Always cutting edge
From David Sarnoff to Bob Wright, how NBC grew to become a giant
By Lee Hall -- Broadcasting & Cable, 3/10/2002 7:00:00 PM
It began inauspiciously enough. No major fanfare, no flood of press releases, just a simple newspaper announcement in September 1926. "The day has gone by when the radio receiving set is a plaything," it stated. "It must now be an instrument of service."
The ad, placed by the Radio Corporation of America, heralded the formation of the National Broadcasting Company. Initially a scheme to sell RCA radio receivers, NBC soon set the pace for the coming radio revolution, and later for television.
NBC broke onto the scene in a big way on New Year's Day 1927, when it broadcast the Rose Bowl football game coast to coast. By late 1927, the company was carrying regular national broadcasts on its two radio networks, labeled "Blue" and "Red."
"It was the first and most innovative broadcasting entity in American history," said Tim Brooks, former director of research at NBC-TV, now senior vice president of research at Lifetime Television.
Over the past 75 years, NBC has been at the forefront of the broadcasting industry, boasting a number of firsts. It has also stumbled and fumbled some along the way.
NBC might never have come into existence had it not been for the vision of "The General," David Sarnoff, RCA vice president and general manager, who realized that, in order to sell radio sets, RCA had to make sure buyers had something to listen to.
The Shadow of "The General"
It was Sarnoff who came up with the idea of stringing together radio stations around the country into a network.
NBC pioneered the serial drama on radio with the debut of Real Folks in 1928. A year later, the NBC Blue Network picked up a popular comedy from its Chicago affiliate. Amos 'n' Andy went on to become the most popular program on network radio.
In those formative years, almost everything that appeared on the air was performed live. Early transcription equipment was unreliable and rendered poor sound quality, so NBC formally banned the use of recorded material on its airwaves. The prohibition was broken briefly in 1937, however, when newsman Herb Morrison recorded on a Presto disc cutter his eyewitness account of the explosion of the Hindenburg in Lakehurst, N.J.
Although radio ignited the growth of NBC, Sarnoff soon turned his attention to a newfangled toy to be known as television. RCA and NBC began to experiment with TV broadcasts from their tower atop New York's Empire State Building in 1931.
Eight years later, Sarnoff presided over another meaningful moment in broadcasting history: the public demonstration of a prototype television receiver at the New York World's Fair.
"It is with a feeling of humbleness that I come to this moment," Sarnoff told the crowd. "This miracle of engineering skill that one day will bring the world to the home also brings a new American industry to serve man's material welfare. ... [Television] will become an important factor in American economic life."
Within two years, NBC's WNBT had received the first federal commercial-television license. WNBT carried what was to be the first television commercial later that year, a 10-second spot for Bulova watches. It cost the sponsor $7.
World War II put a temporary halt to the growth of television. NBC canceled its limited broadcast schedule in 1942. But, when the war ended, television began a growth explosion. RCA introduced a popular 7-inch television set in 1946, selling more than 40,000 units by year's end. It cost about $400.
NBC's programming was shifting into high gear as well. Meet the Press, the longest-running program on television, first appeared in 1947. Other notable premieres that year included Howdy Doody and the Kraft Television Theater. Milton Berle's popular Texaco Star Theater arrived in 1948, as did NBC's first nightly newscast, the 15-minute Camel News Caravan, with John Cameron Swayze.
The 1947 World Series stands as the beginning of the modern era of competitive television. As the first televised series, it ran on a consortium of NBC and CBS stations, and the broadcasts proved wildly popular. People who didn't own television sets stood for hours outside the windows of TV stores to watch.
William Paley, the celebrated CBS chairman, had been moving slowly into television. The success of the World Series changed the picture considerably. Paley staged a raid on NBC's top talent in 1948, luring Jack Benny, Red Skelton, and George Burns and Gracie Allen among others. The fight was under way.
Leave It to Weaver
To counter the CBS incursion, Sarnoff recruited Sylvester L. "Pat" Weaver, a top executive at Young & Rubicam, one of the nation's biggest advertising agencies.
The agencies virtually ran television programming in those days, owning the programs and controlling the talent. Arriving at NBC in June 1949, Weaver put his foot down: That practice had to change if the network were to prosper.
"I won't come to NBC just to sell time to ad agencies," Weaver told Bobby Sarnoff, The General's son, who had been dispatched to finalize a deal. With Sarnoff's blessing, Weaver set out to snatch control of NBC's programs from the clutches of the ad buyers.
During his tenure (1949-1956), Weaver's creative appreciation brought NBC some of its most rousing successes. Weaver fathered such shows as Today and Tonight. He staged highly successful prime time entertainment specials known as "spectaculars" and even negotiated the purchase of NBC's West Coast production center in "Beautiful Downtown Burbank."
"Weaver was a very innovative character, just what television needed," Brooks said. "He understood that TV was a different medium than radio, a visual medium, and he tried to develop it that way."
Within a year of Weaver's departure, CBS had taken the top spot among television networks, thanks largely to the former NBC talent Paley had snared years earlier. CBS rolled out popular long-running programs—including What's My Line (1950), I Love Lucy and See It Now (both 1951)—and stood as the No. 1 network for most of the next 30 years.
Next Door to the Clampetts
The 1960s weren't much better for NBC, as CBS cemented its hold on first place. Walter Cronkite took over the CBS Evening News in 1962, and the program was expanded from 15 minutes to 30 minutes a year later. CBS also found "gold in them thar hills," issuing forth a string of hit comedies highlighting rural characters. America loved the Clampetts of The Beverly Hillbilllies, the Douglases of Green Acres and the whole town of Mayberry in The Andy Griffith Show. The biggest of them all, The Beverly Hillbillies, proved to be a runaway smash that lasted until 1971. CBS owned Sunday nights with the long-running variety program, The Ed Sullivan Show.
NBC hit big with Bonanza, medical drama Dr. Kildare, and Julia, featuring Diahann Carroll, the first black woman to take a starring role in a major television series.
NBC acquired popular Walt Disney Presents from ABC in 1961 and used it, renamed Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, to market itself as the network that pioneered color telecasts. The Disney program remained a staple of NBC's Sunday-night lineup for 20 years before passing to CBS in 1981. Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, a televised special in September 1967, joined the prime time lineup the following January and ranked as the No. 1 program on the air for two seasons.
Still, CBS ruled the roost on most evenings, while upstart ABC established itself with such popular series as Bewitched and The Fugitive. (ABC also had the decade's biggest fiasco, Turn On, a comedy/variety "series" yanked after a single episode in February 1967).
Silverman No Silver Lining
NBC offered up many forgettable programs in the 1970s. The network replaced its long-running peacock logo after the 1975 season, but even that effort foundered. After spending $1 million to develop a new on-air logo—a red and blue abstract letter "N"—NBC found that the Nebraska Educational Television Network had been using a similar symbol. NBC settled the resulting lawsuit by donating several hundred thousand dollars worth of broadcasting equipment, but the "N" did little to improve NBC's fading fortunes.
NBC's few hit series in the mid 1970s included Sanford and Son and Saturday Night Live, born as a weekend replacement for Tonight Show reruns. In 1976, the network hit with medical drama Quincy and The Big Event, an umbrella for specials and movies. A telecast of Gone With the Wind was one of the highest-rated broadcasts of the decade.
By 1978, NBC had hit rock bottom, or so it was thought. Surpassed even by perennial also-ran ABC, NBC needed a big hit and took a big gamble to get one, luring ABC program chief Fred Silverman to 30 Rock.
Many television historians see Silverman's brief tenure as an unmitigated disaster, and he never came close to duplicating his ABC success. His less memorable offerings included The Waverly Wonders, featuring former football legend Joe Namath in the starring role. The show lasted three weeks. Silverman also devised Supertrain, often cited as one of the biggest bombs in television history.
NBC brought back the peacock in 1979, but it didn't help. NBC's fortunes collapsed in mid 1980 when the United States boycotted the Olympic Games to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. NBC reluctantly canceled its coverage, forgoing an estimated $80 million in advertising revenue. An actors' strike that same year delayed production of many shows until early 1981, further crippling a weakened NBC.
The Tartikoff Turnaround
Silverman was gone by the end of the 1981 season, replaced by Grant Tinker. Tinker turned over program development to Silverman protégé Brandon Tartikoff, who had worked for Silverman at both ABC and NBC.
Tartikoff belted out more hits than Mark McGwire and almost as many home runs. Out from under Silverman's shadow, he gave the green light to some of NBC's biggest hit series, among them The Cosby Show, Cheers, The Golden Girls and Miami Vice. He also shepherded Hill Street Blues, the groundbreaking cop drama, first aired in January 1981, that would jump-start the emergence of NBC's Thursday-night stronghold.
Under Tartikoff's tutelage, NBC began its slow climb up the Nielsen ladder. Anchored by Cosby, Family Ties, Cheers, Night Court and Hill Street, NBC struck gold on Thursday nights, grasping a first-place position it held for more than 15 years. By the 1984-85 season, NBC had placed eight shows among the top 20 Nielsen-rated programs.
Tartikoff next attacked Saturdays, introducing Golden Girls. The 1985-86 season marked the first time in decades NBC emerged as the top-rated prime time network, with nine of the top 20 shows. The following year, it claimed 12 of the top spots. From June 1988 until October 1989—68 consecutive weeks—NBC ruled as the top-rated network.
Tinker and Tartikoff brought a measure of patience to programming, and, by the time General Electric bought the network from RCA and installed Bob Wright as the new president, NBC was solidly on top of the ratings pile. Patience paid off for many of Tinker and Tartikoff's shows, including Cheers and Hill Street Blues, which were not immediate audience hits.
Although Tartikoff departed NBC in 1991 to head Paramount Pictures, his legacy of strong programs kept NBC on top until mid decade.
Although NBC remained strong during the 1990s, there were more than a few fumbles. The ill-fated "Triplecast" venture during the 1992 Olympics cost the network and its cable partner an estimated $100 million. A year later, NBC Dateline admitted having concocted a story alleging safety problems with General Motors vehicles. NBC apologized and retracted the story after GM threatened to pull its $150 million advertising budget.
Cable and the Future
Cable began to play a larger role in NBC's fortunes in the late 1980s. After founding CNBC as a consumer/business channel in 1989, NBC delivered MSNBC in 1996, using the Summer Olympics in Atlanta as its springboard. CNBC benefited from the huge run-up in the U.S. stock market to become a financial icon, dwarfing its nearest competitor, CNNfn.
The Internet remains a work in progress. NBC snapped up the portal Snap in 1998 announcing grandiose plans to develop a national consumer brand. Its interactive unit, dubbed NBCi, went public in 1999, and its stock hit more than $100 per share before collapsing with the rest of the dotcom world. NBC pulled the plug on NBCi last year, taking the company private and giving up its dreams of Internet domination.
NBC is changed from a year ago, but its Thursday night is still a powerhouse. Now it also owns a one-third interest in Paxson Communications, giving it a second television network for repurposing shows. Its purchase of Spanish-language Telemundo will put NBC in position to cash in on the fastest-growing demographic in the nation. All in all, as it prepares to celebrate its 75 years in a May special, NBC is still just about as pretty as a ... peacock.
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