Embracing the New Medium
Television became an acceptable, attractive, and affordable national utility in 1948-1949. Whereas in January 1948 there had been 18 operating stations in 12 cities, 12 months later there were 49 stations in 28 market areas. A year later that figure doubled, to 98 stations in 58 market areas. The output of receivers in 1948 exceeded 975,000 units, more than a fivefold increase over the combined production for 1946 (6,476 units) and 1947 (178,571 units). Production surged even higher in 1949, topping 1.7 million units.
Advertisers also accepted the medium. During the experimental years of World War II, television was a buyer's dream. Stations such as WABD, WRGB, and WBKB, eager to refine video commercials, actually offered airtime free; sponsors were required only to pay talent and production costs, which ranged from $100 to several thousand dollars. During 1948, however, 933 sponsors purchased television time (production costs included), a rise of 515 percent over figures for the previous year.
TV sponsorship, however, was an increasingly expensive proposition. Production costs for a network offering such as
Toast of the Town were approximately $7,000; a week of CBS Evening News with Douglas Edwards totaled $4,000; and the Friday night boxing match on
The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports cost $2,500. No longer willing to give away airtime, local stations and networks began charging for use of the airwaves. By mid-1949 sponsorship of an hour of prime time at WNBT cost $1,500; the same time on the nineteen interconnected stations of the NBC network cost $7,000; and appearance on all NBC affiliates—live on the interconnected stations and via film or kinescope on those not yet connected—totaled $10,000.
Neither the networks nor the local stations were fully booked by advertisers. In March 1949, commercial programs on the network flagship stations in New York City ranged from one-quarter of available airtime at WJZ-TV to one-third at WABD and WCBS-TV (formerly WCBW) and about one-half at WNBT. At smaller local stations rates were considerably lower, but the commitment of advertisers was not overwhelming. At KFI-TV in Los Angeles, where the hourly rate was $150 and a single one-minute commercial spot cost $25, only 20 percent of the airtime was sold; at KSD-TV in St. Louis, where the same hourly rate applied and the spot rate was $40, two-thirds of station airtime was sold. Local sales figures ranged from 82 percent in WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee (spot rate, $50) to 10 percent at KOB-TV in Albuquerque (spot rate, $12).
But whether on network or local TV, whether as a program sponsor or as an advertiser in the spot market, U.S. corporations and their ad agencies produced commercials in increasing numbers and with increasing sophistication. By the end of the 1940s, television was an apparent hit with businesses seeking to reach a maximized audience and sell their products. And advertisers used the medium
to sell everything from gasoline, toys, and appliances, to coffee and cigarettes, automobiles and juice.
But even at this early date it became clear that a trend toward national programming and advertising was diminishing local initiatives and leading clearly toward national television dominated by a few networks. From May 1948 to May 1949 the airing of network fare jumped from 21 percent to 44 percent of the current operating schedules of 38 stations. By the end of 1949 network TV was attracting half of all advertising revenues and local programmers were complaining that there was a dearth of locally available talent and imagination, that network shows were more attractive than anything they could produce, and that sponsors were expecting too much from television advertising.
Merrill Panitt, TV columnist of the Philadelphia Inquirer and later editor of
TV Guide, touched on the dilemma in local TV when he wrote in mid-1949 of the greater funding available to develop network programs, and the fact that good local shows should end up on the networks. Although Panitt felt "there are good and bad shows from NBC, CBS, and ABC," he seemed less hopeful about local fare when he explained that "some Philadelphia programs smell to high heaven, others just smell, and a few are well worth watching."
Whatever the internal machinations of the industry, consumers by the fall of 1949 demonstrated their acceptance of the medium: 22 percent of all families in New York City already owned a TV set, other figures were 19 percent for Philadelphia, 15.5 percent for Los Angeles, and 13.6 percent in Chicago. A trade journal that year captured the excitement of the times:
Throughout the nation there is a rustle of renewed activities—rehearsal halls are being dusted and vaudeville acts are being rejuvenated. Visual entertainment in all its forms is again coming into its own. Vaudeville, operettas, and the musical revue will be brought to the masses and no longer limited to Broadway or the Rialtos of the few larger cities.... With the combination of motion picture film and the television camera, coupled with the television receiver in the American home, John Q. America is about to receive the greatest treasury of enlightenment and education that has ever before been given to a free man.
As far as most citizens were concerned, TV meant entertainment. And the ability of the medium to entertain expanded greatly in the late 1940s as the Bell System, a subsidiary of American Telephone & Telegraph, linked the major U.S. cities through an elaborate system of cables and radio relay stations. Via a coaxial cable buried in the ground and running through subterranean conduits, the image and sound from a single TV program could be transmitted instantaneously from one distant site to another. The radio relay method transmitted sharply focused microwave signals along a chain of relay towers.
One of the significant early achievements of this technology occurred in 1949 when the Bell System completed the coaxial cable linkage between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. This was the final span required to connect existing eastern and Midwestern TV linkages. Moreover, through radio relay, outlying cities such as Milwaukee and Detroit also received network productions directly. Now productions originating in New York City, Chicago, or anywhere along the cable could be seen simultaneously from Boston to St. Louis. Although the four networks—CBS, NBC, ABC, and DuMont—had to share the single cable until more lines were laid and supplementary radio relays increased transmission capabilities, the connection tied together thirty-three stations in sixteen cities.
What viewers saw emerging at the time was an unprecedented blossoming of exciting diversion and information. One January 11, 1949, a special program inaugurating East-Midwest coaxial operations—hailed by
Television Forecast magazine in Chicago as "a history-making television show," another product of "the miracle of electronics" —aptly summarized the condition of the medium. It featured short speeches by Chairman Coy of the FCC and by the mayors of New York City and Chicago, followed by a short film produced for the Bell System,
Stepping Along with Television, which entertainingly explained the operations of the cable and radio relay technology.
The highlight of the inaugural broadcast was a one-hour sampler of how the networks intended henceforth to amuse the nation. For fifteen minutes each, the four networks displayed their best: Arthur Godfrey for CBS, Ted Steele with a musical revue for DuMont, Milton Berle and Harry Richman representing NBC, and for ABC an example of a Chicago-originated mystery show,
Stand By for Crime. The Chicago Tribune reported that this linkage signified that "The end of dull, sustaining filler on television screens appears to be in sight."
Indeed, the end of dullness was in sight across the nation. By the end of 1950 the spread of AT&T cable and relay stations tied together viewers from Charlotte, Atlanta, Jacksonville, and Memphis, to Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Omaha, all anxious to receive network TV fare originating primarily in New York City. On the West Coast the achievement was more modest, as only San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco were tied together via radio relay. Conspicuously missing from the national web was a transcontinental linkage between the Midwest and the West Coast. This situation was rectified in September 1951, when a system of interconnecting radio relay sites between Omaha and San Francisco became operational.
If commercial network TV had promised a variety of popular diversion, it delivered television stars such as Ed Sullivan, Milton Berle, and Jackie Gleason as early as 1948-1949. Although live dramas and films had appeared on experimental television since the early 1930s, by 1948 TV offered a wide schedule of dramatic programs, ranging from live network offerings such as
The Kraft Television Theater on NBC and Studio One on CBS to commercial feature films shown on local TV, and filmed series and kinescoped network productions distributed nationally. The excitement of the time was on display in June 1948 when the popular radio reality series,
We the People, became the first radio show to simulcast on television. To preview the premier, the WCBS-TV staged an enthusiastic quarter-hour show welcoming guests and participants to the broadcast/telecast.
If television had promised live sports coverage, from the beginning there was diversity. By the end of the decade, for example, TV covered events as varied as boxing, baseball, basketball, football, women's softball, stock car racing, track and field, speedboat racing, tennis, golf, horse racing, bowling, roller derby, and hockey. Such diversity was obvious in
a sales short from the time.
No sport better exploited the visual capabilities of TV than professional wrestling, The sport generated an enormous following in the first years of the medium. Aired live as a local event or on film from arenas across the nation, wrestling offered movement, spectacle, combat, and frequently, the captivating melodrama of moral conflict as good, "clean" wrestlers such as Antonio Rocca, an Argentine grappler who wrestled in his bare feet, were pitted against evil, "dirty" wrestlers such as
Gorgeous George, a California showman who splashed himself with Chanel No. 5 perfume and gave ringsiders the hairpins used to hold his well-coiffed blond tresses.
There were wrestlers of comic-book presence with names such as Hombre Montana, Chief Don Eagle, The Swedish Angel, and Yukon Eric. There were women wrestlers, midget wrestlers, and massive sumo competitors imported from Japan. Popular political feelings were even exploited as remaining anti-Axis emotions were taunted by wrestlers such as Baron Michele Leone, Hans Schnabel, Mr. Moto, and The Great Togo, who were among the most provocative "dirty" wrestlers; and Cold War attitudes helped make Ivan Rasputin a hated competitor.
As well as adult-oriented diversion, early commercial TV offered attractive children's shows. Especially prevalent were
programs featuring hand puppets and marionettes. On
Howdy Doody (NBC) Buffalo Bob Smith, with a cast of marionettes and costumed adults, entertained an energetic audience.
Kukla, Fran, and 0llie (NBC) mixed the skilled puppetry and writing of Burr Tillstrom—with his little man Kukla, the gentle-hearted dragon Oliver J. Dragon, and a supporting cast of odd characters—to interact with real-life Fran Allison. On the West Coast,
Time for Beany (distributed nationally through KTLA, Los Angeles) was a live hand-puppet serial that employed the vocal, puppetry, and comedic talents of Bob Clampett, Stan Freberg, and Daws Butler to relate the adventures of young Beany: the crew of the little boat Leakin' Lena; the black-caped villain Dishonest John forever exclaiming "Curses, foiled again!; and a friendly sea serpent named Cecil, who for a long time was visible to no one except his pal Beany and, of course, those in the TV audience.
Ironically, many of these juvenile programs were greatly appreciated by adults. The sensitive demeanor displayed on
Kukla, Fran, and Ollie and the sophisticated wit of Time for Beany transcended age. Such a program, too, was
Lucky Pup (CBS), which featured Foodini the evil magician and Pinhead, his none-too-bright assistant. In 1949 the distinguished writer William Saroyan lauded the warmth and universality captured by these puppets of Morey and Hope Bunin. Foodini, according to Saroyan, "is the attractive fake which all authority is: confident, loud, rude, self-centered, proud and yet a delight to behold in action because his pose is so easy to see through." And as for gentle Pinhead, Saroyan found him "irresistible" because
he is so much like so much that is true about everybody, including children. He is dominated, he is pushed around, he is patient, he means well, but he makes one mistake after another, for which he is punished by a clunk on the head. He is slight, odd-looking, has no vanity, and yet has the dimensions of a hero. His basic remark, "Yes, Boss," is a variant on any child's feeling about his relation to the world; or anybody's at all, for that matter.
If another promise of television was informational programming, by the end of the 1940s there was already a wide variety of news and public-service offerings. The networks televised filmed newsreels, live evening news programs, and talk shows such as
Meet the Press (NBC). There also was remarkable live network coverage of important events such as debates at the United Nations in Lake Success, New York, and high points in the presidential election of 1948, ranging from the Democratic and Republican national conventions held in Philadelphia, to election eve results and
the inauguration of Harry S. Truman in January 1949.
Individual stations also demonstrated their ability to inform viewers of crucial local developments. A five-alarm fire raging in a Philadelphia high school was televised live on WFIL in January 1948. Several times in early 1948, WBKB in Chicago showed its skills in covering news "on the spot" by transmitting live from the scene of major fires in the city. And many stations soon began producing their own local news shows. These usually employed a broadcaster reading from a script while newsreel footage (often generic stock footage) was used to visualize the story.
More elaborate, however, was the well-edited local newsreel. Typical of this, in September 1948 WBAP-TV in Dallas-Fort Worth inaugurated
Texas News, a nightly newsreel that was filmed, processed, edited, written, and narrated by station personnel. The station soon began supplying NBC with footage of local stories—spring floods, a hurricane, or an airplane crash—having national interest. After a year on the air,
Texas News was cited as "the outstanding station newsreel" in 1949 by the National Association of Radio News Directors.
The importance of the news function of local stations was evidenced most dramatically at KTLA. In April 1949 that independent station in Los Angeles stayed on the air for more than twenty-seven consecutive hours while telecasting rescue operations from a field where three-year-old Kathy Fiscus had fallen into an abandoned well shaft. Before her dead body was eventually brought to the surface, a community of millions had been forged, witnessing as might the residents of a small town an event of tragic proportions.
Variety called the performance by KTLA "the greatest broadcast for the development, progress, and advancement of television."
Clearly, video had finally arrived. This was the theme of
Television Today, a CBS sales movie issued in May 1949 to attract advertisers. The half-hour production presented a seductive definition of TV. "Television is a party in the home," declared the announcer as happy adults and children watched attentively on household receivers. TV, he continued, is "sports right in the home." It also meant "seeing the news right in the home" because "every event of major significance is now caught by television."
In Television Today video was hailed as the ultimate medium, combining the power of the human voice, the drama of theater, the persuasiveness of movies, and the immediacy of electronic broadcasting. As for its effect on family life, TV was praised for the intimate way in which it "involves the family at home in what is happening on the screen." More specifically for children, it was credited with creating a "whole new world ... of wholesome, highly acceptable entertainment."
Yet for all the enthusiasm generated by its visual potentialities, the nascent medium was heavily indebted to older, sightless radio for its popularity. It was those networks responsible for the success of radio that now nurtured television through its infancy. When NBC, CBS, and ABC first staffed their video operations, they drew on executives with radio experience. Many of the production personnel from radio found themselves working in front of and behind the cameras of early TV. Television was affected, too, by the business philosophy that shaped radio for more than two decades.
For most Americans, however, the similarity between radio and video was most obvious in programming. Many successful radio shows quickly made the transition to the new medium. Situation comedies such as
The Life of Riley and My Friend Irma and comedy-variety performers such as Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, and Red Skelton entered TV early. The popular quiz shows
Break the Bank and Stop the Music! migrated to video, as did radio personalities such as Arthur Godfrey, Don McNeill, Kate Smith, and Garry Moore.
The Lone Ranger, a radio Western popular since 1933, appeared on ABC-TV in 1949. From
The Goldbergs, We, the People, and Studio One to The Aldrich Family, Twenty Questions, and
One Man's Family, radio helped shape the identity of television. According to TV chroniclers Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, 216 network programs appeared in both media. Most of these programs appeared in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and almost always they were radio series that gravitated to television.
In other ways, too, TV evidenced from the beginning its indebtedness to radio. In the 1950s series such as
Dragnet, Amos 'n' Andy, and Gunsmoke created TV programs by recycling scripts already used on their radio versions. Well into the decade, several soap operas—among them
The Guiding Light and The Brighter Day used the same scripts on radio and television. And programs such as
We, the People, Queen for a Day, Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, and later
The $64,000 Question were broadcast simultaneously on both media.
Many early TV shows had the aesthetics of radio. Wordy comedy on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, for example, tied video to the aural traditions of radio. Crime series such as
Dragnet—which began on radio in 1949 and came to television in 1952—utilized an unseen narrator to introduce and resolve each story, while story lines were carried along by a running commentary delivered as a voice-over by Jack Webb in the role of Sergeant Joe Friday—exactly as it was done on the radio version of the series.
Through their plot structures, reliance on unseen announcers to propel the action, and prerecorded soliloquies, early television soap operas recapitulated the essence of daytime radio serials. In the years before widespread use of TelePrompTers and off-camera cue cards, TV news seated journalists behind a desk, where they read scripts—interrupted only by visual inserts of maps, still pictures, and filmed material—much as they would do in delivering a radio newscast.
If the first TV programs borrowed significantly from radio, even more striking was the migration of advertisers from audio to video. In no small way, the national acceptance of TV was assured when American corporations discovered they could profit from using TV as an advertising medium, despite the expensive rates of the new medium. William S. Paley might remind sponsors of their primal debt to radio—noting, as he did in 1949, that "Television is accepted by advertisers and merchandisers because of its inherent effectiveness, but the acceptance was materially hastened by the long and satisfactory experiences of radio advertising"—but to a great degree the success of TV was built on the grave of network radio as it then existed.
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