US TELEVISION ...

DUMONT: AMERICA'S FIRST "FOURTH NETWORK"

Years before Fox, WB and UPN, there was the DuMont Television Network. It was the first attempt to create a "fourth network" in the United States. A number of factors made DuMont history by 1956. But its influence in American television continues to be felt today.

The venture was the brainchild of a brilliant scientist named Dr. Allen B. DuMont, who founded his DuMont Laboratories in 1931. The labs were in DuMont's garage; he started the firm with $1000. Eventually, DuMont Labs became known for its production of cathode ray tubes, essential to the television industry. DuMont's tubes could last for thousands of hours, versus a 20 or 30 hour longevity for German-made tubes. That led to the production of television set receivers in the late 1930's; DuMont was the first company in the US to make TV sets. Needing more capital, DuMont sold an interest in the company to Paramount Pictures in 1939-a decision that would have negative long-term effects for DuMont and his empire.

DuMont aired programs on an experimental basis during World War II. According to at least two company executives, DuMont began broadcasting as a television network on August 6th, 1945, when viewers in New York City (station WABD) and Washington D.C. (WTTG) learned a second atomic bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. But the first scheduled series on the two-station DuMont network came on August 15th, 1946, with a show called "Serving Through Science". It was the first of what would be DuMont's major legacy-low budget programming done with imagination and even with a touch of style. DuMont's main income source came from television set sales, unlike ABC, CBS and NBC, which had radio stations to help subsidize television. DuMont aired virtually no filmed programs during its history; much of the network's lineup was broadcast live from the network's studios at Wanamaker's Department Store in New York City.

Yet there were innovations. "Small Fry Club", hosted by a man named Bob Emery, was the first children's program to air in the afternoons, months before NBC's "Howdy Doody" hit the airwaves. "The Plainclothesman," a live action show, saved money by depicting the adventures from the point of view of a never-seen main character (the camera acted as the star). A newspaper melodrama called "Night Editor" had its star act out the stories while at the newspaper's desk. "Down You Go" was a low-budget but intelligent quiz show that originated from Chicago.

Despite its attempt to do more with less money, DuMont was still at a major disadvantage compared with its largest rivals. CBS and NBC linked up with the most powerful stations in the country to dominate the television scene in the early days, leaving DuMont and equally impoverished rival ABC to fight for the scraps. Stations around the country that had a choice between the four networks were unlikely to air the entire DuMont schedule. That was especially true in towns with just one television station; with CBS and NBC having the most popular shows, the station usually took those network feeds and relegated a handful of ABC and DuMont shows-at best-to weekends or late nights. DuMont did have a major weapon in its arsenal, however. The company owned Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania's WDTV, the only television station in what was then one of the top ten markets in the country. Advertisers who wanted to pitch Pittsburgh viewers had no choice but to play ball with DuMont. Admiral, which made TV sets and appliances, was forced to air its "Admiral Broadway Review" with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca on both NBC and DuMont; despite that fact, most people in the industry considered "Broadway Review" an NBC program.

DuMont still had some modest hits. "Captain Video", which began airing in 1949, was a five-day a week space opera done on a $25 weekly prop budget! "The Original Amateur Hour" came from radio and became a success for DuMont before NBC snatched the hit talent program away. The same thing happened with the star of DuMont's best-remembered variety series, "Cavalcade of Stars". In 1950, the show hired a young comic named Jackie Gleason as its host. For a salary of $1600 a week, Gleason invented a number of characters who appeared each week on "Cavalcade"; brought forward the talented Art Carney; and came up with the saga of a low-wage bus driver and his long-suffering wife. That skit became known as "The Honeymooners", with Pert Kelton as the first Alice Kramden to Gleason's bombastic Ralph. But by 1952, CBS lured Gleason with a salary of $8000 a week and a much stronger station lineup. (But Kelton didn't go to CBS in part due to health problems, and partly due to allegations of Communist ties. A young Audrey Meadows became Alice Kramden #2.)

Perhaps the most successful overall show on the DuMont schedule was a half-hour religious program entitled "Life Is Worth Living". Hosted by Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, it surprised everyone when it began taking a significant chunk of the audience away from its formidable NBC rival, the "Texaco Star Theater" with Milton Berle. DuMont also broadcast live coverage of the famed 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, which was the beginning of the end of Senator Joseph McCarthy's communist "witch hunts".

Sadly, only a relative handful of DuMont kinescopes are still with us today. Those grainy films shot from a television receiver remain the only visible evidence of DuMont's programming history. In 1996, Edie Adams, the widow of inventive comic Ernie Kovacs, testified at a public hearing on video preservation about the fate of her husband's early DuMont shows (along with episodes of "Cavalcade"; "Captain Video" and others): They were destroyed. There was a legal fight over the cost of storing and preserving those artifacts of television history. Because of that, Adams noted that an attorney "had three huge semis back up to the loading dock…filled them all with stored kinescopes…drove them to a waiting barge…made a right at the Statue of Liberty and dumped them in the upper New York Bay." Still, a number of DuMont kinescopes are with us; many of them are now in collections at UCLA; the Museum of Television and Radio in both Beverly Hills and New York City; and the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago. (The founder of MBC is Bruce DuMont, the nephew of network founder Alan B. DuMont.)

By 1953, DuMont was in deep trouble. Its television sets were expensive and could not compete in price with RCA, Zenith or other brands of the day. The Federal Communications Commission would not let DuMont own the maximum five television stations in the country's largest cities, because of its ties with Paramount Pictures. (DuMont owned three stations; Paramount owned two-and the FCC considered the two companies a single entity, keeping each from buying more stations, which would have helped pump more profits into the money-losing television network.)

Probably the final blow to DuMont's future came in 1953, when the FCC approved the merger of ABC and United Paramount Theaters, a company that owned movie houses around the country. The ABC-UPT marriage brought much-needed cash to the network, allowing ABC to upgrade its programming, hire bigger-name stars, and lure new affiliates. Compared with the big-budget variety shows, dramas and sitcoms on the other networks, DuMont shows looked impoverished; faced with that fact, viewers with a choice went to the competition and stations became reluctant to clear DuMont shows. As one historian noted, "DuMont was a network that marked its twentieth anniversary with a thirty-minute special done in a few spartan sets. When the actor playing network founder Alan DuMont said 'I've got $500 and a place in my basement,' viewers arriving late may have thought he was talking about the show's budget and location."

With little to lose, DuMont promoted itself as the network that gave small advertisers a crack at affordable television. But it was a limited strategy at best. Another ill-fated plan involved spending $5 million on a new five-studio facility in New York City. By the time it opened in 1954, television production was beginning to shift away from live, New York-based programs to filmed series produced in Hollywood. DuMont did come up with a technical innovation called the "Electronicam", that combined a live TV camera with a film camera, allowing a program to be shot live and on film at the same time, eliminating the grainy, poor-quality kinescope. But only Jackie Gleason became a customer of "Electronicam"; the so-called "Classic 39" episodes of "The Honeymoooners" that aired during the 1955-56 season on CBS were shot with the "Electronicam". By that time, the first videotape recorders became available to the television industry, all but ending the need for the "Electronicam".

In a last-ditch effort for survival, ABC Chairman Leonard Goldenson offered to merge his company with DuMont and create a stronger "third network". But the deal was turned down by DuMont's Paramount-dominated board of directors. With losses mounting, DuMont executives knew the handwriting was on the wall. In early 1955, DuMont sold its very profitable Pittsburgh station to Westinghouse for nearly $10 million. Soon after, DuMont began to dismantle the television network, with some shows going off the air; others moving to ABC; and expensive coaxial cable lines across the country cancelled to save money.

In Jeff Kisselhoff's book "The Box", former DuMont executive Ted Bergmann remembered how the founder responded to the events: "I remember sitting in (Dr. DuMont's) study in his house, just the two of us….We were having a drink before dinner and he started to sob and said, 'I can't let them take my company away from me. I can't let them do this.'"

But they did. With DuMont shareholders demanding action, the Paramount-dominated board took control and cleaned house in mid-1955. Dr. DuMont was given a meaningless chairmanship post; the remaining owned TV stations were spun off into a separate company, which eventually became Metromedia. The board also sold off the TV set business to Emerson Electric; the last DuMont-branded televisions were sold in the early 1970's. By August 1956, "Boxing From St. Nicholas Arena" became the last program to air on the DuMont Network. In 1958, investor John Kluge bought out Paramount's interest in Metromedia and became the company's new owner. Metromedia eventually bought more TV and radio outlets, becoming a major station owner in the US. In 1985, Australian media baron Rupert Murdoch bought most of Metromedia's stations, located in the country's biggest cities, and used them as the nucleus of Fox Broadcasting-which eventually became the first truly successful "fourth network" in the United States. As for Dr. Allen DuMont, he was hired by Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corporation after the company bought DuMont's cathode-ray manufacturing operations. DuMont died in Monclair, New Jersey on November 16th, 1965.

Why did DuMont's efforts fail so badly? In the early 1950's, the American economy was not large enough to support four national broadcast networks, let alone two or three. (Indeed, ABC would not become a major force in US television until the mid-1970's.) And unlike the other networks, DuMont had no radio ties, which would have provided a pool of talent and engineering, not to mention potential affiliates. Still, the effort remains a testimony to the determination and effort of Dr.Allen DuMont and the people who worked for him.

For more on the history of the DuMont network and its programming, I recommend checking out the website run by broadcaster Clarke Ingram (www.members.aol.com/cingram/television/dumont.htm).

Television producers Ted Bergmann and Ira Skutch, who worked for DuMont, also wrote an excellent first-hand account of the network's history and demise: "The DuMont Television Network: What Happened? A Significant Episode in the History Of Broadcasting" (Scarecrow Press, 2002).


Return to Top of Page


Text: Mike Spadoni. June 2003
http://www.televisionheaven.co.uk