Boob tube is a noun that has two primary meanings, depending on geographic location. In the United States and Canada, the expression is used as slang for a television set, as in watching the :boob tube." It was coined in the 1960s when early TV sets operated with cathode ray tubes. The expression was meant to characterize people who were watching TV as boobs, and it was usually conveyed with a derogatory or comedic slant.
The term carries a double meaning in Canada, as well as South Africa, Great Britain and Australia, where boob tubes are tube tops, a type of women’s apparel. In this case, a boob tube is made of a simple band of elastic fabric that snugly encircles a woman’s torso. The word “boob” refers to female breasts, or “boobs.” Tube tops have no sleeves or collar, and are generally worn in warm weather or under a jacket.
The use of the term boob tube emerged in the first few years of American television broadcasting when the medium was struggling to find artistic footing. Soap operas and game shows abounded, and there was little of substance for intelligent people to watch on TV. In 1961, a famous quote by the Chair of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Newton N. Minnow, became the battle cry for better programming, when he called television “a vast wasteland.”
Finding fault with TV’s commercialism and lack of educational value became part of the popular culture in the 1960s and 1970s. The first televised use of the expression boob tube is believed to have been in a 1965 episode of a comedic American television show, The Munsters. Despite all the derision, watching TV soon became the modern world’s most popular pastime, and the popularity of television has never wavered since.
When television broadcasting expanded to cable TV, subscribers began to enjoy more variety in programming choices, including specific channels with intelligent, thought-provoking shows. Today’s on-demand and DVR technologies have further expanded the television entertainment options, letting consumers decide for themselves if the TV watching experience will be educational and uplifting, or more like watching the boob tube.
From TV’s beginnings in early 20th-century broadcasting, all the way to today’s sophisticated, high definition liquid crystal display (LCD) and plasma display panel (PLP) televisions, the boob tube has become an integral part of our daily entertainment. Or, it is simply a skimpy bit of fabric clinging tightly to a female form. Either way, boob tubes can be quite entertaining for many people.