Boomers (Mostly) Had One TV

The Boomer Generation is synonymous with the TV Generation. Television came into its own after the war, and boomers had a front row seat to its evolution. Throughout the boomer era and into the early 2000s, the sales of television sets continued to climb higher every year. A good part of those sales in the past three decades can be attributed to the purchase of additional TV sets for a single home. However, since the early 2010s, the reverse is true; less TVs are being sold compared to each previous year. The reason is obvious as streaming on other devices grabs a younger generation. Many younger people look at TV in the same way they might a cassette tape.

Let’s recap our shared TV history and see how we got here. Television has been around in practical terms since the mid-1930s, but the number of homes owning a TV was relatively small. In fact, by 1945, only 10,000 TV sets were purchased for home use in the United States. Yet, at the dawn of the Boomer Generation, things were about to change.

Development on TV technology was delayed during the war years as materials and factories were dedicated to the war effort. Now, after the war, it was full steam ahead for innovation and especially, manufacturing capabilities. These advancements helped greatly in selling TVs in a number of ways, perhaps the most important being a dramatic drop in price. A TV could cost upward of $500 before 1949, which was equivalent to a month or more salary for the average worker. In one year alone — between 1949 and 1950 — the price of a TV was cut by half or more. As a result, by 1950, nine percent of U.S. households owned a television. Ten years later, in 1960, that number jumped to 90 percent.

Westinghouse TV commercial, 1956:

Still, Mister Boomer wondered about the phenomena of families owning more than one TV. Mister B did not know anyone who had more than one. As such, TV watching was a family affair, much as radio listening was in the previous decades. In Mister B’s research, he discovered that some households did begin to own more than one TV as far back as the 1950s. From Mister Boomer’s point of view, these households probably had not only a higher income level, but houses that could accommodate an extra TV.

In Mister B’s estimation, there would be only two practical places for a second TV: a family room or a basement rec room. Mister Boomer only knew one person who had both a living room and a family room, and in that family’s case, their one TV was in the family room. Mister B did know several people who had finished basements, but in that era, most were described as rec rooms. They were intended for recreation, so they might have a ping pong table or all-purpose folding table where jigsaw puzzles could be assembled, card or board games played, and the like. No one Mister B knew had a TV in their basement. Boomers will recall that TV reception in a lower level was also a challenge. An extra antenna wire would be necessary to run outside the house to the antenna on the roof, and even then, rabbit ears on top of the TV set with molded wads of aluminum foil attached would certainly be a possibility.

What about the bedroom, you say? The idea that a bedroom is a sanctuary, a place to relax and unwind, is a relatively new one. In the boomer era, bedrooms were for sleeping. Boomers themselves often had desks to do homework in their rooms, however, Mister Boomer knew no one who had a second TV in their bedroom.

There is another consideration about bedrooms and second TVs that relates entirely to the evolution of TV and the Boomer Generation, and that is, late night TV. The Tonight Show first aired in 1952, initially with Steve Allen, then with Jack Paar as hosts. This may have contributed to the eight percent of U.S. households owning a second TV by 1959. Johnny Carson took over hosting duties in 1962, and by the mid-60s, color TVs began replacing black-and-white models. Johnny Carson joked about being in people’s bedrooms, so there was probably a correlation to late night TV that may have influenced buying habits.

In Mister Boomer’s experience, it was the early 1970s before he heard of anyone having more than one TV. Today it is reported that the average American household has four TVs. That number continues to drop as younger people, unaccustomed to TV viewing in the same manner boomers did, start families of their own.

How about you, boomers? When did your family first get a second TV? Did you ever have a TV in your own room before attending college?

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?