And then there was...

Du Mont.








Until 1953 there were only two networks that really mattered. William Paley's CBS and David Sarnoff's NBC, which was part of his Radio Corporation of America dynasty. They had the big bucks, the vast talent pool culled from their profitable and well established radio networks, and of course the sponsors who salivated at the chance to have their products hawked in the new medium by top name celebrities. ABC was there but until Leonard Goldenson merged the network into his newly formed United Paramount Theaters in 1953, had neither the capital or the affiliates to compete with the big two. 

But there was for a time, a fourth network . No not Fox (but more on that later) but a small network of mostly UHF stations operated by the Allen B. Du Mont Laboratories. In television's pioneering days, Du Mont was a respected name, ranked up there with titans RCA, Philco, and Farnsworth. It is due to Du Mont's efforts with the "electronicam" filming system that we can enjoy the "classic 39" episodes of Jackie Gleason's "Honeymooners" series which was aired on CBS but filmed with Du Mont facilities.

Pick up any newspaper of the day and you'll find the top line Du Mont televisions next to the most popular brands Motorola, Admiral, Zenith, and RCA Victor. But taking on the responsibilities of a television network may not have been in the company's best interest.

Du Mont's problems were not entirely its own fault, but it starts there. As mentioned earlier, CBS and NBC, and to a lesser extent, ABC, had a regular roster of talent mainly from their radio networks. Du Mont had no such talent to draw upon. There wasn't much Du Mont could offer so the name stars naturally stayed away and since they stayed away- the sponsors were almost non-existent. With no money, no stars, and a limited number of stations, the network was hardset to find affiliates.

It wasn't a total loss. Du Mont did offer some gems in its short life. It was on Du Mont that Jackie Gleason first honed his stable of characters on his variety series "Cavalcade Of Stars" in 1950. It was on this series that viewers got their first glimpse of a loud-mouthed bus driver named Ralph Kramden. Morey Amsterdam, later to achieve greater fame on The Dick Van Dyke Show, makes one of his earliest appearances on a series titled Admiral Broadway Revue. Children were not ignored by DuMont as Captain Video blasted off each afternoon. And Bishop Fulton Sheen opened the doors for future tele evangelists Billy Graham and Jerry Swaggert with his Sunday evening series Life is Worth Living.

Sports also played a big role in DuMont's programming, especially boxing. Perhaps the most ironic achievement for Du Mont was that it was lucky enough to have the very first top-rated television program beating out CBS and NBC. In March of 1948, C.E. Hooper, the company that also did the ratings for radio shows, announced that "The Original Amateur Hour" was the number one network program. The talent show, hosted by Ted Mack, and brought the wonders of Geritol to our homes, had to be a huge morale boost for the upstart network who had no experience in programming. It also showed the industry and the country that television was for everyone and not just for the hoi polloi.

But despite the problems that the network had in front of the camera, the ones behind were far more serious and threatened the very existence of the network itself. In 1948 the FCC imposed a freeze on all new licenses until they could assess the growing problem of too many stations and not enough room available on the current VHF band spectrum. This severely curtailed Du Mont's growth as it only had a handful of VHF stations at the time and the choice existing ones had been picked up as affiliates for CBS and NBC. An additional problem was that Du Mont was unable to own the same amount of stations as required by the FCC as ABC, CBS, and NBC due to Paramount Pictures owning a considerable amount of stock in the parent company. Paramount also owned stations and the FCC considered them part of the total. This ruling did not affect the ABC-United Paramount Theaters merger because as of 1948, United Paramount Theaters was spun-off as an independent company from Paramount Pictures. Du Mont had to choose smaller lesser powered stations and frequently had to share time with ABC. In the Chicago area, one of the few major markets on a VHF channel, WGN-TV was the Du Mont affiliate.

The FCC's answer to the freeze was the addition of the Ultra High Frequency spectrum (UHF) which, at the time, was comprised of channels 14 to 83. Du Mont was now able to recruit new stations again. The problem here was that the new stations that quickly sprung up on UHF just as quickly went dark. Many UHF stations of the fifties suffered from weak and erratic signals, poor budgets and almost non-existent viewers. Few TVs were able to receive the new channels. Philco was one that offered "all-channel" televisions but most people had to make due with a set-top converter that was difficult to fine tune leaving the owner not very inclined to search out new programming. It would not be until 1964 that television set manufacturers were required to include all 82 channels and UHF would slowly begin to gain popularity.

It would prove too late though for Du Mont. After losing its biggest stars to CBS, NBC, and even ABC (which at the time carried less affiliates than the UPN and WB networks of today), Du Mont gave it all up. By April of 1956, the network aired its last program, a sports show. Though some Du Mont network series continued locally on it's New York flagship station WABD, that was the end. Or was it?

The remaining stations owned by Du Mont (forming the nucleuses of the network) were spun off into a separate company called The Du Mont Broadcasting Corporation. Because it was felt that the Du Mont name now carried a certain negativity to it, the company was changed to Metropolitan Broadcasting. Media mogul John Kluge purchased the remaining stock that Paramount Pictures held in Du Mont, (in a bit of irony since it was Paramount's involvement with Du Mont that contributed to the network's demise) and changed the company's name to Metromedia which continued to purchase and affiliate stations across the country. Eventually Rupert Murdoch, the Australian billionaire would purchase Metromedia and use it as the core for his upstart Fox Network in 1986. So you can say that Fox is a descendant of Du Mont.

Times have changed. Perhaps Du Mont came too early in the game. UHF slowly became more popular in the 60s and 70s with stations popping up everywhere with several of them finally turning a profit. Du Mont may have had to streamline their programming to a specific specialized market, just as many cable networks do today. In Chicago, UHF stations presented its viewers programming not generally available on the more powerful VHF stations, such as educational WXXW (and later WYCC), ethnic programmer WCIU, Christian WCFC, home shopping on WEHS, and all news WSNS. It is not beyond probability that Du Mont might have flourished there too.      copyright 2001 Steve Jajkowski