Unlike baby boomers, television has no birth certificate. TV’s arrival, depending on how you see it, can be marked at any of a number of moments in the last century.
Maybe 1927, when 21-year-old Philo Farnsworth transmitted the image of a horizontal line to a receiver in the next room of his San Francisco laboratory. Or maybe 1939, when the RCA Television Pavilion opened at the New York World’s Fair with the exciting news that RCA’s National Broadcasting Co. would expand from radio into TV, and, to spread the word, telecast the ceremony to the scattering of 2,000 TV sets throughout all of New York City.
But the handiest year for TV’s genesis is 1946 — when technology, optimism and renewed consumer buying power joined forces at World War II’s conclusion and gave broadcast television a belated kick-start.
By chance (or is it?), the same year that ushered in the TV age is also seen as the kickoff for the Baby Boom Generation — the population boom of kids born between 1946 and 1964. TV was key to the world that baby boomers were born into: a newly modernized world where every problem (with the possible exception of the Cold War) seemed to point to a solution that was just around the corner.
Polio would be cured! Man would go into space! Electricity, thanks to atomic energy, would soon be “too cheap to meter.” Even African-Americans, oppressed for so long, had new reason for hope.
The UNIVAC computer, introduced in 1951, would count the U.S. population and forecast Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1952 presidential win. It could even help volunteers find love and marriage, as TV host Art Linkletter demonstrated on his 1950s game show, “People Are Funny.” TV chronicled this bracing wave of wonder and potential, and built upon it as an essential part of what set boomers apart: They were pampered and privileged and groomed for a sure-to-be-glorious tomorrow.
No wonder kids claimed TV as their own. No wonder TV eagerly returned the favor, singling them out as an irresistible demographic. Granted, there wasn’t much prime-time network programming in the fall of 1946, and what there was seemed targeted to adults (including Gillette-sponsored sports every Friday on NBC and, on the DuMont network every Wednesday, TV’s first soap opera).
But kids were squarely in the sights of TV programmers by December 1947, when “Howdy Doody” premiered on NBC as a weekday children’s show. Set in fictional Doodyville, where stringed puppets cavorted with its flesh-and-blood host, “Buffalo Bob” Smith, “Howdy Doody” during its 13-year run would prove to be a huge hit, and much more — a formative influence on nearly every baby boomer’s childhood.
For a glimpse of early boomers, check YouTube for archived clips of “Howdy Doody,” which welcomed kids to the Peanut Gallery, the name it coined for its studio audience. Captured on vintage ’50s kinescopes, those youngsters represent a TV face (albeit made up, regrettably, of only white faces) of the surging boomer generation.
Then, on Jan. 19, 1953, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo celebrated the birth of a son on “I Love Lucy” — the same day the sitcom’s star, Lucille Ball, gave birth to a son with her real-life husband and leading man, Desi Arnaz.
This couple’s fact-and-fiction child took his place as “the crown prince of the television generation and baby boomers,” says Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture. Infant Desi Jr. was soon “anointed on the cover of the first TV Guide,” Thompson said. Thus did TV and the boomers grow up together.
And as the nation overall embraced television’s early offerings, such as Milton Berle’s comedy revue, Ed Sullivan’s variety hour and “Lucy,” youngsters realized they had a special bond with TV. That is, they could use it as an embryonic form of rebellion against their elders, years before the campus unrest with which their generation would become identified.
Those children innately understood that television, despite being welcomed into every living room, wasn’t “good” for them. This made watching TV all the more appealing as they fought their parents’ constant pleas to “go outside and play.” Today, more than a half-century later, the TV experience isn’t nearly so much about viewing as immersion. It doesn’t just bring the world to the audience, it IS the world. As TV merges with the natural world, it also continues to merge with other screened devices, further increasing its presence.
So where does this leave aging boomers? They may still recall a TV universe of only three or four channels on a TV screen, when the viewer had to walk to the set to change channels. It’s been a long time since TV consecrated boomer teens with a daily rock and roll dance show, “American Bandstand.” With that, its host, Dick Clark, is said to have “created youth culture.”
Boomers, the pioneering swath of youth culture, this year observe birthdays ranging from 52 to 70. TV is getting older, too. But unlike boomers, it enjoys constant renewal. It never looks its age, whatever that may be.