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What is a Boob Tube?

By Kate Monteith
Updated May 16, 2024
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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.

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Discussion Comments
By honeybees — On Apr 07, 2012

Oh - I remember wearing some of those elastic tube tops. I would usually wear them under another shirt or jacket, but if I was just hanging around at home, I would wear it alone.

There were boob tube dresses that were also popular. The top part of the dress was just like a boob tube top, but it was much longer and was a dress instead of a top.

I haven't seen any of those around for a long time. They say if you wait long enough, the styles will come back around again. It will be interesting to see if boob tube clothing comes back in style any time soon.

By LisaLou — On Apr 06, 2012

I know I am aging myself here when I say I remember when the Munsters was on TV. I also remember my mother referring to the TV as the boob tube.

She didn't like us watching a lot of TV and would much rather have us reading books or playing outside. My parents set a good example as they rarely watched TV either. They thought there were much better ways to spend our time.

I raised my kids mostly the same way. There were a lot more learning programs available for my kids when they were growing up, so they watched more TV than I did, but not nearly as much as many of their friends did.

There were limits set in our house how often we could watch TV. I also wanted my kids to spend their time doing something active or creative instead of just watching it being done.

By chivebasil — On Apr 06, 2012

There was once a time when TV was a creative wasteland but I don't think that's the case anymore. There are interesting adult shows on just about every network and some of the best TV ever made has come out within the last 10 years.

Now that we have cable and expanded broadcast opportunities all over the dial there is a need for more content and also a competition which drives producers to make better content. This is the golden age of television. It is no longer a boob tube but a portal to watch some of the most interesting stories being told anywhere.

By Ivan83 — On Apr 05, 2012
My mom always used to call the TV the boob tube. The funny thing is that she watched a lot of TV and she let the kids watch a lot as well.

But really who can blame her? I don't know anyone these days who doesn't watch at least some. And let's be honest, watching Hulu and Netflix is the same as watching TV. It's all staring at screens no matter what you are watching.

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