5 Surprising Facts About the History of Television

Around the world, a very small percentage of homes don’t have at least one television. In developed countries, people are almost stunned to find that you don’t have one in the house, even if you don’t use it. The television has come a long way from being a massive and expensive novelty that took up half the living room to a cheap and thin hyper-realistic device that can be mounted to a wall.

In all of those years between, there have been some fascinating things to happen in television history. Let’s take a look at five of the most surprising facts about that history and how they molded TV as we know it.

The First TVs Looked Like Record Players

Before the electronic television was invented in 1927 by Philo Farnsworth, mechanical television had been decades in the making. Essentially, the machine looked like a large radio box hooked up to what looked like a record player attached to a blender. A cone would allow people to look into the ‘televisor’ which displayed pictures using the metal disc which received radio signals. 

At 7.5 frames per second, it was revolutionary for its time, but the electronic version was coming along quite quickly. Though mechanical televisions were quite popular at the start of the television era, they were phased out by 1933 when almost every company and network focused on electric TVs. Not everyone was happy as the mechanical TVs of the time allowed for larger videos, but the difficulty and cost of the mechanical television just ended up being too much.

The First Sporting Event Wasn’t Professional

When we think of television in the modern era, the first thing that networks think about is sports. Most cable companies would be in serious trouble if it weren’t for live sports, and there are endless options for fanatics to get their fix. In the early days of television, though, you had to be incredibly lucky to find a sporting event. While leagues like the English Premier League and National Football League dominate airwaves now, the first sports broadcast wasn’t a professional game.

Instead, the first event was a baseball game between Columbia and Princeton Universities on May 17, 1939. NBC was the network that had the idea of broadcasting the game, and it ended up being a huge hit. Other networks would soon follow suit in the coming years, and sports coverage really ramped up following World War II. Now, events like the Super Bowl dominate the airwaves every year.

The Early Flat Screens Were Extremely Expensive

The flat-screen television of today is the standard, and getting one that’s 42 inches or larger costs nearly nothing these days. That was the opposite case back in the late 1990s when they made their debut. The first flat-screen television was released in 1997 by Fujitsu, and it cost $15,000 and weighed over 40 pounds. For that money, you’d think it was massive, but it was only 42 inches.

The first couple of years saw flat-screen televisions increasing in size, but the prices didn’t come down very much. It wasn’t until major electronics companies started to make them much easier and cheaper, allowing them to phase out CRT televisions. By the late 2000s, the same-sized flat-screen that first broke onto the market would only be around $500, and by the end of the 2010s, you could get one for about $200.

Ads Weren’t Always a Thing

After the invention of the television, it took more than a decade for advertising to sink its claws into the market. Earlier, we mentioned how a college baseball game was the first sports broadcast, but it was on a professional baseball broadcast where the first ad appeared. It was right before the Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies squared off on July 1, 1941.

The game was being broadcast on NBC, and just before the first pitch, a 10-second spot for Bulova aired, saying “America runs on Bulova time.” Advertisements these days are injected into every broadcast, and can cost millions for a 30-second spot. However, Bulova paid just $9 for their name to be shown to millions across the United States.

Royals Dominate The Airwaves

When you’re talking about the most-watched broadcasts in television history, there are a few things that have dominated in every country. Sporting events fill up a lot of the most-watched broadcasts, as well as news events like the Apollo 11 landing on the moon, or monumental entertainment moments like Live Aid or Elvis visiting Hawaii.

However, it’s the royal family that has laid claim to some of the most-watched broadcasts in world history. The funeral for Queen Elizabeth II in 2022 took the new number-one spot with over 5 billion viewers worldwide. Other royal family events in the top 20 include the funeral of Princess Diana, Prince Harry’s wedding, and Prince Charles’s wedding.

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