Early experimental TV station W2XAB signed on 85 years ago today. It was not the first TV station in the United States. It was not even the first TV station in New York City. In fact, it was the sixth. However, it marked the entry of the Columbia Broadcasting System into television.
W2XAB signed on at 10:45PM ET with 45-minute inaugural program. The TV station only carried the visual portion of the broadcast. Audio went out over radio station WABC, which transmitted it nationwide. Could audio of this historical inaugural broadcast survive?
Mayor Jimmy Walker was on hand to help officially open the new station. Also participating were WABC technical director Edwin K. Cohan, WABC announcer Edward B. Husing, CBS “television girl” Natalie Towers, German engineer Dr. Walter Schaffer, composer George Gershwin, and singer Kate Smith.
There were some technical issues with W2XAB’s inaugural broadcast, according to The New York Times:
Static is a bad thing for television. It freckles and blotches a countenance. It may rip asunder and mangle a face beyond recognition. And it doesn’t matter to static whose face it attacks. Even the Mayor may be freckled, but the other night at W2XAB Mr. Walker for some reason was given a mustache somewhere between the electric eye and the receiving set. Those who saw Lombardo, an orchestra director, on the television observed that he had a long beard. When asked for an explanation of those ethereal tricks one of the engineers said that “it is just one of those freak things we must learn how to overcome.”
The day after the station signed on, W2XAB introduced a daily schedule with broadcasts from 2-6PM and 8-11PM. The station was renamed WCBW in July 1941 and transitioned to commercial status. Finally, it became WCBS-TV in November 1946 and is still on the air under that name.
“Mayor on Television Picks Up Mustache Somewhere in Space.” New York Times. 26 Jul. 1931: 8XX
“Television Studio Opened by Walker.” New York Times. 22 Jul. 1931: 23.
“Walker Will Open Television Station.” New York Times. 15 Jul. 1931: 21.
One Reply to “W2XAB Signed On 85 Years Ago Today”
W2XAB, directed by CBS public relations man Bill Schudt Jr., lasted about a year and a half. During that time it did some pioneering. Extensive experiments in programming for the static 60 line scanner were performed, including special backdrops and “scenery” projected via lantern slides. A miniature gridiron and moving ball made simulcasts of football games (but without a scoreboard).
Interesting features included in-studio boxing exhibitions, the first party political broadcast, the 1932 election returns, and bandleader Harold Stern conducting his musicians from the studio as they followed his image on a tv set at the Hotel St. Moritz.
Probably the biggest breakthrough was pure engineering. In 1932 W2XAB began to carry audio and video on a single frequency, 2750kHz shortwave. It was the first tv station to do so. Enthusiasts now only needed one radio receiver, instead of the two formerly required to get a full sight-sound program.
A bad financial quarter at CBS meant that W2XAB closed down with no advance notice in February, 1933. By that time its 28-hour weekly schedule had been cut to ten. Bill Schudt moved up to manager of CBS’ Dixie Network, headquartered in Charlotte.
It is not known that any audio of W2XAB programs survives. As for mechanical tv video, it was only ever captured on film once, by Fox Movietone, for a segment on General Electric television operations.