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December 18, 2005

The Day TV Came to Town

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

For most Americans under 50, television has been around as long as they can remember.

But for those over age 60, say, there was probably a first-time experience of television. If you're curious what the first encounter between Blowhard and "idiot box" was like, read on ...

Experimental television dates back to the 1920s, but broadcasting did not start in the United States until 1939 at the New York World's Fair. World War 2 and the high price of TV sets kept commercial television on hold until the later 1940s, when slightly more than 100 stations had been licensed by the FCC. In 1948 the FCC declared a halt to licensing that stayed in place until 1952, after which stations proliferated like mildew.

One of those early stations was KRSC, channel 5, in Seattle. Programming debuted Thanksgiving Day (25 November) 1948 with a telecast of the state high school football championship game. For a screen shot and other information, click here.

That first telecast took place less than a month after my ninth birthday, which meant I was old enough to be really excited about the coming of TV. Of course I had been hearing radio all my life and been to plenty of movies as well. So the idea of having something like movies in one's home sounded super-neat. Nor were television sets a complete mystery. I had been seeing advertisements for sets for a couple years in magazine as well as articles about television with photos in those same magazines as well as the newspaper.

Still, I had never actually seen television and was eagerly awaiting the Big Event.

Fortunately, my best grammar school buddy's dad owned an appliance store and was adding TV sets to his wares. Besides a set or two at the store, Mr. Stewart had installed one at home as well. For a few days before the big broadcast I had been seeing test patterns, which only whetted my appetite.

When the telecast started, the appliance store had collected a crowd of about 30 people including me and my dad. As it turned out, the images were really awful -- not sharp, instead blotchy and snowy (see the link above for what it looked like). Besides the expected teething troubles of a new medium and an inexperienced broadcast crew, matters were made worse by reflections off water puddles on the playing field (this is Seattle, remember) that caused image "burns," forcing cameramen to keep panning even when there was no action to show.

So TV was a Big Disappointment, at least for the afternoon of the football game. Once the football was done, the station switched over to broadcasting "kinescope" recorded shows that had somewhat better quality. But not really good quality because a kinescope recording was a fancy term for filming a TV monitor in 16-millimeter at the time of the live broadcast and then projecting the result before a live camera days or weeks later at a distant station.

("Live" television networking was limited to Schenectady, NY in the north to New York City or Philadelphia in the south in the earliest days and then slowly expanded as coaxial cable and microwave towers spread across the county. If I remember correctly, the West Coast was first connected to the east for a broadcast of the signing of the September 1951 peace treaty with Japan, the event taking place in San Francisco. Seattle wasn't connected until the opening of the 1952 Republican National Convention. This meant that my exposure to "Uncle Miltie" Berle was via that ratty kinescope. And it was at someone else's house, because my dad didn't succumb to buying a TV set until the fall of 1951.)

For what it's worth, one of the very first shows I watched after the football game was "Lucky Pup" with Doris Brown. Puppet shows were popular in the early days of TV in part because they were inexpensive to produce and technically simple to televise -- just point a camera at the "stage" and don't move it.

For nostalgia fans, below are a picture of Lucky and another of Doris with Jolo the Clown.

Lucky Pup.

Doris Brown - Jolo.jpg
Doris Brown and Jolo the Clown.

I watched lots of TV, despite the bad beginning, through my junior high and high school years. It's possible that our brand-new set that coincided with the start of seventh grade resulted in my flunking English the first semester, though other factors were in play too.

Nowadays I don't even own a set, preferring to substitute money I would have spent on cable hook-up for unlimited long-distance telephone service so that I can stay in touch with The Fiancée. I do miss football, though.



posted by Donald at December 18, 2005


Television pre-dates me by quite some time, but one memory I have from early childhood is watching the first-ever live TV broadcast from Hawaii to the mainland United States. It must've been in the mid-1960's. Not that the broadcast was thrilling or anything, consisting of a group of people standing on a Hawaiian beach and waving to the camera. Even so, I was quite impressed.
Another thing I remember quite vividly was getting cable for the first time. The Connecticut city where I lived was a bit of a pioneer in terms of getting wired, with cable arriving (IIRC) in 1977. There were few if any cable-specific channels at the time, but just being able to see broadcast TV with almost crystal clarity - well, it was a source of wonder.

Posted by: Peter on December 18, 2005 8:01 PM

I'm only 25, but I was exposed to a lot of the "old" TV stuff that the adolescents I tutor haven't even seen, let alone owned in their home. TVs w/ only a dial to change channels, TVs w/ a fat calculator-like control connected by wire to the tube, B&W TVs, Betamax video players, reruns of classic '50s & '60s TV shows on Nick at Nite in the late '80s (Dobie Gillis, I Love Lucy, Patty Duke...), and so on.

Most kids born in the late '80s and after haven't seen any of those knick-knacks, and Nick at Nite only shows shows from 20 years ago at the oldest. Fresh Prince of Bel-Air aired 10-15 years ago -- that's not old, but they're making me feel like a geezer! It's like the DVDs that are released increasingly sooner after their big screen run. A show finishes its run on network, then after five years it's a classic and shown on Nick at Nite. :p

Posted by: Agnostic on December 18, 2005 9:48 PM

Carl Sagan in Cosmos had an interesting point (you probably know it already). Since TV is an electromagentic/radio wave (I read the book when I was 12 so bear with my rusty memory), it has been beaming out from the earth into the vacuum of space since it started. Barring the experimental stuff, the first contact any aliens will have of us is receiving these waves (and hence seeing the Seattle match, the McCarthy hearings, then Happy Days and Xanadu). The aliens will have to wait 50 years before they get Big Brother and Paris Hilton...

Posted by: Toby on December 18, 2005 10:37 PM

What Toby says was actually presented in that Jodie Foster movie "Contact." If TV is what the aliens think of wonder they keep their distance. TV was already a staple by the time I came along, and I always watched a fair amount---starting with "Captain Kangaroo". I also remember the 1968 Olympics were presented "live and in color!" for the first time. Color was the big innovation of my youth---it was amazing to see color TV. I remember being dazzled by the opening of "Wonderful World of Disney" and the kaleidocscope in color. Oddly, though, I watched very little TV in college. People had tiny little portable TV's in their rooms, but this was in a small town and so they were antenna dependent, and the reception was generally lousy, and I had homework to do...

Posted by: annette on December 19, 2005 10:15 AM

My mother must have gotten our first TV set when I was four or so (1956), and I can't remember not having one around. What I do remember is that most people had black and white sets in the '60s and color TV was considered an extravagant luxury. Not that color didn't have its drawbacks: the early color sets were hard to tune and keep tuned, and demanded constant fiddling. I remember the first color TV set I ever saw, at the home of a friend whose parents were the Joneses everyone else tried to keep up with, and what sticks in my memory is game show hosts with green faces. My dad wasn't much impressed and said he'd stick with black and white until "they got the color as good as it is in the movies." That, and "when the prices come down," since color sets were considerably more expensive.

And all through the '60s, you'd hear the more ascetic social critics use "color TV set" as a horrible example of consumerism gone mad, an expensive product no one really needed but foisted on the compliant public by mind-controlling advertising, of no use but as a status symbol for suburban drones trying to keep up with those famous Joneses (them again). You'd think it was almost sinful and wicked to have such a thing.

Eventually, of course, the technical bugs did get worked out, and even if the color still isn't quite as good as it is in the movies, there isn't the constant fiddling any more, and the prices did come down. To the point that color TV sets are all there are, at least for what people have in their living rooms. Yet you still occasionally hear the term "color TV set" used disparagingly, as though older folk got the term burned into their brains in their youth and the fact that color TV has been ubiquitous for decades hasn't caught up with them.

Then there are my nephews, born in the '70s. They not only had their own TV sets as kids (hand-me-downs to be sure, but still an unthinkable luxury for me as a kid twenty years earlier) but grew up with VCRs (not only unthinkable but impossible for me). And kids today... well, they sure have a lot more to play with now.


Posted by: Dwight Decker on December 19, 2005 2:17 PM

I'm nostalgic for those cable boxes with separate buttons for each channel, such that I could often press two simultaneously and thereby juxtapose the audio of one with the video of the other. For an eight-year-old, that was hilarious.

Posted by: J. Goard on December 21, 2005 1:19 AM

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