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Tune in to long-forgotten DuMont, early rival to NBC and CBS

The landmark series aired on CBS, but it started as a sketch on DuMont's Cavalcade Of Stars. (Screenshot: The Honeymooners)
The landmark series aired on CBS, but it started as a sketch on DuMont's Cavalcade Of Stars. (Screenshot: The Honeymooners)

With more than 5.2 million articles, Wikipedia is an invaluable resource, whether you’re throwing a term paper together at the last minute, or researching NASA’s efforts to send Alice Kramden to the moon. We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,361,806-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: DuMont Television Network

What it’s about: In the 1940s, at the dawn of television, there were no streaming services, no cable, no niche programming. America had but three monolithic networks: NBC, CBS, and… DTN? Yes, the DuMont Television Network was a major player in the ’40s and early ’50s, but folded after 10 years. Upstart rival ABC took its place in the firmament.

Strangest fact: A lot of DuMont’s early success was owed to World War II. The network was started by DuMont Laboratories, which was the first to bring an all-electronic TV set to market in 1938. (Previous models displayed the image on a mechanical zoetrope-like spinner.) In the ’30s, however, TV sets were merely a novelty, as there was very little actual programming being broadcast. DuMont made the bulk of its money in other technologies, including helping the Army develop radar as part of the war effort.

To give TV consumers something to watch, DuMont opened a TV station in New York. While rivals CBS and NBC scaled down their broadcast hours during wartime, DuMont’s station, with the catchy call-sign W2XWV, continued with a full schedule. As the war drew to a close, DuMont opened a second station in Washington, D.C., and used an experimental technology—coaxial cable—to connect the two stations to its New Jersey headquarters. The cable was used so both stations could simultaneously announce the detonation of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, and company founder Dr. Allen DuMont considered that the beginning of the network that bore his name, although he wouldn’t add a third station (Pittsburgh’s WDTV) until 1949.

Thing we were happiest to learn: While DuMont didn’t have the money and established talent that NBC’s and CBS’s radio networks provided, it still managed to be the innovator of the three. DuMont rejected the single-sponsor business model (which often gave the sponsor more power over content than the network) in favor of a series of short ads, which became TV’s sole model until PBS and pay cable came along in the 1970s.

DuMont also continued with technical innovations. It extended its coaxial cable to Chicago, and then the West Coast, which meant it could be a truly nationwide network. (Previously, East Coast stations would make kinescopes—a film of a TV screen—and ship them around the country.)

But it was programming where DuMont would have the biggest impact. It aired the first made-for-TV movie, Talk Fast, Mister; the first sitcom, Mary Kay And Johnny; the first network soap opera, Faraway Hill; and the first TV game show, Cash And Carry. DuMont’s most popular variety show, Cavalcade Of Stars, made its host—Jackie Gleason—into TV’s biggest star. He’d take the show to CBS, but not before creating a recurring sketch that would spin off into one of the most influential shows ever to air—The Honeymooners. DuMont also hosted one iteration of one of early television’s most creative and visually inventive programs, The Ernie Kovacs Show. Life Is Worth Living, in which host Bishop Fulton Sheen discussed philosophy and psychology, routinely brought in 10 million viewers, and is believed to still be the highest-rated religious programming ever aired.

The cast of Kovacs Unlimited, a CBS daytime show. When it was canceled, Kovacs moved his show to late-night for DuMont, then primetime for NBC, then continued on with monthly specials for ABC. Unlimited had moved to CBS after being canceled by a local NBC affiliate to make way for The Today Show.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Like a lot of early TV history, the bulk of DuMont’s archives were destroyed, and only a few recordings survive. Nearly all of what’s left lives in museum collections, although the Internet Archive contains episodes from a fair number of shows that have fallen into the public domain. In many cases, only an episode or two of a DuMont show survive, although a handful of shows have a dozen or more episodes still in existence. Best-preserved is The Goldbergs (no relation to the current sitcom), with 71 episodes at the UCLA Film And Television Archive.

Also noteworthy: Minority representation was nearly unheard of in the early days of television, but DuMont was ahead of the admittedly low bar set by the competition. In 1950, Juilliard-trained pianist Hazel Scott became the first African-American to host a TV show, as she performed show tunes live on The Hazel Scott Show three nights a week. Scott was popular and well-received by critics, but sponsors fled the show when she was named as a Communist sympathizer, a charge she vehemently denied. Nonetheless, her show was canceled.

Wong, in a 1935 Paramount Pictures publicitiy still

The following year, the network tapped silent film star Anna May Wong as the first Asian-American to lead a series. In The Gallery Of Madame Liu-Tsong, Wong (whose birth name was Wong Liu-Tsong) starred as an art dealer who moonlighted as a detective, often getting pulled into a web of international intrigue. Sadly, no recordings of either series still exist.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: DuMont folded in 1956 after a raft of problems. The FCC put a freeze on new VHF licenses due to a surge of demand, pushing DuMont to launch UHF affiliates at a time when many TV sets didn’t have a UHF dial. AT&T owned the coaxial cable the networks depended on to link their stations, but charged all four networks the same rate for TV and radio connections together, even though DuMont had no radio stations.

Perhaps worst of all, Paramount Pictures—a 40-percent stakeholder in DuMont—constantly undermined its partners. Paramount launched its own TV stations in Chicago and L.A., competing directly with DuMont affiliates, despite having signed an agreement to only pursue television through DuMont. Then in 1949, the film studio launched the Paramount Television Network, and poured the film studio’s money and talent into programming, something it had never done for DuMont. PTN was less successful than DuMont, distributing only five shows a week to affiliates, many of whom aired Paramount’s programming during breaks in NBC’s or CBS’s schedule. (The Lawrence Welk Show was their only original program of note, and it may have only aired in Los Angeles; it eventually moved to ABC.)

Competition between PTN and DuMont ended up sinking both networks. The FCC considered the two rivals to be the same company, which hampered efforts by both to expand, and stopped a proposed Paramount-ABC merger. When that merger failed, Paramount ousted DuMont’s board of directors with an eye to merging the two networks, but after so much acrimony between the supposed partners, the deal fell apart, and Paramount shut down both networks. Paramount would continue to produce network and syndicated programming for decades, and attempted to launch another network of its own in 1995 with UPN, which was sold to CBS and folded into The CW after 11 years on the air.

The DuMont name still exists in broadcasting, however. Allen’s nephew Bruce DuMont has run a radio show for more than 30 years called Beyond The Beltway. He’s also the founder and CEO of the Museum Of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.

Further down the Wormhole: DuMont’s coaxial network was likened to the First Transcontinental Railroad, which similarly linked different regions of the country. That railroad connected the extensive rail network in the eastern half of the country to the Bay Area, terminating in Alameda, California. Among that town’s landmarks is a spite house, built in the 19th century. We’ll look at the intersection of architecture and life’s greatest motivator next week.