While the concept of today’s radio and television networks - groups of local, affiliated stations carrying identical programming - may be a dying breed thanks to cable and satellite technology, bringing with it an explosion of specialty programming channels, the concept was for its time ingenious, and how it came to be is a tale worth telling.
Just six years after Pittsburgh’s KDKA broadcast the results of the 1920 presidential election between Warren Harding and James M. Cox, the Radio Corporation of America (“RCA”) was among America’s chief manufacturers of radio receivers. But with the RCA Radiola Grand radio set selling for upwards of $325 (equivalent of $4,320 today), its executives soon realized that they needed to give buyers reason to buy.
With this in mind, they began buying radio stations along the east coast, simultaneously developing the infrastructure needed to transmit radio signals from point to point. Once their testing was complete, RCA’s venture was launched as the then-ambitiously named National Broadcasting Company (“NBC”), on 15 November 1926.
NBC’s operations very quickly expanded, and as a result RCA split it into two distinct networks: a “Red” network, which offered commercially sponsored programming, and a “Blue Network,” which carried news, cultural, and non-sponsored broadcasts. Within a year, the concept was proving so popular that it was duplicated on the west coast, where Red and Blue Network programming would be retransmitted via the NBC “Orange” and “Gold” networks.
Meanwhile, just as RCA’s ambitions were expanding, what ultimately became CBS was making its debut with far less money, far less ambition, and a far different objective in mind: selling cigars. Intending to use radio broadcasting as a vehicle to promote a cigar company he owned, Samuel Paley put together an investment group that bought a group of 16 radio stations in various locations throughout the country which had been loosely operating as the "United Independent Broadcasters."
Having failed to interest his son in the cigar business, Paley placed his 26 year old son William in charge of the radio operation. Paley the younger, who up to that point was seen by his father as something of a ne’er do well, would take to broadcasting like a duck to water, branding the stations collectively as the “Columbia Broadcasting System,” and developing it into a competitor with the NBC’s Red and Blue Networks - expanding to over 100 affiliate stations nationwide within a decade.
Almost from its inception in 1934, the new Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) began investigating RCA for perceived monopolistic practices in broadcasting. In 1939, it ruled that RCA held an illegal monopoly in the radio industry. It ordered RCA to split its radio operations into three distinct entities: the first (RCA) which continued to manufacture radios, a second (NBC) comprised of the Red and Orange Networks, while the Blue and Gold Networks were the foundation of a third entity called simply “Blue Network.” RCA immediately put Blue Network on the block.
Edward J. Noble, who had made a considerable fortune selling Life Savers candy, would acquire the Blue Network in 1943. To make it clear to all that a full break from its RCA roots was being made, Noble immediately renamed the network the American Broadcasting Company (“ABC”). Paley meanwhile would develop the business model which all networks, both in radio and later in television, would ultimately adopt: providing programming to affiliates at little to no cost (and later even paying stations to carry it), while having the production and distribution costs borne by corporate sponsors via advertising.
So RCA begat NBC, which in turn begat ABC, and the “big three” networks were now in place. For the next five decades, the three would be the big players in broadcasting, first in radio, then television. But a fourth television network would come, and go, and depending on how you look at it, come back again to join them.
Just as RCA launched NBC in 1926 toward the goal of selling radios, in the mid-1940’s DuMont Laboratories launched its own network (“DuMont”) in an effort to sell more of its brand of television sets. Without radio underpinnings however, DuMont lacked the significant financial resources needed to keep a network afloat, nor did they have talented people around whom to create new programming. Without these resources, within a decade the DuMont Network was dead, and its pieces - owned stations and network infrastructure - were sold off in parts, keeping just two television stations under its control when all was said and done.
Trying to distance themselves from their DuMont past, the station pair renamed itself the Metropolitan Broadcasting Corporation. A few years later, it changed names again, this time to Metromedia. Under the direction of John Kluge, Metromedia would grow to be the name in television DuMont aspired to, both as a station group owner and a syndicator of programming. After a quarter century of building, in 1985 Kluge sold Metromedia to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.
The Metromedia acquisition was part of a complex series of transactions Murdoch undertook that year, among them an ownership stake in 20th Century Fox. With a wealth of programming in the form of 20th’s movie library and now a transmission vehicle in Metromedia’s syndicated station lineup, Murdoch decided to take on the big three and on 9 October 1986 launched the Fox Broadcasting Company (then known as “FBC,” but quickly rebranded simply as “Fox”) with “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers,” a late night entry featuring the then-popular comedienne. While “The Late Show” would die a quick, ignominious death, the network would do what DuMont couldn’t: cement itself as a permanent part of the national broadcasting landscape.