Early Broadcast Television

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In the 1950s families and friends began to gather around a flickering blue lit box. The broadcast for the day would be heralded by a still test-pattern that would give the head of the household a chance to tune his1 television receiver for the clearest signal. This would involve adjusting the 'rabbit ears' antenna and twisting knobs for vertical and horizontal picture stability, brightness and contrast. This process would be repeated several times during the next few hours whenever conditions changed. If you were fortunate enough to have more than one active broadcast channel the entire process would have to be repeated for each. Because of this many families would limit their viewing schedule to a single station for the entire evening. The end of the broadcast day would be marked by inspirational remarks from a religious leader and the national anthem. A brief reappearance of the test pattern would follow until the signal was shut down.

Early Development

The credit for inventing television is a hotly debated topic. Thomas A. Edison's ‘Telephonoscope' transmitted picture and sound via wire as early as 1884, but it was a long way from modern television. Early broadcasts began in the 1920s in several countries around the world, including the UK, US, France, Germany and Japan. The idea of home television was first introduced at the 1939 World's Fair in New York City, US. World War II saw a pause in television development. The UK had settled on a broadcast standard of 405 lines on the screen while the US standard was set at 525 lines. The major radio broadcasters began to start their own television networks.

Post War Boom

When the Coronation of Queen Elisabeth II was carried live on television in 1953 it was estimated that over 20 million people watched the programme. Although most of these people watched on sets outside their own homes the desire for private ownership had been born. Television licences in the UK had gone from 360,000 in 1950 to over 3 million in 1954.US television ownership had swelled from under 1 million in 1948 to over 25 million by 1953.


Early television programing was, for the most part, produced live on camera. Even though film production was quite advanced at the time, it was considered too expensive for regular programing. The most common method of recording television shows was the Kinescope, which copied live broadcasts from a television monitor. Unfortunately the quality of these films are too poor for broadcast today, although with computer enhancement we may be able to restore some of them someday. One of the first programs to be produced on film in the US was I Love Lucy because the stars insisted on staying in California, while the television networks were located in New York City. An early version of Kinescope was offered by the BBC in the 1950s for home use. With advances in video tape technology pre-recorded programing became more common.


While the BBC was funded by licence fees, US networks depended on private sponsorship from large corporations, who were allowed to have so many commercials per program. In 1955 the Independent Television network (ITV) introduced commercial broadcasting to Britain. Many US programs, such as Milton Berle's ‘Texaco Star Theater' used their corporate name throughout the show, and the show's stars would be often seen using the sponsor's product on screen. Television news programing became a mix of the live style used in radio and film clips similar to the news-reels that were shown at cinemas. Most of the popular entertainment shows came from the stars of Vaudeville, rather than film due to the live programing. Children's programing became quite popular with shows such as "Howdy Doody" in the US and Blue Peter in the UK. Saturday morning cartoons, also borrowed from the cinema, became a favorite pastime. Some stations would even have some one read the Sunday comics from the newspaper, showing the illustrations to the camera.


With advances in technology, such as colour, improved recording methods and self adjusting receivers the old days of television are just a distant memory.

1 Or occasionally her, although not as often as today.

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