50 fascinating facts about the TV industry

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November 26, 2020
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50 fascinating facts about the TV industry

With the arrival of the second wave of the coronavirus upon us, many Americans are facing a long, cold winter spent indoors, apart from family and loved ones. Having already passed a large portion of the year this way, several more months of lockdown seems like drudgery. Still, health officials remain confident that this sort of strict social distancing is the best way to ensure case numbers remain low, protect vulnerable individuals, and keep hospitals from becoming overcrowded while we wait for a vaccine.

As necessary as they may be, this year’s lockdowns surely haven’t been anyone’s ideal way to spend a year. But there have been a few bright spots, including extra time to spend indulging in our favorite hobbies, like crafting, working out, reading through the world’s greatest novels, and watching all the TV we can handle.

One of America’s favorite pastimes, television celebrated its 80th birthday in 2019. Philo T. Farnsworth, a Mormon farm boy, invented TV at the age of 14. Self-taught, Farnsworth quickly realized that the early TV technology that was already in existence would never work fast enough to display actual pictures. So he set out to create a new electron-based system that would be clearer and could have some commercial value. In 1928, he demonstrated his invention for a group of reporters, in 1939, it was introduced to the public. The rest, as they say, is history.

Using information from news outlets, network archives, and other assorted sources, Stacker compiled a list of 50 other facts you may not know about the television industry. From the development of TV technology to the sitcom with the most spinoffs to binge-watching culture, you’re sure to learn something new about the silver screen.

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Sergei Frolov // Wikimedia Commons

TV technology existed before commercial radio

While many of us think of radio as the precursor to television, TV technology actually existed years before commercial radio was developed. In 1897, Ferdinand Braun invented the cathode-ray tube, the primary piece of technology used in modern televisions to display the images we see. It wasn’t until 1920 that the first commercial radio station was established in Pittsburgh.

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TV made its debut at the World’s Fair

In 1939 at the New York World’s Fair, television was introduced to the public for the first time. RCA broadcast the fair’s opening ceremonies which featured President Franklin D. Roosevelt on television sets around the fairgrounds and across the city. The following day, May 1, 1939, the company began selling their television sets.

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Judd Sheppard // Wikimedia Commons

There’s a forgotten network

Almost all of the first major television networks—NBC, ABC, and CBS—still exist today, but there was another early pioneer, the DuMont Television Network, that’s been lost to the annals of TV history. The second network to get off the ground, DuMont only existed from 1942 to 1956, but made some pretty major contributions to the industry, like airing the first two seasons of “The Honeymooners” and “Mary Kay and Johnny,” which is widely considered to be the first sitcom.

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Gertrude Berg was TV’s first star

In 1949, “The Goldbergs,” a sitcom about a Jewish family living in the Bronx, hit the airwaves. Gertrude Berg, who wrote, produced, and starred in the show, was the daughter of Eastern European Jewish immigrants and based her radio-turned-TV show on her own childhood experiences in New York City’s Lower East Side. She won the first-ever Emmy for Lead Actress in a Comedy Series and quickly became the face of TV, receiving thousands of fan letters each week.

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20th Century Fox Television

The 'M*A*S*H' finale is TV’s most-watched episode

While Gertrude Berg’s “The Goldbergs” drew in thousands of viewers during TV’s early years, it’s hardly the most-watched show of all time. That title is actually held by “M*A*S*H,” the ‘70s and ‘80s series about a team of field doctors stationed in South Korea during the Korean War.

The series’ finale, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” was watched by some 106 million Americans, or 60.2% of American households, making it the single most-watched TV episode of all time.

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'The Sopranos' is TV’s best-written show

While it may strike some as odd, there appears to be no correlation between the most-watched TV episode of all time and the best-written series of all time. The Writer’s Guild of America West gave the latter honor to “The Sopranos,” an early 2000s cable drama about an Italian American crime family. Meanwhile, the group voted “M*A*S*H” fifth, falling in line behind “Seinfeld,” “The Twilight Zone,” and “All in the Family.”

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TV viewership grew exponentially during its Golden Age

None of these accolades would mean much if not for the Golden Age of Television, which took TV from a luxury for the ultra-rich to a staple for the everyman. Between 1949 and 1969, the number of TV sets in American households jumped from less than a million up to 44 million. This was largely spurred by a drastic drop in TV set prices, as well as an increase in available stations (and therefore an expansion in programming) from 69 to 566.

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There was a quiz show scandal in the ‘50s

As more Americans began watching TV in the ‘50s, one of the first types of shows to take off was the quiz show. “The $64,000 Question” was the first of this sort to air, premiering on CBS in 1955, before being quickly followed by others like “Dotto” and “Twenty-One.” In 1958, it was revealed that the big winners weren’t quite as lucky as they appeared to be after several former contestants came forwards and revealed that they had been coached or fed the correct answers before taking the stage. The scandal saw “The $64,000 Question” canceled and ratings for similar shows sharply declined.

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Morning talk shows made their debut in the ‘50s

Morning talk shows, of which modern viewers have dozens to choose from, also developed during this golden age of television. The “Today” show, created by Sylvester L. Weaver Jr. and hosted by Dave Garroway, was the first, debuting in 1952. An instant hit, the show has dominated the Nielsen ratings for most of its run, only occasionally dipping below rival shows like ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

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The first live-television breaking news event was in 1958

On Oct. 23, 1958, one of the deepest coal mines in the world collapsed in Springhill, Nova Scotia. Ninety-three men were trapped below ground, desperately attempting to dig their way out just as rescuers attempted to dig their way in. For the next seven days, audiences around the world tuned in to the first live-television breaking news event, watching all of the bodies and survivors emerge topside in real-time.

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The Eurovision Song Contest set out to improve TV

In 1956, the first Eurovision Song Contest was held, featuring seven different nations, simple sing-along type songs, and a live orchestra. The contest was designed not to bring European countries together as it attempts to do today but to test the limits of and improve live broadcast technology. The contest has grown far past its original size and goal—moving to YouTube in 2019, where it was viewed by 182 million people.

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The moon landing tapes have all been lost

Man’s first steps on the moon were arguably the biggest television event of the 20th century, so you’d think that the precious video footage of the monumental moment would be locked up safe somewhere, preserved by NASA and historians for generations to come. In reality, all of the original tapes of the moon landing have been lost. NASA employees believe that these original tapes were likely wiped clean and used again, which was standard practice at the time.

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America’s obsession with TV spawned new cuisines

In the 1950s, the Swanson company packaged 500,000 pounds of excess Thanksgiving turkey in aluminum trays, threw in some vegetables and potatoes, and advertised the whole thing as an easy, convenient dinner. These instant oven meals took off immediately, thanks in large part to their branding; Swanson had dubbed them TV dinners, playing into America’s newfound obsession with TV. The “healthy” and balanced meals allowed families to sit down and watch their favorite shows together instead of spending hours in the kitchen pouring over elaborate suppers.

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Color TV may impact the way we dream

Ever since color TV made its commercial debut in the 1960s, scholars have debated the effects it has on our dreams. While studies differ, most find that individuals who grew up on black-and-white TV or are primarily exposed to black-and-white TV, are more likely to dream in grayscale. Meanwhile, individuals who watch color TV dream in color the vast majority of the time, implying that what we watch while we’re awake has major implications on what we see when we close our eyes.

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Disney is responsible for the rise of color TV

Always a culture influencer, the Walt Disney Company is widely considered responsible for the advent of color TVs in viewers’ homes. It was the September 1961 premiere of their “The Wonderful World of Color” program that encouraged many Americans to upgrade their family sets from black and white to color. However, the anthology show wasn’t the first color TV episode to hit airwaves, that barrier was broken seven years earlier in 1954 with NBC’s Tournament of Roses parade.

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'I Love Lucy' developed modern sitcom filming methods

“I Love Lucy” is not just one of television’s most beloved and enduring programs, but also one of the most groundbreaking. Longtime LA residents, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz didn’t want to uproot their young family and move to NYC, where the majority of shows were shot and broadcast at the time, even though their sponsor, the Philip Morris tobacco company, insisted they do so to preserve picture quality. Instead, they invented the multi-camera filming method, which employed three cameras to record the comedy, guaranteeing the resolution would remain clear even after tapes of the show were sent to East Coast studios.

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'The Dick Van Dyke Show' broke race barriers

A huge phenomenon in the 1960s, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” not only introduced legends like Mary Tyler Moore to audiences, but also played a significant role in breaking the color barrier that still existed in Tinseltown.

In one episode titled “That’s My Boy?,” the Petrie’s worry that they brought the wrong baby home from the hospital thanks to a mix-up with a similarly named family, the Peterses, before discovering that the other family is Black and therefore the mixup impossible. The episode marks one of the first times that Black Americans were depicted on screen as being middle class, and its success gave networks the confidence to cast them in leading roles (like Ivan Dixon on “Hogan’s Heroes”).

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Writers rooms aren’t TV’s only writers

A group of 10th graders from Thomas Jefferson High School in LA were given the experience of a lifetime when star Elizabeth Montgomery and producer William Asher allowed them to write the script for an episode of “Bewitched.” The inner-city class of 26 crafted a story for the 1970 Christmas special (“Sisters at Heart”) that dealt with the racism and prejudice they experienced in their own lives in a direct and honest way. While the episode won loads of praise at the time, even taking home the Emmy Governor’s Award in 1971, it would be considered wildly politically incorrect today, considering many actors appear in blackface.

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Bill Cosby was the first Black man to star on network TV

Although he’s experienced a fall from grace in recent years thanks to inexcusable actions he made earlier in life, Bill Cosby still holds a special place in TV history. In particular, Cosby stands out for being the first Black American to co-star in a network TV show. In the mid-’60s, he appeared as Alexander “Scotty” Scott on the NBC drama “I Spy” alongside Robert Culp.

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Black and white TV ended in 1966

By the time the 1966–67 TV season rolled around, black-and-white television was a thing of the past. All three major networks were broadcasting their entire primetime lineup in color, and only mid-day reruns, old movies, and some news reports were still running in black and white.

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The remote was invented in 1950

In 1950, the Zenith Radio Corporation released the first remote control. Connected to the TV set by a bulky cord, the remote could change channels and turn the TV on and off. Unfortunately, it didn’t end up being a hit with consumers who complained that they wound up tripping over the cord far too often.

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The first commercial aired in 1941

The world’s first TV commercial, an advertisement for Bulova watches, aired before a Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies baseball game on July 1, 1941. Lasting only 10 seconds, the ad cost the company a mere $9 ($177 when adjusted for inflation).

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'Guiding Light' is the longest-running TV show

As of 2020, “Guiding Light” holds the title as the longest-running scripted show on television. Beginning in 1952, the soap opera aired for 57 years before finally ending in 2009. If you include the drama’s radio run, which began in 1937, the show was actually in production for a whopping 72 years.

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TV exposes American children to death

According to a 2010 study, the average American child will see 16,000 murders and 200,000 acts of violence on TV by the time they turn 18. As violence in programming has only increased over the last decade, it’s likely that this number is even higher today. These statistics are alarming when you consider the fact that exposure to media violence and violent behavior have been directly linked.

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The TV Parental Guidelines were established in 1996

In response to the increase in violence and adult situations shown on TV, Congress passed an act in 1996 that mandated that the television industry create a rating system that would help viewers determine what audience a show was intended for. The TV Parental Guidelines were rolled out the same year. Still, many argue that these ratings aren’t effective, and allow too much violence, sex, alcohol, and tobacco use to slip past.

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The Nielsen ratings monitor commercial viewership

Another popular TV rating system is the Nielsen ratings, which have been in use since 1950. In theory, these numbers indicate which shows are the most popular by gathering data from a sample of 40,000 homes. In actuality, they’re monitoring the number of viewers who watch commercials during a certain time period, and, via some reverse engineering including what network these commercials were watched on, can determine which programs attract the most viewers each week and during certain time slots.

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Super Bowl XLIX was the most-watched TV event

Using these Nielsen ratings, we can determine that the most-watched TV event of all time (in the United States) was Super Bowl XLIX, a showdown between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks, which drew in 114.4 million viewers. Other notable TV events include the funeral of Princess Diana, which 2 billion people (worldwide) tuned in to see, Live Aid (1.9 billion viewers), and the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle (1.9 billion viewers).

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Cable TV has existed since 1948

While we tend to think of cable TV as a more modern invention, it’s actually almost as old as television itself. The first cable services delivered broadcast channels in three states—Oregon, Arkansas, and Pennsylvania—way back in 1948. However, it did take another 12 years for cable TV to expand to major metropolitan areas like New York City.

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'See How They Run' was the first TV movie

Now a staple of cable networks, made for TV movies began airing in the mid-’60s. The first such movie was “See How They Run,” a thriller about three children being pursued by hitmen. Produced by Universal Studios, the film aired on NBC in October 1964.

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'All in the Family' had the most spinoffs

Premiering in 1971, “All in the Family” was a truly trailblazing (some would argue genre-changing) sitcom that dealt with tough topics like homosexuality, impotence, and bigotry. Wildly successful, it inspired seven spinoff shows, making it the most spun-off sitcom of all time. The “All in the Family” spinoffs include: “Maude,” “Good Times, ”The Jeffersons,” “Archie Bunker’s Place,” “Checking In,” “Gloria,” and “704 Hauser.”

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'Crusader Rabbit' was the first TV cartoon

The first animated series made specifically for TV was “Crusader Rabbit.” The original episodes about a cowboy rabbit and his sidekick, Ragland T. Tiger, began airing in 1950 and were only four minutes long. In typical cartoon form, each episode ended on a cliffhanger, ensuring audiences would return for more.

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'Saturday Night Live' is TV’s most decorated show

As of August 2020, the sketch comedy show “Saturday Night Live” has won the most Emmy Awards of any series on TV. To date, “SNL” has won 73 Emmys and has been nominated 275 times. If nothing else, this proves that the series, which has been on the air since 1975, has found a way to consistently evolve, remaining relevant and in-tune with its viewers for the last three decades.

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'Your Show of Shows' employed TV’s best writers

A precursor to “SNL,” “Your Show of Shows” was a sketch comedy series from the 1950s that starred Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, and their assorted guests. While the on-screen antics were laugh-out-loud hilarious, most of the series’ magic began in the writer’s room where television greats like Carl Reiner, Mel Tolkin, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Danny Simon, Lucille Kallen, and Selma Diamond pitched jokes and argued over which ones would make it into the script. Thanks to the team’s mass of talent, the “AV Club” has crowned the “Your Show of Shows” writer’s room the greatest in television history.

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The US broadcasting industry is huge

Television broadcasting is one of the largest industries in the United States. In 2018, the aggregate revenue of the industry was $168.84 billion. Comparatively, the U.S. farming industry only brought in $93.6 billion in 2019.

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Chanel produced the most expensive commercial

Almost 100 years on, television advertising remains among the most expensive forms of advertising, thanks to the sheer number of people an ad can reach at a given time. Understandably, companies will frequently dump huge amounts of money into their commercials in order to ensure a return on their investment. To date, the most expensive commercial ever made was a Chanel advertisement called “Le Film” that cost $33 million and lasted 180 seconds.

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Home Box Office

'Game of Thrones' is TV’s most expensive show

TV may have originally been conceived as a cheaper alternative to film, but over the last 80 years, it’s become increasingly more expensive to produce. To date, the most expensive TV show ever made is “Game of Thrones.” The series’ $15 million an episode budget makes sense when you consider the exotic locales it’s shot at, the amount of CGI it takes to make the mythical creatures appear real, and the elaborate costumes and sets.

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Ken Jennings is the biggest game show winner

In spite of the scandals they weathered in the ‘50s, game shows have never really gone away, remaining as popular with viewers today as they were back then. However, today’s game show participants have the opportunity to win much bigger prizes than the participants of yesteryear. As of 2020, the biggest game show winner of all time, Ken Jennings, has taken home a whopping $5,223,414, the majority of which he earned on “Jeopardy!”

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Alex Trebek holds a world record

Speaking of “Jeopardy!,” in 2014, Alex Trebek set a world record for the most episodes of a game show hosted by the same presenter. Before his diagnosis with pancreatic cancer, Trebek had never missed an episode. By the time of his death in 2020, he’d hosted well over 8,200 episodes of the quiz show.

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The majority of US homes have a streaming service

Just as cable was once the TV must-have from the ‘70s–’00s, streaming services are the must-have for modern audiences. According to data gathered in 2019, 74% of American homes now have a subscription to an on-demand video streaming service like Netflix, Hulu, or YouTube TV.

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The COVID-19 pandemic increased streaming service subscriptions

Thanks in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic, streaming services have seen a dramatic increase in the number of new subscribers signing up for their services during 2020. For example, during the first three months of the year, Netflix gained 16 million new subscribers (bringing its total to 183 million). Disney+, which launched a year ago, also saw a major increase in numbers hitting 60 million subscribers.

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Billions of people watch YouTube each month

YouTube may have begun as a social media outlet, but the video-sharing platform now has a subscription streaming service that allows viewers to watch live TV from a number of broadcast and cable networks. According to the platform, over 2 billion people log on each month to watch its content, cruising through a billion hours of television and video each day.

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Netflix spent $17 billion on content in 2020

Ruling the streaming service world is no easy (or cheap) feat. In order to retain its 183 million subscribers, Netflix must continually offer new and exciting content and spends a small fortune to do so. In 2020, the company budgeted $17.3 billion for new content and spent the majority of that money on original shows and movies.

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Rubicon TV

'Lilyhammer' was the first Netflix Original

In 2012, without much fanfare, Netflix released its first original series titled “Lilyhammer.” The series, about a former NYC gangster who attempts to start a new life in Lillehammer, Norway, was made in partnership with a Norwegian production company (therefore making it not entirely a Netflix-owned and exclusive property), but it was only available to North American audiences via the streaming platform. The series’ success arguably changed the direction of the TV industry.

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Video streaming will soon top traditional TV

As long as the market continues in the same direction it’s been traveling over the last decade, the video streaming industry will soon top traditional TV in value. Grand View Research expects the video streaming market will be worth $184.2 billion by 2027.

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Binge-watching is the new normal

Before streaming services, TV fans had to wait week by week for new episodes of their favorite shows to be released. Today, many streaming services release entire seasons of a show in a single day, allowing fans to “binge-watch” the series in one marathon sitting. According to a study by Morning Consult, 60% of all TV viewers report binge-watching a show (defined as watching at least two episodes in a row) at least once a week.

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Our TV obsession has negative consequences

As relaxing as it may be, binge-watching comes at a price and a pretty steep one at that: 86% of binge-watchers report staying up well past their bedtime to watch a show, with 52% saying they’ve stayed up all night. Of adult viewers, 24% admit to canceling plans in order to continue binging a show, and a whopping 40% of viewers confess to making less healthy food and exercise choices in order to sneak in a few more episodes.

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'Extraction' is the most-watched Netflix movie

Typically tight-lipped about its viewing numbers, Netflix will occasionally release figures for particularly well-performing series or films. In one of these rare number dumps, the streaming giant revealed that their most-watched original film of all time is “Extraction,” which features Chris Hemsworth.

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'The Witcher' is the most-watched Netflix series

“The Witcher,” a show about a monster hunter that stars Henry Cavill, is the most-watched Netflix Original series. As of October 2020, the series had been viewed 76 million times.

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The average household has 2.3 TVs

In 2015, the U.S. Energy Information Administration revealed that the average American household had (or at least used) 2.3 TVs. That number is down from 2009 when there was an average of 2.6 TVs per household. This decrease in physical TVs even while time spent watching TV has gone up, can likely be attributed to the fact that more people are using other devices, like phones and tablets, to watch and stream their shows.

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The average American watches 4+ hours of TV

According to Statista data, the average American spends more than four hours a day watching “traditional” TV. Older Americans spend longer in front of the tube—adults 65+ spend more than 7 hours a day watching TV, and those between the ages of 50–64 spend almost six hours—while younger adults (ages 18–34) spend far less, averaging just under two hours a day.

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