In another America, long ago and far away (and before Fox Network actually superseded the big three…or five…networks in the ratings), NBC, CBS and ABC were the only bastions of television programming. A lot of people who grew up in a three network universe sometimes wish we could go back to that so America can consolidate ourselves and all commune via more or less watching the same things together as a nation. However, in a world today where 200+ channels doesn’t seem to be enough in some people’s minds, it’s very possible that TV could have had at least ten or more over-the-air networks by the 1960’s if financial dealings had gone just right. Either fortunately or unfortunately, many of these other networks (which did go on the air briefly via limited affiliates) bit the dust due to various interesting business circumstances.
And then you have the most famous fourth network of the 1940’s and 1950’s that sounded like the name of a butler instead of a call-letter network: DuMont. It also might have been the crown jewel of all networks had it acquired more affiliates and not regulated to UHF hell. What might surprise you, though, is that the DuMont network was the very first American TV network on the air in 1946 and could have raced ahead of NBC, CBS and ABC in innovative programming had things worked out differently. Because history can easily be twisted due to urban legends, casual TV history buffs probably think that NBC was the first TV network to be licensed (well, even I thought that once due to NBC usually saying so)–and NBC and DuMont were almost tied in that department. NBC had some limited broadcasts as early as 1941 and then went as a national network right after DuMont went on the air.
The possibilities looked endless for DuMont thanks to its brilliant founder, Dr Allen Balcom DuMont who had already created electronics leader DuMont Laboratories in 1931 and managed to create the first electronic TV for the consumer market before WWII even started in Europe. In fact, DuMont’s main goal with his DuMont Laboratories was to improve the cathode ray tube throughout the 1930’s that led to how analog sets worked up until the digital era. Now you can see why the world should have been at DuMont and his network’s feet based on name recognition alone.
Well, the world of network rivalry was just being formed, and a precedent was soon going to be set that proved you can’t create a network based just on using a familiar business name. It all came down to how many affiliates you have and whether you could end up on the VHF dial on all over-the-air TV’s in those days. While DuMont managed to get some fascinating shows on the air quite early (a very young Jackie Gleason in a variety show called “Calvacade of Stars” being just one), they struggled getting needed affiliates due to not having a radio network to promote their shows.
Despite their ever-increasing failures, DuMont managed to start a lot of trends in the future of television. They were the first to have shows that didn’t have a direct sponsor to dictate what they deemed fit in content to make their product look better. Instead, the network just aired commercials to make money. And we all know that’s exactly how networks and their TV shows operate now rather than seeing a “McDonald’s Presents Law & Order: SVU.”
DuMont also started the first TV evangelist who actually managed to never get into a scandal. It also happened to be one of the most popular shows of the early and mid 1950’s. This was Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and his positive-thinking “Life is Worth Living” show. While it had a devoutly Catholic bent, it was really a show discussing moral issues of the day. NBC, CBS and ABC wouldn’t have put a prime-time show like that on in a million years–and only syndicated religious shows later would really come close to anything like it…albeit only on Sunday mornings. To show how different our own era is, Bishop Sheen won multiple popularity and Emmy Awards for his show that was watched avidly by millions every week. It was also the only time religion and telling lighthearted jokes (watch some of Sheen’s kinescoped clips on Youtube for proof) were combined on a TV show.
While also being one of the first networks to broadcast live in other time zones other than east coast (thanks to a handy affiliate they had in the Midwest), all these innovations weren’t enough to dig them out of hemorrhaging money due to most of their affiliates placing the network on the UHF dial that was pretty much the dead zone of over-the-air television viewers lasting right up to this day. Consider the American public too lazy already then to get up and explore what might be on channels 14-56 on UHF, even though DuMont did have some affiliates on the VHF frequency.
When ABC started to pull ahead of DuMont in the affiliate count and DuMont was forced to sell out to another company–Dr. DuMont was said to break down in tears one day to a friend while stating he couldn’t understand how everything had crumbled. Yes, it is almost hard to comprehend considering the quality of his network’s shows. The network stopped broadcasting in 1956, kept ownership of two local stations on the east coast, had a company name change to Metropolitan Broadcasting Company…and then became Metromedia Corporation in the early 60’s when bought by investor, John Kluge.
Because Metromedia was later bought by Rupert Murdoch who started Fox Network in 1986, one man (who actually started a fan site for the DuMont Network) thinks that Fox is DuMont back from the dead and forging ahead once again. Well, can it logically get such a designation?
Clarke Ingram is a well-known radio DJ in various east coast radio stations and also a known historian and fan of keeping the memory of the DuMont Network alive. On his memorial website www.members.aol.com/cingram/television/dumont.htm (that obviously can’t be updated with anything new) he manages to give the believability factor that Fox is really DuMont through multiple degrees of connection to all those business links of the past.
Perhaps his argument is right when Fox has a lot of innovations under its belt just like DuMont once had that the main three networks haven’t dared to do. On the other hand, Fox has also gone way below the belt with their myriad reality shows that’s probably made Bishop Sheen spin in his grave like a cyclone in the last 15 years. Fox arguably is getting worse, too, after having some great shows on the air at one time. “The Simpsons” is probably their only innovative saving grace left at the moment from their 80’s and 90’s peak. And I guess you can add “American Idol” (a direct beneficiary of DuMont’s 1950’s “Amateur Hour”) that’s been copied more times than we care to think about. That still gets Nielsen numbers Bishop Sheen once got.
Even if Fox is DuMont finally getting revenge on the big three networks (and firmly placed on a prominent VHF station nationwide)–they seem to blend into the mainstream fairly easily now. Some other TV networks were proposed in the 50’s and 60’s after DuMont folded that really could have created some interesting programming had they not have died a quick death. A few of the shows that managed to air on their few affiliates are long forgotten…but still legendary…
The Hughes Network, National Educational Television and The Overmyer Network…
—Out of all the business acquisitions and innovations by Howard Hughes, a lot of people probably don’t know that he attempted to start his own TV network to control the world a little more. Well, he had a lot of good ideas, so it almost seems too bad he didn’t succeed at TV. Called “HTN” to go with the notion that all networks had to have an acronym, this was an early precursor to ESPN with the idea that it would show nothing but sporting events through its available affiliates or through syndication. It actually was a buyout of another syndicated network called Sports Network Incorporated that had already been operating for 12 years before Hughes bought it in 1968 when he was starting his isolation in Las Vegas hotels.
It’s likely that Hughes would have added a lot of interesting programming on his network had he been able to acquire enough affiliates. It limped along, however, on some affiliates up until about the early 70’s and just sticking with sports. In a strange twist, his network almost acquired a little show called “Monday Night Football” before ABC made a better deal in 1970. That alone could have expanded HTN into a fourth network.
Maybe it was a good thing OCD-plagued Hughes didn’t show movies on there–or viewers may have been subjected to marathon airings of “Ice Station Zebra.”
—A lot of younger generations who grew up with PBS probably don’t realize that the channel they’ve long watched it on was a completely different network before 1970. In fact, the classic kid shows “Sesame Street” and “Mister Rogers” debuted when that network was still going and managed to survive the transition to Public Broadcasting Service. Well, it really wasn’t much different from PBS–but was called National Educational Television (or NET). Starting already in 1952 (as “Educational Television and Radio Center”)–everything that PBS is both praised and criticized for started with NET. That means liberal-minded documentaries and deeply scholarly specials that, even then, only attracted academic lovers. NET also started the trend of acquiring shows from the BBC in London that continues to this day on PBS with the airing of “Masterpiece Theatre” and numerous British sitcoms.
When affiliates complained about some of the controversial subjects NET was airing–affiliates starting to drop it…and our own government stepped in to form a Corporation for Public Broadcasting to keep it afloat (albeit with intention of it being temporarily). This was back when Democrats controlled Washington, so there probably wouldn’t have been a PBS without that political situation. Nevertheless, our government ended up funding public broadcasting indefinitely, as we’re all aware–starting their own network of PBS in 1970 that filled in on most of the same affiliates that the soon-to-be defunct NET occupied for years.
If the government ever decides to stop funding PBS indefinitely someday, you can be sure another network like it will start right up on the same affiliates through private funding…unless America is in a deep economic depression.
—If you thought Fox News was the only far-right conservative network on the air, then you’d probably be amazed that another network with a similar bent lasted for…yes, one month in 1967. And, oddly, the only show ever aired on their limited set of affiliates wasn’t emblematic of conservatism. The network was started by social conservative (and millionaire) Donald Overmyer who decided to get a national network going via his own programming ideas and acquisition of local stations. After managing to sell his network idea to over 100 affiliates lined up around the country, this almost became a big-deal competitor to the Big Three.
After Overmyer ran into some financial roadblocks–it went on anyway under the name The UN–or The United Network (shades of UPN today or The CW)–and the only show ever broadcast on it was a late-night show produced in Las Vegas called, appropriately enough, “The Las Vegas Show” with host Bill Dana and other well-known comedians of the time. Despite Vegas still being seedy then for such a conservative network, the show supposedly stayed clean and was actually popular in some markets that carried it at 11:30 p.m. on local stations from New York to Seattle. It should be noted, though, that some CBS local stations actually carried the show around the country before Merv Griffin started his late-night show there a couple of years later.
When the big UN network ship went down after one month on the air in June 1967, it started a long chain of the Big Three networks comfortably taking over mainstream TV for quite a while. Perhaps the Big Three wouldn’t be accused of longstanding political bias today had a ten-network universe been allowed to thrive by the 1960’s…