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The Fifties and Television

The time called "The Fifties" runs longer than just 10 years. I would say from 1946 to 1963. To understand the period it's necessary to look what came before. The 1930's, or The Great Depression, was a time of great hardship marked by 25% unemployment and great despair. The end of that era came with World War II, or as it would always be called by those who lived through it, The War. Periods of time were referred to as either before, during, or after ... The War. The country was focused on the war effort. Virtually all production was turned over to it. Large numbers of men went overseas and women took their jobs. Consumer goods were in very short supply, and necessities were rationed. Finally, in August of 1945 came the end of The War.

Relief was universal. It took a while for things to unwind. Soldiers returned and went in greater numbers than ever before to college, on the GI Bill, one of the most significant laws ever passed. One of the greatest advantages to the United States was that the war had not been a "home game". The infrastructure was intact. All those factories could now be turned to the production of consumer goods and production was unleashed. And the buyers were ready to buy. Families were started wholesale. The years I mentioned above are the ones usually given to the Baby Boom: the 75 million births between 1946 and 1964 (10,000 a day or one every 5-10 seconds, roughly).

It was a time of unprecedented prosperity. Herbert Hoover's promise of "a chicken in every pot" had arrived. Opportunities seemed unlimited.

Two technological advances would achieve transformational importance as they reached the mass market: the automobile and the television. The mass adoption of cars went hand in hand with the development of the suburbs. The two fed each other like symbiotic species. And into each of those new suburban houses went a brand new television set. At the start of the 1950's, fewer than 1 in 10 households had a set; by the dawn of the 1960's it was nearly 9 in 10.

Television had an impact in many ways. One was as a unifier. There weren't many choices - largely the three big networks, CBS, NBC, and ABC. If there was a big hit show, "everybody" watched it. It became something to talk about the next day. A mark of high importance for an event was that it was on "national television". In the early days, there were more than a few high quality shows. Playhouse 90 (named for the length of the 90 minute dramas it featured) and Studio One were among them. Before long, the advertisers began to appreciate the power of appealing to a national audience. TV became the most powerful advertising medium ever. Huge brand loyalties were established. Shows were owned by the sponsors, who dictated content. The quiz show scandals arose because the sponsors required more interesting content than would naturally occur. The term "soap opera" derives from the sponsorship of the daytime dramas by the likes of Procter & Gamble, makers of Ivory soap and Tide detergent, among other products, although it may date back to the predecessors on radio.

Over time, the quality of television shows decreased. The monetary value of reaching the largest audience overwhelmed the ideals of good material. A few treasures emerged, but the largely garbage-filled time we have now didn't take long to take hold.

Most shows were not about making social commentary. There were a few, but most were about entertainment, pure and simple. One must be careful about making judgments based on what was shown. I take "I Love Lucy" at face value: exploiting the talents of Lucille Ball as a supreme comedienne based on the wacky adventures of Lucy Ricardo. It's remarkable that it is still being shown today, 50 years later on a regular basis. (I heard a story once that you could tell when different countries first got television by examining birth records and looking for the first wave of babies named "Lucy", but that may be myth.) Similarly, "The Honeymooners" was about a poor working stiff, a bus driver named Ralph Kramden, played brilliantly by Jackie Gleason, constantly trying to get a leg up in the world, only to be rebuffed. His wife, Alice, was always there and you knew that they would be lost without each other, even if he did constantly threaten to punch her "to the moon, Alice, to the moon". Many an episode finished with the tag line, "Baby, you're the greatest". It was amazing what they could portray with the main set being just the kitchen/dining room of their small apartment: a bare table, a couple of chairs, a sink, a dresser, and the door being the only props. In any case, the main point of these series was to offer people laughs, not to portray the era for posterity or point out the limitations of society.

Another show was a regular fixture on people's schedules: the Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights. It was a variety show, a genre which has disappeared. He had singers, dancers, comedians, and just about anything you can imagine. A few years ago, they broadcast a selection of highlights and I couldn't believe some of the stunts they pulled: one performer spread out on a big wheel, spinning around while the partner, blind-folded perhaps, threw knives at him, embedding them in the wheel. Guys spinning plates on sticks while riding a unicycle. Acrobats. Amazing stuff. But, he showed people out in the hinterlands some high culture, too. Opera singers would put in appearances. Selections from Broadway shows would be presented. (Watch some at bluegobo.com.) It was an easy way for the general population to get a snapshot of what was on view otherwise only to New Yorkers. When Elvis Presley and the Beatles were "on Ed Sullivan" it was a mark of recognition.

In the early days, the news divisions of the networks acted more in service to the public (the owners of the airwaves, after all) than as profit centers. Reporters like Edward R. Murrow showed things that the powers that were probably would rather have kept under wraps. The televising of the Army-McCarthy hearings did as much to bring McCarthyism to an end as did anything else. The news anchors of the day - Walter Cronkite on CBS ("the most trusted man in America") and Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC - were more than talking heads. They were the ones telling us what was going on and what to make of it. They defined coverage of major events: the election process high on the list. Television changed political conventions from meetings where candidates were selected into showcase presentations. In the early 1960's (or The Late "Fifties" on my scale), the first space missions came straight into our living rooms.

Finally, I think the "Fifties" ended and the "Sixties" began on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas. When John Kennedy became President in 1961 not even the sky was the limit. All of us would go "to the moon, Alice, to the moon". The shots that rang out that day shattered more than the young President's skull. A time of innocence and boundless optimism was put to rest at his funeral three days later. We grieved and we worried. And we watched it, live, on national television.


( For some great nostalgia, or to get a sense of the era, visit oldfortyfives.com . )