The Early Days of the Network Wars:
The Rise of American TV Networks and Key Battles for Primetime Ratings
If the mid-twentieth century was, internationally, a time of armed conflict (The Spanish Civil War, World War II, the Korean War and The Vietnam War), there was quite another type of war being fought for dominance of America’s commercial airwaves. It involved a long series of ruthless battles that began with radio and that quickly spilled over into the world of television, and that led to the creation of three superpowers—that is, the three major TV networks of NBC, CBS and ABC—who would rule the industry virtually unopposed for nearly half a century, and who would constantly fight tooth and nail with each other in order to win the never-ending ratings war and its financial spoils. If the ‘big three’ networks, today, have a difficult time staying relevant in a vast world of cable, streaming and on demand television, they nearly single-handedly ran the television industry in the United States for sixty years, were the instigators and custodians of all its major developments over time and made America’s TV culture what it is today.
The goal of this presentation will thus be to go back to the early days of television to demonstrate how the three major television networks rose to power in the industry and did battle with each other on many different fronts. The first was a two-fold battle for patents and technical dominance on one hand, and for commercial television and the right to have paying sponsors on the other, and it pitted the U.S. government, through the FCC, against the emerging industry leader on both of these fronts, RCA-NBC. Before programming itself really became an issue, NBC’s founder David Sarnoff, aptly known as ‘Brigadier General Sarnoff’, boldly overcame one obstacle after another (changing technology, new government regulations, court and even Supreme Court battles and anti-trust cases) and emerged from the wartime hold on development as the undisputed industry giant—at least until programming and content became the new battlefront in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.
For CBS president William Paley, known as the ‘Impresario’, quickly understood that he could not beat NBC on the technology front and instead focused on popular programming and star power—even if it meant using some creative accounting to steal the biggest names on contract with NBC. It was Paley’s CBS that demonstrated that TV, in terms of content, would be both an extension of and an improvement on radio, successfully adapting all of the most popular radio shows to television and becoming a ratings leader. Second-tier networks were thus fighting for survival when focus turned to content and ratings, and the field quickly narrowed when some could not adapt, like the ill-fated DuMont Network (once the fourth horseman in terms of American TV networks, long before FOX joined the hunt), who hoped for more educational programming and who, having not been in radio, had no ready-made content or stars on contract. However, another smaller network would successfully find its own niche—that of youth programming and broadcasting major studio films—through its merger with Paramount Pictures in 1952. ABC’s new president, Leonard Goldenson, would then apply the same marketing methods he had used at Paramount to draw in huge audiences of younger viewers and match the ratings of the two mastodons, NBC and CBS.
Once the field had been limited to these three superpowers, the ratings war began in earnest, and it became a question of finding the right content for an ever-expanding audience and ever-changing national demographic. As this paper will show, the first ratings weapon of choice was decidedly comedy, with all three networks throwing their primetime investment into an effort to tickle America’s funny bone. Thus NBC focused on Vaudeo (live variety programs mixing comedy sketches, guest stars and music), while CBS would emphasize the sitcom and its purloined star power, with ABC adapting the sitcom format to younger audiences and opting for teen dance shows like American Bandstand over the older variety format dominant at NBC. From the 1950’s, the ratings war would rage on between the three networks for generations, but one network would manage to stay on top for nearly three decades. What was their secret weapon? It was simply the ability to abruptly change programming when the winds of change started to blow among U.S. audiences, even if it meant cancelling a number-one show overnight. Thus comedy programs over time would switch from irreverent, urban and ethnic comedy, to comedic quiz shows, to conservative rural comedy, to escapist supernatural sitcoms, and finally to hard-hitting and politically incorrect ‘relevancy’ sitcoms—keeping a certain network number one through to the late 1970’s. Other networks would mark smaller victories by adapting to other fads—including the adult western, noiresque crime drama, superhero series, etc.— but only one network could be said to have won the ratings war…