Happy 75th Birthday, Commercial TV

Commercial TV celebrates its 75th birthday today. Of course, I doubt most TV viewers will want to mark the occasion, considered how hated most commercials are. If you’re hoping to actually watch the very first television commercial–for Bulova watches–you’re out of luck. There are no known recordings of that commercial, which aired on WNBT in New York City on Tuesday, July 1st, 1941.

WNBT was the only TV station in the country ready for FCC-sanctioned commercial television. Four sponsors were willing to experiment with TV commercials: Bulova Watch Company, Sun Oil, Lever Brothers and Procter & Gamble.

A Historic TV Schedule

Here’s WNBT’s schedule for July 1st, 1941–or at least the most accurate schedule I’ve been able to come up with:

WNBT Schedule for Tuesday, July 1st, 1941
  1:30PM – Test Pattern
  2:30PM – Baseball: Dodgers vs. Phillies, at Ebbets Field
  6:45PM – Lowell Thomas
  8:00PM – Test Pattern
  9:00PM – USO Program
  9:30PM – Uncle Jim’s Question Bee
10:00PM – Bottlenecks of 1941
10:30PM – Truth or Consequences

The Library of Congress has audio recordings of several of these programs. Unfortunately, it does not have a recording of the afternoon baseball game that included the very first official TV commercial. There is some evidence to suggest that the USO program and “Bottlenecks of 1941” aired back to back or may have been part of the same program. The Library of Congress indicates Uncle Jim’s Question Bee aired in between them.

The First TV Commercial

Bulova aired two “time signals” on July 1st, 1941–one at 2:30PM and another at 11PM. Each ran a full minute and featured a test pattern with a watch face overlaid and a ticking second hand. Here’s a description from the July 6th, 1941 edition of The New York Times:

The first attempt to attract prospective customers was made under the sponsorship of a watch manufacturing concern, which paid $4 for the privilege of having a test pattern resembling a clock face flashed on the screen. The pattern remained on the air for a minute while the second hand traced its way around the dial.

More details were published in the July 7th, 1941 issue of Broadcasting:

Bulova Watch Co., New York, opened and closed the day’s transmissions on this station with a visual adaptation of its familiar radio time signal. A standard test pattern, fitted with hands like a clock and bearing the name of the sponsor, ticked off a full minute at 2:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. for the edification of the viewers-in. This two-program contract also provides television’s first success story, for following the opening day’s test the sponsor immediately signed up for daily time-signals for the standard 13-week period.

And here’s a photograph of the test pattern itself, from the July 14th issue of Broadcasting:

Bulova Test Pattern Time Signal – Copyright 1941 Broadcasting Publications, Inc.

Bulova Test Pattern Time Signal – Copyright 1941 Broadcasting Publications, Inc.

You can find a similiar image at the Early Television Museum website.

Could there be a film recording of the Bulova “time signal” commercial? It’s possible–and I truly hope there is–but it seems unlikely. However, The Library of Congress has a recording of Truth or Consequences, which supposedly closed out WNBT’s schedule on July 1st, 1941. It may include audio of the second Bulova time signal.


Sources:

“Novel Commercials in Video Debut.” Broadcasting. 7 Jul. 1941: 10.
Stewart, R.W. “Imagery for Profit.” New York Times. 6 Jul. 1941: X10.

Image Credit:

“Television Time.” Broadcasting. 14 Jul. 1941: 43.


5 Comments

  • David says:

    Happy 75th Birthday, Commercial TV! This is an interesting article.

  • Mike Johnson says:

    It’s amazing how little has changed in advertising over the past 75 years…Procter and Gamble and Unilever (Lever Brothers) are still two of the top advertisers in the world ! May commercial TV see another 75 years!

  • Patrick McNamara says:

    It’s likely the commercial was done live as with many early commercials so there would not be any recorded version.

    If this was broadcast simultaneously as a radio show there might exist audio for it. With the audio it wouldn’t be too hard to recreate the video since it seems to be nothing more than an image of a clock with the hands moving.

    It reminds me of the countdowns many TV stations would have when they first started broadcasting. I don’t know if they do that anymore. But there hasn’t been a whole wave of new broadcasters since off-air went digital. They just seem to suddenly appear now.

  • Jim Dunn says:

    In 1949 I appeared on WNBT “Easy Does It Show,” with Johnny Andrews and Francey Lane. I was the winner of a “Mirror,”charming child contest . I was 4 1/2 years old along with an Elizabeth Steele age 3 1/2. I still have an old newspaper clipping of the event. Now 71 I still remember the day.
    We were sitting on a piano. Johnny Lane on the Keys and Francey Lane between Myself and Elizabeth.

  • Denis says:

    By the time shown (11:01), this image of the Bulova/WNBT test pattern clock is either from a camera rehearsal in the morning, or possibly someone snapped a photo right after the 11PM sign-off time signal.
    Nevertheless, the clock/test pattern was the world’s first paid advertising on commercial television.

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