From Cold War to Hot War:
The Video Road to Vietnam

As had no appliance before it, television experienced massive acceptance in its first years. Whereas there were few privately owned receivers in the mid-1940s, by 1960 there were TV sets in 89.4 per­cent of American homes. More people had television sets than had electric toasters, vacuum cleaners, or washing machines. And still there was a demand for sets. Between 1959 and 1961, manufacturers produced 6 million receivers annually.

Americans also used their television sets. The average household in 1961 watched TV for 5 hours and 22 minutes each day. At any minute between 7 A.M. and 1 A.M., almost 14 million homes—repre­senting 29.6 percent of all sets in the nation—had a television set turned on. In the evening hours, between 6 P.M. and 1 A.M., that figure was even higher. At that time sets were operating in more than 21 million homes, accounting for 44.9 percent of all receivers.

Needless to say, as mass acceptance of television increased, so did corporate revenues. Whereas in 1948 the total revenue earned by networks and stations was $8.7 million, in 1958 the industry grossed more than $1 billion. In 1960 total revenue was $1,268,600,000.

More important than the quantitative acceptance of video, the American people quickly assimilated TV into the quality of their lives. Receivers were placed in bedrooms, living rooms, dens, and other areas where families relaxed in the informality and security of home. Parents often used TV sets as diversion for their children. TV watching became a national practice in the prime time evening hours. Increasingly, as daytime and late-night programming improved, Americans spent more time watching during those hours.

Yet, more than an entertainment appliance, television was a one-way medium of communication bringing an interpretation of the world directly into the American household. In news-related and entertainment programming, audiences received value-laden images and spoken messages. In the privacy of the home—where viewers were not necessarily defensive or skeptical of what they were told—the popular attitudes of a generation were shaped in the first decade of the medium.

Significantly, viewers quickly came to trust video. A Roper poll in late 1959 indicated that this early in its history, television rivaled schools, local government, and traditional communications media in terms of popular believability. Asked to rate the quality of the job being done by social institutions, the respondents gave the following ratings:

InstitutionExcellent to GoodFair to PoorNo Opinion
Schools64%26%10%
Newspapers64306
TV stations 5732 9
Local government444313

When asked if only one could be kept, which communications medium they would most want to save, television won a plurality.

Television42%
Newspapers32
Radio19
Magazines4
No Opinion3

The industry may not have expected or wanted it, but in little more than ten years television had created for itself a great responsibility. Americans received their frivolity and their seriousness from the medium. Americans learned of life from video. TV news informed increasing millions. TV comedy and drama offered viewers an outlook on life as well as a few hours of escape each night. The medium was now fundamental to the personal and national lives of all Americans. Whatever video "said" affected millions every minute of every day. It is little wonder that by 1960 television was the primary national instrument used by Americans to select the leader of their republic, the president of the United States.

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