TV History Tips

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Where did "reality TV" come from?

The Reality TV Phenomenon

To find the progenitor of today's reality TV, we need to look as far back as 1948, when Alan Funt began his classic show Candid Camera. This show created unreal situations and filmed the responses of ordinary people, often with hidden cameras. It was popular and ran for many years in one form or another.

Another step in the history of reality television came to the airwaves in 1973, in the form of a PBS documentary called An American Family. Audiences were shocked at the family's unscripted dramas -- the parents' decision to divorce and the coming-out of their gay son.

In the 1970s and 1980s, video equipment became more portable, and shows like Cops and America's Most Wanted took the audience out of the studio and into real locations to tell real stories. Cheap to produce, such shows quickly became a staple of television schedules.

In 1992, MTV took the idea a step further by creating an environment in which "reality" could happen. The Real World series, which brought together secret cameras, personal revelations, unscripted events and tight editing, appealed to voyeur-viewers and spawned a wide range of variations, from the highly popular (Survivor, The Osbournes) to the cheesy (The Swan, for instance, which presented cosmetic surgery as the solution to its "ugly" contestants' problems).

How have television sets changed?

From Cabinet to Wall Hanging

The earliest commercially available television sets had tiny screens, with a diagonal measurement of just 5 inches. You could buy one from a factory for $150 (a large sum in the 1930s!) or assemble it yourself from a $58 kit.

In the 1950s, as televisions became a standard part of a middle-class family home, women's magazines published articles on how to arrange your furniture to accommodate the new devices. "Console" models were made to resemble furniture, and many included cabinet doors so the screen could be tastefully concealed from view when not in use. A special type of lamp -- the "TV lamp," usually small and often shaped like an animal or quaint object -- was placed on top to help ease eyestrain from looking at the screen. (The lamps are now sought after as collectibles.)

In the 1960s and '70s, television screens got larger, and more and more families could afford color sets. At the same time, transistors made possible the miniature or portable television. This made it possible to have televisions in the garage, the kitchen and even outdoors.

Census data show the average American home had 2.4 TV sets in 2001. The large wooden cabinet in the living room has become a flat screen hung on the wall, while multiple sets allow family members to pursue their individual programming choices.

What are the next big things in television?

The Future of Television

You can get e-mail on a television screen. You can watch DVDs on your computer. It's not hard to envision a future where the same screens serve up both the interactivity of the Internet and the wide range of entertainment available on TV.

Americans have shown an appetite for giant screens and Sharp and Panasonic have obliged with diagonal measurements as high as 108 inches.

Many people now have digital video recorders (DVRs) such as TiVo, which allow them to save shows to a hard drive, and even let the machine choose shows it thinks its owners will like. This kind of flexibility may become cross-functional, with recorded shows available on a portable player or on multiple screens in the same house.

At the same time, it's becoming easier and easier to bypass commercial programming altogether and create your own. Internet video sites such as YouTube and Google Video have become a hit, often with such mundane fare as a home video of a kitten falling asleep. New technology will make it easier to create and share your own work, or turn your life into a reality series.

What is HDTV?

The High Definition Standard

The first high-definition television (HDTV) sets went on the market in 1998, and for several years HDTV was the province of video enthusiasts with money to burn. Recently, prices for HDTV sets have come down to within reach of ordinary families, and more and more people are looking forward to watching the Super Bowl, American Idol or Rachael Ray in stunningly sharp images with brilliant color.

This doesn't always happen. For one thing, some networks and cable providers aren't yet offering HDTV signals. You can't receive a signal that's better than the one being sent out from the source. You may even find that you get a better HDTV signal with an over-the-air antenna than through your cable provider.

When you go to an electronics store to look at HDTV sets, ask for the HDTV expert, and get this person's name and business card. Write down the model numbers of the sets that interest you, and use the Internet to verify any claims about a certain set's resolution.

Talk to your cable provider and make sure your current cable box is capable of receiving and displaying HDTV. Most cable companies will let you exchange your old box for an HDTV-compatible one for free.

Who invented the television?

Who Invented Television?

No one person was the inventor of the television. Instead, it evolved through the work of many scientists and innovators over several decades.

By the time the word "television" was introduced at the 1900 World's Fair in Paris, several inventors had taken steps toward the transmission of images over wires. In the mid-1920s, American Charles Jenkins and Scotsman John Baird both demonstrated the transmission of moving images.

By the beginning of World War II, several nations and companies had seen the potential in television and a few thousand sets -- many of them built from kits by electronics enthusiasts -- were in use around the world. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first U.S. president to give a televised speech, a talk at the 1939 World's Fair.

What effect has TV had on American politics?

Television and American Politics

Since the 1950s, no U.S. political candidate has been able to ignore the pervasive influence of television. In 1952, vice-presidential candidate Richard Nixon took to the airwaves to defend himself against corruption charges in his famous "Checkers" speech. The speech -- in which he denied receiving unethical gifts, except for a cocker spaniel named Checkers given to his children -- is widely credited with keeping him on Dwight Eisenhower's ticket.

That year, Eisenhower became the first presidential candidate to make and air political ads. His opponent, Adlai Stevenson, refused to follow suit and lost the election. Eisenhower later became the first president to permit a televised press conference.

Nixon, who so cleverly used the medium to make an emotional appeal to the public in 1952, came off poorly eight years later, when he ran for president against a young New Englander, John F. Kennedy. Kennedy, with his fresh, handsome face, Boston Irish accent and optimistic outlook, won many voters before he opened his mouth in their "debate," while Nixon's labored refutations of Kennedy's points went unnoticed by viewers turned off by his 5 o'clock shadow and sweaty forehead.

Today's politicians are already savvy in their taped appearances before sympathetic crowds and their staffs of TV strategists. They now find themselves obliged to reach beyond the news programs and retune their personalities for a younger audience, one that gets its news from comedians (like Jon Stewart) and celebrities. Visuals, too, are more important than ever, with HDTV sets likely to reveal the slightest miscue. There is no sign that television is likely to lose its predominance as a method for disseminating political messages.

How did cable television come into popularity?

History of Cable Television

Unlike the history of television itself, cable television can claim a single inventor, John Walson of Pennsylvania. In the late 1940s, he sold and repaired TV sets in mountainous Mahanoy City. When his customers reported they had trouble receiving Philadelphia stations, he set up a "community antenna" on a mountaintop and connected his customers' TVs to it via cables.

A few years later, Milton Shapp, who became governor of Pennsylvania later on, used a similar antenna-and-cables system to wire an entire apartment building to receive TV signals, replacing the forest of antennas feeding each individual set.

By 1962, there were about 800 cable networks in the United States, mostly receiving network broadcasts from major cities and sending them to rural areas and places with poor reception.

In the 1970s came pay television, starting with Home Box Office (HBO) and satellite television, which allowed a single signal to be received all over North America. Thus began the history of cable television as we know it today. By 2005, nearly 85 percent of television households subscribed to cable.

How did television develop into an industry?

An Industry Called Broadcasting

The first daily schedule in American television history belonged to a CBS station in New York City, W2XCR. Among its claims to fame was broadcasting the first televised wedding in 1931. Yet television remained a largely experimental medium, restricted to a few thousand electronics enthusiasts, until after World War II.

By that time, American television makers and station owners were able to refer to a broadcast standard set by the National Television System Committee in an effort to impose order on the array of different technologies that had evolved. The NTSC standard remains in use in broadcasting to this day.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began handing out television licenses to communities, leading to a boom in sales of television sets and demand for television programming. Half of all households in the U.S. had television sets by 1955.

For several decades, TV was dominated by three commercial networks, NBC, CBS and ABC. More recently, smaller networks, such as Fox, have evolved to challenge the "Big Three," which have also faced major competition from cable television. Cable TV stations, like CNN and MSNBC, have gotten into the mix, each bringing a different perspective to the American audience. With these varying opinions, the history of TV has changed because more views are being expressed and even creating controversy at times.

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