers!) were not being taught anything of substance on TV, either from a cultural, civic or history perspective or for academic advancement. Both men shared the belief that television had a great deal of potential to fill that need. Soon after, President Kennedy shared their concerns.

Mr. Minow stated:

When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse.

Minow went on to say that he believed if TV viewers were offered more choice, they would tune in to more educational and cultural programming. He was not looking to regulate, censor or affect broadcasters, other than to keep them in line with current FCC regulations, to serve the public interest and expand viewer choices.

Reaction to Mr. Minow’s speech were mostly positive, but some saw his words as meddling in an area in which he had no experience. In 1964, Sherwood Schwartz, the creator and producer of the TV show Gilligan’s Island (1964-67), named the ill-fated sailing vessel that begins the show’s storyline the S.S. Minnow as a satiric barb aimed at Mr. Minow.

The same year Newton Minow gave his speech, he advocated for a bill making its way though Congress that would expand the number of TV stations in the country. There were only three major broadcasting networks, and they were ensconced on the available VHF channels. Local broadcasters operating on UHF channels were being pushed out of business because most TV sets were not equipped to tune in to UHF channels. The All-Channel Receiver Act, introduced in 1961 and passed in 1962, required that all TV sets sold in the United States be equipped to receive these extra channels. This bill paved the way for more educational television like Sesame Street (first aired in 1969), the creation of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and the new networks Fox, Univision and Telemundo.

Newton Minow also advocated for the advancement of communications satellites. The Space Race was underway, but Minow had a vision of what worldwide communications could do to inform people and assist nations in working out their differences. President Kennedy took the advice of his FCC chair and in 1962, Telstar, the first U.S. communications relay satellite, was launched.

Boomers may or may not remember the specifics of these historical undertakings, but there is no question that baby boomers benefited from the added TV channels and more access to educational television that happened as a result of Newton Minow’s vision and public service.

Was the addition of more educational television part of your school or home viewing, boomers?