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Television in the 1940s



Television Before 1945
Television 1945-1949
What's On?

Television Before 1945

the basics
In order for television to work, a moving image must be transformed into electronic pulses that can travel over a wire or through the air. This is achieved by repeatedly scanning the image in a very quick, tight zig-zag pattern. When the pulses reach your TV, they are painted onto a phosphor screen in the same zig-zag pattern. Tighter patterns can fit more lines into each scan, which produces sharper, clearer pictures. In a modern TV, one top-to-bottom scan uses 525 lines, and the scan repeats itself 60 times per second.

before the 1940s
During the 1920s and 1930s, scanning was done mechanically, using either a revolving disc or a mirror-drum camera system. Mechanical television was used extensively by the BBC in England, and also by a few experimental stations in the United States. Although a scanning resolution of 240 lines was achieved, mechanical TV was too primitive to progress much beyond this point.

In 1927, Philo T. Farnsworth demonstrated the first electronic television system, which used an electron beam to scan the image. Experimental stations began using this superior format in 1931, and by 1937 there were 18 experimental stations on the air using a scanning resolution of 441 lines.

in 1939
There were 23 experimental stations and approximately 2,000 television sets in the United States in 1939. In April, NBC's experimental station W2XBS transmitted the opening ceremonies of the New York World's Fair. This was the official beginning of regularly-scheduled programming.

commercial television begins
In 1941, the FCC enacted the first television standards. By this time, a 525-line system had been developed, and this was the standard that was chosen. Later that year, the FCC approved commercial TV broadcasting and created a licensing category for commercial stations. On the first day, New York's experimental NBC and CBS stations became commercial stations WNBT and WCBW. Eight more stations received commercial licenses later in the year.

during the war
Just six months after commercial broadcasting began, America entered World War II. Production of television equipment came to a halt, and most TV stations were shut down.

Six commercial stations and a few experimental stations did remain on the air for the duration of the war, although their hours of operation were drastically reduced. In Los Angeles, experimental station W6XAO cut their programming down to just three hours every other Monday. In New York, WNBT reduced their weekly schedule from 19 hours to four.

The television industry did their part for the war effort. For servicemen, TV sets were installed in hospitals where injured soldiers were being treated. For civilians, much of the programming consisted of civil defense lectures and demonstrations. In New York, WNBT aired instructional shows for air raid wardens.

"Already, plans (within the limitations imposed by wartime) have been placed in operation by NBC, plans which will result in extensive NBC television networks...chains spreading from Eastern, Mid-Western and Western centers"
--NBC advertisement, 1944

During the war, the television industry made plans for the day when full broadcasting would resume.


Television 1945-1949

war is over
In 1946, television broadcasting resumed for all stations in all categories.

Station owners took their cue from the radio networks and assembled several television networks. Flagship stations, which were usually located in New York or Chicago, produced programs and sent them out to their network affiliates. It wasn't unusual for a station to be affiliated with more than one network. By 1948, four networks were in place:

NBC began as a radio network in 1926. They launched a two-station television network in 1939, and added a third station in 1941. During the war, network broadcasting was halted. In 1946, the three-station network resumed operations, and by the end of 1948 there were 25 stations in the NBC roster.

DuMont Laboratories manufactured television sets during the 1930s. They launched their first commercial station in 1944, and began their network in 1946.

ABC was formed in 1943 when NBC was forced to sell their secondary NBC Blue radio network. In the mid 1940s, ABC rented studio space and purchased time on other stations until their flagship station and transmitter were built in 1948.

CBS also began as a radio network in 1928. During the 1940s, they were busy developing their color television system, so they didn't begin network broadcasting until 1948.

The DuMont Network
The Evolution Of NBC Logos
Early Station & Network Logos

cities linked by coaxial cable
At first, network flagship and affiliate stations shared programs by transmitting them over the air. This worked fine, if the cities were close to each other. In 1946, AT&T began to run coaxial cables between cities on the East Coast, which the networks would use to transmit programs to their affiliates in distant cities. New York and Washington D.C. were the first to be linked, followed by New York and Boston in 1947, and Boston and Richmond in 1948.

In 1948, several cities in the Midwest were also linked via coaxial cable. Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Toledo, Detroit and Buffalo made up the NBC Midwest Network.

linking east & midwest
In 1948, AT&T began to run a coaxial cable between New York and Chicago. Along the way, other affiliate stations were connected. The cable was completed in 1949.

a big night for the networks
After the link between New York and Chicago was completed in 1949, all four networks participated in a star-studded night of inaugural programming. Audiences gathered in taverns and around shop windows to watch Milton Berle, Arthur Godfrey and President Truman.

TV viewing
In 1948, only 10 percent of the American population had seen a television set. This didn't mean that 10 percent of us owned a TV....most people did their viewing in a public location, such as a department store, tavern or store window. Three million people watched the final game of the 1947 World Series on TV, and 90 percent of them watched in a public location.

For appliance stores, the policy of allowing people to watch the display sets from lawn chairs on the sidewalk was good for business. For taverns, the opposite was true. People were so engrossed in the programs that they forgot to buy drinks. Many tavern owners were forced to convert their TVs to coin-ops.

early commercial stations

New York City


Washington D.C.



Los Angeles

By the end of 1948, there were 37 commercial television stations on the air, and 86 more were licensed and under construction.

live shows & kinescopes
Many stations aired motion pictures and newsreels from time to time. All other programming was done live. This was exciting, but also unfortunate: since videotape didn't exist yet, there was no way to preserve these early performances for posterity.

In 1947, the kinescope process was developed. Programs were recorded using a special movie camera that filmed images directly from a television monitor. The resulting films were of low quality - they were blurry and jerky, and the edges of the picture were cut off to prevent showing the edge of the screen - but they were better than nothing. Remote cities couldn't receive network programming over the air or by cable, so they were often forced to show network shows from kinescopes.


What's On?

test patterns

Of all the things you could see on TV in the 1940s, the most common was the test pattern. When new stations went on the air, they spent several months transmitting nothing but test patterns before official broadcasting began. Most stations did not sign on until late afternoon, and test patterns filled the time until the network feed began.

Viewers didn't mind test patterns at fact, many people liked them. They especially liked interesting ones, such as the Indian Head Test Pattern shown at right. For these early audiences, test patterns were exciting....they created a sense of anticipation, as if something wonderful could happen on the screen at any moment.

TV Test Patterns

television firsts

*First televised hockey game, college basketball game and college track event
*First televised opera
*First televised circus (Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey)
*First televised political convention

*First TV commercial (Bulova watches)
*First televised championship prize fight

*First network TV commercial for an automobile (Chevrolet)

*First telecast of the Tournament of Roses Parade
*First televised Presidential address from the White House
*First televised World Series game

*First telethon (cancer research, hosted by Milton Berle)

Watching baseball, 1941


Game Shows Of The 40s

Mary Kay & Johnny
Candid Camera
The Morey Amsterdam Show
The Ed Wynn Show

drama, anthologies
Faraway Hill
Hawkin's Falls
Kraft Television Theater
A Woman To Remember
Hollywood Screen Test
Studio One
The Philco Television Playhouse
Last Year's Nest

adventure, crime, mystery
Hopalong Cassidy
Private Eyes
The Lone Ranger
Man Against Crime
Lights Out
Inner Sanctum
Cross Question
Your Witness

Uncle Mistletoe
Junior Jamboree**Kukla, Fran & Ollie
Howdy Doody
Captain Video
Super Circus

music, variety
Texaco Star Theater
Chesterfield Supper Club
Hour Glass
Voice Of Firestone Televues
NBC Symphony
Sid Caesar's Admiral Broadway Review
DuMont Star Time Revue
Ted Mack Amateur Hour
Toast Of The Town
New York Metropolitan Opera
Garroway At Large
Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts
Tonight On Broadway
The Fred Waring Show
Let There Be Stars
The School House

news, talk
Meet The Press
Camel Newsreel Theatre
See It Now
Television Screen Magazine
CBS Evening News With Douglas Edwards
NBC News
Trial Of Alger Hiss
V-E Day & V-J Day Coverage

quiz shows
Pantomime Quiz
Dr. I.Q. Jr.
Truth Or Consequences
Play The Game
Cash & Carry
Quiz Kids
Uncle Jim's Question Bee
Okay, Mother
Celebrity Time
Juvenile Jury

You Are An Artist
Face To Face
I Love To Eat
Serving Through Science

other pages in this section:

Radio & Records

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