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TV History Thursday: Getting In on the Ground Floor Cheaply, 70 Years Ago
It’s 1948. After the war, it seemed like everyone was impatient for television to reach them, but incredible as it seems now, radio station owners had a hard time deciding whether or not going into television was worth the financial risk. There were two competing, less expensive prewar experiments ready to be big time postwar realities: FM and facsimile. FM got shafted almost immediately, when the FM frequency bands were abruptly shifted upwards, making every existing prewar FM radio in the country useless. It would take until the mid-to-late Sixties before the superior quality of FM gave it most of the music audience, by then a rock audience. AM went from being “radio,” period, to something you listened to in your car.
Facsimile was a more revolutionary technology, like television. And it was no mere theory: some of the country’s largest newspapers prepared nightly fax editions, so every farmhouse could have a morning newspaper sitting and waiting for them at the breakfast table, with no intervening printing presses, unions, or delivery vehicles. Overnight radio audiences weren’t big anyway, so using the time to transmit newsprint was a shrewd way to make some money off a new medium at low additional cost. The faxes included clippable coupons for deals with advertisers. In those days, though, dense networks of steam locomotives, interurban freight, and delivery boys on bicycles did an adequate job of carrying newspapers to all but the most remote corners of the country. It’s fascinating to note, though, that mass faxing by radio almost made it.
After the War, a decision by the Federal Communications Commission “froze” TV licenses and building permits while the FCC was able to establish by practical test just how many miles had to separate stations broadcasting on the same channel. This meant incumbent stations that opened in the interim with pre-’49 permits enjoyed virtual, and sometimes actual monopolies in their local TV markets. As any capitalist worth his or her salt knows, a monopoly means you charge more—a lot more. In cities like Detroit, Houston, and Fort Worth, having the first station to achieve dominance generally meant keeping it well into the later Fifties, when real competition was entering the scene almost everywhere.
Suppose you’re not Houston. You’re not Pittsburgh. You’re not even Salt Lake City or El Paso in terms of population, and therefore, advertising revenue. Let’s look at the market realities of being present at the creation of a new medium, 65-70 years ago, of American TV as the country gradually extended TV inland from the coasts.
Let’s say you’re Longview, TX, or Casper, WY, or Binghampton, NY. Because of distance, or local topography, you’re a little outside of the clear signal of any yet-established bigger city station, so you’ve got a shot at dominating a regional advertising market. How do we know what the clear signal area is? Well paid engineering consultants determine by experiment because it’s a function of the power of the transmitter, the height of the antenna above sea level, and strangely enough, mysterious factors of ground conductivity. That gives you your map for advertisers. The dollar size of that market, not the innate interest of the locals in television, determined where stations would be built and where they would survive. By then, radio advertising had long divided the country into sales zones, each with a known economic level and population. There was only so much advertising that could be sold to such a market, TV, radio, and newspapers. That’s a major reason why stations that survived the early days were often owned by radio stations and newspapers.
So you’ve listened to RCA’s General David Sarnoff, made your bet on video, and you’re ready to take the financial plunge. Bravo! But be ready for the bottom line facts: TV stations cost about ten times as much as radio stations, cost ten times as much to keep operating, and in the Forties still only generate about five to seven times the advertising revenue of radio. In other words, an early TV license is a license to slowly lose money. But if you did it carefully enough, you and your station survived into a time when those ad revenues would double, triple, and then leap into the clouds — 20, 30 times what seemed possible back in Harry Truman’s day.
How little did it take? RCA and its main competitors, General Electric and Du Mont Laboratories, offered a basic package for $100,000 (equivalent to $1.2 million in today’s dollars) for a five-kilowatt transmitter, a minimal control room, and a telecine multiplexer, not much more than a classroom-quality 16mm film projector and a slide projector beaming into a specialized pickup tube. You sited it by looking at that bullseye radio wave coverage map and compromising an ideal antenna location with nearby road access and the local electric power company’s willingness to run a high wattage, potentially high-profit line to the middle of nowhere. The power company was often also a contractor on building an antenna mast.
For your first years in the TV business, that’s the center of your world. There’s often a daily delivery run from the airport, bringing in and out the 16mm films that make up most of the station’s programming. “The Cisco Kid,” “The Adventures of Superman,” and “I Love Lucy” could be threaded up and ready to run at 8 pm, just like it ran in New York or New Orleans. A slide-in between the shows with a prerecorded announcer on quarter-inch tape made this one-man show a more professional illusion. You weren’t a network, not yet, but you could look like it.
For all practical purposes videotape just flat-out didn’t exist until 1956, even for the major networks, and even in the early Sixties, video tape recorders continued to be costly magic that was reserved (at $70,000 a pop) for the big three networks as well as the largest, most prosperous independent stations in big markets.
From 1948 onwards, 16mm newsfilm came in daily from a variety of paid sources. Even if you didn’t have a network affiliation, you could still buy a daily newsfilm subscription service from AP, UPI, and Hearst, among others that would come and go, plus the networks’ own syndication companies. In smaller markets left off of AT&T’s national coaxial TV cable grid, the film, hurriedly copied in New York, was at least a day old. But audiences back then were used to movie newsreels that were at least a week old.
In those days news announcers were usually careful to be vague about the time and date of a speech since clips would be aired for days as needed to fill time: “The President spoke at the AFL-CIO convention,” or “This week, the United States vetoed a UN resolution. Here is the statement of the US delegate”. It may not exactly have been like seeing “history written in lightning,” as that wily old racist Woodrow Wilson is said to have described The Birth of a Nation. But it was still a novel experience for most Americans, regardless of its imperfections.
Stations were also offered industrial documentaries that were basically free advertising for entities like Florida resorts, the rice industry, or the Chrysler Corporation. This is the kind of filler that might run if a promised show didn’t arrive on time.
So far, a TV schedule like the one I described could really be called Radio Movies; it’s all films, slides, and announcements. That got by in the earliest days when any kind of TV was still amazing. Daily schedules in 1948-1951 were tiny by today’s standards. Most small-market stations were in places that got up early and went to bed early, and were already covered during the morning and afternoon by local radio. Daytime TV didn’t catch on until the network line came to town sometime between about 1952 and 1956, delivering dull but free entertainment. Until then, and even long after then for stations in markets too small to win a network affiliation, many stations signed on each weekday with a women’s talk and kitchen program at 3 (shopping, cooking, fashion, advice), followed by a cheap one-hour show or syndicated film at 4. Afterschool kiddie cartoons came on at 5.
At 5:45, there might have been all of 15 minutes of national and international news on film from a network or independent news agency, generally as mentioned a day or so behind the wired-in network stations of the northeast and Midwest. From 6 pm until signoff, often no later than 9:30 or 10, they ran two rock-bottom priced 30-minute comedies followed by a feature film, ironically made affordable to TV because TV wiped out much of the theatrical market for Grade-Z movies. The small, third-rate studios that filmed westerns and East Side Kids comedies gave up and sold films to the next generation’s mom and pop television stations.
Sooner rather than later, a TV station had to have TV cameras for live broadcasts. That was really expensive, a wrenching jump; until now, a station-in-a-shack has only cost $100,000 in equipment, maybe $10,000 in land acquisition, $10,000 for a prefab building, and some operating expenses. Now, you’d be talking about a minimum additional expense of maybe $300,000 for a set of soundproof TV studios, a control room, three high-quality studio cameras and their associated electronic control racks, lots of big lights and wiring for high current, and air conditioning — lots of it. That’s the kind of big city-style TV studio that local ad salesmen could use to impress clients. Most small markets got there only in stages, though.
Instead of a spanking new building with studios that could impress Milwaukee or Detroit, most small stations took a cheaper route. They bought a mobile broadcast truck for only $100,000, equipped with two TV cameras, a tiny control room, microphones and audio gear, and a low-wattage microwave transmitter on an extendable boom that could “hit” a dish mounted at the transmitter site.
If you lived in Tyler, TX, or Waterville, ME, or Hanford, WA, there was usually only one station in most early small markets, so that station became “the TV” and tried to be seen as your friend. Nothing turned out to be more important than providing live local sports coverage. It sold tens of thousands of TV sets, and bonded particular channels to their viewers, in some cases for a generation or more of loyalty.
High school and college football, baseball, basketball, and wrestling filled up endless hours of time and were (in those days) free programming. Your one expense was juicing up extra lights for night games, and this was often informally arranged with a few phone calls and a friendly drink between the station, the electric company, and the school’s athletic director.
Now you were a highly visible part of the community, and everyone wanted your cameras at their event. That $100,000 remote broadcast truck was not only a cheap way to get live cameras on the air; it was great free advertising for the station anywhere it went, especially anywhere it was set up and used. Being part of a crowd for live coverage of a public event is exciting even today; it’s hard to convey how much of a high technology miracle it was in the Forties and Fifties. All the trucks had a ladder to the roof and a sturdy camera platform; the bold silhouette of the cameraman and a blocky TV camera on a tripod on top of the truck became a Fifties icon of the modern age. Two cameras didn’t get you great coverage, but it was usually adequate and people didn’t have much to compare it to.
There was little or none of today’s air of the adversarial media in those days on local radio and television. Stations strived to be part of the local and regional team, as they perceived it, and boosted local culture and industry. Erie, PA did not run muckraking news reports about the railroads. Beaumont, TX did not go out of its way to attack the energy business.
Where did live local news begin? For a lot of small stations, it started in the garage where the station parked its mobile truck. They took the two cameras out, used the tiny control room in the truck, and its microwave link to the transmitter.
The local weather map was painted on a rear wall, covered by a gray drapery for talk shows, and a painted circus drapery for the kiddie cartoon show. For the nightly fifteen minutes of local news, they dragged a desk in front of the curtain. For women’s programs in the afternoon, they brought out a couch and a coffee table. Many stations squeezed by for years with equipment like this.
Later in the Fifties, with advertising profits soaring, even many frugal small stations finally “went pro” — built the kind of modern, multi-camera studios that bigger stations had. By then they could do it with current operating revenues. But they wisely held onto the image of those trucks, your school’s sympathetic companion for a generation of home games.
What happened to small-market TV? Well, in one sense, nothing, or at least nothing bad; it’s still there all over the country. Other than isolated geographic pockets unreachable by terrestrial TV signals, the US reached television’s level of practical saturation about 60 years ago and never lost it.
But make no mistake about it. The biggest day in your town’s TV history may be the day when its first TV station covered the region; but in all likelihood, the most significant day was the one when the control room pushed a button from AT&T, and live network television appeared instantly. Local TV culture, and yes, there was some, began to fade. The homogenization of national culture, customs, and language would exact a price over the years. Your local, friendly, rural CBS affiliate didn’t just bring you “Gunsmoke” but also Edward R. Murrow and Eric Sevareid. NBC wasn’t just the company that broadcast “Victory at Sea” every Sunday afternoon at four; it was the face of live broadcasting from Selma during the civil rights revolution.
But that was all in the future in 1952, when TV finally started reaching coast to coast, and big cities in the South and the Southwest started connecting. In those days it was pretty much an unalloyed blessing for stations lucky enough to be chosen as one of the big three networks’ dance partners. It took longer for the tendrils of AT&T’s coaxial cables to reach smaller markets. Even when they did, carrying the benefits of “Dragnet” and “The Thin Man,” local stations often found that their most loyal fans stuck around for locally originated shows like “Miss Mary’s Schoolbell,” “Cowboy Bob’s Afternoon Round Up,” or the cheap midnight 1930s horror movies on “Chiller Theater.”
This is the first in a threatened series of brief monographs on TV and media history. Yes, @hankrhody does the electrical engineering better, @ejhill does TV history better, and @titustechera does culture’s Big Picture better.Published in General
So interesting! I remember how things were, the whole family sitting together looking at that tiny round screen. I always love your insider information. All those people involved in live TV must have had a stress level incompatible with human life.
Even in small towns, people were amazed at TV’s effect. There was a Texas sportscaster who advertised a brand of cigar, saying, “So if you see me in town, ask me for a Lovera”. Pretty soon, so many people hounded him for free cigars that he had to hire a station wagon to follow him around, dispensing stogies.
Hard to picture that now.
Thanks Gary. I’m looking forward to more of the threatened monographs on TV & media history.
They were still doing that in central Ohio in the 60s. My first exposure to all of the Universal classics.
Thanks, TL! I’m hoping for the kind of material that interests the reader.
I live a couple of blocks from our local NBC and CBS (&Fox!) affiliates. We hear the sounds of their helicopters all the time, and I (being misanthropic) curse their trucks rushing through the neighborhood on their way to cover the news.
In third grade, my class took a tour of the NBC affiliate. (Third TV station West of the Mississippi!) I was amazed at their news studio (this was ’77, so they had a dedicated studio) and with what they could do with blue screen (back then, it was blue screen, not green screen) and other effects.
At that time, the NBC TV station was still owned by the same company that owned the AM and FM stations with the same call sign. I remember walking past the AM radio studio, which was just a couple of reel-to-reel players running. This was, obviously, well before talk radio. The only thing that station did live was weather, news, and sports. At 500,000 watts back then (50,000 now), they had regular listeners all over the Midwest and as far away as Seattle.
In fact, UNM’s long-time radio announcer for both basketball and football left in the early 60s, to cover the UW Huskies. But he missed the Lobos so much, he used to drive to the top of Queen Anne Hill in Seattle to listen to their games. After only a couple of years, he came back, and only retired about five or six years ago. That’s loyalty.
When I lived in Seattle in the mid-Nineties, pre-Internet streaming, I used to emulate him for the Lobo games that weren’t on ESPN.
To finish, KOB-TV’s antennas, as well as all the other TV stations and a lot of the radio stations in town, are at the top of Sandia Peak, 10,200 feet in elevation. They are the highest TV antennas in the world, and are visible from town during the day and at night, owing to their lights blinking for airplanes. :)
@garymcvey, during what era did the networks video tape their coastal programming (I guess primarily NY-based soaps) and send them out on the AT&T network? I’d read that those were actually sent out on actual phone lines, to save money.
And when did satellite transmission start? I remember the local ABC affiliate moving out of downtown when I was about 11. They had a big grand opening party and picnic that I went to. Their building has a helicopter pad in the front on the corner, surrounded by three huge receiver dishes (biggest I’ve seen outside of the VLA), so I’m guessing the 70s?
And I know the actual plural of antenna is antennae. And that the plural of anecdote is not data. :P
Some of the smaller markets wouldn’t get access to all three networks on their own channels until the 1980s, with ABC usually being the odd network out (if there was a hit show on ABC, usually a smaller market station airing CBS or NBC programs would get a ‘bicycle print’ of the show sent to them and air it in place of one of the weaker-performing shows CBS or NBC had that particular season).
The other thing in the early 1950s that was a big upgrade was the introduction of the coast-to-coast coaxial cable. Once extended to the more remote outposts, in meant even the smallest market stations could air shows at the exact same time as New York did (or Los Angeles for small markets on the West Coast — the introduction of it in the fall of 1951 was a big enough event that Burns & Allen made it the end joke for one of their shows, when they were still doing live broadcasts): https://youtu.be/Dq5qbgA7C5M?t=1691
I visited Sandia Peak (well, as far up as they’d let us go) when I was fifteen, in December 1967. My uncle was on the faculty of UNM, working under a federal contract. Albuquerque was wonderful.
Life wasn’t much better in the big city. When Cleveland got its first three stations two of them were assigned adjoining channel numbers. WEWS was on 5 and WNBK was given 4. After the construction freeze was lifted channel slots were spaced farther apart and interference was greatly reduced.
If you lived in the smaller markets you probably also had a box for your box. That is, the FCC reserved VHF frequencies for the nation’s largest markets leaving everyone else on UHF. Manufacturers of television sets weren’t required to have UHF tuners in them until 1964 so many people had to have set top UHF receivers to get their local stations and convert them to a VHF channel.
For owners of UHF stations there were two major land mines. First, if you were lucky enough to get a network affiliation your contract most likely had a giant loophole. If a VHF station went on the air in your market the network reserved the right to dump you like an ugly woman in a Saturday night honkytonk. But the real shocker was your electric bill. It took 50 times the juice for a UHF transmitter to cover the same area as a VHF station.
The construction freeze killed the DuMont Network as they couldn’t get their programming cleared on enough stations. CBS and NBC dominated and ABC limped along for its first 20 years. It was believed a fourth network was impractical until Fox launched in 1986. By then the cable television business had placed Fox’s UHF affiliates on an equal footing with the older established Vs in most markets.
You should have been able to go all the way to the Crest, and from there to the Peak. There’s a plaque next to the fence they finally put up around the TV towers, calling it the “City of Steel”.
We should have a Rico Meetup next year during the Balloon Fiesta. I’ll take everyone out for green chile enchiladas.
Phone lines are incapable of carrying quality TV signals. Until the completion of the coaxial networks programming was distributed via 16mm film. These kinoscopes recorded TV off a monitor onto the film. They looked like crap.
In 1957 CBS presented the first program prerecorded on video tape – a variety special paid for by Ford to introduce the Edsel starring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney. They were nervous about this new technology and demanded a kinoscope be played simultaneously as a backup.
I wondered about that. Wiki was wrong, unless my memory is wrong. Which I highly doubt. ;)
Du Mont patented and marketed Electronicam, sort of a kinescope in reverse. TV cameras sent out a live picture, but each of the cameras had a 35mm film camera mounted to it in tandem. When the film was processed, the negative film was “conformed” (edited) to match a kinescope workprint of the live broadcast. The 35mm cut negative was then duplicated and shipped to stations off the coaxial AT&T network of cabling, providing high film quality for decades to come.
That’s how Gleason chose to do The Honeymooners. Though he’d left Du Mont in the lurch when he took his show to CBS, when it came time to do a spinoff from The Jackie Gleason Show, he recognized that Du Mont had the best existing way of providing the crisp look of “live” with the rerun saleability of film. He hired them to do the production of this CBS show, the so-called “Golden 39” episodes.
Norma Jean Baker (Marilyn Monroe) before her first film roles, and when there was only local television in Los Angeles. Yes, the self-anointed entertainment capital of the world wasn’t directly connected to the New York-led postwar network TV wave sweeping the northeast and midwest. That led to more provincial television on the west coast. But it also had the interesting side effect of making L.A.’s local TV a kind of clubby showcase of possible film talent, conducted where the general public could see it.
Does that explain the crappy quality of early recordings of shows like I Love Lucy?
No, I Love Lucy was always made on 35mm film, other than the first pilot episode. If you saw a bad Lucy, it was probably a tired, fourth generation 16mm copy. That’s one thing that helped give reruns a bad name, almost as soon as there were reruns; uneven, cheapo laboratory copying.
I gotta say, Dnew, you’re really on the case. I passed back though Albuquerque a few more times, going east in 1976, west to move to the west coast in 1977, and on Amtrak a couple of times. 1977’s when I visited the National Museum of Atomic Weapons, at the time located on Kirtland AFB. At the time hardly anyone knew about it or cared. I was fascinated that you could walk right up to (disarmed) bombs and slap ’em affectionately on the nose.
For 40 years I’ve been “haunted” by the half-joke that if only, if only, we’d had the foresight to sell our car on the spot and bought a quarter of Microsoft while we were in town, we’d now own the universe.
Was just talking to James Lileks about the scary, scary character of live TV. He told me Charles Laughton, the famous stage & film actor, when he had to his first live TV appearance, got through it with charm, but then went off & puked. All the invisible people watching; if he had considered it would be recorded, not only broadcast, he might have retched all over again…
That’s difficult to fathom as Laughton was a stage actor all of his days.
Early television lore is filled with tales about murder mystery “corpses” that got up and walked away too soon, actors that missed their cues or simply blew their lines. It was more chaotic because of the crudeness of the equipment.
Zoom lenses have been around since the earliest days of television but were expensive. Zoomar, the first patent holder, offered to sell them at $5,000 apiece to NBC if they bought in bulk, twice that for individual orders. (The low end is equal to $53k today.) Consequently, studio production had to dolly the cameras in to get tight shots or rotate the lens selection on turrets.
I’d estimate that 98% of every thing I’ve been involved in has been live production. Postproduction is for sissies.
I can’t find the scene, but remember My Favorite Year when Alan Swann finds out about live TV.
“You mean it just goes spilling out into people’s houses?!?!?”
Here it is:
The first practical video tape machine was the Ampex VR-1000. The thing was huuuuge. And it sold for a modest $45,000. (A cool $423,800 in today’s dollars.) Ampex solved the bandwidth problem with a rotating read/record head that actually had 4 separate heads built into it. They called it quadruplex recording but soon everyone in the industry just called it a Quad. The heavy 2” reels of videotape required an air compressor to create a vacuum to keep the tape in contact with the heads.
Editing was still done physically with a razor blade and tape. After you stopped the machine at your edit points you marked the approximate area of the cuts with a grease pencil, flipped the tape over and applied a “developer,” which was nothing more than a fine iron powder suspended in a liquid. You then used a microscope to find the vertical interval between frames. Ampex introduced electronic tape-to-tape editing in 1963.
In 1963, CBS hauled one of their quads out of their NY studios and took it to Philadelphia for the Army-Navy game and introduced the concept of instant replay for sports. Since it was all in regular motion announcer Lindsey Nelson had to assure viewers that Army hadn’t scored again and so quickly. It was such a hit and miss proposition though that director Tony Verna got in exactly one replay the entire game. At that moment, television transformed sports watched at home to something more engaging than what you got if you were actually at the event.
YouTube’s had posted for a while the reportedly oldest surviving color videotape recording, a May 1958 speech by President Eisenhower that was taped by WRC, NBC’s Washington, D.C. station when they dedicated their new studios on Nebraska Avenue. Like the “Wizard of Oz”, the tape goes from B&W to color when the person from Kansas arrives….
Hey, Gary! What time is it? Time for R>’s own media mogul – via the Lion Network of affiliated stations, from coast-to-coast – to bring loyal fans another series from the vaults of the Ricochet Silent Radio Network, isn’t it? :-) (Pretty please?)
Unfortunately I can’t find a clear-looking YouTube clip of the opening credits of Quiz Show (1994); Disney’s lawyers are just too good at their jobs. But that three minute montage, and the live broadcast scene that follows it, really summons the spirit of how magical TV was, especially its coast to coast aspect. The movie, set in 1957-59, went to an unusual degree of trouble to recreate what a studio looked and sounded like. Robert Redford, the director, had his earliest acting jobs on live TV and knew what he was doing.
You can hike that price to $70,000 if you wanted color. RCA had been developing videotape for years, and even conducted demonstrations for the press, but their system wasn’t very good, and ran so much tape so fast (as much as 30 feet a second) that engineers had to wear thick leather gloves to stop the spinning reels if anything went wrong. RCA was also engaged in a gigantic war to promote color TV.
Ampex, in Redwood City, California, read other patent applications more carefully than the army of engineers and lawyers at RCA, and came up with a practical VTR. General Sarnoff was not too thrilled to be beat by a company one two hundredths of RCA’s size, but he had no choice but to deal with Ampex. And he did have a few tricks that Ampex needed, especially in the area of color. So they made a rare industrial agreement to open each other’s studios, patents, and equipment, but for a specified, exact time window; after that, the veil of corporate secrecy resumed.
One of Ampex’s less smart maneuvers: casually granting the Japanese what amounted to an open license to make video recorders.
I wouldn’t go so far. I do nanoscience with a smattering of physics underneath it. I’m just stumbling through the electrical engineering while it’s the topic of the day. That stuff is hard.
I am reliably informed that Everything is Better in Color.
The General was a nasty, ruthless man. However, his bullying did spare us all from having TVs with spinning disks inside of them, so there’s that.