Day 593: Network #1’s Belated Obit

originally published August 15, 2013

Amid the seemingly infinite waterfall of random thoughts that saturate my brain and prevent it from doing anything particularly beneficial to society comes the realization that my children have grown up in a world where the Fox Network has always existed. They have never known the confines of a 12-channel world, nor have they experienced the end of a broadcast day, when content gave way to a static test pattern image (or, in some cases simply static) after a rousing rendition of the national anthem.

But then, even my own perspective of the technology is somewhat limited in scope. I remember the three-channel world (four if you count the French one) of not having cable, though I never actually experienced it myself. For me, there has always been a PBS, a CBC, a smattering of local channels and at least three equally massive networks.

But even I’m too young to remember that other network. The DuMont Network was long dead once I came around, even though its legacy deserves more than the hushed tones of seldom-referenced history.

Allen B. DuMont was an inventor. After performing some magic necessary to the birth of the medium by revolutionizing the cathode-ray tube in 1931, DuMont slapped down the first consumer-ready all-electronic television set in 1938. Throughout the 1940’s, DuMonts were the Lexus, Cadillac and BMWs of the television world. The only problem was, there wasn’t anything to watch.

Well, DuMont had that covered also. While CBS and NBC had slowed down their broadcasts during the war because, you know, Hitler and stuff, DuMont was ramping up, staking its claim as the third available station in New York City. They added a station in Washington and figured out how to link the two via coaxial cable. With that, DuMont became the first licensed television network. How could they possibly fail?

For starters, DuMont was sailing down this pioneering river completely solo. NBC and CBS had well-established radio empires, as well as a boatful of contracted celebrities along for the ride. In 1948 ABC dipped its hull into the water, toting the NBC radio’s old Blue Network, which wasn’t much but at least it was something. DuMont struck up a great relationship with some of the stars of Broadway, but those names didn’t carry a lot of nation-wide gravitas.

Still, as one of the first knives to dip into the fresh butter of a new medium, DuMont left some pretty substantial contours that would come to define television as we know it. Perhaps most importantly, the network didn’t offer out its shows to advertisers. When Milton Berle stepped in front of the cameras on Texaco Star Theater, you could be sure that the Texaco corporation had popped its quill into the ink, and had a veto over everything that made it to air. DuMont sold commercials to a number of advertisers, giving none of them any significant power over a show’s content.

DuMont didn’t inherit any stars so they had to make their own. An unknown Jackie Gleason hosted Cavalcade Of Stars, a variety show which included the first sketches of what would become The Honeymooners – except that show’s magic would happen on CBS. They had Mary Kay And Johnny, the first sitcom. They had Faraway Hill, the first network soap opera. The network also featured the Christian-flavored devotional series, Life Is Worth Living, starring bishop Fulton J. Sheen. Sheen was the one personality who could actually draw viewers away from Milton Berle’s CBS juggernaut.

But quality programming isn’t worth a thing without stations to air it. And this was DuMont’s biggest problem; the law stated that a network could only own and operate five stations, and DuMont owned three. However, Paramount Pictures had bought 40% of the company at the beginning of the decade, and they had their own little television experiments, Chicago’s WBKB and KTLA in Los Angeles. And Paramount was being just a tad dickish about the whole thing.

When Paramount had bought into DuMont, DuMont had insisted they stay out of the television racket. They didn’t listen. And just to be assholes about it, their two stations didn’t carry any DuMont Network programming – in fact, the one in Chicago was in direct competition with the DuMont affiliate station. No Paramount acting, producing, directing or writing talent was allowed to jet out east to help DuMont out in any way. Then in 1953 they swung the fatal blow.

ABC was struggling in a deep third-place rut behind the two network titans, but it was clear they were healthier than DuMont. NBC executive David Sarnoff made a proposition to CBS and ABC: The two giant networks would offer ABC the opportunity to re-air their most popular programs, thus giving ABC a content boost and snuffing DuMont out completely. ABC president Leonard Goldenson turned them down.

But Goldenson knew better than to turn down Paramount when they came a-callin’.

United Paramount Theaters had been stripped away from Paramount, the movie studio in a massive 1948 anti-trust case. But it was that theater division which approached ABC for a 1953 merger which would give the network more money, more draw to expand their footprint, and access to all the Hollywood talent Paramount Pictures had been withholding from the DuMont Network. From Paramount’s mouth to DuMont’s eye – this was one loogie that was going to sting.

The newly-strengthened ABC then offered to merge with DuMont, combining their content and their stations and becoming an impressive super-network which could theoretically compete with NBC and CBS. Paramount vetoed the merger, as it would have put them back in business with United Paramount Theaters, in defiance of the anti-trust ruling. DuMont, having no way of keeping up with the big three networks, had no choice but to shut it down.

The last vestiges of the network were clicked off by August 1956, though by then most of its nationwide affiliates were way up on the UHF band and seen by hardly anyone. Over 20,000 episodes of various shows were broadcast on DuMont. Many were recorded on kinescope, which involved a camera filming a TV monitor of the broadcast so that the content could be aired on the network’s west coast stations. Some kinescope recordings were ripped apart for the minute amount of silver in the film stock, while the rest somehow made their way into ABC’s hands, who dumped all of them into New York’s East River.

Apart from the questionably unenvironmental act of pollution, this also destroyed almost every trace of the network’s existence, leaving only about 350 of those 20,000 episodes intact today.

DuMont helped to define the very world of television, yet it seems their story has been forgotten, demoted to but a tiny footnote in the medium’s history. It’s funny how a generational perspective can really fog up the lens of reality.

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