Remember What it Was Like to Get a New T.V. in 1949?

One may smile, and smile, and be a villain. – Shakespeare, Hamlet

T.V. was the biggest stay-at-home amusement in the late 1940s through the early '50s. 

Who could believe, before then, that such a sci-fi device would one day be sold in local stores? TV or not TV: Whether ’tis nobler to let T.V. be or pull the plug?

We got our T.V. in 1949, a consolette type that would not fit where we wanted it unless we made room for it by moving out the piano! This drastic measure seemed appropriate since moving the T.V. in was “like bringing the theater into the house.”

These plug-in boxes with little glass “movie screens” of glass with in-curving left and right sides demanded much more attention than radio. With radio, as long as quiet was maintained, you could follow a program anywhere in the house while sitting, working, playing. But TV was audio-visual and unless you were in front of the screen, as in a movie theater, you missed a major part of the program.

If every home had a T.V. set, went the thinking in these first days of television, why would anyone want go to the movies in the first place? Would movie houses shut down? Why even go to the theater to see a play when live drama of exceptional quality and originality, directed by people like Sidney Lumet, came right into the living room each Sunday evening? True, most fare fell short of that excellence, but except for the sleaze that  inevitably finds its way into popular entertainment, writing and staging for television in those days were of an astonishingly high caliber.

After the initial excitement of T.V., I wondered if this electronic marvel invading everybody’s home would be a boon or a bane to modern living? My skepticism of its touted benefits did not take long to start growing. Groucho Marx even joked about this when he remarked: “I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.”

So, you took the junk on T.V. and the drivel from fake liberals of the news business with treasures like the “Hit Parade,” where each of the “Top Ten” was superbly choreographed differently every Saturday. When, for example, the song “I Ain’t Got Nobody” had been mounted so many ways that ideas for something novel ran thin, the dancers appeared as ghosts singing “I Ain’t Got No Body.”

Future viewers would never savor the thrill of live performance in these early days of television. It was taken for granted that what you watched was taking place now in the studio. A preliminary loop in transmission for cutting obscenities did not alter the fact that what was happening on stage and what was viewed at home were simultaneous events. Much of the excitement of watching came from the performers’ awareness that they were facing a nation-wide audience. Accidents and goofs became  part of the fun. The daring and the inventiveness of performers having a good time gave these nascent days of television a vitality that would never be recaptured when programs got routinely prerecorded and edited. As shows became canned, T.V. entertainment lost its real-time liveliness.

Image: Anthony J. DeBlasi

As with radio, the television set would sometimes develop a glitch and stop working right. Then the T.V. was turned away from the wall and its dozen or so vacuum tubes pulled out and carried to the local drug store in a bag or box, with a few dollars in the pocket for replacing the bad one(s). Pharmacies kept an inventory of replacement tubes.  It was fun to use the tube tester to find the culprit. But it was no fun putting the tubes back in all the correct sockets. This could be an elaborate exercise in futility if the tubes all tested good or if replacing the defective one(s) did not clear the glitch, which meant calling the T.V. repairman.

In spite of the fair number of outstanding shows, I was not convinced that television would live up to its vaunted promise of better living for all. Perhaps I expected too much from this wonder of technology. But the junk that came through the set fed my suspicion that “progress” could in as many ways degenerate as advance the tenor of home life. At best, T.V. would ride the polls of “popularity” to a place near the bottom of any chart of excellence in entertainment and communications. At worst? Though I hadn’t yet read George Orwell’s 1984, in which television is used in a most evil way, it had for a long time been a hunch of mine that since “money talks,” technological progress can be detrimental (to say the least) to those at the receiving end. (Need I bring up the blood-chilling tech advances proposed by transhumanists today? Who in his or her right mind wants a tech chip stuck in the brain?)

My attitude toward technology remains, now as then, a mix of love for its enhancement of life and hate for its damning moral neutrality. The tools and toys of technology are indeed wonderful, and praise be to advances in technology that repair bodies and actually help people live better. But chronic ambivalence toward the evolution of products that can readily turn against people, even annihilate them more efficiently, is profoundly troubling. Television and much of cyberspace remain a manipulative tool of amoral moguls who by their actions demonstrate what little regard they have for human life.

At the very least, it should be obvious to anyone with a healthy skepticism and a modicum of good sense that television is not the way to get what’s going on in the world.

So why do I keep my T.V. set? Well, I use it to watch classic movies, including some I recorded from PBS transmissions before it turned left and ended its delivery of top-ranking television, the sad fate of many a once worthy channel of communication and entertainment.

I keep wondering how long it will take for mainstream Americans to “get it,” as Josh Billing did, remarking: “The trouble with most folks isn’t their ignorance. It’s knowin’ so many things that ain’t so.”


Anthony J. DeBlasi is a military and culture war veteran.

Image: Anthony J. DeBlasi, by permission

If you experience technical problems, please write to