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
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
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
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
- 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
- November 11: A complete presentation of
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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