Television History - The First 75 Years
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First Day of (USA Commercial) TV .... 

1941_June_30_WNBT_Program.jpg (187557 bytes) (187K)
WNBT Program Card for June 30 to July 5th, 1941 

1999 TV FDC.JPG (73264 bytes) (73K)
1999 First Day Cover -- 33 Cent Stamp "TV Entertains America" -- Commemorates First Day of Commercial TV

Tuesday July 1st, 1941  -- A famous television history date.  On that day, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) activated new  non-experimental call letters for two stations (WNBT, later renamed WNBC & WCBW)  in the United States, and permitted commercial advertising.  It officially marks "DAY ONE" of American television.  Any broadcasting before that date was considered "experimental"

Not all stations switched from experimental to commercial at once.  It was a slow process which took years to complete.  By way of a side note, the official start to public "experimental" USA television is April 30, 1939, with the televised opening of the New York World's Fair.  That would make the Fair the first TV show, if you want to talk about the experimental period.

The WNBT Program card shows what the first day of television was like.  We can use this program card as a guide to several "First" events, as they relate to "Commercial" television's start.  Some examples are:

  • FIRST GAME show or QUIZ show --- "Truth or Consequences" with Ralph Edwards  (This was their debut show)
  • FIRST show or program on day one --- Baseball game at Ebbets Field, Brooklyn Dodgers vs. Philadelphia
  • First Newscaster -- Lowell Thomas, for Sunoco Oil

1957 CBS Ticket-$64K Question.JPG (23439 bytes) (23K)
September 17, 1957 Ticket Stub for the $64,000 Question Quiz Show

Caution:  In the pre-history years before commercial television's start, there was a lot of programming experimentation.  Few written or visual records were kept, and that is why it is difficult to give precise and guaranteed accurate answers to these "first" questions, in the early prewar years.  To be sure, many program events were written into the history books, but not all.

One good example of a "first" confusion

It is generally accepted knowledge that NBC president Pat Weaver created the first talk-show in 1952, with the premier of the "Tonight Show".  However, few people know the truth.  In TV's prehistory "experimental years", ten years earlier (1942), a California station W6XYZ had a lanky young writer named Franklin Lacey, who became television's first talk show host, on his own show!  There were only 40 TV sets being watched at that time (in the Los Angeles area).  You can see how difficult it can be to claim the 'first' of this or that.  Most everything was tried in one form or another in the late 20's to late 30's period, but in many areas there were only a handful of TV set owners, and few memories remain today.


An outstanding, easy to read reference book on the programming during the experimental era of television is: Please Stand By -- A Prehistory of Television by Michael Ritchie.  It is a must read for early TV trivia and program buffs.  Soft cover is $15.95, 248 pages, Size: 9" x 7", ISBN 0-87951-615-1, published in 1995 by "The Overlook Press", New York.  Loaded with great photographs, too!

To quote some of America's pre-history 'firsts' from this book:

  • 1927 --  First American government leader to appear on TV was Herbert Hoover (who later became President)
  • 1930 --  First (ILLEGAL) TV commercial -- Boston's W1XAV is fined for doing a spot for the fur industry
  • 1931 --  First couple legally married on television
  • 1937 --  First regular newscast by John Cameron Swayze
  • 1939 --  First televised baseball game 
  • 1940 --  First QUIZ SHOW -- (Experimental Era) --  WRGB's Spelling Bee
  • 1943 --  First TV Beauty Contest -- "The Electronics Queen" -- WRGB, Schenectady, NY
  • 1946 --  First "happy talk" news anchors appear in Chicago

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