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

Thwarted Ambitions of the Major Studios, 1946-1950

television theater stations paramount

In spite of the intense expectations that surrounded television by the end of World War II, commercial television was slow to develop after the war. The FCC had received 116 license applications from 50 cities by the end of 1945, but two years later there were still only 16 stations on the air and fewer than 200,000 TV sets in the country. Of course, television was solely a metropolitan phenomenon, with stations and viewers concentrated mainly along the East Coast and in Chicago and Los Angeles. The electronics industry needed time to retool for consumer markets, but lingering uncertainty over technical standards also made manufacturers and consumers wary about moving forward. Those interested in television awaited a definitive ruling about which of the competing color standards—a mechanical system developed by CBS or an electronic system advocated by RCA—would receive the FCC’s approval. In March 1947, the FCC rejected the CBS color system, which was incompatible with existing technology, and this decision launched the expansion of American television because it established that, for the foreseeable future, television would be broadcast in black-and-white.

Following the war, the major studios continued to lay the groundwork for the eventual role of television in the studio system. Faced with a pending antitrust ruling that threatened to disrupt the movie industry, the studios had an unusually strong incentive for exploring opportunities for diversification. Warner Bros. and Paramount were the most aggressive studios attempting to diversify into television.

To compete with Paramount, Warner Bros. in 1947 joined 20th Century-Fox and RCA in a project to develop and market RCA’s technology for theater TV. This collaborative research led to a public screening of the Joe Louis-Jersey Joe Walcott heavyweight prize-fight at the Fox-Philadelphia Theater in June 1948 and to demonstrations on the studio’s Burbank lot in late 1948 and early 1949. 40 In April 1948, Warner Bros. also filed an application for a Chicago TV station and prepared applications in five other cities. Two months later, Warner Bros. asked the FCC to allow the studio to purchase two radio stations and Los Angeles TV station KLAC from Dorothy Thackery, former publisher of the New York Post. 41 For Warner Bros., these investments represented the first steps in organizing a broadcast network that would support an expansion into television.

It is no coincidence that Warner Bros. stepped up its TV-related activities in 1948, a year in which studio executives faced the worst destabilization of the studio system since the Depression. After the industry’s peak year of 1946, nationwide box-office attendance had declined steadily, while foreign revenue also diminished as a result of protectionist legislation enacted by European countries. 42 The Paramount decision threatened to curtail another source of revenue by eliminating the steady profits delivered by studio-controlled theaters once the studios divested themselves of their theater circuits. Under these conditions, Warner Bros. virtually ceased studio operations from November 1948 to February 1949. When the trade press interpreted the shutdown as a distress signal, Jack Warner denied the rumors; the studio’s temporary inactivity was not a shutdown per se, he claimed, but an opportunity for “appraisal, analysis, and planning for the future.”

As a result of this reflection, Warner Bros. executives devised a new production strategy that promised to salvage aspects of the studio system by integrating film and television production. Harry Warner declared in January 1949 that Warner Bros. would introduce television production at its Burbank studios as soon as the FCC approved the purchase of the Thackery stations. Planning to use owned-and-operated stations as the cornerstone for expansion into further station ownership or the development of a network, the company would produce programming both for broadcast television and for theater TV. Jack Warner would continue to supervise the production of theatrical features, while Harry would assume responsibility for the television division. 44 This decision marked the origins at Warner Bros. of the policy that ultimately would lead the studio system into the television age. Increasingly, theatrical features would be produced individually by independent units, while the studio’s traditional mode of production would be dedicated to serving the television market. The studio would balance the shift toward unique, expensive films with a standardized product that served the same function as had its more routine features during much of the studio era.

Paramount continued to pursue an even wider range of interests in television. Its experimental Los Angeles station began commercial broadcasts in 1947 as KTLA, the first commercial station west of the Mississippi. In 1948, Television Productions, Inc., formed the Paramount Television Network to distribute filmed programs produced at KTLA. This was not a true broadcast network but an alternative source of programming using film distribution instead of live broadcasts to supply local stations. Through American Scophony, Paramount also began to explore the potential for subscription TV, an early precursor of pay cable that used wired transmissions to bypass broadcasters altogether. This technology was being developed in the late 1940s but was not tested in actual markets until the 1950s. In general, however, Paramount’s interest in American Scophony diminished following the antitrust suit filed by the Justice Department in 1945. Paramount and General Precision eventually signed a consent decree in January 1949, agreeing to divest all stock interest in Scophony, but Paramount already had begun to develop its own version of theater television even before leaving Scophony.

Unlike the electronic systems developed by RCA and Scophony, which projected a video image directly onto a movie screen, Paramount’s theater TV employed an “inter-mediate film system”: in the theater, a video image was filmed from a TV monitor, the footage developed immediately, and the film projected through a normal projector; the entire process took about one minute. Paramount’s intermediate film system made its public debut in April 1948 by presenting live coverage of a boxing match to three thousand people in New York’s Paramount Theater. The studio assumed that its TV stations, WBKB in Chicago and KTLA in Los Angeles, would function as centers for networks of TV-equipped theaters. By February 1949, the equipment had been installed in theaters in both cities; in June, Paramount launched theater TV telecasts at the Balaban & Katz flagship Chicago Theater. Subsequent telecasts at the Chicago Theater and at other Balaban & Katz theaters in the Chicago area continued to use theater TV for covering special live events, especially sports (boxing matches, Big Ten football, the 1949 World Series) and occasional news events (such as speeches by Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur). 46

All plans for expanding into station ownership and theater television were dashed, however, when the FCC stepped in following the Paramount ruling to investigate whether the major studios legitimately had the right to own television stations. Senator Edwin C. Johnson, chairman of the Senate Interstate Commerce Committee, which monitored the broadcasting industries, decried the fact that “interests who have accepted consent decrees stand defiantly at the counter demanding the right to get into television.” The Communications Act of 1934 had authorized the FCC to refuse station licenses to any individual or organization convicted of monopolistic practices, and the commission was now prepared to decide whether this provision should be applied to the movie studios whose collusion had precipitated the Paramount decision. FCC Chairman Wayne Coy even asked the Justice Department to determine whether the studios’ activities in television constituted further violations of antitrust laws.

The FCC never actually delivered a ruling on this question because the station application process was abruptly suspended in September 1948 when the commission declared a freeze on the licensing of TV stations, postponing decisions on all pending applications until solutions had been found for various technical problems that still plagued television, including lingering questions about spectrum allocation, signal interference, and color standards. The station application freeze began as a six-month moratorium to allow the FCC to reevaluate television policy, but the issues involved were too complicated to untangle in such a short period; the freeze ultimately lasted four years, until the commission delivered its Sixth Report and Order in May 1952.

Still, American television was hardly frozen during this four-year period. As stations approved before the freeze went on the air, advertisers and the public were drawn to the new medium. The number of stations rose from 50 in 1948 to 108 in 1952, and the number of sets in U.S. homes increased from 1.2 million to 15 million. Historians have argued that because of this growth the freeze actually gave NBC and CBS an insurmountable advantage in the television industry, enabling them to solidify their positions in local markets during a period of limited competition. 48 With the tacit support of the FCC, the radio networks extended their power into the TV industry by establishing owned-and-operated stations in major cities and by signing affiliate contracts with the vast majority of these early stations—which were owned primarily by radio broadcasters who were accustomed to the network structure. Allen B. DuMont, who had launched his own ill-fated network, complained that “the freeze reserved to two networks the almost exclusive right to broadcast in all but 12 of the 63 markets which had television service. It meant that [DuMont and ABC] did not have … an opportunity to get programs into the markets so necessary … to attract advertisers.”

The government’s role in excluding the major studios from owning television stations during this period was critical in determining the eventual structure of the television industry. As Douglas Gomery has noted, the Paramount decision not only broke up the studio system but “guaranteed that the majors would not secure a significant place in the ownership of U.S. television networks and stations. The radio industry was able to secure a hold which continues to the present day.” 50 Hollywood’s major studios watched helplessly during the freeze as their plans for television disintegrated. Hoping to force a decision by the FCC, a frustrated 20th Century-Fox petitioned the Justice Department in March 1949 for a ruling on whether the studios should be eligible for broadcast licenses. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. dismissed its Chicago station application in May 1949, after a studio survey concluded that the first year of operation in Chicago—if that year ever came—would cost nearly $800,000. Ultimately, the Thackery TV interests grew tired of waiting for the FCC to approve Warner Bros.’ purchase of their Los Angeles stations and pulled out of the deal. 51 With all licensing decisions delayed indefinitely by the freeze, the other studios dismissed their remaining applications as well.

Even as the Paramount decision was used by the government to thwart the studios’ plans to establish their own stations and networks, the FCC’s reluctance to support alternative technologies by allocating frequencies for their use also made theater TV financially untenable. As Michele Hilmes explains, “Through a tendency to protect established interests against innovative competition … and [in] what is surely one of the worst examples of regulatory foot-dragging in history, the FCC managed to delay, avert, and handicap testing and operation of these systems to the point that the companies involved could no longer support their efforts.”

Although Warner Bros. had planned an initial network of twenty-five theaters equipped with video projection, it would install television systems in only thirteen of its theaters in the coming years. 53 Paramount was also unable to make a profit on theater television and withdrew the systems from its Chicago theaters in 1951. Theater television expanded briefly in the early 1950s, though it never achieved any sort of widespread acceptance. In 1950, ten theaters in the United States were equipped for video projection, and the number peaked in 1952 with seventy-five theaters in thirty-seven cities.

As many in the industry had predicted, theater television failed in part because the FCC would not assign broadcast frequencies exclusively for theater use. Because the studios were unable to acquire stations, they also found it impossible to form a network capable of linking theaters across the country; consequently, the cost of theater TV broadcasts fell on individual theaters and could not be subsidized by a network structure. By the early 1950s, television had become overwhelmingly oriented toward the family home. Not even a single theater added video projection in 1953, and the system slowly disappeared, replaced in theaters by new exhibition technologies like CinemaScope and 3-D.

In spite of their clear designs on the television business, most of the major studios found themselves in the late 1940s with no substantial connections to the new medium and no incentive to forge ahead (the exception being Paramount, which still owned Los Angeles TV station KTLA and an interest in DuMont). Because the major studios had been thwarted from gaining control of distribution, the integration of television in Hollywood occurred through television production, which originated as the domain of independent producers with razor-thin profit margins and little stake in the studio system.

User Comments

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

Cancel or