By Janice Lindsay, Contributing Writer
Eighty years ago, in July of 1941, the few thousand Americans who owned TVs could witness a momentous event, though they probably didn’t realize it was momentous.
They could tune into NBC to watch the Brooklyn Dodgers play the Philadelphia Phillies and be treated to the first legal TV commercial. It was a ten-second ad for Bulova watches. It cost Bulova $9, or about $164 in today’s dollars.
TV had been broadcasting occasional ads, but they weren’t legal until the Federal Communications Commission made them so that month. Since then, ads have provided the funds to support commercial TV. And today, advertisers pay thousands, even millions, for a few seconds of prime time TV, giving viewers an opportunity to go to the kitchen for a snack.
TV itself was a momentous event that changed the world and us forever. Scientists and tinkerers had experimented for decades before World War II. After the war, the economy boomed, and so did TV. By 1949, 3.6 million households could boast a highly polished wooden box the size of a small cupboard, sporting a 10-inch round-cornered gray screen.
My sister and I were lucky kids. Our parents’ friends across the street owned a TV. On Saturday afternoons, they invited our dad to watch wrestling matches, and we went, too. Not that we liked wrestling; it was boring when it wasn’t horrifying. We couldn’t see the wrestlers very well on that tiny, grainy grey screen. But everyone agreed we were witnessing a miracle, watching faraway people in this very living room. We didn’t want to miss it.
We became supremely lucky above all lucky when our dad tired of watching the neighbor’s TV and bought one for us. I don’t remember if it was an RCA Victor, a Motorola, a Philco, or a GE. But I well remember the grand day when our dad and grandfather lugged that clunky set into the living room, moved furniture aside to create a special TV corner, and Dad spent hours on the roof adjusting the antenna until Grandpa decided the picture and sound were the best they could be.
Now, we could finally sit all day if we wanted to, in front of our very own TV, and watch the test pattern because most of the time there weren’t any shows on. But when shows came on, they were wonderful: Howdy Doody; Kukla, Fran, and Ollie; the Lone Ranger; Hopalong Cassidy. Of course, there was the news. We didn’t care much about that, but we watched it anyway.
And there were commercials, worming their way into our brains so that we would remember them for the rest of our lives. Timex watches, subjected to unimaginable tortures, took a licking and went on ticking. Dinah Shore sang that we could see the USA
in our Chevrolet. Buster Brown lived in a shoe; you could look for his dog Tige in there, too. LSMFT: Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco.
Probably every generation remembers commercials from their early years.
TV, like so many momentous events, turned out to be a mixed blessing. It shows us the marvelous worlds beyond our own limited horizons, but maybe it allows us to substitute those often imaginary worlds for the real worlds we might discover for ourselves. It introduces us to wonderful people we would never meet otherwise; also, to some people we might not wish to know.
And commercials, above all, invite us to believe, even if we struggle against this belief, that we would happier, healthier, more beautiful, smarter, and more popular if only we would buy what they’re selling.
Thanks a lot, Bulova.