05 October 2014

DuMont Episode 1 ~
The Fourth Network

DuMont Television Network

Following this article, you’ll find one of the earliest Ellery Queen television episodes. A few things make this episode interesting besides its vintage and the fact it’s one of only a handful of programs that survived its era. For one thing, it’s a live broadcast, which I’ll discuss in another article. And I like the chintzy humor in the portrayal of the dancing girl.

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.

DuMont Firsts

  • 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

Today’s Video

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


  1. When I was a child, I never missed the Ernie Kovaks Show, but I don't recall any of the other "firsts."

  2. Oops! I spelled Kovacs incorrectly in the first comment, however, I'd like to add that some of those shows are still available on YouTube and just by Googling Ernie Kovacs. His writing, acting, and comedy are as entertaining to me now as when I was a child. His comedy was frequently visual, so television was the perfect medium.

    Leigh, was Dumont Televison related to the Dupont family?

  3. Fran, his was considered the first true television show, the first to take advantage of the medium.

    (I suppose it's ironic writing about television because other than visits to my grandmother, we weren't allowed television until I became a teen, but I'm catching up.)

  4. Leigh, we had the first TV in our neighborhood, and everyone piled into our house and brought food for certain shows. One of them was Gunsmoke every Sunday night, and, of course, Ed Sullivan when anyone like Elvis was on. Those were also the days of the Charlie Chan movies, which I loved!

  5. I was in high school when we got our first TV. I became fascinate with the set so much that I decided to find out how it worked. I got as far as removing the back cover before I decided it wasn't a good idea. I was afraid of breaking the cathode ray tube.

    However, in my junior, I went to work for a man who repaired radios and TVs and I finally got to see the inside of both (I had taken apart my grandmother's radio when I was about 9). The one thing I didn't like was having to climb onto roofs to install the antennas.

  6. I still love Charlie Chan! Actually, I have a soft spot for about any B&W crime film.

    Fran, I didn't answer your earlier question. DuMont Labs was founded by Dr. Allen DuMont. From what I read, the name was sometimes spelled Du Mont and sometimes DuMont, but not Dumont with a lower case m. My French isn't very good, but without looking it up, I'd guess the DuMont family name means 'of the mountain' and the DuPont name means 'of the bridge'.

  7. Louis, I still don't like roofs!

    It's probably a good thing you (and I) didn't take apart a television when we were children. Latter televisions had power cord 'interlocks' so the back cover couldn't be removed without unplugging the cord. But even unplugged, televisions retained powerful voltages in the large capacitors of the day but especially in the yoke of the set, which could store on the order of 15-20,000 volts. This boobytrap couldn't kill a person, but it could knock them across the room.

  8. My maternal grandfather always had the "first" of everything in his neighborhood. He had the first TV -- and my parents, later with me in tow, would visit weekly to watch the Milton Berle show. We eventually had our own 12 inch -- which was HUGE then -- TV that my paternal grandmother won by guessing the number of beans in a jar at a neighborhood fair.

    Later my grandfather upgraded to a color set -- back then only NBC (if memory serves) had regular color broadcasts, and most of them were variety shows. CBS has what it considered a better system, but the transmission could not be received on black and white sets. So for a while CBS tried to have a separate network for color shows -- like HD now -- and that went no where. But I digress.

    I remember the night my grandfather's color set was delivered. They had instructions not to turn it on until a technician came to the house to tune it. But my grandfather couldn't wait. Unfortunately my grandfather (like me) was also color blind. He managed to get the color working and we all watched Perry Como in utter amazement. His face was a color of orange hitherto-fore unknown to the civilized world.

  9. Leigh, loved Ernie Kovacs. he was brilliant.

    Used to spend Sunday noon meals in front of the television watching Hopalong Cassidy movies which usually included the phrase "head 'em off at the pass, boys."

    Remember going with dad down to the local hardware store to plug the TV tubes into an electronic machine to test if they still worked or needed to be replaced. Dad, being an electrical engineer, also figured out how to use his electric razor cord to plug into the back of a motel pay TV so he could keep us kids quiet without having to put quarters into the coin box to play the television while travelling.

  10. Dale, you're right… NBC was the first to offer color. I'm not certain, but I think CBS was working with an electro-mechanical device, which had whirling color disc, like a fan but with a color wheel instead of blades. It claimed crisp color, but I suspect the motorized disc would be problematic.

    I saw a 'tunable' TV not long ago. Besides adjustments for color and contrast, it had a panel to 'tune in' each channel. Obviously that was in the days before crystals and semiconductor frequency locks.

  11. RT, I'm chuckling about your dad using a patch cord so you could watch TV.

    I've used that type of tube tester, mostly for radio tubes. Quite the gadget it was!

    Based on yours and Fran's advice, I'm going to have to dig up Ernie Kovacs on YouTube.

  12. Gosh, this discussion sure brings back long-ago memories. I agree NBC was first with color. Our family never had the first new gadget of any type, but I remember when our neighbors got a new color TV at the time when only a few shows were in color. Our whole family went over to see Bonanza and then my father carried on for hours at home later about how everyone's faces had been orange or green. What neither we nor the neighbors knew was that you were supposed to use those color dials to adjust the color on the picture. Oh well! It sure made for a mesmerizing event anyway!

  13. Television only arrived in South Africa in 1976, and early on we saw some of the older series mentioned, so many some doubted the country actually had colour tv! All fears were allayed once we’d watched every piece of algae ever filmed by Jacques Cousteau. The South African Broadcasting Corporation bought (and still buys) bottom-of-the-barrel bargain bundles, hence the popularity of satellite TV.

  14. Ohh my, what memories. We never had the first of anything either when I was growing up, but when we finally did get our TV, sometime in the 50s, I lived to see Your Hit Parade and Band Stand. We also watched Uncle Milty and Ed Sullivan. I remember seeing Elvis's first appearance on Sullivan. Quite the pelvis thruster he was. By not showing him below the waist, the imagination was almost better than the real thing. But I remember my bonus dad climbing up on the roof to adjust the antenna and we got our TV from Lubbock, 40 miles away. But he loved to mess with it and try to get far away places like Little Rock or Abilene and one time he picked up Mexico City. Something about Cloud jumping or some such.

  15. Leigh, I never knew about the Dumont TV or about Mr. D being first. Nice to learn something new about something we take for granted nowadays. Thanks.

    Does anyone remember those color strips you could place on the screen to make the B & W sort of colored. The sky was blue, the grass was green and the middle part was golden/orange? We didn't have one but someone I knew did and we watched...strange.

  16. Anon, I’m glad we could share those memories. Because we weren’t allowed television as children and when my parents finally did get a set, it was black and white. For years, I saw many shows only in black & white without realizing many of them were in color!

    ABA, I love your sardonic comment. I’m not sure we did you a favour selling some of those ‘70s television shows to South Africa! I think Starsky and Hutch repeated the same plot for years.

    Jan, I can’t quite decide if I heard of those strips or not. Something sounds vaguely familiar. The early cameras filmed everything in B&W but they used 3 films, with color filters. In other words, one film used a red filter, one a green, and the third a blue filter. They could then reconstitute a color picture using only black and white film, albeit 3 of them.

    I’ve heard of Uncle Milty but never saw it. I’m going to have to look it up!

  17. As a total t.v. geek I'd heard of the Dumont Network---heard a reference to Dumont on the t.v. movie about Jackie Gleason (starring Brad Garrett) the other day. Gleason jumped from Dumont to CBS. And, speaking of color, found that the old Superman show in the 50's filmed its later seasons in color, even though most people's sets were B/W at the time. Foresight!

  18. That indeed was foresight. I'd read the producers of Perry Mason deliberately chose to film in black & white to set the atmosphere. Works for me!

    Kovacs and Gleason were two stars who managed to continue after DuMont's demise. The largest body of work extant is Gleason's, which I'll explain in the third installment.

  19. Jan is correct about those "Color" see-through sheets that could be placed over the screen. They used to advertise them in comic books "CONVERT ANY TV TO COLOR!!!! Just send in [whatever the price was] and we will rush this amazing invention to you." And what you got was a sheet of see-through plastic tinted blue at the top, green at the bottom and sort of golden in the middle.

    Leigh -- "Uncle Milty" was Milton Berle. He was so popular that he was signed to a contract that forbid him to appear elsewhere until something like 1984. He bought out the contract in the mid-1960s so he could start a variety show on ABC . . . which lasted a grand total of 13 weeks.

  20. Ah, *click*! Thanks, Dale. I hadn't made the connection.


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