Dakota Datebook

Television History

Thursday, December 27, 2007

On this date in 1956, North Dakotans learned, from their local newspapers, they were supposed to be watching television ads more closely – but not so they’d buy things; they were supposed to partner with an investigative unit newly created by the Federal Trade Commission.
Television was still a relatively new entertainment medium in the 1950s, but the industry was booming. Soon, it came under the watchful eyes of the Federal Trade Commission, or FTC.
The Bismarck Tribune explained: “Television is now under the eagle eye of federal video investigators. They’re Uncle Sam’s new ‘TV dicks’. And from here on in you can never be sure when they’ll case a show. It might be while they sit at home, or while they grab a snack at a lunch counter, or from a hotel room, or from a government office.”
The article went on to explain the purpose of this covert operation: to find misleading advertising. The story reported FTC attorneys-turned-spies would be switching on TV sets “any time during the day or night at any point across the country.”
The 125-man force made up a new Bureau of Investigation, a unit created within the FTC. The unit’s director, Harry Babcock, said, “We’re moving right in on this thing. Wherever our investigators happen to be, they’ll tune in on television.”
According to Babcock, there were – at that particular time – three branch offices already monitoring TV on a “compulsory basis,” but he refused to divulge their locations for fear some stations would think they could get away with false advertising. “We’re watching television day and night, and each office is expected to contribute so many hours,” he said. “This is just the beginning. We plan to have all eight branches functioning as soon as possible.”
Some investigators were required to watch TV during their spare moments while traveling the country working on other cases. Some carried portable TV sets and all were equipped with tape recorders. In the branch offices, attorneys took turns watching television in four-hour shifts.
The Tribune reported, “If an advertising announcer says anything misleading either from the script or off the cuff, the investigator will make a report.”
Babcock stated the FTC’s most effective tool, however, was the average home viewer. “We want to hear from people who see something advertised, buy it and then have a grievance,” he said. “Then we have something to work on.”
By Merry Helm
Source: The Bismarck Tribune. Bismarck, ND. 27 Dec 1956: p1.

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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