FCC Licenses Commercial Television Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Commercial television became a reality when the Federal Communications Commission awarded licenses to broadcasters to offer regular television programming, touching off a ratings war that shaped American broadcasting. The first licenses were granted to ten stations, which began broadcasting on July 1, 1941

Summary of Event

Scientists had worked out in principle the technology needed to transmit pictures by means of electronic impulses long before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) authorized commercial telecasting in May of 1941. A form of television was invented in Germany in 1884 by Paul Nipkow Nipkow, Paul , an engineer who devised a mechanical “scanning” disk that provided a means of converting an image into electric impulses. In formulating the scanning principle, Nipkow took a giant step toward realizing practical television; all early television systems utilized a version of Nipkow’s mechanical scanner. Vladimir Zworykin took another giant step in 1929, when he developed the iconoscope camera tube and the kinescope picture tube, which together formed the first all-electronic television system. Commercial television might then have been on the verge of becoming a reality; however, funding was a major problem. The history of television is not so much the history of the work of isolated scientists as the history of the large corporations that were able to commit huge sums of money to research and development. [kw]FCC Licenses Commercial Television (May 2, 1941) [kw]Commercial Television, FCC Licenses (May 2, 1941) [kw]Television, FCC Licenses Commercial (May 2, 1941) Federal Communications Commission Television;commercial broadcasting licenses Federal Communications Commission Television;commercial broadcasting licenses [g]North America;May 2, 1941: FCC Licenses Commercial Television[00210] [g]United States;May 2, 1941: FCC Licenses Commercial Television[00210] [c]Radio and television;May 2, 1941: FCC Licenses Commercial Television[00210] [c]Communications and media;May 2, 1941: FCC Licenses Commercial Television[00210] [c]Business and labor;May 2, 1941: FCC Licenses Commercial Television[00210] Sarnoff, David Zworykin, Vladimir Paley, William S. Stanton, Frank Goldmark, Peter Carl Noble, Edward John Goldenson, Leonard

Two corporations undertook such a commitment. One was the Radio Corporation of America Radio Corporation of America (RCA), which was organized by General Electric in 1919. Arrangements were made for RCA to acquire the assets of the American Marconi Company, and David Sarnoff, who had moved up through the ranks at Marconi, in 1921 became the new company’s general manager. In 1929, Sarnoff became executive vice president and general manager of RCA; in 1930, he became president (a position he was to hold until 1947, when he became chairman of the board).

During his long career, Sarnoff made three far-reaching decisions in the face of tremendous opposition within and without RCA. First, in 1926, when RCA was the leading manufacturer of radio sets, he insisted on founding the National Broadcasting Company National Broadcasting Company;radio networks (NBC) as a subsidiary, to ensure that people who bought RCA radios would have something to listen to on them. NBC lost money at first, but Sarnoff’s faith in the enterprise was eventually justified; during the 1930’s, NBC became the nation’s most prestigious broadcasting network.

Second, during the 1930’s, Sarnoff could see that television would replace radio as the preeminent medium of communication. He channeled huge sums of money into research and development. In November of 1929, Vladimir Zworykin joined RCA as director of its electronic research laboratory. (Zworykin had invented his all-electronic television system at Westinghouse Electric, but his colleagues there had found his work impractical.) When Sarnoff asked Zworykin how much it would cost to perfect his system, the latter replied that it would take $100,000. In fact, as Sarnoff frequently pointed out, RCA spent fifty million dollars on television before realizing a penny in profit. The production of television sets was halted during World War II, but beginning in 1947, sales skyrocketed. Again, Sarnoff’s faith was justified.

Third, during the 1940’s, Sarnoff decided that color television would replace black-and-white television. RCA began to manufacture color sets, and the NBC network transmitted broadcasts in color as often as possible. For several years, NBC found itself alone in this enterprise, and, not surprisingly, RCA lost a considerable amount of money during the period. Again, though, Sarnoff’s faith was justified, for during the 1960’s color broadcasting became universal.

The history of NBC is inseparable from the history of its parent company, RCA. In 1926, NBC purchased radio stations owned by American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) and became the major, if fledgling, network in the United States. NBC split this network into two sections, known as the Red Network and the Blue Network. NBC then entered the television business on April 4, 1928, when it obtained permission from the Federal Radio Commission—the precursor of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)—to operate experimental television station W2XBS (New York), which in 1931 began transmitting from the top of the Empire State Building. NBC introduced television as a regular service in April of 1939, beginning with a broadcast of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s opening speech from the New York World’s Fair. The NBC Television Network dated from January 12, 1940, when two stations, WNBC (New York) and WRGB (Schenectady), began broadcasting NBC programs.

The Columbia Broadcasting System Columbia Broadcasting System;first television broadcasting licenses (CBS), NBC’s major rival in radio, also committed itself to research and development of television. This company was founded in 1927 by two talent promoters, George Coats Coats, George and Arthur Judson Judson, Arthur . When Sarnoff turned down their request for an exclusive contract to supply performers to the NBC network, Coats and Judson organized their own network, which they called United Independent Broadcasters United Independent Broadcasters . Within a year, sixteen stations had become affiliates of United, but the company ran into financial difficulties. The Columbia Phonographic Company invested $163,000 in United with the proviso that the network be renamed the Columbia Phonographic Broadcasting System. The name was shortened to the Columbia Broadcasting System when Leon and Isaac Levy took it over in 1928. That year, William S. Paley bought the controlling interest in the company for $417,000, a sum he raised from his shares in his family’s thriving cigar company.

On September 16, 1928, two days before his twenty-seventh birthday, Paley became president of CBS. A brilliant executive, Paley turned CBS into the most powerful communications company in the world. Paley quickly signed forty-nine radio stations, offering them twenty hours of network programs, doubling the ten offered by NBC. With the stations in place, he began his search for talent. Initially, he recruited such relatively unknown performers as Bing Crosby, Kate Smith, and the Mills Brothers, all of whom went on to great success. Beginning in 1930, Paley balanced the lowbrow soap operas and the thrillers that had become staples on radio with regular Saturday-afternoon broadcasts from the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

In 1931, CBS entered television, with regular scheduled programming over W2XAB (New York). Paley’s commitment to entertainment was matched by his commitment to news. When newspaper publishers, worried by competition, barred wire services from supplying news to broadcasters, CBS responded by setting up its own news-gathering unit. During World War II, CBS News established the network—and Edward R. Murrow—as the most prestigious source of broadcast journalism.

Paley surrounded himself with the very best people. Frank Stanton joined CBS in 1935, first as promotions consultant and then as audience researcher. Ohio State University had recently awarded Stanton a doctorate in psychology for his research into audience behavior. For many years, Stanton served as Paley’s “point man,” turning the latter’s creative ideas into realities. Stanton became program analyzer in 1937 and director of research in 1938. During this period, he developed the first recording device that could be placed inside radio sets to record the operations of the sets. In 1945, Stanton became vice president and general manager of CBS, one of the youngest and best known executives in the radio industry. By the time he became president in 1965, Stanton had turned his attention to the problem of diversification.

Almost immediately, Paley set up a research unit in anticipation of the shift from radio to television broadcasting. Peter Carl Goldmark joined CBS in 1935. The University of Vienna had recently granted him a doctorate in physics for his pioneering work in the fields of radio and television engineering. Goldmark had tried to find work at RCA, but Sarnoff had found his application unsuitable. Goldmark spent more than three decades at CBS as chief television engineer (until 1944), director of engineering research and development (until 1950), vice president in charge of research and development (until 1954), and president of CBS Laboratories (until he retired in 1971). Goldmark made a number of important contributions in the fields of sight and sound; one of the first practical color-television systems was developed at CBS Laboratories under his direction. (Goldmark liked to point out that his work helped bring color television to the public a decade faster than it might otherwise have come.) The first color broadcast in history was transmitted in August of 1940 by CBS’s experimental transmitter in New York. In addition, Goldmark in 1948 invented the long-playing microgroove phonograph record, which quickly revolutionized the recorded-music industry.


Thanks to Sarnoff’s drive, NBC achieved preeminence during the 1930’s and 1940’s. During the summer of 1941, NBC signed its first sponsors, Procter and Gamble, Lever Brothers, Sun Oil, and Bulova. Television;advertising During the summer of 1946, Gillette became the first advertiser to sponsor a television program, coverage of the Joe Louis-Billy Conn heavyweight title fight. On October 27, 1946, Bristol-Myers became the first sponsor of a network television series, Geographically Speaking. The network introduced coast-to-coast television coverage in 1951 and began broadcasting programs in color in 1954. By 1966, NBC was broadcasting all its programs in color. Milton Berle was the most famous name on NBC television during the 1940’s and 1950’s. NBC pioneered early-morning programming with The Today Show, first seen in 1952, and late-night television with The Tonight Show, first aired in 1954.

Toward the end of the 1940’s, CBS challenged NBC for preeminence. By offering performers huge sums of money for the rights to their shows, Paley was able to sign such artists as Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and Edgar Bergen. Soon, the majority of the top-rated shows in each broadcast period were CBS shows. It took Paley nineteen years to hire Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, the two white actors who created and played Amos ’n’ Andy, the most popular radio program and the cornerstone of NBC’s schedule. In 1948, they signed with CBS, where the show was turned into an equally successful television series. NBC never really recovered from “Paley’s raids,” as they were called.

In 1951, CBS began broadcasting the most popular television series of the decade, I Love Lucy. In fact, the 1950’s may be considered the CBS decade, for during this period CBS introduced some of the most popular soap operas to television, including Search for Tomorrow in 1951, The Guiding Light in 1952, and As the World Turns in 1956. CBS also produced the long-running children’s show Captain Kangaroo, which ran from 1955 to 1981.

In 1943, Edward John Noble, who had built the Life Savers candy company into a multimillion-dollar enterprise, acquired NBC’s Blue Network of radio stations for eight million dollars. (Sarnoff was forced to dispose of the network, because in 1941 the FCC had promulgated the Chain Broadcasting Regulations, which mandated that no organization could maintain more than one broadcasting network.) The name of the network was changed to the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), with Noble as chairman of the board.

On April 19, 1948, ABC entered television with its broadcast of On the Corner, starring Henry Morgan. ABC ranked as the poor cousin among the networks until 1976, when it surpassed CBS in the ratings. The most popular of the early ABC series was The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, starring Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, which was first broadcast on October 3, 1952. In 1953, Leonard Goldenson merged his company, United Paramount Theatres (UPT), with ABC. Noble relinquished control but remained with the company as a director. ABC’s first major programming success was Disneyland, first seen on October 27, 1954. In 1955, Warner Bros. began an exclusive production program with ABC. Three years later, ABC began morning and late-afternoon television broadcasts. The network introduced color programming in 1962, with full color in 1966. Federal Communications Commission Television;commercial broadcasting licenses

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">Campbell, Robert. The Golden Years of Broadcasting: A Celebration of the First Fifty Years of Radio and TV on NBC. New York: Scribner, 1976. Resembling a slick annual report, this document gives inside but never intimate details about the people responsible for NBC’s success. Includes more than 250 pictures, a great many in full color. Campbell, though, makes little effort to assess the impact television has had on the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paley, William S. As It Happened: A Memoir. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. In this memoir, Paley tells his side of the story about the CBS radio and television empire he founded. Covers the purchase of the foundering network, the heyday of radio and television programming, and the controversies Paley encountered with Edward R. Murrow.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paper, Lewis J. Empire: William S. Paley and the Making of CBS. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. Moves beyond Paley’s autobiography, providing some insight into his leadership style. Offers many interesting facts, especially about the history of radio and television broadcasting, but he stuffs them into a difficult chronological framework.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Slater, Robert. This . . . Is CBS: A Chronicle of Sixty Years. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1988. This history of CBS explores the development of radio and television from 1928 to the present. Slater’s account is firmly linked to the individuals who were involved. Asserts that Paley damaged CBS by clinging to power when he should have been choosing a capable successor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Slide, Anthony. The Television Industry: A History Dictionary. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991. This remarkable book identifies production companies, distributors, and organizations; explains terms widely used in television; and illuminates a wide variety of genres, including children’s programming, detective dramas, news, sitcoms, soap operas, and sports. Concludes with an appendix, which includes page-long essays on Leonard Goldenson, William Paley, and David Sarnoff.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Sally Bedell. In All His Glory: William S. Paley, the Legendary Tycoon and His Brilliant Circle. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990. This entertaining biography conveys an impressive amount of information about Paley’s public and private life. Offers a fascinating glimpse into CBS’s corporate culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Webb, Richard C. Tele-visionaries: The People Behind the Invention of Television. Hoboken, N.J.: J. Wiley & Sons, 2005. Details both the technical details of television’s invention and the creation of broadcasting networks to capitalize on the new medium. Bibliographic references and index.

NBC Is Ordered to Divest Itself of a Radio Network

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Community Antenna Television Is Introduced

Golden Age of Television

Categories: History