Tales of Lost TV: The 1st Authorized Commercial (1941)

Tales of Lost TV is a monthly column in which I examine a particular TV program or TV series either known or believed to be lost forever. The amount of lost TV is truly staggering–aside from a handful of exceptions everything broadcast prior to 1948 no longer exists. That doesn’t mean it all has to be forgotten.

Commercials Come to TV

Television changed forever on Tuesday, July 1st, 1941. On that date, the Federal Communications Commission began allowing television stations to switch from experimental to commercial broadcasting. Only NBC’s pioneering station in New York City was ready for sponsors. Launched in 1928 as W2XBS, the station changed its call letters to WNBT when it received its commercial license from the FCC.

WNBT aired the very first authorized commercial at 2:30PM ET prior to a baseball game between the Dodgers and the Phillies. No recording of this historic television milestone is known to exist.

Bulova Time

The first commercial wasn’t much of a commercial. The Bulova Watch Company sponsored two “time signals” on WNBT, one at 2:30PM ET and the other at 11PM ET. WNBT signed on at 1:30PM ET with a test pattern, followed by the baseball game at 2:30PM. Bulova’s first “time signal” aired before the start of the game.

Here’s a description from Broadcasting magazine:

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.

WNBT also aired commercials for three other sponsors that day: Sun Oil, Lever Brothers, and Procter & Gamble.

The Library of Congress has audio recordings of several WNBT programs broadcast on July 1st, 1941. Sadly, the Dodgers-Phillies game is not one of them, which means there is no audio of the first Bulova time signal. There is this photograph, published by Broadcasting on July 14th:

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

Audio from the second time signal may exist at the Library of Congress. Aside from the time of day they were broadcast–and therefore the hands on the clock face–the two time signals were likely identical.

References:

“Novel Commercials in Video Debut.” Broadcasting. 7 Jul. 1941: 10.

Image Credit:

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


Does your love of forgotten television outweigh your hatred of commercials? Do you hope to one day watch the first authorized TV commercial in the United States? Hit the comments with your thoughts.


2 Comments

  • Patrick McNamara says:

    Many shows in the past were sponsored by a single advertiser so the ads didn’t overwhelm the show and often connected to it. Now we have just as much advertising as story and there’s usually no connection between the advertisers and the show. We also didn’t get five minutes of ad breaks.

  • Tim Warneking says:

    Tell me about the long commercial breaks. And it is the reason that baseball games are longer now than they were in the 1940s. Games rarely lasted two hours, and extra-inning games clocked in at less than three hours. Even college baseball games are too long. In the Big Ten baseball tournament, there were extra-inning games that lasted 4 or 5 hours. This ended up having a semi-final game on that Sunday morning and then the winner of that game playing in the final in the afternoon. Football is affected, too.

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