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University of California Press
NBC: America's Network / Edition 1

NBC: America's Network / Edition 1

by Michele Hilmes
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Spanning eight decades from the beginnings of commercial radio to the current era of international consolidation and emerging digital platforms, this pioneering volume illuminates the entire course of American broadcasting by offering the first comprehensive history of a major network. Bringing together wide-ranging original articles by leading scholars and industry insiders, it offers a comprehensive view of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) that brings into focus the development of this key American institution and the ways that it has intersected with, and influenced, the central events of our times. Programs, policy, industry practices and personnel, politics, audiences, marketing, and global influence all come into play. The story the book tells is not just about broadcasting but about a nation's attempt to construct itself as a culture—with all the underlying concerns, divisions, opportunities, and pleasures. Based on unprecedented research in the extensive NBC archives, NBC: America's Network includes a timeline of NBC's and broadcasting's development, making it a valuable resource for students and scholars as well as for anyone interested the history of media in the United States.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520250819
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/01/2007
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 374
Sales rank: 638,979
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Michele Hilmes is Professor of Media and Cultural Studies in the Department of Communication Arts and Director of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is author of Only Connect: A Cultural History of Broadcasting in the United States and The Television History Book, among other books.

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America's Network

Copyright © 2007 The Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-520-25079-6

Chapter One
NBC and the Network Idea

Defining the "American System"


NBC: the National Broadcasting Company. The name itself, so familiar by now we scarcely give it any thought, lays out the three factors crucial to understanding not only how NBC came to be but also how broadcasting emerged as one of our primary engines of cultural production around the globe. First, national: when RCA announced the formation of its new radio "chain" in 1926, it introduced the first medium that could, through its local stations, connect the scattered and disparate communities of a vast nation simultaneously and address the nation as a whole. Thus radio could become a powerful means of creating and defining a national public, sorely needed in those nation-building years between the two world wars.

Second, broadcasting: this word was coined to denote a new form of communication that emerged in the early 1920s, one that emanated invisibly from a central source and passed with ease through not only physical but social and cultural barriers to reach listeners as private individuals in their homes. More accessible, more exotic (where did that distant station come from?), yet more intimate than any former medium, it created new forms of community and new modes of creative expression.

Third, company: In the United States, unlike most of the rest of the world, broadcasting would develop as a primarily privately owned enterprise, a business responding to market conditions rather than an organ of the state or a public service institution. Yet its power and centrality to national interests meant that it would also come under closer scrutiny and accept the basic compromise of government regulatory oversight to a far greater extent than other media, even in the United States with its First Amendment protections. These three factors-the accessibility and simultaneity of broadcasting, its unique capacity to link a nation and construct a feeling of national identity, and the private ownership that led quickly to advertising as an economic base-defined American broadcasting as a system sometimes imitated, sometimes reviled, around the world.

NBC was the first to put the three together. It positioned itself as "America's network," just as the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) was Britain's network and as other nations would soon form national networks, even though by contrast NBC would remain a private, not a public, corporation. Soon, in the national spirit of commercial competition, it would be joined by its closest rival, CBS. This chapter will trace the origins of the commercial network system of broadcasting as worked out by NBC and its parent company RCA in the 1920s and 1930s, looking at the essential tensions that drove its growth and the cultural results of its pioneering efforts. American radio negotiated a space for itself between principles of social diversity and cultural standardization, between forces of national integration and local independence, and between First Amendment-protected freedoms and the need for regulatory control. These tensions, often reductively articulated as a conflict between radio's public service responsibilities and its commercial economic base, resulted in the affiliate/network structure and the system of sustaining and sponsored programs pioneered by NBC in the 1920s and 1930s. This particular compromise was unique to the United States and represents the central innovation of the American system.

Chaos and Control

The story begins in the United States in the early decades of the twentieth century. By 1917, the year that the United States entered World War I, amateur experimentation with the wireless transmission of Morse-coded messages had already reached a fairly sophisticated level of organization. Groups like the American Radio Relay League had formed, organizing networks, holding yearly meetings, and devising a philosophy of what they called "citizens' radio": a vision of wireless broadcasting open to all, each person both a sender and a receiver of messages, untrammeled by either government restrictions or business considerations. Unlike the countries of Europe, at war since 1914 and still settling tense political conditions in the early 1920s, the United States allowed and even encouraged active amateur experimentation and growth, shutting amateur stations down only from 1917 to 1919. The war motivated rapid development of wireless technology, as well as training of thousands of young men and women as wireless operators, many of whom would pioneer radio broadcasting after the war as coded signals gave way to speech and music over the air (S. Douglas 1987, 1999; Hilmes 1997).

Among these amateurs was a young Russian Jewish immigrant named David Sarnoff, who by 1916 was already employed by the leading radio company operating in the United States, American Marconi, owned by its British parent corporation. Much has been made of Sarnoff 's famous "radio music box" memo, which may have been written that year, in which he suggested that radio might become a popular means of listening to music carried invisibly over the airwaves into the home. In fact he was only one of many amateurs and experimenters already putting such ideas into effect nightly in garages and attics across the nation. He was uniquely placed to implement the notion, however, and it seems likely that his enthusiastic participation in the amateur free-for-all of the postwar years influenced his understanding of the medium in many profound ways.

Sarnoff's immigrant origins point to another important factor in radio's developing role in U.S. society. Immigration to the United States had increased steadily through the turn of the century, reaching a peak in 1920, when nearly 35 percent of the U.S. population either had been born in a foreign country or had at least one foreign-born parent. In many large industrialized U.S. cities, that proportion exceeded 50 percent (Dinnerstein and Reimers 1975, 40). The wave of immigration of the 1860s through the 1920s brought, not the Anglo Saxon and Northern European Protestant settlers of the early period, who had tended to settle in rural areas on independent farms in the best Jeffersonian tradition, but shiploads of economic and political refugees from the "less civilized," poorer, mostly eastern and southern parts of Europe-Ireland, Italy, Poland, and the Balkans. The majority of these immigrants were Roman Catholics and Jews, crowding into tenements in the nation's exploding and expanding cities. Fears of cultural disintegration and lack of national cohesion began to circulate. How could the United States assimilate these swarming, disparate hordes? How could an American national identity be maintained in the face of this overwhelming diversity?

Most social theorists of the day agreed that communication was essential and that the expanding arena of popular media and entertainment, if properly supervised, could draw diverse populations into the social order; without such supervision, cultural chaos could spin out of control. In addition, experience with propaganda during the First World War had left the nation wary of the power that media offered the state and powerful groups and even more suspicious of the dangerous political currents swirling around on the street level during this tumultuous postwar period. Radio both promised a solution to these problems and threatened to exacerbate them. From the beginning, however, it was clear that issues of national identity and social control, in tension with traditional American values of diversity and freedom of expression, were too important to be left to chance, or the market, alone.

The Local and the National

Many Americans believed that the government, most likely the Department of the Navy, would need to take charge of the new medium; others deplored the amount of government intervention into private life that had occurred during the war and were determined that radio should remain in private hands. One important compromise was reached in March 1919, when the General Electric Corporation (GE), a leader in radio technology, negotiated to sell all rights to the important Alexanderson alternator to the British Marconi Company. This would have given Marconi a virtual world monopoly on state-of-the-art radio equipment. A young Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the navy, stepped in to propose that instead the government use its leverage to force the American Marconi company to sell its assets to GE and withdraw from the U.S. market in exchange for key patent rights abroad. Government and corporate interests cooperated to define and defend radio as a crucial national medium, an arrangement that would be replicated around the world.

In October 1919, GE, with the guidance of the federal government, formed a wholly owned subsidiary, grandly titled the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Westinghouse, the American Telephone and Telegraph Corporation (AT&T), and the United Fruit Company became partners in RCA in 1920. This national organization brought together the major companies involved in radio research to pool their patents and coordinate the development of radio in the United States. RCA's charter stipulated that its ownership must be 80 percent American, that its board of directors must consist entirely of U.S. citizens, and that one member must be a representative of the government (Sterling and Kittross 2001, 58). David Sarnoff, formerly of American Marconi, became general manager. In 1930 he would be named president of RCA, from which position he would direct the continuing development of NBC.

This early attempt to exert some kind of national control over broadcasting would have a great impact on the equipment-manufacturing and station-building business; however, radio broadcasting itself-actually providing some form of content over the airwaves-was still a remote enough concept in 1919 that no provisions were made for a national broadcasting service (unlike the situation in 1922, when the BBC debuted). U.S. amateurs' early and extensive involvement in wireless telephony meant that over the next three years not only the members of RCA but thousands of individuals, nonprofit organizations, religious groups, small companies, and related commercial concerns such as newspapers, department stores, and movie theaters (also chicken farms, hardware stores, laundries, and a myriad of others) applied for and received licenses to broadcast with very little thought of interference or overlap.

By 1922 the unchecked diversity and populism of the airwaves provoked the first major move to rein it in: the creation by the U.S. Department of Commerce of the Class B license, which was distinguished from the more general Class A license in that it allowed approved broadcasters to shift their operations to a less crowded frequency in exchange for certain promises of quality in performance (Bensman 1976, 550-51). Most notably, these stipulations included a ban on the playing of recorded music (at least in part a reaction to the social panic over African American-rooted jazz that had recently swept the country) and a mandated preference for more expensive live performance that would persist into radio's heyday. This also brought into the picture the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), a powerful music rights organization interested in ensuring that royalties would be paid for live radio performances, and that development in turn inspired the foundation of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) in 1923 to negotiate on behalf of the emergent industry.

RCA itself, along with its constituent partners GE, Westinghouse, and AT&T, was among the first to obtain the new Class B licenses; meanwhile, amateurs faced increasing restrictions on the content of their broadcasts and would soon be banished to another part of the spectrum completely. Setting an important precedent for the field of radio, government and big business, working together, had come up with a way to "improve" broadcasting and restrict its access to "responsible" parties without making any actual First Amendment-infringing rules as to what content radio broadcasting should provide, and also without restricting the field to a single, state-licensed broadcaster, as was about to happen in England (M. Goodman and Gring 2000). However, the concept of radio as a truly open medium, accessible to all, had clearly been compromised in favor of more powerful, socially central groups: citizens' radio no more. Class B licenses became available by the end of 1922. Though their frequency and name changed in the aftermath of later regulatory decisions, many of the Class B licensees remain on the air today and would form the backbone of network operations.

Despite its socially and politically exclusionary intentions, the Class A and B distinction also worked to confirm the principle of locally licensed stations, establishing for American radio a firm basis in localism rarely found in other nations. Even at the height of network radio, a mid- to large-size U.S. city typically offered anywhere from five to ten or more locally operated radio stations, most of them unaffiliated with a network and thus open to a plethora of community-originated, syndicated, ethnic, foreign-language, and marginal programming. Network affiliates preserved a high level of local identity and content; they were responsible for programming much of the broadcast day-not least in the area of local news-and could reject network programs in favor of their own, though the networks' steady undermining of this right of preemption would provoke the "chain broadcasting" investigation of 1938-41, as Christopher H. Sterling discusses in chapter 5.

Radio in the United States would thus develop in a productive tension between the local and the national, in strong contrast to the highly centralized national systems established in many other countries. Localism's central position in the U.S. system of radio-as indeterminate and contradictory a concept as it has proven to be in application-not only reflected the facts of U.S. radio's early history but also functioned as the guarantor of decentralization, both cultural and political, so vital in American political thought and so deeply rooted in the diversity of American cultural origins and influences. To further this policy, U.S. regulators regarded allocation of "the maximum technically feasible number of stations around the country" as a vital part of their task ( Newton 2003, 870). One of the first actions of the Radio Act of 1927 was to divide the nation into five zones for frequency allocation purposes; the Davis Amendment in 1928 required equality of allocation across the zones.

In most other nations, such as France and Britain, both localism and cultural diversity took a back seat to a centralized, state-mandated monopoly and a carefully constructed homogeneity of culture and address. Some, like the Netherlands, allocated broadcasting outlets to established pillars of social and political power, such as religious and political groups. Switzerland and Belgium focused on linguistic regions. Localism was America's bottom-up answer to such top-down determinations, and one factor that troubled many observers about the formation of networks linking such local stations into New York-based chains was the subversion of localism that they seemed to imply. The relationship of NBC and CBS to their affiliates would thus not only form the backbone of commercial broadcasting's economic system but also become the primary source of contention between broadcasters and their critics and regulators.

The Birth of Networks

The first steps toward the formation of NBC were taken both by RCA and by AT&T. In 1922, RCA established WJZ, later to become the flagship station of its Blue network. At first based in Newark, New Jersey, it would move into New York City the following year, building state-of-the-art studios in the Aeolian Building on 42nd Street just off Times Square. AT&T opened its pioneering station WEAF that same year a little further uptown, where it would undertake some of the first experiments in chain broadcasting-tying two or more stations together via telephone wires to create the first network. Later, it would be sold to RCA and become the key station of NBC's Red network. Over the next five years, both of these early Class B stations came up with many of the programs and practices that served as prototypes for American radio. Bertha Brainard, WJZ's first program manager, who later served as station manager and then NBC's first director of commercial programming, originated one such show in 1922 that took advantage of WJZ's enviable location: the alliteratively titled Bertha Brainard Broadcasting Broadway. Bringing Broadway stars to the microphone for interviews and skits, and eventually airing entire stage productions, this program represented radio's ability to translate and enhance existing cultural forms in a broadcast format, a concept that would soon be extended to symphonies, jazz bands performing in hotels and ballrooms, sports events, and political conventions.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction to Part One
Michele Hilmes
1. NBC and the Network Idea: Defining the “American System”
Michele Hilmes
2. “Always in Friendly Competition”: NBC and CBS in the First Decade of National Broadcasting
Michael J. Socolow
3. Programming in the Public Interest: America's Town Meeting of the Air
David Goodman
4. Regulating Class Conflict on the Air: NBC's Relationship with Business and Organized Labor
Elizabeth Fones-Wolf and Nathan Godfried

Introduction to Part Two
Michele Hilmes
5. Breaking Chains: NBC and the FCC Network Inquiry, 1938-43
Christopher H. Sterling
6. Why Sarnoff Slept: NBC and the Holocaust
David Weinstein
7. Employment and Blue Pencils: NBC, Race, and Representation, 1926-55
Murray Forman
8. NBC, J. Walter Thompson, and the Struggle for Control of Television Programming, 1946-58
Mike Mashon
9. Talent Raids and Package Deals: NBC Loses Its Leadership in the 1950s
Douglas Gomery

Introduction to Part Three
Michele Hilmes
10. NBC News Documentary: “Intelligent Interpretation” in a Cold War Context
Michael Curtin
11. What Closes on Saturday Night: NBC and Satire
Jeffrey S. Miller
12. The Little Program That Could: The Relationship between NBC and Star Trek
Máire Messenger Davies and Roberta Pearson
13. Sex as a Weapon: Programming Sexuality in the 1970s
Elana Levine
14. Saturday Morning Children's Programs on NBC, 1975-2006: A Case Study of Self-Regulation
Karen Hill-Scott and Horst Stipp

Introduction to Part Four
Michele Hilmes
15. Must-See TV: NBC's Dominant Decades
Amanda D. Lotz
16. Creating the Twenty-first-Century Television Network: NBC in the Age of Media Conglomerates
Christopher Anderson
17. Life without Friends: NBC's Programming Strategies in an Age of Media Clutter, Media Conglomeration, and TiVo
Kevin S. Sandler
18. Network Nation: Writing Broadcasting History as Cultural History
Michele Hilmes and Shawn VanCour

NBC Time Line
Notes on Contributors

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