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Monday, August 25, 2014

Life's Television War of September, 1957

Life Magazine, September 30, 1957

The Golden Age of Television was in full bloom.  Already, viewers across the United States had been tuning in for several years to watch a bevy of what we now know as classic television shows: Captain Kangaroo, The Mickey Mouse Club, The Lawrence Welk Show, and everybody's favorite western, Gunsmoke.  All of these premiered in 1955.  Just a year later, such shows as As the World Turns, The Edge of Night, and The Price is Right joined in on the fun.

By the beginning of the 1957 season, viewers had every reason to pull up a TV tray laden with goodies every night of the week.  ABC premiered a promising new western on Sunday nights at 7:30 called Maverick.  Monday nights were a chance to catch the mix of dry and zany humor offered up by The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show on CBS.  CBS was also the channel to tune in on Tuesday night if you were a fan of The Red Skelton Show.  The whole family could spend an entire Wednesday night catching the new Leave it to Beaver (CBS at 8:00), Father Knows Best (switch over to NBC at 8:30) and finish up the night with The Ozzie and Harriet Show (switching yet again to ABC at 9:30).  Thursdays and Fridays offered up Dragnet and Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater.  Saturday was the night you just couldn't miss.  CBS dominated that evening with its brand new courtroom drama Perry Mason, followed by Have Gun-Will Travel (the number four show that year) and Gunsmoke (the number one show.)

The Number One Show of 1957

When Life magazine hit the shelves on September 30th of that year, a little war was waged inside its pages; a war for television viewers and their money.  While television had been around since about 1939, sales of television sets had jumped remarkably in the Fifties.  The total number of sets sold before the Fifties was just over 3.6 million.  Beginning in 1950 the yearly number of sets sold in the decade averaged 6.3 million.  That number had peaked at 7.4 million in 1955 and the manufacturers saw a decline in '56 and '57.

At this time it was estimated that 41 million homes had televisions.  Sales were bound to slow down.  Just getting a television--any television--was no longer the goal for most consumers.  Shrewd buyers wanted value and options.  This led to fierce competition among TV manufacturers.  And this was easy to recognize while browsing the pages of Life in September of 1957.

We start with Admiral:

Though some shows were already broadcasting in color (The Red Skelton Show at that time was sporadically filmed in color) the market wasn't geared toward such a radical upgrade.  Of the six plus million sets sold in 1957, RCA, the leader in sales, only sold 85,000 color sets.  The real upgrades, meant to grab the attention of those homes looking to buy a second set, were geared towards convenience.  Admiral proudly showed off their Son-r dual remote control, which controlled both the television and their high-fidelity phonograph.  The higher end model also allowed you to control an AM/FM radio.  According to this ad, the remote allowed the chair-bound viewer/listener to perform 11 services, which included powering the three devices on and off, volume adjustment, and channel adjustment.  I haven't done the math but there are eleven services in there somewhere.  Oh yes, don't forget, this remote also rejects phonograph records!  That sounds a bit rude, if you ask me.

I really want to know how Admiral came up with a remote that had no wires and no batteries.  Was it, perhaps, like those survivalist wind-up radios?  Did you turn the crank like Radar O'Reilly trying to energize the phone on M*A*S*H?

  General Electric took a shot at winning the readers with their boast of a slim silhouette and an electronic tuner.  Here you get some space-saving convenience coupled with a time-saver.  A nice combination.  Once you pre-tune each channel on the day you buy your set you'll never have to tune again.  (Hmmm, that seems a bit hard to swallow.)  Not only can you quickly change the channel from Leave it to Beaver to Father Knows Best, you'll also get these cool neon-like glowing coils of smoke pulsing out from the dial.  A great incentive in the rocket age!

Philco waded in to the battle with this mobile device.  No, not a mobile phone.  But in 1957, this was the equivalent of a mobile TV.  As their PR department says here: "Go ahead--put a Philco Slender Seventeener on your coffee table, room divider, anywhere in any room.  This new Philco is fashion-styled to look stunning from every angle.  It's the most compact, powerful, big screen table TV ever!  And so easy to carry, it's like having a TV in every room!"

Well, it's like having a TV you can carry around to every room, but I get what they mean.  And let's not forget it includes the exclusively developed Philco Germanitron, which is a long-life transformer.  I will turn on the applause sign for their new colors peacock blue and charcoal, which were in addition to the usual mahogany and blond wood finishes.  The price is certainly right: $159.95.  A big RCA 21" color model was $495.  Considering that the average income in 1957 was $5,500 and the minimum wage was one dollar, this price might just be worth it.  And hey, even the back is beautiful!  Just what you'd expect from a slender seventeener.

(I'm proud of this one.  It took four scans and a lot of work to get this full spread so pristine.)
Motorola steps up the war with this volley of glamour and technology.  Forget about GE's auto-tuner.  You can tune this TV perfectly from your easy chair across the room.  And the remote has the added benefit of looking like a fine packet of cigarettes.  In addition, the Golden Satellite has an electronic discovery that ends "warm-up shock" (which costs TV owners $10 million yearly.)  This "Tube Sentry" eliminates 3 out of 4 service calles, brings on picture and sound simultaneously, and triples (!) the life expectancy of every tube and other parts of your set.  (They should have reworded that.  It sounds funny: every tube and other parts of your set.  What does that mean, exactly?)

In the fine print we are assured that not only will the remote control your TV, but you can control it at the set, too.  We should also note that the two hi-fi speakers are tilted up towards ear level, unless you're lying on the floor watching Captain Kangaroo with a bowl of Cheerios in front of you.  The tinted safety screen is tilted down to eliminate glare, which is also useless if you're on the floor.  And don't forget: the UHF is an optional extra, and specifications are subject to change without notice.  But that's just the small print.  And with that gorgeous blonde alongside the lean, lithe look of the television's rich-grained, satin-finished hardwoods, who will notice the small print?  The dame in the dress helps to distract as well.

I'm not sure what is with the cowboy marionettes shown in the inset with the remote control.  I do know that five of the top ten shows that year were westerns (also known as "oaters".)  So this was a way to incorporate westerns, televisions, dames, dogs, and satellites all in one advertisement.  A massive carpet-bombing aimed at wiping out the competition.  However, I've never heard of the Motorola Golden Satellite.  Perhaps, despite their winning the TV war in this issue of Life with this over-the-top, grandiose, superb advertisement, they lost the larger war for the hearts and wallets of the television-hungry buyers of 1957.

Which one would you have chosen?

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