July 1, 1941, was a seminal day in showbiz history, marking the launch of commercial television in the U.S. on New York’s WNBT-TV (better known today as WNBC) and WCBW-TV (aka WCBS).
But it was an inauspicious start. In Variety’s estimation, “it was all pretty corney” (sic).
Television programming had been airing sporadically on an experimental basis in numerous markets for years, but that Tuesday marked the first time stations were licensed by the Federal Communications Commission to include commercials in their broadcasts. In other words, it was the first time they could monetize their content, such as it was, for a Gotham aud of about 2,000 homes, at most.
The July 1 date has hardly lived on in infamy (unlike that other event five months later) but the Paley Center for Media and is making a push to recognize it as the birth date of television in the United States. The org’s website has an elaborate section devoted to commemorating TV’s 70th anniversary, complete with a compendium of oddities, firsts and trivia from Day One through the present day. Paley Center is also looking to hear from anyone who remembers tuning in on that fateful day.
On July 1, it all started with the now-famous Bulova Watch blurb that WNBT aired at around 1:30 p.m. leading into its 2 p.m. telecast of a Philadelphia Phillies-Brooklyn Dodgers game from Ebbets Field. At 6:45 p.m. there was a 15-minute newscast anchored by Lowell Thomas, followed by a hodgepodge of clips including a USO drive and a snippet of the gameshow “Truth or Consequences” hosted by Ralph Edwards. WCBW wasn’t ready and didn’t jump into the commercial fray that day.Ron Simon, curator of TV and radio for the Paley Center, notes that some things about TV never change. Newscaster Thomas cracked a joke at the end of his broadcast, and the critics were rough on “Truth or Consequences.”
Television sets had been available in Gotham department stores such as Macy’s since the 1939 World’s Fair broadcast got early adopters excited about the potential of television. But most of the sets in use in 1941 were set up to receive 441 lines of picture while the FCC had set the commercial telecasting standard at 525. That made for some muddy visuals early on.
Variety was unimpressed by the overall presentation, the hucksterism and production value.
“It was all pretty corney,” Daily Variety reported on July 2, 1941. “Especially a crowd of announcers and radio hangerson eating chocolate layer cake made with Spry and yumyumming. Practically all the sets in the New York area were picking up 525 line images on old sets adjusted to 441 lines. This cut down definition, but it was not engineering definition that was hard to bear. It was the low grade showmanship.”
WNBT and WCBW broadcast about 15 hours a week in those first few months. But the flagship stations for the Peacock and the Eye didn’t get much time to refine their product before the U.S. entry into WWII put the kibosh on virtually all commercial telecasts. The technology and resources that David Sarnoff and William Paley were plowing into TV were immediately diverted to the war effort.
The growth of TV would be stymied for the better part of the 1940s, until a manic vaudevillian named Milton Berle hit it big with “Texaco Star Theater” in 1948 and TV sets starting flying off the shelves.