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  Age of Advertising on Television

For more then twenty years when it came to making money, radio was the Fort Knox of minting gold bricks over the airwaves. Now in 1949 television was about to make toast of radio’s bread and butter.


It was plain as the nose on your face, or I should say TV dial, when the first radio noise dive came to The Fred Allen Show in June of 1949 when it abruptly went off the air after eighteen years. The moment Allen heard about television he called it  “a device that permits people who haven’t anything to do to watch people who can’t do anything.” In Allen’s days of glory he was a household name, an entire nation huddled around the radio wanting to hear his gags, what stars were going to be on and his opinions on the day’s events.

Fred Allen was state of the art radio. The most celebrated of all stunts was his bogus feud with the top-rated comic on radio, Jack Benny. One day hearing Allen make a comment about him over the air, Benny added something back and a feud began. They even appeared on each other’s shows throwing insults at each other. A great Benny line was “You wouldn’t talk that way to me if I had my writers with me!”


As soon as television took off so did the popularity of Allen out the window. Radio shows soon found themselves being shuffled out of their own studios while cameras and sets were being pushed in and installed. What television was turning into was a remarkable way to sell products and Madison Avenue started trying to figure out how to re-work the science of selling advertising on radio to television. Most of the advertising geniuses knew how to phrase words to listen to or read; now they had to figure out how to make it visual.


Their concentration would be on the appeal of household products, beer, wine, soft drinks, tobacco, household products, medical products, toiletries, apparel, appliances, cars and trucks, automotive products, gasoline and consumer services among others. It was like a narcotic, or a simple minded game of brainwashing a nation into schizophrenia, as we had to own those products showing up in between our favorite television programs. It started in the late 40s when advertising agencies tried to start perfecting the one-minute commercial.

Early television broadcasts were limited to live or filmed productions (the first practical videotape system, Ampex's Quadruplex, only became available from 1956). Broadcasting news, sports and other live events was something of a technical challenge in the early days of television, but live drama with multiple cameras was extremely challenging. A live, 90-minute drama might require a dozen sets and at least that many cameras. Major set and other changes had to occur during commercials, and there were no "second takes." The cast and crew operated with the awareness of as many as 10 million people watching and any mistake went out live. After the adoption of videotape in 1957, many live dramas were shot "live to tape," still retaining a "live" television look and feel but able to both preserve the program for later broadcast and allowing the possibility of retakes (still rare since videotape editing required a razor blade and was not done unless absolutely necessary).

In the 1940s, the three networks  NBC, CBS and ABC were "networks" in name only. All of the programming originated, live, in New York. The only way the networks had to distribute the shows to the rest of the nation was to point a film camera at a television screen and convert video to film. These 16mm films, known as kinescopes, were then duplicated and shipped to the few affiliated stations for broadcast later. By necessity, most programming was local, and cooking shows, wrestling and cartoons took up most of the broadcast day.

The networks became true networks when AT&T finished laying a system of coaxial cables from coast to coast. Coax – the now familiar cables the run from cable TV wall outlets to today's tuners – has enough bandwidth, or electrical carrying capacity, to transmit hundreds or even thousands of telephone calls as well as television signals.

In 1952 for the first time, television news was able to broadcast the Republican and Democratic conventions live from Philadelphia to the rest of the nation. The importance of that event for rural America went beyond the fact that rural residents knew in real time that Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson were running for President against each other.

  • TV signals that could reach into the most remote corners of the U.S. broke down the last vestiges of isolation in rural America.

  • Common national carriage of popular TV shows, news and sports events meant that there was a shared national experience. The day after major televised events, researchers found that almost everyone was talking about the event. They weren't saying the same things, but there was a sense of national dialog.

  • The visual and aural experience together that television allowed – especially after the advent to color TV in early 60s – meant that regional cultural differences were ironed out. A more generalized "American" culture co-opted regional subcultures.

  • Television familiarized rural residents with other regions making migration even more appealing.


Between 1949 and 1969, the number of households in the U.S. with at least one TV set rose from less than a million to 44 million. The number of commercial TV stations rose from 69 to 566. The amount advertisers paid these TV stations and the networks rose from $58 million to $1.5 billion.

Between 1959 and 1970, the percentage of households in the U.S. with at least one TV went from 88 percent to 96 percent. By 1970, there were around 700 UHF and VHF television stations; today there are 1,300. By 1970, TV stations and networks raked in $3.6 billion in ad revenues; today, that figure is over $60 billion.

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