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article number 381
article date 09-25-2014
copyright 2014 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Will We Make Television a Commercial Success? 1940
by Alfred H. Morton, V. P. Television, NBC

From the 1940 book, We Present Television.

We who live in this era, harassed though we may be by swift social change and bitter international strife, are nevertheless fortunate in witnessing the birth of a new social instrument of vast significance—television. For television is here to take its place beside that other amazing commonplace of our daily lives, radio.

I say that we are fortunate, for we are in at the beginning of mankind’s greatest venture in mass communication. Television broadcasting, taking its first sturdy steps today, will one day unroll the rich pageantry of a coronation before a viewer in Kansas at the very moment the privileged few see the event at Westminster Abbey.

And out along the shores of Puget Sound, in the State of Washington, men and women will be as much participants in the inauguration of a President of the United States as the few who are practically within arm’s length of the stand on the steps of the Capitol.

Perhaps it seems to the average man that television still properly belongs among the miracles of the laboratory. So swiftly did the inauguration of television as a public service in America follow on the final press demonstrations in the laboratory, that I am sure that all of us find it hard to believe our eyes when we witness a telecast in some friend’s home.

We lose sight of the fact that the linking of the essential senses of sight and sound on the air waves is the product, not of a single year’s labors, but of more than a half century of profound research and intense experiment.

The all-electronic system, freeing television at last from the limitations of whirring belts and spinning disks, was itself built and tested over a period of more than a decade before it was finally given to the public in the United States. Television is ready. And just as the thirties saw radio mature into a potent social force, so will the forties witness the growth and spread of television over the nation.

Television, to be sure, is not yet widespread in its service. The National Broadcasting Company inaugurated its first high-definition service, under technical standards laid down by the radio industry, with the transmission of the opening day ceremonies at the New York World’s Fair of 1939.

Since that time it has maintained a regular program schedule for pioneer viewers within the area, extending roughly sixty miles in all directions from the Empire State Building, covered by NBC’s New York City transmitter.

The Don Lee Broadcasting System has also begun a service in Los Angeles under the same technical standards, and the General Electric Company has completed its transmitter near Schenectady for serving the Albany-Troy-Schenectady area.

The GE station plans regular relays of New York NBC programs over its service area, thus marking the beginning of the first television network.

“Pirates of Penzance,” first musical production telecast in NBC’s regular television service on June 20, 1939, an example of the attempt of modern television to fuse the techniques of radio, stage, and motion pictures into a new art. (Courtesy NBC.)

America’s television services, of course, follow those established in London by the British Broadcasting Corporation by more than two years. It may reasonably be asked why the United States, usually the leader in putting technical advance into practical service, lagged in telecasting.

In answering that question, we may well explore some of the troublesome problems that beset American television.

These problems involve vexatious questions of technical standards under which television should operate in a country where radio has grown to greatness and independence under the traditional American policy of free initiative.

Here the question is one of agreement within the industry, and approval by the government, for the protection of the public, and ultimately of television itself.

They involve, too, questions of extending television over a country of continental proportions, and the great problem of finance. These questions may be stated simply. How shall we do it? How shall we go about spreading it to every John Smith and Jane Doe in America?

And, finally, how shall we keep television alive until it is strong and self-supporting?

We firmly believe that television, as it now stands, is ready for the American home. After almost multitudinous demonstrations of older methods of television under laboratory conditions, and some abortive attempts to launch a public service with them, the all-electronic system has triumphed.

Almost every telecaster now in the field experimented, at one time or another, with mechanical scanning systems, which are described in the second chapter of this symposium, before abandoning them in favor of the present method. It is apparent that the electronic system is the only one capable of almost limitless improvement without a change in its basic elements.

This very flexibility, however, has given rise to some lively discussion as to what point of technical excellence should be attained before television be considered ready for public participation, and which of several means should be used in realizing some of the various technical standards.

At first glance it would seem to the man in the street that such things as the method and extent of suppressing the lower sideband in transmission, horizontal or vertical polarity, and the number of scanning lines, whether 441 lines or 625 lines, are no concern of his. Yet, of course, this is not true.

Television, one of the most complex of all modern inventions, involves the broadcaster’s transmitter and the viewer’s receiver. And presumably both have made, or would have to make, considerable outlays of money to acquire their respective instruments.

An interior view of the “flying laboratory” plane showing the lightweight equipment that transmitted the first program from the air.

In television, as David Sarnoff, President of the Radio Corporation of America, has pointed out, transmitter and receiver must fit as lock and key. A change in the one necessitates a corresponding change in the other.

This problem has been largely absent from sound broadcasting; an obsolete receiver will still reproduce the program transmitted from the most modern station.

In television—and I speak here of a public service and not of laboratory experiments—the precise method of transmission and reproduction is all-important to the public. It is rather difficult to explain the reason in layman’s terms, but I believe the correct analogy is to be found in railroad history.

Early American railroads employed a variety of gauges, so that it frequently happened that the cars of one road could not travel over the rails of another.

Television standards in the United States must be uniformly adopted by all telecasters or much the same condition will obtain; the receiver for one station may not reproduce the programs of a competing station in the same city. Neither the public nor the television industry could afford such a luxury.

In England, where broadcasting is supported out of license fees levied on every radio receiver, the British Broadcasting Corporation established a television service at London in November, 1936.

Being a monopoly, the BBC settled the troublesome question of technical standards by itself laying down what it considered, after due study, the best practicable specifications. Radio manufacturers thereupon made receivers to conform to those specifications. Thus every make of receiver would reproduce the programs transmitted by BBC’s television station at Alexandra Palace.

America faced a quite different problem. The very policy that has made its sound broadcasting of the highest technical quality in the world stood squarely in the way of early inauguration of a television service. Definite and precise standards may be imposed on manufacturers by a broadcasting monopoly, but not by a fiercely competitive group of broadcasters.

A committee of engineers representative of the American radio industry, therefore, wrestled with the problem for years before deciding upon a complete group of standards. Many of the devices embodying proposed standards were tested over NBC’s transmitter in New York City during the years 1936-38.

As a result, these standards, which have been submitted for the approval of the Federal Communications Commission, are the highest in the world, a fact which should make them a practicable blueprint for an American service. They provide not only for present needs, but also leave a wide margin for future improvement in the technical quality of the television image.

They provided the answer to the first question: How shall we do it? As soon as they were adopted by the committee, NBC made its transmitter conform to the new standards, preparatory to inaugurating a service of regular television programs in the New York City area.

Earle Larimore and Marjorie Clarke in ‘The Unexpected,’ the drama presented during NBC’s “First Night”program, May 3, 1939. (Courtesy NBC.)

It would be wonderful if one had no need to consider cost in launching television, or even if the end of the developmental years also terminated the unprofitable period.

Sad to say, this is not the case. Development of television has cost the Radio Corporation of America alone many millions of dollars, but the investment required before television as a public service reaches its years of self-support will unquestionably dwarf the cost of development.

Studios and transmitters must be built and programs must be telecast. And the last is the most expensive item of them all.

We propose to build television as a service along lines laid down by American sound broadcasting, that is, without financial aid from government.

Some of its programs, containing commercial announcements, will be sponsored by advertisers. The income derived by the telecaster from such sponsored programs is to support the entire program structure. We have not yet, of course, reached this point.

Our present dilemma was not unexpected. Telecasting is expensive. A transmitter and studios must be built and staffed. Actors must be hired and rehearsed; films must be rented. Stage sets must be built and erected in the studios, and make-up and costumes provided. We would normally, as I have pointed out, expect to pay these costs out of income derived from sponsored programs.

Sponsors, however, must find such advertising profitable. Before it can become profitable a large number of viewers must be tuning in on television.

Such an audience is not to be created by waving a wand. Before the prospective televiewer goes to his radio dealer and buys a receiver he must have a satisfactory program service. Which brings us back to the original point of departure, the broadcaster.

This sort of dog-chasing-its-tail proposition has been called the “vicious circle.” There would seem to be no prospect of an extremely rapid solution to this problem. In fact, the apparent solution lies in stimulating the growth of the dog, so that the circle he traces becomes progressively larger.

We were fully cognizant of the nature of this problem when we began telecasting on April 30, 1939, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and others appeared in the opening program relayed by our mobile television station from the Court of Peace, New York World’s Fair.

Our plan was, as has been indicated, for the broadcaster to bear the expense of a program service in the hope of recouping his outlays at some future time.

The NBC television studio in Radio City which provides for fluid camera and lighting technique. Three cameras are used simultaneously and each lighting unit is remotely controlled. (Courtesy NBC.)

A minimum service of two hours a week for home viewers was provided for the first few weeks, together with some twenty hours of motion picture transmissions for trade demonstration purposes.

Simultaneously, commercial receivers with reproducing tubes of five-inch, nine-inch, and twelve-inch diameters went on sale in New York City radio and department stores.

Prices, since drastically reduced, ranged from $199.50 to $600. The program service has since been increased to an average of about fourteen hours a week for home viewers.

Behind the launching of this first American television service lay three years of experimental telecasting, stretching back to July, 1936, when NBC’s transmitter went on the air with the all-electronic system yielding an image in 343 lines, at the rate of thirty complete images a second.

It was decided after some months of trial that a higher standard, namely, 441 lines, was necessary to provide sufficient entertainment value for the viewer. Accordingly, the 441-line image began going out on the air in 1937.

It was also realized that if television were to become a public service, then the experimental telecaster would also have to accumulate experience in programming. For, needless to point out here, television may resemble both motion pictures and the legitimate theater, but it has problems and possibilities that set it apart from both.

The new art’s possibilities and immediate needs were explored in systematic manner during the two years and ten months of experimental transmissions. Each series of telecasts was followed by a period of intense soul-searching and considerable testing for possible flaws in the system itself. As a result, both the quality of the image and the presentation of programs moved forward in orderly and satisfactory fashion.

At the time of inaugurating our regular television service, we had a single television transmitter, one studio designed for the presentation of live talent programs, one studio for the scanning of motion picture film, and a complete mobile television station for relays of such outdoor events as we considered of general public interest.

Television’s first mobile television station, used in relaying athletic contests and other outdoor new events.

The staff, necessarily kept to minimum proportions during the experimental period, jumped rapidly to about seventy persons, of whom the majority were in the technical division.

Some of these men have been connected with the development of television at NBC for a decade and more, following through from the old mechanical scanning days when images, notably those of Felix the Cat, were transmitted from a studio in the New Amsterdam Theater Building.

Program directors entered television at a much later date. In 1937 the staff consisted of a single person, Thomas H. Hutchinson, the present manager of our program department. Six directors made up the staff when our regular service began in 1939 and since that time we have added several more. Stage managers and numerous other individuals indispensable in production have likewise been added to the staff.

With this group—and I assure you it is still of minimum proportions—we are expected to provide a satisfactory service to pioneer televiewers within the limits of a stated budget. Both staff and budget are decidedly limiting factors in the provision of that service.

The personnel may be expected to produce only a certain number of live talent shows; the transmitter and studio technical crew can keep the station on the air only a certain number of hours before reaching the end of their respective work weeks.

At the present time, therefore, we are telecasting about four hours a week of live talent programs, a like amount of film programs, and about six hours of special event telecasts, including boxing, wrestling, parades and the like, relayed from the field by our mobile television station.

The service described just about exhausts the possibilities of our physical plant and the television staff using it.

The budget, with some very nice figuring, will fill the hours with film and live talent program material, after deduction of salaries and maintenance costs. Any considerable enlargement of the schedule will again require additional funds and, in all probability, more men.

The question of money, it is clear, is a very important factor in television, as indeed, where is it not? Most industries, however, show some kind of income immediately they begin serving the public.

The television broadcaster undertakes a service which will probably not return him one cent for several years. On the contrary, he must exercise his judgment with the utmost nicety if he is not to suffer extremely painful financial wounds.

The control room, with its staff of engineers and the program director guiding the technical and artistic quality of the program, overlooks the studio. (Courtesy NBC.)

The job of the chief of any television service, in brief, is to see to it that the growing army of televiewers is provided with an interesting and otherwise satisfactory program service. The service must be sufficient in extent to give the greatest stimulation to receiver sales, short of wrecking the financial structure.

His director of programs must be given just enough money to enable him to build interesting programs, and no more.

And, at the same time, the man in charge must search about for advertisers, or advertising agencies, who can be interested in underwriting part of the cost of one or more television programs in exchange for commercial “plugs.”

At first glance all this would seem to be comparatively simple. But doubling the amount of money spent on talent for a given program, for instance, will not yield a commensurate rise in that program’s entertainment qualities. In fact, it would probably raise the quality only about 10 per cent, so much is the program dependent on the abilities of the program director.

Likewise, the provision of a daily program service of eighteen hours, even were we suddenly to find ourselves up to the task, would not give a corresponding boost to sales of receivers. The only result of such a move would be an invitation to the receiver in bankruptcy and a sudden collapse of all television broadcasting.

Limited as to both scope of operations and budget, the broadcaster finds it of greatest importance that he make every dollar count in filling the hours on the air with interesting programs. He might follow the lead of radio and exercise his own judgment. The imperative dictate of the theater box office is, of course, absent.

We know some of the things we can do satisfactorily, and we are only too aware of many things that lie beyond the limits of both our present abilities and our purse. In some large measure we do exercise our judgment, since television, whose age is measured in months, still has no rigid rules.

But what of the programs we actually telecast? Are they successful? To measure the degree of success, we instituted a unique poll in October, 1939. The method is simplicity itself.

We invite, during our television programs, each member of our audience who owns a receiver to send in his name and address for addition to a list of such owners. In return we send him a weekly schedule of programs.

Attached to each issue of the schedule is a return postal card, bearing spaces for the rating of each program item telecast by NBC. The ratings are “excellent,” “good,” “fair,” and “poor.” To these ratings we assign numerical values of 3, 2, 1, and 0, respectively. The average values, computed on the returns, give us a clear indication of the entertainment or educational value of each program.

Every television set owner in the audience, therefore, has an opportunity to voice his opinion as to the quality and acceptability of each individual program. We feel that in offering this opportunity to the audience, and keeping our thoughts and operation flexible, we can readily trim our programs as closely and as quickly as possible to the majority vote of the audience.

By the closeness and frequency of our contacts with viewers they have become our partners in launching and studying this great new force.

A scene from the television production of the Broadway play, “When We Are Married.”

The poll, which at the time of writing had increased to more than two thousand names, embraces about one-half the present receiver owners in the area served by the NBC station. Its current rate of increase is about 4 per cent weekly. It is interesting to note that not only has the percentage of returns been quite consistent, but also that the high average of about 40 per cent return is quite unusual for a poll of this nature.

Results of the systematic polling of our audience so far have borne out some of our previous beliefs. In other respects, however, we find that we were either slightly or greatly mistaken on individual programs. In addition to rating each individual program, the poll also gives us a satisfactory measure of the general level of all our program efforts.

I have thus far only indicated the nature of some of our problems. I hope that I have not conveyed the idea that the general problem of television is, in any single respect, static.

The television audience will increase and multiply; more money, more men, and more hours on the air will be needed, but coincidentally will come opportunities for earning, at first a part, then all, of the expenses involved in telecasting. Naturally, the telecaster will do everything he can to speed that day.

We have found advertisers and advertising agencies keenly interested in television. Some of them, excluded by the nature of their goods, have had no success in sound broadcasting. Others, more or less successful in radio appeals, are aware that television will open new opportunities for promoF$6ting the sale of their goods.

In increasing numbers advertisers have brought in programs for telecasting, eager to discover for themselves some of the potentialities of television advertising. Undoubtedly the volume of these experiments will continue to mount until one day an advertiser will decide that the moment has come to sign a thirteen-week contract for time on the air.

Just how far in the future that time will be depends on a number of factors. Out of his own pocket, as I have said, the telecaster must provide a service satisfactory as to both quality and quantity of programs for maximum stimulus to receiver sales.

Here is the answer to the question: How shall we keep television alive until it is strong and self-supporting?

On the other hand, the manufacturer must build receivers that are both reliable and within the purse limits of the average American. With these two problems properly met, commercial television should become a reality within a few short years, thus supplying the ultimate answer to the question of television’s means of support.

Gilbert Seldes, Director of Television Programs for the Columbia Broadcasting System, at the control panel of the CBS television studio in the Grand Central Terminal Building, New York. (Courtesy CBS.)

A great aid in the solution of most of the telecaster’s problems will come with the beginning of network television. Broad hints at the comparatively high cost of television programming, as compared with radio, have been scattered here and there in this contribution.

And while we who have undertaken to provide a program service over a single television station have no complaint to make on this score, having gone into telecasting with our eyes open, we do look forward to the day when some method of syndication will bring other telecasters in to share the costs of production of a progressively better and more extensive program service.

The problem of syndicating radio programs was largely solved by the time network companies came into being. The intercity lines of the American Telegraph & Telephone Company were already in existence when networks began stretching out fanwise from New York City. And although many improvements have been incorporated in the system, it is still basically the same system as that which existed at the beginning of network radio.

The same means, however, are not available to television.

Several methods of syndication have been suggested. The one most prominently mentioned over a period of years is the coaxial cable, a tubular line conductor. This cable, however, is extremely expensive. An experimental installation, linking New York City and Philadelphia, was made several years ago at an estimated cost of approximately $5,000 a mile. That price is too high for television.

A section of coaxial cable used to convey television signals. (Courtesy Bell Telephone Laboratories.)

Lately a new device has been brought out of the laboratory. The Radio Corporation of America staff, after several years of research and experiment, have announced that an automatic radio relay is ready for television’s use.

The rather formidable name covers a smallish device which is at once a receiver and a transmitter, and operates without the attention of a human hand.

Mounted on steel towers one hundred feet high and spaced at intervals of from twenty miles to about fifty miles, a line of these relays would be used in place of the considerably more expensive coaxial cable.

Regardless of what method is used—and perhaps a combination of cable and radio relay may be the ultimate means of linking stations together in a network—it is fairly certain that in less than three years a regional network, stemming from New York City, will stretch along the Atlantic seaboard from Boston to Washington. It will serve a thickly populated area, containing about one-fourth of the nation’s people.

Such a network, accompanied by a progressive merchandising policy on the part of radio manufacturers, should be fairly tempting to the advertiser.

A second regional network should spread somewhat radially from Chicago, and a third proceed northward from Los Angeles. All of these networks should be in existence within a period of five years, perhaps less, with the linking of all three into a nation-wide span scheduled for some years later.

The National Broadcasting Company has filed applications with the Federal Communication Commission to build additional television stations at Philadelphia, Washington, and Chicago. These cities may be connected with New York with the automatic relay transmitters already mentioned.

It seems very much like dealing in remote futures to speak of these things, but from experience dating back into the years before 1939, when all of us stood pretty much in awe of television and wondered whether the day would come when it would be in public use, I can testify that such eventualities come to pass very quickly.

The stage manager’s job is the important one of carrying out the director’s instruction relayed to him from the control room by telephone connection. (Courtesy NBC.)

In this contribution I have touched lightly on some of the very heavy problems that hang over the American television broadcaster. There are, of course, a multitude of others, and I do not doubt that they will increase in number before they become fewer.

My one hope is that these paragraphs have brought the reader to some understanding of the magnitude of the struggle that is beginning to carry television into the American home. Heavy though the labors may be—and I can assure the reader that they are heavy—I do not believe that anyone who is connected with the nascent art of telecasting would exchange his lot for an easier one in some other activity.

The thrill of television is in watching each successive program march a little further toward the future, of seeing the men and women behind the camera do their jobs each week with a little more assurance and of always and forever anticipating some new development in programming that will definitely mark a milestone in the creation of a new and distinctive art form.

It would hardly be fitting to end this contribution without some consideration of the relationship of television to other media of entertainment and education. It has been suggested rather freely that television must inevitably supersede radio. And on many occasions I have heard it said that a titanic clash between motion pictures and television is likewise inevitable.

One cannot be certain of the future relationship of radio and television. Just as the talkies grew out of the silents in motion pictures, so television is a natural outgrowth of radio. It is, in fact, the addition of sight to sound broadcasting. In some quarters it is held that a broadcast without sight will be as obsolete, within fifteen years, as silent movies are today.

Such a development is not inevitable. There will always be a place for music, for instance, without benefit of a view of the musician. Such a program, and other types as well, would serve as a pleasant background for household work, reading, or conversation. But whatever the future holds in store for both television and radio, I am sure that the broadcasting industry will find a way to reconcile the two in a satisfactory manner.

I feel that the opposing of television and motion pictures, in most persons’ minds, comes about as a result of misunderstanding. Television makes its appeal to members of the family seeking relaxation in the home at some point during the day or evening. Its entertainment and educational appeals must meet this psychological want.

Motion pictures and all other forms of the theater make a quite different appeal. Usually the movie patron goes to the cinema because he wants to break away from the routine of home or office, or both.

Going to the movies is an event. The housewife wants to leave familiar walls to mingle among others on similar bent. She, and probably her family too, dresses for the event and is quickly transported from the cares of the day in the glamour to be found in the motion picture.

For this reason I find it impossible to believe that television will ever seriously challenge the existence of motion pictures.

The director instructs his cast during a break in the day’s rehearsal. (Courtesy NBC.)

On the other hand, I find every reason why motion pictures and television should find mutual profit in close cooperation. Hollywood has film, and television needs film. From the surplus footage shot in the making of a Hollywood feature, television could make many an interesting hour of program, without jeopardizing the feature’s chances of success at the box office.

Likewise Hollywood’s surplus of men and equipment could be put to work creating stories on film expressly for television.

We of television are anxious to come to an understanding with the motion picture industry, and I believe that within a short time, Hollywood will see an added source of profit in co-operating with television.

it is yet too early to make any prophecy as to television’s future character. Who, for instance, could have foretold accurately, after watching the flickering movies of the nineties, or witnessing the production of a crude film in the studios of Edison or Méliès, what Hollywood would be like today?

But we can all be certain that in television, mankind has created a new and mighty social instrument.

Television is great. It will become far greater.

And as to its value in future society, I cannot do better than quote David Sarnoff. “The ultimate contribution of television,” he has written, “will be its service towards unification of the life of the nation, and at the same time the greater development of the life of the individual. We who have labored in the creation of this promising new instrumentality are proud to launch it upon its way, and hope that through its proper use, America will rise to new heights as a nation of free people and high ideals.”

Columbia and Princeton Universities inaugurating the television of baseball, May 17, 1939.
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