American Broadcasting Company
The Century: America’s Time – 1946-1952: Best Years
Part eight of a 15-part series of documentaries produced by the American Broadcasting Company on the 20th century and the rise of the United States as a superpower. After the initial jubilation at the end of World War II, America faced severe domestic demographic problems and the international specter of communism and the Cold War. In response to the serious housing shortages exacerbated by the high marriage rates and subsequent baby boom of returning soldiers and the girls they left behind, the Truman administration created the GI Bill, which enabled veterans to secure low interest mortgages and college educations. But the domestic bliss of new homes and growing families could not alleviate the growing fears and hysteria of the new atomic age, and a demagogue from Wisconsin, Senator Joseph McCarthy, harnessed this hysteria for his personal political success. This episode covers some of the major events of the immediate post-war years such as the Korean War, McCarthyism, the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift and the adjustment of returning soldiers.
The American Broadcasting Company (ABC) (stylized in its logo as abc since 1962; corporate name American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. is an American commercial broadcast television network that is owned by the Disney–ABC Television Group, a subsidiary of Disney Media Networks division of The Walt Disney Company. The network is headquartered on Columbus Avenue and West 66th Street in Manhattan, with additional major offices and production facilities in New York City, Los Angeles and Burbank, California.
Since 2007, when ABC Radio (also known as Cumulus Media Networks) was sold to Citadel Broadcasting, ABC has reduced its broadcasting operations almost exclusively to television. The fifth-oldest major broadcasting network in the world, ABC is often nicknamed as “the Alphabet Network”, as its acronym also represent the first three letters of the English alphabet.
ABC originally launched on October 12, 1943 as a radio network, separated from and serving as the successor to the NBC Blue Network, which had been purchased by Edward J. Noble. It extended its operations to television in 1948, following in the footsteps of established broadcast networks CBS and NBC. In the mid-1950’s, ABC merged with United Paramount Theatres, a chain of movie theaters that formerly operated as a subsidiary of Paramount Pictures. Leonard Goldenson, who had been the head of UPT, made the new television network profitable by helping develop and greenlight many successful series. In the 1980’s, after purchasing an 80% interest in cable sports channel ESPN, the network’s parent merged with Capital Cities Communications, owner of several print publications, and television and radio stations. In 1996, most of Capital Cities/ABC’s assets were purchased by The Walt Disney Company.
The television network has 8 owned-and-operated and over 232 affiliated television stations throughout the United States and its territories. Most Canadians have access to at least one U.S.-based ABC affiliate, either over-the-air (in areas located within proximity to the Canada–United States border) or through a cable, satellite or IPTV provider; although most ABC programs are subject to simultaneous substitution regulations imposed by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission that allow pay television providers to replace an American station’s signal with the feed of a Canadian broadcaster to protect domestic programming rights and advertising revenue. ABC News provides news and features content for select radio stations owned by Citadel Broadcasting, which purchased the ABC Radio properties in 2007.
History – Blue Network (1927–1945)
In the 1930’s, radio in the United States was dominated by three companies: the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), the Mutual Broadcasting System and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). The latter was owned by electronics manufacturer Radio Corporation of America (RCA), which owned two radio networks that each ran different varieties of programming, NBC Blue and NBC Red. The NBC Blue Network was created in 1927 for the primary purpose of test new programs on markets of lesser importance than those served by NBC Red, which served the major cities, and to test drama series.
In 1934, Mutual filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regarding its difficulties in establishing new stations, in a radio market that was already being saturated by NBC and CBS. In 1938, the FCC began a series of investigations into the practices of radio networks and published its report on the broadcasting of network radio programs in 1940. The report recommended that RCA give up control of either NBC Red or NBC Blue. At that time, the NBC Red Network was the principal radio network in the United States and, according to the FCC, RCA was using NBC Blue to eliminate any hint of competition. Having no power over the networks themselves, the FCC established a regulation forbidding licenses to be issued for radio stations if they were affiliated with a network which already owned multiple networks that provided content of public interest.
Once Mutual’s appeals against the FCC were rejected, RCA decided to sell NBC Blue in 1941, and gave the mandate to do so to Mark Woods. RCA converted the NBC Blue Network into an independent subsidiary, formally divorcing the operations of NBC Red and NBC Blue on January 8, 1942, with the Blue Network being referred to on-air as either “Blue” or “Blue Network.” The newly separated NBC Red and NBC Blue divided their respective corporate assets. Between 1942 and 1943, Woods offered to sell the entire NBC Blue Network, a package that included leases on landlines, three pending television licenses (WJZ-TV in New York City, KGO-TV in San Francisco and WENR-TV in Chicago), 60 affiliates, four operations facilities (in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington D.C.), contracts with actors, and the brand associated with the Blue Network. Investment firm Dillon, Read & Co. (which was later acquired by the Swiss Bank Corporation in 1997) offered $7.5 million to purchase the network, but the offer was rejected by Woods and RCA president David Sarnoff.
Edward John Noble, the owner of Life Savers candy, drugstore chain Rexall and New York City radio station WMCA, purchased the network for $8 million. Due to FCC ownership rules, the transaction, which was to include the purchase of three RCA stations by Noble, would require him to resell his station with the FCC’s approval. The Commission authorized the transaction on October 12, 1943. Soon afterward, the Blue Network was purchased by the new company Noble founded, the American Broadcasting System. Noble subsequently acquired the rights to the “American Broadcasting Company” name from George B. Storer in 1944; its parent company adopted the corporate name American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. Woods retained his position as president and CEO of ABC until December 1949, and was subsequently promoted to vice-chairman of the board before leaving ABC altogether on June 30, 1951.
Meanwhile, in August 1944, the West Coast division of the Blue Network, which owned San Francisco radio station KGO, bought Los Angeles station KECA from Earl C. Anthony for $800,000. Both stations were then managed by Don Searle, the vice-president of the Blue Network’s West Coast division.
Entry into television (1945–1949)
The ABC Radio Network created its audience slowly. The network’s acquisition of Detroit radio station WXYZ from KingTrendle Broadcasting in 1946 for a little less than $3 million (and which remained under ABC ownership until 1984), allowed it to acquire several radio serials, including The Lone Ranger, Sergeant Preston’, and The Green Hornet, which had originated on that station.
ABC became an aggressive competitor to NBC and CBS when, continuing NBC Blue’s traditions of public service, it aired symphony performances conducted by Paul Whiteman, performances from the Metropolitan Opera, and jazz concerts aired as part of its broadcast of The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street announced by Milton Cross. The network also became known for such suspenseful dramas as Sherlock Holmes, Gang Busters and Counterspy, as well as several mid-afternoon youth-oriented programs. However, ABC made a name for itself by utilizing the practice of counterprogramming, with which it often placed shows of its own against the offerings of NBC and CBS, adopting the use of the Magnetophon tape recorder, brought to the U.S. from Nazi Germany after its conquest, to pre-record its programming. With the help of the Magnetophon, ABC was able to provide its stars with greater freedom in terms of time, and also attract several big names, such as Bing Crosby at a time when NBC and CBS did not allow pre-taped shows.
While its radio network was undergoing reconstruction, ABC found it difficult to avoid falling behind on the new medium of television. To ensure a space, in 1947, ABC submitted five applications for television station licenses, one for each market where it owned and operated a radio station (New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and Detroit). These applications all requested for the stations to broadcast on VHF channel 7, as Frank Marx, then ABC’s vice-president of engineering, thought that the low-band VHF frequencies (corresponding to channels 2 through 6) would be requisitioned from broadcasting use and reallocated for the U.S. Army.
The ABC television network made its debut on April 19, 1948, with WFIL-TV in Philadelphia (now WPVI-TV) becoming its first primary affiliate. The first program ever broadcast on the network was On the Corner, featuring satirist Henry Morgan. Other stations carrying the initial broadcast were WMAR-TV in Baltimore, WMAL-TV in Washington, D.C. and WABD in New York City.
The network’s flagship owned-and-operated station, WJZ-TV in New York City (later re-called WABC-TV), signed on the air on August 10, 1948, with its first broadcast running for two hours that evening. ABC’s other owned-and-operated stations launched over the course of the next 13 months: WENR-TV in Chicago signed on the air on September 17, while WXYZ-TV in Detroit went on the air on October 9, 1948. In October 1948, as a result of an influx of television station license applications that it had issued as well as a study it undertook on the use of the VHF spectrum for broadcasting purposes, the FCC implemented a freeze on new station applications. However, KGO-TV in San Francisco, which had received its license prior to the freeze, made its debut on May 5, 1949. On May 7, 1949, Billboard revealed that ABC had proposed an investment of $6.25 million, of which it would spend $2.5 million to convert 20 acres (80,937 m2) of land in Hollywood into what would become The Prospect Studios, and construct a transmitter on Mount Wilson, in anticipation of the launch of KECA-TV, which was scheduled to begin operations on August 1 (but would not actually sign on until September 16).
In the fall of 1949, ABC found itself in the position of an outsider, with less coverage than two of its competing networks, CBS and NBC, even though it was on par with them in some major cities and had a headstart over its third rival at the time, the DuMont Television Network. Before the freeze ended in 1952, there were only 108 existing television stations in the United States; a few major cities (such as Boston) had only two television stations, many other cities (such as Pittsburgh and St. Louis) had only one, and still many others (such as Denver and Portland) did not yet have any television service. The result was a strange period where television flourished in certain areas and network radio remained the main source of broadcast entertainment and news in others.
American Broadcasting-Paramount Theatres
At the end of 1949, movie theater operator United Paramount Theatres (UPT) was forced by the U.S. Supreme Court to become an independent entity, separating itself from Paramount Pictures. For its part, ABC was on the verge of bankruptcy, with only five owned-and-operated stations and nine full-time affiliates. Its revenues, which were related to advertising and were indexed compared to the number of listeners/viewers, failed to compensate for its heavy investments in purchasing and building stations. In 1951, a rumor even mentioned that the network would be sold to CBS. In 1951, Noble held a 58% ownership stake in ABC, giving him $5 million with which to prevent ABC from going bankrupt; as banks refused further credit, that amount was obtained through a loan from the Prudential Insurance Company of America.
Leonard Goldenson, the president of UPT (which sought to diversify itself at the time), approached Noble in 1951 on a proposal for UPT to purchase ABC. Noble received other offers, including one from CBS founder William S. Paley, however a merger with CBS would have forced that network to sell its New York City and Los Angeles stations at the very least. Goldenson and Noble reached a tentative agreement in the late spring of 1951 in which UPT would acquired ABC and turn it into a subsidiary of the company that would retain autonomy in its management. On June 6, 1951, the tentative agreement was approved by UPT’s board of directors. However, the transaction had to be approved by the FCC because of the presence of television networks and the recent separation between Paramount and UPT. Insofar as Paramount Pictures was already a shareholder in the DuMont Television Network, the FCC conducted a series of hearings to ensure whether Paramount was truly separated from United Paramount Theatres, and whether it was violating antitrust laws.
In 1952, when the release of the FCC’s Sixth Report and Order announced the end of its freeze on new station license applications, among the issues the Commission was slated to address was whether to approve the UPT-ABC merger. One FCC Commissioner saw the possibility of ABC, funded by UPT, becoming a viable and competitive third television network. On February 9, 1953, the FCC approved UPT’s purchase of ABC in exchange for $25 million in shares. The merged company, renamed American Broadcasting-Paramount Theatres, Inc. and headquartered in the Paramount Building at 1501 Broadway in Manhattan, owned six AM and several FM radio stations, five television stations and 644 cinemas in 300 U.S. cities. To comply with FCC ownership restrictions in effect at the time that barred common ownership of two television stations in the same market, UPT sold its Chicago television station, WBKB-TV, to CBS (which subsequently changed the station’s call letters to WBBM-TV) for $6 million, while it kept ABC’s existing Chicago station, WENR-TV. The merged company acquired the WBKB call letters for channel 7, which would eventually become WLS-TV. Goldenson began to sell some of the older theaters to help finance the new television network.
On May 1, 1953, ABC’s New York City flagship stations – WJZ, WJZ-FM and WJZ-TV – changed their respective callsigns to WABC, WABC-FM and WABC-TV, and moved their operations to facilities at 7 West 66th Street, one block away from Central Park. The WABC call letters were previously used by the flagship station of CBS Radio (now WCBS (AM)) until 1946. The WJZ calls would later be reassigned to the then-ABC affiliate in Baltimore in 1959, in an historical nod to the fact that WJZ was originally established by the Baltimore station’s owner at the time, Westinghouse.
However, a problem emerged regarding the directions taken by ABC and UPT. In 1950, Noble appointed Robert Kintner to be ABC’s president while he himself served as its CEO, a position he would hold until his death in 1958. Despite the promise of non-interference between ABC and UPT, Goldenson had to intervene in ABC’s decisions because of financial problems and the FCC’s long period of indecision. Goldenson added to the confusion when, in October 1954, he proposed a merger between UPT and the DuMont Television Network, which was also mired in financial trouble. As part of this merger, the network would have been renamed “ABC-DuMont” for five years, and DuMont would have received $5 million in cash, room on the schedule for existing DuMont programming, and guaranteed advertising time for DuMont Laboratories receivers. In addition, to comply with FCC ownership restrictions, it would have been required to sell either WABC-TV or DuMont owned-and-operated station WABD in the New York City market, as well as two other stations. The merged ABC-DuMont would have had the resources to compete with CBS and NBC.
Goldenson sought to develop the ABC television network by trying to convince local stations to agree to affiliate with the network. In doing this, he contacted local entrepreneurs who owned television stations themselves, many of whom had previously invested in Paramount cinemas and had worked with him when he undertook the responsibility of restructuring United Paramount Theatres.