Television Shows in the 1950s

Television during the 1950s, considered the Golden Age for the medium, began actually in the 1940s, when the three networks at the time, NBC, CBS, and the Dumont Television Network, began broadcasting programs. Since television was a nascent entertainment medium and not many Americans owned sets at this point, the broadcast networks aired programs in major markets such as New York City and Los Angeles, while local and affiliate television stations began airing their own programming.

Some of the networks’ early television programming included Howdy Doody and Meet the Press on NBC and the Ed Sullivan Show on CBS. The Dumont Television Network and NBC broadcast the World Series on television for the first time during this period as well.

It wasn’t until the 1950s, however, that television began to dominate American living rooms as a primary source of entertainment.

Between 1942 and 1949, approximately 3,602,872 television sets were sold annually in the United States. But by 1951, 15,639,872 sets were sold cumulatively. Those numbers would rise by the end of the decade to 67,145,000. As more Americans turned to television for entertainment, the early broadcast networks churned out programs during its primetime and daytime hours, capturing major demographics for their advertising sponsors.

During this period, sponsorship became the networks’ primary means of programming support. Advertisers such as General Mills, Proctor & Gamble, Texaco, Colgate, and Kraft sponsored entire programs, with their brand names often appearing in the titles of said programs. Though this practice would end by the late fifties after the quiz show scandals revealed the implied collusion between sponsors and game show producers to rig their games in order to gain viewership, advertising sponsorship then, as it is today, determined which shows went to air. Without sponsorship, most shows simply could not survive.

The dominance of television in American homes also revealed American interests and cultural and social values that were reflected in the programs that were popular during the 1950s. Television also defined popular culture in the United States, influencing countless other mediums and storytelling and filmmaking innovations.

Popular TV Shows from the 1950s

One of the first shows to win audience popularity was the Texaco Star Theater, hosted by comedian Milton Berle. Known as Uncle Miltie, Berle became one of the first stars of the medium. His affable and self-deprecating sense of humor made him a hit with American audiences who tuned in every week to watch his comedic antics. The Texaco Star Theater also provided safe and conventional programming for family entertainment, a style that would be repeated throughout the history of television, particularly during its early years, as families gathered around living room television sets to seek entertainment that didn’t offend conservative sensibilities. Like The Texaco Star Theater, variety shows dominated many of the programs that were broadcast during this decade.

Shows such as CBS’s Ed Sullivan’s The Toast of Town and the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts, NBC’s Your Show of Shows, and later The Ed Sullivan Show provided opportunities for singers, musical acts, comedians, and various other acts to appeal to large audiences.

Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts - https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0040028/
Your Show of Shows - https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042173/
The Ed Sullivan Show - https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0307789/
The Ed Sullivan Show

Game shows such as the Groucho Marx-hosted You Bet Your Life (NBC), What’s My Line? (CBS), and The $64,000 Question (CBS) was also extremely popular with audiences.

You Bet Your Life - https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042171/
What's My Line? - https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042168/
The $64,000 Question - https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0047701/

Sitcoms, westerns, and dramatic anthology programs such as Philco Television Playhouse (NBC) and Kraft Television Theater (NBC) began to dominate television programming during this decade.

Philco Television Playhouse - https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0040049/
Kraft Television Theater - https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0039123/

Again, the popularity of such programs suggested that Americans were looking for entertainment that the entire family could enjoy. Since many Americans did not own television sets during this period, many often turned to family or neighbors to watch these programs, thus creating the form of mass entertainment that defined the medium before the advent of cable and niche marketing.

Television’s Role in Shaping 1950s Family Values

Since television is primarily a mass form of entertainment, its reflection of values shared by the American public during the 1950s is significant.

Television both reflected those values while also validated them to audiences. Television, being largely a commercial medium, treated its audiences as potential customers and, therefore, did not try to contradict or question those values. Therefore, conservative values toward family and morality dominated during the Eisenhower years.

These values were most prevalent in situational comedies, a form perfected by the early Desilu production I Love Lucy, starring husband-and-wife duo Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Sitcoms such as The Adventures of Ozzie & HarrietFather Knows Best, and Leave It to Beaver brought a homogeneity to family sitcoms that was replicated for decades.

The families were always WASPy, middle-class suburban dwellers who represented the nuclear unit with two parents and two or more children. The fathers were always wise and benevolent, and the wives were deferential to their husbands. The children were allowed a certain level of individualism and rebelliousness, but never to the extent that their individualism overwhelmed the family unit or questioned the values represented by the parental authority on the show.

This representation of generational values would continue even throughout the 1960s as the Baby Boom generation began questioning the values and mores of the older generation.

Other programs, such as Dragnet, an early cop show starring Jack Webb as Sgt. Joe Friday placed faith in authoritative figures, another dominant conservative theme in many television shows during this period. During the Eisenhower/McCarthy red-baiting years, questioning authority and policy was subject to ostracism, so television likewise portrayed authority as benevolent and protective, worthy of blind loyalty.

Popular Westerns such as Have GunWill TravelGunsmokeWyatt Earp, and The Rifleman also traded on the nostalgia of the Wild West and the pioneering homestead and the values of hard work, rugged individualism, honor, and valor this period mythically represented.

How 1950s TV Programs Shaped Views on Race and Gender

Since television represented more conservative values, transgressive attitudes toward race and gender were rare during this period. Most programs that highlighted racial and gender attitudes tended to validate stereotypical attitudes toward women and nonwhites.

Shows such as The Amos ‘N Andy Show and Beulah were targeted by the NAACP for their stereotypical depictions of African Americans. In these programs, African Americans were depicted as either unintelligent and conniving or completely devoid of lives outside of their white benefactors. Such depictions validated and rarely challenged attitudes white Americans held toward African Americans during this period.

Still, there were some TV programs that were greenlighted during this decade that did challenge these values in very real ways.

For instance, during the early years of television, jazz and classical pianist Hazel Scott premiered her own television show in 1950 on the Dumont Television Network. Called The Hazel Scott Show, the program was a showcase for Scott, the wife of firebrand congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and her talents and displayed a sophistication and cosmopolitan worldview not likely associated with African American women on this medium. Unfortunately, because of Scott’s outspoken views on civil rights and McCarthyism, her program lasted only a few months before it was canceled.

Later during the decade, The Nat King Cole Show debuted on NBC in November 1956 and featured many talented guests such as Eartha Kitt, Harry Belafonte, Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, and others during its musical half-hour. Yet, due to the lack of sponsorship, the show was canceled a year later.

Both examples showed that television could promulgate different depictions of African Americans to American audiences, but racism, both on the part of television executives, advertisers, and audiences, undermined these transgressive attempts to challenge and break stereotypes.

The depictions of women during this period represented the cultural standards and norms during this period. Most women were depicted as wives and mothers, and those characters who had careers were more often than not single. Yet, unlike African Americans and other nonwhite characters during this period, there were moments of transgression that appeared in many popular American TV programs that allowed a glimpse of women who challenged these norms.

For instance, in I Love Lucy, though the titular heroine was shown as ditzy and overambitious, her challenges to husband Ricky Ricardo’s authority made up much of the show’s situational comedy as Lucy tried to pursue her own entertainment career behind her husband’s back. The fact that Lucy lacked any talent also, ironically, mocked her efforts, making the character one which audiences could laugh while at the same time empathize (an ironic tactic to employ for Ball, who, along with her husband, was involved in the production and innovation of the television sitcom).

Other shows, such as Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best, also allowed moments in which their female characters questioned their roles as mothers, wives, and daughters. But by and large, television shows that aired during this decade tended to validate qualities that were the chief province of male ventures—cop shows, westerns, etc.—and these programs offered any chance of fictional depictions of authority or transgression for white male audiences.

The Innovators from the 1950s

As producers began to explore what was possible and not possible in the medium, there were a few innovators who set the rules over what became the language of television that we understand today.

The Ernie Kovacs Show, for instance, was a forerunner for the broad possibilities of what this new medium could do. Unlike most television shows, which were merely filmed stage productions, The Ernie Kovacs Show proved that special effects and taping techniques could be manipulated to create punchlines.

Kovacs’ innovations prefigured such shows as Saturday Night Live and the Garry Shandling Show. I Love Lucy created the first three-camera set-up, which defined much of TV sitcoms for decades to come. Its language in situational comedy also established the storytelling conventions of this genre.

Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone used science fiction to approach social and cultural issues at greater depth, something of a rarity for most broadcast television. The Ed Sullivan Show was popular for over two decades and became a venue for entertainers such as Elvis Presley and the Beatles to win over American audiences. Edward R. Morrow’s See It Now became the forerunner for many news documentaries, such as 60 Minutes, and featured a now famous exchange between Morrow and Joseph McCarthy over McCarthy’s red-baiting tactics, an event recently depicted in the George Clooney-directed film Good Night and Good LuckSee It Now showed the power of this new medium in approaching news documentaries that tackled the important issues of the day.

While television has always had the reputation of the boob tube and whose lack of respect ruined many acting careers seeking work beyond the flat screen, it also became a medium in which older actors ended their careers and younger talents nonetheless cut their teeth.

Film-screen actors and performers such as Eve Arden, Ann Southern, Ethel Waters, Jack Benny, Dean Martin, and others wound up on television during the latter half of their careers, while younger talents such as James Dean began their acting careers on the medium. Other talents, such as directors John Frankenheimer, William Friedkin, and John Cassavetes, began their careers in television; in Cassavetes’s case, he began his career as an actor before moving behind the camera in independent features.

Writers Paddy Chayevsky (Network) also wrote teleplays before moving into feature films. The nascent medium of television offered the opportunity for many of these talents to learn the ropes of filmmaking.

By the end of the 1960s decade, television overall shaped American cultural standards even as these standards shaped television. Despite its reputation for dumbing down the American mind, Americans turned to television as a primary means of entertainment, challenging the film industry at the box office in ways that not even the radio, when it was the primary source of home entertainment, could during an earlier age.

As the box office began to wane, Hollywood found other ways of bringing audiences into theaters, such as shooting in Cinemascope and telling epic stories that the confines of television were too small in comparison to tell. Thus, the differentiation between film and television was set, and television began establishing its own identity that would reign through much of its history until recently.

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