Remember when television was banned on Sunday? No? I’m not surprised. Technically, it may not have been an actual ban. That’s the term Broadcasting magazine used but I’m not sure I agree with it. The Federal Communications Commission instituted the so-called ban more than seven decades in 1941–then lifted it a few months later.
The FCC’s Weekly Minimum for TV Stations
The FCC promulgated (that’s a fun word) its New Rules and Regulations Governing Commercial Television Broadcast Stations on April 30th, 1941. They went into effect two months later on July 1st. That’s when commercial TV officially got underway in the United States. The rules and regulations laid out how commercial television would work. They provided authorization, offered official definitions, and set technical standards.
Here’s the section that relates to television on Sundays:
4.261-Minimum Operating Schedule
(a) The license of each television broadcast station shall maintain a regular program operating schedule transmitting a standard television signal for a total of 15 hours per week. On each day, except Sunday, there shall be at least 2 hours program transmission between 2 P.M. and 11 P.M., including at least 1 hour program transmission on five week days between 7:30 P.M. and 10:30 P.M.
My interpretation of this section is that TV stations were given the option of providing “program transmission” on Sunday. Those hours wouldn’t count toward the 15-hour weekly minimum, however. In other words, the FCC didn’t require TV stations to operate on Sunday. But does that mean there was an outright ban?
The FCC amended Section 4.261 (a) in October 1941:
The license of each television broadcast station shall maintain a regular program operating schedule transmitting a standard television signal for a total of 15 hours per week. There shall be at least 2 hours program transmission between 2 P.M. and 11 P.M. on six days of each week including at least one hour program transmission on five week days between 7:30 P.M. and 10:30 P.M. on five days of each week.
TV listings published in The New York Times show early commercial station WNBT broadcasting on Sunday as early as September 14th, 1941.
Those Pesky Blue Laws
According to Broadcasting, the original rule aimed “to avoid conflict with Sunday blue laws in certain localities.” If you’re not familiar with blue laws, they’re laws aimed at restricting or banning certain activities on Sunday due to religious concerns. The amended rule “will enable localities not subjected to blue laws to televise unhindered.”
Sunday television, Broadcasting explained, is “desirable since it provides larger daytime audiences for outdoor pickups as well as contrast to the weekday night and studio transmissions.”
So, was there a ban? I’m not a lawyer. I don’t have a lot of experience trying to interpret FCC regulations. Broadcasting called the original rule a ban. Maybe it was. WCBW in New York City didn’t go on the air on Sunday until December 7th, 1941. It only did so then to report about the attack on Pearl Harbor.
This is just another example of how little is known about the early history of television. The further back in time you go, the more confusing things get. There aren’t many easily accessible resources relating to the state of TV in 1941. Perhaps the FCC has in its archives information pertaining to the “ban” on Sunday television.
“New Rules and Regulations Governing Commercial Television Broadcast Stations.” Broadcasting. 12 May 1941: 58.
“Sunday Available to Video Outlets.” Broadcasting. 20 Oct. 1941: 42.