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date: 19 September 2017

Television in America

Summary and Keywords

Television is an ever-evolving and multi-dimensional medium, being at once a technology, an industry, an art form, and an institutional force. In the United States, it emerged as an idea whose time had come at the end of World War II. TV eventually grew and matured into the most influential social and cultural catalyst shaping and reflecting American civilization during the second half of the 20th century. Television revolutionized the way citizens and consumers in the United States learned about and communicated with the world; it also recast and re-envisioned the way they experience themselves and others. More than just escapist entertainment, TV reveals the dynamism and diversity of everyday life in the United States and the evolving nature of the nation’s core values. Television is moreover in a continual state of change and renewal. Its history has developed through a prehistory (before 1948) to a network era (1948–1975), a cable era (1976–1994), and finally the current digital era (1995–present). Today there are more than 650 networks in the U.S. marketplace whereby members of the typical domestic household receive 189 channels and watch more than eight hours of TV a day on average. TV in the 21st century also travels anywhere at any time, given its synergistic relationship with the Internet and a wide array of digital devices. It is now increasingly personalized, interactive, mobile, and on demand. Television is presently a convergent technology, a global industry, a viable art form, a public catalyst, and a complex and dynamic reflection of American society and culture.

Keywords: television, RCA, broadcasting, NBC, CBS, ABC, narrowcasting, cable-and-satellite TV, HBO, OTT (over-the-top) streaming content, digital TV

The idea of television existed long before its realization as a technology. The dream of transmitting images and sounds over great distances actually dates back to the 19th century, becoming an increasingly common aspiration of scientists and inventors in the United States, Europe, and Japan after the first telegraph line opened up the modern communication era in 1844. In this way, the coming of TV was always profoundly influenced by the history and development of the electronic media that preceded it.

Television technology relies on the same basic theories of electricity that served as the foundation for the telegraph and later the telephone in 1876. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone moved well beyond the dots and dashes that Samuel Morse devised for his telegraph to relay voices and music from one point to another through distant wires. Guglielmo Marconi next used Morse code to enact the first transatlantic communication by wireless telegraphy in 1901. Thus having conveyed sound through the air on radio waves, scientists and inventors around the world subsequently turned to the next great challenge of transmitting moving images in a similar fashion.

The origins of TV are sufficiently complex that the myth of the lone inventor never fit neatly over the sprawling web of associations that were eventually needed to bring about the birth of this revolutionary new medium of communication. Advocates from several countries have laid claim to their own “father of television” over the years—including John Logie Baird in Britain, Karl Braun in Germany, Boris Rosing in Russia, and Kenjiro Takayanagi in Japan, as well as David Sarnoff, Vladimir Zworykin, and Philo T. Farnsworth in the United States. The idea of TV was therefore an international conception from the beginning due mainly to the ever-expanding reach and influence of a growing transnational scientific community.

Still, developments in America were essential to television’s realization as a technology, an industry, an art form, and an institutional force. Although Britain was the first country to inaugurate regularly scheduled telecasting to the general public on November 2, 1936, the United States quickly caught up because of the widespread devastation and shortages in personnel and equipment that occurred because of World War II (1939–1945).

Commercial TV in America was initially authorized by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on July 1, 1941, but the country’s entry into World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 of that year postponed all such activity until late in 1944 when the outcome of hostilities looked much more favorable for the United States and its allies. By early 1946, America had a mere seven surviving commercial stations and 8,000 television households, but these totals far outdistanced the comparable figures and conditions in Britain, Germany, Russia, and Japan, where TV as an industry and institution was set back for many years by the ravages of World War II.

In contrast, a postwar television boom erupted in the United States. After 1946, TV integrated faster into American life than any technology before it. Television took only ten years to reach a penetration of 35 million households, while the telephone had required 80 years, the automobile 50, and even radio needed 25. The primary reason why TV developed so quickly was because it was built upon many of the same business, industrial, economic, aesthetic, and legal precedents that had long been established for radio during the 1920s and 1930s. Television emerged as advertiser supported. Much of its workforce came from radio, as did a majority of its programming styles and genres; it was also subject to the same laws and regulatory policies. Most importantly, the early years of CBS, NBC, and ABC’s transition into TV were largely funded by the profits generated from their affiliated radio networks.

By 1962, 90 percent of the country or almost 49 million TV households owned their own sets. These family units were then keeping their televisions turned on for more than five hours a day on average. In less than a generation, TV had emerged as the centerpiece of American culture. In 1962 was also the year that the first communication satellite Telstar 1 began transmitting television and telephone signals around the world. There was then one TV for every twenty human beings on earth; by 2000, there was one set for every four people with no foreseeable slowdown to the worldwide spread of television in sight. America’s TV industry remains the global leader in the 21st century, but the rest of the world is quickly catching up. Over the past seventy-five years, television has grown from a local, to a regional, to a national, to an international, and finally to a global medium. Its conceptual and technological roots reach back well into the 19th century, but TV’s periodic reinvention is an ongoing process that continues unabated up through today.

Television’s Prehistory (1948)

Even though the idea of television long predated its appearance as a workable apparatus, the notion that a mediated technology could actually transmit motion pictures from one distant location to another gained added momentum after 1884 when Paul Nipkow received a patent from the German government for his Elektrisches Teleskop (or “electric telescope”), a name that underscored TV’s indebtedness to earlier forms of electronic communication. The key to Nipkow’s design was a rotating apertured disk, reminiscent of the old optical toy, the phenakistiscope (Greek for “deceptive view”), which was invented more than fifty years earlier. This device enabled a viewer to look through a series of slots that were cut into the circumference of a turning cardboard wheel, thus creating the illusion that a sequence of mirrored pictures were actually blending together as one moving image.

Nipkow’s “electric telescope” was far in advance of the phenakistiscope, serving as the theoretical basis for mechanical television from that point onward. He theorized that light from a subject would pass through a spinning perforated disk on to a photoconductive cell made of selenium. The “Nipkow disk” mechanically scanned whatever was in front of it, turning the incoming light rays into electrical impulses. This electricity was then transmitted to an identically synchronized receiver disk that transformed these onrushing electrical particles back into an image of the original subject on a small picture tube. As sophisticated as this design was for its time, Nipkow’s proposal remained largely speculative since he never built a working model of the “electric telescope” himself.

Paul Nipkow had nevertheless created a viable theory for the eventual development of mechanical TV, inspiring a new generation of scientists and inventors. The first recorded use of the word, “television,” came in a paper entitled, “Télévision au moyen de l’électricité” (“television by means of electricity”), which was written and delivered by the Russian physicist, Constantin Perskyi, on August 25, 1900, at the International Electricity Congress in Paris, France. The first time the word “television” appeared in print was in a 1907 Scientific American article entitled, “The Problem of Television,” which featured Arthur Korn’s invention of the photo-telegraph through which this German physics professor successfully transmitted photographic images by wire from Munich to Nuremberg.

Also in 1907, the Russian Boris Rosing applied for a TV patent using a mechanical scanning system that incorporated the earlier discovery of another German scientist, Karl Braun, who in 1897 had found a way to transmit an electron beam or cathode ray through a vacuum tube onto a screen. Rosing worked feverishly to improve Braun’s cathode ray tube, eventually enabling him to send crude black-and-white silhouettes by mechanical television in 1911. The next major breakthrough came more than a decade later when the American Charles Francis Jenkins received a patent on March 22, 1922, for a prototypical mechanical TV that relayed rudimentary wireless images by way of a new and improved scanning device comprised mainly of two glass prisms spinning in opposite directions that worked much faster and more efficiently than the old Nipkow disk alone.

As early as 1920, C. Francis Jenkins was the only American inventor of consequence working on mechanical television. In 1921 he opened the Jenkins Laboratory in Washington, D.C., and within a few years he almost single-handedly ignited a white-hot publicly contested race for television that soon included many of the most formidable electronic communication corporations in the country—AT&T, Westinghouse, General Electric (GE), and the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). The reason why Jenkins was in the eye of this TV firestorm was that he was both a talented inventor and a skillful promoter of mechanical television. In March 1925, Scotsman John Logie Baird actually beat Jenkins to the punch by three months with the first public demonstration of his own makeshift TV apparatus, which also relied heavily on the Nipkow disk.

Soon the center of gravity in the race for television began to shift subtly away from smaller entrepreneurs, as corporately affiliated electrical engineers holding advanced degrees entered the fray. For example, Dr. Herbert Ives of AT&T and Dr. Ernst F.W. Alexanderson of GE easily called upon much greater human and financial resources to support their efforts. Still, the long-term potential of mechanical television was limited because the mechanized parts of this particular format simply couldn’t move fast enough to produce a clear and detailed televised image. The aspirations surrounding mechanical TV in the mid-1920s gradually hit a dead end by the early 1930s. The future belonged to electronic television and to those inventors who were feverishly developing this higher form of technology.

Interestingly, the race for television was now replaying the same pattern that marked the history and development of the industrial revolution. TV similarly began with a mechanical phase in 1920 that inevitably ran into a blind alley a little more than a decade later during the depths of the Great Depression. After a brief lull, the race for television ignited again in 1934 through the technological breakthroughs achieved by Philo Farnsworth and Vladimir Zworykin, only this time using the speed-of-light potential of electricity. Philo Taylor Farnsworth’s life story is so improbable that it initially appears to be the stuff of legend. In his specific case, however, the fact that he contributed as much as anyone to the invention of TV as a technology would hold up under the cold, harsh scrutiny of prolonged litigation during much of the 1930s.

Quite simply, Philo Farnsworth first imagined how electronic television would work while growing up a shy, precocious, Mormon teenager in a small Idaho farming community in the middle of nowhere. His imagination was set free poring over popular scientific magazines, especially those quasi-technical reports describing the wonders of electricity and the possibility of transmitting pictures by radio. Growing up to be the next Edison or Bell was a common fantasy that Farnsworth shared with many boys his age; few of his contemporaries, though, had his extraordinary scientific aptitude along with his relentless single-minded drive to excel.

Bucking the conventional wisdom, Philo Farnsworth began working on an all-electronic television system with a small cadre of family and friends in a makeshift Hollywood laboratory as early as 1926. He moved the operation to San Francisco in 1927, and a year later he hosted a successful demonstration of his rudimentary TV camera and receiver for the press. When news of Farnsworth’s accomplishment spread across the country, Jenkins, Baird, Alexanderson, and all of the other proponents of mechanical television still believed they had each invented the best system. Nevertheless, Farnsworth also attracted the knowing curiosity of then-acting-RCA president, David Sarnoff, and the watchful attention of a struggling electronics researcher at Westinghouse named Vladimir Zworykin.

Vladimir Kosma Zworykin emigrated from Russia in 1919, where he had earned a degree in electrical engineering under the tutelage of TV pioneer Boris Rosing. He began working at the Westinghouse Research Laboratory in Pittsburgh the next year, became a naturalized citizen in 1924, and had created working prototypes of his iconoscope (camera tube) and kinescope (picture tube) by the fall of 1925. Zworykin’s plan for an all-electronic television system fell on deaf ears at Westinghouse, however, so he approached David Sarnoff in 1929 about the prospects of coming to work for RCA. Sarnoff soon hired Zworykin, and the tandem they formed—the world-class industrialist and the gifted inventor—set about the herculean task of creating and commercializing electronic TV by the end of the decade under the auspices of RCA.

Television in AmericaClick to view larger

Figure 1. David Sarnoff announces “now we add radio sight to sound,” as he dedicates the RCA Exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair on April 20, 1939.

(Courtesy of The David Sarnoff Library)

Philo Farnsworth began the 1930s with the most advanced all-electronic television system in the world. He invented his image dissector (camera tube) in 1927 and received a patent for it in 1930. Farnsworth’s TV camera basically scanned any scene before it with an electron gun—left to right and top to bottom—dividing the action into a stream of particles that could be transmitted and eventually reproduced as a black-and-white replica on a phosphor-coated screen. He actually unveiled the first workable all-electronic television system to the general public over a ten-day exhibition during the summer of 1934 at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. He also won a patent suit against Vladimir Zworykin and RCA on June 22, 1935, which allowed him to keep control of his image dissector and five other TV-related technologies that were essential to the proper functioning of any electronic television at the time.

Television in AmericaClick to view larger

Figure 2. Philo Farnsworth invented his image dissector (camera tube) in 1927 and received a patent for it in 1930. At the time, his was the most advanced all-electronic television system in the world.

(Courtesy of Library of American Broadcasting at the University of Maryland)

Less than four years later on April 20, 1939, David Sarnoff nevertheless mobilized the full resources of RCA and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) to reintroduce television to an audience of international proportions at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Sarnoff produced a coming-out party of such historic magnitude that Farnsworth’s earlier achievement paled in comparison and faded quickly from public view. By the end of the 1930s and throughout the early to mid-1940s, TV technology probably revealed more of Vladimir Zworykin’s imprint than anyone else’s. By then, Zworykin’s research and development had been far better funded and supported over a longer period of time by an immense corporate infrastructure and was less impeded by outside litigation than Philo Farnsworth’s work. Be that as it may, no one person “fathered” television; instead, many people are responsible for bringing TV into being. Television as a technology is much more than a camera and a receiver; it is a process of conception, invention, commercialization, program production, and nonstop innovation. Television’s birth involved one-of-a-kind inventors and workaday engineers, far-sighted industrialists and bottom-line corporate executives, and creative personnel and consumers adventurous enough to embrace this astonishing new technology and make it their own.

Network Era (1948–1975)

For all intents and purposes, World War II put the growth of commercial television on the back burner. Still, it did greatly stimulate advancements in TV-related research and development, revolving around new applications of television as a means of high-tech surveillance such as radar, as a way of extending sight under battlefield conditions, and as the key to certain kinds of precision weaponry. What enabled TV-guided weaponry to become practicable and effective was the refinement of the image orthicon pickup or camera tube. The first generation orthicon produced in 1939 was ten to twenty times more sensitive than Farnsworth’s image dissector or Zworykin’s iconoscope. The entire RCA research team including Zworykin took great pride in the development of the image orthicon as all of them began referring to it as “Immy.” They later feminized their nickname for the tube to “Emmy,” which also served as the eponym for the annual creative and production awards given by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences beginning in 1949.

All told, most TV programming around the world was local prior to 1948, although the American industry was poised right away to take on a more regional profile. The overwhelming majority of television watchers in the United States during the late 1940s resided in the eastern corridor, with as many as one in five of all viewers still living in the New York metropolitan area. Then journeyman entertainer Milton Berle emerged as TV’s first bona fide superstar in the 1948–1949 television season. Berle and his NBC variety show, Texaco Star Theater (1948–1953), became an instant phenomenon as the no. 1 program in the country between 1948 and 1951, capturing more than a 70 percent of all viewers watching TV while it was on. What the popularity of Berle and Texaco Star Theater heralded was the comeback of vaudeville, only this time on the small screen. The trend was dubbed “vaudeo,” and it comprised nearly one-third of all prime-time programming during the early 1950s, featuring such stars as Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Bob Hope, Groucho Marx, and Red Skelton, among others.

Television in AmericaClick to view larger

Figure 3. Milton Berle was a 35-year show business veteran by the time he emerged as TV’s first bona fide superstar on the Texaco Star Theater in the 1948–1949 television season.

(Courtesy of Library of American Broadcasting at the University of Maryland)

The next great programming cycle—the situation comedy—reflected the newly emerging postwar suburban television audience. Prior to World War II, most of the suburbs that existed in the United States were exclusive enclaves populated by upper- and upper-middle-class Americans. In the decade and a half after the war, millions of other middle-, lower-middle, and working-class families left their urban apartments and rural homesteads and joined the nationwide suburban boom in a move that would have been unthinkable just a generation before. Television developed into the ideal medium for the nuclear family in postwar America. As the nation’s consumer culture grew, viewers looked increasingly to TV to help them negotiate the transition they were making away from the customs and values of the previous generation to a more upwardly mobile middle-class view of themselves and the future.

The Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS)’s I Love Lucy (1951–1957) portrayed these changes in a humorous way in which many Americans could relate to Lucy and Ricky Ricardo’s growing affluence, the birth of their first child, and their eventual move out of their downtown Manhattan apartment to a home in a nearby Connecticut suburb. Lucille Ball also represented a new kind of television superstar. Unlike vaudeo, many TV situation comedies, especially those scheduled on CBS, revolved around women performers, such as Gertrude Berg as Molly Goldberg in The Goldbergs (1949–1953), Peggy Wood as the lead character in Mama (1949–1957), and Gracie Allen as herself in CBS’s The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (1950–1958). After finishing no. 3 in 1951–1952, I Love Lucy was no. 1 in four out of the next five years. I Love Lucy additionally holds the highest seasonal rating of all time at 67 in 1952–1953 (translating into an average 31 million viewers per episode at the time), topping the previous record of 62 set by Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater in 1950–1951.

During most of the 1950s and 1960s, women comprised an estimated 70 percent of the daytime audience and 55 to 60 percent of those viewers watching in prime time. As a result, CBS under the direction of William S. Paley and Frank Stanton finally overtook NBC in the ratings for the first time in the mid-1950s by targeting women with its mostly female stars and female-friendly male performers, such as Arthur Godfrey, Jack Benny, Art Linkletter, and Garry Moore. CBS remained TV’s no. 1 network for most of the next two decades by linking this women-centered appeal with a strategy based on mainly accessible and populist programming. For its part, NBC’s schedule during this period was more identified with the New York theatrical tradition (Broadway and vaudeville) and the recently emerging “Chicago school” of television production with its informal style and close, intimate camera shots, which strove for an immediate and personal connection between TV performers, such as host David Garroway of Today (1952–present), and the viewers at home.

All in all, CBS and NBC dominated television as an industry and an institution during the network era. DuMont was the only pioneering TV network that was not built on the back of an existing radio operation; instead, this company hoped to fund its television operation by manufacturing and selling its high-quality receivers and other electronics equipment. Faced with formidable competitors such as CBS and NBC, however, DuMont finally succumbed to market pressures and ceased telecasting on August 8, 1956. In contrast, the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), the traditional third network, was literally brought back from the brink of bankruptcy during the mid-1950s by a far-sighted strategic plan devised by Leonard Goldenson and his executive team. They emphasized building bridges between the network and the Hollywood film industry; scheduling alternative kinds of programming rather than competing head-to-head against CBS and NBC; and targeting an audience that was then being underserved, namely young families and their baby boomer children.

In turn, ABC adopted more of a Hollywood approach to production with such early hits as Disneyland (1954–1996) and Cheyenne (1955–1963), which was produced by Warner Bros. ABC was eager to increase the number of reliable studio-made genre-style programs on its schedule, and the immediate success of these filmed series in both first run and syndication encouraged CBS and NBC to follow suit. Hollywood soon overtook New York as the TV production capitol of the world during the 1957–1958 season. By the end of the decade, nearly 75 percent of all prime-time programming was then being produced on the West Coast.

Furthermore, the adult Western became the newest breakout trend on the small screen, just as it had been the staple of the theatrical film industry for years. The number of Westerns on prime time actually rose from 16 in 1957–1958 to 24 in 1958–1959 to a peak of 28 in 1959–1960 before starting its slow descent to 22 in 1960–1961. During this four-year stretch, moreover, CBS’s Gunsmoke (1955–1975) was the no. 1 TV program in America. The popularity of the adult Western during the late 1950s and early 1960s was unchallenged at the time and remains unmatched by any other television genre since.

Television in AmericaClick to view larger

Figure 4. Gunsmoke was not only the first adult Western to break into the top 10 at no. 8 in 1956–1957, it was also the no. 1 TV program in the whole country for four straight seasons from 1957 through 1961. James Arness (center) starred as Marshal Matt Dillon and Dennis Weaver (right) played Chester Goode as part of a large ensemble cast of characters.

(Courtesy of Library of American Broadcasting at the University of Maryland)

Inspired by the country’s pioneering spirit and its Western mystiqe, John F. Kennedy christened his administration the New Frontier after winning a razor-thin victory over Richard Nixon in 1960. At the time, there were almost 90 million television sets in the United States, or nearly one for every two Americans. On May 9, 1961, the President’s FCC chairman, Newton Minow, delivered what turned out to be a scorching indictment of the TV industry by famously calling the current state of television a “vast wasteland.” Tragically the New Frontier was abruptly cut short on November 22, 1963, with the midday assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. Television did rise to the occasion with grace and resourcefulness during the Kennedy funeral and burial as the networks provided four days of continuous commercial-free service. As a result, nearly three-quarters of the country’s nearly 190 million citizens tuned in at some point in the proceedings, confirming TV’s national profile once and for all.

Television in AmericaClick to view larger

Figure 5. Over 100 million American television viewers watched transfixed on November 25, 1963, as the Kennedy funeral cortege passed the east side of the Capitol.

(Courtesy of Library of American Broadcasting at the University of Maryland)

By and large, though, most television entertainment during the 1960s contained the usual assortment of familiar and comforting formulas, even resorting to far-out fantasies at times, before inching its way toward relevancy by the end of the decade. For example, CBS’s The Beverly Hillbillies (1962–1971) averaged a staggering 57 million viewers a week (or 1 out of every 3.3 Americans) between 1962 and 1964, making it the no. 1 show in the nation. Despite suffering a critical drubbing, The Beverly Hillbillies presented viewers with the spectacle of watching the Clampett family live out a farcical jumbo-size version of the American dream amidst the overconsumptive splendor of southern California. The Beverly Hillbillies turned out to be the most popular series of the decade, while also reviving the situation comedy, as CBS loaded its schedule with as many rural and fantasy sitcoms as it could for the rest of the 1960s, substantiating Minow’s “vast wasteland” denunciation.

Reflecting a general dissatisfaction with the contemporaneous state of American television, Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. This legislation created the Corporation of Public Broadcasting (CPB) with the clear intention of jump-starting noncommercial television in this country, which had languished under the tepid title of National Educational Television (NET) since 1954. Beginning in October 1969, NET ran the twenty-six-part, BBC-produced Forsyte Saga on a weekly basis, thus introducing American audiences to the prime-time miniseries. NET also sponsored the premiere of Sesame Street in November of 1969 before being retired and replaced by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in 1970. Slowly constructing a viable alternative to the commercial broadcasters, PBS reprised The French Chef with Julia Child in 1970, developed Masterpiece Theater in 1971, and created The Robert MacNeil Report in 1975 after veteran newscasters MacNeil and Jim Lehrer had worked so well as a team covering the Senate Watergate Hearings for PBS in 1973 and 1974.

Television in AmericaClick to view larger

Figure 6. Watergate became a national obsession for most American viewers who watched in stunned disbelief as the accumulated testimony gradually suggested that an illegal cover-up had occurred. Not only were some of the president’s men, like former White House counsel John Dean, involved, so was Richard Nixon himself.

(Courtesy of Library of American Broadcasting at the University of Maryland)

Television news and public affairs programming rose to the occasion during the seismic developments that marked the 1960s, gradually coming into its own by its coverage of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the space race. Before the decade ended, most importantly, a TV spectacular of epic proportions captured the imagination of audiences worldwide. The core telecast of the moon landing took place over 31 continuous hours during July 20 and 21, 1969. An estimated worldwide television viewership of 528 million people watched this media event, the largest audience for any TV program up to that point. The accompanying radio listenership increased the aggregate total to nearly 1 billion, providing a broadcast audience of an estimated 25 percent of the earth’s population. The international reach and impact of the moon landing previewed the future potential of television beyond the largely self-imposed limits that were already confining the medium in America and elsewhere during the waning years of the network era.

By the early 1970s, an evident change was occurring in entertainment programming as well. CBS’s All in the Family (1971–1979) was the first continuing series to ever tackle issues such as Vietnam, racism, women’s rights, homosexuality, impotence, menopause, rape, alcoholism, and many other relevant themes. Nothing quite captured the current transformation happening in network television better than the dramatic contrast between this aggressively topical situation comedy and the network’s silly and farcical hit of a decade earlier, The Beverly Hillbillies. For its part, All in the Family became the no. 1 show in the country during 1971–1972 and stayed on top for the next five seasons. Moreover, its phenomenal popularity changed the face of television by making it much easier for subsequent prime-time series to incorporate controversial subjects into their storylines.

Television in AmericaClick to view larger

Figure 7. All in the Family became the no. 1 show in the country during 1971–1972 and stayed on top for the next five seasons. It was the first continuing series to incorporate controversial subjects into its storylines. Front row: Jean Stapleton as Edith Bunker and Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker. Back row: Rob Reiner as Michael Stivic and Sally Struthers as Gloria Bunker Stivic.

(Courtesy of Library of American Broadcasting at the University of Maryland)

The popularity of CBS, NBC, and ABC would never be greater than it was in 1974–1975 as their three-network oligopoly reached its peak in averaging a 93.6 percent share of the prime-time viewing audience that season. Each network was highly profitable, competing solely against one another in what was basically a closed $2.5 billion TV advertising market. Within ten short years, though, all would be different. The strategy now being adopted by the broadcast networks in targeting young, urban, professional viewers with more relevant and hard-hitting shows such as All in the Family also sowed the seeds of change where the TV industry as a whole would eventually move well beyond its mass market model. Over the next decade, a whole host of technological, industrial, and programming innovations would usher in an era predicated on an entirely new niche-market philosophy, which essentially turned the vast majority of broadcasters into narrowcasters.

Cable Era (1976–1994)

With ABC’s ascent for the first time ever to no. 1 in the ratings in 1976–1977, the three major networks finally achieved a kind of parity among themselves. At the same time, CBS, NBC, and ABC’s oligopoly also began its slow decline. Gone were the annual $100 million-plus profit margins that this top-down mass-market structure regularly provided these broadcast networks. Together CBS, NBC, and ABC survived the profound technological and economic changes that remodeled television into a multi-network niche-market industry after 1976. An estimated 70,500,000 TV households, or 96.4 percent of the nation, owned television sets in 1976; by 1991, these figures mushroomed to 93,200,000, or 98.2 percent of all residences (which was even five percentage points higher than the number of American homes that had telephones). More significantly, the typical TV household in the United States received on average 7.2 channels in 1970; 10.2 in 1980; and 27.2 by 1990. An increasing number of viewing options was now an essential characteristic of television’s second era as the three-network bottleneck was broken beyond repair by the rise of cable and satellite TV.

Home Box Office, Inc. (HBO) provided the first indication that something new and innovative was happening to television as a technology and an industry during the mid- to late 1970s. HBO was based on an entirely different economic model than the one followed by the three broadcast networks, their affiliates, and the country’s independent stations, which all sold specific audiences (such as young, urban, professional viewers) to sponsors. Unlike this advertiser-supported system, HBO’s subscriber format focused all of the channel’s attention on pleasing and retaining its viewing audience. In turn, HBO inaugurated its satellite-cable service by accessing RCA’s newly launched Satcom 1 on October 1, 1975. Its initial satellite-fed telecast was the live-from-overseas “Thrilla in Manila” heavyweight boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. In one fell swoop, HBO became a national network, thus ushering in TV’s cable era with its first full year of regularly scheduled satellite-delivered programming in 1976.

Likewise, other basic and premium cable networks soon followed HBO’s example of choosing satellite over terrestrial microwave delivery. Ted Turner took WTBS national via Satcom 1 in December 1976, while the Chicago-based Tribune Company similarly converted WGN into a superstation in October 1978. Another movie channel, Showtime, was created by Viacom in July 1976 and began satellite transmission in 1978. Niche channels of all sorts emerged during the late 1970s and early 1980s, including CBN (the Christian Broadcasting Network) and the USA Network (a broad-based entertainment channel) in 1977; ESPN (Entertainment and Sports Programming Network), Nickelodeon (children’s programming), and C-SPAN (Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network) in 1979; CNN (Cable News Network), BET (Black Entertainment Television), and TLC (The Learning Channel) in 1980; MTV (Music Television) and FNN (Financial News Network) in 1981; and CNN Headline News and The Weather Channel in 1982.

Back in the network era, public television had carved out a niche for itself as the quality alternative to CBS, NBC, and ABC, even though it remained a perennially underfunded enterprise that attracted only a small fraction of the audience that its commercial counterparts did. During the first half of the cable era, public television actually doubled its day-long share (including prime time) from 2 percent of all American viewers in 1976 to 4 percent by 1985, with a 58 percent cumulative rating of all U.S. TV households tuning into PBS at least once a week to watch one of its flagship series in the arts and culture (Great Performances, Live from Lincoln Center), drama (Masterpiece Theater, Mystery!), children’s programming (Sesame Street, The Electric Company), news and documentary (NOVA, Nature), or lifestyle programs (Julia Child & Company, This Old House).

As the cable era continued, however, public television was slow to react to the explosion in networking and narrowcasting strategies. A whole host of niche channels simply appropriated PBS’s distinctive programming areas one by one throughout the 1980s and into the mid-1990s. At the time, A&E and Bravo specialized in the performing arts; HBO and TNT drama; Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel children’s programming; CNN and TLC news and documentary; The Discovery Channel and Animal Planet science; and HGTV (Home & Garden Television) and the Food Network how-to and self-improvement shows. PBS was trapped in the inescapable dilemma of having to remain as broadly appealing as possible in order to justify public support. Public television responded by developing one-time blockbuster miniseries, such as Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (1980), Henry Hampton’s Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965 (1987), Bill Moyers’s The Power of Myth with Joseph Campbell (1988), and especially Ken Burns’s The Civil War, which remains the most-watched debut in PBS history, garnering 38.9 million cumulative viewers from September 23 to 27, 1990.

By the early 1990s, the cable era was in full swing, providing all sorts of new competition for CBS, NBC, ABC, and PBS. Independent stations were given an unexpected lift by cable. Prior to the 1962 All-Channel Receiver Act, most TVs in the United States and elsewhere even lacked the ability to access the UHF band (channels 14 to 83), which is where the vast majority of independent stations resided at the time. This bill required American set manufacturers to at least include UHF as well as VHF (channels 2 to 13) tuners in all future TV receivers beginning in mid-1964. This legislation began the process, but with the growth of cable, independents flourished as a kind of broadcast/cable hybrid throughout the 1980s and 1990s, when the prime-time share for these stations plateaued at around 20 percent of all available viewers.

More importantly, Fox debuted as a viable fourth commercial broadcast network on October 9, 1986. Establishing another nationwide competitor for CBS, NBC, and ABC was attempted several times before by DuMont in the 1950s, United Network in the 1960s, Paramount in the 1970s, and Metromedia in the early 1980s. All the pieces finally fell into place in 1985, however, when Rupert Murdoch purchased both a majority share of the financially troubled Twentieth Century Fox Corporation and the highly successful Metromedia chain of six major-market independent TV stations, providing his News Corporation with the necessary infrastructure to launch a fourth network. By the early 1990s, Fox had created a younger, edgier, and more multicultural identity than the other three broadcast networks with signature shows such as Married . . . with Children (1987–1997), The Simpsons (1989–present), and In Living Color (1990–1994). America’s fourth commercial broadcast network was clearly here to stay, turning a profit for the first time in 1991.

Program innovation during the cable era came from an unlikely source—the soap opera—which had been a staple of daytime television since the late 1940s, even growing more relevant and realistic through the 1960s and 1970s to keep pace with its audience. The stage was thus set for its prime-time emergence with CBS’s Dallas (1978–1991), which enjoyed both a serial narrative and larger-than-life characters who regularly indulged in power grabbing, scandal, and sexual intrigue. From 1980 through 1985, Dallas was either the no. 1– or no. 2–rated show in the country, averaging between 43 and 53 million viewers a week for five straight seasons, and even setting the then-record 53.3 rating and 76 share (90 million viewers) for the “Who Shot J.R.?” cliffhanger episode on November 21, 1980. Moreover, the success of Dallas’s soap opera formula inspired the creation of even more daring and inventive serial hybrids such as NBC’s Hill Street Blues (1981–1987), St. Elsewhere (1982–1988), and L.A. Law (1986–1994) as well as ABC’s Moonlighting (1985–1989) and thirtysomething (1987–1991).

Most significantly, Dallas also became an international phenomenon throughout the 1980s, attracting viewers in over ninety countries. French minister of culture Jack Lang even went so far as to publicly single out Dallas in 1982 as an example of U.S. “cultural imperialism” and “a threat to the integrity of European culture.” European audiences and their counterparts in North and South America, Australia, Asia, and Africa nevertheless favored American programming to such a degree that anywhere between 30 and 55 percent of Hollywood’s advertiser-supported TV revenues, depending on the year, came from international markets during the cable era. The success of Dallas was just the beginning. Soon The Cosby Show (1984–1992) surfaced as the most popular program on the planet during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

NBC’s The Cosby Show was the most successful series on American television throughout the 1980s bar none, sitting all by itself on top of the Nielsen rankings for four straight seasons from 1985 to 1988 before finally sharing the no. 1 spot with ABC’s Roseanne (1988–1997) in 1988–1989. At its peak, The Cosby Show averaged between 58 and 63 million viewers a week from 1985 to 1987, attracting both high-end niche viewers as well as the older, less affluent suburban segments of the mass audience. The Cosby Show had genuine crossover appeal, bridging yuppie (Cliff and Clair Huxtable were the ideal professional power couple) with more conservative family values (represented by four generations of happy, healthy, well-adjusted Huxtables). The Cosby Show was genuinely multicultural, politically correct, and conspicuous in its consumption for all. The Cosby Show also replaced Dallas as American television’s most popular export, with its global appeal based on progressive family values, personal freedom, and racial and ethnic tolerance, leading the way during the 1990s when international revenues for U.S. TV shows skyrocketed from $1 billion to $4 billion.

By the early 1990s, the ascent of cable television and the descent of the traditional broadcast networks was an unmistakable and irreversible foregone conclusion. Cable penetration in the United States rose from 42.8 percent in 1985 to 60.6 percent in 1991. The whole TV-viewing experience, in fact, was changing for most Americans. The time-shifting capability of the videocassette recorder (VCR) was a welcome addition for most television watchers in the 1980s. Only 1.1 percent of TV households in the United States had VCRs in 1980; this number climbed to 20.8 percent in 1985 and then soared to 71.9 percent by 1991. Along with the VCR (and other new mediated technologies such as videodisc players and video games) came remote control keypads. These small handheld devices were first introduced in the mid-1950s, but they did not become commonplace in most American homes until the widespread adoption of cable and VCRs during the 1980s.

By 1991, 37 percent of all domestic viewers admitted that they preferred channel surfing (or quickly flipping through the 33.2 channels they now received on average) than just turning their television sets on to watch one specific program. Consumers at home were slowly becoming more proactive in their TV viewing behavior, while their adoption of these new television-related accessories aided in the industry’s wholesale transition from broadcasting to narrowcasting. Nothing illustrated this transformation better than the arrival of people meters during the mid-1980s, providing a new level of precision to the way TV audiences were measured. Nielsen’s audimeter was first introduced in 1973. It automatically calculated which channel was being watched but not much else. People meters added a remote control keypad to the system. These remotes were programmed ahead of time to correspond to the demographic characteristics of individual household members (including their age, sex, race, educational level, and annual income). Participants were subsequently asked to punch in and out as they watched TV. This action recorded who exactly was viewing which programs and when.

During the cable era, a niche market model supplanted the old way of doing business for a television industry that was now international in scope. The broader economic benefits of consumer segmentation based on targeting specific audiences by their demographics also rendered the increasingly outdated mass-market model of the network era obsolete. In turn, branding became the standard way in which networks and production companies differentiated their programming from the competition. TV has always existed in a state of transformation, being continually reshaped by a wide assortment of technological, commercial, and social factors. Even though the first TV satellite, Telstar 1, was launched in July 1962, television as an industry and an institution never fully realized its international promise until cable and satellites once again reinvented the medium after 1975. The shift in TV from broadcasting to narrowcasting also marked the steep decline in the one-time invincible three-network oligopoly, which eroded in the face of 106 new cable channels, nearly 300 independent stations, and a viable fourth broadcast network by 1994.

Digital Era (1995–Present)

Just as cable penetration was reaching two-thirds of all TV households in the United States during the mid-1990s, this sector of the television industry was already outgrowing the top-down distribution model that it inherited from the three-network oligopoly in the mid-1970s. Besides the major broadcast networks, niche programming was the accepted norm in the rapidly expanding multichannel universe of the 1990s. When American viewers flipped through their channel lineups, they began to see all sorts of networks based on traditional story forms (The Biography Channel, Comedy Central, The History Channel), narrative genres that were previously popular on radio and in the movies (SOAPnet, Westerns, SCI FI Channel), formats that harkened back to the earliest days of television (news, sports, children’s programming), webs devoted to specific demographic groups (Lifetime, BET/Black Entertainment Television, Galavision/Spanish-speaking audiences), and even services designed to offer helpful advice about a wide range of lifestyle choices and activities (HGTV/Home and Garden Television, Travel Channel, Food Network).

The recent proliferation of television networks spiked from 145 in 1996, to 281 in 2000, to 339 in 2003, to 531 in 2006. The identifiable turning point was the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that encouraged the trends toward a greater consolidation of ownership across the various mass media as well as an accelerating convergence of technologies and content resulting from the emerging digital revolution. The pivotal influence in this changeover from the cable to the digital era in 1995 was the widespread adoption of the Internet by millions of pioneering consumers, beginning with the introduction of the first commercially available graphical browser, Netscape Navigator 1.0, on December 15, 1994, thus making web travel relatively easy for most consumers worldwide who either could afford or had access to the World Wide Web.

Three overlapping delivery systems—broadcasting, cable, and satellite TV—now distinguished networking both in the United States and globally as television entered the digital era. the backstory to this transition starts with a second, much longer wave of even larger corporate mergers than the three consolidations (Capital Cities’ purchase of ABC, GE’s acquisition of RCA and NBC, and Laurence Tisch’s takeover of CBS) that reshaped the television industry in the cable era. this newest round of transactions started with the $15.2 billion merger of Time, Inc. and Warner Communication in 1989 creating Time Warner; Viacom’s $10 billion purchase of Paramount Communication in 1994; Westinghouse’s $5.4 billion acquisition of CBS in 1995 (with Westinghouse changing its name to CBS in 1997); Microsoft’s $220 million collaboration with NBC to launch MSNBC in 1995; Disney’s $19 billion takeover of Capital Cities/ABC in 1996; Time Warner’s $6.3 billion purchase of Turner Broadcasting in 1996; Viacom’s $36 billion acquisition of CBS in 1999; online service provider AOL’s $104 billion merger with Time Warner in 2001; and GE/NBC’s $3.65 billion purchase of Vivendi Universal in 2004, followed by a buyout of NBCUniversal from GE by the U.S. TV cable operator, Comcast, for $16.7 billion in 2013.

The newest focus of television in the digital era was built around one overriding design principle—synergy—which industry insiders recognized as the most efficient way of capitalizing on the growing tendency toward ever-greater audience fragmentation. As mega-media conglomerates became unprecedentedly large, their executive staffs attempted to maximize their presence across as many distribution channels as possible. Consequently, television networks in general evolved into being content providers, above all else, where their programming was adapted to as many platforms as possible (television, video, Internet, audio, and print) in order to generate multiple revenue streams for the umbrella corporation. Narrowcasting and audience segmentation were thus pushed to their logical extremes. In other words, they were given added precision with a bottom-up approach in which targeted audience segments were grouped together by clustering them according to a sophisticated array of relevant demographic, psychological, and lifestyle characteristics.

Television was reinvented for the third time as a technology, an industry, and an institutional force in the digital era. To begin with, the TV signal was now better, cheaper, faster, and more efficient than ever before in its conversion into 1s and 0s (the binary code). No longer did it travel on analog radio waves over the air or through wires as it originally had during the network and cable eras. Instead, TV’s new digital reincarnation evolved at the speed of light to a point where television consumption was more personal, adaptable, available, portable, and widespread than at any time in its history. During the first decade of the digital era, American audiences were actually watching more TV than ever before. According to Nielsen Media Research, the typical television household in the United States had its set turned on for seven hours and fifteen minutes a day on average in 1995; seven hours and twenty-six minutes a day in 2000; and a whopping eight hours and eleven minutes a day by 2005. Moreover, the number of available channels per household shot up from 43 in 1997 to 96.4 in 2005.

Furthermore, television channels pursued ever smaller niche audiences, programming and promoting their brand identities to viewers all year long, and catering 24/7 to consumer needs across a wide array of programming choices that usually began on television but then extended quickly throughout a variety of related media platforms, usually publicized most aggressively on network websites. Branding—the defining and reinforcing of a network’s identity—became an increasingly important strategy as the TV environment grew ever more cluttered with literally dozens of marginal channels. Brand recognition emerged as the most valuable currency a channel could earn as television programming content was adapted to other in-house print, audio, video, and web-based media to be marketed to network consumers. Global branding emerged as the normative strategy for the most successful TV networks in the 2000s with the top 10 percent of all channels busy establishing a reach that traveled well beyond their national borders. For instance, MTV had thirty-five different channels worldwide by the mid-2000s, while CNN had twenty-two.

The digital era actually started the same way as the cable era ended with television entertainment around the globe being largely dominated by American-made products. For example, Baywatch (1989–2001) emerged as the most watched program on earth during the mid- to late 1990s, attracting hundreds of millions of viewers in over 130 countries. Then a transition took hold with the adoption of the more customized personal-usage market model of the digital era where local television industries in countries outside of the United States developed to a point where they began franchising TV formats rather than just importing more American programs. In this way, programming innovations like many reality concepts originated internationally, such as “Millionaire,” a British import that was franchised in an unprecedented seventy countries at its peak in the early 2000s, including ABC’s wildly popular version, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (1999–2002, 2004, 2009), and “Survive,” which first appeared on Swedish TV in 1998 as Expedition Robinson before it was adapted two years later by CBS as Survivor (2000–present).

Television (like the Internet) is now global in context and cultural reach in the digital era. Sesame Street (PBS, 1969–present), for example, is currently a global phenomenon, which has been adapted into more than twenty international versions televised regularly in over 120 countries. The development of a truly global television culture since the mid-1990s has profoundly affected societies all over the world. In this way, people from New York to Buenos Aires to Tokyo to Johannesburg to Paris switched easily among franchised versions of HBO and Nickelodeon to reruns of Seinfeld (NBC, 1989–1998) and Modern Family (ABC, 2009–present) to downloads of CSI (CBS, 2000–present) and Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011–present) to literally thousands of easily accessible globally popular television-related websites and blogs. Such routine patterns of transnational reception are currently a taken-for-granted part of global television culture in the 2000s.

The millennium celebration on January 1, 2000, was a global television event with an international audience exceeding one billion people. The daylong coverage followed the arrival of the millennium across all twenty-five time zones on earth. This transnational telecast was both lavish and skillfully choreographed with a series of magnificent fireworks displays coming one after the other in quick succession from such illustrious sights as the Opera House in Sydney to the Hong Kong skyline to the Eiffel Tower in Paris to the fabled crystal ball descending in Times Square. People of all ages, races, and ethnicities appeared on TV that night to celebrate the dream of one world and send out wishes for a peaceful and happy New Year. In the short term, though, the terrorist hijackings of September 11, 2001, that left just under 3,000 people from 92 countries dead at the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in lower Manhattan, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a rural field in Pennsylvania were a far more accurate harbinger of things to come.

The initial shock of 9/11 sent stunning reverberations on a global scale where most people simply sat glued to their television sets, struggling to make sense of the horrific imagery that was beaming back at them. From Tuesday morning September 11, 2001, through Friday evening September 14, viewers around the world watched continuous TV coverage, mesmerized by the unthinkable images they were seeing. Television brought home to Americans especially the polarizing effects of our post–Cold War world, including the backlash of Islamic fundamentalism and the catastrophic dangers inherent in terrorist attacks on targets within the United States and the rest of the Western world. TV moreover transformed the events surrounding 9/11 into a global media event by taking what were essentially localized New York City and Washington, D.C., catastrophes and telecasting them for the whole world to bear witness.

Overall, the digital era has both reinvented and reinvigorated the television industry worldwide, which totaled more than $100 billion in revenues annually throughout the early 2000s. The one-time diametrically opposed television business models of either government-subsidized or advertiser-supported programming have now splintered into several other alternative options, including product placements, subscription services, DVD sales, and program downloads. In this way, breakout signature shows are the most essential ingredient that enables this newly emerging multi-dimensional personal-usage TV market structure to flourish.


The latest example of the importance of hit programming in the digital era is the transformative impact that House of Cards (2013–present) and Orange Is the New Black (2013–present) have had on the fortunes of Netflix, an OTT (over-the-top content) streaming service. In the parlance of the industry, content is king, while distribution is queen. For the first time in 2013, Netflix surpassed HBO in the number of U.S. subscribers—29.17 million to 28.7 million—although the older and far more established pay cable and satellite network still held a substantial 114 million to 36 million subscriber lead around the world. At present, Netflix is just the most successful company in the newest distribution sector of the television industry, OTT, which also includes a dozen other services including Amazon Prime and such legacy TV producers as Hulu (Fox, NBCUniversal, and Disney-ABC), CBS, and HBO.

Most importantly, the entire television industry is moving rapidly toward another transitional benchmark where subscription dollars will soon overtake advertising revenue, underscoring the choice aspect of the personal-usage market model. The key to thinking about television in the digital era is to reconceptualize it as a legacy word. TV as a technology is not a static piece of hardware but a business model, a set of production practices, and a codified listing of specific aesthetic choices. Television is also a social process that has grown increasingly personalized, interactive, mobile, and on demand.

The global TV industry in the digital era is best thought of as a three-legged stool comprised of broadcasting, cable-and-satellite, and OTT streaming sectors. Encompassing the first two legs, there are one billion television households worldwide with just a little over 11 percent of these TV homes situated in the United States. American viewership is just a fraction of the global total, but the United States is disproportionally represented in the production and international distribution of TV programming, having an economic and creative stake in approximately 350 of the 400 scripted series that were produced worldwide in 2014. Geography therefore matters.

In the mid-2010s, there are currently more than 650 networks in the American marketplace, with the typical domestic household receiving 189 channels on average. Moreover, television penetration is best understood in terms of screens (of all shapes and sizes) rather than merely households, which no longer captures a complete and accurate picture of TV consumption. Digital convergence has enhanced and extended television’s relevancy, influence, and profitability across multiple platforms, including traditional TV sets, DVDs, the Internet, MP3Video players, stand-alone and portable digital video recorders, digital tablets, and mobile phones. Beside time-shifting, audiences also place-shift today by watching television on an ever-growing assortment of portable devices. The technical infrastructure underpinning the personal-usage market structure is securely in place as the wire-and-wireless grid that encircles the world is well on its way to becoming fully digitized by the beginning of the 2020s.

Discussion of the Literature

Historical writing about television in the United States begins with Eric Barnouw. He was recruited to research and write a three-volume history of American broadcasting by Oxford University Press (OUP) in 1959. OUP had earlier commissioned British historian Asa Briggs to produce an historical trilogy of broadcasting in the United Kingdom, which eventually grew to be five volumes.1 In accepting the offer, Barnouw was essentially expanding his own purview and that of the field of radio and television studies beyond the more vocational orientation that had marked most of broadcast education up to that point.

Erik Barnouw’s own academic development mirrored the evolution of broadcasting as a discipline in American higher education. He was at the forefront of a first generation of practitioner-scholars who initially worked in radio and television before entering the academy. General survey works exist in all branches of history. The challenge for Barnouw was that the scholarly literature in broadcasting was then slim and limited. In addition, the archives available to him in the early 1960s (the Broadcast Pioneers History Project, the Columbia University Oral History Collection, the Mass Communications History Center of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, the National Broadcasting Company Library, the Radioana Collection at the National Museum of American History) were merely a fraction of the number and scope of such repositories today.

Most importantly, where Asa Briggs was a trained historian, Erik Barnouw was not. He was a gifted writer who gave himself over totally to the project, but he was learning about historical methods and historiography through trial and error. In fact, the model he most gravitated toward in constructing his history of American broadcasting was not Briggs but novelist John Dos Passos in his U.S.A. trilogy (The 42nd Parallel, 1919, The Big Money). The fictional realist style that Dos Passos developed in these books created a patchwork panorama of American culture during the first three decades of the 20th century.

Similarly, Erik Barnouw employed a largely improvised multi-faceted historical approach in fashioning his sweeping three-volume history of American broadcasting. This strategy is at the heart of the strengths and weaknesses of Barnouw’s trilogy. Like Dos Passos, he relies on a continuing stream of well- and lesser-known biographical figures to skillfully integrate technological, economic, social-political, and cultural developments about the American scene into an overarching historical narrative. Barnouw does not employ an all-encompassing and guiding historiographical approach, and as a result his history is less systematic and more selective than Briggs’s. For instance, Barnouw often chose representative anecdotes and examples to illustrate fundamental breakthroughs and larger patterns and trends. All told, Eric Barnouw’s pioneering and highly influential three-volume history of broadcasting in the United States—A Tower of Babel (1966), The Golden Web (1968), and The Image Empire (1970)—is well written, informative, and serviceably researched. Most significantly, its seminal impact on subsequent television historians cannot be overestimated. To fill a gaping hole in the literature, Barnouw condensed the material on television in his trilogy from 1,131 to 518 pages and brought it up to date with the first edition of Tube of Plenty in 1975. It was later revised in 1982 with 552 pages and again in 1990 with 607 pages. In contrast to Barnouw’s more literary posture, broadcasting was actually developing as a nascent field of study during the 1960s and 1970s with a predominantly social scientific orientation. This is the academic context into which Christopher Sterling and John Kittross published their first edition of Stay Tuned: A Concise History of American Broadcasting in 1978, which was followed by two revised updates in 1990 and 2002.

Where Barnouw’s historical narrative was always informed first and foremost by his personal experiences of having worked in advertising and broadcasting, Sterling and Kittross were far more scholarly in the way that they self-consciously crafted a historiographic approach that is probably best described as developmental and empiricist. By adopting a developmental view of radio and television history, Sterling and Kittross perfectly exemplified a second wave of historical consciousness, mapping out this newly emerging topical area of broadcasting (and later television studies). Developmental history on any topic always attempts the dual functions of informing and socializing those who are drawn to a particular field of study. This practical dimension of Stay Tuned also infuses this history of radio and television with a much clearer purpose, thus dovetailing nicely with the more vocational disposition of the broadcasting discipline when the book was first published.

In practice, a developmental perspective is frequently combined with one or more other outlooks in constructing a more fully realized historiographic approach. In the case of Stay Tuned, Sterling and Kittross reflected their social scientific roots by designing and executing a classic example of an empiricist history of broadcasting. Job one for historians from an empiricist standpoint is to exhaustively assemble the “facts” of history into identifiable patterns which largely reflect the field’s (and their own) commonsense view of the subject. In managing this research agenda, Sterling and Kittross were always striving—as much as possible—for a posture of impartiality and neutrality.

Sterling and Kittross became researchers par excellence in Stay Tuned, collecting and arranging together in one volume a reasonable facsimile of what was currently known and accepted as the standard version of American broadcasting history at the time. This single volume understandably grew in size by more than 85 percent over its three editions (from 562 to 705 to 975 pages), reflecting a comparable expanse in the supporting literature on the subject. Stay Tuned is a tour de force of developmental and empiricist history, remaining an invaluable resource to check on any one of the myriad of specifics that are now understood to be part of the history of radio and television in the United States.

In being empiricists, Sterling and Kittross occupy one end of the historiographic continuum2 while a younger generation of critical-cultural historians of electronic media have started to reinterpret this subject area from a much different set of assumptions. Where empiricists strive for a certain degree of objectivity, critical-culturalists are decidedly subjective in their theoretical outlooks. Empiricists perceive facts as being outside themselves to be gathered and categorized; critical-culturalists regard all facts as reflecting the relative position of the historian-critic. Empiricists value comprehensiveness, reliability, and validity in their work; critical-culturalists assume partiality, uniqueness, and contingency. The social science perspective no longer monopolizes the field of broadcasting and its descendant—television studies—as it once did a generation ago.

Overall, then, (along with Castleman and Podrazik, 2003; MacDonald, 1994; Hilliard and Keith, 2004) a younger generation of critical-cultural historians of electronic media have once again reinterpreted this subject area from a much different set of assumptions. This third wave of more humanities-based historical analysts demonstrate an increased preoccupation with theory and method, aesthetics and society, political economy and institutional structures, and cultural matters such as gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, and class. Selected historiographic examples include aesthetic (Jacobs and Peacock), biographical,3 cultural (Tichi), industrial (Lotz), intellectual (Czitrom), international (Smith), local (Classen), oral (Kisseloff), political (Bodroghkozy), regional (Johnson), social (Spigel), technological,4 and textual (O’Connor) histories covering television (mostly without radio) along with literally hundreds of like-minded monographs and articles that comprise an ever-expanding scholarly literature.

Besides these more targeted historical-critical studies, this next generation of media historians have also produced a handful of general surveys of radio and especially television.5 Given the growing maturation of the field, more historians of television (addressing its close relationship to the Internet as well as radio) are bound to follow from a variety of perspectives and written for both scholarly and educated general-interest readerships.

Primary Sources

Christopher Sterling, emeritus professor at George Washington University, has served as the premiere scholarly bibliographer of electronic media history through his founding and forty-five-year editing of Communication Booknotes (1969–1997) and Communication Booknotes Quarterly (1998–2014). He turned over editing duties to Weiwu Zhang of Texas Tech University in 2015. A complete cataloguing of all the annotated bibliographic references in this journal up to the present is available online. Sterling also collaborated with the late George Shiers on coediting and compiling the History of Telecommunications Technology (2000), which contains 2,500 annotated bibliographic entries including a thorough survey of the television literature.

Donald Godfrey, emeritus professor at Arizona State University, published what is still the most comprehensive annotated directory to electronic media archives in the United States and Canada entitled, Reruns on File: A Guide to Electronic Media Archives, in 1991. An alphabetized cross-section of fifteen of the most significant archival collections relevant to historians of American television are:

There are also scores of private collectors operating nationwide. For example, the recently deceased J. Fred MacDonald, radio and television historian and former history professor at Northern Illinois University, founder of MacDonald & Associates in 1986 (5660 North Jersey Avenue, Chicago, IL 60659-3626). He sold a substantial portion of his holdings to the Library of Congress in 2010.

Further Reading

Abramson, Albert. History of Television, 1880–1941. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1987.Find this resource:

Abramson, Albert. The History of Television, 1942 to 2000. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002.Find this resource:

Barnouw, Erik. A Tower in Babel: A History of Broadcasting in the United States, Vol. 1. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.Find this resource:

Barnouw, Erik. The Golden Web: A History of Broadcasting in the United States, 1933–1953. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.Find this resource:

Barnouw, Erik. The Image Empire: A History of Broadcasting in the United States from 1953. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.Find this resource:

Barnouw, Erik. Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.Find this resource:

Barnouw, Erik. Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.Find this resource:

Barnouw, Erik. Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television. 2d rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Bodroghkozy, Aniko. Equal Time: Television and the Civil Rights Movement. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Briggs, Asa. The Birth of Broadcasting: The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, Vol. 1. London: Oxford University Press, 1961.Find this resource:

Briggs, Asa. The Golden Age of Wireless: The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, Vol. 2, 1926–1939. London: Oxford University Press, 1965.Find this resource:

Briggs, Asa. The War of Words: The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, Vol. 3, 1939–1945. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.Find this resource:

Briggs, Asa. Sound and Vision: The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, Vol. 4, 1945–1955. London: Oxford University Press, 1978.Find this resource:

Briggs, Asa. Competition: The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, Vol. 5, 1955–1974. London: Oxford University Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Castleman, Harry, and Walter J. Podrazik. Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television. 2d ed. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Classen, Steven D.Watching Jim Crow: The Struggles over Mississippi TV, 1955–1969. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Czitrom, Daniel J.Media and the American Mind: From Morse to McLuhan. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.Find this resource:

Douglas, Susan. Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Dos Passos, John. The 42nd Parallel. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1930.Find this resource:

Dos Passos, John. 1919. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1932.Find this resource:

Dos Passos, John. The Big Money. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1936.Find this resource:

Edgerton, Gary R.The Columbia History of American Television. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Godfrey, Donald G.Reruns on File: A Guide to Electronic Media Archives. New York: Routledge, 1991.Find this resource:

Godfrey, Donald G.Philo T. Farnsworth: The Father of Television. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Gomery, Douglas. History of Broadcasting in the United States. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Backwell, 2008.Find this resource:

Hilliard, Robert C., and Michael C. Keith. The Broadcast Century and Beyond: A Biography of American Broadcasting. 4th ed. Boston: Focal Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Hilmes, Michele. Only Connect: A Cultural History of Broadcasting in the United States. 3d ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2010.Find this resource:

Jacobs, Jason, and Steven Peacock, eds. Aesthetics and Style. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.Find this resource:

Johnson, Victoria E.Heartland TV: Prime Time Television and the Struggles for U.S. Identity. New York: NYU Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Kisseloff, Jeff. The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1920–1961. New York: Penguin, 1995.Find this resource:

Lotz, Amanda. The Television Will Be Revolutionized. 2d ed. New York: New York University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

MacDonald, J. Fred. One Nation Under Television: The Rise and Decline of Network TV. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1994.Find this resource:

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(1.) Asa Briggs, The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, Vols. 1–5 (London: Oxford University Press, 1961–1995).

(2.) Harry Castleman and Walter J. PodrazikWatching TV: Six Decades of American Television, 2nd ed. (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2003); J. Fred Macdonald, One Nation Under Television: The Rise and Decline of Network TV (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1994); and Robert C. Hilliard and Michael C. Keith, The Broadcast Century and Beyond: A Biography of American Broadcasting, 4th ed. (Boston: Focal Press, 2004).

(3.) Donald G. Godfrey, Philo T. Farnsworth: The Father of Television (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2001).

(4.) Albert Abramson, History of Television, 1880–1941 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1987); and Albert Abramson, The History of Television, 1942–2000 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002).

(5.) Susan Douglas, Listening In; Radio and the American Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004); Gary R. Edgerton, The Columbia History of American Television (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007); Douglas Gomery, History of Broadcasting in the United States (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008); Michele Hilmes, Only Connect: A Cultural History of Broadcasting in the United States, 3d ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2010); David Marc and Robert J. Thompson, Television in the Antenna Age: A Concise History (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005); and Mary Ann Watson, Defining Visions: Television and the American Experience in the 20th Century, 2d ed. (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008).