Although the early days of television hurt the movie business, they didn’t ruin it like they did radio. Sure, starting in the late 1940s TV was new and exciting even if it was on a 7” to 16” black and white screen. However, not every home had one for two main reasons: Sets were very expensive and they were hard to get.
As a kid in Cincinnati, I can remember our first TV. It was a 16” B&W “National” and it cost about $500. Those were big bucks in 1949 and there was no remote, just 3 channels, and “rabbit ears” on top of the set for an antenna. When reception got bad, a little Reynold’s Wrap around the antenna helped a bit except when an airplane passed over. Nothing could help that but it at least was just a brief interruption.
Most of the shows were local but NBC from New York had a network followed shortly after by CBS and ABC. One of the events responsible for the great interest in TV in the late 1940s was NBC’s successful broadcast of the 1947 baseball World Series. One of the popular showcases for TV was the local bar. Almost every one of them had a TV and packed in the customers who wanted to watch sporting events.
OUR FIRST TV, A 1949 NATIONAL 16" BLACK AND WHITE
It took about six months to get a set as the demand was high. Everyone was in the business including brands you probably never heard of like Muntz, Hallicrafters, and Capehart. I mentioned above our National was $500 but if you wanted an “entertainment center” you could get a 7” TV, 78 rpm record player, and AM radio combination for about $800!
TV broadcasts in the early ‘50s usually came on about 5:00 in the afternoon and signed off at about midnight or 1:00 a.m. Popular network shows were the Texaco Star Theater, Arthur Godfrey, and Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” which, a few years later, would cause a controversy when Elvis appeared with his swiveling hips. The camera could only show him from the waist up because of protests.
For the kids, there was Howdy Doody. Before we had a set, all the kids in my neighborhood would crowd every afternoon at 5:30 into the living room of a girl up the street and watch Howdy Doody, Buffalo Bob, and the Peanut Gallery. The TV was a 14" Admiral B&W trable model but it looked like a 60" color flatscreen to us.
If you turned on the TV before “sign on” you would see a “test pattern” which was a bullseye looking thing usually with an Indian’s head that showed on the screen accompanied by an annoying hum.
AN EARLY 1950s TV TEST PATTERN
It all sounds primitive now, but at the time it did a lot of damage to theater ticket sales. From 1948 to 1953, home ownership of TVs in the US increased from 1% to 50% and by the 1960s was 90%. Suddenly, color films were flowing out of Hollywood in response to the black and white one eyed monster in all those living rooms across America.
In 1952, a gigantic screen with three projectors and a superior sound system made its debut in select theaters. It was called Cinerama and was followed closely by 3-D with its flimsy cardboard glasses. Other attempts by the film business to thwart TV were Cinemascope and Vista Vision which we already mentioned in another blog.
Cinerama was discontinued in 1962 and 3-D only lasted a couple years in the 50s. Both systems plus the more standard wide screen stuff were basically stopgap methods used to try to win customers back into the theaters. Eventually, both genres found their niche and gimmicks gave way to more quality films while the movie studios started working with TV making “made for TV” films.
The dust had settled.