In a galaxy far, far away…no wait; wrong venue. In a typical home a long time ago, we were awed by a new invention called “television.” Before television, families gathered around the radio to listen to the adventures of Little Orphan Annie or The Shadow. About 40 million households had radios in the late 1940s. Televisions made their way into households starting in the late 1920s, early 1930s, but most homes didn’t have one until much later. By 1947 there were about 44,000 televisions sets in homes, most of those in the New York area.
In 1944 regular schedule Network TV broadcasts started on NBC (National Broadcast Company) on a three-station network which linked New York with Philadelphia and the Capital District. In 1948 CBS and ABC (American Broadcasting Company) started broadcasting as well. By 1949 the three networks stretched to the Mississippi River and by 1951 to the West Coast. In 1951 a color-system was added though suspended a few months later due to economic and technical reasons. In 1953 commercial color broadcasts came back as the National Television System Committee (NTSC) developed a color system based on RCA technology compatible with the existing black and white receivers.
NBC Network: The Peacock
NBC, headquartered in Rockefeller Center in New York, started out as a radio station under the parent company of RCA (Radio Corporation of America) which had acquired it from American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T). In 1926, RCA created a new division and called it the National Broadcast Company (NBC). RCA owned fifty percent of the new division with General Electric owning thirty percent and Westinghouse twenty percent. On November 15, 1926 NBC was officially launched. The following year, NBC divided into two networks: the Red Network which ran commercially sponsored entertainment and music programming; and the Blue Network which ran mostly non-sponsored broadcast such as news.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) found NBC’s two networks and stations it owned and operated dominated American radio and in 1939 ordered RCA to divest the company of one of the two networks. Though RCA appealed the order, it divided NBC into two companies: the Blue Network became NBC Blue Network, Inc. and NBC Red became NBC Red Network, Inc. In January 1942, the Blue Network was referred to on air as Blue Network or just Blue; the official name was the Blue Network Company, Inc. The NBC Red Network became known on the air as NBC. RCA lost its final appeal in 1943 and sold the Blue Network Company, Inc. to Edward J. Noble and in 1944 acquired the rights to the name American Broadcasting Company. On June 15, 1945, the Blue Network officially became ABC.
The NBC network is the oldest of any of the television networks. RCA and David Sarnoff introduced an all-electronic television at the 1939-1940 New York’s World Fair while at the same time began a regular schedule of programs on the NBC-RCA TV station in New York City. April 30, 1939 President Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first U.S. president to appear on TV when he attended the fair. The broadcast was transmitted by W2XBS Channel 1 (now WNBC-TV channel 4), NBC’s New York TV station. The broadcast was seen by about one thousand viewers. The next day RCA began to sell TV sets in New York department stores. Later in the year, NCredit: Photo by John Atherton Source: Wikimedia CommonsBC covered professional football and baseball games, the first broadcasts in the history of TV.
The 1940s didn’t see many TVs in households. They were expensive and most were sold to public establishments such as bars and hotels. The first network programs were mostly special events. Non-paid experimental advertising occurred during the first ever telecast of a major league baseball game; a game between Brooklyn and Cincinnati on August 26, 1939. The commercials consisted of the announcer holding up a bar of Ivory soap to promote the product, putting on a gas station attendant’s hat to promote Mobilgas and pouring out a bowl of Wheaties and taking a bite to promote the cereal.
In 1941 the FCC allowed full commercial telecasting. NBC’s W2XBS received the first commercial license under the call letters WNBT (later WNBC-TV). The very first paid advertisement in the United States was for Bulova Watches right before the start of a Brooklyn Dodgers baseball game on WNBT. Sports made up much of the line-up for the first scheduled programming as well as a few feature films and a test broadcast of Truth or Consequences, a game show sponsored by Lever Brothers.
During World War II there was not much programming, but after the war, NBC pre-promoted V-E Day and broadcast coverage of the event with hours of news coverage. TV sales started to increase and more stations were being connected to New York. By late 1951 the west coast was connected and the first transcontinental telecasts occurred.
The late 1940s and early 1950s brought success to NBC television. Milton Berle, TV’s first big star began starring in the Texaco Star Theatre in June 1948 and he drew the first large audience to NBC. NBC President Sylvester “Pat” Weaver launched both the Today Show and the Tonight Show. Weaver also was the first to broadcast periodic Credit: photo courtesy of NBC Television; Source: Wikimedia Commons90-minute network specials, network-produced films and the Sunday afternoon Wide Wide World. When color arrived in 1953, NBC began some color shows in 1954. The first NBC program to air all episodes in color was The Marriage. In 1956, NBC announced its Chicago TV station was the first color TV station in the nation with six hours of color broadcasting per day. The first broadcast of a college football game was the 1962 Rose Bowl.
By 1963 a lot of NBC’s prime time programming was in color and in the fall of 1965 the network started billing itself as “the Full Color Network” as 95% of the programming was broadcast in color.  Rival networks followed more slowly, not committing to prime-time in full color until the 1966-1967 season. Days of Our Lives was the first soap opera to premiere in color.
clip from NBC's "The Tonight Show" hosted by Jack Paar
Senator Jack Kennedy running for president in 1960
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Credit: photo courtesy of ABC; Source: Wikimedia Commons
After Edward Noble, owner of Rexall drugstore chain and Life Savers candy, bought the Blue Network from RCA, he acquired the rights to the names “American Broadcasting Company,” “American Broadcasting Corporation,” and “American Network” which enabled him to rename the Blue Network ABC. The radio company started slowly and Noble continued to buy affiliate stations and build an audience for ABC. By the late 1940s ABC was gaining ground on the leading NBC, CBS, and DuMont Television networks.Credit: Photo courtesy of ABC,; Source: Wikimedia Commons
In April 1948, the ABC television network began broadcasting. The first primary affiliates of the Manhattan based network were in Philadelphia and Washington D.C. Over the next 13 months, ABC would own and operate stations in Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angles and give ABC equal footing with CBS and NBC in the big cities and an advantage over DuMont Television Network.
For the next few years ABC didn’t make much progress. In 1948 the FCC put a freeze on applications for new stations. It was only supposed to be a temporary freeze lasting six months; however, it lasted until mid-1952. At that time there were only 108 TV stations and most of the largest cities only had one or two stations and some cities such as Portland, Oregon and Denver, Colorado didn’t have any stations. Once the FCC lifted the freeze, ABC relied more on its radio stations to keep its loyal followers.
By 1951 ABC was close to bankruptcy. Many companies approached Noble, but it was United Paramount Theatres (UPT) that ending up merging with ABC with the president of UPT, Leonard Goldenson, taking over the reins of the merged company. Goldenson also attempted to merge with DCredit: Photo courtesy of ABC; Source: Wikimedia CommonsuMont Television, but the FCC didn’t allow the merger and DuMont ended up closing down in 1956.
With the merger ABC was able to compete with NBC and CBS. Record audiences tuned in to view Disneyland starring Walt Disney. Within a couple of years Warner Bros. was producing ten hours of programming per week for ABC. ABC programming included the shows Maverick and 77 Sunset Strip. The mid-1950s ABC finally had some shows in the top ten including Disneyland. Other ABC shows in the mid-1950s included The Lone Ranger, The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, Leave it to Beaver (it moved over from CBS) and The Untouchables. Even with the success of these shows, ABC was still considered secondary status until the late 1960s.
Clip from ABC's "Ozzie & Harriet"
Ozzie explains women to Rick
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CBS Network: The Eye
Like NBC Network, CBS started out as a radio network. One of the titans of broadcasting, CBS is the second largest broadcaster worldwide behind the BBC. Not only is CBS known as “the Eye” network due to its logo; it is known as the “Tiffany network” due to the perceived high quality of programming under William Paley and in part because it demonstrated its color TVs at Tiffany’s in New York. In the 1930s while NBC and its chief David Sarnoff had the best equipment because of their connection to RCA, CBS and its chief, Paley, credited their success (and failures) with the quality of their programming. JCredit: Photo courtesy of Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress; Source: Wikimedia Commonsack Benny, Burns and Allen and many others were part of the CBS radio family of stars.
In the early 1950s sponsors were eager to make the switch from radio to television. The switch at CBS was gradual with many shows staying on radio and at the same time moving to television. Burns & Allen switched over in 1950 and Lucille Ball in 1951. In 1955 Jack Benny made the transition. In September 1962, CBS prime time radio officially ended when Yours Truly, Suspense and Johnny Dollar aired their final episodes.
When Lucille Ball made her transition from radio to television she did so reluctantly. Her radio show, My Favorite Husband was doing well and she refused to bring it to television unless the network cast her husband Desi Arnaz in the lead. The show was renamed I Love Lucy and believing the series had little chance of success, Paley and network president Frank Stanton allowed Arnaz to take financial control of the production. This began the Desilu empire and became the template for series production.
By the late 1950s CBS usually controlled at least seven of the “top ten” slots on the ratings list. It was only in the mid-1970s it got bumped from the top spot by upcoming ABC. One of the most popular shows on CBS during the 1970s was M*A*S*H which aired from 1972-1983. When it aired its final episode on February 28, 1983, it was viewed by almost 106 million Americans which represented 77% of all viewership for that evening. This established it as the most watched episode in the history of U.S. TV and this held until the broadcast of Super Bowl XLIV in 2010 which was also on CBS.
CBS-TV was the first network to have a working color TV system; however, the system was not compatible with the RCA black and white sets. Though RCA offered to make its color system available to CBS they declined for the most part only showing a few specials in color until the 1960s.
Classic CBS TV show bloopers of the 1950s
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Other Networks and Cable Rise to Rival the Big Three
In 1986 Fox Network launched to compete with the big three commercial networks. In the mid-1990s Fox network began to air programming to rival the big three and gain some success as a bona fide “fourth network.” Initially, the company was not considered an actual network because it didn’t program the number of hours to be legally considered a network by the FCC. Though relatively successful, it was still the fourth (unofficial) network until the end of the 2004-2005 when it ranked number one for the first time.  Fox has built its programming around the popular animated series The Simpsons.
Fox airs network programming during primetime hours for two hours Monday through Saturday and three hours on Sunday evenings while the “Big Three” air three hours Monday through Saturday and four on Sunday. Fox doesn’t air any network daytime programming, thus affiliates are responsible for daytime programming. In additions, Fox doesn’t program national morning and evening newscasts, network-supplied children's programming on Saturday mornings or late-night programming on weeknights. These also are the responsibilities of the affiliates.
Though cable television was offered to households since 1948, it was only since 1972 original programming came to the surface. Originally cable TV was only prevalent in areas where the broadcast stations couldn’t reach and cables had to be extended to the households. As the industry grew, cable became more of a “luxury item” because it added channels other than the three network TV stations.
Like cable, satellite TVCredit: Source: Morguefile has been around for a long time. Satellite TV originated in the early 1960s and the first national network was created in the Soviet Union in 1967. In 1976 HBO (Home Box Office) made history by delivering satellite programming to cable. In the early 1980s, the concept of direct satellite to home rather than cable, took hold and now, much in the way the “Big Three” vied for the households, cable and satellite TV vie for the consumers’ money.
The CBS “eye,” the NBC “peacock” and ABC commercial network TV stations have had to contend with each other, cable, satellite and now internet streaming venues. How long the networks last is anyone’s guess, but people will always want to be entertained. The networks will just have to continue to make adjustments to their businesses.
The copyright of the article The Eye, the Peacock and ABC: Early Years of The Three Major Network TV Stations is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in bileprint or online must be granted by the author in writing.