On April 30, 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt became America’s first reality television star. The commander-in-chief broadcast a message from his podium at the World’s Fair in New York. While it wasn’t the first-ever TV program, it was one of great significance: At the time it aired, only a handful of television sets were in use. Roughly two decades later, 90 percent of American homes had a television, and the country’s love affair with screens was firmly established.
In between that early novelty and later ubiquity was a lot of doubt over whether television would ever truly catch on. While RCA was busy boasting about its televisions in the technology’s earliest days, a reporter for The New York Times was writing about how “The problem with television is that people must sit and keep their eyes glued to the screen. The average American family hasn’t time for it.”
The Times was far from the only skeptic, as these quotes illustrate.
1. We’ll Only Be Able to Stare at One Screen at a Time
“The very nature of television … limits the ability of many people to enjoy it with the same freedom with which radio broadcasts may be enjoyed, for television programs require the fixed attention of the person viewing them … It is clear why the scientists view television as incapable of supplanting radio sound broadcasts and why they view it as supplementary to radio.” —James Brandon, The State (Columbia, South Carolina), October 26, 1939
2. One Show a Night Is Too Much
“Of course it would be interesting to see movies in your living room for a while. But four hours an evening or even one show each night is too much. Tests show that people will not watch movies at home nearly as often or as long as they’ll listen to the radio.” —Dyson Carter, The Sun-Times (Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada), August 25, 1945
3. Movies Will Conquer All, Says Movie Mogul
“[Television] won’t be able to hold onto any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” —Darryl F. Zanuck, studio chief, 20th Century Fox, 1946
4. Give It Time
“Comedy shows just don’t click … the night club and burlesque style flops. So does the fast gag man. We simply have not found a formula for humor on television.” —Ben Feiner, Jr., CBS executive, The Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), January 19, 1946
5. No One Will Ever Attend a Live Sporting Event Again
“Bill Fay, sports editor of Collier’s, did a piece for the current issue of the weekly magazine saying ‘crowded colleges can make dormitories of their empty stadiums when television gives every fan a better seat a home.’ ... Baseball minor leagues will disappear, he writes, major leagues will expand to the West Coast, unoccupied bleachers will be razed, enlarging parks for uniform home run distances.” —Bill Britton, Ventura County Star (Ventura, California), February 14, 1949
6. Nothing But Learning
“By bringing the classroom into the home, it will be possible for 100,000 students simultaneously to take the same beginners’ course in Spanish, or child care, or interior decorating, whereas the average class on campus today consists of from 25 to 50 students. The pay-as-you-see revenue from these home extension courses would provide the monies for new university buildings, laboratories, scholarships and teachers’ salaries, and once and for all our colleges could stop passing the hat.” —Billy Rose, The Decatur Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois) June 14, 1950
7. TV Is Great for Kids, Honest
“Television, [furniture salesman Henry Richards] continued, will keep American children at home and away from places with a bad influence, will instill in them an appreciation of home life and hence build them into better citizens.” —Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah), August 7, 1950
8. You Think So?
“Audiences will, I think, be able to spot a phony politician as easily as they’ll spot a phony comedian.” —Sylvester Weaver, NBC vice president, Delaware County Daily Times (Chester, Pennsylvania), December 12, 1950
9. A Black and White Issue
“Color television will supplement, not replace, black and white reception, Robert M. Lutz, Pennsylvania district manager of the General Electric Radio and Television Division, told the Sunbury Rotary Club in an address at the Hotel Neff Thursday evening. He drew a parallel by pointing out that the average American consumer has not stopped buying low-priced cars simply because he would like a high-priced one … People, he said, buy entertainment and conceivably some television programs will never be broadcast in color. A television newscast wouldn’t necessarily be more informative in color than in black and white.” —The Daily Item (Sunbury, Pennsylvania), March 12, 1954
10. Maybe It’s Not Far Off
“The day is not far off when there’ll be no more screens in your television sets … If only our world holds together and is not destroyed by politicians, TV will leap off the screen, out of the set, and will appear in three dimensions in your living room. The actors will stalk out and will walk about like in Theater-in-the-Round. The images will be formed in space instead of confined to the small screen. You will be able to walk around and actually poke your finger into Audrey Hepburn or Cary Grant. You’ll hear their voices and see their figures. Instead of screen size, they will be full life-size—and eventually in color.” —Arch Oboler, playwright, Fort-Worth Star Telegram (Fort Worth, Texas), August 13, 1954