You sit placidly in front of your 50-inch HD screen, clicking on whatever TV show strikes your fancy. It wasn't always like this. Television has gone through tremendous transformations during its relatively short lifespan. The medium started off small: in 1948, only 0.4 percent of homes in the U.S. had TVs. But radio listeners began to switch on televisions, and, in seven years, TV ownership had increased to 55 percent [source: Johnson]. By 2014, televisions had expanded to 116 million households [source: Nielsen]. And remember when there wasn't even color? (No, you probably don't.)
Those changes only cover screens, tubes and boxes. Techniques, equipment, financing, writing, monitoring and producing have come a long way since the early days. If you continue reading, you'll see: TV today is not your father's television.
And the winner is ... well, the winner. In 2009, an Emmy Award statuette cost between $300 and $400 to make, but the award has much greater value than just its gold plating. Emmys can have a big impact on the individuals, networks or series that receive them. The influence started early in television's history. Though originally limited to entrants from California, by 1950 the Emmys were open to shows produced outside Los Angeles.
A show that struggles in the ratings but gets love from the Academy can receive a second look from the network. For example, when "30 Rock" won an Emmy for outstanding comedy series on its first try in 2007, NBC started to see its long-term prospects. The staff even got better offices! Though the show never had stellar ratings, its 103 nominations and 16 wins helped keep it on the air [source: The Hollywood Reporter].
An Emmy win can boost the career of a new or supporting actor. When Katherine Heigl won for "Grey's Anatomy" in 2007, the movie industry came calling. The award is also a badge of honor for smaller networks. In 2002, Michael Chiklis, star of the hyper-violent series "The Shield," won for outstanding actor. The FX network was validated; it really did have quality programming. Afterward, more advertisers were willing to sign on. AMC, the little network that could, proved it was competitive with larger, more experienced networks when "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" won Emmy after Emmy.
You may have a great show, but is anyone tuned in? Never fear, the Nielsens are here, and they can tell you who's watching, how long they watch and what they're eating. (OK, snacks haven't actually made it into the ratings – yet.) The Nielsen Television Index starting collecting data in 1950. A meter attached to a television tracks what's viewed and sends the info to a computer center. Across the U.S., Nielsen families are selected to match demographic and racial distributions.
These TV ratings were not only used to help determine which series stay on the air, the numbers are also vital to advertising. The better a show's ratings, the more advertisers are willing to spend to get their commercials in front of many, many eyes. But simple numbers aren't enough. Advertisers care about demographics. Got a fancy new car to sell? You don't want to put your commercial in front of a bunch of kids. It's important to hit the intended audience. And make no mistake; those advertising dollars are crucial – and ubiquitous. When you take away commercials and network promos, the average "hour-long" drama is around 40 minutes long [source: Jacob]. Or 40 minutes short.
Although the first television commercial – a 10 second Bulova watch spot – appeared in 1941, TV ads didn't make a real impact until the 1950s [source: Jacob]. Were people really going to stop listening to radio – and its commercials – and switch to television? Advertisers weren't sure. Should they just add images to radio ads, or was there a different way to go? Early in the decade, Americans fell in love with television, and, consequently, so did advertisers. Seeing was believing: Consumers' brand recognition was much higher for television commercials than radio ads. Companies began to sponsor entire series, which were produced by ad agencies. Shows like the "Kraft Television Hour" and "Colgate Comedy Hour" highlighted the sponsor but were very expensive to make.
NBC found a solution with the "magazine concept" of advertising. One- to two-minute commercials from different companies were spread throughout the show. Sound familiar? By the 1960s, this was standard operating procedure for television. Producers had another reason to vary their advertisers. In the late 1950s, a TV cheating scandal erupted. Some quiz shows, which had single sponsors, were not run fair and square. Series like "Twenty-One" and "The $64,000 Question" had fudged their results. Viewers were offended and outraged, and the days of single-sponsored shows were numbered. Guess the quiz questions never focused on advertising ethics.
Early television had a serious side. At the start of the 1950s, news programs consisted of mini-broadcasts accompanied by newsreel footage. Radio newscasters turned to television and switched from being the voice to the face of the news. These highly trusted sources brought thought-provoking images of news stories to the American public. For instance, in 1954, Edward R. Murrow began reporting on the McCarthy anti-communist hearings, and it helped bring an end to the investigations.
Evening news shows became a staple for many American families. In 1963, Walter Cronkite at CBS headed up the first 30-minute nightly news broadcast. Later that year, NBC entered the fray with the "Huntley-Brinkley Report," but ABC didn't join in until 1967. Sixty-three also saw a monumental special news broadcast: the funeral of President John F. Kennedy. More than 90 percent of all American homes with televisions tuned in [source: Audio Engineering Society].
"Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!" The NBC late-night show was unusual for the 1970s, but the early days of television were all about live performances. Forget your line? Too bad, because the cameras were rolling, and the audience was watching. Early variety comedy shows, such as "Your Show of Shows" with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, walked the exciting "anything can happen" line during live transmissions. Early dramas were simple but not simplistic, featuring writers like Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling and actors such as Paul Newman and Angela Lansbury.
As exciting as live TV could be, by the 1950s, filmed shows were replacing live broadcasts. With pre-recording possible, new types of shows, such as police, courtroom, hospital and mystery dramas, appeared. Directors could easily call for different camera angles, and shows were not limited to the four walls of the studio. It wasn't all about the art, as there was another incentive, too: money. Once a series was captured on film, syndication became possible. Gotta catch up on all those "Petticoat Junction" episodes you missed.
It's not just the kids of today who love TV. As early as 1951, television had 27 hours of children's programming [source: Museum of Broadcast Communications]. Just like radio, action-adventure series such as "Lassie" and "Sky King" were popular. Puppets, too, were all the rage with "The Howdy Doody Show" and "Kukla, Fran and Ollie." Early kids' shows were typically one-half hour episodes shown in late afternoon and evening slots. By the mid-1950s, Saturday mornings had become "kid time."
However, during the '60s, most other children's programming died when animated series appeared. It was about dollars; animation was far cheaper to produce than live action. Cartoons were created using an assembly line format. Characters were brought to semi-life with limited and simple body movements. With few exceptions, Saturday morning became the "go-to" television time for kids. "The Flintstones," an animated series about civilized cavemen and their families, debuted on Friday nights in 1960. But yabba-dabba-do-not mistake this for a children's show. This primetime cartoon was intended for families.
Broadcast television shows may not have been perfect, but at least they were free. However, that all changed in 1972, when the first pay network, HBO, came on the scene. Previously, viewers' only choices were the three major networks, PBS and local independent stations. Suddenly, unedited, commercial-free movies were available on home TVs. Boxing matches, comedy specials and original programming came later. Unfortunately, rollout was slow; not everyone in the country got the HBO joy at once. Atlanta station WTBS was next on the scene, and by the end of the decade, cable had 16 million subscribers [source: California Cable].
But how could the new system grow? Deregulation legislation. The 1984 Cable Act motivated investment in pay television. Expansion exploded, and the California Cable and Telecommunications Association reports that 53 million homes had cable by the end of the decade. But that's not enough. Satellite networks expanded during the next 10 years, and when the 21st century rolled around, 70 percent of American homes were enjoying cable ... and more.
Other options popped up. Consumers could stream television through a number of sources, including Amazon Prime, Netflix and Hulu. Non-broadcast series started to win awards. In 2013, the non-broadcast series "Homeland," "Breaking Bad," "Boardwalk Empire," "House of Cards" and "The Newsroom"dominated the Emmys for dramas [source: Hughes]. This achievement is huge, considering that non-broadcast shows were not even allowed to compete until the late 1980s. Once they got into the game, it was no holds barred.
"I'm sorry, you'll have to miss your show. We have to go to your uncle's birthday party." How many broadcast TV shows were missed because of special occasions, work schedules or time conflicts? Sure, there were always reruns, but they lacked the thrill of first-run episodes. Viewing habits were set free with the introduction of the VCR in the 1970s. By the middle of the next decade, one third of all homes in the U.S. had VCR [source: Gendel]. Americans made the most of it by watching even more broadcast television; only 25 percent of recordings were of cable channels. Subscription to HBO decreased, but broadcast TV viewership was up by 500,000 households.
TiVo, a digital video recorder, entered the scene in 1999 [source: TiVo]. Overall, DVRs increased the number of people watching scheduled shows. They just didn't necessarily see them on the scheduled date. Viewers watch shows at their convenience, but they also have the challenge of avoiding spoilers. Advertising is impacted, too. If the cost of commercials is based on the number and demographics of viewers, how should DVR recordings be counted? When is watching "later" too late?
Keeping Up with the Voice of the Real Housewives in an Amazing Race...or something like that. Reality shows have made an indelible mark on television viewing. The grandparent of them all, MTV's "The Real World," debuted in 1992. Though the cast used their own words, show runners interpreted them, presenting the network's version of reality. Producers manipulate circumstances to achieve the most drama.
In 2000, "Survivor" and "Big Brother" competitions came on the scene. Others followed, and soon many varieties or reality TV were on the air, including dating ("The Bachelor," 2002), informational ("The Dog Whisperer," 2004), makeover ("Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," 2003), lifestyle ("The Biggest Loser," 2004), and talent ("America's Got Talent," 2006).
Reality shows were not only insanely popular, they were also cheap to produce. In 2009, the budget for a typical one-hour drama episode ran $1 to $2 million and went significantly higher for very popular series featuring highly paid casts or complex sets. On the other hand, a reality show installment typically cost a relatively modest $100,000 to $500,000 [source: Gornstein]. The bloom may be off the rose, however. The number of new unscripted series has been increasing, but fewer become solid hits [source: Hibberd]. That's a sad reality.
For a television show, you need camera, cast, crew, set...but not necessarily a TV. In this increasingly high-tech era, you don't need a television to watch a show. TV has become portable with the use of smartphones, tablets and computers. Network and other streaming video services make it easier for viewers by issuing Apps for their devices. Phones and computers are the substitutes of choice, while the popularity of tablets is declining [source: Technalysis]. Computers are multipurpose devices, and phones are smaller, so they're easier to lug around.
For consumers, moving away from the television can save money, too. Several viewing options, such as Hulu and Crackle, are free. Though you have to pay for others, the cost is still significantly less than a cable subscription. In 2011, the average cable bill set consumers back $86 per month, and it was expected to keep climbing. But for about $86, you could get a year's worth of Hulu Plus or Netflix [source: O'Connor]. Portable, less expensive: what's not to love?
HowStuffWorks looks at the history of Netflix, from DVD service to streaming.
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