The Medium That Deserves An Award, Is The One That's Not Taking One - Part 2
by Flip Michaels
Radio and Production Magazine represents to me a spectacular network of production-minded professionals from continent to continent. Think about it. Within these pages you'll not only find peers, but direction. I'd like to take this opportunity to acknowledge each of you who have written, faxed, E-mailed or simply called with questions, comments, and your direction. From Chicago to Scotland and back to Canada, your input has been my bloodline to this column. Thank you!
Now, where was I?! Oh, yeah: Part Two: RCA, NBC, FRC, and CBS.
Our trip into the past continues with a company named American Marconi. Many could and would argue, but I'd like to think they gave birth to what we consider now as the portable radio. The company's intentions (along with RCA's) was to advance U.S. interests in transoceanic telegraphy. So, an American Marconi employee named David Sarnoff (sound familiar?!) took the idea of radio becoming a "household utility" a step farther. As new commercial manager of RCA, Sarnoff successfully manufactured "simple radio music boxes" and their sale soon became the chief source of revenue for RCA!
With those profits, Sarnoff had hoped he could create a broadcasting network full of, as he put it, "entertainment, information, and education, with emphasis on the first feature--entertainment." And so his company (in 1926) purchased WEAF from AT&T for one million dollars as the nucleus of a broadcasting network. Just imagine the value of a million dollars in 1926!!! (AT&T retained a financial interest by supplying the land lines to link the network's stations.) Vvvvoila! RCA christens the National Broadcasting Company. This event pushed Congress to pass the Radio Act, simply creating a Federal Radio Commission empowered to license and regulate stations. (We now know them as the FCC!) Only an early stage network whose influence was largely unforeseen would be free from FRC regulation at that time.
Next stop on the timeline, Columbia Broadcasting System. CBS was organized (in 1927) as a rival network to NBC. It passed through a handful of owners, including the Columbia Phonograph Company, which actually gave the network its name!
In 1928, William S. Paley (of a wealthy cigar manufacturing family) bought the network, breathing air (or was it really cigar smoke?) into a financially weak firm by selling shares, borrowing money, and moving the headquarters to Madison Avenue, New York City (not far from NBC's location on Fifth Avenue). Paley broke the mold. He took an entirely new approach to affiliate contracts. Whereas NBC was charging affiliates to carry sustaining (non-sponsored programs), CBS would supply them free in return for just five hours of the affiliate's air time. And there you have the birth of radio trades. I wonder if the first GMs got a Model T in the deal! Obviously, the "new" terms helped CBS attract a good handful of major affiliates, as many as forty-seven stations to its network by the end of 1929! Paley's new approach offered a significant challenge to NBC's attempt at radio dominance.
Even the big broadcast giants weren't immune to the effects of the Great Depression. RCA was no longer earning enough of a profit margin on their sale of radios and NBC was forced to adopt a fully commercial policy (much like that of Paley's CBS). Fortunately in 1931, NBC made its first true profit, amounting to two million dollars! Change continued the following year, as a complex reorganization inspired by a threatened monopoly suit pushed RCA head, Owen D. Young, to resign. Sarnoff replaced Young and moved RCA-NBC to New York City (Rockefeller Plaza). Besides, everyone loves hot dogs and pizza!
PROGRAMMING AND ADVERTISING
Now that you know the background on America's founding networks...hey! What about the funny ol' features? And when did we start using ratings to sell our advertising?
Well, although live music served as the staple of most early radio programming, networks soon started to realize that vaudeville-trained comedians lured larger audiences (allowing "other talent" to announce sponsors' products). That's when Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll took radio programming to the next step by creating a daily fifteen-minute-long comedy sketch based on the hard times of two black characters. Amos 'n' Andy, which made its NBC debut in 1929, eventually attracted an audience estimated at forty million! This opened the doorway to total radio creativity! Many popular comedians including Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, and Ed Wynn soon covered the network airwaves with a full variety of creative programming.
Advertising now could be sold according to the popularity of a given program. Soon networks and sponsors began relying on ratings of a performer's success. By 1930, a company called Crossley Inc. tabulated the first formal ratings, showing that NBC's Amos 'n' Andy was four times more popular than any CBS show!!!
The radio wars continued. To deal with NBC's new format structure, CBS turned to the broadcast of prestigious yet inexpensive dramas under the direction of Orson Welles. In response, NBC threw a left hook by broadcasting adaptations of Shakespeare starring John Barrymore, scoring well with the judges by inducing Arturo Toscanini to leave Italy and take up direction of the newly formed NBC Symphony Orchestra (beginning in late 1937). And you thought slamming the guys across the street was something new!
NEWS, WORLD WAR II, AND THE FCC
If you work with the news department, you can thank Hitler. Seriously! The threat of world war spurred the development of network news departments everywhere! Most memorable was coverage offered by a young CBS correspondent, Edward R. Morrow, on Hitler's march to Vienna in 1938. His report brought a new sophistication and immediacy to news reporting.
The FCC also got their official start in the 1930s, originally to assign frequencies to broadcast facilities and carry out the decision of Congress that, in return for giving broadcasters a license to profit from the use of the radio spectrum ("the public domain"), stations would provide some programs that served the public good.
Isn't it amazing just how far radio has walked over the years?! Now you too can tell the story of radio. Share your answers with The Cheat Sheet, drop a line and give me your own unique perspective of it (and a war story or two). Give our medium and its founders the award it deserves...remembrance.