Television viewers under a certain age think of the big three broadcast networks as having existed since the dawn of time. A misconception, of course - but largely because of what it omits. In TV's earliest days, there was also the DuMont Network, a pioneering enterprise that aired some of its era's most popular programs. Bob talks history with David Weinstein, author of book that chronicles the rise and fall of DuMont.
BOB GARFIELD: After hearing Paul Starr, we’re reminded how much of our media history is forgotten, even relatively recent history. As everyone knows, the first big broadcast networks were NBC, CBS and ABC, joined almost 30 years ago – my, how time flies - by upstart Fox. But what you may not remember, or possibly even ever knew, is that there was a fourth network at the dawn of television.
In the forties and early fifties, that network aired some of the most popular programs of its day and set the template for some of the most watched shows of today. It was the DuMont Network, and its rise and fall are chronicled in the book, The Forgotten Network: DuMont and the Birth of American Television. David Weinstein is the author, and I spoke to him back in 2004.
DAVID WEINSTEIN: Allen DuMont was a scientist and he was an engineer. He was a shy man, was most comfortable tinkering around with different equipment in his laboratory. But because of his skills as an engineer he decided to get into television, and he found himself in the thick of the industry.
BOB GARFIELD: On the one hand, in your book, you describe DuMont as a sort of techno geek, fiddling with the controls behind his TV to improve the picture, but not paying any attention to the actual program. On the other hand, he built a TV network, so he clearly wasn't - entirely clueless.
DAVID WEINSTEIN: A lot of the people who worked at DuMont were young, creative and there was not a lot of middle management. And they created many of the programs that defined early television, shows like Captain Video, The Cavalcade of Stars with Jackie Gleason.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's talk about Captain Video for a moment. This, I would say, is just before the so-called “Golden Age of Television” began. It was still quite experimental.
[CAPTAIN VIDEO CLIP/MUSIC UP & UNDER]:
ANNOUNCER: Fighting for law and order, Captain Video operates from a mountain retreat, with secret agents at all points of the globe. Possessing scientific secrets and scientific weapons, Captain Video asks no quarter, and gives none, to the forces of evil. Stand by for - Captain Video!
BOB GARFIELD: So, David, Star Wars it wasn't.
DAVID WEINSTEIN: No, it wasn't. It was the kind of show the critics didn't totally understand but the kids loved. They had things like the atomic rifle, which was basically a toy gun with a muffler on top -
BOB GARFIELD: When you say a muffler, you're talking [LAUGHS] an automobile muffler, no?
DAVID WEINSTEIN: Literally, an automobile muffler taped onto –
- a toy rifle.
BOB GARFIELD: Among its other pioneering efforts, you write that DuMont essentially invented daytime television. How did that come to pass?
DAVID WEINSTEIN: Yes, at the time, no other broadcaster was broadcasting during the day, except for an occasional ball game. One of the reasons for that is that the other TV networks also owned radio networks and they wanted to protect their radio interests by not having television compete with radio. DuMont, on the other hand, wanted to sell TV sets and it wanted to stimulate television. They had shopping programs, similar to the Home Shopping Network.
They had television Kindergarten, telling moms to put their kids in front of the TV while they taught coloring. The moms could do the dishes, and then they would make a loud noise at the end of the program so the mom would know to come back and watch the child. They were very conscious of trying to create programs that would fit the rhythms of the housewife that was the ideal daytime viewer.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you would think that as perspicacious as they were in understanding their audience, that they might have had some advantages vis-a-vis the other networks. But you write that from the very beginning the DuMont Network really struggled.
DAVID WEINSTEIN: Yes, unfortunately for DuMont, in 1952 the FCC released its major allocation decision, and it only allocated four or more stations in seven markets. What this meant for DuMont is that it would really only have access to seven markets, and that was not enough for the network to be viable. So, by 1955, the DuMont Network had ceased operations, and Allen DuMont was no longer in charge of the company. DuMont Broadcasting was changed to Metropolitan Broadcasting. Later it became Metromedia.
BOB GARFIELD: And would be purchased by whom, in order to start what?
DAVID WEINSTEIN: To Rupert Murdoch, and that became the foundation for the Fox Network.
BOB GARFIELD: What legacy of Allen DuMont's essential vision do you think is most lasting?
DAVID WEINSTEIN: We talked a little bit about daytime television, talk shows for women, crime dramas. One of my favorites was a program called The Plainclothesman that was shown totally from the point of view of a detective.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
You never saw him onscreen but you saw everything through him.
ANNOUNCER: Hero without uniform, unknown, unsung but always on guard, protecting you against crime.
[BRASS FANFARE] [END CLIP]
[MUSIC UP &UNDER]
DAVID WEINSTEIN: And, in some ways, even a show like Cops, which tries to take you on a ride with the police officer, is similar to The Plainclothesman. And if you go through a number of genres, variety shows, comedy, DuMont aired a program called Cavalcade of Stars, for example, which starred Jackie Gleason. Jackie Gleason developed The Honeymooners on that program. I don't know if we would have The Honeymooners without DuMont.
BOB GARFIELD: David, thank you so much.
DAVID WEINSTEIN: Thank you so much, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: David Weinstein is author of The Forgotten Network: DuMont and the Birth of American Television.
[AUDIENCE APPLAUSE/JACKIE GLEASON SINGING, UP & UNDER]