But the main point of interest is that it was broadcast on a network you probably won’t recognize, the DuMont Television Network. DuMont was the first commercial network and one of the most innovative. It was also saddled with bad karma and bad luck. Frankly, the story of DuMont is more intriguing than most of its shows that remain.
Birth of a Television Network
DuMont Laboratories started as an electronics and television manufacturer and innovator. They developed the first all-electronic television, making the competing electro-mechanical projector obsolete. But in the 1940s, even when the 15-year-old company could sell a consumer a television, there was damn little on the air to watch. DuMont decided to provide programming to boost television sales.
It began with WADB New York (originally W2XWV) and WTTG (originally W3XWT) in Washington, DC. Dr. Allen DuMont joined the two stations by cable to his laboratories in New Jersey, creating the first television network. On 9 August 1945, DuMont’s stations broadcast the report that the United States had dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Modern warfare and modern television were born that day. The following year, DuMont Laboratories spun off the Dumont Network.
A Viper in the Bosom
Meanwhile, Paramount Pictures desperately wanted a presence in the television market. They invested in a couple of experimental stations and bought a $400,000 40% interest in DuMont. That investment would ultimately prove to be DuMont’s undoing.
DuMont’s competitors initially treated television as radio with pictures. By 1946, the large radio broadcaster NBC was also operating television stations. In 1948, the other major radio presence, CBS, joined the fray and a five-year-old radio upstart called ABC purchased its first station in New York City.
In 1949, DuMont linked its Pittsburgh station, WDTV (now KDKA), bridging the Midwest to their East Coast stations, allowing them to provide live programming at one location and broadcast elsewhere. This would eventually become the model for all networks. It positioned DuMont to broadcast the McCarthy hearings, allowing the eastern half of America to see and hear the senator live without filtering. Citizens could judge the demagogue for themselves, ultimately leading to the decline of McCarthyism and the senator’s downfall.
The Alphabet Stations
NBC and CBS enjoyed three major advantages over their competitors: decades of radio broadcast experience, a huge catalogue of programs and talent, and cash flow to bankroll television. Between these giants, DuMont stood naked.
In the 1950s, the ‘alphabet soup’ networks sold inflexible advertising. As the radio networks had done, programs were sponsored by one or two corporations. In effect, advertisers bought an entire block of air time or a series of programs. Cigarette companies and auto manufacturers became associated with a particular program and often controlled content within the program itself. The Ford Motor Company sponsored The FBI and virtually every car seen in the series was a Ford. Today’s Hallmark Hall of Fame remains a remnant of this advertising model.
That same practice made it difficult for smaller companies to get their commercials out and loose ads went where the network decided and not necessarily where the advertiser would have chosen. DuMont not only offered piecemeal advertising, but allowed advertisers to request the slots where they played.
DuMont was an innovative scrapper. It forged relationships with Broadway, a model that can be seen today as David Letterman broadcasts from the Ed Sullivan Theater at 1697 Broadway. DuMont obtained space for variety shows at the Adelphi and Ambassador Theatres, Wannamaker’s, and the prestigious Jacob Ruppert Opera House.
Next article, we’ll discuss how the seeds of destruction had already unknowingly been planted.
- 1st all-electronic television
- 1st modern television network
- 1st weekly sitcom (Mary Kay and Johnny)
- 1st game show (Cash and Carry)
- 1st soap opera (Faraway Hill)
- 1st dance program (Arthur Murray Party)
- 1st courtroom reality show (Trial by Jury)
- 1st subjective camera PoV (The Plainclothesman)
- 1st made-for-TV movie (Talk Fast, Mister)
- 1st show with Asian star (Anna May Wong)
- 1st show with Black star (Hazel Scott)
- 1st Jewish sitcom-drama (The Goldbergs)
- 1st transformative TV show (Ernie Kovacs Show)
- 1st religious program (Life is Worth Living)
- 1st network with East Coast - Midwest cable … and …
- 1st network to fold
Our friend and colleague Dale Andrews has been out of commission following surgery. Dale and his friend Kurt Sercu are experts vis-à-vis Ellery Queen. Today, I present the first of three episodes of an early Ellery Queen television show from when Dale was a wee pup, an episode broadcast 21 December 1950.
Bear in mind this is a live action presentation, nothing but the title sequences and ads were pre-recorded.
Don't touch that dial! Next: Slow Torture, Slow Death