Video Killed the Radio: The Birth of Networked TV

The first networked TV broadcast happened 60 years ago, and TV has ruled American culture ever since.

A chart showing the different stages of man as he evolves from a simple ape to a modern, upright human. Each shilouette has a thought bubble of the television in various stages of development, signifying the evolution of the medium.

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In the age of streaming, where content is available on every device from thousands of possible sources at every hour of the day, it can be easy to forget about all of the advances that had to be made in order to make video programming viewable by anyone that has access. One of the most important links in that chain was forged on January 11th, 1949, when KDKA-TV out of Pittsburgh made the first networked TV broadcast.

To get to how the original idea of networking happened, you have to go back to radio. Not so coincidentally, the first commercially licensed radio station in the U.S. was also KDKA. That was in 1920, and Pittsburgh was swiftly joined by radio stations in other cities like New York, Detroit, and Boston. As radio stations proliferated, entities that owned multiple stations began to consider ways that they could send programming from one point of origin to multiple stations in other locations.

The KDKA building in Pittsburgh.
KDKA has been housed in this Pittsburgh building since the 1950s. (Photo by Jgera5; Wikimedia Commons)

By 1928, NBC established the first coast-to-coast radio network. They used phone lines for signal transmission, meaning that the stations had to be physically connected by the various series of lines across the country in order for it to work. This was the birth of “network affiliate” stations, which were generally individually owned and operated stations that paid in and agreed to broadcast the network’s programming interspersed with blocks of local programming.

A pair of coaxial cables
Coaxial cable made television connections possible. (Shutterstock)

Radio boomed, but the young media format of television faced more challenges. The original individual television stations broadcasted over the airwaves, just like radio. Reception for TV sets came via antennae, either the “rabbit ears” on top of the set or aerials on top of a home or building that ran the signal down into the set. Most broadcasts were live and local, with stations providing their own programming. Early recordings called kinescopes were circulated, often through the mail, allowing stations to play films or previously recorded shows. When the attempts to connect stations were made, the combination of sound and picture required a sturdier system for transmission than the “sound only” nature of radio. In 1929, Bell Telephone Laboratories (which was owned by AT&T) patented coaxial cable. It was originally intended to improve telephone service, but it ended up being a solid choice for television, capable of handling the much wider band needed.

AT&T started testing and laying cable in the late ’30s, beginning with a connection between New York and Philadelphia. Various media companies with visions of becoming networks began connecting television stations in different cities on the East Coast. NBC broadcast from New York City to Schenectady, New York in 1940; they followed with other broadcasts from New York City to Philadelphia and Schenectady, though not necessarily regularly, nor at the same time. AT&T completed a hook-up between New York and Washington, D.C. in 1946. By 1948, Boston and Baltimore were in on the act, with four networks (NBC, ABC, CBS, and DuMont) making television broadcasts between different cities.

A map of the continental U.S. in 1949, showing locations of the DuMont network affiliate stations. In the western U.S., there were far less stations than there were in the east.
This map shows DuMont network affiliates in 1949. Stations west of St. Louis received recordings of programs for broadcast. (Image by Firsfron; Wikimedia Commons)

On January 11, 1949, DuMont’s KDKA, originally known as WDTV, made the next big leap forward. Using a connection that now ran all the way to St. Louis, KDKA initiated a simultaneous live broadcast that was able to be carried on 13 other stations. This was a genuine network, as opposed to a series of connections. This set the basis for how television networks would operate for decades, with programs originating at a fixed location that are then carried down to all of the various local affiliates.

Comedian Milton Berle smiling and liting a cigar
Comedian Milton Berle was the first major American TV star, signing a $1 million-a-year contract with NBC in 1951. (Wikimedia Commons)

Since then, television has undergone constant evolution. DuMont faded by the late 1950s, leaving only three major networks until the arrival of Fox in 1986. We’ve gone from receiving signals in our house via antennae to having coaxial connections bring literal “cable” TV into our houses. That’s segued into such innovations as broadband, digital, and satellite connections. Of course, we’re now in the streaming age, wherein we can watch our programs on a number of devices that can run media from any number of broadcasting platforms. At such a time, when the technological horizon seems limitless, it’s good to remember that our daily watching convenience was driven by a spirit of invention that simply wanted two cities to be able to connect. They made it work, and then they opened up the world.

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