Fun Facts about Commercial TV’s Birth in 1941

From Ron Simon


News Flash: New York Times 1941 editorial:
“The problem with television is that people must sit and keep their eyes glued to the screen; the average American family hasn’t time for it.”


Before July 1941, radio networks and other entrepreneurs had been experimenting with the possibilities of television for more than two decades.



More than ten million dollars had been spent on research, but these tests and struggles were largely documented in trade magazines.



NBC particularly achieved many firsts in television history, including the coverage of the first professional baseball and football games in 1939.



The public had a chance to experience television at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, and then purchase sets in stores such as Macy’s.



Sets were expensive, ranging from several hundred to over a thousand dollars, when the average family earning $1.225 annually.



The best guess is that there were approximately 2,000 television sets in existence on July 1, 1941.



Most sets manufactured before 1941 broadcast with 441 lines of visual information. In May 1941 the FCC authorized that television be broadcast in a new format of 525 lines, a standard that would last for more than sixty-five years. But for that first day many people saw the new images on the old set and complained of a hazy picture.



It was because production costs of the nascent programming were mounting that networks wanted to model the television business on the very successful radio model, meaning commercial sponsorship to pay for programming costs.



Which led the FCC’s to approve commercial licenses which went into effect on July 1, 1941, hence the birthday.  The very first commercial for Bulova watches aired before NBC's first telecast on July 1, a baseball game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Brooklyn Dodgers.



That first commercial cost the advertiser a mere nine dollars for a ten second spot of a watch over a test pattern, with the voice-over, “America runs on Bulova time.”  Incidentally the game ran long, going into an extra inning with the Phillies winning 6-4. Neither a recording of the commercial nor the game survives.



Although more than twenty stations around the country went on the air July 1, only the NBC station in New York actually broadcast commercials. Sunoco Oil hosted the nightly news program with Lowell Thomas, and Ivory Soap sponsored the game program that ended the day, Truth or Consequences.



Lowell Thomas's show was a simulcast of his radio show; that is why he does not mention being televised. Truth or Consequences, however,  was a separate show from the radio version, done specifically for TV.



The CBS station in New York went on without commercials and continued the experimental nature of TV with dance lessons and a discussion of objects from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. With William Paley at the helm of the CBS, the network always strove for quality, sometimes at the expense of a large audience.










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