BOB GARFIELD: As everyone knows, the big three broadcast networks -- NBC, CBS and ABC -- have been around since the dawn of time, to be joined only 20 years ago by upstart Fox. Which is true, but incomplete. In TV's earliest days, there was another network, a pioneering enterprise that, through the 40s and early 50s aired some of the popular programs of its day. It was called the DuMont Network, and its rise and fall are chronicled in a new book, The Forgotten Network: DuMont and the Birth of American Television. David Weinstein is the author, and he joins me now. David, welcome to the little upstart we call On the Media.
DAVID WEINSTEIN: Thanks. It's great to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: When I think of the early mythic television moguls, I think of men like David Sarnoff of NBC in his general's uniform, or William Paley, who ran CBS for decades. Industrial titans and visionaries and certainly larger than life personalities. And then there was this Caspar Milquetoast, Allen B. DuMont. Who was this guy?
DAVID WEINSTEIN: Allen DuMont was a scientist, and he was an engineer. Now, DuMont was not one of these figures like a Sarnoff, like a Paley. He was not larger than life. He was a shy man. He was most comfortable tinkering around with different equipment in his laboratory. But because of his skills as an engineer, he decided to get into television, and he found himself in the thick of the industry.
BOB GARFIELD: There seems to be a paradox here. On the one hand, in your book, you describe DuMont as a sort of techno-geek, fiddling with the controls behind his TV to improve the picture, but not paying any attention to the actual program. On the other hand, he'd built a substantial manufacturing business and a TV network, so he clearly wasn't entirely clueless.
DAVID WEINSTEIN: He had the right people working for him also. A lot of the people who worked at DuMont were young, creative, they were thrilled to be working in television, and there was not a lot of middle management, and Allen DuMont himself did not try to dictate the programming that DuMont would broadcast. And they created many of the programs that defined early television -- shows like Captain Video, The Cavalcade of Stars with Jackie Gleason.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's talk about Captain Video for a moment. This, I would say, is just before the so-called Golden Age of Television began. It was still quite experimental. [CLIP FROM CAPTAIN VIDEO PLAYS] [MUSIC]
ANNOUNCER: Fighting for law and order-- Captain Video operates from a mountain retreat, with secret agents at all points of the globe. Possessing scientific secrets and scientific weapons, Captain Video asks no quarter and gives none to the forces of evil. Stand by for... Captain Videooo.
BOB GARFIELD: So, David, Star Wars it wasn't.
DAVID WEINSTEIN: No, it wasn't, but kids, especially were not looking for Star Wars at that time. They were looking for energy; they were looking for excitement. It was the kind of show that critics didn't totally understand, but the kids loved. They had things like the Atomic Rifle, which was basically a toy gun with a muffler on top and other seemingly futuristic weapons that were purchased from the five and ten cents store.
BOB GARFIELD: When you say a muffler, you're talking [LAUGHS] an automobile muffler, no?
DAVID WEINSTEIN: Literally, an automobile muffler taped onto [LAUGHTER] a toy rifle.
BOB GARFIELD: Among its other pioneering efforts, you write that DuMont essentially invented daytime television. How did that come to pass?
DAVID WEINSTEIN: Yes, at the time, no other broadcaster was broadcasting during the day except for an occasional ball game. One of the reasons for that is that the other TV networks also owned radio networks, and they wanted to protect their radio interests by not having television compete with radio. DuMont, on the other hand, wanted to sell TV sets, and it wanted to stimulate television. They had shopping programs similar to the Home Shopping Network. They had Television Kindergarten, telling moms to put their kids in front of the TV while they taught coloring -- the moms could do the dishes, and then they would make a loud noise at the end of the program so the mom would know to come back and watch the child. They were very conscious of trying to create programs that would fit the rhythms of the housewife that was the ideal daytime viewer.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you would think that as perspicacious as they were in understanding their audience, that they might have had some advantages vis a vis the other networks who were coming from a radio culture, but you write that from the very beginning, the DuMont Network really struggled against NBC, CBS and even ABC.
DAVID WEINSTEIN: Yes, unfortunately for DuMont, in 1952, the FCC released its major allocation decision, and it only allocated four or more stations in seven markets. What this meant for DuMont and any other company that wanted to start a fourth network is that it would really only have access to seven markets, and that was not enough for the network to be viable. So by 1955, the DuMont Network had ceased operations, and Allen DuMont was no longer in charge of the company. DuMont Broadcasting was changed to Metropolitan Broadcasting. Later it became Metro Media.
BOB GARFIELD: And would be purchased by whom in order to start what?
DAVID WEINSTEIN: To Rupert Murdoch, and that became the foundation for the Fox Network.
BOB GARFIELD: What legacy of Allen DuMont's essential vision do you think is most lasting in 2004?
DAVID WEINSTEIN: They helped to establish many of the genres that have continued to this day. We talked a little bit about daytime television, talk shows for women, crime dramas. One of my favorites was a program called The Plainclothesman that was shown totally from the point of view of a detective. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] You never saw him on screen, but you saw everything through him. [MUSICAL FLOURISH]
ANNOUNCER: Hero without uniform. Unknown, unsung, but always on guard, protecting you against crime. [MUSICAL FLOURISH]
DAVID WEINSTEIN: And in some ways, even a show like COPS, which tries to take you on a ride with the police officer, is similar to The Plainclothesman. And if you go through a number of genres --variety shows, comedy -- DuMont aired a program called Cavalcade of Stars, for example, which starred Jackie Gleason. Jackie Gleason developed The Honeymooners on that program. I don't know if we would have The Honeymooners without DuMont.
BOB GARFIELD: David, thank you so much.
DAVID WEINSTEIN: Thank you so much, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: David Weinstein is the senior program officer for the National Endowment for the Humanities and author of The Forgotten Network: DuMont and the Birth of American Television. [APPLAUSE]
JACKIE GLEASON: Hi! Let's go! [ORCHESTRA STRIKES UP] [SINGING] DOWN BY THE OHIO-- [APPLAUSE] I'VE GOT THE CUTEST LITTLE OH, MY, OH-- THERE AIN'T NOBODY HALF AS PRETTY AS SHE-- AS SWEET AS CAN BE, AND JUMPIN' JEEPIN' CREATURES, SHE'S CRAZY FOR ME.
WHAT AM I - OH, MY OH - THE ONLY ONE I'VE EVER MET WHO EVER THRILLED ME SO--
SHE'S NOT A GLAMOUR GIRL OR NO MOVIE STAR. BUT WHEN SHE'S OUT WITH ME, SHE'S HEDY LAMARR.
AND WHEN SHE - OH, OH, OH-- JUST WAIT TILL I GET BACK TO-- OH HI OOOOOO-- [BIG MUSICAL FINISH] [APPLAUSE]
BOB GARFIELD: Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Jackie Gleason. That's it for this week's show. [THEME MUSIC UNDER] On the Media was directed by Katya Rogers and produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Derek John, and edited-- by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Anne Kossef and Mike Vuolo. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Arun Rath is our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media, from NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield.
JACKIE GLEASON: Mmmmmmmmm-- boy! [LAUGHTER] You are a dan--dan--dandy crowd. [MUSIC TAG]