Mass Media in the U.S. in the 1950s

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

The ways in which people got information changed dramatically during the 1950s. While no technology would be completely doomed, this lesson shows how the seeds were planted for a revolution in media in the decades to come.

Beginning of the End of Newsreels

The 1950s were a time of great change for mass media, with developments in technology drastically changing the media landscape. Radios continued to work their way into new places in American life, while changes to the book and newspaper industries meant that publishing saw a renaissance of sorts. Most drastic was the introduction of the television. However, TV meant that another technology would soon be doomed. For decades, the most common form of mass media across much of the world was the newsreel. For a few cents, someone could walk into a theater and catch the headlines of the day, much like watching a few minutes of a major cable news network. However, by the 1950s, the newsreel was starting to face resistance from new forms of media. For its whole existence, the major advantage of the newsreel was that it could show people through video what was happening halfway around the world. As we will soon see, this was becoming less and less of an advantage during the 1950s.

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  • 0:01 Beginning of the End…
  • 1:08 Radio Advances
  • 2:08 Book Publishing and Newspapers
  • 3:56 Rise of Television
  • 4:57 Lesson Summary
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Radio Advances

Radio, on the other hand, was still doing quite well in light of the changes of the 1950s. In fact, the whole world of radio was about to explode onto a completely different set of frequencies. Prior to the 1950s, just about every radio broadcast was on the AM spectrum. FM broadcasts were not possible until 1939, and due to World War II, they were largely ignored until the 1950s. However, AM broadcasters were eager to limit the accessibility of the new FM frequency because it would mean that they would have many more competing stations. Because they were fewer in number and limited to certain bandwidths of transmission, there was a serious reduction in 'interference.' Interference between stations had long weakened AM signals, meaning that when offered the choice of AM or FM on new radios, many consumers found FM stations to be more appealing.

Book Publishing and Newspapers

While radio and newsreels were relatively new technologies, one of the oldest forms of media in use would also have pretty significant changes. Books had long been published as either expensive hardcover volumes or, more recently, cheaper paperback editions that were not very durable. However, with new materials for book covers available during the 1950s, that began to change, and cardboard became increasingly common. This meant that books that were not economical to be published as paperbacks could now be affordably made into hardcover editions. Books also were bound together in different ways. Prior to the 1950s, books were stitched together, with threads or wires holding pages in place. By the end of the 1950s, many books were instead glued together, resulting in much faster manufacturing times and much lower costs.

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