DuMont: Television’s ‘Lost’ Network
By John C. Alsedek:
Last time, we talked about the fourth national radio network, Mutual Radio—the one that didn't make it. Well, this time we're diving into the story of its TV equivalent, the DuMont Television Network. DuMont was one of the pioneers of commercial television in the late 1930s/early 1940s, right up there with CBS and NBC (ABC didn't even exist at the time). So what went wrong? The reasons for DuMont's ultimate failure were there almost from Day One. . . .
The DuMont Television Network was the brainchild of Dr. Allen B. DuMont. DuMont was the force behind DuMont Laboratories, which he'd started in his basement in 1931 and who would go on to become one of the great innovators of the new technology. He and his team would discover how to extend the life of cathode-ray tubes from a single day to over one thousand hours, thereby making commercial television sets viable; they built the first one in 1938, and DuMont televisions became the gold standard in the nascent industry. Also in 1938, DuMont opened its own experimental TV station: W2XVT in Passaic, New Jersey. Moving to Manhattan in 1942, its callsign was changed to WABD Channel 5, and it became the third commercial station in New York City three years later. In May of 1945, DuMont opened a second station, W3XWT (later WTTG), in Washington, D.C. and connected both stations with their laboratories via experimental coaxial cable. August 9, 1945, is considered the official beginning of the DuMont Network, though it would be another year before it would begin regular service. A third station, WDTV in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, would go on the air in 1949. DuMont then applied for additional station licenses in Cleveland and Cincinnati, which would have given them the maximum five stations owned by any network at the time by the FCC. However, they were denied because, according to the FCC, DuMont already had five stations. . . .
Back in 1938, Paramount Studios had bought a 40% share in DuMont for $400,000, which at the time seemed like a great deal for the up-and-coming television concern: they were partnering with a Hollywood studio that intended to advance its television footprint through DuMont. But instead, Paramount immediately started its own parallel television business, opening experimental stations in Chicago (WBKB) and Los Angeles (KTLA) and eventually starting its own short-lived television network. The FCC ruled that, since Paramount was a major stockholder in DuMont, these stations counted against DuMont's total even though they were competitors—unless Paramount sold its shares, and Paramount refused to do so. As a result, DuMont found itself unfairly constricted at a time when the commercial television field was wide open.
This was the sort of bureaucratic roadblock that DuMont ran into on a regular basis. Another involved the transmission of programs between stations. AT&T owned all the communication lines (including the new coaxial lines) and didn't have enough circuits to allow all four television networks (DuMont plus the Big Three) to relay service constantly. Therefore, AT&T allotted a certain amount of time per week for each network to use the communication lines to broadcast live nationally. NBC and CBS, having been around since the beginning of national radio broadcasting, got preferential treatment and received over 100 hours a week; relative newcomer ABC got about half that, while DuMont got just 37 hours per week. DuMont was also contractually obligated by AT&T to lease radio lines along with television lines, even though DuMont had no radio stations.
And then there was perhaps the biggest disadvantage of all: DuMont was a standalone network in a brand-new medium. NBC, CBS, and ABC all had established and profitable radio networks that could financially carry their new TV branches until they reached economic viability. They also had a long track record with sponsors, as well as their own stables of radio stars who would make the jump over to the brand-new medium. DuMont had none of that. But what they did have were some contacts on Broadway, a keen eye for talent, and a willingness to think a little more outside the box than the other networks. As a result, DuMont came up with a wide variety of programs that would help shape the new medium, including:
Captain Video and His Video Rangers, the first and most popular of a wave of kid-friendly space opera series.
The Morey Amsterdam Show, which starred the popular Catskills comedian and future Dick Van Dyke Show cast member.
The Johns Hopkins Science Review, a Peabody Award-winning educational show.
Cash and Carry, the first network-aired game show program.
The Ernie Kovacs Show, a trailblazing series that changed the face of TV comedy.
Cavalcade of Stars, which launched Jackie Gleason to superstardom and introduced the world to The Honeymooners.
The Hazel Scott Show, the first network series to be hosted by an African-American woman.
Life is Worth Living, an Emmy-winning series starring Bishop Fulton J. Sheen.
Additionally, DuMont was a leader in other ways. In January 1949, DuMont was the first network to connect the East Coast and Midwest via coaxial cable, thereby allowing shows broadcast from New York to be viewed live by half the nation rather than on a delay; today it is considered the beginning of true national television broadcasting. DuMont also changed the way in which advertising was done. Rather than having a single sponsor the way radio shows had done, DuMont ran commercials for numerous sponsors on each television program. This method would soon become the standard.
In the end though, DuMont simply couldn’t stay afloat long enough to turn the corner. Relegated to secondary airing status by AT&T’s allotment of coaxial usage, stuck largely on the less-desirable UHF channels (many TVs of the time didn’t even have UHF capability) by a 1948 FCC ruling, and actively undercut by its bigger rivals (NBC even tried to work a deal with CBS and ABC to wipe out DuMont entirely), DuMont was on the verge of collapse. It was forced to sell its one profitable VHF station, WDTV Pittsburgh, in order to generate quick cash in late 1954, and by early 1955 the DuMont Network was effectively finished. Almost all of its entertainment programs went off the air in April, and Paramount took control of DuMont Laboratories in August. Two stations—WABD and WTTG, the original DuMont stations—remained in Dr. DuMont’s hands; they first became "Metropolitan Broadcasting" and then "Metromedia" under new owner John Kluge.
DuMont was gone.
As for the over 20,000 television episodes produced by DuMont between 1946 and 1956? An even more ignominious fate awaited them. Almost all of them, recorded on 35mm or 16mm film kinescope, were loaded into trucks and dumped into Upper New York Bay in the early 1970s—simply to clear the warehouse space. Only about 350 DuMont programs still survive today.
One of them, thankfully, is one of my all-time favorite shows: The Honeymooners. We’ll be talking about that Jackie Gleason masterpiece next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
And in the spirit of DuMont (Morey Amsterdam was the model for the main character in this one), here’s an episode of SUSPENSE starring Daamen Krall and Flapper Press’s Elizabeth Gracen: