Other Free Encyclopedias » Online Encyclopedia » Encyclopedia - Featured Articles » Contributed Topics from P-T

Television and Hollywood in the 1940s - Launching Television, 1939-1942, The War Years, 1942-1945, Conclusion

studios theater industry movie

Television enchanted Hollywood in 1940, but in that regard Hollywood was no different from the rest of the country. Heralded by stories of scientific breakthroughs and by occasional demonstrations of the technology, television’s arrival as a popular medium had been anticipated for more than a decade by 1940. As early as 1928, the chairman of RCA, David Sarnoff, had predicted that within five years television would become “as much a part of our life” as radio. Executives in the movie industry may have questioned Sarnoff’s time frame, but few ignored his prediction, since press reports throughout the 1930s assumed that television loomed just over the technological horizon. The motion picture trade press certainly fueled speculation, as when the Hollywood Reporter announced in November 1934 that commercial TV sets would hit the market by January of the following year. “Television Is Ready,” the headline brashly—and prematurely—reported. Los Angeles was also the site of one of the country’s most active experimental television stations, Don Lee’s W6XAO, which conducted numerous demonstrations over the course of the decade. By the time Business Week assured executives that 1939, at last, would be the breakthrough “Television Year,” the climate of prophecy had nurtured an intense public fascination with television—in Hollywood as in the rest of the country.

American television made its long-awaited public debut in April 1939, when NBC launched regular service with its coverage of the opening ceremonies of the New York Worlds Fair. Subsequent broadcasts by NBC and CBS were conducted only on an experimental basis, beamed to a few thousand receivers in the New York area, and yet public awareness of television continued to grow during 1939, fueled by clever publicity campaigns that featured exhibitions of the technology at trade shows and in department stores. 2 Valuable publicity came also from televised events, which had few viewers but captured public attention through accounts in newspapers and magazines.

The motion picture industry participated in one of these televised events when NBC broadcast the Atlanta premiere of GONE WITH THE WIND in December 1939. Perhaps more than any single event, that premiere marked the pinnacle of the movie industry’s influence in American culture. With the attention of the national press focused on Atlanta, NBC seized the opportunity for self-promotion, stationing four video cameras near the theater marquee and using them to transmit the first televised movie premiere to its small audience in New York. 3 It was a technical feat that served both the movie industry and the nascent TV business, and the experimental broadcast gained stature by paying homage to the country’s preeminent form of popular culture.

This early broadcast offered Hollywood a tantalizing glimpse of the future. Though staged mainly for publicity, it appeared at the time to presage an almost certain bond between the movie and television industries. From the earliest days of commercial radio, the studios had explored the field of broadcasting; many had made unsuccessful bids to form their own radio networks. Now as the new decade dawned, it seemed logical, if not inevitable, that Hollywood would play a key role in shaping American television. Even the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the government agency responsible for regulating the country’s airwaves, hoped that Hollywood studios would apply their particular acumen to the challenge of forming a viable television industry. In August 1940, the FCC chairman, James L. Fly, paid a diplomatic visit to Hollywood, touring the production facilities at Warner Bros., Paramount, and RKO. Before leaving, he invited the major studios to seek licenses for television stations and to stake their claim as television producers.

Studio executives, however, were not satisfied merely to experiment in a medium controlled by the existing radio networks; they wanted to command the television industry just as they dominated the movie industry, by controlling the channels of distribution. Consequently, Hollywood approached broadcasting with two goals. First, studios or their parent companies invested directly in stations, networks, and electronics manufacturers as part of their general strategies for corporate diversification. Second, the studios sought to influence the development of television technology, which they anticipated would become a revolutionary new mode of distribution and exhibition for motion pictures.

The networks had developed a particular model of broadcasting based on transmitting commercially sponsored programs to home receivers. The studios, on the other hand, envisioned alternative uses for the technology, uses that would conform more closely to the economic exchange of the theatrical box office. These included theater television, in which programs would be transmitted to theaters and shown on movie screens, and subscription television, in which home viewers would pay directly for the opportunity to view exclusive, commercial-free programming. By recognizing these ambitions, the historian Michele Hilmes argues, “a new picture emerges of Hollywood as an active experimenter with the new technology, presenting a serious challenge to the established broadcasting interests.”

Entering the 1940s, the Hollywood studios were eager to explore television, and the federal government endorsed their ambitions. Yet the radio networks, which quickly adapted radio’s economic practices and program forms, exerted a far greater influence over television’s development as a national medium. Given Hollywood’s expressed interests, why didn’t the movie industry play a larger role in the development of television during the 1940s? Why did the television industry come to be controlled by the radio networks instead of the studios? And why have so many subsequent stories testified to the hostility of studio executives, who were often said to have despised television during its early years?

This chapter explores the history of television in Hollywood during the 1940s in order to understand how the conditions and events of that decade combined to thwart the ambitions of the major studios. Because American television was suspended during the war and did not really develop as a popular medium until the networks introduced regular prime-time programming in 1948, television during much of this decade existed in an inchoate form, more a projection of social and commercial fantasies than a public institution. Television gradually achieved definition during this period of anticipation and experimentation, publicity and policy making, demonstration and debate. Under these circumstances, Hollywood tried to ensure that television would never be strictly defined as a domestic medium aimed at individual homes, nor as the logical domain of the radio networks, but that it would be equally viable as an extension of the studio system, perhaps even as a public medium based in movie theaters.

Launching Television, 1939-1942

From the time of NBC’s inaugural telecast in 1939 until World War II forced the suspension of consumer electronics manufacturing in 1942, Americans witnessed a flurry of activity surrounding television, including a series of debates over proposed technical standards, the beginning of commercial broadcasts, and the first demonstrations of theater television. The period was dominated by RCA, which pushed hard to see its technology adopted as the technical standard for the entire industry. For RCA, according to the historian J. Fred MacDonald,

the launching of television in 1939 was a double-edged business enterprise intended to sell TV sets to the public and impose RCA technical standards on the industry. If RCA/NBC could develop, produce, and market receivers as well as programs, the corporation could establish itself as the technological, manufacturing, commercial, and programming giant of television. With such an advantage it could monopolize the emerging industry from the outset. (J. Fred MacDonald, One Nation Under Television: The Rise and Decline of Network TV [New York: Pantheon, 1990], p. 14)

The motion picture industry, however, did not concede control of television to RCA. For years the Hollywood community had monitored technological developments in the field described initially by the trade journals as “visual broadcasting.” 6 Because the major studios had extensive experience in radio, they eagerly awaited the moment when it would be feasible to diversify into television. The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), the industry trade organization, prepared several studies of television for the studios during the 1920s and 1930s.

Individual studios and independent producers sought their own advantage in television during the 1930s. Warner Bros. carefully monitored television patents filed by Theodor Nakken, Ludwig Silberstein, and others. Rumors in the trade press even claimed that Warner Bros. attempted to lure the television research pioneer Vladimir Zworykin away from RCA during this period. 8 Contracts negotiated by studios and independent producers began to contain clauses governing television rights. Indeed, television played a central role in Walt Disney’s decision in 1936 not to renew his distribution contract with United Artists. When United Artists refused to grant Disney the television rights to his feature films, he abandoned the company and signed with RKO—a decision that paid huge dividends for the producer in years to come. 9 Hollywood’s fascination with television in the years leading up to its commercial introduction can be seen in a remark by the producer David O. Selznick after he had attended a demonstration of the technology in the laboratory of the inventor Philo T. Farnsworth in 1937. “I do not believe that television can be stopped,” he reported to his board of directors. “Some day, it will undoubtedly have a future so stupendous that we cannot even foresee its possibilities.”

The first major studio to move beyond enthusiastic endorsements and actually invest in television was Paramount, which had forged an initial alliance with the broadcasting industry by purchasing a substantial interest in the CBS radio network during the late 1920s. Although Paramount liquidated its CBS investment by 1932, the studio continued to seek opportunities in broadcasting once it had begun to recover from the effects of the Depression. 11 In July 1938, Paramount paid $164,000 for a 25 percent interest in DuMont Laboratories, a television manufacturing firm founded by the inventor Allen B. DuMont. According to Paul Raibourn, the studio executive in charge of television, Paramount made the investment to ensure that the movie industry would not be squeezed out of TV by the radio networks and to direct DuMont research toward theater television. 12 For the second time in less than a decade, Paramount asserted its leadership in broadcasting, setting a precedent that was recognized immediately in the movie industry.

The MPPDA’s 1939 study of television, the latest in a series of reports by the industry’s trade organization, expressed the belief that television could be shaped to the major studios’ advantage, particularly if the studios committed themselves to developing theater television. Courtland Smith, the report’s author, advised the studios to follow Paramount’s lead and seek greater influence in the medium—by participating in experimental broadcasts and by lobbying the FCC as it considered technical standards. The timing would never be better for the movie industry to control distribution by establishing their own networks. “Television needs us, and very badly,” he reported. “Most television people hope to relegate film to a minor position and bring the direct pick-up [live broadcast] into all programs. In fact, if networks were now possible they might adopt the policy of excluding film…. There being no networks, film will start unopposed and as an essential factor.”

Though Smith encouraged the studios to participate in the market that would develop around home TV receivers, he argued that Hollywood’s success in television would rest ultimately on its ability to foster the growth of theater TV, since video projection technology promised benefits for both the studios and theater owners. In part, this meant fighting a rhetorical battle against established radio interests in an effort to influence the FCC, which already seemed predisposed to view television as primarily a domestic medium like radio. “We never should let the idea become generally accepted that television means pictures in the home instead of pictures in the theater,” Smith argued. “It would seem to be wise to combat the idea at once. It seems obvious now that television, as it affects the motion picture industry, is not only a matter of film production for the home but also of a new type of show for the motion picture theaters. It may well be at the box office of the motion picture theater that television will make its first profit.”

The historian Michele Hilmes has noted that the movie industry, by conceiving of theater television as a viable alternative to home receivers, proposed not only to develop a mode of reception for television that differed from radio but also to create an alternative to the economics of commercial broadcasting, one that substituted the direct revenue from theater attendance for the indirect revenue of advertising. 15 Instead of waiting for advertisers to shift to television only after the medium had attracted a critical mass of viewers, the movie industry could hasten the adoption of television by using box-office admissions as the medium’s economic foundation. Theater TV, speculated one industry reporter, offered an obvious solution to the cost of TV production: “Many television programs will probably be so expensive to produce that they will not be sent over the air free to anyone who has a receiver in his home but to theaters by special wires or on a separate wavelength which cannot be received on home sets.”

Private demonstrations of television projection systems had been conducted in research laboratories since 1930, but the technology was not presented to the public until 1939, when the British companies Baird Television and Scophony Ltd. equipped several London theaters, making it possible for movie patrons to view live broadcasts of prizefights and horse races. The first public demonstrations in the United States took place at the New York World’s Fair, where Baird and RCA introduced their systems. RCA quickly became the leader in theater TV research, developing an electronic system that used a cathode-ray tube similar to that in home TV sets in order to project a video image directly onto a theater screen. RCA staged private demonstrations for FCC commissioners in February 1940 and for stockholders in April.

The first full-scale public screening took place at the New Yorker Theater in New York City during January 1941. This initial telecast, presented to representatives of the FCC, advertising agencies, and the movie industry, consisted of a one-act play and performances of ballet, opera, and vaudeville. In May, RCA arranged a second demonstration specifically for movie industry distributors and exhibitors, who would be the target audience for the company’s imminent marketing campaign. Executives from the studios’ New York offices joined a standing-room-only crowd of 1,500 people to view a live program transmitted from the NBC studios. The program featured a variety of live events, including a news report by NBC’s Lowell Thomas, a roundtable discussion concerning the potential for covering sporting events via theater TV, a prizefight taking place in Madison Square Garden, and a dramatic sketch staged in the NBC studios. Able to project an image of 15 × 20 feet at a cost of $30,000 per unit, the RCA system offered adequate sound and visual quality but did not measure up to the standards of a Hollywood feature. The critic Terry Ramsaye, who attended the event as a reporter for the Motion Picture Herald, was generally unimpressed by the technical quality. “If theatre television proves to be an art,” he reported shortly afterwards, “it was the first art to be born in the doghouse.”

According to Ralph Beal, the head of television research at RCA, the electronics manufacturer assumed that American television ultimately would consist of two separate services, one directed at home receivers and the other at movie theaters. As a manufacturer of radio and TV receivers, and as the parent company of NBC, RCA believed that television should be targeted primarily at audiences in the home. Television, according to its chairman David Sarnoff, was destined to be a “vital element” in a culture increasingly centered on the family home. 19 On the other hand, RCA was also the leader in developing the technology for theater television, for which it made equally definitive claims. “Theater television has great promise,” stated one RCA brochure. “It heralds the linking of playhouses in the nation into television networks that can transform every village theater into a Madison Square Garden or a Metropolitan Opera House.”

These types of statements began to define a potential relationship between home and theater television: theater TV would serve as a forum for public events and performances, while home television would incorporate the programming strategies of radio, relying on advertiser-sponsored series. RCA concentrated on the market for home receivers but also envisioned theater TV as the “public” form of television, the ideal technology for screens located in hotels, cafés, small newsreel theaters, and regular movie theaters. The movie industry also encouraged the notion that theater television would provide moviegoers with privileged access to public events. For instance, a 1940 Paramount short subject, “Ted Husing’s Television Revue,” introduced theater patrons to the notion of theater TV and extolled the virtue of witnessing live events, suggesting that theater TV would connect the movie theater to the public sphere. “No longer will you have to stay at home from the movies just to hear what’s going on in the world,” the narrator explained. “Come to the movies to see and hear.” 21 Paramount’s president, Barney Balaban, used a similar rationale in explaining his company’s investment in theater TV. “Instead of being competition, television may be an asset to the theater business,” Balaban said. “On nights when a big fight is being held, or perhaps the President is making an important address, imagine how much more business could be obtained by televising the event. Instead of a patron sitting at home and hearing an audible broadcast, he will be able to come to our theaters and not only hear the broadcast but see the entire show on the television screen.”

As these comments indicate, RCA and the movie industry shared complementary visions of a dual television system able to serve both home and theater with separate types of programming. Since RCA needed to market its video projection technology to theaters, many of which were controlled by the studios, it initially had a strong incentive to ally itself with the movie industry in calling for the development of theater TV. But once the studios began venturing further into television, conflicts arose between RCA and Hollywood, primarily because RCA opposed any form of competition that threatened its dominance over the television industry or its hopes for seeing its own technology adopted as the industrywide standard.

Paramount’s investment in DuMont created tensions between the movie and broadcasting industries because Paramount immediately emerged as a rival to RCA, just as it had during its brief partnership with CBS in the early 1930s. The tone of this renewed rivalry was set during the FCC’s 1940 hearings over television’s technical standards when DuMont, along with other electronics manufacturers, challenged RCA’s proposed standards. DuMont asked the FCC to support competition and not to freeze technological development by accepting RCA’s proposals. The FCC, according to MacDonald, “wavered between reluctant support for the bullying enterprise of Sarnoff and RCA, the desire to keep the new industry open to competition, and the desire to protect consumers from buying TV sets that would become obsolete quickly.”

In February 1940, the FCC announced that commercial broadcasting would begin in September, although the commission had not yet established technical standards. Following the announcement, RCA launched an energetic marketing campaign in order to flood the market with its own receivers and perhaps establish the de facto industry standard. To prevent consumers from purchasing sets that might soon be obsolete, the FCC reacted by postponing the introduction of commercial broadcasts and calling for new hearings in April 1940.

At these hearings, RCA went on the offensive against its competitors, explicitly accusing Paramount of inhibiting the development of television through its investment in DuMont. In a brief filed with the FCC, RCA claimed, “The motion picture interests which are financing DuMont Laboratories have a much greater financial stake in the movie industry than they have in television. Their recent interest in television is primarily for the purpose of ‘protecting’ their larger interest in the movie and theater industry and not to develop the new art of television. Therefore, they desire the adoption of systems and methods that would make television inferior rather than superior to motion pictures.” 25 By leveling such charges against Paramount, RCA introduced two ideas that would come to influence the governments response to the movie industry’s increased presence in television. First, RCA implied that the movie industry would exploit television solely for commercial gain, whereas the experienced radio networks recognized the responsibility of broadcasters to serve the “public interest,” as policy mandated. Second, it suggested that the movie studios were masking their true motives, which were not to promote television but to slow its growth in order to protect their theaters.

On the contrary, Paramount had moved aggressively into television following its 1938 investment in DuMont. In July 1939, the studio formed a television subsidiary, Television Productions, Inc. And in spite of RCA’s aspersions, the FCC granted Paramount and its related companies four experimental television permits, while giving RCA only three. Paramount capitalized on this opportunity by announcing that it had purchased a vehicle for use as a mobile television unit capable of feeding live remote telecasts to DuMont and its experimental stations. Paramount also began using television as a lure for its movie theaters, installing DuMont TV sets in the lobbies of its Chicago-based Balaban & Katz theaters, with the sets tuned to the theater circuit’s own experimental TV station, W9XBK.

RCA’s accusations about Paramount had little immediate influence on the FCC; in fact, it was shortly after the hearings that FCC Chairman Fly visited Hollywood with an invitation for the studios to participate more actively in developing television. But over the next few years—as the studios faced new charges of antitrust violations—the FCC began to have its own doubts about allowing the Hollywood studios to play a major role in the television industry.

The War Years, 1942-1945

The FCC approved technical standards for television in April 1941 and authorized commercial broadcasts beginning in July 1941. With manufacturers prepared to market TV receivers, American television appeared to be on the verge of fulfilling the predictions of the previous decade. But World War II intervened, and television’s development came to a halt by mid-1942 as manufacturers ceased producing consumer electronics and turned instead to making equipment for the military. Ten commercial stations were broadcasting in mid-1942, and six remained on the air throughout the war. As advertisers drifted away, these stations reduced their schedules to a token four hours per week, transmitting to the roughly ten thousand TV sets in the United States mainly concentrated in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Commercial television was suspended for the duration of the war, but the federal government was eager to pave the way for a quick launch once the war ended. “During the postwar period,” FCC Chairman Fly predicted, “television will be one of the first industries arising to serve as a cushion against unemployment and depression.” 28 During 1944-1945, the FCC conducted hearings to establish spectrum allocation for television, and many historians believe that these hearings were the single most important event in determining the eventual structure of American television. The critical issue at these hearings was whether television broadcasting should remain in the VHF band of the electromagnetic spectrum (as advocated by RCA), thus restricting its channel capacity, or whether it should be moved to the UHF band, which had a much greater capacity. These hearings were a turning point because they offered the last opportunity to shift U.S. broadcasting to the UHF band without severely disrupting manufacturers and consumers.

In May 1945, however, the FCC approved a system of thirteen-channel VHF broadcasting and encouraged the use of UHF solely for experimental broadcasts. By restricting the number of available channels, the FCC created an artificial scarcity that guaranteed fierce competition in the television industry. As J. Fred MacDonald has written, “To make channels so scarce effectively guaranteed that U.S. television would be broadcast TV, dominated by those few corporations able to afford stations in the largest cities, provide attractive programs, attract national advertisers, and quickly build a chain of affiliates eager to appeal to the mass audience.” 30 In other words, the high demand for a limited number of channels meant that radio’s mode of commercial network broadcasting was likely to dominate television as well; there would be no opportunity to explore alternative forms of television. As a result of the FCC’s decision, small networks and independent stations—like those envisioned by the studios—were placed at a competitive disadvantage in relation to NBC and CBS, which were prepared to sign affiliates as soon as commercial broadcasting resumed after the war.

During the war, the major studios still assumed that they would be competitive in the television industry. As the movie industry prospered, the major studios jockeyed for position in television because they recognized that commercial television would be launched almost immediately after the war ended. At the same time, however, the studios were aware that conditions in the movie industry—a new round of antitrust litigation, an uncertain international market, and a rise in independent production—would necessitate changes in the studio system. Eager to stake out the future of distribution and exhibition through television, each of the studios made substantial investments in station ownership and theater TV. The studios were not alone in pursuing these investments: a 1945 survey reported that 50 percent of exhibitors intended to operate TV stations, while nearly 60 percent planned to install theater TV systems.

In late 1943 the studios began applying for station licenses and developing plans for production. MGM in December 1943 assigned Nat Wolf to form a television department, and Wolf subsequently hired the radio writers George Wells and Norman Corwin, assigning them to write screenplays until they could be used in actual television production. MGM’s parent company, Loew’s, subsequently applied for permits to construct stations in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. 32 RKO hired Ralph Austrian from NBC, giving him responsibility for exploring all phases of television. In June 1944, Austrian helped form RKO Television Corporation, a subsidiary that would produce TV news and entertainment. RKO became the first major studio to produce for television with the telecast of “Talk Fast, Mister,” a one-hour drama filmed at RKO-Pathé studios in New York and broadcast by DuMont’s New York station in December 1944. Later RKO created a series of ten-minute short subjects for TV by recycling stock footage to create a quiz show titled Do You Know? and a nostalgia series titled Ten Years Ago Today. 33 Warner Bros. in 1944 filed an application for a Hollywood television station to be operated by its radio station, KFWB, and purchased seventeen acres on Mulholland Drive to be used for constructing the station. Twentieth Century-Fox, through its theater circuits, filed applications in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Seattle, Kansas City, and St. Louis. Even the independent producer Walt Disney anticipated the future growth of television by applying for a permit to construct a station at the Disney studio.

Paramount continued to set the pace for the integration of television into the movie industry. Its subsidiary Television Productions, Inc., launched a Los Angeles experimental station, W6XYZ, in February 1943. The Balaban & Katz station in Chicago, WBKB, became a commercial station in October 1943. Many of the studio’s theater circuits prepared station applications across the country, in New England, Michigan, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Florida. Paramount also kept pace with RCA by joining with British Scophony and General Precision Equipment (the single largest shareholder of 20th Century-Fox) in 1943 to form the Scophony Corporation of America, a U.S. subsidiary of Britain’s leader in theater TV research.

Of course, technological innovation alone could not ensure the success of theater TV; studios also had to devise a system for producing and distributing the necessary programming. The studios stressed the need to create networks of theaters in order to cover the expense of production. “All that theatre television needs to become a reality,” claimed RKO’s Ralph B. Austrian, “is a means of interconnecting a chain of theatres…. It is not beyond the bounds of possibilities to visualize a nationwide chain of theatres reaching out for home television personalities as fast as they are developed, and paying them enough to make it worth their while to perform for theatres only, rather than for the home audience.” Variety reported that some in the movie industry even wanted to create streamlined theaters devoted exclusively to television, relying on programming transmitted from a central network source. In 1944, Paramount asked the FCC to approve two microwave relay networks that would connect the studio’s stations and theaters in just such a network. Indeed, frequency allocation would prove to be a crucial factor in determining the eventual success or failure of theater TV. In 1945, the Society of Motion Picture Engineers (SMPE) testified before the FCC that theater TV would not be able to exist without the allocation of special frequencies reserved exclusively for the studios to transmit programming to theaters. In response, the FCC agreed to set aside several frequencies for experimental applications of theater TV but chose not to allocate channels for its commercial development.

As this decision suggests, during the war years the federal government became increasingly skeptical of the movie industry’s role in television and seldom encouraged further expansion by the studios. Although the FCC welcomed the studios in 1940, the atmosphere in Washington had changed dramatically by 1945, when FCC Chairman Paul A. Porter addressed a meeting of industry leaders in Hollywood and warned them that the movie industry should not expect a significant role in television after the war; his agency would see to it that television would not become a “Hollywood bauble.”

This surprising shift occurred because Washington had become increasingly concerned about the threat of monopolies forming in the television industry. The FCC’s 1938 hearings on network monopoly in radio broadcasting had led to its 1941 Report on Chain Broadcasting. The FCC concluded that NBC and CBS had restricted competition in radio by exercising inordinate control over affiliated stations and that NBC should be forced to divest one of its two radio networks in order to foster competition. In October 1943, after the courts had upheld the FCC’s findings, NBC sold its Blue network to Edward H. Noble, who later changed the name to the American Broadcasting Company.

The major studios increasingly fell under a cloud of suspicion as they once again faced antitrust allegations in charges filed by the Justice Department in August 1944. While these antitrust proceedings moved through the courts, Washington scrutinized the movie industry more carefully. In December 1945, for instance, the Justice Department filed suit against American Scophony, charging that Paramount and its associates had monopolistic control over theater TV patents and had delayed the technology’s development for fear that theater TV would undermine the movie business. 38 These charges, which obviously echoed RCA’s previous allegations about Paramount, signaled a dramatic change in the relationship between Washington and Hollywood. The FCC’s commitment to VHF virtually guaranteed that a precious few networks would exert enormous influence over television. It was becoming apparent that these networks were likely to be formed by the radio networks and not by the studios.


Jack Warner’s legendary antagonism toward television was not evident until the end of the 1940s. Considering his studio’s long-term commitment to television, it was a significant departure from Warner Bros. tradition when he announced in early 1950 that “the only screens which will carry Warner Bros. products will be the screens of motion picture theaters the world over.” 65 Warner’s hostility to television has sometimes seemed like the natural result of competition between the movie industry and an upstart rival; in fact, it might never have existed were it not for FCC actions that prevented the studio from forming its own network or seeing its investment in theater TV pan out. Judging by the plans that Warner Bros. unveiled in 1949, the studio executives conceived of television as a central component of the postwar studio system, a new source of income in an unpredictable economic environment.

For much of the 1940s, it was possible for Hollywood’s major studios to imagine that they would play a significant role in shaping American television, that television under their influence might not simply duplicate the model of broadcasting established during the radio era. They envisioned two complementary forms of television which would feature different types of programming, one designed for home audiences and the other for theaters. By the dawn of national television service in the late 1940s, however, it was already clear from the FCC’s actions that American television would follow the radio model: television would be an advertiser-supported medium dominated by the established broadcast networks, with programming transmitted almost solely to home receivers.

The FCC’s growing distrust of the studios may have seemed gratuitous, perhaps even willfully biased in favor of the radio networks, but the antitrust charges of the 1940s cast grave doubts on the worthiness of the studios to hold broadcast licenses. Michele Hilmes has shown that the FCC’s suspicion echoed more general public criticism of the movie industry following the Paramount decision. An article in the February 1949 Consumer Reports, for instance, forecast dire problems for the future of television should the studios, with their acknowledged record of monopolistic practices, find a foothold in the medium. Given power in both the movie and television industries, these oppressors of independent theater owners might be tempted to commit any number of abuses; most important, as RCA warned in 1940, they could slow the development of television to protect the movie business or erode broadcasting’s public service standards in their quest for profits.

According to Hilmes, the Paramount decision helped to foster the contrasting images that justified the FCC’s discrimination between the movie and broadcast industries: Hollywood appeared to be a potential public menace, while the radio networks—which had themselves engaged in a host of monopolistic practices—posed as beneficent public servants. Supported by public sentiment, the FCC’s inquiries into Hollywood antitrust violations and general reluctance to support technological or economic alternatives to the broadcast networks blocked virtually every plan for television that originated in Hollywood.

During the 1940s, even Paramount, the studio that diversified most aggressively into television, could not succeed beyond its interest in DuMont and its ownership of local stations in Los Angeles and Chicago. Blocked from owning individual stations, building networks, or developing theater TV, Hollywood’s leaders recognized at the end of the decade that they had lost the opportunity to compete with the broadcast networks, which became firmly entrenched during the freeze. Producing for television without controlling distribution was an unthinkable compromise for the studios. Doubtless the studio system would have to adapt in order to survive the postwar era, but the studios were not yet prepared to create a product that they would neither distribute nor exhibit; distribution was still the key to a studios power and self-determination. Therefore, while the major studios other than Paramount retreated from television at the end of the 1940s, independent film producers began to integrate television into the movie industry. The history of television in the studio era is a chronicle of thwarted ambitions. The full-scale integration of television in Hollywood would not occur until the 1950s, when the major studios themselves would begin to produce for television.

Teller, Edward [next] [back] Television

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or

Vote down Vote up

over 6 years ago

Please note your "factual and accurate information" contains an error. The coaxial cable did not yet exist in 1939. RCA televised the NEW YORK premiere of "Gone With the Wind," not the Atlanta premiere.

Please check your facts more closely.

Vote down Vote up

almost 6 years ago

This article was hijacked, word for word, from the book Boom and Bust: American Cinema In The 1940s by Thomas Schatz, pp.422-432 and need to be cited as such.