The Forgotten Network

The Forgotten NetworkOrder this bookStory: How does a television network die? These days it might just be a lack of sustainable advertising revenue, or a merger with a competitor, but then, there are so many networks on the air today on satellite and cable. But before those two means of delivering a signal were widespread, television pioneer Allan Du Mont tried to put into practice his dream of creating a new television network, and completely rewrote the rules of the nascent broadcasting networks. Within a decade, however, the DuMont Television Network was already no more – even though the other networks were now playing by DuMont’s rules. The author makes, and convincingly backs up, a case that DuMont signed off the air because the Federal Communications Commission, at the behest of its lobbyists within the “Big Three” networks, sabotaged the new network at every step.

Review: You know, there’s an epic movie somewhere just waiting to be made out of this story. It could be a dry pile of politics and technical jargon, but the author does a great job of putting the understanding of those two elements within grasp, and then spends even more time on the true soul of the story – Allan Du Mont’s almost cheerfully Ed-Woodian, “carry on regardless” spirit that infuses the story of his short-lived network from its beginning to its near-tragic end. I say tragic loosely, because it’s the death of a dream and an ideal rather than the death of a person, and yet by the end of the story my heart ached for the dream and the people who dared to dream it.

In the 1940s and 50s, the FCC was practically wrapped around the fingers of CBS and NBC, and to a lesser extent the fledgling network ABC, which had spun off from NBC fairly recently. All of them had only just entered the television business, having built their empires in the medium of radio, and they used each medium to support the other – and use the FCC to keep the playing field to themselves. It was into this scenario that Allan Du Mont, one of the first makers of consumer TV sets in America, stepped – simply because he thought more people would buy his televisions if there was more programming available to watch on them than there already was. Du Mont had no radio stations, and most TV stations at the time were started by radio station owners who dutifully broadcast the television programming of whatever corporation they were already affiliated with. Du Mont had also, perhaps naively, inked a deal with Paramount Pictures that brought an infusion of cash into his operation – but the flipside of that was surrendering a certain amount of budgetary control to Paramount, and the FCC arbitrarily decided that the DuMont Network was under Paramount’s control, and Paramount’s owned-and-operated Los Angeles TV station was therefore counted as one of only five stations that any corporate entity could own directly, meaning that DuMont could only own four other stations in the entire United States. (How ironic that, in the 1970s, Paramount would inherit its own wind with an attempt to launch a fourth TV network that never got off the ground because it couldn’t recruit enough advertisers – and let’s not even talk about UPN, which is about to join DuMont in the ranks of ex-networks.)

And yet the DuMont Network is responsible for so many of the innovations that today seem commonplace. DuMont was the first network to air programming in the daytime hours, something that the “Big Three” avoided in order to protect daytime advertisers on their radio stations. DuMont was the first network to solicit multiple advertisers for any one given program, eschewing the system that had been in place since the dawn of television where an advertiser could literally “own” a program – i.e. General Electric Playhouse, Alcoa Presents, etc. – and, in a way that would cause an uproar today, also had total control over that program’s content. DuMont was the first network to feed its east coast programming live to affiliates in the midwest, via the new miracle of coaxial cable. DuMont was the home of endearingly low-budget shows like Captain Video And His Video Rangers, and Cavalcade Of Stars, hosted by up-and-coming comic Jackie Gleason, who introduced America to Ralph and Alice Kramden in a brief sketch he called “The Honeymooners,” which later became a show in its own right. DuMont put the first programs on the air aimed at young children, and anticipated home shopping channels by half a century. In addition to Gleason, Ernie Kovacs and Morey Amsterdam rose to stardom in their own shows on the DuMont Network.

But DuMont’s fall came with the FCC’s allocation of the VHF broadcasting spectrum (channels 1-13, though channel 1 was eventually removed from the lineup). Since stations couldn’t occupy consecutive channels without the risk of interference, those 12 stations became 6 or less. DuMont affiliates were squeezed out into the just-approved UHF band, which most TVs required additional equipment to receive. Suddenly no one was watching DuMont because no one could watch DuMont – okay, maybe not no one, but certainly the remaining audience wasn’t big enough to keep advertisers on board. Allan Du Mont tried desperately to stave off the death of his network, but by 1956, DuMont was off the air, and a unique voice in American broadcasting was lost.

This was before it was in vogue for the FCC to stand up for diversity of programming or diversity of program sources. And obviously it was way the hell before the Commission’s current gallop toward near-total deregulation of ownership rules. (It seems to be far more important these days to find out who to blame – and who to send the bill to – for wardrobe malfunctions, but that’s me editorializing, not relaying anything that the author of this book wrote.) In short, it’s a heartbreaking story.

“The Forgotten Network” is pitched primarily as an academic work, and in that regard it’s a fine academic work, one whose research materials the author is offering to share freely with anyone using it in classes. It makes me want to start teaching a class in TV history just so I can see that stuff myself. But even more than that, “The Forgotten Network” is accessible to anyone, and absolutely essential to any serious student of the medium of television. In my own television career, I’ve done my part to help build more than a couple of “minor network” stations myself, and I recognize the low-budget quirks of those stations as the mirror image, decades later, of the DuMont network. And yet Weinstein makes me weep for Allen Du Mont and his dream in a way that I never will when UPN signs off for the last time. His network shouldn’t be forgotten at all – it should be revered for the change it brought to the industry, rather than relegated to a trivia question. This book is a great first step in that direction – and I highly recommend it to you.

Year: 2004
Author: David Weinstein
Publisher: Temple University Press
Pages: 240