the spread of television -- 2/19/16

Today's selection -- from The Rise and Fall of American Growth by Robert Gordon. The spread of the television was the fastest of any device in history, faster than the recent spread of the smartphone and tablet computers:

"The end of World War II signaled the dawn of the golden age of television. When the war ended, privately owned television sets still numbered in the tens of thousands and were located primarily in the New York City area. By 1950, nine percent of American households owned a television set, a proportion that had increased to 64.5 percent only five years later. This increase in percentage owner­ship by 13 points per year is the fastest diffusion of any appliance or device in history, faster than the smartphone after 2003 or the tablet after 2010. By 1955, no less than 97 percent of households were within reception range of a television signal. Television entered more than 90 percent of homes by the early 1960s.

"While set ownership became universal almost overnight, ... the availability of programming, particularly in smaller cities, was delayed by the decision in 1948 by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) temporarily to 'freeze' the granting of television stations. The number of televi­sion stations was capped until 1952 at a mere 108, and sixteen of these were in the three metropolitan areas of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

"In the early years of television, when it was still a rarity in American house­holds, TV-watching had a highly social character. For a while, televisions could mainly be found in public places, and the tavern often became the locus where people of the neighborhood would congregate to watch TV. If one's neighbors owned a TV, those neighbors usually became suddenly far more popular, often hosting 'TV parties.' Children would spend hours away from home to take advantage of the neighbors' television set, and maybe even to convince their parents to get one of their own, if only to keep an eye on them.

"In fact, this was one of the major drivers of television purchases. Accord­ing to one early study conducted in 1949 of television owners in the New York area, 18 percent said they had bought a TV set because their children wanted one, whereas 15 percent said they had been watching at friends' houses and now wanted to get one for their own. The most popular reason for buying a set, with about a third of respondents in the study citing it, was to watch sports. During the formative years of commercial television, programming was almost exclu­sively local. Distinct from the network-dominated nature of the radio age, early television fostered a local presence. Everyone who could access the TV knew the local newscaster and weatherman.

"Network television arrived as early as 1946, when the first coaxial televi­sion cable, connecting New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., allowed viewers in all three cities to watch the Joe Louis-Billy Conn heavyweight box­ing match. Five years later, AT&T had built a coaxial cable system from coast to coast that could connect to around 95 percent of American television sets. Thus the national television network was born. Over the next three decades, the networks would wield unparalleled influence in the television business, with 1982 being the first year in which the proportion of network affiliate stations dropped below 80 percent of the total number of stations."


Robert J. Gordon


The Rise and Fall of American Growth


Princeton University Press


Copyright 2016 by Princeton University Press


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