Wednesday 19 February 2014

Commercial TV arrives

Television didn’t just come full-blown into the world in 1948 with the major radio networks putting daily televised schedules on the air. It was around almost at the dawn of network radio in the late ‘20s and slowly evolved through the ‘30s and the war years. But there were small numbers of sets, no networks, fewer than a dozen stations and they were concentrated in fewer cities. Like early radio, it was local, simple, and devoid of commercials (and, unfortunately, live, so next to nothing of it survives for us to view).

Commercial television in the U.S. finally came due to a number of things, mainly after the FCC approved some uniform technical specifications for broadcasting and set a date. So it was that July 1, 1941 marked the start of commercial broadcasts. New York City had three stations on the air—NBC’s WNBT (which had begun life in 1928 as W2XBS), CBS’s WCBW (which had been W2XAB) and DuMont’s W2XWV, which became WABD when it went commercial. The New York Sun reported on June 28 that W2XWV wouldn’t be going on the air "because of difficulty in obtaining necessary equipment." But the station managed to rig something.

While no visual record of the first day of commercial TV exists, Broadcasting magazine of July 7, 1941, gave a pretty complete account.

Five advertisers participated in making the opening day of commercial television really commercial by sponsoring telecasts on WNBT, only station to be ready for business with a commercial license and a rate card. The latest sponsor was Missouri Pacific Lines, St. Louis, whose advertising department placed a half -hour travel film on WNBT Friday night.
The FCC last Monday, in connection with the start of commercial video the following day, issued an objective statement reviewing events leading up to full commercial authorization.
The FCC indicated that in addition to the established visual broadcast service for the New York area, three more stations expect soon to make the transition from experimental to commercial operation--Don Lee's W6XAO, Los Angeles, Zenith's W9XZV, Chicago, and Philco's W3XE, Philadelphia.
Bulova Watch Co., New York, opened and closed the day's transmissions on this station with a visual adaptation of its familiar radio time signal. A standard test pattern, fitted with hands like a clock and bearing the name of the sponsor, ticked off a full minute at 2:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. for the edification of the viewers-in. This two-program contract also provides television's first success story, for following the opening day's test the sponsor immediately signed up for daily time-signals for the standard 13-week period.
Sun Oil Co., Philadelphia, telecast the regular evening news broadcast of Lowell Thomas as it also went out to listeners over the Blue network, with Hugh James reading the commercials from a desk piled high with cans of the product. This program, sponsored as an opening day special, was placed through Roche, Williams & Cunnyngham, Chicago.
Lever Bros Co., Cambridge, Mass., treated the audience to a sight-and-sound version of its radio program, Uncle Jim's Question Bee, with the commercials presented by Aunt Jennie, star of another Lever series. For her first commercial, Aunt Jennie told of compliments her cooking has received since she started using Spry, demonstrating her remarks about its quality by opening a can and displaying its contents to the audience.
At the close of the program she cut and served to the cast and the contestants on the show an appetizing chocolate cake. While they ad libbed their appreciation, including several requests for second helpings, Aunt Jennie got in a couple of short conversational plugs for Spry. This one-time test program, handled by Ruthrauff & Ryan, New York, effectively demonstrated the ease with which television can put over a hard–hitting direct sales message.
P & G Program
Procter & Gamble Co., Cincinnati, presented an adaptation of one of its programs, Truth or Consequences, ideally adapted to the medium with its comic situations.
The commercials told the familiar "red hands" story. The camera presented a close-up of a pair of hands, red and rough from dishwashing, then dollied back to reveal a woman and a boy with a basket of groceries, including three cakes of soap.
The woman told the boy to take the two cakes of Ivory to the bathroom and to put the laundry soap on the sink for dishwashing. Then the scene was repeated with another pair of hands, this time all three cakes of soap were Ivory, pointing an obvious moral. Contestants on this show received large cakes of Ivory, whose labels were plainly visible to the audience. Compton Adv., New York, handled the program.
In addition, WNBT during the afternoon telecast the Dodgers - Phillies baseball game and in the evening put on USO program and a condensed version of a satire on Army life, written, produced and performed by the privates and non-coms of Ft. Monmounth, N. J.

And what about the other two stations? Broadcasting doesn’t reveal much more than problems.

Although beset by technical difficulties which threatened to halt the proceedings, both WCBW and W2XWV pushed through to get programs on the air on July 1. The DuMont engineers, unable to make the necessary changes in their antenna in the time allotted, rigged up a substitute temporary mast which, although not transmitting as powerful a signal, sent out pictures and sound which were clearly received by set-owners as far away as Passaic, N. J. This station's two-hour evening program included both live and film entertainment.
Troubles Galore
CBS engineers, hampered but not stopped by a broken camera circuit and the failure of the fluorescent lighting system shortly before time for the afternoon program, got WCBW on the air on schedule. Highspot of the afternoon program was a dancing lesson given to a boy and girl by Arthur Murray instructors.
Other entertainment included a newscast, with a large map behind the announcer that reversed on a central pivot to permit an immediate change of geography in keeping with the locale of the news, and a children's story-telling program, with the story illustrated by an artist drawing his sketches as the audience watched and listened.
In the evening, after further camera trouble, WCBW presented a blues singer, the first of a scheduled series on the Metropolitan Museum of Art, introduced by the museum's director, Francis Henry Taylor, and Bob Edge interviewing sports celebrities.

WNBT carried on with a 15-hour-a-week commercial schedule. CBS was still fussing around with colour TV, broadcasting Country Dance that month in colour after a black-and-white telecast earlier in the day. By 1943, W2XWV was carrying sponsored programmes on an experimental basis on Wednesday nights and finally got a commercial license the following year.

If you’re interested in the W2XBS/WNBT programming schedule, THIS web site has transcribed them from the New York Times. Unfortunately, other stations aren’t included.


  1. You can find a copy of WNBT's first programming guide here:

  2. Here is a link to a picture of the WNBT test pattern/Bulova clock that was the first paid television advertising in history which the article was referring to. WNBT, New York. July 1, 1941. 2:29 PM.