A Brief History of Television – Plus a few predictions of its future

The history of television starts long before screens and broadcast signals, and its end is nowhere in sight.

In order to thoroughly understand TV’s history, you first have to understand a bit of its etymology, which happens to be interconnected with its invention.

The Russian scientist and inventor, Constantin Perskyl, is credited with coining the word “television” in 1900. The prefix, tele-, meaning ‘at a distance’ combined with the root, vision, perfectly described what he and several other inventors had created: a way to mechanically transmit and project images.

The next two decades brought iteration after iteration of this groundbreaking technology. By 1928, the world’s first television station launched in New York. Electronic TV quickly took over mechanical methods, and by the late 1930s, live broadcast had become a reality.

Since those early years, the word “television,” has applied to the entire invention–the transmission medium (or broadcast technology), the program to be viewed, and the projecting/viewing device. For example, someone is just as likely to say they’re going to buy a TV (referring to it as a device), as they are to say they’re going to watch TV (referring to a broadcast program).

The following timeline highlights some of the most significant landmarks in the history of television as they pertain to all its definitions.

1930s/40s

The first commercial TVs are displayed at the World Fair in 1939. While available to consumers, these early television sets are definitely not affordable. A TV could cost up to a third of the average household yearly income. Radio broadcasters (CBS, NBC) also begin to change their studios to adjust to the new format.

1950s

Following WWII, the US sees a boom in cheaper television production. The average American household can finally afford a TV. The ubiquity of television and an influx of engaging, critically-acclaimed programming earns this decade the moniker, “The Golden Age of Television.” Advertisers begin marketing products directly to consumers through TV program sponsorship opportunities (e.g., “soap operas” sponsored by cleaning products directed at women watching TV during the day).

1960s

Social changes (Kennedy assassination, Space Race, Vietnam War) help drive more families to get their news through TV in instances where they might have previously turned to newspapers. Between the 1950s and 1960s the television becomes a must-have electronic for households, much like an essential piece of furniture. Watching TV as a family becomes a nightly ritual for much of America.

1970s

In 1976, Ted Turner launches the first basic cable network, TBS; he asks Howard Hubble to set up a cable network from a satellite feed so he can watch the Braves from Massachusetts. The last black and white TV is manufactured in 1978, making color TVs the only purchasable option in the market.

1980s

VCRs become a household staple and a way for consumers to record programs and view them at their leisure. The cable/satellite footprint continues to expand with with the help of popular sitcoms like “The Cosby Show.”

1990s

Internet becomes available in the home through dial-up ISPs (Internet service providers), introducing the dawn of a competing source of content. Premium cable sees a boom through shows such as “Sex and the City” and “The Sopranos.”

2000s

Broadcast TV moves from analog to digital. DVR (digital video recorder) changes how and when consumers view TV. Advances in LCD and plasma technology introduce affordable flat screen TVs. DVD players replace VCRs. Television programming becomes more interactive with the explosive popularity of reality TV. Shows like “American Idol” include audience voting and other interactive pieces.

2010s

Online digital programming is now monetized and becomes an important element of a broadcast station’s revenue strategy. Smart TVs (TVs with Internet connectivity) become more affordable and accessible. By 2018 manufacturers will only make smart TVs.

And the future of TV?

It will continue to change–all aspects of it. Devices will get smarter, thinner, more affordable, have better resolution, etc. Broadcast technology will offer more addressable options to advertisers and will send higher definition images to households. And programming will continue to evolve to attract and retain its audiences.

But as OTT (over the top) and other online content sources continue to grow in popularity, many question how much longer a “history of TV” timeline will extend. The answer changes depending on what part of the definition of TV you’re asking about.

TV as defined by the transmission of programming through traditional broadcast, cable, or satellite? It will slowly, and I mean slowly, wane over the coming decades. It’s untruthful to say that online content isn’t winning the eyes of younger generations. And it’s ignorant to think that this trend will suddenly stop. However, research shows that adults continue to favor traditional television over any other content viewing option.

What about TV as defined by the actual programs broadcast? It will likely have place on this timeline as long as the previous definition of television stays on. After all, OTT content from sources like Netflix and Hulu aren’t referred to as television. Thus, if online content one day pushes out traditional TV programming, it will most likely push out the term TV as defined by television programming.

And lastly, TV as a device? It seems safe to say that it is the definition of TV that will keep this timeline alive for many decades to come. Because regardless of what happens to programming and transmission methods, visual content, in a household setting, will continue to get shown on a large screen, i.e., a TV.

To summarize the predictions, TV’s timeline still has decades-worth of future highlights to come.

Sam Petersen
Sam Petersen
Content Marketing Manager
Sam is a conflicted marketer. He loves being creative, but also thrives on numbers and analytics. Sam has worked in several messaging-focused roles during his career, including journalism, PR, product marketing, and now, content marketing. When he's not stewing over his conflictual identity, he heads to the mountains to hike, ski, run, etc.