- Baby Steps:
“We…repeatedly enlarge our instrumentalities without
improving our purpose.”
There’s no telling how much earlier commercial television would’ve been on the air if the early developmental days of the medium hadn’t had to suffer through two of the century’s more cataclysmic events, the first being The Great Depression.
TV technology development was the preserve of large corporations with large bank accounts. By this time, all the new gizmos required to make TV work simply cost too much for people like Philo Farnsworth to do the work in their backyard workshops. But, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 dried up enough of those corporate assets to slow the development of television (and nearly everything else in the world) considerably.
Slowed, but not stilled. Experimental stations still sprung up here and there, and broadcast technology inched its way along the road to improvement. Despite The Depression, by 1938 the DuMont home receiver was rolling off of assembly lines to become the first all-electronic TV set on the American market. Granted, there wasn’t a whole lot to watch with it, but TV had finally come to the American public. But, whatever momentum TV was building was stalled again, this time by something even bigger than The Crash: the Second World War.
TV didn’t exactly go into hiding for the duration. In fact, it was during the war years that commercial television was born. Although America had yet to get directly involved in the war, most of Europe had fallen to the Germans and the Japanese were fighting it out with the Chinese and British in the Pacific when, on July 1, 1941, the New York transmitters of NBC and CBS were licensed for commercial broadcasting. Half a year after Pearl Harbor, a third network, this one produced by DuMont, was also broadcasting out of New York.
Up until now, TV’s development bills had been entirely picked up by its developers. That started to change in 1942 when TV began to earn its keep. That was the year Bulova Watch bought itself a 15-second voiceover promotional spot on one of the nets; the first TV commercial.
The three networks produced approximately 30-40 hours of programming per week in those days although little of it resembled what we usually think of as typical television programming. The networks covered everything from opera to military maneuvers and political conventions, but few people cared. By then, the attention of the public — and the electronics and media industries — was on the war, and TV remained a gawky fledgeling with only 7,000 sets in use in the New York area, and even fewer in the small number of other cities with transmitters.
After the hardship years of the war, the post-war 1940’s were a prime time for a new form of entertainment and it did not take long for the new business to regain its momentum. Nineteen Forty-Eight saw the debut of yet another network: the American Broadcasting Company. By then, there were somewhere around 500,000 TV sets glowing in the night across the country. In the fall of 1951, NBC became the first network to establish coast-to-coast operations, feeding 61 stations around the country. By 1954, more than 26 million American homes were tuning in.
With NBC, CBS and ABC on the air (DuMont would fold its tents in 1955) and broadcasting across the country, the general outlines for commercial broadcasting as we know it today were in place. The three nets would sit at the top of the television heap virtually unchallenged for nearly a quarter of a century.
– Bill Mesce