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A History of Broadcasting in the United States
A History of Broadcasting in the United States
2. The Golden Web: 1933-1953

Tells how radio and television became an integral part of American life, of how a toy became an industry and a force in politics, business, education, religion, and international affairs.


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authored-by Erik Barnouw on 4/24/2019, 7:27:18 PM

excerpt Until the late ig2o's broadcasting in the United States was largely a story of separate transmitter towers, each independent, each vying for attention with countless others. This period has been chronicled in A Tower in Babel, first of three volumes in this study. Even in that first era, broadcast- ing showed an unexpected ability to move and persuade, and precipitated epic struggles for control. Then a new element was added. Transmitters in various parts of the country began broadcasting the same singer, the same speaker, the same comedian, the same drama. To listeners it seemed a logical, rational step, readily accepted. But in the process a new force had been added to the nation's power constellation: the network. Within a few years it was a dominant element not only in broadcasting but in many other fields. A far- ranging shift in relationships and influences was under way. What is a network? In a way it is—strangely enough—almost nothing, a phantom. It is mainly a tissue of contracts by which a number of stations are linked in operation. The linkage has been done largely through leased telephone cables which the entrepreneur—the "network"—does not own. Each of the stations so linked uses an air channel which is a public re- source and which neither network nor station can own. Thus networks as businesses would seem to rest on the flimsiest foundations. Yet they have become a major power center—having, in an age of American hegemony, world-wide ramifications. 3 on 12/1/2019, 6:34:53 PM

references The Press on 12/1/2019, 6:40:05 PM

cites The Press-Radio War: 1933-1935 on 12/1/2019, 6:40:31 PM

excerpt . This young advertis- ing agency had moved into first place in network billings as a result of its zealous concentration on daytime serials, which were becoming known as "soap operas" because many of the sponsors were soap companies. 51 on 12/1/2019, 6:46:43 PM

excerpt The outburst of creative activity that came to radio in the second half of the igso's was largely a CBS story. The first stirrings were at CBS, and while these eventually awakened much of the industry, the most brilliant moments were at CBS—in drama, news, and almost every other kind of programming. 55 on 12/1/2019, 6:48:28 PM

note The origin story of CBS and the personal biography of Will S. Paley can be found Chapter 2: Rebirth on 12/1/2019, 6:49:23 PM

excerpt NBC had always charged its affiliates for the sustaining—i.e. unspon- sored—network programs they accepted. At first the fee was $90 per eve- ning hour, which was later reduced—by 1932, to $50 per hour. The small stations found this burdensome and complained constantly. Meanwhile NBC reimbursed stations for sponsored network programs they accepted. Acceptance was a matter for their decision. For those they accepted they received a flat fee. At first this was $30 per evening h o u r - later increased to $50per hour. Large stations found this inadequate and complained constantly. Their dissatisfaction was a serious hazard. When attempting to clear time for new sponsored series, NBC often found small stations willing, large stations unwilling. The powerful WLW, Cincinnati, while listed as an NBC affiliate, often preferred to retain a sponsored local series in preference to a sponsored network offering. The plan kept rela- tions with stations in a state of tension.3 In place of such patchwork arrangements, Paley developed a clean, fan- tastically simple plan. He began by making the entire sustaining schedule free to affiliates. At any time during network hours—ten to twelve hours daily—the affiliates could plug into CBS without cost, using its offering of the moment. The affiliate was under no obligation to use any of the sustaining programs, but could use all. To many stations the arrangement was a windfall, particu- larly as the Depression deepened. It was also convenient, eliminating much haggling and bookkeeping. In exchange for the bonanza, Paley wanted something: an option on any part of the affiliate's schedule, for sponsored network series. He found little resistance to this. The option meant that Paley could sell time to a network sponsor with- out any uncertainty as to clearance. He could sign a contract with a spon- sor for time coast to coast, then instruct the affiliates to clear the time. At first, this required only two weeks' notice. 57 on 12/1/2019, 6:50:55 PM

excerpt CBS grew rapidly on the strength of the plan. When Paley took over in 1928, CBS had nineteen stations. By 1935 it had ninety-seven stations. It could not rival NBC-red in total wattage, but it could call itself "largest" in number of stations. 58 on 12/1/2019, 6:51:51 PM

excerpt Paley had, in effect, persuaded affiliates to cede control to him: the option gave control. Although each station by the terms of its license was responsible for what it broadcast, each CBS sta- tion had in fact surrendered control over its schedule. 58 on 12/1/2019, 6:52:01 PM

excerpt Meanwhile the other part of the schedule, the sustaining part—approximately two-thirds of the network hours—represented an opportunity that was scarcely being used. While it already included some notable material—like the New York Phil- harmonic, the American School of the Air, and the beginnings of a news service—much of it was filler material. For many hours of the day, "pro- gramming" meant scheduling orchestras into unsold periods to fulfill obli- gations to affiliates. Yet those periods could be thought of in another way: an unexplored frontier, available for experimentation. It could yield new ideas. It could provide a balance that would answer criticisms. It might even, thought Paley, help the network in time recapture control over sponsored programming. 63 on 12/1/2019, 6:56:06 PM

note CBS made the program schedule important. Discussion of this starting on page 63. on 12/1/2019, 6:57:58 PM

excerpt Meanwhile the other part of the schedule, the sustaining part—approximately two-thirds of the network hours—represented an opportunity that was scarcely being used. While it already included some notable material—like the New York Phil- harmonic, the American School of the Air, and the beginnings of a news service—much of it was filler material. For many hours of the day, "pro- gramming" meant scheduling orchestras into unsold periods to fulfill obli- gations to affiliates. Yet those periods could be thought of in another way: an unexplored frontier, available for experimentation. It could yield new ideas. It could provide a balance that would answer criticisms. It might even, thought Paley, help the network in time recapture control over sponsored programming. 68 on 12/1/2019, 7:00:58 PM

excerpt The broadcast was a high point in the radio renascence. The years 1936-38 had produced on the air a mounting creative excitement in which Reis, MacLeish, Robson, Oboler, Corwin, Kaltenborn, Murrow, Shirer, Swing, Houseman, Koch, and others had taken part. Their work had been a by-product of commercial affluence and been financed by it, but had been done almost entirely in unsold time, as a result of an executive de- cision to use that time for more than fill-in purposes. ... Those in the commercial program world lived under an advertising agency hierarchy, those in the sustaining program world under a network hierarchy. There was some interaction and crossing over, often for per- sonal financial reasons. But during 1936-38 the groups lived largely sepa- rate lives. They passed each other in network corridors but had little rea- son for contact. To the commercial directors, sustaining people were a species of de- pendent relatives living on marginal pay. To the sustaining people, the commercial people were not free souls. 89 on 12/1/2019, 7:10:10 PM

excerpt In the vast pageant of sponsored programming of 1936-38, representing investments by several hundred network sponsors and thousands of local ones, marketing considerations were a potent influence. With So per cent of network revenue coming from drugs, foods, tobaccos, soaps and other household goods, the pressure for a mass audience was overwhelming. By 1938 sponsors were spending $150,000,000 for time and further millions for talent. 89 on 12/1/2019, 7:10:50 PM

excerpt This bustling world brought the networks $56,192,396 in time sales dur- ing 1937, of which $15,962,729 was passed on to affiliate stations and sta- tion-groups and $8,428,860 as commission to advertising agencies. The in- dustry as a whole, said Commissioner George Henry Payne, was making a 350 per cent per year profit on its investment. Tens of millions in talent fees also fed the boom. The centerpieces of the pageant were the commer- cials written by hundreds of writers at advertising agencies, at salaries well above those of sustaining dramatic writers. These commercials were continually reviewed by network policy readers and sometimes by the Federal Trade Commission. During the fiscal year ending June 30, 1938, the FTC reported reviewing 1,069,944 pages of commercials from net- works and stations. 111 on 12/1/2019, 7:18:51 PM

note NBC-Red and NBC-Blue broken up between 1942-43. 187 on 12/1/2019, 7:38:40 PM

quote We are in the advertising business, gentlemen, and that business is the business of selling goods to the American people. 189 on 12/1/2019, 7:40:07 PM

excerpt The postwar years, as Paley had predicted, brought relentless competition. Among major networks it was now an NBC-CBS-ABC struggle. 242 on 12/1/2019, 7:55:09 PM