50 famous firsts from TV history
Ever since the inception of television, broadcast TV has acted as an unofficial barometer of technological and social progress. As technology moves forward, so does the medium of television, starting from black-and-white to full-on color. Standard definition turns into high definition, which turns into 4K, and analog eventually becomes digital. But there's a lot more to television than nuts and bolts: namely, an entire range of social stigmas and politics determined by television executives and policed by the FCC.
With television programs piping straight into household living rooms around the world, the images and stories brought to families serve as statements on where society is currently at; a reflection, of sorts. And as society shifts over the decades, so do the television shows reflect these shifts and changes. Taboos are no longer taboos, and television show creators gain some freedom thanks to the TV trailblazers that came before them.
Attitudes toward gender, race, and sexuality have evolved since the television was first introduced to American homes. Standards for profanity and nudity have also loosened to a degree, both on scripted television programs and in all of the ads and commercials aired in between. What seems standard today was all but forbidden in the earlier days of television, with some taboos seeming ridiculous and overprotective from our present-day point of view.
Looking back television's short by wide-ranging history, Stacker selected 50 significant firsts. Compiled from observations made by many other television critics and historians, the gallery includes firsts in television technology, easing sentiments on certain taboos, and groundbreaking creative decisions that increased representation for certain demographics. These firsts may seem menial today, but many of the moments featured here created uproar, controversy, and debate during times where this content was uncommon on the airwaves.
Read on to see some of the most impactful shows and moments that would forever change television history.
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1930: First television drama
Drama is the fundamental storytelling building block that most scripted shows on television use, so it is fitting that the first television drama is an adaptation of a play. “The Man with the Flower in His Mouth” was originally written by Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello in 1922, but it was used in 1930 by the British Broadcasting Corporation for an experiment. Using only three characters and with a short length of half an hour, the experiment was considered a success, paving the way for future scripted television.
1936: First live sports broadcast
The 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin made many strides to modernize the Olympics. It was not only the first Olympic Games to be broadcast on television, but the first live televised sporting event in the world. More than 70 hours of coverage were broadcasted to special rooms throughout Berlin. Three years later, the United States would have its first local televised sporting event: a college baseball game between the Columbia Lions and Princeton Tigers.
1940: First televised religious service
Long before the televangelists came about, standard religious services were broadcasted for the public. The Protestant Easter Services March 24, 1940, were the first religious service to be aired, on NBC in New York. Just an hour later, the Roman Catholic Easter Services were also televised.
1941: First televised commercial
Watch company Bulova is responsible for the first television commercial, advertising their watches on July 1, 1941, the first day on which commercial advertising was allowed on television. The commercial, which aired during a Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies game, cost between what was then $4 and $9 and touted the phrase “Bulova.” Of course, television ads and commercials are an essential part of the television ecosystem to this day.
1944: First original musical
The early days of television were full of experimentation with a variety of formats, with one of the most prominent ones being that of the musical. “The Boys from Boise” is thought to be the first one of these, airing Sept. 28, 1944, on the New York DuMont station. With a cast of 20 and a budget of $10,000, “The Boys from Boise” was an ambitious production, but still significant; recent years have brought a revival of televised musicals.
1947: First televised children’s show
Not too many television shows can claim to be the first created for children, but some early innovators include puppet shows “Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” “Howdy Doody,” and “Captain Kangaroo.” These shows would feature friendly hosts, casts of colorful characters and props, making way for future shows such as “Sesame Street” and fare from the likes of Disney and Nickelodeon.
1947: First marriage bed
It certainly wouldn’t be looked down on today, but depicting a couple sharing a bed together was a television taboo. While “Mary Kay and Johnny,” the first sitcom broadcast on network television had the eponymous married couple share a bed in 1947, it would take until the 1960s for other mainstream television shows to do the same.
1947: First evening news show
Airing on the long-defunct DuMont Television Network, “The Walter Compton News” was thought to be the first evening news show broadcasted on television. The 15-minute newscast aired with minimal production from Washington DC, with movie publicist Walter Compton reading from a script and accompanied by the occasional slide. The program only aired for about six months before its end, and no episodes are known to have survived.
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1950: First show to use a laugh track
Pre-recorded “canned” laughter was used in radio to recreate the atmosphere of live comedy shows, allegedly born from Bing Crosby’s radio show to “save the laughs.” For television, this technique was utilized for “sweetening,” as some shows would be filmed from different angles with one camera and laugh patterns would differ with each take. “The Hank McCune Show” was the first such television show that used a laugh track.
1950: First cartoon on TV
While animated feature films were not unusual by the late 1930s and 1940s, it would take several years more for a fully-fledged animated TV show to make it on air. “Crusader Rabbit” was the first of its kind, featuring an adventurous rabbit in several stories that satirized movie serials. One of the show’s producers, Jay Ward, would go on to create “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.”2018 All rights reserved.