The Promise Denied, 1948-1957
The first years of American television were uncertain ones. There were questions about the acceptability of the medium by the American people. Many remembered the disastrous "introduction" of TV in 1939, a move which cost the Radio Corporation of America money and prestige when its sales and programming campaign failed to attract a mass audience.
Some in the industry questioned whether advertisers would pay the large fees demanded by local stations and networks. Radio advertising had served business well for two decades, and radio rates were lower than those of TV, even at this early stage. There were also programming problems. Television officials sought a balance between live drama, live comedy-variety shows, filmed series, vintage movies, and local productions such as news, children's shows, and homemaker programs with their limited appeal and comparatively crude production standards.
In this formative period, one of the most pressing questions concerned the utilization of blacks. The historic circumstances of postwar America suggested equitable treatment of African-American entertainers, and unbiased images. But this was a nation with deeply rooted racist institutions and traditions. To what degree should the new industry transmit egalitarian ideals at the expense of viewer ratings and advertiser revenue? Was there a place in television for black talent? What types of programs best suited African-American celebrities? To what degree should the tastes of minority viewers be considered? To what extent would prejudice, especially the institutionalized segregation found in the South, shape the content of network television? Should TV adopt the racist stereotyping that flourished in radio and motion pictures, or could the medium establish new boundaries of black expression and racial dignity? In the earliest years of television, these were profound questions that no one in the industry was prepared to answer fully.