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TV History: TV Set Ads

by Christine Becker

This clip was uploaded for an assignment in Prof. Christine Becker's FTT 30461: History of Television class at the University of Notre Dame in Spring 2017. Check the commentary dropdown menu for a student's analysis of the clip.

Selling More Than a Set

by Jordan Schilling

By: Jordan Schilling, FTT30461 student

“What’s the big deal with television, and why should I bother to bring that thing into my home?” In the 1940s-1950s, many Americans were asking these questions concerning this new phenomenon known as the television. The ability to have people inside a little piece of furniture in your living room was brand new and confusing to many. The answer to these questions came in the form of commercials such as these, from big television set manufacturers. The kingpin radio/television manufacturers needed to convince the general population of television’s merit as a staple of the new American home through which you could receive quality content.

These commercials all center around the same theme, almost verbatim: “close-ups as large as life.” Why, out of all things, was this what the manufacturers chose to focus on in convincing the public of the merits of television? Lynn Spigel, author of Installing the Television Set: Popular Discourses on Television and the Domestic Space, writes that, “representations [of television sets] depicted the home as a theater, and they gave instructions for ways to arrange the home as a space of exhibition… They suggested ways to maximize visual pleasure in television – both as a household object (as part of the aesthetics of interior décor - and as an entertainment form.” (4). The concept of a blended film-theater style of content was the most prominent selling point for needing a TV.

All three commercials both tout the “large as life” aspects of their picture quality. RCA describes the television as providing “big screen close-ups.” GE similarly claims that you will “feel you’re right there.” Westinghouse’s magnifier feature boasts the ability to see “every facial expression,” and the spokeswoman jokes that this could allow you to “almost tell whether it [her necklace] is real or not.” These all illustrate the perception of early television as bringing the reality of the outside world in. Concepts like “big screen close-ups” and seeing “every facial expression” are phrases traditionally used to talk about film, but now, according to these ads, you did not need to go to the movies to get that. Similarly, feeling “like you’re right there” and telling whether something is real or not are concepts associated with going to the theater. By comparing television to established quality entertainment, such as film or the theater, television manufacturers established the legitimacy of this new medium to skeptical audiences. Additionally, these comparisons further resonated with those following the trend of moving to suburban areas where films and theater were not always accessible (Spigel). Through the television, people were able to get entertainment of the same picture quality as “the big screen” or “the best seat in the house” from their own couch.

Another concern of the public concerning television sets was how to integrate them into their homes. The television set was a new piece of furniture, and in the past, people had been ashamed to have them, or covered them up when they were not in use. Both the RCA and General Electric commercial emphasize how the television is a beneficial and pleasing feature to have in the home. RCA shows its set as being a focal point in the room, having the chairs angled towards it, and staging the room so that the set fit well aesthetically within in it. General Electric talks about how the wood that the set is made of is made by master cabinet makers from high quality materials. They use the word “cabinet” quite often in referring to the set, making the television seem like a more familiar piece of furniture. In the same vein, but in a different way Westinghouse also showcases the easy integration of their television set into the home. In the second half of the ad, a spokesman boasts about how easy it is to install a Westinghouse set because it does not need antennas. This further establishes the television as aesthetically pleasing and easily integrated into the home.

People did not adopt television quickly. There were many socioeconomic factors, but major concerns about television also arose around the validity of the medium and its place in the home. Television manufacturers saw these concerns and addressed them in their commercials for sets. Ads are often disregarded in the study of television history and analysis of how television content reflected the larger social patterns. However, as seen here, even seemingly simple commercials for television sets subtly reveal the public opinions about television at the time. These commercials are about more than selling a set, they are about selling the validity of television as a medium.

Spigel, L. (1992). Installing the television: the social construction of television's place in the American home, 1948-55. University of Minnesota Press.

Early TV Set Ads

This clips contains three commercials for TV sets: a 1949 ad for Westinghouse, a 1950 ad for General Electric, and a 1954 ad for RCA.

from TV set commercials (1950)
Creator: Westinghouse, General Electric, RCA
Posted by Christine Becker