Written By: Bill Syken
One of the great changes that took place during the original run of LIFE magazine was the rise of television culture. When the magazine was founded in 1936, television still largely a creature of the laboratory. By the time the magazine ended its original run in 1972, about 95 percent of American homes had a television.
LIFE magazine documented that growth in its many steps along the way, including stories on what early TV election coverage looked like, nuns learning to make educational shows, and portraits of these TV viewers in their early habitats, among many others.
The April 11, 1949 issue of LIFE captured the distinctive color of local television as it first came to the Lone Star state, in a story titled Television, Texas Style. Here’s a few lines from the report that capture the flavor of what was going on at Fort Worth station WPAB, a pioneering broadcaster in Texas.
When television hit Texas last fall, set owners within reach of the Southwest’s biggest station, WBAP-TV at Fort Worth, expected something that would really spell out the Texas spirit. They got it. Outside the studio the station’s well-heeled owners, Carter Publications Inc., picked up every rodeo, stock show and cutting-horse contest within range. Inside the studio they ran chuck wagons, cow ponies, autos and an occasional elephant from a visiting circus past the cameras and regularly put on big barn dances with as many as 120 people prancing about on the huge 82-foot-long floor…..The station director frequently runs a herd of cattle right through the studio. This sometimes allows pleased Texans to watch an alert stock handler bulldog an errant calf just before it demolishes a camera or gets badly tangled up in the studio’s steel scaffolding. (It never lets them see the arrival of many “cow hands” in well-polished Cadillacs.)
The photographs by Thomas McAvoy capture the scene in loving detail, from the cattle and horses in the studio to the cowboy boots of the cameraman and the memorable mugging of comedian Bruce Pierce. Also of note is the studio audience: the men and women are dressed formally. If you had to guess just from looking at them, you might think they were attending a wedding rather than a staged hoedown.
Another Texas-sized aspect of the production was its broadcast reach: “Although most eastern stations are happy with extreme ranges of 80 to 100 miles, WBAP-TV engineers claim that because of flat terrain they can supply Texas television fare to set owners in Hattiesburg, Miss., 490 air miles away.”
Of course broadcast range is now an obsolete concept, in an age where shows are transmitted digitally for viewing around the globe to anyone with an internet connection. But if the old stations had limited reach, they were also stepping into a new medium full of possibilities, and this Fort Worth station was certainly having fun with them.