The modern era of television basically began in 1939, when the NBC television studio at Rockefeller Center debuted at the World’s Fair in New York City. Just a few months later, CBS started broadcasting from its shiny new studio in Grand Central Station.
As scripted and variety TV shows, televised Major League Baseball games, and other programming made their way into American homes in the 1940s, television was widely regarded as a fad. But it didn’t take long for it to start generating profits for the networks.
America’s entry into World War II definitely put a damper on TV’s momentum, though. After the war ended, things picked up considerably. In 1947—a year considered a turning point in the history of television due to the introduction of a number of landmark programs—the “fad” truly exploded, and people started realizing TV was here to stay. So, you may notice that most of the entries on the list below kicked off in the last few years of the ’40s.
Here’s a look at some of the most famous, iconic, popular, and influential TV shows of the 1940s.
Popular 1940s Television Shows
- Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts – This popular radio show debuted in 1946, and the television version emerged in July of 1948. The variety show ran through 1958 and starred Arthur Godfrey, Lenny Bruce, and Sally Marr. It mostly showcased music and comedy acts.
- At Home – Produced in 1944 and 1945, this was one of the first variety shows on American television, spotlighting comedians, singers, musicians, and other entertainers. Its novelty in adapting a popular radio format to television helped it achieve popularity. As it predates the ability to record live television (which came about in late 1947), the only surviving images of this show are photographs from the set.
- Candid Camera – From 1948 into the 1970s, this hidden camera concept is often called the first reality show. Secretly capturing people’s reactions to ridiculous situations and practical jokes, this landmark production innovated new possibilities of comedic TV programming.
- Captain Video and His Video Rangers – Just making the cut with its first airing in 1949, this is notable as the first ever science fiction television series. It was a hit for the bygone DuMont Television Network, with more than 1,500 half-hour episodes produced during its run into 1955. It was pivotal in bringing the fad of selling novelty toys like secret decoder rings and ray guns to the television format.
- Hopalong Cassidy – Like the previous entry and just squeaking into the decade with its 1949 debut, this show must get a mention because it’s considered the first Western series on TV. The show is based on a character from Clarence E. Mulford short stories and novels, and he was also brought to life in movies.
- Howdy Doody – A pioneer in children’s programming, this NBC classic starred Buffalo Bob Smith and his puppet Howdy Doody. Plenty of other puppets appeared on the show, which began its run in 1947, and was also one of the first examples of how television could spawn a merchandise craze among American kids.
- Jackson and Jill – Debuting in 1949, this show had a four-year run. It was an early prototype of the classic sitcom genre centered around a squabbling married couple. It starred Todd Karns as Jackson Jones and Helen Chapman as his wife Jill, and each episode started and closed with Jill writing an entry in her diary.
- Kraft Television Theater – This dramatic television series first aired in 1947, live from NBC’s Studio 8-H in Rockefeller Center. If that sounds familiar, that’s because it’s where Saturday Night Live famously broadcasts from. Showing new stories with new characters each week, this program helped launch the careers of many TV and film stars of the day.
- Kukla, Fran and Ollie – With a 10-year run from 1947 to 1957, this is another trend-setting children’s original making ample use of puppets. Except it’s known for having quickly become watched by more adults than kids.
- The Lone Ranger – This one also has to be mentioned, even though it just qualifies with its initial 1949 air date. But it was one of ABC’s first hits, one of the network’s most popular shows from 1949 to 1957, and arguably one of the most famous TV series ever. It starred Clayton Moore (and also John Hart for a while) as the Lone Ranger and Jay Silverheels as Tonto.
- Meet the Press – The longest-running television show of all time is still on, though today it doesn’t look much like it did when it kicked off in 1947. In the beginning, it was basically a half-hour press conference with one important political guest and a panel of questioners.
- The Philco Television Playhouse – Airing on NBC from 1948 through the first half of the ’50s, this highly respected show received numerous awards for its adaptations of plays and musicals.
- Texaco Star Theater – This classic NBC variety show ran from 1948 to 1956. It was hosted by Milton Berle—“America’s favorite uncle” and one of the biggest stars of the era—and also starred Sid Stone and Jimmy Nelson. It’s known as one of the most popular television shows in American broadcasting history.
- The Toast of the Town – Starting in 1948, this is undoubtedly the best-known TV variety show of all time. Doesn’t ring a bell? That’s because it’s better known as The Ed Sullivan Show, which it was renamed in 1955. The program introduced America to so many entertainment stars, including that famous moment on February 9, 1964, when The Beatles made their U.S. debut on the program and ignited the British Invasion.
- What’s It Worth? – Now all but forgotten, this show’s run began in 1948. Hosted by renowned art appraiser Sigmund Rothschild, it was a groundbreaking forefather to familiar shows of today like Antiques Road Show and American Pickers. Viewers would come onto the show to have items appraised. The program was later renamed Trash or Treasure.
Love Mid-Century Television?
We’ve also rounded up some great 1950s TV shows. Click on over to revisit some classic programming from the decade when national color broadcasting began.