When television became the trendy new vehicle for news and entertainment in the mid-20th century, some people started calling it the tube. That nickname soon spawned an even catchier one: the boob tube.
The former phrase likely stemmed from the process by which televisions exhibited images. Inside each bulky, antennae-topped box was a cathode-ray tube, which funneled electrons straight to the glass screen. Magnetic coils directed the electron beam into patterns of images, illuminated by a layer of phosphor on the back of the screen. Thus, the device was known by the main mechanical element that brought it to life.
Thrilling though it was, television didn’t evade criticism. As its popularity skyrocketed in the 1950s and 1960s, TV networks began stuffing broadcast schedules with product advertisements and programs aimed at earning the highest ratings. And some people started considering television a guilty pleasure capable of corrupting young minds and corroding society. In a 1961 speech at a conference for the National Association of Broadcasters, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Newton Minow encouraged his audience to spend an entire day watching TV so they could witness what a “vast wasteland” it had become.
“You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons,” Minow said. “And endlessly, commercials—many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few.”
The feeling that TV was a mindless activity for the mindless masses was captured in its cheeky new sobriquet, the boob tube. Boob, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, then commonly referred to “a stupid, inept, or blundering person; a fool.” In other words, boobs were happy to sit in front of the TV set and fill their brains with a ceaseless procession of low-brow content. Some people did defend the device, praising its ability to educate and engage viewers.
“Why is it that today so many of our citizens are better informed on national and world affairs than they were even 10 years ago?” one columnist wrote in Baltimore’s The Evening Sun in 1968. “Why else but the Boob-tube? Certainly there is mishmash programs which offer little. But these do not have to be listened to. No one is forced to turn the knob.”
Other critics simply advised people to limit their screen time, both for themselves and their kids. “At the moment we see no cure for boob-tubitis but self-discipline by adults and parental supervision of the time the youngsters devote to television viewing. Recreation should involve some sort of effort on our part besides the mere turning of a switch and a dial.” Los Angeles’s The Citizen-News reported in June 1960.
The 21st century ushered in new kinds of TVs—like plasma and LED screens—that didn’t include cathode-ray tubes, and people stopped using boob to describe fools quite so often. But while the phrase boob tube has fallen out of fashion in recent decades, blaming new technology for societal ills is still a popular practice.
A version of this story originally ran in 2021; it has been updated for 2023.