Saturday, 21 July 2018

It Still Sounded Like a Vacuum Cleaner

The Eye has been linked with CBS for years and years, but there was a time when people tuning their TV sets didn’t see it. In fact, there was barely a CBS at the time and it was difficult to see just about anything on a television screen.

The year was 1930. Bill Paley was running CBS, created only three years earlier (as UIB) to compete against RCA’s radio arm, NBC. Radio wasn’t NBC’s only preoccupation. Television was, too, so Paley got into the television business. It wasn’t actually a business, because commercial stations weren’t allowed. CBS, through its Atlantic Broadcasting Corporation subsidiary, applied for a license on August 13, 19301 and it was granted on December 16th.2 The station was given the call letters W2XAB, which had been abandoned by RCA, the owner of NBC. From this sprang the great CBS television network, but that was a little way into the future yet. There were experiments, a false start and a world war to contend with first (not to mention regulatory interference on the industry by the FCC).

It’s unclear when the first experimental broadcasts in preparation for the big debut happened—they were supposed to begin June 1, 19313—we do know there were some before July 12th because that’s the date the Baltimore Sun reported:
Boiled Shirts Banned Before Televisor Now
W2XAB Thrown Off Air By Reflection From Shining White Garment

During the first evening of experimental television tests from W2XAB, New York, an artist stepped before the televisor in dinner dress. The shining white shirt caused so much concentrated reflection that the transmitter was temporarily thrown off the air.
Edwin K. Cohan, director of technical operations and television for C.B.S., has, as a result, ordered a ban on “boiled shirts” in the television studios.
The New York Sun of July 17th reported there had been “several weeks of tests in which reception of W2XAB’s signals was said to have been heard in cities as far away as Boston, Hartford, Baltimore, Camden, Schenectady and Philadelphia.”

The big day was July 21, 1931. The time: 10:15 p.m. The New York press gave preview ink, one paper displaying a photo of Ed Wynn who was supposed to be on the 45-minute premiere broadcast. He never made it, and the papers were silent as to why. CBS may not have been a television network yet but the company had a big radio network, which simulcast the show (CFRB in Toronto was among the stations). Here’s what the New York Sun said the next day. Only the picture was carried on W2XAB; viewers on their “televisors” had to tune their shortwave radios to W2XE on another frequency to get the sound.
Columbia Offers Regular Daily Program.

Engineers Seek to Make Many Refinements in Instruments.
Television, the toddling scientific development, took a step forward today with the inauguration of a regular daily program from the new radio-vision studio of the Columbia Broadcasting System atop the broadcasting headquarters at 485 Madison avenue.
The opening took place last night when Mayor Walker drew aside the curtain from the sensitive photoelectric cells and officially "opened the eyes" of W2XAB, which becomes the sixth television transmitter in the metropolitan area.
Sixty broadcasting stations carried last night's ceremonies from coast to coast, through WABC, as more than one hundred guests watched the "flying spot" etch the images of speakers and performers and send them out over the ether.
Mayor Walker Introduced.
Edward B. Husing, WABC announcer, introduced Mayor Walker and then presented Natalie Towers, the Columbia television girl. Edwin K. Cohan, technical director of WABC, and Dr. Walter Schaffer, chief engineer of the Reichs-Rundfunk-Gesellschaft of Germany, discussed television, its history and future.
Mr. Cohan said that television of today is comparable to the phonograph of 1910 and the motion picture of 1905, but predicted that it would advance from now on "just as surely as sound broadcasting has, and at no less pace."
"It will progressively bring to you the individual and small groups," he said, "the larger groups and complete symphonic and stage productions, the outdoor sporting events, the spot news events. It will eventually bring these to you in natural color."
"We have but one purpose in opening television station W2XAB," Mr. Cohan said, "our interest being solely that of a progressive broadcasting organization intent upon carrying on television experiments of its own, to determine the scope and limitations of this new art, and to build a well coordinated and efficient organization in advance of the day when television no longer remains the crude marvel that it now is."
Entertainers On Program.
George Gershwin, composer, played his own work, "Liza."
Other entertainers on the program were Kate Smith, pianist and singer; Ben Alley, tenor; Henry Burbig, humorist; Helen Nugent, contralto; the Boswell Sisters, Helen Gilligan and Milton Watson, who sang duets. Following the presentation, which the guests saw and heard in another studio, the visitors were allowed to inspect the visual-aural studio on the top floor of the building and the 500-watt picture transmitter which which is part of the broadcasting apparatus.
A regular schedule of broadcasts through W2XAB and W2XE, the respective visual and aural short-wave transmitters associated with WABC, will begin tonight when a program will be flashed to the liner Leviathan at sea.
The regular schedules calls for broadcasts from 2 to 6 P M. and from 8 to 11 P. M. The afternoon broadcast will he used largely for experimental work of the Columbia engineers, and will be sent out without sound accompaniment.
The Sun was a little reticent in describing the pictures. Other papers weren’t. The New York Herald Tribune said “The images in the televisor were quite plain last night, although red waves seemed to run through them constantly. Mayor Walker’s features were easily recognizable, and the Mayor commented somewhat on the difference television would make in politics.” (Walker wasn’t predicting “news” channels with slanted commentary; he was speaking of politicians being seen by voters). The Associated Press chimed in that “The images on these televisors permitted the guests to obtain good recognizable pictures, but from 14 miles away came a report that reception was somewhat marred by static with the images faint at times.” The Brooklyn Standard Union was even less impressed, opining “the televisors still sounded like a vacuum cleaner and the pictures were scarcely more clear than the early telephoto pictures printed in newspapers, when a few smudges and straight lines appeared under the caption ‘Flyers Land in Greenland.’”

Perhaps the biggest stunt on the station was the “first million dollar television broadcast” on September 8, 1931, when hostess Natalie Towers (CBS photo, right) wore a multitude gems and jewels on camera. You can read more about Natalie’s career on W2XAB in these fine articles HERE and HERE.

The station’s seven-day-a-week schedule was pretty ambitious for a company that wasn’t getting a cent from television. And a company that found itself caught in the Depression. The following May, W2XAB’s nightly schedule was cut from three hours nightly to two, with no sound because the audio was distorted when acts moved, and daytime programming was ended.4 The station then went off the air on July 4, 1932 for some sound tweaking.5

Ah, but it was only temporary. W2XAB celebrated its first anniversary by being new and (supposedly) improved. Now the sound and picture came from the same frequency! Here’s the New York Sun, July 23, 1932. You’ll notice not a lot is said about the programming; there’s more about the geeky, technical stuff.
Celebrates Its First Anniversary With Gala Event
Another milestone in the development of television was passed Thursday night, July 21, when a program of synchronized sight and sound was transmitted over W2XAB.
The program marked the first anniversary of Columbia's entrance into the field of television, and also inaugurated the regular broadcasting of simultaneous sight and sound on one wave-length.
The program included an innovation when Harold Stern's dance orchestra broadcast their music from the roof garden of the St. Moritz Hotel, while their leader talked to them and directed them from W2XAB's studio nine blocks away. Receivers set up in front of the band enabled the musicians to follow Stein's baton and hear his instructions as he faced the flying spot.
New System Explained
In a brief address to the listening audience, Edwin K. Cohan, technical director of Columbia, gave an explanation of the now synchronization method and pointed out its significance.
"The frequency band, or ether channel, occupied by W2XAB," Cohan said in his talk, "extends from 2,750 kilocycles to 2,850 kilocycles. Thus we have a channel 100 kilocycles or 100,000 cycles wide. (The regular broadcasting facilities are ten kilocycles or 100,000 cycles wide.) We transmit a picture composed of 4,320 picture elements and we transmit twenty complete pictures per second in order to obtain a satisfactory illusion of motion. This requires approximately 86 per cent of the 100,000 cycle channel just mentioned, leaving 14 per cent, or about 14,000 cycles, unused. Since the next progressive step in picture detail and definition under present methods would require a channel wider than 100,000 cycles. 86 per cent of the band has been the highest efficiency thus far. Instead of wasting the remaining 14 per cent, as has been the practice heretofore, tonight's program inaugurates the usage of nearly all this 'waste space' for the accompanying voice or music.
"This more efficient use of the channel," concluded Cohan, "coupled to the greater economy effected through the elimination of a large amount of equipment duplication, both at the transmitter and receiver, practically assures the future universal adoption of this basic idea, regardless of specific methods or channels used."
In another short address. William A. Schudt Jr., television director, outlined the accomplishments of its visual broadcasting activity after one year of experimentation, laying particular stress on the great advances made in television as an artistic medium of entertainment.
Continues Its Experiments
"When the history of television is written," he said, "we will be credited with having presented boxing bouts on a large scale, [staged photo to right] as well as wrestling and a play-board vision of football games. We likewise projected by television an authentic art exhibition; classic dancing; miniature musical comedies; sketching before the scanner; dancing and piano lessons, and programs in connection with news events of the day.
"Station W2XAB is the first television station to be synchronized in sound with a coast-to-coast radio network," he continued. "For those who do not have the opportunity to become familiar with present-day visual broadcasting, let me add that there is a fair television audience. We have received a good deal of fan mail from distances up to a 2,000-mile radius of New York. It is conservatively estimated that there are close to 9,000 television lookers-in within the metropolitan area. I feel reasonably certain that there are thousands more who see our programs, although we have no figures on them. Let us say then, that there are 9,000 television receiving sets in operation tonight, watching me as I stand before this scanning equipment Do you realize that you could not crowd 9,000 people into any but the few largest theaters in the country.
"For the coming year we will continue to experiment and develop studio technique and mechanical facilities. There will be hundreds of artists and performers facing these eyes' during the coming months. They will be working for the sake of television; working so that, you may have perfected television in your homes within a short time."
But the Depression wasn’t going anywhere. CBS needed to save money. A number of sustaining (non-commercial) radio artists making $100 a week were let go, including singer Vaughn De Leath. And W2XAB was shut down. The Columbia spin was the station offered little opportunity for further contribution to television, that the station had existed to prepare the company for when television “arrived” and the company was now prepared.6 It unexpectedly signed off on February 21, 1933.

Its passing was noted in The Billboard’s television columns of March 4 and 11, 1933. In the latter, Benn Hall eulogised its short life and talked about its stars, all of whom are long forgotten.
Requiem W2XAB
Before the books are closed for all time, let us say a few last words about some of the performers at W2XAB. Now that the station is no more, your commentator can say a few kind words about some of the entertainers without fearing for his skin when next he meets some unmentioned acts. W2XAB had approximately 35 acts; we were conversant with all, but about three.
Acts that have definite radio possibilities include: “Out of the Song Shops,” a sister act of pop melodies by the O’Neill Sisters, Connie at the ivories and Jean vocalizing. Jean won a recent Whiteman audition and either with a band or with her sister has promising radio possibilities. “Character Slants,” by Bob Davis, with legit and stock background, who did a novelty bit on television with trick makeup effects. Forgetting makeup and pictures for radio, Davis showed in his wide repertoire of characterizations that he possesses talent that can be developed into something worth while for ether use.
Harriette Downs, the “Girl with the Musical Teeth,” warbles pop numbers and does trick throat stunt, imitating stringed instruments. Plenty of vocal heat. “Millinery Fashion Review,” with Gladys Kahn, who until some weeks ago did two television numbers weekly, this fashion show and a musical number. Both programs displayed genuine ability. Her chats on chapeaux are freshest in your correspondent’s memory and it was breezy, informal, natural and interested women fans.
Television underwent more changes in the ‘30s. The mechanical TV system, with its coordinated spinning wheels to transmit and pick up signals, was out. The cathode ray tube was in. And the engineers at RCA tinkered around enough to their satisfaction that NBC re-launched its New York City TV station, with huge fanfare, at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Again, CBS played catch-up. And W2XAB returned. The first test of the signal from its new transmitter atop the Chrysler Tower was made from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. on November 8, 1939, where viewers got to see a test pattern that didn’t interfere with the programming on NBC’s W2XBS down the dial.7 The station became commercialised in 1941 with new call-letters, WCBW, and maintained a somewhat regular, abbreviated schedule until after the war, when the medium finally came into its own.

This post was prompted by the discovery of a name in the W2XAB listings, one not mentioned in Hall’s column and one who became a TV pioneer almost 30 years later. On August 25, 1931, the time slot from 8:30 to 8:45 p.m. was taken up by “Teddy Bergman, Television’s Clown.”8 Bergman later changed his name and is known to you as Alan Reed, the voice of Fred Flintstone on the first-ever prime-time animated series. Thus it was that Alan Reed not only appeared in a Stone Age cartoon, but in the Stone Age of television.

1 NY Times, Aug. 14, 1930, pg. 12
2 Baltimore Sun, AP story, Dec. 17, 1930, pg. 14
3 Baltimore Sun, Apr. 19, 1931, pg. 8
4 Variety, May 10, 1932, pg. 55
5 Broadcasting, July 15, 1932, pg. 19
6 The Billboard, March 4, 1933, pg. 12
7 Broadcasting, Nov. 15, 1939, pg. 39
8 The Outlook For Television, pg. 211, by Orrin E. Dunlap, Jr., Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1932


  1. Walker was the first corrupt politician to be on TV though -- he would be forced from office a short time later, and New York voters would end up electing Fiorello LaGuardia as mayor.

    W2XAB -- now WCBS-TV -- did have the longest run on its analog frequency, since NBC's original station was on Ch. 1, but that frequency was taken back by the FCC during World War II and most of NBC's owned-and-operated stations, including their one in New York, ended up on Ch. 4. (Since the switch over to digital transmission nine years ago, all the former lower VHF channels are now just legacy numbers, as their wider HDTV signals have been relocated to what formerly was t he UHF analog band.

  2. Bill Schudt Jr., director of W2XAB, had an interesting career before and after.

    He started as publicity man for Queens, NY radio manufacturer A.H. Grebe, who operated station WABC. When it was sold to Columbia as their key station, Schudt came along, doing a program called "Going to Press," which featured notable newspapermen.

    At W2XAB he was announcer most nights and talent coordinator, auditioning the all-volunteer talent. He also wrote some informative pieces for Radio Digest magazine about the future, and unusually, the present activity in TV. In 1933 CBS sent him to Charlotte to run their Dixie Network. He retired in the '60s as CBS radio's director of affiliate relations.

    Bill's daughter, Alicia Schechter, became a TV scriptwriter, notably for the '80s hit "ALF."

    Bill Schudt Jr. is behind the microphone in the boxing exhibition photo, which ran in The New York Times in 1932.