Happy 72nd Birthday, Commercial TV

If you hate watching commercials on television this may not be a historical event you want to commemorate. But 72 years ago today, on Tuesday, July 1st, 1941, commercial television was born. Only one station in the country was ready for sponsors: WNBT in New York City, known during its experimental years as W2XBS. It had both an FCC commercial license and a rate card ready for sponsors.

Four sponsors signed on for that historic day, all on a test basis: Bulova Watch Company, Sun Oil, Lever Brothers and Procter & Gamble.

Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, there’s something confusion about exactly what WNBT aired that day. More specifically, when it aired what. Here’s a schedule included in an article published in The New York Times on June 29th:

Tuesday [1]
2:20PM – Baseball: Dodgers-Phillies, at Ebbets Field
9PM – U.S.O. Program and Fort Monmouth Soldiers Show

And here’s the scheduled published in the July 1st edition of The New York Times:

Tuesday, July 1st, 1941 [2]
1:30-2:30PM – Test Pattern
2:30PM – Baseball: Dodgers vs. Phillies, at Ebbets Field
6:45PM – Lowell Thomas
8-9PM – Test Pattern
9PM – USO Program: Thomas E. Dewey; Mrs. Winthrop Aldrich. Others; Uncle Jim’s Question Bee; Musical Revue, Bottlenecks of 1941; Truth or Consequences

Notice that both Uncle Jim’s Question Bee and Truth or Consequences were omitted from the earlier schedule. A third schedule also exists, one printed on a program card mailed to set owners by WNBT, which you can see at Television History – The First 75 Years. This one mentioned Truth or Consequences but not Uncle Jim’s Question Bee.

From what I’ve been able to piece together, the station was on the air in the evening from 9-11PM and the USO program started at 9PM. The “Bottlenecks of 1941″ musical revue may or may not have been part of the USO program. If it wasn’t, it aired following the USO program. Both Uncle Jim’s Question Bee and Truth or Consequences were thirty minutes long and aired one right after the other, likely from 10-11PM.

July 12th, 2013 Update: Information drawn from the online sound catalog of the Library of Congress suggests the schedule for the later part of the evening looked like this:

  9:00PM – USO Program
  9:30PM – Uncle Jim’s Question Bee
10:00PM – Bottlenecks of 1941
10:30PM – Truth or Consequences

Estimates vary, but at most there were only a few thousands sets in use New York City when commercial broadcasting began. Could anyone who watched, or worked on, those historic first commercial programs still be alive?

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1 Comment

  • Barry I. Grauman says:

    At the time, Sun Oil [Sunoco] sponsored Lowell Thomas’ 6:45pm(et) radio newscast over NBC; that evening’s edition was a “simulcast” in New York {as it was during the 1940-’41 experimental phase of “W2XBS”}. Lever Brothers sustained “UNCLE JIM’S QUESTION BEE” {which was on NBC radio’s Blue Network on Tuesdays at 8:30pm(et)}, and, of course, “TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES” by Procter & Gamble {at that time, it was on NBC’s Red Network on Saturdays at 8:30pm(et), so this was a “special TV edition”}.

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