Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
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
He told me about it once when I was complaining about the plastic sheets you had to put on the TV screen to get color when you were playing the Magnavox Odyssey 2.
Ah, I found my “missing” comment.
All in all a lot less psychologically damaging than Dora and her “SAY BACKPACK!!!!!” verbal terrorism.
Is all this what made it possible for Der Bingle to do a show in time to golf in sunny California, while appearing simultaneously in NYC, NY?
Indeed it did! Crosby was also instrumental in getting the radio networks to accept audio tape, about eight years before. Bing Crosby Productions had an unusual sideline in renting TV production trailers (so did Red Skelton). Later, BCP produced shows like Hogan’s Heroes.
I’m so glad you mentioned Winky Dink because just recently I was trying to describe it to my daughter, but all I could remember was Winky, and for some reason I thought he was a star-shaped thing (I see now I was thinking of his hair), not a boy. Oh well, I was like 4 years old. I loved him so much.
I can hear the theme song in my head. Fun stuff, watching the sibs draw on saran-wrap, watching reruns.
Winky Dink was hosted by Jack Barry, who was later caught up in the Quiz Show scandal. He had to leave TV for a long time, but came back eventually as the host of The Joker’s Wild and its kids version, Joker! Joker!! Joker!!!
The Joker’s Wild, the easiest game show in history. Barry really learned the lessons of the scandal, that you see at the end of the movie Quiz Show. The questions don’t matter.
I did not know that!
I remember Winky Dink quite well. But there’ll always be a special place for Clutch Cargo.
When I lived in Orange County, I desperately wanted to be on Joker! Joker!! Joker!!! I sent them many postcards, only to find out that I was already too old for the show.
I remember that show! We watched it every day, even though the mouths totally creeped us out.
You all probably know the true life plot of Quiz Show (1994): The whole country is watching as two men square off on national television. Only one can win. An attractive, high-falutin’ New Englander from the Ivy League was pitted against an even smarter man, who unfortunately is an unglamorous “grind” from nowhere. What no one but he and few insiders know is the fact that he knows the answer, but is forbidden to say it out loud. The other guy, tipped off by crooked insiders, goes ahead and wins.
That’s Quiz Show in 1959. That’s also the story of the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960. Nixon was asked a question about possible preparations for war over Cuba. The real answer, the upcoming Bay of Pigs invasion, was secret, so Nixon had to pretend nothing was going on. JFK jumped right in to criticize the Eisenhower-Nixon administration for doing nothing, even though JFK was given the standard CIA briefings and knew about the plans. Nixon seethed–he later said it was the only time he was ever personally angry with Kennedy–but kept his mouth shut patriotically. And lost the election.
The Kennedy aide who tipped him to the unanswerable question was named Richard Goodwin, winning him a job in the JFK White House. JFK later said it was the riskiest thing he did during the whole 1960 campaign.
Richard Goodwin? He just happened to be the “fearless” investigator who brought down the quiz shows for dishonesty. He’s the hero of the 1994 movie. Neat, huh?
‘Way before my time, but I must have seen it somehow. Terribly creepy.
He’s Doris Kearns Goodwin’s husband. The swamp is extensive.
Whoa I never knew any of this!
WCBS would go almost all night — they’d normally sign off in the 4:15-4:30 a.m. area (depending on how long the movie was) and sign back on at 5:30 a.m. with “Sunrise Semester”. WNBC would chug along until about 3:30 a.m. nightly and then dump you off to the test pattern or color bars, and the other stations would only last until about 1-2:30 a.m. If you were up all night sick, it was like being slowly abandoned one by one as far as your time-killing options went.
On a more somber note, it was found in Scandinavia that one of the simplest and most effective anti-suicide measures was all night TV. There’s never a time when “nobody is out there”.
A permanent moon would help, too…
For a little kid, it was a privilege to wake up early enough to see WCBS-TV or WNBC-TV sign on. The test pattern would end. Silence. Then, something like
“Good morning. This is WNBC channel 4, broadcasting from New York on a frequency of 67.5 megacycles as authorized by the Federal Communications Commission. We begin our broadcast day with a prayer from–
“The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York”
“The Rabbinical Council of Greater New York”
“The National Council of Churches”
It may seem hard to believe now that everyone expected a TV station, even in NYC, to sign on with a prayer, and they all did.
The National Anthem was the last thing a station ran before going to black, or a test pattern at the other end of the broadcast day, in the middle of the night. You see that moment in Poltergeist. At NYU’s TV studio in the early Seventies we still had a two minute reel of the Anthem, sent free by the US Air Force, and stamped “UNCL”–unclassified.
Back when broadcasting was seen as a public good, not a vast wasteland. Even in the Seventies, I recall PSAs that ran, “It’s eight o’clock…Do you know where your children are?” Repeated prior to the 11:00PM local news – script adjusted accordingly. :-)
I forgot that WCBS’ morning prayer program was “Give Us This Day”, which aired prior to “Sunrise Semester”. I remembered only because after doing a YouTube search, of course someone’s posted a sign-on (from 1977) for WCBS, which really wasn’t much different than the sign-ons they had been doing for at least the previous two decades.
I wonder how long it will be before any evidence of prayer on TV will be purged.
Religious, educational, and documentary filmmakers affectionately referred to their usual broadcast slot, Sunday afternoon before prime time, as “The Sunday Ghetto”. FCC’s renewal standards were a little vague, but nearly all stations wanted to be seen as a positive influence on the community. That seemed to end sometime around the early Seventies, especially as more varied sports programming made Sunday programming “real estate” more valuable. But Sunday was the day for “Victory At Sea”, “Navy Log”, and the US Army’s “The Big Picture”. It was when you were likely to see “Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts”, the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and earnest local shows about bond issues and library attendance trends.
I think it will be longer than you might think. There are religious people in Hollywood, they’re just not the majority.
And, of course, Muslim prayer will always be allowed on TV.
It was such a different world. When I was little, nothing was open on Sunday. Nothing, not even gas stations. Every Saturday my dad made sure to fill the car up so we’d make it to church and back, because if you ran out of gas on a Sunday you were marooned. There was no shopping, no movie theaters. We went to church and then had Sunday dinner, which was like Thanksgiving in that it was in mid-afternoon between lunch and dinner. It was one of the things that kind of forced families to spend a day together. I mean there was nothing else to do. It wasn’t considered proper to go over to other people’s houses because it was a family day.
I was shocked the first time I realized people were going to the movies on Christmas Day.
*edit* I wonder if younger people realize the origin of the expression “a month of Sundays.” Do people even still say that? The day was so dull and quiet it seemed a month long, so a month of Sundays was Re-a-a-lly long. It doesn’t even make sense anymore. I just made myself feel old. Wait I AM old.
Our local hardware store, and many other small businesses in the neighborhood, had a window decal provided by the Kiwanis Club: Closed Sundays. See You in CHURCH.
Here’s an example of Sunday ghetto programming, the Lutheran Missouri Synod’s generally high-quality Look Up and Live, which managed to survive for more than 30 years.
It poses a crucial moral question: does even God have the power to keep Jack Nicholson’s hands off the ladies? (I admit it expresses the problem a little more nicely than I did.) Frankly, my separated brethren friends, I’m not sure I buy it!
I remember that show! yikes he’s so young (and not the best actor there haha)
The one I really wanted to find is one I saw on 16mm only 30 years ago, “Destination Unknown” with Leonard Nimoy as an American Communist on his way to Germany to defect in East Berlin. During the course of a (presumably Lufthansa) flight, Pastor Martin and a thoughtful religious flight attendant change his mind. Nimoy is good in it.