ABC Begins Its Own Network Television Service Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The American Broadcasting Company was created by the divestment of the National Broadcasting Company’s Blue Network of radio stations. The company launched a television network five years later, and under the leadership of Leonard Goldenson in the 1950’s, it became one of the “Big Three” American networks.

Summary of Event

The American Broadcasting Company television network (ABC-TV) is the youngest of the three surviving early over-the-air television networks, and for much of its history it was the weakest. It was begun not by creative entrepreneurship but by government order. The first government-forced action took place in 1943, when the National Broadcasting Company National Broadcasting Company;antitrust enforcement (NBC) was ordered to give up one of its two radio networks. Edward John Noble Noble, Edward John , famous as the father of Life Savers candy, purchased NBC’s Blue Network, the weaker of the two, for $8 million. In 1945, he formally changed the name of the network to the American Broadcasting Company, or ABC. American Broadcasting Company Television;American Broadcasting Company [kw]ABC Begins Its Own Network Television Service (Apr. 19, 1948) [kw]Network Television Service, ABC Begins Its Own (Apr. 19, 1948) [kw]Television Service, ABC Begins Its Own Network (Apr. 19, 1948) American Broadcasting Company Television;American Broadcasting Company [g]North America;Apr. 19, 1948: ABC Begins Its Own Network Television Service[02440] [g]United States;Apr. 19, 1948: ABC Begins Its Own Network Television Service[02440] [c]Radio and television;Apr. 19, 1948: ABC Begins Its Own Network Television Service[02440] [c]Manufacturing and industry;Apr. 19, 1948: ABC Begins Its Own Network Television Service[02440] Goldenson, Leonard Kintner, Robert E. Disney, Walt

From this radio base came the ABC television network. This network, which consisted at first of four independent affiliates, started broadcasting on April 19, 1948, when it aired On the Corner, On the Corner (television program) starring Harry Morgan Morgan, Harry . ABC’s flagship station in New York—the first television affiliate to be owned by the network—went on the air in August, 1948. Noble and his aides scrambled to pick up affiliates in cities where NBC and the Columbia Broadcasting System Columbia Broadcasting System;affiliates (CBS) already had lined up the strongest television stations. Having fewer affiliates than NBC-TV and CBS-TV, ABC-TV started from a base of smaller audiences and thus was at a disadvantage in the new television world. As television began to expand, the best-known radio, music, and film stars naturally gravitated to CBS or NBC with their large audiences. Program packagers developed shows for NBC and CBS, rarely risking investments on the third-place ABC.

The ABC television network was further crippled by a delay in its growth caused by the Federal Communications Commission Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which froze television Television;commercial broadcasting licenses license allocations in 1949. From 1949 through 1952, no new television stations were permitted to go on the air, while the FCC decided how to proceed on the many applications it had received. During the freeze, many major cities had only one or two television stations, leaving ABC without affiliates in those markets. Lucky pioneer television stations took only the top shows on NBC and CBS, shutting out ABC. Even when the FCC freeze ended in April, 1952, ABC-TV was forced to accept affiliation with weaker, ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) stations at a time when most television sets did not have the proper tuning mechanism for UHF signals.

Through the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, ABC-TV made do with low-cost programming such as broadcasts of roller derbies and professional wrestling. In the 1951-1952 television season, as CBS pioneered the sitcom with I Love Lucy, ABC was forced to run Wrestling from Columbia Park, Wrestling from Columbia Park (television program) starring announcer Dennis James. Against Ed Sullivan’s popular Toast of the Town variety show, ABC did not even compete; the network gave the time slot back to its affiliates to air local programming.

As late as 1954, ABC had affiliations with only forty of the more than three hundred television stations on the air. This shortfall was reflected in advertising. In 1954, ABC-TV had one-tenth of the network billings, while NBC-TV and CBS-TV split the rest. ABC-TV had to make do with such prime-time fare as The Chicago Symphony Chamber Orchestra, Industries for America, and Harness Racing.

ABC-TV might have failed, as did the DuMont television network, had it not been for Leonard Goldenson and his United Paramount Theatres United Paramount Theatres . Under the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. (1948) United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. (1948) Hollywood studio system;divestment of theaters , the Paramount Pictures studio had to sell its chain of movie theaters. Goldenson took charge of the divested theater company and merged it with ABC.

United Paramount Theatres used the money it raised by selling movie theaters to buy ABC for $25 million. ABC got not only an infusion of cash but also a set of experienced show-business managers: Goldenson, the former head of Paramount’s one-thousand-theater chain, and his assistant, Robert E. Kintner. Goldenson and Kintner shepherded ABC through tough times with a skill that perhaps deserves more credit than that given to their more famous rivals, David Sarnoff of NBC and William S. Paley of CBS.

Goldenson relied on techniques he learned at Paramount: finding a niche audience not served by larger rivals and targeting that audience with specialized programming (a technique that would later be called “narrowcasting”). Thus, ABC, seeing the baby boomers abandoned by advertisers, NBC, and CBS, sought out the youth market with programs such as American Bandstand, Maverick, and—in the most fortuitous deal the company made—Disneyland. Disneyland Disneyland (television program) (later known as The Wonderful World of Disney) Wonderful World of Disney, The (television program) spawned several other shows for the network, including The Mickey Mouse Club. ABC stars included Edd “Kookie” Byrnes of 77 Sunset Strip and Ricky Nelson, among other teen heartthrobs. Critics attacked The Untouchables for its violence, but that simply garnered ABC publicity it could not afford through normal means. ABC-TV aimed at the bottom line, appealing to the mass of television viewers with a variety of offerings, rather than aiming programming at the elite.

The rise of ABC-TV was remarkable. At the time of the ABC-United Paramount Theatres merger in February, 1953, the company owned only two television stations in major markets and shared a third. In 1952, ABC had lost more than $140,000 and had $12 million of debt on its books. Despite continual innovations, Goldenson and Kintner daily battled to raise ad sales, boost affiliate relations, and not follow DuMont out of business. ABC-TV slowly built up. As more stations went on the air after the FCC freeze was lifted, they had no choice but to affiliate with ABC-TV, because the other two networks already had affiliates in most major markets. These new stations tended to be weaker UHF stations, however, so even as ABC-TV’s coverage grew it could not match that of NBC-TV or CBS-TV through the 1950’s.

Goldenson compensated for the weaknesses of his network by turning ABC-TV into a showcase of new talent. If there was a turning point, it came in 1953, when Danny Thomas’s I Love Lucy knockoff, Make Room for Daddy, Make Room for Daddy (television program) went on the air. The show soon proved that the third network was capable of creating a prime-time hit. Deals with Walt Disney and Warner Bros., however, were what carried ABC-TV over the financial hump.

In April, 1954, Walt Disney and ABC-TV announced plans for their Disneyland television series. Network television was a means to an end for Disney. Disney recognized that the baby boom was creating a large new audience and that the demographic shift in the postwar years placed an extremely large segment of that audience in the suburbs. He conceived a new type of theme park that would cater to the automobile-owning suburban family of the 1950’s. His brother, Roy O. Disney Disney, Roy O. , had approached banks but could not convince their conservative loan officers that Disney would build something more than another Coney Island. The financial institutions therefore turned the Disney brothers down; they wanted no part of the proposed Disneyland Disneyland (theme park) Amusement parks .

Searching for another source of capital to build Disneyland, Walt and Roy Disney tried to interest a television network in their plans. David Sarnoff at NBC-TV and William Paley at CBS-TV were not interested. The Disney brothers then turned to Goldenson, who agreed to back Disneyland if the Disney company would produce a one-hour television series for ABC-TV. The Disney television show aired on Wednesday nights on ABC-TV beginning in October, 1954. It moved to Friday nights in 1958 and then to Sunday nights in 1960, and it would remain a Sunday-night fixture for more than two decades. The show gave ABC-TV its first top twenty ratings hit, finishing sixth overall in the ratings for the television season that ran from September, 1954, through May, 1955.

This pioneering television series was designed to kindle interest in the Disneyland theme park, which opened in July, 1955. ABC-TV took a one-third financial interest in the park, as well as all profits from food concessions for the first ten years, in exchange for providing financing. Disneyland and the Disneyland show proved to be instant hits, forever transforming ABC-TV.

One new segment of the Disney television effort on ABC-TV surpassed all expectations. The December, 1954, “Davy Crockett: Indian Fighter” "Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter" (television program)[Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter] episode, shown during “Frontierland,” created a national obsession of enormous proportions. By mid-1955, “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” "Ballad of Davy Crockett, The" (Blackburn and Bruns)[Ballad of Davy Crockett, The] had become a pop music hit, coonskin caps were atop nearly all baby-boom children, and the actor who played Davy Crockett, Fess Parker Parker, Fess , had become one of television’s first true stars. In the process, television set owners scrambled to tune in ABC-TV.

With the Disney success, Goldenson was able to convince Warner Bros. to produce television shows for his network. Cheyenne, 77 Sunset Strip, Surfside 6, and Maverick enabled ABC to begin making a profit. Soon after came Hawaiian Eye and The Roaring Twenties. ABC was not only surviving but also looking forward to thriving.


It was not until the mid-1970’s that ABC would finally rank alongside NBC and CBS in terms of market share. Goldenson’s pioneering efforts through the 1950’s, however, revolutionized American television. His greatest achievement was to unite television with Hollywood. Until Goldenson was able to sign Disney and then Warner Bros. to produce shows, ABC-TV survived on expedient moves and the exploitation of fads. The production deals with the studios, however, made the network financially stable.

Prior to the ABC deals with Disney and Warner Bros., moreover, Hollywood had tried to take over television. ABC proved that a “marriage of convenience” was the best arrangement, in the long run, for all concerned. The network brought Hollywood into the television business and ensured that Hollywood would remain at the center of television production thereafter: In the years immediately following the success of Disneyland and the Warner Bros. entries, the other major Hollywood studios entered television production as well. By 1960, television production was primarily a Hollywood effort. The days of live television drama, broadcast from New York City, were over. Disney and ABC made Hollywood and its studios the center of television production.

ABC skillfully copied its larger rivals. When CBS pioneered with I Love Lucy, ABC found similar, cheaper sitcoms produced by independent companies headed by Ozzie Nelson and Danny Thomas. In time, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet would run 435 episodes on ABC, Make Room for Daddy 336 episodes, and The Donna Reed Show 274 episodes.

Goldenson innovated of necessity as a result of his need to compete with larger, richer networks. He ran news on Sunday nights against Ed Sullivan’s highly popular Toast of the Town, thereby anticipating the genre of investigative news shows such as 60 Minutes. He was bold enough to telecast—live—the Army-McCarthy hearings.

With ABC’s growing profits, Goldenson purchased television stations in Detroit and San Francisco, so ABC would have a base of operations in the major American cities to match CBS and NBC. The ABC-owned-and-operated stations were all on channel 7, because in the early years of television many broadcasters believed that “high band” channels (those beginning with channel 7) were inferior to the original allocations on channels 2 through 6. The technical distinction proved not to matter, and in time ABC’s owned stations became a reliable source of financial support for the ABC-TV network. In time, ABC-TV joined NBC-TV and CBS-TV in stature as one of the three dominant networks in American television. American Broadcasting Company Television;American Broadcasting Company

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abramson, Albert. The History of Television, 1942 to 2000. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2003. Includes separate chapters on World-War-II-era television, postwar development, the rise of color, and the division in format between the United States and Europe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barnouw, Erik. The Image Empire. Vol. 3 in A History of Broadcasting in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. The final volume of the Barnouw trilogy covering the basic history of radio and television.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Castleman, Harry, and Walter J. Podrazik. Watching TV: Four Decades of American Television. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982. Presents a remarkable amount of basic information on the early history of television. The rise of ABC as a television power is treated in some detail throughout.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldenson, Leonard H. Beating the Odds. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991. A candid autobiography by the man who created ABC-TV. The deal with Disney is described in some detail, as is the impact on ABC-TV in particular and on the television industry in general. This should be read in conjunction with Inside ABC by Quinlin.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grover, Ron. The Disney Touch. Homewood, Ill.: Business One Irwin, 1991. This well-written book offers a business portrait of the fascinating history of the Disney company, from its founding to the late 1980’s. This is no corporate puff piece but a serious analysis of why the Walt Disney Company succeeded.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacDonald, J. Fred. One Nation Under Television: The Rise and Decline of Network Television. New York: Pantheon Books, 1990. Offers a basic survey history of television and includes a great deal of information on ABC. This is a comprehensive and well-documented study.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Quinlin, Sterling. Inside ABC: American Broadcasting Company’s Rise to Power. New York: Hastings House, 1979. A serious history, tendered by a former vice president of the company. Quinlin offers significant detail on the rise of ABC-TV and its dealings with Hollywood. Should be read in conjunction with Beating the Odds by Goldenson.

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Categories: History