How Commercial Television Began At The Worst Possible Time

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On July 1, 1941, the first ever television commercial aired. It was a 10-second advertisement for Bulova, a watch company that paid somewhere between $4 and $9 for a spot before an afternoon MLB game. That puts it in the $83-186 price range today. Thus began commercial television, authorized by the FCC to begin on that very day. 

Up until that point, there was very little regularly scheduled programming on television. There were three known regularly-scheduled programs in 1940; NBC News with Lowell Thomas, The Esso Television Reporter, and Boxing from Jamaica Arena, all broadcast on NBC. The former two series lasted just months; only Boxing from Jamaica Arena was still around for the beginning of commercial television. 

In order to qualify as a commercial broadcast network recognized by the FCC, a network had to program at least 15 hours per week. This resulted in a massive increase in offerings television in July 1941 due to the advent of a new network: CBS. 

CBS was already known as a radio giant, much like NBC. With NBC already televising programs and also making the transition to commercial television, CBS took a page out of their playbook and used television as an extension to radio. They premiered seven known series between July 1 and July 8, notably including a news program in CBS Television News (now CBS Evening News), and the first ever televised game show in CBS Television Quiz. Other shows included talk shows like Girl About Town with Joan Edwards, Sports with Bob Edge, and Table Talk with Helen Sioussat. The only show CBS premiered in the first week of July that would not have been compatible with radio is Men At Work, an entertainment/talent show. 

Despite CBS entering the scene and the FCC allowing companies to advertise on programs, television was still not a widespread platform. There were only 10 affiliates on July 1, 1941, and most TV owners were located in the New York City area. While ratings were not yet available, it can be presumed CBS at least gave NBC some type of competition.

Television was still a developing platform, and CBS and NBC had to decide how to properly invest in both it and the more widely-used radio. In general, being in the commercial television business in 1941 seemed promising. Almost every show that CBS premiered in July 1941 continued to air into 1942 — the year commercial television almost ceased to exist. 

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the United States was gearing up to enter World War II. The military needed the technology used for television for their own use, and the military draft sent many potential actors, writers, producers, and viewers abroad to the battlefield. On April 1, 1942, just 9 months after commercial television began, televisions stopped being manufactured. They would not start to be manufactured again until October 1945, after the end of the war. 

Most shows that premiered in 1941 were canceled. A few shows still aired, many of which were related to the war. In just nine months, the state of television had dramatically changed for those who even had access to it. By January 1943, CBS had stopped producing series entirely. There were just two known regularly scheduled programs, one of which was an airing of classical music performances.

With the world at war, the advancement of television had completely come to a halt. When television became invested in again after the war, it is somewhat of a miracle that it caught on, given it very well could have just been seen as a New York-based fad from the pre-war days. The fact it did catch on arguably speaks to the inevitability of television becoming a new form of entertainment. As it turns out, the question was not if television would find its place in the mainstream, it was when. 

Commercial television launched at the worst possible time: right before the United States became involved in the World War II, and shortly after the country was coming out of the Great Depression. Despite the delays, by the end of the decade commercial television was undoubtedly a success. After all, big-name companies were sponsoring some of the highest-rated shows on television.

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