The 1950s in America was TV time. In 1949, only 2 percent of American households had a television set. By 1955, 64 percent of American households had a TV set.
It would take about a decade before educators and some of the public would start to complain that television was ruining children’s brains.
TV stations did have a problem filling up air time. Remember there was no way to record shows, so once a show was broadcast that was it. No reruns. (A few shows did get filmed with movie cameras right off a screen. They were known as a kinescope.) Most shows were live. There were old vaudeville acts, shows adapted from radio programs, travelogues, kiddie shows, shows for housewives, quiz and game shows. Most of what you saw was “local programming.” Sports entered the scene, and baseball and boxing were most popular.
Stations soon discovered that using old films from travelogues to features was a good way to get content that could be repeated because it was already “prerecorded.”
Though I am really a child of the 60s, I toddled my way through the second half of the 1950s and certainly watched TV. One movie showcase that I remember ran in the New York metropolitan area was on WOR-TV (Channel 9 for us) and was called “Million Dollar Movie.”
I read online that it ran in various formats for three decades. It was the HBO of the time as it ran the same film all week long, sometimes two times a night. The idea was that you could watch it at your convenience, but for the station, it filled a lot of hours. Younger readers will not remember that stations “signed off” at night and in those early decades of television, there was nothing to watch overnight.
The opening credits for the show used “Tara’s Theme” from my mother’s favorite film, Gone With the Wind. The films shown were often features that had been in theaters a few years before with “million dollar” budgets (a big deal back then), but it also ran some low-budget films. I got my early film education watching Astaire and Rogers dance across our tiny screen and plenty of westerns. I probably watched King Kong and Mighty Joe Young a half dozen times.
There was nothing educational or interactive about TV. It was passive and that was why we loved it. We gathered around the “cool fire” of the television hearth as a family to watch and “chill out.” We made popcorn as if we were in our own movie theater. Eventually, we convinced my mom to get frozen “TV dinners” (which were pretty dreadful) for us to eat while watching a show as a special treat.
In 1961, Newton Minow, FCC chairman, called television a “vast empty wasteland.” It got nicknamed the “boob tube” which was not a reference to breasts but to the idiots (“boobs” meant that too) that watched and maybe those that made TV.
Literary critics, educators, government and religious leaders would all blame TV for destroying the habits and the moral fiber of the American family. No one was reading. Kids weren’t go outside to play. Hollywood and theaters blamed it for a drop in their attendance and dollars (though they would later embrace it).
But the program that I was thinking about when I started this article was an odd littel show from the 1950s that was actually interactive. It was on CBS and it was titled Winky Dink and You. It was a kids show that encouraged you to draw on the TV screen with crayons as you watched to interact with the characters. If the cartoon characters needed a bridge to cross a river, you were supposed to draw it there for them.
Of course, you were also supposed to buy a “magic screen” cover for your TV from the producers of the show. I suspect there were kids who drew on the actual TV set a few times.
The show first aired on Saturday mornings in 1953 and was carried live by about 175 stations around the country during its first year.
The technology was really crude and the stories were pretty dumb, but it was like nothing else on television at the time. My mom bought the screen for my sister to use. It came with some crayons in various colors. Of course, if you didn’t draw that bridge, the characters still went over the river. At first, I tried to make the bridge or road or whatever do other things too, somehow imagining I had some control over he program.
There was human host, Jack Barry, who told viewers what to do to help Winky Dink, the child-like animated character, who got into lots of trouble and we had to help him out. You traced Barry’s finger on the screen with your crayon to draw. No artistic talent required.
I found online that the actual magic screen set (available from the show originally) cost $1.98, and 2 million Winky Dink magic screen sets had been sold by February of 1955.
It was a great marketing idea, but there was also the idea that kids wouldn’t just be passively watch a show.
Winky Dink ran until 1957 and there were a few attempts to revive it or something like it all the way into the 1960s. The show was revived in syndication for 65 episodes, beginning in 1969 and ending in 1973. In the 1990s, a new “Winky Dink Kit” was sold, containing a screen, crayons, and all-new digitized Winky Dink and You episodes, but by then “educational television” had turned into a more passive talk-at-you approach.
When I was getting a graduate degree in media, I recall reading about the show and attempts at interactivity in the big 3-volume reference book, TV in the USA: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas. Bill Gates said it was “the first interactive TV show.” I suppose the most interactive we ever got with the TV screen wasn’t with any shows but with videogames. Maybe it’s time to revisit interactive TV in this age of artificial intelligence and many types of screens.