Grow­ing up to­gether, TV and baby boomers were a per­fect fit

End of WWII a time for tech­no­log­i­cal, gen­er­a­tional mile­stones

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FIFTY PLUS - By Fra­zier Moore

NEW YORK >> 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 lab.

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 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-and­fic­tion 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, with in­fant Desi, Jr., soon “anointed on the cover of the first TV Guide.”

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 half­cen­tury 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-an­droll 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.


In this file photo, four school chil­dren watch a teacher giv­ing them a les­son via tele­vi­sion at home in Bal­ti­more, Md. TV was key to the world baby boomers were born into: a newly mod­ern­ized world whose ev­ery prob­lem (with the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of the Cold War) seemed to prom­ise an avail­able so­lu­tion. Po­lio would be cured! Man would go into space! Even African-Amer­i­cans, op­pressed for so long, had new rea­son for hope.

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