Because if we, as TV writers, don’t understand where the medium started and where it’s been as well as where it is, how’ll we ever be able to contribute to where it will be?
by Lee Hutchinson
Though it’s a relatively recent invention, television is a pillar of Western—and even global—culture. Even if you’re that one guy who makes it a point to mention that you don’t watch or even own a television, your life has inevitably been shaped by the small screen to some degree. Popular culture has its moments of being swept up in the comedies and dramas of the airwaves, and television (cable news in particular) indelibly established in the minds of the world that instant access to breaking news on faraway continents is a normal thing.
Even as “millennials” stray away from the idea of “watching” TV in a form recognizable or understandable to advertisers, most households in the first world still have big screens in the living rooms. For more than 60 years, television has filled the role of surrogate storyteller for a world that no longer has to spend evenings huddled around open fires. Even in the so-called “emerging market” countries, television is pervasive: TVs are inexpensive, and their ability to mesmerize and entertain ensures that they are found everywhere.
But how did we reach this point, and does anyone really know what comes next? It wasn’t so long ago that we chose to tell each other tales like shamans and bards, but nowadays we spend endless evenings staring at phosphors and LEDs.
It came from the 1950s
The development of television’s eventual core technologies stretches back into the 19th century (even farther, depending on how deep one wants to dig). But TV’s dominance and ubiquity can be traced directly to the 1950s. A post-war world found itself flush with capital and manufacturing capability, and in the USA, the black and white television exploded in popularity.
TVs had been around for quite some time in the country—local television broadcasts started as early as 1928, though the signals were extremely low resolution (as little as 48 lines) and almost no one had a TV to watch. Less than 200 “television sets” existed in the world even by 1936, and many of those were lab-built experimental affairs with different resolutions and image display mechanisms. Widespread television adoption by the public didn’t really get underway until in 1948. That’s when RCA introduced the first mass-produced TV, the RCA 630TS.