Reception problems: Postwar television and the amateur experimenter

Casey McCormick asked me to post this so that she could use it in a class. Thanks for motivating me to share, Casey!

Reception Problems: Postwar Television and the Amateur Experimenter

The figure of the amateur experimenter performs a well-defined historiographic function within revisionist histories of twentieth century media technologies. Consider the teenage wireless operator, the short wave ham, the hi-fi audiophile, and the computer hacker: historians have highlighted the activities of these and other amateurs to complicate and contest the distinctions that top-down, single-ledger histories often draw between the so-called producers and consumers of media technologies. What of television’s amateur experimenters? A handful of scholars have discussed hobbyists’ dalliances with mechanical television in the 1920s and 1930s (Sewell, 2012; Boddy, 2004), but few have traced these activities beyond the medium’s post-World War II relaunch. Exceptions exist: for instance, Lisa Parks (2000) has traced the circulation of technical knowledge about television amongst consumers and professional repairmen during the 1940s and 50s. But for the most part historians have relegated the amateur experimenter to the television’s pre-war “pre-history,” overlooking the various forms of experimentation that viewers and would-be viewers engaged in the decades following the medium’s commercialization. These experiments are the subject of this paper. In what follows I offer a perspective on 1950s television that stresses the mutability of its technologies and the resourcefulness of its viewers, and that furthermore is sensitive to the hyper-local variations that characterized the medium’s early reception practices.

Allow me to begin with an anecdote. In August 1952 the Chicago Daily Tribune reported on the story of Bobby Ray Lee, an 11-year old boy who had run away from his hometown of Dawson Springs, Kentucky with hopes of finding better television reception. According to the Tribune’s report, Bobby Ray had caught the television bug shortly after television’s arrival in Western Kentucky, but had quickly grown frustrated with the poor reception available in his hometown. The boy hitchhiked 450 miles north to Chicago, where he spent much of the following week parked in front a relative’s set until a local judge ruled that he be shipped back to his mother in Kentucky. But by then, Bobby Ray had already become somewhat of a local celebrity, and had received invitations to watch television in the homes of a number of prominent Chicago families, including that of a prosecutor assigned to his case (Moss, 1952).

I offer this anecdote as a reminder both of the reception problems that plagued television in the 1950s, and of the lengths to which some viewers went in search of better television pictures. For a considerable portion of the American population the fanfare surrounding television’s relaunch rather quickly gave way to a mounting dissatisfaction with television’s quality. To clarify, by “quality” I do not refer to the aesthetic value of television’s programming, but instead to the resolution and fidelity of the images and sounds that the medium delivered into its audiences’ homes. Bobby Ray’s adventure occurred just months after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ended a four-year moratorium on issuing new television station licenses, at a time when only 109 stations were on the air in sixty-five American cities. The television licensing freeze had left many communities, ranging from small towns such as Dawson Springs to major cities such as Portland, OR, without television stations of their own. With a tall antenna and the cooperation of mother nature some of Bobby Lee’s neighbors might have managed to periodically pull down snowy television pictures from stations in Nashville or Louisville. That said, for many of Dawson Springs’ residents, and for many millions more around the country, tuning in to television remained a difficult task that demanded skill, patience, and a willingness to tinker with unfamiliar technologies, and that often produced unsatisfactory results.

Whereas Bobby Lee’s response to television’s postwar reception problems was to thumb his way to Chicago, a city serviced by four local stations, others channeled their frustrations into a search for technological solutions. During the early 1950s, as policymakers and industry representatives deliberated over how to expand television coverage nationwide and combat the scourge of interference, impatient viewers explored a variety of low- and high-tech methods for improving domestic reception, or for achieving it where it was thought to be impossible. Their experiments ranged from such modest activities as fashioning makeshift aerials out of readily available household items to ambitious projects that pooled the resources and know-how of entire neighborhoods. Take, for instance, the story of another young television enthusiast, this one a resident of Ithaca, NY. Robert Cooper was only a year older than Bobby Lee Ray when his father brought home their family’s first television set in 1950. The father and son team spent much of the following year experimenting with different receiver and antenna combinations in an attempt to tune in Ithaca’s nearest station, which was then located approximately 100 miles away in Rochester, NY. Helping the Coopers were their neighbors, who lent advice and technical know-how, as well as the owners of some of Ithaca’s local electronics retailers, who allowed them to borrow some of the newest, most sensitive receivers in their showrooms. The Coopers’ major breakthrough came when Robert discovered a classified advertisement in Hugo Gernsback’s Radio Electronics that had been placed by an amateur experimenter in rural Minnesota. After sending $5 to the address in the ad, the Coopers received schematics for a special long-distance “rhombic” antenna. Weeks of tuning and tweaking followed, and when the antenna had been properly calibrated the Coopers successfully tuned in clear signals from stations located up to 150 miles from their home (Cooper, 2006). (Note: this story, and many other fascinating tales about television experimentation, are recounted in Bob Cooper’s memoir Television’s Pirates: Hiding behind your picture tube, which I strongly recommend to all television historians and enthusiasts.)

Similar experiments took place throughout the 1950s in many of the cities and towns that had been left without television stations of their own by the FCC’s misguided postwar spectrum allocation scheme and the subsequent licensing freeze. In Waukon, Iowa, the local veterans club raised $700 toward the construction of an eighty foot tall antenna mast that members used to tune in stations from as far as east as New York and as far west as Utah. A hobbyist in Millersburg, PA, assembled a long-distance television setup consisting of a 30-tube receiver, two boosters, and three different antennas mounted on a seventy-five foot mast which he used to tune in ten different stations, including five located more than 1,000 miles away. In Denver, the largest American city that was left without a local station by the freeze, hams used their knowledge of the propagation of radio waves to tune in signals from as far away as both coasts on customized high-performance rigs. Hobby magazines closely followed these long-distance television experiments, and encouraged amateurs to write in with technical tips and news of their latest accomplishments. Meanwhile, enterprising companies began marketing products aimed specifically at this sub-segment of the television audience, including special long-distance antennas, signal boosters, wave traps, power line filters, remote-control rotating rooftop antenna mounts (Parks, 2007).

The long-distance television experiments of the 1950s contributed a great deal to broadcast engineers’ understandings of television’s VHF spectrum, and ultimately paved the way for the advent of commercial community antennas services, which were themselves the forerunners of cable TV. More immediately, they fostered the formation of local technical cultures: formal or informal groups made up of individuals who concurrently (and in some instances collaboratively) pursued technical solutions to reception problems that were endemic to their own communities or regions. In addition to working on and with television’s technologies, the members of these technical cultures also worked through coalescing conceptions of the new medium’s identity. As defined by Kristen Haring (2006), “technical culture” refers to the “framework that defines the accepted meanings, uses, and values for technologies.” “Technical culture,” she writes, “establishes a technology’s identity – the perception of what a technology is and how it should be used” (7). The long-distance experimenters who spent the 1950s studying meteorological reports and wiring diagrams as opposed to program listings interacted with television in ways that challenged dominant conceptions of the new medium’s identity. This is not to say that these individuals necessarily rejected or even disagreed with broadcasters’, consumer electronics manufacturers’, and regulators’ “official” definitions of television – definitions that increasingly portrayed television more as a piece of furniture than as a mutable technology. Rather, the contexts in which these and many other Americans first encountered television made it difficult, if not impossible, for them to observe these definitions in their everyday lives. In places such as Ithaca, Millersburg, Waukon, and Denver, viewers and would-be viewers developed an understanding of television as a modular, open, imperfect, and incomplete technology, and a way of engaging with the new medium in which the act of watching television programming often took a back seat to changing tubes, rotating antennas, and tweaking gain amplifiers.

Applied to the activities of television’s amateur experimenters, Haring’s concept of “technical culture” suggests a different way of imagining television’s postwar publics. That is, in addition to conceptualizing of these publics as audiences, or groups linked by their members’ simultaneous reception of national or local broadcast content, we might also think about those publics whose members were linked by their experiences of television’s reception problems. The existence of these local technical cultures complicates one of the dominant tropes of historical scholarship on U.S. television in the 1950s. To summarize: in the six year span between television’s postwar relaunch and the end of the freeze, powerful business interests worked closely with regulators to lock in technical standards and regulatory frameworks that protected and expanded the hegemony of broadcasting’s established stakeholders. Concurrent campaigns of consumer pedagogy carried out via advertisements, press releases, public exhibitions, and sales materials presented television to the public as a technologies that had “‘already reached a degree of perfection” at which consumers need no longer worry themselves with the intricacies of its inner mechanisms or with the policy debates surrounding its standards (Boddy 2008, p. 49). Instead, emphasis shifted to a different set of questions pertaining to television’s place within the home, such as where to situate the receiver or who would decide which programs the family would watch. Product designs reinforced this definition of television as a stable and settled technology, concealing receivers’ functional mechanisms within cabinetry designed to at once complement domestic décor schemes and discourage DIY tinkering. Following decades of speculation and experimentation during which television stood, in William Uricchio’s (2008, p. 221) estimation, as “one of the more extreme examples of the instability endemic to media forms,” the medium emerged from the freeze enclosed within literal and metaphorical “black boxes” that placed its technologies beyond the reach, concerns, and understanding of all but the most curious and courageous of consumers.

The black box trope underscores the influence that institutional and political factors exerted upon television’s developing technologies during the postwar era, making it a valuable corrective to the technological determinism of many received histories of the medium’s commercialization. That said, it has a difficult time accounting for the local contingencies that accompanied and impeded the inauguration of a “nationwide” television service in the postwar period, placing disproportionate emphasis on the experiences of the residents of the nation’s major metropolitan areas and their surrounding suburbs. As Victoria Johnson (2008) has noted, much of what passes as American postwar television history actually pertains mainly – or exclusively – to television as it was experienced during this time by New Yorkers, Philadelphians, Chicagoans, and Los Angelinos. Viewers who lived in these cities and their suburbs could chose to experience television as a fully black-boxed technology if they so desired. For the vast majority of the nation’s population, however, observing the boundaries of television’s black box simply was not an option. Despite manufacturers’ and retailers’ insistent claims regarding television’s perfection and readiness for commercial exploitation, reception problems left many Americans with little choice but to pry open television’s black box if they were to have any hope of tuning in decent pictures, or any pictures at all, for that matter.

The long-distance reception hobby lost steam as the 1950s progressed and more stations went on the air in the VHF and UHF bands. Still, amateurs continued to experiment with television long after the reception problems that had originally motivated them had been “solved.” Robert Cooper, for example, turned his attention to satellite television, and went on to author scores of articles, newsletters, and self-published books for hobbyists on how to intercept and decode the television, telephone, teletype, and radio signals transmitted by communications satellites. Others experimented with cable television boxes, video recorders, video game systems, television typewriters, and personal computers. (No word on what became of Bobby Ray Lee.) While these forms of tinkering were never mainstream, there existence and persistence demands that we acknowledge that television’s period of material and interpretive flexibility did not conclude with its commercialization. This insight can be particularly powerful today, as we confront ubiquitous ahistorical claims about the unprecedented mutability of digital television technologies.


References

Boddy, W. (2004). New Media and Popular Imagination: Launching Radio, Television, and Digital Media in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cooper, B. (2006). Television’s Pirates: Hiding Behind Your Picture Tube. Mangonui, New Zealand: Far North Cablevision, Ltd.

Haring, K. (2006). Ham Radio’s Technical Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT University Press.

Johnson, V. (2008). Heartland TV: Prime-time Television and the Struggle for National Identity, New York City: NYU Press, 7.

Moss, R. (1952). “Law Channels a TV Fan Back to Fringe Area.” Chicago Daily Tribune (20 August), A7.

Parks, L. (2000). “Cracking Open the Set: Television Repair and Tinkering with Gender 1949-1955.” Television & New Media. Vol. 1 No. 3, 257-78.

Parks, L. (2007). “Where the Cable Ends: Television Beyond Fringe Areas.” In Sarah Banet-Weiser, Cynthia Chris, and Anthony Freitas (eds.), Cable Visions: Television Beyond Broadcasting. New York City: NYU Press, 106-7.

Sewell, P. (2012). “Kludge TV.” (Unpublished conference presentation, delivered at On Television Conference, Yale University)

Uricchio, W. (2008). “Old Media as New Media: Television.” In Dan Harries (ed.), The New Media Book. London: British Film Institute Press, 219-30.

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About fymaxwell
Max Dawson is a Los Angeles-based media consultant and professor.

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