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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
And Nicholson once played a drifter on the Andy Griffith Show.
ABC always had a weaker hold on their affiliates, but many of them carried The Great Great Show, a blatant ripoff of CBS’s older, better, more popular show. It once ran every weeknight, but ended up a Saturday night filler for a network that rarely had a hit in late night. The Great Great Show was notable for a slight taste for the mildly unconventional: flat, but odd misfiring satires like The Loved One, The Americanization of Emily and Lord Love a Duck as well as weird/sexy/sick like Night Tide, Who Killed Teddy Bear, and its most prestigious moment, the TV premiere of Psycho. Mostly it was provocative schlock.
CBS, as we’ve described, had The Late Show and its nightly sequels.
NBC had The Tonight Show and effectively ruled weeknight late night for most of 60 years. But there was an opening for low cost, moderately high prestige films on Saturday night, for AFAIK about a decade, maybe a dozen years NBC had a regular format for foreign films. I am embarrassed that its catch phrases don’t jump to mind anymore, because it was a good influence on me. I’m not claiming it was the highest, most stupefyingly perfect, @titustechera level list of movies ever shown in New York, but remember that cable virtually didn’t exist yet and for an ordinary network late night time slot it looks remarkably good in its day. They weren’t going to show scenes with nudity, but other than that, there were movies as varied as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Morgan, La Strada, Darling, Station Six Sahara (okay, okay, but have you seen Daliah Lavi?), Black Orpheus and even Alphaville; random perhaps, but a pretty damn good free education in cinema for the mid-to-late Sixties.
Sunday was “Family Classics,” assuming there was no Cubs game. WGN, back when it was a TV station, not an affiliate of some third rate network.
WGN is a great station. Chicago has been the home of a lot of television history. WGN was the worthiest of the Superstations, ordinary local TV stations with ambition who put their programming on satellite to be accessed by cable systems around the country. Others were WTBS, origin of the Turner cable empire, and WOR-9, usually New York’s lamest and least watched local station except for Mets games.
Some of the young ‘uns here weren’t around for what we could call the Superstation Era. This was a transitional phase in cable TV history. There weren’t hundreds of choices from all over at every moment of the day; in the Seventies and well through the Eighties for most people, cable meant clear signals from local channels, more important with color than it had been in black and white, a possible subscription to HBO or Showtime, each of which required a physical coupler to be connected (or not) in your building’s cable box. There weren’t yet acres and acres of specialty channels as we know them today, and have known them for more than a generation–The Learning Channel, Discovery, History, EWTN, Logo, Home and Garden, you name it. So that’s where WGN, WOR, and WTBS stepped up, providing varied fare you didn’t always get on your local station, but with commercials. Hubs of free television. When you still had only 12 or 20 channels, it was interesting to be able to be anywhere in the US and tune in Chicago, New York or Atlanta on the hotel TV.
Or Cleveland. WUAB was another early player. And they had Supe doing the Prize Movie.
Licensed to broadcast in the public interest! Vague, I’ll grant you that. But every station kept voluminous documentation to demonstrate, “See, hours and hours of public service announcements, symphonies, religious programs, educational programs. We even feature opposing view points in fairness. We are good guys. Please let us keep our license to print money.”
In New York, Manhattan Cable TV (now Spectrum) added WSBK-Boston to their lineup in the late 1970s, mainly for the Red Sox games. That seemed to spark the first blowback against distant stations coming into local markets, not so much for the Sawx, but for the syndicated programming WSBK was airing. As the largest media market, TV stations in New York paid the highest prices for shows just going from network into syndication, especially with the new rules of the late 70s which allowed shows still running on network to market their earlier seasons to local channels. If you’re paying a boatload of money for the rights to re-run the first six seasons of M*A*S*H and cable viewers can see them on 1-2 other stations, you’re not going to be a happy camper when the ratings come in. That’s when the superstations and cable systems first started facing limits on duplicated programming (where the superstations decided it was better to air either low-demand or even cheap original programming rather than have a blank screen for 30-60 minutes on their cable signals, because they were limited in competing with local stations on high-demand re-runs).
Yes, and Fr. Elwood P. Kieser’s Paulist Productions Insight series: short films about faith and contemporary culture. Most of Hollywood seemed to have joined in. In the Seventies, when I was watching, James Franciscus (a favorite) and Louis Gossett, Jr. starred in an episode called, “The Man from Inner Space”. I wish they’d reissue these, as they very recently did with 1989’s feature film, Romero, starring Raul Julia.
I remember Father Kieser! The former headquarters of Paulist Productions sits, abandoned-looking, on the Pacific Coast Highway on the drive up to Malibu. I wonder if the Paulist order or the L.A. archdiocese owns the property. The Paulists were the experts in modern communications; Insight was a superior show, and it’s true that Hollywood actors liked being on it. Now-sorta-forgotten gorgeous gal Candace (Candy) Clark did a couple of Insights even while she was co-starring with David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Like the other religious dramas of the time, the show was not a heavy sales pitch, but genuine inspiration meant for any audience.
Fr. Kieser also founded the Humanitas Prize, which for many years was the gold standard of Hollywood prestige for socially conservative or traditionalist programming.
My mom watched Bishop Sheen every day, and we weren’t even Catholic.
Wow! Knowing him must’ve been pretty cool, Gary…A pioneer, on both sides of his work; St. Paul must be smiling at him now. You’d think things like Insight – spiritual but not ‘religious’ – would be a focus for audiences right now, wouldn’t you? The issues/questions are the same, aren’t they?
He was a fearless guy, more than six and a half feet tall. He’d reach anyone on the phone, hard to do here–“Hello, Michael?” (Eisner, head of Disney) “Bud Kieser here. We’re doing animation this year. When can I come by? I need fifteen minutes of your time.”
Wow…Fr. K. was a force to be reckoned with! :-) A little more research tells me that independent films – rather than series tv – is where they’re focused now: lots of stuff for Hallmark, etc. so that they’ll have more autonomy. Glad they’re still at it.
“I’ll bet you’re smart enough to know where to get us some booze.”
Fr. Keiser was sort of the west coast equivalent of Father John Culkin, S.J., longtime head of Fordham’s media department, one of the first members of the board of the American Film Institute, and a pioneer in film education. “The Jolly Green Jesuit” was, like Bud, very tall and a great ad lib comedian.
As was said by one of my longtime spiritual guides, Moliere’s Tartuffe, “Our senses are rightly captivated by perfect works our master has created”.
Haha “longtime spiritual guide.”
As a Yankee fan living in a Dodger town during the dark days of the 80s, I really hated when the Cubs played the Braves, which happened roughly 5,432 times a season in my memory, because of the 30 or so cable channels we got, there would only be three showing baseball on any given summer night.
And two of those would be the Braves and the Cubs, just from slightly different angles and with different announcers.
Hey, The Man Who Fell to Earth was filmed here. It’s funny seeing David Bowie walk back and forth across Civic Plaza (which is nowhere near big enough to require as much time to walk across as the scene requires) with the Mountain Bell microwave relay antenna behind him.
Even with the nudity, it is not entertaining enough to stay awake.
I think the current Moon is pretty permanent.
Permanently visible, maybe?
We who grew up in Arizona (or at least the Phoenix area) from 1954 to 1989 were lucky enough to get to watch what may have been the best local kids show ever: The Wallace & Ladmo Show. While it was often kids-show silly, the cast never condescended to the audience, and the comedy was often salted with grown-up (though never inappropriate) jokes. It had a live audience and prizes, the most coveted of which was the Ladmo Bag. I was on the show twice as a kid in the ’70s, but never won the bag. (It was basically a hodgepodge of snacks, toys, and coupons for free stuff. How I wanted one.)
Pat McMahon, the third actor on the show, created a whole stable of recurring characters for it. The one the kids loved to hate was Gerald, who was the obnoxious, entitled, and stuck-up scion of a rich Arizona family. He could rile audiences up so much that once the whole cast had to essentially flee a performance due to the a portion of the audience deciding to go after Gerald. This happened only once, fortunately.
In the sixties a joke band made up for the show, Hub Kapp & the Wheels, got so popular that they were offered a record deal. This caused a brief crisis for the show, as its musical director, Mike Condello, as well as Ladmo and McMahon, were band members. Fortunately for the Valley’s kids they turned down the deal, but not before performing on The Steve Allen Show in 1964.
Wallace and Ladmo are now gone from this earth, but the third man of the outfit, McMahon, is still (I think) a radio talk show host in Phoenix.
It’s amazing how much creativity and effort the cast and crew put into this before-and-after-school show, and that they did it for 34 years. It was certainly more entertaining that just about any other “kids show” I’ve ever seen.
Oh, and also, great post, @garymcvey. Fascinating stuff.
My dad was an early employee of KMID Channel 2 in Midland, TX, which got up and running in 1953. They set up in a quonset hut at a soon to be closed bomber base that would become our airport. The second station in the area, KOSA, wouldn’t be up and running until 1956. My dad would also be an original employee at that station. He was the sign off voice. We lived close to the station. I told my friends that there was a wire with a microphone that ran from the station to our house, and he woke up every night to do the signoff from his bedside.
I am watching the OTA feed of the world series right now. Those early folks would be astounded at the quality of picture we get from our (already antiquated) atsc 1.0 feed. Can’t wait for what atsc 3.0 will bring.
Special thanks for commenting! First hand accounts and family stories are always honored. KMID sounds pretty much like the kind of station I tried to describe in this post, and your Dad’s microphone is a wonderful detail. This must have been one of the first stations to go on the air after the 1948-52 license and permit freeze was over.
I’m an OTA enthusiast myself, Ekalenak. It’s funny to see kids occasionally describe it, accurately if a bit pedantically as “wireless video”, or as we used to call it, TV. The quality that digital can deliver over the air is astonishing, and the price drop for HD receivers over 15–20 years is just as amazing. Funny how that’s worked; our TV screens have taken over much of what movie theaters did for us, often our laptops are our televisions, and phones are our computers.
Thank you for responding to my post. I won’t bore you with the details of my dad’s career at KOSA. Suffice it to say, he was talent. He did everything on the air that you could do back then. Back in the day, I think every little station had an art department that consisted of one person. KOSA’s was a man named Lucio Orozsco, known as Roscoe. I have an old drawing he did of my dad that hung in the hall of the station. He was a talented artist. My dad had an afternoon show for kids. He was known as Dangerous Dan. When they moved the station, an old wagon wheel used as a prop was being thrown out, and my dad retrieved it. It was in my parents backyard for years. When my mom sold the house, I didn’t save it. Regrets! Anyway, I have pictures of him with Ken Curtis of Gunsmoke, when he was winding his way through the area on a promotional tour. I came along in the 60s and ran through that station, with its old 4 inch VTRs and and 16mm film machines, as a little scamp. I so wanted to be in broadcasting, but as I got older, I realized that folks at that level didn’t make much money. It’s so different, anyway, as local stations are so much more automated. No more loading tapes and films and slides. You just cue it up on the computer screen. When they moved my dad’s station, they just threw out all the old film. So much history lost. If you read this, thanks for indulging my reminiscence.
“Indulging my reminiscence”? We’re delighted to hear your reminiscence. You should do a post about it!
That almost sounds like Sioux Falls’ Channel 11 in the late 50s. We got our first television in 1958. Even though we lived on the high ground above Bazille Mills, Nebraska (years earlier the population had been as high as 50) we needed a tall mast for our antenna to bringing in the lone available station from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, about 100 miles away. There was a motorized control so we could rotate the antenna, but there wasn’t a lot of point. Only under weird atmospheric conditions could we point the antenna elsewhere and bring in another station for a few minutes.
I think there was network programming right away, but there was also “Captain Eleven,” a locally-produced kids program, which looked like it could have been produced in the kind of place you’re describing.
Hah. I just googled for it and see there is a wikipedia page for the show. “The longest continuous running children’s program in the United States.” It says he was also the station’s weatherman. I didn’t know that. And the set and memorabilia are on display at a museum in Pierre SD. We moved elsewhere in the early 60s, so this is mostly news to me.
Thanks for jumping in with that, Reti. Those tall masts used to be one of the most common sights in the fringes of TV’s coverage area. Cable and satellite have changed that, somewhat.
As a kid I remember reading the listings for antenna rotators in the Allied and Lafayette electronics catalogs with some fascination–“Boy, those people are lucky! I bet they get programs from everywhere!” Of course, in NYC that wasn’t a problem; you just pointed your rooftop “H” towards the Empire State Building.
Grandpa got one when he moved to Rogers, Arkansas, The control sat on the top of the set. Joplin TV stations were one direction. Springfield stations were another.