The DuMont Television Network was the world's first commercial television network, beginning operation in the United States in 1946. It was owned by DuMont Laboratories, a television equipment and set manufacturer. The network was hindered by the prohibitive cost of broadcasting, by Federal Communications Commission regulations which restricted the company's growth, and even by the company's partner, Paramount Pictures. Despite several innovations in broadcasting and the creation of one of television's biggest stars of the 1950s, the network never found itself on solid financial ground. Forced to expand on UHF channels during an era when UHF was not profitable, DuMont ceased broadcasting in 1956.
DuMont's latter-day obscurity has prompted at least one notable TV historian to refer to it as the "Forgotten Network". A few popular DuMont programs, such as Cavalcade of Stars and Emmy-award winner Life is Worth Living, appear in TV retrospectives or are mentioned briefly in books about U.S. television history, but almost all the network's programming was destroyed in the 1970s.
A few months after selling his first television set, DuMont opened an experimental television station in New York City, W2XWV. Unlike CBS and NBC, he continued experimental broadcasts throughout World War II. In 1944, W2XWV became WABD (after DuMont's initials), the third commercial television station in New York. On May 19, 1945, DuMont opened experimental W3XWT in Washington, D.C. A minority shareholder in DuMont Laboratories was Paramount Pictures, which had advanced $400,000 in 1939 for a 40% share in the company. Paramount had television interests of its own, having launched experimental stations in Los Angeles in 1939 and Chicago in 1940, but DuMont's association with Paramount ultimately proved to be a mistake.
Soon after his experimental Washington station signed on, DuMont began experimental coaxial cable hookups between his laboratories in Passaic, New Jersey, and his two stations. One of those hookups carried the announcement that the U.S. had dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan on August 9, 1945. This was later considered to be the official beginning of the DuMont Network by both Thomas T. Goldsmith, the network's chief engineer and DuMont's best friend, and Dr. DuMont himself. Regular network service began on August 15, 1946, on WABD and W3XWT. In 1947, W3XWT became WTTG, named after Goldsmith. The pair were joined in 1949 by WDTV in Pittsburgh.
Although NBC was known to have station-to-station links as early as 1941, DuMont received its station licenses before NBC resumed in the postwar era their previous, sporadic network broadcasts. ABC had just come into existence as a radio network in 1943 and would not enter network television until 1948, when it acquired a station in New York City. CBS would also wait until 1948 to begin network operations because it was waiting for the Federal Communications Commission to approve its color television system. Other companies — including Mutual, the Yankee Network, and Paramount itself — were interested in starting television networks, but would be prevented from doing so by restrictive FCC regulations.
The network also largely ignored the standard business model of 1950s television, in which one advertiser sponsored an entire show, enabling it to have complete control over its content. Instead, DuMont sold commercials to many different advertisers, freeing producers of its shows from the veto power held by sole sponsors. This eventually became the standard model for U.S. television.
DuMont also holds another important place in American television history. WDTV's sign-on made it possible for stations in the Midwest to receive live network programming from stations on the East Coast, and vice versa. Before then, the networks relied on separate regional networks in the two time zones for live programming, and the West Coast received network programming from kinescopes (films shot directly from live television screens) originating from the East Coast. On January 11, 1949, the coaxial cable linking East and Midwest (known in television circles as "the Golden Spike") was activated. The ceremony, hosted by DuMont and WDTV, was carried on all four networks. WGN in Chicago and WABD in New York were able to share programs though a live coaxial cable feed when WDTV in Pittsburgh signed on, because the station completed the East Coast-to-Midwest chain, allowing stations in both regions to air the same program at the same time, which is still the standard for U.S. television. It would be another two years before the West Coast could get live programming, but this was the beginning of the modern era of network television.
The first broadcasts came from DuMont's Madison Avenue headquarters, but it soon found additional space, including a fully functioning theater, in the New York branch of Wanamaker's department store at Ninth Street and Broadway. Still later, a lease on the Adelphi Theater on 54th Street gave the network a site for variety shows, and in 1954, the lavish DuMont Tele-Center opened in the former Jacob Ruppert's Central Opera House at 205 East 67th Street.
DuMont aired the first television situation comedy, Mary Kay and Johnny, as well as the first network-televised soap opera, Faraway Hill. Cavalcade of Stars, a variety show hosted by Jackie Gleason, was the birthplace of The Honeymooners (Gleason left for CBS in 1952). Bishop Fulton J. Sheen's devotional program Life Is Worth Living went up against Milton Berle in many cities, and was the first show to successfully compete in the ratings against "Mr. Television". In 1952, Sheen won an Emmy for "Most Outstanding Personality". The network's other notable programs include:
Although DuMont's programming pre-dated videotape, many DuMont offerings were caught on kinescopes. These kinescopes were said to be stored in a warehouse until the 1970s. Actress Edie Adams, the wife of comedian Ernie Kovacs (both regular performers on early television) testified in 1996 before a panel of the Library of Congress on the preservation of television and video. Adams claimed that so little value was given to these films that the stored kinescopes were loaded into three trucks and dumped into Upper New York Bay. Nevertheless, a number of DuMont programs survive at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York City, the UCLA Film and Television Archive in Los Angeles, in the Peabody Awards Collection at the University of Georgia, and the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.
Although nearly the entire DuMont film archive was destroyed, several surviving DuMont shows have been released on DVD. Several companies which distribute DVDs over the Internet have released a small number of episodes of Cavalcade of Stars and The Morey Amsterdam Show. Two DuMont programs, Captain Video and His Video Rangers and Rocky King, Inside Detective, have had a small amount of surviving episodes released commercially by at least one major distributer of public domain programming.
During the 1952–1953 television season, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, host of Life is Worth Living, won an Emmy Award for Most Outstanding Personality. Sheen beat out CBS's Arthur Godfrey, Edward R. Murrow, and Lucille Ball who were also nominated for the same award. Sheen was also nominated for— but did not win— consecutive Public Service Emmys in 1952, 1953, and 1954.
DuMont received an Emmy nomination for Down You Go, a popular game show during the 1952–1953 television season (in the category Best Audience Participation, Quiz, or Panel Program). The network was nominated twice for its coverage of professional football during the 1953–1954 and 1954–1955 television seasons.
The Johns Hopkins Science Review, a DuMont public affairs program, was awarded a Peabody Award in 1952 in the Education category. Sheen's Emmy and the Science Review Peabody were the only national awards the DuMont Network received. Though DuMont series and performers would continue to win local television awards, by the mid-1950s the DuMont Network no longer had a national presence.
In February 1950, Hooper's competitor A.C. Nielsen bought out the Hooperatings system. Few DuMont series ever performed well in the Nielsen Ratings; no DuMont series ever appeared in Nielsen's annual lists of the top 20 most popular series. One of the DuMont Network's most popular series during the 1950s, Life is Worth Living, received Nielsen ratings of up to 11.1, attracting more than 10 million viewers. Sheen's devotional program was the most widely viewed religious series in the history of television. 169 local television stations aired Life, and for three years the program was able to successfully compete against NBC's popular The Milton Berle Show. (Berle, whose show was sponsored by Texaco, joked that he and the bishop "have the same boss: Sky Chief!") The ABC and CBS programs which aired in the same timeslot were cancelled. In 1952, Time magazine reported that popular game show Down You Go attracted an audience estimated at 16 million.
DuMont aspired to grow beyond its three stations, applying for licenses in Boston (or Cincinnati, depending on the source) and Cleveland. This would have given the network five stations, the maximum allowed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) at the time. However, DuMont was hampered by minority owner Paramount's two stations, KTLA in Los Angeles and WBKB-TV (now WBBM-TV) in Chicago. Although these stations never carried DuMont programming (with the exception of one year on KTLA in 1947–48), and in fact competed with the DuMont affiliates in those cities, the FCC ruled that Paramount's two licenses were in theory DuMont owned and operated stations, which effectively placed DuMont at the five-station cap.
Adding to DuMont's troubles was the FCC's 1948 "freeze" on television-license applications. This was done to sort out the thousands of applications that had come streaming in, but also to rethink the allocation and technical standards laid down prior to World War II. It became clear soon after the war that 12 channels ("channel 1" had been removed from television broadcasting use) were not nearly enough for national television service. What was to be a six-month freeze lasted until 1952, when the FCC opened the UHF spectrum. The FCC, however, did not require television manufacturers to include UHF capability. In order to see UHF stations, most people had to buy an expensive converter. Even then, the picture quality was marginal at best. Tied to this was a decision to restrict VHF allocations in medium- and smaller-sized markets. Television sets were not required to have all-channel tuning until 1964.
Forced to rely on UHF to expand, DuMont saw one station after another go dark due to dismal ratings. DuMont bought a small, distressed UHF station in Kansas City in 1954, but ran it for just three months before shutting it down at a considerable loss, after attempting to compete with three established VHF stations.
The FCC's Dr. Hyman Goldin said in 1960, "If there had been four VHF outlets in the top markets, there's no question DuMont would have lived and would have eventually turned the corner in terms of profitability. I have no doubt in my mind of that at all."
Despite its severe financial straits, by 1953 DuMont appeared to be on its way to establishing itself as the third national network. DuMont programs aired live on 16 stations, but it could only count on six primary stations (its three owned-and-operated stations ["O&Os"] plus WGN-TV in Chicago, KTTV in Los Angeles and WTVN-TV [now WSYX] in Columbus, Ohio). In contrast, ABC had a full complement of five O&Os augmented by nine primary affiliates. ABC also had a radio network (it was descended from NBC's Blue Network) on which to draw revenue and affiliate loyalty.
However, by this time DuMont had begun to differentiate itself from NBC and CBS. DuMont allowed its advertisers to pick and choose the locations where their advertising ran, potentially saving them millions of dollars. In contrast, ABC operated in a similar manner to CBS and NBC, forcing advertisers to purchase a large "must-buy" list of stations. However, ABC had only 14 primary stations, compared to CBS and NBC, which had over 40 primary stations each. By 1953, ABC was badly overextended and on the verge of bankruptcy.
The picture was dramatically altered in February 1953, when ABC was bought by United Paramount Theaters (recently spun off from Paramount Pictures). The merger provided ABC with a badly-needed cash infusion, which gave it the resources to provide a national television service on the scale of CBS and NBC. Also, through UPT president Leonard Goldenson, it gained ties with the Hollywood studios that more than matched the ties DuMont's producers had with Broadway.
Realizing that the ABC-UPT deal put the company on life support, the staff at DuMont was receptive to a merger offer from ABC. Goldenson quickly brokered a deal with Ted Bergmann, DuMont's managing director, under which the merged network would have been called "ABC-DuMont" until at least 1958 and would honor all of DuMont's network commitments. In return, DuMont would get $5 million in cash, guaranteed advertising time for DuMont sets, and a secure future for its staff. A merged ABC-DuMont would have had to sell a New York station —- either DuMont's WABD or ABC's WJZ-TV (now WABC-TV) —- as well as two other stations. It still would have been a colossus rivaling CBS and NBC, because it would have owned stations in five of the six largest markets (except Philadelphia). It also would have inherited DuMont's de facto monopoly in Pittsburgh, and would have been one of two networks to wholly own a station in the nation's capital (the other being NBC).
However, Paramount vetoed the plan almost out of hand due to antitrust concerns. A few months earlier, the FCC had ruled that Paramount controlled DuMont, and there were still some questions about whether UPT had really separated from Paramount.
With no other way to readily obtain cash, DuMont sold WDTV to Westinghouse Electric Corporation for $9.75 million in late 1954. While this gave DuMont a short-term cash infusion, it eliminated the leverage DuMont had to get clearances in other markets. Without its de facto monopoly in Pittsburgh, the company's advertising revenue shrank to less than half that of 1953. By February 1955, DuMont executives realized the company could not continue as a television network. It was decided to shut down network operations and operate WABD and WTTG as independents. On April 1, 1955, most of DuMont's entertainment programs were dropped. Bishop Sheen aired his last program on DuMont on April 26 and later moved to ABC. By May, just eight programs were left on the network, with only inexpensive shows and sporting events keeping what was left of the network going through the summer. The network also abandoned the use of the intercity network coaxial cable, on which it had spent $3 million in 1954 to transmit shows that mostly lacked station clearance.
In August, Paramount, with the help of other stockholders, seized full control of DuMont Laboratories. The last non-sports program on DuMont aired on September 23, 1955. After that, DuMont's network feed was used only for occasional sporting events. DuMont's last broadcast, a boxing match, occurred on August 6, 1956.
DuMont spun off WABD and WTTG as the "DuMont Broadcasting Corporation". The name was later changed to "Metropolitan Broadcasting Company" to distance the company from what was seen as a complete all-around failure. John Kluge bought Paramount's shares for $4 million in 1958, changing the company's name to Metromedia in 1960. WABD became WNEW-TV and later WNYW; WTTG still broadcasts under its original call letters.
Westinghouse changed WDTV's calls to KDKA-TV after the pioneering radio station of the same name, and switched its primary affiliation to CBS immediately after the sale. Westinghouse's acquisition of CBS in 1995 made KDKA-TV a CBS owned-and-operated station.
At its peak in 1954, DuMont was affiliated with around 200 TV stations. In those days, TV stations were free to "cherry-pick" which programs they would air, and many stations affiliated with multiple networks. Many of DuMont's "affiliates" carried very little DuMont programming, choosing to air one or two more popular programs (such as Life is Worth Living) and/or sports programming on the weekends. Few stations carried the full DuMont program line-up.
In its later years, DuMont was carried mostly on poorly-watched UHF channels or had only secondary affiliations on VHF stations. DuMont ended most operations on April 1, 1955, but honored network commitments until August 1956.