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