The history of television is at once familiar and unexpected, in that television, like every new medium, experienced a time when it was simultaneously written off as a fad and hailed as a world-changing wave of the future. The truth was somewhat more nuanced, because although television did change the world in serious, wide-ranging ways, it did not do so in the way many early critics and theorists suspected. By examining the evolution of television, including the context of its invention and its impact on other media, it will be possible to better understand not only how the history of television exemplifies the development of all new mediums, from the novel to videogames, but also how the unique qualities of television and its affect on the public consciousness shaped the contemporary world by transitioning humanity from structured monopolies to anarchistic experimentation.
Like many of inventions arising out of the intense scientific interest of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, as a technology television was not the result of a single innovation, but rather the combination of efforts by a number of individuals and organizations reaching all the way back to the first efforts at photography (Armes, 1988, p. 12). Like the myriad machines and devices constructed to play and record audio, the first televisions and television broadcasts were all slightly different and based on the specific designs of whichever scientist or inventor happened to create it (Edgerton, 2007, p. 3). Film production and exhibition was ramping up at the same time that these early television prototypes were being developed, so at first, it seems understandable if the public was not particularly interested in television during the early years of the twentieth century; the idea of transmitting images via electromagnetic waves in a manner similar to radio, though novel, did not appear to threaten the hegemony of film, especially because the earliest television prototypes could not transmit moving images.
It was not until the 1920s that live, moving images became possible, but even then the audience and the broadcasting power was simply not great enough to spark a true change. The first television broadcasts in 1928 were crude, with resolution far below what would be considered the bare minimum today, but they kicked off a gradual process of refinement and development (Huff, 2001, p. 111). Thus, General Electric's 1928 broadcasts were at thirty lines or resolution, meaning that they could only transmit thirty vertical lines of black on a white background, but by 1935 Great Britain was setting standards for television broadcasts as 240 lines of resolution (Huff, 2001, p. 111). The evolution was slow (compared to the exponential developments in media and technology in the twenty-first century), but gradually television broadcasts became easy and of high enough quality to truly break into the media landscape; all it needed now was an audience, and the actual televisions to watch on.
Like with any new medium, television ultimately required the financial backing of the existing media powers to be successful, and it found it in the form of the Radio Corporation of America, or RCA (whose name is today synonymous with television, rather than radio) (Edgerton, 2007, p. 3). RCA was headed by David Sackoff, who had gotten his start working for Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the wireless telegraph (Edgerton, 2007, p. 4). When Marconi's American holdings were spun off into a separate company, Sackoff became the head of what would turn into RCA. Arguably one of the most important decisions made after the formation of RCA was the development of the National Broadcasting Company in 1926, a broadcasting subsidiary that could also be used to market and sell the actual radios manufactured by RCA (Edgerton, 2007, p. 5). Sackoff parlayed NBC's success in order to drum up public interest for television, so that by 1939, the public had already experienced "the most extensive and ballyhooed series of public relations events ever staged around any mass medium in American history" (Edgerton, 2007, p. ).
The publicity surrounding television's grand debut at the New York World's Fair in 1939 offers a useful point to briefly interrupt the history of television itself in order to discuss it in the context of other arts and media at the time, because in many ways the excited run-up to television's debut can only be explained and understood in the context of the mass media that had been developing for the previous forty years. In short, one may view television as the first medium to truly emerge from within the preexisting context of a mass media environment, rather than as a constituent element of that burgeoning environment. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw the beginning of a true mass media, because the rise of film exhibition, newspaper monopolies, telegraph, and radio, meant that news, art, and entertainment could be transmitted to a much larger proportion of the population than was previously possible, and a speed that would have been nearly unimaginable only a few decades earlier. Newspapers, and to a much greater extent film and radio, created the first true public consciousness, because all of a sudden people across an entire country might be united in their consumption of the same news and entertainment.
Thus, when television debuted, it did so in the context of this transformed world. Rather than one more in the line of inventions and innovations that marked the dramatic transition from the nineteenth century into the twentieth, television seemed to signal a new transition, where the even the physical boundaries that had at least forced people to attend films together and in public could be done away with. This is why, even in a world that had rapidly seen the invention of film, radio, aviation, and world-wide chemical warfare, television seemed to mark a step into the future. When RCA debuted their televisions at the New York World's Fair in 1939, they were not simply demonstrating the newest technological device, but rather were presenting a new medium born out of the interaction of the very media that had defined the previous fifty years.
However, even as television debuted as a much-anticipated and "ballyhooed" form of communication, World War II effectively disrupted its roll-out, such that it would not become "the dominant mass medium in the United States" until well into the 1950s (Slotten, 2000, p. 68). However, even this interruption probably helped television's reception in the long run, because the ascendance of television during the 1950s was partially due to its role as a status symbol, the technological centerpiece of the new, modern home emerging from the devastation of World War II. In fact, one can even argue that in the same way "the end of the First World War gave a stimulus to developments in radio, […] the conclusion of the Second World War initiated the inexorable spread of television world-wide" (Armes, 1988, p. 114).
War is actually more closely tied to the development of media than one might expect, or at least wish to believe. For example, photography was becoming particularly popular during the outbreak of the American Civil War, and the possibility of actually photographing battles and their aftermath helped encourage the growth and development of the medium. William Randolph Hearst is (in)famous for using his newspapers to encourage the Spanish-American war, and the war itself helped cement both his power and the power of newspapers themselves. As mentioned above, World War I encouraged the development of the radio, and World War II the television, demonstrating the continuity between the evolution of television and other mediums.
However, one of the central points of this study is that the evolution of television is both familiar and unexpected, because although television's rise to prominence can be explained in part by processes equally present in the development of other mediums, one must still recognize that the change brought about by both the live and recorded broadcast of sound and images affected the human imagination and experience more fundamentally than anything before it. To see the import of this change, one may note how the entertainment products transmitted on television changed as the medium matured. As would be expected, the early television shows were more often than not adapted from radio programs, not only because the kinds of actors who could do weekly or daily performances were working in radio, but because the first television broadcasts were done by companies that were previously radio broadcasters. Thus, NBC's earliest television shows were simply adaptations of their radio shows.
However, as time went on, television began to develop aesthetic and formal standards of its own, borrowing from film where it was useful and creating new standards wholesale where needed. As a result, television created a kind of democratization of entertainment media, because the rapid ubiquity of television sets, coupled with the (almost) infinite broadcasting space, meant that any company or producer with the money and inclination could develop its own program. Although this has resulted in quite a few obvious knock-offs and imitations,…