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 Battle of the Titans

The mass marketing of home receivers in conjunction with the inaugura­tion of regularized programming was a bold business gesture precipitated for the most part by RCA and its president, David Sarnoff. The move was typical of Sarnoff and his tough business technique. An impoverished Russian immigrant who in his youth had been a telegraph messenger boy and a wireless operator, he battled to leadership of U.S. telecommunications by stressing refinement of the engineering fundamentals—"the pipes," he called them—of radio and television. He blended the scientist's understanding of wireless technology with a determined, austere management style that made his employer, the Radio Corporation of America, the most formidable electronics operation in the United States.

It was Sarnoff who attracted experimenters such as Zworykin to the RCA research laboratory. It was Sarnoff who made the hard deals—usually through purchase, but, in the case of vital components controlled by Philo T. Farnsworth, through licensing arrangements—that brought to RCA technical patents strategic for transmitting and receiving TV signals. It was Sarnoff, too, who still found time to serve in the armed forces, entering World War II as a colonel and ending up a brigadier general in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. In the mid-1950s in a company film called The Story of Television, Sarnoff and Zworykin discussed their roles in the development of television—at least their roles in developing the technology of the new medium.

In producing U.S. television he had rivals in Philco, Zenith, DuMont, and others. In a company film, The DuMont Story, A Story of Television, the New Jersey-based corporation in the early 1950s asserted its pioneering role in the technical development of television. The same was true for the Farnsworth company in a Popular Science theatrical short from Paramount in 1940. But through corporate ties to NBC only Sarnoff could combine formidable technical and financial power with the programming richness necessary for national broadcasting. As his biographer Kenneth Bilby has described him, Sarnoff "was perhaps the last of that remarkable strain of individualistic entrepreneurs—Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie, Frick, Harriman were among them—whose autocratic governance of industrial oligarchies bruised the precepts of free competitive enterprise but spurred the tumultuous growth of the late nineteenth and early twenti­eth centuries in America."

For Sarnoff the launching of television in 1939 was a double-edged business enterprise intended to sell TV sets to the public and impose RCA technical standards on the industry. If RCA/NBC could develop, produce, and market receivers as well as programs, the corporation could establish itself as the technological, manufacturing, commercial, and programming giant of television. With such advantage, it could monopolize the emerging industry from the outset.

Although many in the business felt that Sarnoff was technologically premature in offering regular home TV service, if enough consumers in the New York City area bought into RCA video at this date it would be difficult for the regulatory Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to render tens of thousands of sets obsolete by revising transmission and reception standards. Then, by extending its broadcast signal through cable and electrical relays, RCA could move on to conquer other U.S. cities. In Television, a ten-minute promotional film created in conjunction with its marketing campaign and the New York World's Fair, RCA alluringly tied its product to public anticipation of television:

And so a new American industry has been born. Television is taking its place as another important and vital contribution to our daily lives. It is a modern miracle, a new public service produced by combining RCA laboratory sci­ence with manufacturing skill. The research problem of yesterday is the radio marvel of today. Another milestone of progress has been passed, and science has made a reality of the age-old dream of pictures from the sky.

But optimism at RCA proved ill-founded. During the first six months of the sales push consumers purchased fewer than five hundred units. Where company executives had envisioned the dissemination of a hundred thousand sets by Christmas 1939, total sales for all manufacturers during the first full year were about three thousand sets. One observer wrote in 1940 that "Television during the past year suffered as stormy a fate as ever beset a branch of the radio industry." In this failure RCA had spent an estimated $10 million.

There were several reasons for the fiasco. Technically, with no relay facilities television transmissions could only reach the horizon. This limited reception of TV signals—transmitted by W2XBS from atop the Empire State Building and by W2XAB from the Chrysler Building—to customers residing within a radius of about fifty miles of the point of transmissions. Further, the price of receivers was high, some costing as much as a moderately priced automobile. And by the fall of 1939 economic and political uncertainties in the United States were exacerbated by the outbreak in Europe of World War II.

RCA also met technical and programming opposition from business competitors and from the FCC. Eugene McDonald, the president of Zenith, a company that felt itself long abused by RCA's monopolization of radio, deeply distrusted Sarnoff and felt that the majordomo of RCA was about to snatch the TV industry from its cradle. McDonald even purchased newspaper advertising space to publicize Zenith's claim—and to sow seeds of doubt in the public being asked to buy TV—that the move to regularly scheduled programming was "premature both for economic and technical reasons."

At Philco, President Lawrence E. Gubb was also tenacious competition for Sarnoff. In the mid-1930s, when Philco radios were the bestselling units on the market, the company sued RCA for stealing confidential infor­mation by exploiting several Philco female employees, "intoxicating them with liquors at hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs," and seeking to involve the women in "compromising situations." RCA denied the charges, and the suit was later dropped. However, it revealed the bitterness inherent in these corporate battles. By 1940 Philco was engaged in open warfare against RCA television, accusing Sarnoff of business skullduggery and ar­guing that nothing less than the future of the video was at stake.

These were bitter rivalries that exploded beyond simple capitalistic competition. As Sarnoff’s biographer has sketched it, "To McDonald, Sarnoff was a monopolistic predator who played scheming 'Russian tricks' to enforce RCA's illegal clutch on the industry. To Sarnoff, McDonald was a bloated 'parasite' who feasted on the products of RCA research to build a huge consumer business and a personal fortune." Fortune magazine concluded at the time that television was "a prima donna industry, as full of feuds and temperament as an opera troupe."

Sarnoff’s toughest and most successful rival in the programming aspect of broadcasting was William S. Paley, president of the Columbia Broadcasting System. In his memoirs, Paley graciously referred to Sarnoff as a venerable uncle. It was sentimentality missing in their actual rivalry. "The general and I had a long, continuing avuncular relationship down through the years," recalled Paley. "From the earliest days of radio, when he was the 'grand old man' and I was 'that bright young kid,' we were friends, confidants, and fierce competitors all at the same time, and we understood each other and our relative positions."

Personally, Paley was much that Sarnoff was not. Paley was American-born, handsome, gregarious, and charming. He was "Bill" while Sarnoff was "the General" or "Mr. Sarnoff." Paley was also wealthy from the start, the son of a millionaire Philadelphia family that owned the Congress Cigar Company, manufacturers of La Palina (a Spanish neologism based on the Paley family name) cigars. Moreover, reflecting the fact that CBS was born as a programming enterprise while NBC sprung from the technical prowess of RCA, Paley was an impresario more concerned with the show than with the equipment used to transmit or receive it.

To embark on his long and successful career as a broadcaster, Paley and his family paid $503,000 in 1928 for controlling interest in the failing United Independent Broadcasters and its fledgling radio network, the Columbia Phonograph Broadcasting Company. The following day—two days short of his twenty-seventh birthday—young Paley became president of UIB and the network, which he soon renamed the Columbia Broadcasting System. A decade later he and his family still owned about one-third of the CBS public stock, and for more than six decades he remained a decisive force in the direction of the network and American broadcasting.

By 1936 Paley had learned that one way to better NBC radio was to raid its pool of talented performers, expending large amounts of money and great personal charm to woo to CBS established crowd-pleasers such as Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, and Major Edward Bowes. Paley also purchased NBC's prestigious Lux Radio Theater—with its hour-long dramatizations of great plays and movies, usually featuring the original stars, and produced by the influential film director Cecil B. DeMille—moving it from New York City to Hollywood, where it remained a popular favorite for twenty years. Such bold actions catapulted CBS to programming supremacy during the 1936-1937 radio season and established a pattern Paley would repeat for CBS-TV in the late 1940s.

While Sarnoff had long disliked the advertising aspects of commercial broadcasting, Paley was a businessman who sought the most popular entertainment because it would produce the largest and most profitable audiences. As he wrote in 1940, "Advertising may not be the best method, but no one has evolved a better one, or indeed any alternative which does not entail either government control or indirect but effective government influence on what goes on the air."

CBS, like Philco, Zenith, and other companies, refused to allow RCA technology, and therefore NBC programming, to define American television. These companies argued effectively that the engineering stan­dards advocated by Sarnoff—30 frames and 441 scanning lines per second, with AM radio sound and black-and-white capability only—were inferior to their own. Philco felt the standard should be 24 frames and 605 lines, and Allen B. DuMont of DuMont Laboratories called for 15 frames and 625 lines. Others felt that FM transmission would provide improved sound and that Americans should be offered color TV. All agreed, moreover, that mass acceptance of RCA products would lock U.S. television into a position of technical mediocrity from the outset.

For its part, the FCC refused to act precipitously in setting broadcast standards for television. Instead it vacillated, which served to confuse the matter further. Such hesitation prompted Variety in mid-1940 to describe the situation as "such a muddle ... that no predictions of coming progress may safely be ventured." The commission wavered between reluctant support for the bullying enterprise of Sarnoff and RCA, the desire to keep the new industry open to competition, and the wish to protect consumers from buying TV sets that would become obsolete quickly. While NBC and CBS had been broadcasting on a regular schedule for almost a year, and RCA and others had been manufacturing and marketing home receivers, the FCC acted and then reacted.

On February 29, 1940 the commission agreed to partial commercial­ization that would allow stations "to make charges against program spon­sors ... but without charge for transmission." Although the decision was to become effective in six months, it still did not allow profit-making. Stations would be allowed to charge advertisers only the production costs of the show and commercials. Still, it was considered a cautious first step toward completely commercial TV.

For David Sarnoff, however, partial commercialization was greeted as an opening through which to ram the RCA juggernaut. On March 12, less than two weeks after the FCC decision, Sarnoff was ready with a full-scale assault on consumers and the industry. NBC promised an elaborate improvement in the programming already being aired on W2XBS. RCA announced a renewed sales drive spurred by reductions of set prices by 33 percent. Then, looking beyond the fifty-mile horizon, NBC announced that a series of TV relay stations would soon link New York City and Philadelphia. NBC also filed applications to operate television commercial stations in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.

Clearly distressed over the power grab orchestrated by RCA/NBC, the FCC quickly scuttled Sarnoff’s plans by announcing on March 23 that it was suspending partial commercialization: television was returning to its experimental stage for further refinement. The commission blasted RCA's aggressive tactics and reiterated its intention not to saddle the public or the industry with receivers that many felt were inferior.

Not until the following year—after the full industry, under the auspices of the newly created National Television System Committee (NTSC), agreed on improved standards of black-and-white transmission at 30 frames and 525 lines of resolution (still inferior to the 625-line standard of European television) plus improved FM radio sound—did the FCC alter its position. It accepted an NTSC recommendation to allow commercial TV to begin July 1, 1941. Significantly, the engineering standards approved on the eve of World War II have remained operative. Only the challenge of high-definition television in the last decade of the century has threatened to force a reformulation of the technical specifications of American television.

RCA had little trouble adopting the NTSC standards. The company even offered to adjust at no charge RCA sets purchased earlier by the public. Sarnoff also bought advertising space to proclaim that the new specifications were really the same as those at RCA. On July 1, WNBT inaugurated the first commercial TV operation in the nation. Optimism about the video future at this time was captured in an industry film from 1941 entitled Magic in the Air.

The launching of WNBT was an event NBC had been anticipating. Unlike the early 1920s, when there had been strenuous debate over whether radio should remain free of commercial messages or become a self-supporting electronic billboard, there was no doubt that U.S. television would eventually be advertiser-supported. In August 1939 NBC produced the first experimental commercials when announcer Red Barber, during the telecast from Ebbets Field of a baseball game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the visiting Cincinnati Reds, delivered live pitches for Procter & Gamble soap products, Socony oil, and General Mills. For the latter, Barber even prepared a bowl of Wheaties breakfast cereal on camera, adding cream, sugar, and a banana for the edification of those watching on about five hundred TV sets in the New York area.

When the FCC granted telecasters the right to charge fees for commer­cials, again NBC was the first to act. On July 1, WNBT aired a "Bulova time check" in which the face of a Bulova watch appeared on-screen, its second hand ticking, while an off-camera announcer told viewers what time it was. Time charges to Bulova were $9.

Although the public had not rushed to buy TV sets in New York City, at least the nation remained intrigued with the medium. From the opening days of the World's Fair, the exhibits of television at the RCA, Westinghouse, and GE pavilions were so popular that police had to be hired to control the long lines of those wishing to see the new electrical marvel. TV also went on tour. During the period 1939-40 the Farnsworth Television Company traveled the country promoting the medium. In department stores in eighty-eight cities—from Frederick & Nelson in Seattle to Leavitt's in Manchester, New Hampshire—more than three million Americans saw television for the first time.

Philco and RCA conducted similar tours, introducing their receivers to retailers and future customers. Typically, in Chicago RCA constructed a TV studio in Marshall Field's department store and for two weeks presented public demonstrations for as many as ten thousand daily visitors. The excitement of the event was epitomized by a local radio announcer broadcasting from the site on June 12, 1939. Greeting television "with unmitigated enthusiasm," he hailed the new technology as "the greatest achievement of the twentieth century" and claimed that TV was proof that "we're certainly living in an advanced mechanical age."

Although the FCC permitted several stations to become fully licensed commercial operations, the weight of world events thwarted further progress. Expectations within the industry were dampened when President Roosevelt in May 1941 declared an unlimited national emer­gency. This austerity step, plus federal actions following U.S. entry into World War II in December, effectively froze the technical development and marketing of television. Now scientific and engineering skills—as well as the vital materials needed in TV manufacturing—were placed at the disposal of a government waging war on two fronts.


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