When television flickered into America's living rooms in the years after World War II, it took less than a decade for it to overtake radio as the nation's dominant entertainment medium. Between 1948 and 1959, years now considered the “Golden Age of Television,” a mix of pioneering shows, from "Howdy Doody" to “I Love Lucy” to “Dragnet,” began shaping and redefining TV—and with it, American culture.
While the technology for the new medium had been introduced before the war, it wasn’t until 1947 that full-scale commercial TV broadcasts began. At first, a handful of stations operated, with limited broadcast range. But as the number of stations, channels and programs scaled up, so did TV sales: U.S. households owning a TV set rose from 2 percent in 1948 to almost 90 percent by 1960.
Television heightened the nation’s sense of shared community, fostered for decades by radio. Americans could now see events happening live, thousands of miles away, from the comfort of their living rooms or local taverns. Some 29 million people around the country watched Dwight Eisenhower’s 1953 presidential inauguration. 14 years later, 45 million football fans viewed the heart-stopping NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, helping launch the nation's enduring love affair between TV and football.
Dominant TV personalities also captured the nation’s collective attention. Within two months of its 1948 debut, Milton Berle’s “Texaco Star Theater” was so popular, it was the only network show not preempted for coverage of Harry Truman’s surprise election upset over Thomas Dewey. And the same day that comedienne Lucille Ball, in real life, gave birth by a scheduled Cesarean section, 44 million households—or nearly three-quarters of those with a television—tuned in to see her TV alter ego Lucy Ricardo scramble to the hospital to give birth to Little Ricky.
Here are the pioneering genres and shows that helped shape TV entertainment for decades to come.
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Drama: ‘Bah, Humbug!’
Early on, TV beamed dramatic plays normally seen only on Broadway stages right into people’s living rooms. Kraft Television Theatre (1947-58), Pulitzer Prize Playhouse (1950-52) and other showcases presented live telecasts of new original plays and well-known works like "A Christmas Carol" and "Wuthering Heights."
Some derided these plays as “amateurs playing at home movies”—in part because most well-known and respected actors and directors were busy with films, Broadway or vaudeville. So small-screen producers turned to fresher talent, helping launch or propel the careers of Helen Hayes, James Dean, Cloris Leachman, Jack Lemmon and William Shatner, among others. Young writers such as Gore Vidal, Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling wrote and produced weekly anthology teleplays later considered prestige television.
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Variety/Comedy: ‘Listen to Your Uncle Miltie’
Comedy in early TV started off with a bang when entertainer Milton Berle brought vaudeville’s frenetic mix of music, comedy, animals and jugglers straight into people’s living rooms with the “Texaco Star Theater” variety show.
Funnyman Berle, who usually opened the show dressed in outrageous costumes, made it a laugh-out-loud smash hit. Movie ticket sales dipped the nights his show aired. Restaurants cleared out before air time. His autobiography notes a strange phenomenon observed in Detroit: When he would sign off at 9 p.m., water levels in the city’s reservoirs would fall drastically when everyone rushed to the bathroom. By the time “Uncle Miltie” left the show in 1956 after eight seasons, he was credited with the dramatic rise in national TV set sales, earning him the nickname “Mr. Television.”
His success paved the way for a slew of other emcees with competing variety shows—perhaps most notably, Ed Sullivan.
Westerns: ‘Hi-Yo Silver! Away!’
The American West became a popular backdrop for early TV—and a showcase for what TIME magazine called Hollywood’s “he-manly specimens.” “Hopalong Cassidy” and “The Lone Ranger” (both 1949-57) led a long line of pistol-packing, small-screen frontier heroes whose job was to help sheriffs vanquish villains. The shows may have been mostly shot on California sound stages using poor scripts, but TIME declared of their heroes, “Their teeth were glittering, their biceps bulging, their pistols blazing right there in the living room.”
“The Lone Ranger,” riding the small-screen frontier on his horse Silver with his Native American sidekick Tonto, topped the ratings in the early ’50s. By 1959, 30 westerns dominated prime time, and merchandise sales exploded. Sales of the “Hopalong Cassidy” lunchbox, the first to bear an image, jumped from 50,000 to 600,000 in one year.
By the 1960s, viewers’ love for Westerns began to fade—except for “Gunsmoke” (1955-75), the second Western series written for adults. Mixing shootouts with psychological drama and social issues like rape and civil disobedience made it the top-rated show from 1957 to 1961. It went on to become the 20th century’s longest-running primetime live-action TV series.
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Sitcoms: ‘Lucy, You Got Some ‘Splainin’ To Do!’
Situation comedies—or sitcoms—blossomed in these years. Many, like “Amos ‘n’ Andy” (1951-53), originated on radio; some, like “The Honeymooners” (1955), began as skits on variety shows. Most series centered around families, like “Mama” (1949-57), “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” (1952-66) and “Father Knows Best” (1954-60).
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“I Love Lucy” (1951-57), the blockbuster hit starring the husband-and-wife team of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, revolutionized TV in multiple ways. The uproarious scenes of Lucy stomping grapes in a wine vat or being confounded by chocolates on a candy assembly line were shot in Hollywood, not broadcast live from New York City, as were many shows of the day. The sitcom was one of the first shot before a studio audience, using at least three cameras, setting the trend for TV entertainment productions for decades to come. It also shot with 35-millimeter film, a much higher-quality medium than other shows used, allowing Ball and Arnaz to pioneer the use of lucrative syndicated re-runs. And at a time when most Hispanic Americans faced deep discrimination, “I Love Lucy”—against producers’ early wishes—showcased its stars' multiethnic marriage. It was America’s most-watched show on television for four of its six seasons, one other producers scrambled to emulate.
Science Fiction: ‘Next Stop, The Twilight Zone’
Creators of early science fiction shows worked to pioneer special effects. In the low-budget “Captain Video and His Video Rangers” (1949-55), the first popular sci-fi show, characters were superimposed onto cheap sets using reflective lighting, considered cutting edge at the time.
Just months later, two other groundbreaking series—"Tom Corbett, Space Cadet” and “Space Patrol” (both 1950-55)—had more money and larger sets to stir its young viewers’ imaginations. Pitched as a cop show in space in the 30th century, “Space Patrol” featured Commander Buzz Corry and his crew wielding props like ray guns and a metal-helmet “brainagram” machine that could pluck images from the human mind.
Science fiction for adults wasn’t far behind. Episodes warned viewers about invading aliens bent on bodysnatching humans or time-traveling fugitives from the future hiding in current-day California. “Tales of Tomorrow” (1951-53) and the semi-documentary “Science Fiction Theatre” (1955-57) served as the precursors to Rod Serling’s iconic “The Twilight Zone,” which debuted in 1959, becoming a cornerstone of the genre well into the 1960s.
Game & Quiz Shows: Want a Pie in the Face With That Scandal?
High-stakes quiz shows were must-see TV in the 1950s. Viewers tested their knowledge or watched contestants chosen from the studio audience solve puzzles or face wacky challenges to win money or prizes from the sponsors. At their peak, 22 game and quiz shows aired weekly.
“Truth or Consequences” (1950-58) had already been on radio for 10 years before becoming TV’s first game show. On it, contestants faced trick questions, and when they couldn’t answer, had to perform a zany, somewhat embarrassing stunt, like having to dress a monkey in children’s clothing or run an obstacle race through the studio against an Olympic athlete camouflaged as an old woman. The show continued, on and off, through the mid ’60s, and was revived in several incarnations.
In 1958-59, a scandal rattled viewers’ faith in TV quiz shows, after a disgruntled contestant on “Twenty-One” (1956-58) blew the whistle on producers feeding answers to favored contestants. University instructor Charles Van Doren’s winnings reached $129,000 before he was pressured to confess in 1959. No laws were broken, but the revelation about “rigging” that show and others prompted congressional hearings. In response, networks temporarily removed high-stakes quiz shows from their lineups.
Children’s: ‘It’s Howdy Doody Time!’
Pioneering children’s TV focused on making kids laugh, but the most popular shows appealed to adults as well. In the sock puppet world of “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” (1947-57), comedian and singer Fran Allison ad-libbed and bantered with Ollie, the moody, one-tooth dragon, and other characters performed by puppeteer and show creator Burr Tillstrom. According to the Television Academy, at the show’s peak, its ratings were comparable to Milton Berle’s and its cast received up to 15,000 letters a day.
“The Howdy Doody Show” (1947-60) introduced kids to the town of Doodyville, with its circus full of goofy marionettes—the red-haired, freckled namesake foremost among them—and humans Buffalo Bob and Clarabell, a mute, big-footed clown who occasionally squirted seltzer at Buffalo Bob’s nose. The show’s blockbuster status was confirmed when Howdy ran a campaign for “president of all kids” in 1948, and the show received 60,000 requests for campaign buttons—roughly one-third of U.S. households with TV sets at the time.
When “Captain Kangaroo” (1955-84) appeared on the small screen speaking about good manners, respect and fair play, fun became more educational. Bob Keeshan (who played Clarabell on “Howdy Doody” before becoming the Captain) showed videos of himself riding with a tiger on a speedboat or of curious kids on a class trip daring to pet a Mexican tarantula. Eschewing a studio audience, he preferred that his cast—Dancing Bear, Banana Man and Mr. Green Jeans—address kids at home, one-on-one, through the TV screen. After 9,000 performances in 29 years on CBS, “Captain Kangaroo” became the longest-running nationally broadcast children’s TV program of its time.
Crime: ‘The Story You Are About to See Is True.’
Most early TV crime shows basically adapted the murder and mayhem of radio crime dramas to the small screen—but with haunting black-and-white visuals upping the suspense.
“Martin Kane, Private Eye” (1949-54) vowed to “crack the case wide open” on live television while pitching the sponsor’s pipe tobacco and cigarettes. The film-noir style “Man Against Crime,” also known as “Follow that Man,” (1949-54) opened every episode with a man chased down the street, falling in a hail of machine gun fire at the private eye’s door.
The most innovative early crime show centered around Los Angeles cops, with storylines ripped from local headlines. Narrated by its terse protagonist Sgt. Joe Friday, “Dragnet” (1951-59) used a semi-documentary approach, with actual locations and unusual, noir-inspired camera angles to tell the story. Episodes emphasized shoe-leather police work more than shootouts, and sharp editing and extremely tight close ups to intensify the action. According to the Television Academy, “Dragnet” was, by 1954, watched by more than half of America's television households.