The Television Cycle, Ctd

Andrew Sullivan —  May 31 2012 @ 7:35am

A professor who specializes in media history writes:

You linked to an article that is so incorrect on the history of the broadcast television season that I can't let it go. It sounds perfectly reasonable that the auto industry ran early TV – but it's completely inaccurate. The original television season was wholly adapted from the traditional radio broadcast season, which had been in existence for two decades by 1948-9 when television first exploded.

That season generally ended in June and started the first week of October. The classic radio and early TV season – 39 weeks, with 13 weeks off for the summer – was adapted from the traditional vaudeville season. In the summer, before movie theaters got air conditioning, it was just too hot over much of America (and farm workers were just too tired) to have the vaudeville circuits running at full steam. The summer is when the second-stringers went into the near-empty theaters (if they even stayed open) while the stars rested in various vaudeville beach colonies. The great radio comedian Fred Allen wrote extensively about both the connection between the vaudeville, radio, and TV broadcasting seasons in his two classic autobiographies, Treadmill to Oblivion and Much Ado About Me.

The author's statements about automobiles dominating early TV advertising to such an extent that they set the parameters of the broadcast season makes zeros sense in other ways. For example, here are the sponsors of the 15 top-rated broadcasts in 1950-1: Texaco, Proctor & Gamble, Philco, Admiral, Colgate, Gillette, General Mills, Lipton Tea, Sunbeam Bread, Maxwell House Coffee, Lucky Strike Cigarettes (two programs), RJ Reynolds Tobacco, Kraft Food products, and, finally, in 15th place, the only car company – Lincoln Mercury. Auto advertising came late to TV – the most important sponsors in early TV were selling low-cost, everyday use, items: household cleaners, foodstuffs, personal care products, and cigarettes. This is very well-established by media historians.