The growth of broadcast television is a text book example of a fundamental change in the media environment. Whether measured by the percentage of Americans watching television regularly, by the amount of time spent watching every day, or by the dominance of broadcast television over other media, broadcast television at its prime was the paradigm of a mass medium. More people than ever before and ever again followed the same homogenous programming as a daily routine. In this chapter, I show that this change in the media environment affected how Americans learned about politics, and whether or not they would go to the polls. Broadcast television brought Americans closer together in their political knowledge and their involvement in the electoral process. It did so by striking a bargain with many of those Americans who had previously ignored politics because it seemed too difficult to keep up with: “We will bring moving pictures right into your living room that you will find impossible to resist for many hours each day — but for an hour or two, the irresistible moving pictures will show you news and politics.”
To set the stage, this chapter begins with a brief description of the media environment before television. Next, I sketch the growth of television and the maturing of television news. The popularity of the medium and the conventions surrounding the scheduling of news generated large news audiences in this oddly irresistible low-choice environment.