Television in the US: History and Production


Outside reading...
          Erik Barnouw.Tube of Plenty. New York: Oxford University Press. 1990
          Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows, 1946 - Present. New York: Ballantine Books. 1992.
          Richard Lindheim and Richard Blum. Inside Television Producing. Boston: Focal Press. 1991.
          Vince Waldron. Classic Sitcoms: A Celebration of the Best of Prime Time Comedy. New York: Macmillan. 1987.

          ABC | CBS | NBC | FOX | CW | PBS | SD-PBS
          A U. S. Television Chronology, 1875-1970

Objectives of Unit II, Lecture 7: Television in the US: History and Production
To identify the milestones in the development of television and the techniques used in tv productions.

     How did television develop between the 1880s and the 1930s?

Nipkow scanning disk
A Nipkow Disk

1884: Paul Gottlieb Nipkow (1860-1940), a German university student, patents (German Patent #30105) the concept for an electro-mechanical television system. This system, which becomes the basis of the television experiments of the 1920s and early 30s, uses a rotating scanning-disk (known as a Nipkow disk) with a series of 30 holes, in a pattern which spirals from the edge of the disk towards the center. A prototype of his scanning device was not built.

1926: Using a spinning Nipkow disk, Scottish inventor John Logie Baird (1888-1946) transmits to a receiver in his London labatory a moving image, with just enough detail (30 line resolution) to discern the human face. This experiment is believed to be the first demonstration of a working electro-mechanical television system.

1927: American inventor Philo Farnsworth (1906-1971) develops an all-electronic television system which he demonstrates to the press in September 1928. He would not give a public demonstration until 1934.

Felix the Cat in front of an early the TV Camera
Felix the Cat in front of an early TV "Camera"
Felix the Cat

1928: General Electric establishes an experimental electro-mechanical television station, W2XB, at its factory in Schenectady, NY. The station broadcasts a moving image from a "camera" using a Nipkow disk with a 24 line resolution. The star of these early transmissions was a 13" tall Bakelite statue of Felix the Cat slowly rotating on a turntable. In addition to the statue of Felix the Cat, W2XBS also broadcast images of a human subject. These broadcasts were used by GE engineers to test the new technology. In 1942, W2XB becomes WRGB, sister to radio station WGY.

An actor in front of the TV Camera
An Actor in front of the TV "Camera," Popular Mechanics Magazine, April 1928
The arc lamp projects a beam of light through the rotating Nipkow disk on to the face of the actor (Subject). The light reflected off the actor's face is picked up by the four photo-electric cells at the top, bottom and sides of the box. The photo cells turn the flickering light into fluctuating electric current which is transmitted to the television receiver.

GE Octogan TV Receiver
GE 3" Octogan TV Receiver

1928:General Electric designs and builds an experimental 3 inch electro-mechanical television receiver. There was some talk about manufacturing and selling the set to the public, but the plan was scrapped. Only five of the experimental units survive. In 1931, Popular Science Monthly published a series of articles by George H. Waltz on how the home craftsman could build his own television receiver. These articles can be read at

A number of companies did manufacture and sell mechanical television sets, either assembled or in kit form. In 1931 the Jenkins Television Radiovisor and Receiver Kit with a 3" magnyfing lens could be purchased for $ 115.45 ($1,769 in 2013 dollars). The Jenkins Television Model 200 Radiovisor and Receiver was designed for the living room. It had a finished walnut cabinet with an 8" picture and sold for $189.50. ($2,904 in 2013 dollars).

The television transmission is picked up by a short wave radio receiver which feeds the fluctating electrical signal to a neon lamp which is located behind a rotating 24" diameter Nipkow disk. The viewer watches the flickering image as it is projected on to the 3 inch screen.

A block diagram the electro-mechanical television system
A block diagram of the GE electro-mechanical television system, Radio News, April 1928.
Note that two radio transmitters were used in these experimental broadcasts. The visual image was broadcast on experiemntal shortwave station W2XB operating on 37.33 meters (7.7 MHz) and the sound was broadcast over radio station WGY operating on 379.9 meters (790 KHz).

Live TV Broadcast, 1928
Live TV Broadcast, 1928

1928: On September 11, 1928, W2XB (video) and WGY (audio) broadcast American first television drama, a 40 minute one-act melodrama titled "The Queen's Messanger." Because the TV screens were small, only the actor's face or hands were shown. Three "cameras" were used, two for the actors faces and a third for the actors hands or stage props. The play had only two characters. A female Russian spy and a British Diplomatic Courier. Four actors were used. Two for the character's faces, and two for their hands. Amateur radio operators in Los Angeles and Pittsfield, Mass. watched the experimental broadcast on home built television sets. In a story published in the Washington Post on September 21, 1928 under the headline: DRAMA IS RADIOED THROUGH TELEVISION, these radio operators reported: "Results only fair due to fading in 21 meter band, voices very strong with occasional glimpses of faces." General Electric took a number of staged publicity photos of the event and a short clip of the "broadcast" was included in a GE produced newsreel.

1928: RCA establishes an electro-mechanical experimental television station, W2XBS, in New York City. In 1933 the station leaves the air to return in 1935 as an all-electronic experimental station. By 1931 there were approximately 25 experimental televison stations in the United States. Most had left tha air by 1935. In 1941 experimental station W2XBS becomes WNBT which is now WNBC, channel 4 in New York City.

1931: German inventor Manfred von Ardenne (1907-1997) demonstrates at the Berlin Radio Show an all-electronic television system using a cathode ray tube for the image pickup (pickup tube) in the television camera and the image display (picture tube) in the television receiver.

1934: For 10 days in August, Philo Farnsworth demonstrates his all-electronic television system to the general public at the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia. Note: The Farnsworth and Ardenne all-electronic systems were not compatible.

1935: An all-electronic television service begins broadcasting in Berlin.

TV Camera at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
TV Camera at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

1936: The Berlin Summer Olympic Games are broadcast live by stations in Berlin and Hamburg. Twenty-eight public television rooms are opened for those who do not own a set.

1936: The British Broadcasting Company begins transmitting a high-definition (405 line resolution) television service from the Victorian Alexandra Palace in north London. This service, which becomes BBC One. is claimed by some to be the birthplace of modern television.

1. When did commercial television broadcasting begin in the United States?

FDR Opens the 1939 World Fair
FDR Opens the 1939 World's Fair
Note how fuzzy the picture was in 1939

1939: President Franklin Roosevelt's opening of the 1939 New York World's Fair is broadcast live from NBC's experimental station -- W2XBS -- in New York City. In 1939 W2XBS was on the air 4 hours a day (2:30-4:30 and 8:30-10:30pm EST), 5 days a week, Wednesday through Sunday.

1941: In July, both NBC (WNBT on channel 1) and CBS (WCBW on channel 2) come on the air with a commercial station, again in New York City. Both stations still exist. They are now WNBC (Channel 4) and WCBS (Channel 2). Further development is halted by World War II.

1946: The war is over, only 6 station are on-air (3 in New York City, 1 in Chicago, 1 in Philadelphia and 1 in Schenectady, NY) and both networks, NBC and CBS, begin to expand.

1948: Four television networks, (NBC, CBS, ABC, and DuMont), broadcasting over 128 stations, begin a full prime-time schedule (8 to 11pm, Eastern Time), seven days a week.

     In what city?

Commercial TV began in New York City

     When did television arrive in South Dakota?

Television arrived in South Dakota in May 1953 when KELO-TV began broadcasting in Sioux Falls. Five years later, in November 1958, KXAB (now KABY) goes on the air on channel 9 in Aberdeen.

2. What was the relationship between radio drama and early television programming?

Ozzie & Harriet
The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet
Most early (1948 to 1960) television shows, both dramatic and non-dramatic, originated on radio. For many programs -- The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1944-1954), Father Knows Best (1949-1954), Dragnet (1949-1956) -- the transition was easy: the cast performed in a television or film studio instead of a radio station. For the actor, a TV production required a longer time committment. A radio show was normally produced in one day -- a read through in the morning, a "dress" rehearsal in the afternoon, and the performance that evening. A half hour filmed television show required the actor to be in front of the camera for three or four, 10 to 12 hour days.

William Conrad
William Conrad
For other productions, the switch was much more difficult. William Conrad (1920-1994) created the role of U.S. Marshall Matt Dillon in the radio version of Gunsmoke (1952-1961). When CBS decided to bring Gunsmoke to television in 1955, the network executivies decided that although Conrad sounded like a US Marshall, he didn't look like one. At 5' 9" and 270 pounds, the portly, balding, mustached Conrad looked more like a villain than a western hero.

James Arness
James Arness
At the suggestion of John Wayne, CBS cast James Arness (1923-2011), a 6' 7" actor who's major acting credit at the time was the title role in The Thing from Another World (1951). Arness would be Matt Dillon for the next 40 years. First on the television series (1955-1975), then in five made-for-TV Gunsmoke movies.

William Conrad, who was one of radio's most prolific actors, would become a television producer and director. His first major on camera television role was Frank Cannon in Cannon (1971-1976). This was followed by Nero Wolf (1981) and J.L. McCabe, the Fatman, in Jake and the Fatman (1987-1992). William Conrad died of congestive heart failure in February 1994 and was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1997. Link to Gunsmoke: Radio's Last Great Dramatic Series for more information, including photographs, on the cast, characters and setting of radio's Gunsmoke.

Watch William Conrad as Frank Cannon introduce the "Frank Cannon Diet" on YouTube.

3. Who was television's first super star?

TV Guide: Milton Berle
Milton Berle
Milton Berle (1908-2002) started in show business at the age of five, appearing as a child in The Perils of Pauline (1914) and Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914). Through the 1920s, Berle moved up through the vaudeville circuit, finding his niche in the role of a brash comic known for stealing other comic's material. He became a popular master of ceremonies in vaudeville, soon achieving top billing in the largest cities and theatres. During the 1930s, he appeared in a variety of Hollywood films and further polished his routines in night clubs and on radio.

4. What was the program?

Texaco Star Theatre
Texaco Star Theatre
The Texaco Star Theatre (1948-1956) was an old-fashioned vaudeville variety hour with a half dozen guests each week. Berle, both host and star, worked his way into many of the acts. In 1950, the first year of the Nielson ratings, the "Milton Berle Show" was watched by 62% of those owning TV sets. It has been said that Berle was television's first great "salesman." During his tenure the number of TV homes went from a little under 191,000 to over 21,000,000, an increase of approximately 10,994%. In 1952 the cost of a 20" black & white GE console TV was $ 300. That would be $ 2,732 in today's (2016) currency. If you your family didn't have a TV, and many didn't, you visited a neighbor who did. "Tuesday night was Berle night!"

     From where was it broadcast?

Live from New York City. Although the program was broadcast live, a kinescope, a contrasty and fuzzy recording made by filming the picture off of a television monitor, was often made for "legal" reason and for a 3 hour delayed re-broadcast to the West coast. Although most of these kinescopes have lost, a few have survived.

The Texaco Star Theatre starring Milton Berle
With guests: Ronald Reagan and Dolores Grey
Part 1 of 4...

5. When was the Golden Age of Television?

Studio One
Westinghouse Studio One
1948 to 1960. Although the 12 year period between 1948 and 1960 is remembered for the variety show (Texaco Star Theatre), the sitcom (I Love Lucy) and the western (Gunsmoke), when we talk about the Golden Age of Television we are generally refering to the dramatic anthology programs, such as Westinghouse Studio One (1948-1958), The US Steel Hour (1953-1963), Alcoa Hour (1955-1957), Kraft Television Theatre (1947-1958), and Playhouse 90 (1956-1961) which were broadcast live from New York City. Begining in 1957 with the introduction of the $50,000.00 Ampex VRX-1000, America's first video tape recorder (VTR), many of these programs were taped before broadcast.

6. Name one major writer who got his start during this period.

William Gibson (1914-2008), Ira Levin (1929-2007), Rod Serling (1924-1975), Gore Vidal (1925-2012)

7. Give the title of one major work (film or play) which began as a golden age television script?

The Miracle Worker (William Gibson), The Days of Wine and Roses (J. P. Miller, 1919-2001), 12 Angry Men (Reginald Rose, 1920-2002), Requim for a Heavyweight (Rod Serling), No Time for Sergeants (Ira Levin). Links are to the film adaption in the Internet Movie DataBase.

8. When did television production move from live from New York City to filmed from LA?


9. What network show is credited with starting the shift to the west coast?

I Love Lucy
I Love Lucy
I Love Lucy (1951-1958). CBS wanted to broadcast live from New York. Lucy and Desi didn't want to leave their home in Los Angeles. They filmed the show with three cameras (which the film studios said couldn't be done) before a live audience. Because the show was filmed, both coasts got a high quality picture. Link to the I Love Lucy web page at Tim's TV Showcase.

10. What is the process used in developing a television series and selling it to a network?

There are only five major broadcast clients: ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, and CW. All of the clients are owned by production houses. All network prime time series are produced by the major film studios (Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, Universal, Paramount, Disney) or the five TV networks because they have "deep pockets." Ideas come from both the networks and the studios. The concept, the story, the script, and the cast must be approved by both the studio and the network, as well as the show's production company.

After a concept is given the "green light", a pilot episode will be shot. The pilot is often a two hour made for TV movie. Sometimes the characters and concept will be introduced on an episode of an existing series. For example, CBS's Jake and the Fatman (1987-1992) was introduced in a two hour episode-- The Don (1986) -- of NBC's Matlock (1986-1995). Normally between 15 and 20 pilots are produced each season.

If the pilot is accepted, the network will order between four and six episodes. If the mini-series is a succeess, additional episodes will be ordered. There are 22 episodes in a full season.

11. What is the difference between a single camera shoot and ...

Hawaii 5-0
Hawaii Five-0
In a single camera shoot, the program is filmed and edited like a movie: Rehearse a scene, shoot the scene. It is the technique used for most hour long action-adventure shows: Hawaii Five-0, Law and Order: SVU, Criminal Minds, Bones, NCIS...

     A multi-camera shoot?

Big Bang Theory
The Big Bang Theory
The multi-camera shoot, which is much closer to live theatre, is the technique developed by the television industry during's it's "Golden Age." It is the technique used for the half-hour sit-com (Big Bang Theory) and the network quiz show (both of which are usually taped before a live audience), and the hour long "soap opera" (which is taped in a closed TV studio without an audience).

12. How many cameras are used in a multi-camera production?

Three. The center camera is used for the "Master Shot," the left and right camera cover the closeups and over-the-shoulder shots. Most local news programs, which are mult-camera productions, use only two cameras.

13. How many days is a half-hour sitcom in rehearsal/production?

Five days. The director spends the first three days with the actors. Day four the camera crews are brought in, and the camera's location for each scene is determined. Day five is the final dress rehearsal, and the taping of the show. Normally both the final dress rehearsal as well as the performance are taped.

14. What are the three program sources available to a local station's program director?

  1. Network
  2. Locally produced
  3. Syndicated.

15. What is the major form of original programming produced by a local station?

Eyewitness News
Eyewitness News
News and information, including local high school and college sports coverage.

16. What types of programs normally appear in syndication?

Wheel of Fortune
Wheel of Fortune
Talk shows (Doctor Oz, Doctor Phil), game shows (Wheel of Fortune) and re-runs of old network sitcoms (Two and a Half Man). The top rated syndicated television program is Wheel of Fortune.

17. Which shows are usually picked up from the network feed?

American Idol
American Idol
The morning news shows (Good Morning, America), the afternoon soaps (Days of Our Lives), the 5:30 national news (The CBS Evening News ) and the prime time programs (7 to 10pm, Central time).

18. How are radio and television shows financed?

By commercials.

19. What is the basic function of the program?

To attract an audience to watch or listen to the commercials.

20. How many minutes of commercials support a half-hour prime time show?

Eight minutes. Six minutes are sold by the network, and two minutes are available for sale by the local station.

21. What is the standard length of a television commercial?

Thirty seconds.

22. How much would a prime time spot cost on Aberdeen's KABY (Channel 9)?

In the spring of 2006, a prime time 30 second spot on the Aberdeen ABC station, KABY, costs between $ 200 and $ 300. KABY broadcasts to approximately 80,000 TV households in a 16 county area.

23. What is the difference between rating point, share and ranking?

Rating point: The percentage of TV homes watching a program. A rating of 20 points means that 20% of America's TV homes are watching the program.

Share: The percentage of TV homes, whose sets are on, watching a program. A 30 share means that 30% of those people who are watching TV at that moment, are watching the program.

Ranking: The position (or place) the show holds in that week's (or season's) list.

24. Which, rating are share, will always be higher?

The share.

25. What readily available source can be used to determine a program's rating?

The Nielsen Ratings (provided by Nielsen Media Research) of television's prime time schedule are published in the Life (or purple) section of the Wednesday (or maybe Thursday) issue of USA Today. TV rating are also published on the Web at

26. How many television homes does each rating point represent?

A rating point is equal to 1% of tv homes. According to Nielsen's National Television Household Universe Estimates, there are 118.4 million TV homes in the US. Nielsen estimates that nearly 302 million persons age 2 and older live in these TV homes. 96% of American homes have access to broadcast television either off the air, via cable or satellite, or from the internet.

27. Why can a show with a low rating still attract advertisers?

Because that program attracts the kind of audience (meaning: The kind of people who will buy the sponsor's product) the advertiser wants. Advertisers tend to look for viewers between the age of 18 and 49. If your show attracts a younger audience, the network can charge more for a 30 advertising second spot (commercial). During the 2009-2010 tv season, Fox's Glee drew fewer total viewers than CBS's top rated NCIS but the Fox show earned on average $ 272,694 per 30 second spot to CBS' $150,708 for NCIS.

28. What elements, other than the quality of production, can effect a program's rating?

The two major element are (1) a shows competition (You don't want to be scheduled opposite the number one show) and (2) what programs lead and follow your show (You want to be sandwiched between two hit shows).

29. What is television's number one show?

According to the most watched TV show during the 2015-2016 Season was NBC's Sunday Night Football (Rank: #1; 21.4 million viewers), CBS's top show was The Big Bang Theory (Rank: #2; 19.4M viewers) FOX's number one show was Empire (Rank: #5; 15.7 viewers) and ABC's most watched series was Dancing with the Stars (Rank: #8; 13.4M viewers) Viewer estimates include live viewing, off-the-air, cable or satellite, and DVR playback on the same day. The most watched dramatic tv program was CBS' NCIS (Rank #3, 20.3M viewers)

During the week of December 12-18, 2016, the number one television show was NBC's Sunday Night Football with 26.15 million viewers. The top CBS show was The Big Bang Theory (#2, 15.96 million viewers). Neither ABC or FOX had a show in the Top 10.

As of December 18, 2016, the Neilsen "Season to Date" total viewership for the five commercial networks was...

  1. CBS: 19.3 million
  2. NBC: 18.1
  3. ABC: 13.8
  4. Fox: 12.0
  5. CW: 3.6

30. What is television's longest running prime-time dramatic series?

The Simpsons. 20+ years, from December 1989 to ???.

31. What is broadcasting's (radio and television) longest running program?

The Guiding Light: 1950s

Guiding Light: 1990s
Guiding Light
Guiding Light. 72 years. GL began in Chicago on January 25, 1937 as a 15 minute, 5 days a week, soap. The show was originally about the Reverend Doctor John Rutledge (played by Arthur Peterson) and his Little Church of Five Points in Five Points, a Chicago suburb. The Rev. Rutledge left a lamp, the original "guiding light," burning in his study as a beacon for those who needed help. In 1948 the focus of the show shifted to the Frederick (Papa) Bauer family of Springfield. During the Christmas Episode in December of 2000, Meta Bauer, the daughter of Mama and Papa Bauer remembers...
When I was a girl we used to listen to Reverend Ruthledge at the Church in Five Points. He was the best man I've ever known at finding hope for people in trouble, and I guess that's just about everybody at one time or another. He used to say something I'll never forget. "There is a destiny that makes us brothers. No one goes that way alone. All that we bring into the lives of others, comes back into our own."
In 1952 CBS-TV introduced Guiding Light, a 15 minute soap opera to their afternoon schedule. In 1968 the show was expanded to a half-hour, and was expanded to an hour in 1977. In April 2009, CBS announced that the last episode of Guiding Light would be broadcast on Friday, September 18, 2009.

32. Which regularly scheduled television series has the distinction of drawing the largest audience for a single episode?

M*A*S*H (1972-1983). The 2 hour series finale broadcast in February 1983. It earned a 60.2 rating with a 77 share.

33. What are the sweeps?

The "Sweeps" are the television rating surveys which "sweep" North America, all 210 television markets, four times a year -- November, February, May and August. Because they use a larger, and more complete sample than the Neilsen index, they give a more accurate idea of what the "local" audience is watching in the smaller markets. It is during "Sweeps" that the networks broadcast...
  1. All new episodes of regularly scheduled shows; many featuring special guest stars,
  2. Made-for-TV movies with sensational themes and major film and TV stars,
  3. The mini-series-- a multi-part, four to twelve hour, made-for-TV movie,
  4. Award shows,
  5. The premiere of a summer bockbuster movie, and
  6. Multi-part documentaries on local and national newscasts.

     Why are they important?

Ratings developed during the "Sweeps" are used by the local station and network to establish their quarterly rate card. The higher the rating, the larger the audience, the more they can charge for a thirty second spot.

34. What effect has cable and home DVRs had on the size of the network's prime time audience?

The commercial network's prime time audience has dropped from a 90 share in the mid 70's, to less than a 50 share in 2008. Today, only a little less than a third (30%) of the prime time audience is watching the big three networks -- ABC, CBS, and NBC. When the networks lose audience, they lose ad revenue, and their profits drop which makes the stock holders unhappy.

TV Audience Distribution
TV Audience Distribution, 2008
Left: Cable and home DVRs
Right: The 5 on-air networks

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Updated: December 27, 2016
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Text Copyrighted © 1995-2016 by Larry Wild, Northern State University