Culture and Recreation

Radio and Television

What was the immediate impact of television?

The publicity surrounding the World’s Fair television broadcast (April 30, 1939) inspired a flurry of broadcasting activity but reached limited audiences. On May 17 the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) televised a baseball game between Princeton University and Columbia University, which NBC billed as the world’s first televised sporting event. On August 26 NBC telecast a professional baseball game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds. More NBC broadcasts from Radio City featured live opera, comedy, and cooking demonstrations. Crowds waiting outside the 1939 New York premiere of Gone with the Wind were also televised. Feature films were aired, including a dramatization of Treasure Island, Young and Beautiful, and the classic silent film The Great Train Robbery (1903). Soon television stations had proliferated: by May 1940, 23 stations were broadcasting.

In 1941, after considerable deliberation on its part and that of the industry itself, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted transmission standards. Commercial operations were approved effective July 1, and two New York stations, National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) affiliates, went on the air. By the end of that year, the first commercial on television, financed by watch-manufacturer Bulova, was aired. In December, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the entrance of the United States into World War II (1939–45), commercial development of television was put on hold while American industry devoted its resources to the war effort.

But the television industry was eager, and as soon as allied victory looked like a sure thing, Radio Corporation of American (RCA) reopened its NBC television studio on April 10, 1944. CBS followed suit, reopening its operations on May 5. At the war’s end in 1945, nine part-time and partly commercial television stations were on the air, reaching about 7,500 set owners in the New York, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Schenectady, New York.

By 1947 the four networks that then existed—ABC, CBS, NBC, and DuMont (a short-lived competitor)—could still provide only about 10 hours of prime-time programming a week, much of it sporting events. In late 1948 it was estimated that only 10 percent of the population had even seen a television show. However, as the networks stepped up their programming with live-drama programs, children’s shows, and variety shows (a format that was familiar and popular to the American radio-listening audience), interest in television grew rapidly. By the spring of 1948 industry experts estimated that 150,000 sets were in public places such as bars and pubs, accounting for about half of the total number of sets in operation. Just a year later, 940,000 homes had televisions. And by 1949 production of sets had jumped to 3 million.


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