Slow to dominate
14 Jun 2001 0 comments. tbs.pm/1844
Given the virtually unregulated free market for television in the United States, it’s surprising to note that television was a slow starter.
While experiments in Europe had led to a regular medium-definition service in Nazi Germany followed by the world’s first regular high-definition service from the BBC in London during the 1930s, television remained strictly experimental in the States.
Radio dominated all. William S Paley’s Columbia Broadcasting System had the stars and began broadcasting its radio network in 1928 as the result of a merger between his own company and the small United Independent chain.
General David Sarnoff had started the ball rolling in 1926 when his Radio Corporation of America began the National Broadcasting Company’s service as a way of boosting sales of RCA radios. His service was unusual for having two networks – NBC Red and NBC Blue. The three networks, plus the smaller Mutual Broadcasting System dominated the airwaves of America in such a way that television could only really be done by them – and they didn’t want the competition.
Because of NBC’s ownership by RCA, when the threat of television started to draw very close in the late 1930s, NBC began to plan a station in New York. Broadcasting from the Empire State Building, the programmes were limited and tended to be versions of the more popular radio programmes with one difference: advertising and sponsorship were not allowed on television until 1941.
CBS were caught on the hop. Without a big industrial giant as a parent, they had no need to invest in television and no cross subsidy to do it with. Nevertheless, the minor splash NBC Television made at the World’s Fair in New York was enough to force Paley’s hand and CBS Television began in 1940.
The birth of advertising on television in 1941 – Bulova watches holding the title of ‘world’s first television commercial’ – should have begun a boom in American television. But it was not to be. When the Japanese attacked Hawaii in that year, and the United States finally broke from its decades-long isolation to join World War Two, television again found itself on hold. This time, the need for RCA to produce radar screens and the three networks – NBC, CBS and DuMont – to transmit programmes related to civil defence meant that television development ceased.
The huge technological leap that WWII brought to the world so nearly destroyed by it also benefited television. Improved quality receivers and transmitters had been invented as part of the push towards a better radar system, while the pause in the marketing and development of the medium had given the Federal Communications Commission time to form a National Television System Committee to oversee future technical standards.
NBC found wartime to be both the making of its news reputation and the end of the two-network era. Congress forced RCA to divest itself of one network and the less popular NBC Blue became the independent American Broadcasting Company in 1943.
This led to a new powerful force appearing in television, as ABC rapidly began accumulating affiliates to form ABC Television, accidentally destroying the DuMont network in the process.
At the end of the war, whilst much of the now divided world lay in ruins, America uniquely had both a virtually undamaged infrastructure and money to spend. The American people suddenly developed a new habit they were to retain for the rest of the century – Shopping. And shopping for material goods like televisions meant that they would by default develop a market for advertising on television.
By the time all the major markets in America had network stations in 1951, a love affair between the American public and television had began that would come to dominate leisure time, spending patterns and virtually all parts of family life.