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History of the DuMont Television Network*

Discussion in 'Visual Arts' started by Dan C, Sep 24, 2003.

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  1. Dan C

    Dan C Forum Fotographer Thread Starter

    The West
    This is a wonderful article on the history of the DuMont network and company. The section about a legal battle ending in the destruction of most kines of DuMont programming makes me ill!
    (Sorry if this has been posted before, it's new to me)

    Dan C



    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).
    OldSoul, Vidiot and geralmar like this.
  2. Ed Bishop

    Ed Bishop Incredibly, I'm still here

    Thanks, Dan; I hadn't read this before. The part about the kines being dumped into the bay doesn't surprise me; so much from that time(and beyond) is gone forever, for a variety of reasons, but the main one being nobody knew or cared whether it had any worth or not; it was 'over the airwaves' and 'broadcast' after all, ephemeral, already paid for by advertisers. What future use could it possibly have? :(

    Vidiot likes this.
  3. Joel Cairo

    Joel Cairo Media Doctor (& Video Gort) Staff

    Portland, Oregon
    Berle always used to note in spite of their battle for ratings, he and Bishop Sheen worked for the same sponsor: Sky Chief. :D

  4. RetroSmith

    RetroSmith Forum Hall Of Fame<br>(Formerly Mikey5967)

    East Coast
    Yea, sadly, I knew about the kinescopes dumped into New York Harbor. We're just lucky that we have SOME examples of Dumont programming.

    So many stupid decisons regarding tape storage were made, right up until the 1980s.
  5. RetroSmith

    RetroSmith Forum Hall Of Fame<br>(Formerly Mikey5967)

    East Coast
    By the way, there ARE a bunch of "Captian Videos" still existing. I know a place thats selling a whole bunch, so we know they do exist.
  6. MLutthans

    MLutthans That's my spaghetti, Chewbacca! Staff

    Marysville, WA
    I saw this years ago on television, and for a time a video could be purchased from Johns Hopkins University. I see that it is now available online:


    This is a kinescope of a DuMont broadcast in which they walk the viewer through the studio setup for one of their shows, "The Johns Hopkins Science Review."

    By the way, the effect of a "lens turret" - a precursor to the zoom lens we know and love today - can be seen at 4:15, 11:23, and at other spots in the broadcast. You can see the lenses themselves at about 15:09.

    The follow-up broadcast ("teased" at the end of this program) looks very interesting, and is apparently extant as part of a special collection at the University, but I've never seen it.


    PS - an archived thread dealing with the DuMont network is available here.
  7. Vidiot

    Vidiot Now in 4K HDR!

    Hollywood, USA
    That was always a major faux pas in the old days of television: "racking the turret" on the air. Famously, you can see that happen in the news videotape of Oswald getting shot by Jack Ruby in November of 1963.

    Zoom lenses quickly took over the TV business by the end of the 1960s, to the point where you never saw lens turrets on the air anymore. But you still see camera operators adjusting their zooms or panning for a shot and then suddenly get caught in live situations. I was just chuckling over something like that in X Factor the other day -- you gotta love live television.

    The DuMont network is one of the most interesting footnotes in TV history -- the "forgotten TV network," lost to history. I always thought it was tragic that about 95% of everything they did got dumped into the East River by ABC in the early 1970s -- all the kinescopes gone. DuMont faded in 1956, just as videotape was taking off, so I don't think any of their shows were available in any other format. According to Wikipedia, there were over 20,000 DuMont TV episodes produced, and only 350 of them survive!
  8. larryk

    larryk Forum Resident

    Central PA
  9. PaulKTF

    PaulKTF Senior Member

    Thought you guys would like this video about the history of The DuMont Network

    svoegtlin and Dan C like this.
  10. Dan C

    Dan C Forum Fotographer Thread Starter

    The West
    Whoa man, I started this thread in '03. It's about old enough to be in junior high now! :eek:

    dan c
    Vidiot likes this.
  11. JamieC

    JamieC Forum Resident

    Detroit Mi USA
    Dumont brought wrestling into American homes.
  12. PaulKTF

    PaulKTF Senior Member

    And then Vince Russo came along and ruined it.

    (Sorry, reflex). :)
  13. JFOK

    JFOK Well-Known Member

    Cape Cod, Mass.
    Berle also said that Sheen had better writers...Matthew, Mark, Luke, John....
  14. Vidiot

    Vidiot Now in 4K HDR!

    Hollywood, USA
    And just to respond to a 13-year-old message...

    Around late 1990 or early 1991, a friend of mine called me up and said, "hey, can you do me a favor? I have a few hours of Ernie Kovacs Shows on kinescope to transfer. Can you help me out?" I said sure, since I loved the show, and we fit him in. Much to my surprise, about an hour into the session Edie Adams showed up and hung out in the session for an hour or two, regaling us with stories. The only one I can remember was this same line about the semis around 1970 that dumped all of the DuMont kinescopes into the East River. (That was what Ms. Adams said, anyway.) Even in 1990, she was really bitter and angry about it. I believe she had sued ABC -- who some how had bought the main DuMont studio/warehouse and decided to ransack it rather than preserve everything -- and won a few million dollars, but I know she would've much rather had the 150+ hours of shows her husband had done.

    Adams also told us how she had worked for more than 10 years to pay all of Kovacs' income tax bills, taking just about every commercial, TV show, and movie she could in order to save her house and pay the day-to-day bills. She was a tough old broad.

    While I hate to see classic TV history destroyed, I understand why ABC would look at ugly old pre-1956 DuMont kinescopes and say, "man, these things are worthless!" and toss them. The quality of most of this stuff was horrible. I know: I transferred at least 100 hours of the Your Show of Shows for Sid Caesar, and they were a nightmare to work with. Right around 1955-1956, the quality started to improve and by 1958, I think they were actually fairly watchable. Early TV is so primitive and so boring and so badly done... it's tough to watch, believe me. A lot of this stuff winds up being better in small doses than actually sitting down and watching an entire show, which is kind of like getting a visual root canal. But there were isolated moments in the Your Show of Shows that were pretty good -- but only maybe 10% of it. The vast majority of it was really, really bad, not funny, and just boring. I suspect the DuMont shows were the same way.

    But... with the shows permanently gone, we'll never know.
    Derek Gee, t-man 54 and Dan C like this.
  15. PaulKTF

    PaulKTF Senior Member

  16. Dan Kennedy

    Dan Kennedy Member

    And the NFL. ABC probably trashed kinescopes of some historic games.
  17. Dan C

    Dan C Forum Fotographer Thread Starter

    The West
    That's ok because the NFL would probably lawyer up and crush anyone who would like to allow people to see them.

    Dan c
    Dan Kennedy likes this.
  18. theoxrox

    theoxrox Forum Resident

    central Wisconsin
    Must be 15 or 20 years ago, I read a book on the DuMont Network, and it was pretty good. If I can find it, I'll post the name, author, and ISBN here on the board.
  19. Reader

    Reader Senior Member

    e.s.t. tenn.
    I'd like to know this information if you can find it.
  20. BradOlson

    BradOlson Country/Christian Music Maven

    There is a Roku channel dedicated to a few of the surviving shows that Dumont aired.
  21. Benno123

    Benno123 Forum Resident

    Reader likes this.
  22. JozefK

    JozefK Forum Resident

    John Garfield made his only dramatic TV appearance on Dumont's Cavalcade of Stars, performing a scene from Clifford Odets' Golden Boy with Kim Stanley.

    I believe this is the only footage of Garfield in the role written for him by Odets. Why Garfield did not play it originally is tangled up in the behind-the-scenes politics of The Group Theatre, which I don't feel like getting into right now.
  23. theoxrox

    theoxrox Forum Resident

    central Wisconsin
    The book which benno123 mentions a couple of posts after yours is the one. I found it interesting and informative, but admittedly the price is a bit steep for a book as relatively short as it is.
    Benno123 likes this.
  24. Hot Ptah

    Hot Ptah Forum Resident

    Kansas City, MO
    If a salvage operation was launched to find the Du Mont kinescopes at the bottom of the East River, and they were found, could they be restored and commercially released?

    Maybe if the tapes were baked--isn't that what they always do for old Bob Dylan sessions?
  25. All Rights

    All Rights Forum Resident

    It would be pretty tough to pinpoint after decades and the pollution probably dissolved them by now.

    Even if they were intact, you may have to do a lot of digging/dredging around:

    1) cars
    2) trash
    3) cement shoes/ overcoats
    4) all the slot machines dumped by Mayor Laguardia.
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