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  • Writer's pictureManitoba Electrical Museum

On Air: Television in the 1950s

Image of TV by StockSnap from Pixabay
Image of TV by StockSnap from Pixabay

Compared to our Smart TV today with streaming services like Netflix and Disney Plus, watching TV was very different back in the 1950s.

Television only came to Winnipeg in 1954 when a 196 ft. tower was mounted on the roof of the CBC building on the corner of Portage and Spence Street. One of our own volunteers at the museum recall watching them put up the tower. This tower would broadcast the only two stations available. The two stations were CBWT bilingual channel 4 and French version channel 6. These were the only stations on TV until the 1960s when a private station called CJAY-TV now known as CTV was launched.

Article from The Winnipeg Tribune Dated May 31, 1954. Source: The University of Manitoba Archives newspaper collection

With new technology came with new challenges. For one, having the broadcasting tower in the middle of the city had some issues. The very strong signal caused severe ghosting for many viewers. TV repair shops had problems adjusting the TV sets because the signal was so strong. To solve this problem, the transmitter and tower were eventually moved outside the city. What is left on the CBC building is the bottom half of the tower.

With the creation of TVs, TV repair shops sprung up all over the city. The vacuum tubes in the TV sets were not very stable. A TV set owner could expect to have to call a repairman at least once or twice a year. Some unscrupulous repairmen would take advantage of the customer by testing all the tubes and replacing those which showed a little weak or even damaging them with the tube tester to sell more tubes. Often the tube replacement had nothing to do with the original problem. New vacuum tubes were also prone to failure. Because of the high failure rate of new tubes, the repairman would expect a call back within 2 or 3 weeks. The tube would be replaced under warranty, but the customer still needed to pay for a service call.

The picture quality of the 1950s TV by today's standards was not impressive. The picture quality was 525 horizontal lines, by today's standards would be considered poor. It often took some effort to obtain a good picture. the viewer had to deal with the vertical roll and horizontal hashing. The television sets had vertical and horizontal controls along with brightness and contrast accessible to the viewer to overcome these issues. Unfortunately, sometimes toddlers would find these buttons and totally scramble the picture to the point that the TV repairman would be called. Ghosting images and blurry pictures were common. The signals were received either through an antenna on the roof, or, if you lived in an apartment you used "rabbit ears", which you would adjust every which way trying to find a clearer picture. Sometimes coat hangers were attached to the rabbit ears to try to enhance the reception. Even the antenna on a roof would not guarantee a good picture if it was improperly installed or of not good enough quality. The antennas were directional. so if there were multiple stations to receive, the orientation was often a compromise.

Some people didn't want to buy something so mysterious and expensive. The price range for TV varies depending on size and quality. According to an article in the Winnipeg Evening Tribune dated May 31, 1954, a set can be purchased for $215 ($2,331 in 2022's monetary value) or as high as $1095 for a combination TV, Radio, and gramophone. For many, instead of owning one, it was common in the evening to see groups of people standing in front of furniture store windows watching TV. The shops would leave the display TVs running and have speakers over the door for the sound. Broadcasting back then usually ended at midnight signing off with God Save the Queen.

The 1950s black and white TV we have is a portable Admiral 19-inch set that we had on display during All That Glows 2022. Although it has a handle, it is not something you would move too often. The Admiral Corporation brand was a well-known brand in the 1950s and 1960s. They were one of the earliest pioneers in the production of television receivers. According to a Winnipeg Evening Tribune article dated May 10, 1954, approximately one-third of all TV sets in Canada are Admiral and was Canada's largest Manufacturer of television receivers. The only way for us to have something playing on the Admiral 19-inch set is to use the channel 3 output from a VCR for our TV signal. With only antenna terminals on the TV set, that is the only way to produce a picture.

For more information watch some of the 1950s video footage from CBC Manitoba's archive:

Co-written with Larry D., Shop Volunteer.

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