September 22, 2009

The old media are the new media

By: AFF Editors

Terry Teachout revisits the late 1940s, when television was the new kid on the block and big radio was headed over a cliff like a corporate lemming:

Everybody in America was talking about TV early in 1949, though comparatively few Americans owned a set of their own. Network radio was still the dominant mass entertainment ­medium. If you wanted to listen to Bing Crosby or “The Quiz Kids,” you tuned in to their radio programs. While there were roughly 85 million radios in use throughout America, there were 1.3 million TV sets, 750,000 of which were on the East Coast. Television was still a pricey toy. A console set with a 16-inch picture tube cost $695 in 1949—half the price of a new car. Every TV station in the country was operating in the red, and NBC ran its fledgling TV network at a loss of $13,000 a day, $116,000 in ­today’s dollars…

At year’s end, a survey of 400 TV owners in Washington, D.C., told the tale: Adult attendance at movies was down 72%, while 36.7% of TV owners attended fewer baseball games. Meanwhile, the average amount of time that these Washingtonians spent listening to ­radio each day had plummeted from three hours and 42 minutes to less than half an hour.

“Maybe we old people can’t adapt successfully to video,” said Jim Jordan, the star of “Fibber McGee and Molly.” Most of them, including Jordan, couldn’t, while those who could jumped ship as fast as they could. So did their fans: Only 786,000 American households tuned into a radio show on any given night in 1950. Jack Benny and Bob Hope, the two most popular radio comedians, made their TV debuts that year. Twelve years later, CBS’s “Suspense” and “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar,” the last nighttime radio drama series, were canceled. Network radio was dead.

In the immortal words of The Buggles, video killed the radio star:

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