Television really came into its own as a form of home entertainment during the 1950s. It also become a major tool for influencing public opinion during the decade. Following WWII, the technology improved greatly. Plus, the booming economy and expanding middle class meant more disposable income for buying such a luxury item—and the leisure family time to enjoy it.
The first national color broadcast occurred in the ’50s—it was the 1954 Tournament of Roses Parade—and while color was occasionally used after that, most programming remained local and in black and white until the middle of the ’60s.
Variety shows, sitcoms, game shows, and Westerns were particularly popular television programming genres throughout the fifties. Here’s a look at some of the most iconic shows from the period.
Popular 1950s TV Shows
- Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts – Popular from the late ’40s up to the end of its run in 1958, Arthur Godfrey, Lenny Bruce, and Sally Marr starred in this music- and comedy-oriented variety show. It was adapted for television from its first incarnation as a radio program, as so many TV shows of the era were.
- The Colgate Comedy Hour – From 1950 to 1955, this NBC variety show was one of the most popular to deliver comedy, music, and more from up-and-coming performers and lots of major stars of the day into American homes.
- The Ed Sullivan Show – Beginning in 1948 as The Toast of the Town and renamed in 1955 (though commonly referred to as The Ed Sullivan Show for years prior), this is probably the most famous television variety show in history. It ran continuously until 1971 and is responsible for introducing so many entertainment stars to a national American audience.
- Dragnet – Jack Webb as Sergeant Joe Friday is an iconic television role of the 1950s. Running from 1951 to 1959, this is arguably the most famous and influential police procedural crime drama in the history of television.
- Fireside Theater – Though widely panned by critics, this was a top-10 show through much of the ’50s. It offered low-budget retellings of dramatic stories in the public domain, as well as some created by freelance writers (including Rod Serling).
- Gunsmoke – TV Guide’s 40th greatest TV show all time, and possibly the most famous Western television series of all time, it starred James Arness, Milburn Stone, Amanda Blake and was televised for a 20-year run from 1955 to 1975.
- I Love Lucy – On the air from 1951 to 1957, this classic sitcom starring Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, and Vivian Vance certainly needs no introduction. And, as testament to its brilliance and enduring appeal, you can still see it in reruns on television today. TV Guide named this the second greatest TV show of all time (after only Seinfeld).
- The Honeymooners – This classic sitcom starring Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, and Audrey Meadows was short-lived, running only from 1955 to 1956. However, the concept built up its following through the first half of the decade debuting on Gleason’s variety shows—including The Jackie Gleason Show, another program deserving mention on this list. The Honeymooners is TV Guide’s third-greatest television show of all time.
- The Jack Benny Program/Show – Considered one of the great achievements of TV comedy (and radio), this series was televised by CBS from 1950 to 1964. Jack Benny and an accompanying cast of actors and actresses delivered endless situation and sketch comedy laughs.
- The Lone Ranger – One of ABC’s first hits and one of its most popular shows from 1949 to 1957, this famous series starred Clayton Moore in the titular role (or John Hart for a while in the middle of its run) and Jay Silverheels as Tonto.
- The Philco Television Playhouse – A highly respected dramatic anthology series aired by NBC from 1948 through the first half of the ’50s, this program received numerous awards for its adaptations of plays and musicals.
- The Red Skelton Show – This variety show reigned as one of the most popular TV programs for 20 years, from 1951 to 1971. Hosted by legendary comedian and clown Red Skelton, it featured guest stars, comedy sketches, music performances, and more.
- Texaco Star Theater – Running from 1948 to 1956 and starring Milton Berle, Sid Stone, and Jimmy Nelson, this NBC variety show is one of the most popular television shows of all time.
- You Bet Your Life – A game show originally hosted by Groucho Marx, it was broadcast simultaneously on TV and radio. It was shown on television from 1950 to 1961 and followed a quiz show format pitting paired teams of one male and one female against each other.
- Your Show of Shows – Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, and Carl Reiner starred in this comedic 90-minute variety show that aired from 1950 to 1954. TV Guide ranked this at 30 in its famous list of “50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.”
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