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Preface

Part I
The Emergence Of American Television: The Formative Years

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

Part II
One Nation Under Network Television: The 1950s

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

Part III
The Years Of Plenty: The 1960s and 1970s

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

Part IV
Toward and Video Order: the 1980s and 1990s

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

 

 

The Arrival of TV

World War II dramatically slowed the developmental strate­gies of Sarnoff and others in the video industry. With the nation waging war in the Pacific, Asia, Europe, and North Africa, the perfecting of television ceased to be a public or a private priority. Many manufacturers abandoned their regular products to make equipment vital to the military effort. With the retooling of the electronics industry, new radios and televisions—as well as replacement parts for receivers already in use—were practically unavailable. Construction of TV stations was also halted, and many existing outlets went off the air. In fact, of the ten commercial stations still telecasting in mid-1942, only six remained on the air through­out the war—but with severely curtailed transmission hours.

By 1945 seven stations were actively programming in the United States: the network operations of NBC (WNBT, which eventually became WNBC), CBS (WCBW, which became WCBS), and DuMont (WABD) in New York City; the General Electric outlet (WRGB) in Schenectady; the Philco station (WPTZ) in Philadelphia; the Balaban & Katz facility (WBKB) in Chicago; and the Don Lee operation in Los Angeles (W6XAO). Although these stations averaged about two hours of airtime daily, much of it was filled with test patterns.

Typical of the outlets continuing to telecast during the war was W9XBK in Chicago, owned by the Balaban & Katz theatrical corporation and affiliated with Paramount Pictures. In March 1941 this experimental station began broadcasting for two and one-half hours weekly. With Amer­ican involvement in the conflict, however, it left the air to become a radio and radar training facility for U.S. Navy enlisted men. Station personnel became the teaching staff of the new school.

The Chicago outlet resumed public broadcasting in October 1942, when it was licensed commercially as WBKB. With male technicians leaving for duty in the armed forces, the station was soon staffed with an all-female crew. Still, wartime experimental TV was minimal. In August 1944 WBKB provided only 25 hours of programming per week—and much of this time was spent with military recruitment, appeals for War Bonds and the March of Dimes, boating education, and other public service matters. During the first five years of its existence WBKB offered only 2,659 individual shows totaling little more than 700 hours.

Importantly, by early 1945 the station had attracted three commercial sponsors. The electric utility Commonwealth Edison financed a weekly afternoon cooking series, a quiz show, and a household hints program; Marshall Field's department store sponsored an afternoon feature highlighting its different departments by means of variety acts and dramatic and comedic skits; and Admiral Radio presented Young Chicago, a weekly educational show produced in cooperation with the Chicago Board of Education and featuring local high school students.

Whatever the quality of the programs, the audience for wartime TV was small. Even after the war ended, viewership remained low. As late as October 1947, there were only 7,514 television receivers operating in Chicago: 4,139 in private homes; 2,295 in bars and grills; and 1,080 in other public places. The average daily audience for video in Chicago in the fall of 1947 was estimated at less than 96,000 viewers.

World War II may have blunted the development of television, but it did not stop experimentation in programming at those stations remaining on the air. In 1943 station WABD revitalized television in the New York City area when it installed a new transmitter and antenna at its studios on Madison Avenue and commenced program service. By 1944 the DuMont station had attracted enough advertisers to offer the first full schedule of commercial shows. No doubt, the DuMont achievement was partly responsible for the revival of interest in production that occurred at CBS and NBC stations in the summer of 1944.

One of the most energetic efforts in the development of programs occurred at WRGB. Seeking to discover the types of shows most practical for television, the General Electric station staged a wide variety of experimental shows. Among the productions at WRGB in the latter half of 1943 were the following:

  • July 16: Hoe-Down Night, a musical barn dance with square dancing and instructors to teach viewers how to square dance.
  • July 23: A Day at the Circus, an actual circus with a clown, band, ringmaster, peanut vendor, and performers emanating from the Schenec­tady studios
  • August 6: Experimental commercial shows requiring twelve sets and sponsored by the Hamilton Watch, Goodrich Tire, and Vimms. The Vimms effort included a short comedy sketch, and the Goodrich portion consisted of an in-studio demonstration of the making of synthetic rubber plus displays of the new rubber derivative, latex.
  • August 19: An African-American religious revival made possible when station personnel convinced the organizers of an actual camp meeting to move their gathering inside the Schenectady studios.
  • August 26: An abbreviated presentation of the Tchaikovsky opera Pique Dame performed in Russian by a professional troupe.
  • September 9: In cooperation with the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, a stark presentation on blood plasma that included an actual blood donation made by a WRGB foreman, a lecture and demonstration explaining plasma, and a dramatization of a blood transfusion on the battlefield.
  • September 13: First of two experimental episodes of a soap opera using a fictitious sponsor for the commercial announcements.
  • October 7: Bridge on Television offered two expert card teams and a commentator. The players used oversized cards to make their hands visible to the camera.
  • October 22: A production mounted by WRGB's own light opera company.
  • October 28: Calling All Hunters, produced by the Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborne ad agency and the Remington Arms Company and using a hunting lodge set to promote the advertiser's products and to offer safety tips to sportsmen.
  • November 11: A complete presentation of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew.
  • December 16: First of four weekly hour-long programs devoted exclusively to discovering successful ways to televise news, art, music, and commercials, respectively.
  • December 23: As a special Christmas offering, a full-length mounting of the opera Hansel and Gretel.

Although the war blunted the development of TV, its lure was not diminished. In early 1942 Chairman James Lawrence Fly of the FCC demonstrated his unflagging enthusiasm when he predicted that "demobi­lization day will find television a fully explored but wholly unexploited field" and that "during the postwar period television will be one of the first industries arising to serve as a cushion against unemployment and depression....There is no reason now apparent why we should not aim at a 50,000,000-set television industry mirroring the present 50,000,000-set standard broadcast [radio] industry."

Two years later Paul G. Hoffman, president of Studebaker Automobile, was similarly enthusiastic about postwar video. He predicted that within a decade television would become a $1 billion industry employing 4.6 million people and that the $100 billion saved by Americans through the purchase of War Bonds would be a strong force in this development.

TV also retained its popular attractiveness because the eventual avail­ability of television sets and quality programming was an important factor in maintaining domestic morale during the war. One of the most familiar projections of peacetime life was that of a private home equipped with electrical devices that would be labor-saving and entertaining.

Manufacturers of refrigerators, washing machines, electric ovens, electric mixers, and the like stressed in their advertising that once peace returned the average home would be filled with their electrical wares. Clothes dryers, outboard motors, and garage-door openers as well as automatic irons, vacuum cleaners, and even personal helicopters were part of a predicted cornucopia. Video was often one of the most glamorous dimensions of this bountiful consumerist future. A short Paramount film from the war years, Skirmish on the Home Front, captures the sense of rewards to come once the sacrifices of wartime result in victory.

RCA was a leading herald of postwar TV. Throughout the country in the fall of 1944 it advertised the new medium as "Television, the 'Baby' that will start with the step of a Giant!" RCA looked to the future, proclaiming that "America's 'Next Great Industry' awaits only the green light of Victory to open up undreamed-of horizons in Education  ...Entertainment...Employment." Again there was the familiar pledge, assuring future set owners they soon would "tour the world via televi­sion," that the industry would provide jobs for returning soldiers and spur economic growth, that education would be enhanced in the home and in "the little red schoolhouse," and that soon "American manufacturers will produce sets within the means of millions." Such glamorous predictions for TV continued in 1945 and into the second half of the decade.

It was a rosy picture of postwar TV. However, such advertising masked the intense struggle behind the scenes between contending corporate forces. On the one side was RCA, with support from other manufacturers such as Philco, General Electric, and DuMont. The principal spokesman for this alliance was RCA's chairman, David Sarnoff, who during the mid-and late-1940s became a public cheerleader for the coming of TV. He could be mercenary, as in 1945 when he predicted that video would be a $1 billion business within a decade. And he could be poetic, as in 1947 when he rhapsodized on the American future in national TV. "The East will see the West, and the West will see the East," he mused. "Television will project pictures across the prairies, over the mountains, and into the valleys." But above all, Sarnoff was determined that TV would be marketed in its present form and that RCA would continue to set the standards for American communications.

The challenge to the RCA group came from programmers such as CBS and the American Broadcasting Company. CBS, however, was primarily a broadcast network, not a great electronic research laboratory or even a manufacturer. William Paley was reluctant to enter the technological field because, as he freely admitted, he knew nothing about the inner workings of the apparatus through which radio or television programs were transmitted. CBS had dragged its feet in the development of black-and-white TV because it could not compete against RCA's prepossessing control of patents on existing technology. But through the technical and persuasive acumen of its chief researcher, Peter C. Goldmark, Paley became convinced by the late 1930s that CBS could overtake RCA technologically through the development of color television.

As early as 1941 CBS had approached the FCC—albeit unsuccessfully—to have its color transmission system accepted as the national standard. The fact that CBS color employed a mechanical rotating disk, a throwback to the early debate between mechanical and electronic mechanisms, failed to diminish CBS's determination. Although existing television was solidly committed to electronic receivers, CBS was so sure of its colorful mechanical future that WCBW began its daily black-and-white wartime telecasts with the following proviso:

Good evening. We hope you will enjoy our programs. The Columbia Broadcasting System, however, is not engaged in the manufacture of television sets and does not want you to consider these broadcasts as inducements to purchase televisions sets at this time. Because of a number of conditions which are not within our control, we cannot foresee how long this television broadcasting schedule will continue.

Most of the blows in the RCA-CBS competition were landed in arguments before the FCC. In a crucial series of hearings in 1944 and 1945, CBS urged the commission to follow a slower schedule in making television available after the war. CBS asked for further research to improve reception, and it sought authorization to open the UHF (ultrahigh frequency) transmission spectrum because it had greater channel capacity (up to seventy channels) and better picture and sound quality than the VHF (very high frequency) band approved earlier. Also, because it still saw color technology as the means supplanting RCA as the industry leader, CBS urged the FCC to wait until color was perfected: why market monochromatic receivers when color was just around the corner?

With its technical and business advantages, however, RCA pressed the commission to allow immediate exploitation of existing video technol­ogy—meaning the NTSC standards set in 1941. These hearings were so crucial for set manufacturers that ancient enmities faded: Zenith did noth­ing overt to assist CBS, and Philco lined up in support of RCA's "television now" position. As a Philco executive explained, "There is no good reason why the public should not enjoy our present television while ... research is going on."

Three decades later, broadcast historians Christopher H. Sterling and John M. Kittross would argue, "It would be hard to overemphasize the importance of the 1945 decisions that stemmed from these hearings. Much of their structure remains, and they are the source of many of today's problems." Indeed, CBS lost on all accounts. In a series of seminal rulings, the FCC accepted the RCA position. It made little difference that commission chairman Charles Denny resigned six months later to become a vice president at NBC, fueling speculation that RCA had worked improperly behind the scenes to secure a victory. The FCC gave the go-ahead to those wishing to produce commercial television with existing black-and-white capabilities.

Although there was agreement on both sides that for adequate TV coverage the United States would require about twenty-five to fifty channels, the commission ruled that TV transmission would be limited to thirteen channels in the VHF spectrum. Moreover, because the VHF band had to be shared with existing government and nongovernment fixed and mobile services—and since channel 1 in 1947 was reserved nationally for FM radio transmission—this restrictive FCC ruling meant that no more than seven commercial stations could transmit in a single metropolitan area—and far fewer when transmission interference between stations in nearby cities further prevented use of potential outlets.

It is difficult, however, to see how the FCC could have ruled otherwise. To arrest the demand for television when the war ended would have been to thwart a public led to expect TV as soon as possible. Postponement also would have hurt manufacturers already able to produce television according to prewar standards, and eager to make consumer products now that most military contracts were canceled. Further, the United States escaped its worst economic depression only because of World War II; and now, with wartime factories closing while millions of servicemen and servicewomen returning to civilian life were looking for jobs, the possibil­ity of national economic disaster was obvious.

The FCC decisions affected the structure of TV in the United States. To make channels so scarce effectively guaranteed that U.S. television would be broadcast TV, dominated by those few corporations able to afford stations in the largest cities, provide attractive programs, attract national advertisers, and quickly build a chain of affiliates eager to appeal to the mass audience. Small networks would face impossible odds competing against the established order. Independent stations would survive only in the largest markets where there existed sufficient advertiser support. In its rush to make video available, the FCC inhibited competition and made monopoly inevitable.

For most Americans this would mean creation of one nation under television, network television. TV would be for broad, indiscriminate tastes. As had been the case with commercial radio, less popular interests such as educational TV, minority entertainment, and even locally oriented programming would be stunted by a few networks able to assemble large numbers of viewers and deliver them regularly to advertisers. Soon commercial video would be developing shows appealing to the common denominator. As one programmer explained in 1957, TV stations in this context would seem simultaneously to satisfy "the intelligentsia, the illiterate, the idiotic, the imbecile, the young, the old, the boy, the girl the preacher, the teacher, the urbanite, the suburbanite and the farmer, the musician, the physician, the plumber ... the baker.... "

 

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