The Problem With Television Is That the People Must Sit and Keep Their Eyes Glued on a Screen; the Average American Family Hasn’t Time for It

The New York Times? Orrin E. Dunlap Jr.? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Wildly inaccurate predictions are always amusing. Apparently, an article in “The New York Times” contended that television broadcasting would never surpass radio broadcasting because people would never be willing to sit and stare at a screen for hours on end. Would you please help me to find a citation.

Quote Investigator: In 1939 “The New York Times” printed a piece titled “Act I, Scene I: Telecasts to Homes Begin on April 30—World’s Fair Will Be the Stage” by Orrin E. Dunlap Jr., a journalist who specialized in covering the radio industry. Dunlap spoke to the program director of the National Broadcasting Company who discussed the challenges of the new entertainment format. The intimacy of the television medium required a different style of performance. Broad theatrical gestures were unappealing to audiences. Newsman Dunlap also articulated the skepticism of radio broadcasters. Boldface added to excepts by QI: 1

The problem with television is that the people must sit and keep their eyes glued on a screen; the average American family hasn’t time for it. Therefore, the showmen are convinced that for this reason, if for no other, television will never be a serious competitor of broadcasting.

Dunlap correctly noted that radio allowed people to “listen and go about their household duties and routine”. Yet, that advantage was insufficient to hold back the burgeoning television age.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1973 a columnist in “The Baltimore Sun” of Maryland printed a piece titled “Guess what they said about TV in 1939” which included the excerpt from “The New York Times” article presented above. The conclusion of the article commented on the difficulty of making predictions: 2

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. We wonder why “they” didn’t build wider roads and brighter cities, larger airports and cleaner cars. We may also wonder why they didn’t know more about television. The point is that they did know a lot about it. They just didn’t know very much about human beings.

In 2000 “The Futurist” published “Forecasts that missed by a mile” by Laura Lee which included the following quotation: 3

“The problem with television is that the people must sit and keep their eyes glued on a screen; the average American family hasn’t time for it.”

The New York Times, after a prototype television was demonstrated at the 1939 World’s Fair.

In conclusion, “The New York Times” did publish an article in 1939 by their radio journalist Orrin E. Dunlap Jr. suggesting that television broadcasting would not achieve the popularity of radio broadcasting. Dunlap did not realize that people would be willing to sit and watch flickering images on a screen for extended periods.

Image Notes: Illustration of a television from Clker-Free-Vector-Images at Pixabay. Image has been retouched, resized, and cropped.

Notes:

  1. 1939 March 19, The New York Times, Act I, Scene I: Telecasts to Homes Begin on April 30—World’s Fair Will Be the Stage by Orrin E. Dunlap Jr., Quote Page 14, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest)
  2. 1973 July 12, The Baltimore Sun, Guess what they said about TV in 1939 by Horace M. Newcomb, Quote Page B4, Column 5, Baltimore, Maryland. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 2000 September-October, The Futurist, Volume 34, Issue 5, Forecasts that missed by a mile by Laura Lee, Section: Bad Predictions for Science and Technology, Start Page 23, Quote Page 23, World Future Society, Washington D.C. (ProQuest)