Lynn Spigel. Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. Chicago, IL. University of Chicago Press. 1992.

Rather than focusing on the social and domestic context, broadcast history has continually framed its object of study around questions of industry, regulation, and technological invention. Spigel intervenes in this understanding of television in order to show that the new medium was represented as both a unifying and divisive force in the home.


On the one hand it was greeted as a vehicle for family togetherness while on the other hand, popular media warned the public about its excessively unfamiliar qualities, presenting the new machine as a kind of modern Frankenstein that threatened to turn against its creator and disrupt traditional patterns. Television sets moved from the basement or the living to the center of family life in kitchens, bedrooms, and converted garages. In 1951 American Home first displayed a television set in the place of a fireplace, the traditional cornerstone of the living room architecture. The television also took over for the piano as a symbol of family togetherness and magazines such as House Beautiful (1953) asked readers “Do You Really Need a Piano?” The television, magazines claimed, would bring the family ever closer than a fireplace or piano ever could. Advertisements for televisions depicted, as Roland Marchand has shown to be a trope in advertising, a soft-focus dreamy mist effect depicting closed familial circle sitting around one another. It would save marriages (“until we got that TV set, I thought my husband had forgotten how to neck”) and kept children allegedly off of the streets.

However, the ideal of family togetherness was accompanied by repressed anxieties. House Beautiful, while questioning the need for a piano, warned of a dismal future of the mechanized household. “Don’t let the television set dominate you,” the authors warned. Parents found their children susceptibility to the passivity of television. One parent wrote to Saturday Review that her children had become “drugged” and forty percent of all parents did not approve of the violent mystery, horror, crime, and western films that their children typically saw. Meanwhile, males complained that television shows (such as some of those mentioned by Susan Douglas) made fathers look like bumbling idiots. In an episode of Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, “Pop” was unable to fix the complicated technology himself. He uses the opportunity to suggest some Victorian-era recreations, specifically dramatic reading, but his children are unimpressed and eagerly await the repairman to come and usurp their father of his masculinity. And although early television advertisements incorporated the type of “familial portrait” Marchand notes in advertisements from 1920s-1940s, by the late 1950s, advertisements in home magazines increasingly depicted family members enjoying television alone. Through separation, they slyly argued, would be harmony.


The broadcast industry additionally attempted to woo housewives away from their chores with daytime programming while home magazines advised women how to respond to these attempts to disrupt effective management of the home. DuMont Network first offered regular daytime schedule and by 1951, CBS, NBC, and ABC first aggressively attempted to colonize the housewife’s workday with regularly scheduled network programs. They created the soap opera, whose minimum action and visual interest allowed housewives to listen while doing housework and created programs which taught housewives how to buy products. To offset the possibility of a housewife not working, magazines recommended placing televisions where domestic women could watch and work at the same time, usually a situation realized by purchasing a television for the kitchen.


Television also played a similar role to Susan Douglas’ understanding of radio. It fostered an “imaginative community,” even if unrealistically portrayed as Elaine Tyler May argues. As more and more families moved to suburbia, middle class White families could keep their distance from the world while imagining their domestic spheres connected to a large social fabric. Family sitcoms were obsessed with views of far away places, usually depicted through a creative mis-en-scene. For instance, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show included numerous windows and glass doors through which appeared a painted backdrop depicting George and Gracie's Beverly Hills yard and bringing “the world into the home.” However, television made the private house a bit too public. Perhaps this fear was best stated in 1949 when The Saturday Evening Post told its readers, "Be Good! Television's Watching." Billy Wilder's The Seven Year Itch ( 1957) takes up this theme in a film that deals with the comedic escapades of Richard Sherman, a middle-aged husband who finds himself tempted by a glamorous young television actress (played by Marilyn Monroe) when his wife leaves town for the summer. After flirting with the actress, Richard has a nightmarish vision in which he imagines that she is on television, reporting their illicit affair to the entire television audience- including, of course, his wife.