By John C. Alsedek:
Prior to the emergence of the Fox Broadcasting Company (generally just called FOX) in 1986, American television revolved around "The Big Three": NBC, CBS, and ABC. And that’s how it had been for decades. Oh sure, there had been a few attempts to establish a fourth network (most notably DuMont from 1948 until 1956), but none of them had stuck. But if you were to go back to the pre-television days of, say, 1940, you’d notice something interesting. There were four major networks on the radio waves—and ABC wasn’t one of them! That’s because the American Broadcasting Company hadn’t even been formed yet. However, its precursor had.
The NBC Blue Network dated back to the early days of radio, when the Radio Corporation of America (better known by old timers like me as "RCA") purchased radio station WJZ Newark from Westinghouse in 1923. Moving WJZ across the Hudson River to New York City in May of that year, RCA opened a second station (WRC in Washington, D.C.) three months later and followed that up by incorporating two additional stations: WJZ (Springfield, MA; later moved to Boston) and WGY (Schenectady, NY). These four stations formed the basis for RCA’s initial "Radio Group."
Now, bear in mind that this was happening before NBC or CBS even existed. Prior to the forming of NBC (National Broadcasting Company) in 1926 and CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System) two years later, radio stations were owned by established communications-related companies. RCA’s biggest pre-NBC rival was the radio group owned by the American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T), which had a distinct advantage from the get-go: it had its own national network of high-quality telephone transmission lines with which it could transmit its radio programs to a nationwide audience, and it refused to lease the lines to RCA. As a result, RCA was forced to settle on using the telegraph lines of Western Union, which weren’t designed for voice transmission and therefore led to lower sound quality for RCA’s radio broadcasts.
Nevertheless, RCA and AT&T had a nice competition to see which radio group could claim to be first to broadcast a wide variety of events, including the World Series, the Democratic National Convention, and performances from the Metropolitan Opera. But then AT&T made a decision that would change the face of broadcasting: it decided to get out of radio entirely and focus specifically on its burgeoning telecommunications market. AT&T consolidated all its radio holdings into one entity called the Broadcasting Company of America in May 1926, but only to facilitate selling them off to their erstwhile rival. On July 1, 1926, RCA purchased those AT&T radio stations, including flagship station WEAF in New York City, for one million dollars. The sales agreement included a pledge by AT&T to lease use of their telephone lines to RCA, which solved the issue of having to share broadcasts over telegraph lines of insufficient sound quality.
So, RCA, finding itself in possession of two separate radio groups, formed an umbrella organization for them on September 13, 1926. The name of that umbrella organization? The National Broadcasting Company. Yep, that was the origin of the very first of the "Big Three."
But the next move is the one that later created the last of the three, ABC.
Rather than combine the RCA and former AT&T radio groups into one network, the newly formed National Broadcasting Company decided to keep them as separate entities. The AT&T radio group, including flagship station WEAF New York, would form the backbone of one network, named NBC Red; meanwhile, RCA’s already-existing radio group would be the NBC Blue Network (the names "Red and "Blue" apparently came from the color of pushpins used to designate them on radio affiliate maps).
It was a great arrangement, both for NBC and parent company RCA. The two networks worked in concert and focused on different programming: NBC Red carried mostly entertainment programming, while NBC Blue focused more on news and public affairs. They shared facilities and technical personnel and occasionally combined to jointly cover the biggest events of the day, such as the return of Charles Lindbergh following his successful 1927 transatlantic flight and the second championship boxing bout between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney. During the 1930s, it even became common practice for radio stations to alternate their affiliation between NBC Red and NBC Blue, depending on the wishes of individual show sponsors. But this extremely high level of cooperation between the two networks would ultimately lead to the downfall of NBC Blue.
By the mid-1930s, NBC Red had firmly established itself as the dominant network of the two, while NBC Blue had fallen behind the other two "bigs" of the era, CBS and Mutual, in terms of affiliates. The gap between NBC Red and NBC Blue continued to grow in the late 1930s, with most of the stations that had alternated between NBC Red and NBC Blue deciding to stick with Red. As a result, NBC Blue became more of a "farm club" for its more successful sibling, with up-and-comers such as Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and Fibber McGee & Molly starting off on Blue only to be moved to Red when they became top draws.
With listenership and advertising sales slowly falling further and further behind NBC Red, CBS, and Mutual, NBC Blue would have probably reached a day of reckoning anyway, but the close cooperation between Blue and Red had drawn the ire of Mutual Radio and, as a result, the unwanted attention of the U.S. government. NBC tried to quell this in the late 1930s by making great efforts to establish NBC Blue as an actual competitor to Red rather than a kid brother. Blue expanded its national footprint from 33 stations in 1937 to 92 in 1941. It expanded the power output of top stations such as WJZ and KDKA to 50,000 watts each and even banned the mentioning of NBC Red on its programs. But it was too late.
Following a three-year investigation of the two NBC networks (and also CBS), in 1941 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began issuing formal rules to break up perceived monopolies on the radio airwaves. These were closely followed by separate antitrust lawsuits by both the Department of Justice and Mutual Radio in 1942; and while NBC fought them in the courts, it also went all-in to separate Red and Blue. NBC Red became just "NBC," while a separate company was established to run the redubbed "Blue Network," and engineering personnel who had worked for both were divvied up.
Those efforts came to naught when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its May 10, 1943, decision in National Broadcasting Co. v. United States. The Supreme Court upheld the FCC’s right to regulate the radio industry as it saw fit, and it was all over for NBC Blue. RCA sold the network to American Broadcasting System, Inc. for $8 million, with the sale officially approved by the FCC in October 1943 and both antitrust lawsuits being dropped around the same time. Over the next two years, the Blue Network and its new owners worked to expand and strengthen affiliates, as well as forge a new identity. That new identity became formal on June 15, 1945, when the Blue Network became known as the "American Broadcasting Company" (ABC). It carried that moniker over to the new medium of television in 1948, and the rest is TV history.
One of ABC’s very first television programs was Starring Boris Karloff, an anthology series that ran just 13 episodes in the fall of 1949. We’ll be taking a look back at this lost classic next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.