What’s On the Box Tonight?

a picture of a 1950's television
1950’s ‘box’ television

You can understand where the expression ‘What’s on the box tonight?’ came from when you look at images of televisions from the 1950s. They were exactly that- a box with legs and a few dials at the front. I spoke to my brother (b.1954) about his first memories of television. His earliest recollections were pre 1960. “I remember the TV was in the front of the house and I can vaguely recall watching the old shows like the The Black and White Minstrel Show  and other variety shows which were popular at the time.” My brother also remembered as a child, taking his bath in front of the television in a small blue tub. Trinity, our family dog, would sometimes drink the bath water. He also ate some of his meals in front of the television whilst watching westerns. ‘Westerns were the go in the 60’s and there were plenty of them’. His favourites included The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Bat Masterson, Bret Maverick, The Cisco Kid (I remember that one), Daniel Boone, Davey Crocket, Bonanza, Gunsmoke and F-Troop.

television ad. from the 1950s
Complete Family Viewing

Television viewing was a night time activity and ‘it was usually  prior to, and during tea time’. My brother and I ate our meals during the week in front of the television which had been set up in the study. I remember the wall where the TV sat was full of books such as The Complete works of Charles Dickens, a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica and some medical books  which I remember having some very disgusting images of various skin conditions. My brother remembers the arrival of our first colour television in the late 70’s which was setup in the sun-room, an extension to the house added a little before the colour ‘telly’ arrived. My brother’s memories of television viewing in our household do not appear to fit the model of family television viewing as promoted by the broadcasting networks after WWII; one of the family unit coming together to enjoy the experience of watching television.

In fact our family viewing seems to fit more with Sonia Livingstone’s description of the 21st century family, the members of which were trending towards “individualisation” and “democratisation” rather than the “quintessential image of the television audience [as] the family viewing at home – children and parents sitting together comfortably in front of the lively set …[which was] popularised by broadcasting industries in many Western countries after the Second World War” (Livingstone 2009). I do remember us watching television together as a family but only on Sunday afternoons after our traditional roast dinner. I don’t remember any family harmony during this time spent together; just disagreements about the seating arrangements and choice of program!


Livingstone, S 2009, ‘Half a century of television in the lives of our children’. The ANNALS of the American academy of political and social science, 625 (1). pp. 151-163.


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