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April 9, 2024 8 mins

From a 2-inch wide blurry, black-and-white image, to a giant piece of clear glass that transforms wirelessly into an exquisite screen, television has almost magically evolved. In 100 years, for better or for worse, screens have become one of the most important, controlling devices in our lives. How did it start? And where is it taking us?

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Ah television. In some cases, screens have taken over our lives.
But how did those blurry, faint images on a two
or three inch screen back in the nineteen twenties evolve
into one of the most recent innovations called the wireless
transparent TV. Just a big, clear piece of glass that
turns into a TV with a click. I'm Patty Steele.

The ups and downs of the evolution of television. Next
on the backstory. We're back with the backstory. You can't
argue with the fact that TV, for better or for worse,
has completely transformed the way we human beings entertain ourselves.
Imagine what that must have felt like the moment you

walked into your living room and looked at this box,
this piece of wooden furniture with a tiny glass screen.
It pops to life. You're looking at people, places, in
things in real time that in the history of the
world you would only have been able to see in person.
But the screens were as little as two or three inches.

In fact, the earliest mass produced TV was so unclear
it began without real people on the screen because the
human face was too subtle For those early TVs. They
used vividly painted ventriloquist dummies, so people could see a
face of some sort with human voices adding the dialogue.
That was in the nineteen twenties, but the technology rapidly evolved.

In nineteen thirty nine, RCA aired the opening of the
New York World's Fair with a speech by President Franklin
Delan R. Roosevelt, the first president to appear on TV,
and he gave that speech on the one hundred and
fiftieth anniversary of George Washington's inauguration. By nineteen fifty, TV's

got a whole lot more watchable. At the beginning of
the fifties, just about one percent of households had a television,
but that number hit ninety percent just ten years later
in nineteen sixty. In those early days, your TV was
in a big, usually wooden piece of furniture, fun to
decorate around, but they still had fairly small screens. Want

to change the channel or the volume? Well, in the
fifties there was a unit that connected to your TV
by wires, but hardly anybody had it. It was aptly
named lazy Bones, so you didn't have to get off
the couch. I guess a little bit later there were
remote units that worked by emitting a clinking or clicking
sound that would trigger the controls, thus the term a clicker. Now,

the problem is your TV would also respond to similar sounds,
including everything from a spoon hitting a glass bowl to
the jingle of your dog's collar. So for the most
part you had to get off the couch to control
the TV until an effective remote control arrived around nineteen seventy. Now,
despite all that, it was magical. We could see the

people who ran our country. We could see every thing
from wars to royal weddings to dramas, mysteries, comedies, important funerals,
talk and entertainment shows and all those fabulously beautiful and
engaging TV and movie stars. It changed our world and
the way we saw ourselves and those around us, and

the development of the technology was breathtaking. What's amazing is
that most shows weren't broadcast in color until the nineteen seventies.
That's just fifty years ago or less. And it wasn't
until the seventies and into the eighties that TV transitioned
to twenty four hours a day. Before that, they were
on the air from around ten am till nine pm

at first, then later in the fifties and sixties, stations
would go off the air later at night, anywhere from
eleven fifteen to one am. They'd run the news first,
usually just fifteen minutes of news on like twenty four
hours today, and then they'd run a test pattern all
night that allowed you to balance the black, white, and
raise of your TV set, as well as the picture size.

When color TV arrived, they broadcast color bars during the
night so you could adjust your color, and then around
six am, the early morning shows would pop back on
and forget watching your favorite shows or movies on demand.
It was all appointment viewing or you missed it. In fact,
it was a really big deal with millions tuning in

when one of the networks would run The Wizard of Oz,
which was a yearly TV special from nineteen fifty nine.
All the way until nineteen ninety one, you couldn't even
record a show to watch what you wanted, when you
wanted until the nineteen seventies. It was nineteen seventy six
when the first VHS video recorder, costing about one thousand

bucks arrived that's close to five thousand in today's money.
Plus you had to buy the videotapes too, and that
is when the slippery slope toward on demand TV began.
In the eighties and nineties, cable and sound ITV arrived,
which again changed everything. It allowed for a lot more
programming options, including channels for sports, news, and entertainment, all

twenty four hours a day, and it only got easier
to lose yourself to the screen as the tech grew
at an exponential speed. Those screens became completely addictive. If
you take a look at how we filled our free
time before and after the advent of television, it's wild
and more than a little disturbing. Before TV, we were

all involved in outside political, artistic, and charitable organizations. We
played instruments like the piano, violin, harp, and horns. We painted, gardened, knitted,
did woodworking, socialized. We slept longer and spent more time
with family and friends, because well, that's how we filled
our time then. But TV freed us from the burden

of creativity. We no longer had to search for things
to occupy, or time or people. It was right there
in front of us twenty four hours a day. Think
about it. Americans now spend an average of over seven
hours a day watching some kind of a screen. Add
to that your work day and time to sleep, and

there's not much else now. On the other hand, in fairness,
TV has allowed us to see things outside of our
own circle of influence. We see drama, comedy, news, art, nature,
famous authors, journalists, naturalists, artists, influencers from every walk of life.
And now the pictures are clearer, the sound purer and fuller,

and the choices of what we watch and when way broader.
Couple that with technology that includes screens that are just
a sheer sheet of glass until you turn it on
and it bursts into life, becoming full spectrum. The better
the tech, the more totally immersive television becomes. Problem is,
there are so many chores voices, each coming with increasingly

high subscription fees. It's becoming less affordable for US viewers
and less profitable for the production companies. So what's next?
Virtual reality, artificial intelligence, all with a thing called fast TV.
That acronym stands for free ads supported television, and a
lot of folks in the industry say that's the future.

But think about that, free TV shows paid for by
commercial breaks. Wait, isn't that what television was thirty forty
fifty sixty years ago. Hmm, Let's just pretend we don't
notice that, right, Okay. If today's episode of the Backstory

has sparked your curiosity, or if you have any other
stories you would like to share with me, please reach
out and please please subscribe, direct message, leave a review,
and follow on Facebook at Patty Steele and at Real
Patty Steele on Instagram. I'm Patty Steele. The Backstories a
production of iHeartMedia, Premiere Networks, the Elvis Durand Group, and

Steel Trap Productions. Our producer is Doug Fraser. Our writer
Jake Kushner. We have new episodes every Tuesday and Friday.
Feel free to reach out to me with comments and
even story suggestions on Instagram at real Patty Steele and
on Facebook at Patty Steele. Thanks for listening to the
Backstory with Patty Steele. The pieces of history you didn't

know you needed to know.
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