Invention and proliferation of the television

Television and America

There have been many technological advances within the past sixty years that have fundamentally influenced the way that we live in the United States. Among the most influential is the invention and proliferation of the television.

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Though there are other advances which, are equally important it is still the television that dominates the background noise of nearly every home. In fact most homes have more televisions than they have bathrooms. It is not unusual for television to be the single most used avenue for national and international information. “From its early position as a new medium for political coverage in the 1950s, television quickly supplanted radio and eventually newspapers to become by the early 1960s the major source of public information about politics.”

This information includes political, social and popular issues that have helped shape the culture of America. It is through the influence of television and the media that politics of America have become what they are. It is through television that the civil rights movement reached so many more than it would have otherwise and it is through television that to some degree the Americanization of foreign people has occurred.

Though, television was invented in 1927, by Philo Farnsworth, (Schatzkin 2002) the proliferation of the technology did not begin to occur until the mid 1940s and early 1950s. “The introduction of television was stalled while the nation devoted its technical might to winning the Second World War, but by the late 1940s television swept the nation and the world.” (Schatzkin 2002) It wasn’t until the picture gained color in 1946 that the invention really exploded as something every home needed. (Bellis 2003)

There are a few striking visual messages, associated with the political that really stand out in the minds of most Americans.

From the first televised presidential debates to the near continuous television coverage of congressional activities that exists today, television has made landmark strides towards informing the people. Though, many would argue that this has all come at a price, associated with the visual image sometimes being more compelling than the political message and also the sheer cost of national campaigns given the high cost of television advertisement.

Yet, it is also clear that the world of politics in the United States would not be what it is today without the political images and information we all get form the television.

A observers have long discussed the fact that television coverage of the famous 1954 McArthur Day Parade in Chicago communicated more excitement and a greater sense of immediacy to television viewers than to those participating in the live event. The televised hearings in conjunction with Joseph McCarthy’s search for communist sympathizers in the early 1950s also captured the attention of the public. (Kaid 2003)

Who can argue that the major political event surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy did not burn images into the minds of many people, a great deal of whom can remember exactly where they were when the news hit the television and when the famous home video was broadcast repeatedly for days.

Through television Americans have been eyewitness to state funerals and foreign wars; a presidential resignation; hearings on scandals such as Watergate, Iran-Contra, and Whitewater; triumphs of presidential diplomacy and negotiation; and innumerable other political events. (Kaid 2003)

Yet, as Kaid points out in her scholarly work “Political Process and Television,” (2003) the aspect of politics which has been the most effected by television is the process of the political campaign, most specifically the presidential political campaign.

The first presidential election to see extensive use of television was the 1952 race between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. In that campaign, Richard M. Nixon, as Eisenhower’s vice-presidential candidate, “took his case to the people” to defend himself on television against corruption charges in the famous “Checkers” speech. (Kaid 2003)

Yet, the use of practical television marketing as a campaigning tactic has become one of the most important of all political process changes effected by television.

However, the most significant innovation related to the role of television in the 1952 campaign was undoubtedly Eisenhower’s use of short spot commercials to enhance his television image…Not only did this strategy break new ground for political campaigning, but many observers have credited the spots with helping Eisenhower to craft a friendly, charming persona that contributed to his eventual electoral success. (Kaid 2003)

It is through sound bites as they are now called that many national campaigns are won and lost. This tactic has even become pervasive in the local television market, as commercials for candidates and issues that have substantial financial backing have become more and pervasive in the political process. In many ways the changes that have occurred express the media hyped image of the humanity of individual candidates. Even in its very first of this type of modern application television gave the country foresight into its impact in the future.

Stevenson made it easier for the Eisenhower campaign by refusing to participate in this type of electronic campaigning. Although Stevenson did produce television commercials for the 1956 campaign, he was never able to overcome Eisenhower’s popularity. (Kaid 2003)

Since that time the interplay of American politics has been broadcast not only all over the United States but all over the world. Many would say that the influence of the United States abroad, both politically and socially can be directly linked with the pervasive television coverage of both the American lifestyle and American politics.

Another very important political and social movement that can be directly linked with the media of television is the civil rights movement. It was through the imagery of television that the major events of the peaceful and not so peaceful interplay of civil rights events met the American population.

American television coverage of the Civil Rights Movement ultimately contributed to a redefinition of the country’s political as well as its televisual landscape. From the 1955 Montgomery bus boycotts to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, technological inno- vations in portable cameras and electronic news gathering (ENG) equipment increasingly enabled television to bring the non-violent civil disobedience campaign of the Civil Rights Movement and the violent reprisals of Southern law enforcement agents to a new mass audience. (Everet 2003)

It is through this imagery that individual American’s even those to young to have lived through or to young to remember them recall the people and event of the civil rights movement. After many years of separate but equal and racial segregation the American population was divided from its population of minorities. Having little if any exposure to the events and lives of those people who were the most effected by segregation many Americans were insulated from their situation, through geography or choice.

King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered on 28 August 1963, at the March on Washington rally. King’s speech not only reached the 300,000 people from civil rights organizations, church adults from across the country into the deep South during the so-called “Freedom Summer” of 1964. (Everet 2003)

Without such imagery, such as the sit in’s at lunch counters and the civil rights march on Washington it is doubtful that progress, at least legal progress would have advanced so far so quickly. People, who were then, moved to alter their own belief systems and further challenge the segregation and subjugation of people, heard the messages of the civil rights movement, through the images of television. It can even be said that some of this imagery deeply effected the cause of the South African blacks, subjugated by segregation regardless of their status as the largest proportionate group in the country.

In closing it is clear through only a few examples of fundamental moments that have occurred across the country through the media of television this country would not look and sound as it does today.

It is doubtful that the Philo Farnsworth as a young farm boy of fourteen would have visualized the impact his moving picture transmission would have upon the United States and the world. Yet, the reality is the background news program that will probably be airing in every reader’s home tonight. The impact that television has had on politics, civil rights and international Americanization is immeasurable, for the good and bad the world will never be the same.

Mary Bellis “Television Invention Timeline.”2003

Anna Everet “The Civil rights Movement and Television.”


Lynda Lee Kaid. “Political Process and Television.” 2003

Paul Schatzkin “Television is 75” 2002

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