By its promulgations in 1945 the FCC effectively set U.S. commercial television in a mold that would endure until the flowering of cable TV in the 1980s. By opting for VHF stations the commission effectively destroyed UHF and its greater ability to serve a nation of diverse tastes. When the commission finally opened UHF channels in 1953, it was already too late for meaningful exploitation of the spectrum. The networks were committed by now to VHF transmission, and the networks controlled U.S. television.
In accordance with FCC regulations, each network could own as many as five VHF stations; by 1953 these owned and operated outlets were lucrative operations situated in the largest U.S. markets. For example, ABC owned stations in New York City (WABC-TV), Los Angeles (KECA-TV), Chicago (WBKB), San Francisco (KGO-TV), and Detroit (WXYZ-TV). Furthermore, by 1953 almost all stations operating in the United States were network affiliates, and these were all VHF channels.
There was little advertiser interest in UHF. Sponsors shied away from the newer channels, in part because their messages traveled greater distances on the older stations. VHF signals could spread in a radius of sixty to seventy miles from the transmitter, while UHF transmission reached no more than thirty to forty miles. Although UHF outlets came quickly to most cities in the mid-1950s, it remained almost impossible to receive their transmissions, since most TV sets—many of them manufactured by RCA—could not receive such signals. By 1960 only 7 percent of American TV sets could receive UHF. Not until 1963 did the FCC require manufacturers to add UHF channel selectors as standard equipment on new television receivers.
Left with small audiences and little capital for developing or purchasing attractive shows, most UHF operations became small operations surviving on reruns of old network series. The networks avoided UHF even as an investment. Although the FCC allowed them to own two UHF stations each, ABC never bought into UHF, and by 1960 CBS and NBC had sold their meager UHF operations.
While the effects of the VHF decision would not be felt for years, the most immediately contentious FCC decision in 1945 was its deferral of the color TV question. This allowed CBS and NBC to wage war against each other for another expensive decade. Under Chairman Denny's replacement, Wayne Coy—an official of the Washington Post Company, which owned CBS-affiliated stations—the commission in November 1950 finally established standards for color transmission. After CBS and NBC demonstrated their color capabilities, the FCC endorsed, in part because of Coy's intense lobbying of his colleagues, the CBS mechanical system.
Confident that they owned the future, CBS officials inaugurated public demonstrations of color television five times a day at the Tiffany Building in New York City. After one screening, critic Harriet Van Home gushed that "It's beautiful beyond words. It's impossible not to marvel at it. And not to feel disappointed when the show ends and the screen goes dark." On June 21, 1951, CBS broadcast the first network color program. Unfortunately for the network, however, color telecasts were incompatible with the twelve million existing black-and-white sets; those set owners saw only a blank screen during the time the CBS color premiere was on the air. Moreover, only twenty-five receivers in the United States could receive mechanical color.
The Columbia product may have been wonderful to the critics, but it was an anachronism from the outset. Implementing CBS color by this date would have rendered existing sets obsolete—unless owners purchased an adapter costing about $100 since they had been built to the electronic specifications of monochromatic television.
Arguing that the FCC had been hasty in choosing CBS technology, Sarnoff in 1950 turned to the federal courts for redress. He sought to enjoin the Commission and force a reevaluation of RCA color. In the meantime, his engineers labored to upgrade the electronic color that had lost to CBS. RCA gained time by spending eight months in litigation before the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the legality of the FCC decision.
A loser in the courts, Sarnoff refused to concede. The RCA cause was aided when manufacturers such as Zenith and Philco balked at building color sets that were incompatible with the black-and-white models they were already producing. This move compelled CBS to invest millions to acquire its own manufacturing facilities. For $17.7 million in CBS stock, the network purchased the Hytron Radio and Electronics Corporation and its subsidiary Air King, a TV set manufacturer. Paley would produce his own brand of video receivers and components.
The RCA cause was assisted, however, by world events. With the outbreak of warfare in Korea, the federal government banned commercial production of color TV because the cobalt for the CBS system was now a military priority. There was no strategic reason, however, to halt production of black-and-white sets. During the Korean War millions of new receivers with RCA specifications were reaching American consumers while CBS sat neutralized with enormous expenses mounting daily.
By the time Washington in 1952 lifted its ban on color TV production, Sarnoff and his technicians had developed electronic color that was satisfactory and compatible. Before CBS could begin mass production, Paley was ready to surrender. The network's president, Frank Stanton, told a congressional committee in March 1953 that the CBS effort in incompatible color was "economically foolish." Indeed, CBS costs were astronomical: when Paley finally sold Hytron in 1961, the network's losses on the enterprise had reached about $100 million. In December 1953 the FCC finally reversed itself. It accepted the RCA standard for electronic compatible color.
Color television did not immediately capture the American imagination or pocketbook. This was evident on the DuMont network in early 1954 on the public interest discussion show,
What’s the Story. To explain the current confusion over color TV, the program offered Allen B. DuMont and his company’s chief researcher, Thomas D. Goldsmith. Also there to discuss the situation was the president of the national Better Business Bureau, Kenneth B. Wilson. A viewing of this program makes it evident that the public remained uncertain about the new technology. Nevertheless, by 1959 RCA would look back fondly at the
first five years of color
and view this initial half-decade as the opening of a marvelous and colorful video future.
Although NBC and ABC soon introduced regularly scheduled color transmissions in 1954, CBS continued to avoid total capitulation by refusing to broadcast in color. However, in 1965, with 95 percent of the NBC schedule slated to be in color, CBS took the inevitable step, announcing that half its nighttime shows that fall would be in color. The victory of RCA in defining American television was complete. Paley was bitter about his loss, but critic Jack Gould of the New York Times gushed, "The hero of color TV and the indefatigable champion is Brigadier General David Sarnoff. Almost alone he has brought the medium to what it is today."
Color TV was not rapidly embraced by consumers, although it was advertised aggressively. Sets were expensive, and there was popular concern about the obsolescence of the technology. Not until 1972 would half the TV homes have color receivers. Nonetheless, because they were electronic and compatible, all color telecasts could be received in black and white on tens of millions of monochromatic sets in American homes.
Despite their intensity, the business maneuverings of U.S. communications giants did not diminish the hopes most Americans held for television. Chairman Paul A. Porter of the FCC articulated the intellectual view that saw TV as the great instrumentality for bringing together the postwar nation. Speaking a few months before the end of hostilities in the Far East in 1945, he predicted that
television's illuminating light will go far, we hope, to drive out the ghosts that haunt the dark corners of our minds—ignorance, bigotry, fear. It will be able to inform, educate, and entertain an entire nation with a magical speed and vividness. It can be democracy's handmaiden by bringing the whole picture of our political, social, economic, and cultural life to the eyes as well as the ears.
Although average Americans may not have conceptualized as well as Chairman Porter, they knew of television, and they, too, expected great benefits from it. A Gallup poll in late 1945 illustrated that years of publicity had been effective: while only 19 percent of the respondents had ever seen TV in operation, 85 percent knew what it was. Moreover, if the public attitude was accurately reflected in the opinions sampled by
Televiser magazine in New York City in the summer of 1945, an eager peacetime public thought in terms of popular entertainment the medium would provide. "I'd like to see all the baseball games and sports events there are," declared a messenger boy. "I would expect television to lift the cultural level of the country," contended an interior decorator. An unemployed man remarked, "It will be a rather wonderful thing. A little theater in every home. It will be a new industry."
Those polled spoke of TV as amusement, offering films, music, and Broadway plays—plus daytime programs for women and inspiring messages for children. They also mentioned video in terms of news and commentary, of special-events coverage, and of a general educational influence that would "bring the world into the home." There were a few skeptics, such as an information clerk at Grand Central Station who remarked, "I think it's one of the promises like helicopters and such. I'll think about it when I see it!" But the general tenor of the man and woman on the street was upbeat. There was exuberance in the comments of three bobby Boxers who declared, "If television will bring us stuff that is solid, jive that jumps, with Frankie and Perry Como, we are all for television."
More reasoned, but no less positive, was the newspaperman who placed it in historical perspective. "After the war, and I think that is when television will really go ahead, people will be hungry for escapism. If television can give us real entertainment, the kind of programs everyone will enjoy, it will do its job. Television has a great opportunity to influence the life and thought of America...."
Such anticipation was all the more striking given the paucity of wartime programming. Yet by June 1945 the FCC had 116 applications for new licenses, 86 of the requests coming from companies that already owned radio stations. Importantly, video was about to become a geographically broader phenomenon, for these applications affected 50 cities in 27 states.
Ahead were several years in which to convert factories for mass production of video equipment, to erect transmitters, develop and implement marketing strategies, and enhance the quantity and quality of scheduled programming. Ahead, too, were national economic adjustments.
While wartime price controls had counteracted inflationary pressures, removal of such controls quickly triggered inflation. As this was occurring, moreover, millions of demobilized servicemen and servicewomen and jobless war workers glutted the domestic work force and created high levels of unemployment. Long-postponed strikes by labor unions disrupted existing production. And consumers, frustrated by years of wartime saving, austerity, and the unavailability of certain products, created a demand for products from housing to hosiery that outstripped the capabilities of U.S. industry. In this time of economic reorientation, TV came to the American people.
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