Thursday, October 2, 2008

Early Days Of Television

I was born before television was a household word. We marveled at radio! How could they send the sound from New York City clear across the states to Los Angeles? Now add the picture and you can imagine our amazement.

Television was introduced to the general public at the 1939 World's Fair in New York City on Sunday, April 30, 1939. This is just before World War II started. So it had to take a back burner for development until after the war ended in 1945. The first station was in New York City and basically served a few people in that city. Not many sets were available elsewhere but time brought many manufacturers all over the USA to develop this unique entertainment vehicle.

At the World's Fair, visitors crowded together to watch NBC broadcasts or internal closed circuit demonstrations. Frequently, volunteers were escorted outside to the cameras and encouraged to wave at the folks inside. Television was such a novelty at the time that "I was televised" cards were handed out as a souvenir of the experience.

I lived in Kansas City, Missouri in 1949 when TV came to that city. Of course, the picture was in black and white only at that time. You had certain hours that you could watch anything. Programming went off the air with the National Anthem being played and sometimes a prayer by a local pastor. Then you got the test pattern which was used to adjust new sets. The first station there started just after I arrived in Kansas City. It was WDAF-TV Channel 4 and had it's start on October 16, 1949. Radio stations that started TV stations just added "TV" to their call letters. NBC radio station WDAF was the first to get a license to broadcast TV in that area. As there were few TV stations, they weren't affiliated with just one network but chose programs from all networks. WDAF-TV was affiliated with NBC, CBS, ABC and an independent called DuMont Network. The station later became the FOX Network station for that area. Randell Jessee was the first anchorman for the station and well known in the Kansas City area.

In early 1950 I caught double pneumonia and was bed fast at home while the doctor made daily house calls to save my life. Our teen group at Kansas City First Church of the Nazarene (NTO) rented a 7 inch round tube TV to keep me occupied. The only TV in the home! I later was able to buy the first TV for my aunt and uncle that I lived with there. A store was selling a few sets for a very low price if you got there in time and Uncle Ray did.

There were a few shows like Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater in 1948. He kind of pioneered the variety comedy show idea. In fact, NBC gave him an unheard of contract in 1951 for 30 years at $100,000 per hear to do 360 shows. When his TV show was cancelled, NBC had the obligation for the balance of his 30 year contract. But Milton Berle couldn't appear on any TV show on any other network during the contract. He was tied to NBC which he tried to get out of but they wouldn't let him. Minor players now get that amount or more per show and he had to settle for a yearly payment. Contrast his earnings with the last year of "Friends" where all six players received One Million Dollars per half hour each for 22 episodes ($22 Million per actor). What sounded great in 1951 became a noose around Uncle Miltie's neck.

When someone got a new television set, they also got a lot of visitors stopping by for a visit. It was so new that people couldn't get enough of television. What in the world did we do with our time before television came available?

Some of new television shows were:

Ed Sullivan's "Toast Of The Town" (variety show)
Your Hit Parade (countdown to the top songs of the week)
Arthur Godfrey (daytime talk show with guests)
Your Show Of Shows (Sid Caesar & Imogene Coco - Variety)
The Honeymooners (Jackie Gleason situation comedy)

There were some radio hits that moved to television:

Red Skelton, Jack Benny, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Fibber McGee & Molly, Bob Hope, Amos & Andy, and The Lone Ranger. These were just a few of them that I could think of quickly.

It was an exciting time in the entertainment industry. Television gave the movies a boost because the movies could be shown again in another medium. Think of all the actors who took a flat fee and didn't get residuals because they didn't know the movies would be shown again.

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