In a 1961 address to the National Association of Broadcasters, then FCC Chairman Newton N. Minow famously described TV as a "vast wasteland." Well, it's also a graveyard, filled to the brim with the bloated carcasses of dead networks.
DuMont Television Network: 1946-1956
Founded by TV manufacturer Allen Du Mont, the DuMont Network came into existence in 1946 with a coaxial cable link between WABD in New York and WTTG in Washington, D.C.
What It Gave Us
A lot of firsts! DuMont was one of America's first television networks, running neck-and-neck with NBC's efforts throughout the 1940s and predating CBS and ABC. During an era when networks made most of their revenue through corporate sponsorship of entire programs—or blocks of time within programs—DuMont pioneered the business model of selling commercial spots to multiple parties. This is now the norm for television advertising, which is why the name of your favorite show isn't Consolidated Steel Presents How I Met Your Mother.
Speaking of shows, the network was the first to program a daytime entertainment schedule, as well as air live coverage of professional baseball, football and basketball games. DuMont also holds the distinction of broadcasting America's first science fiction program, the futuristic Captain Video and His Video Rangers. Though immensely popular among children, its appeal was universal enough for it to be referenced in the debut episode of The Honeymooners on rival network CBS. For perspective, that's the 1950s equivalent of Everybody Loves Raymond doing a joke about the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
Why It Failed
The other major television players of the era also owned radio networks, DuMont did not. This allowed NBC and CBS to tap into their pool of big name radio personalities, and use their radio advertising income to finance their TV interests. DuMont even had trouble holding onto the talent and shows they already had, as offers of bigger budgets and salaries abounded from the other networks. Jackie Gleason reportedly quintupled his salary when he left DuMont's Cavalcade of Stars to host The Jackie Gleason show on CBS. To add insult to injury, he would later go on to play Ralph Kramden—a character he created on Cavalcade-on The Honeymooners. Suck it, Captain Video!
Another big problem for DuMont had to do with affiliates. (For those of you playing along at home, affiliates are stations that agree to air a network's programs locally.) There simply weren't enough TV stations in operation back then for each network to be seen on its own channel in each market. With the launch of the ABC television network in 1948, there were four major networks competing in the same shallow affiliate pool. This gave the stations the ability to pick and choose which shows from which networks they wanted to air, rather than airing a single network's program schedule. As a result, many stations were considered DuMont affiliates even though they only aired a few hours of DuMont programming a week. Also, many of DuMont's affiliates were forced to broadcast on the obscure UHF frequency band, opposed to the more common VHF. Weird. That didn't seem to be a problem for Weird Al Yankovic...
But that's only the half of it. Ultimately, the DuMont Network was greatly hampered—some have even said, sabotaged—by Paramount Pictures, which owned a stake in the DuMont Laboratories parent company. Which brings us to...
Paramount Television Network: 1949-Mid 1950s
Though it was invested in DuMont, Paramount pursued its own TV interests by constructing stations in LA and Chicago, and choosing not to carry DuMont programming. Instead, Paramount produced and recorded its own shows and sent them to its affiliates, who aired them whenever they pleased. And you thought Video on Demand was a new thing.
What It Gave Us
A new definition of the phrase, "screw job."
Back in the day, the FCC limited networks to five owned and operated stations-stations that were run exclusively by a network and, in most cases, aired the entirety of its schedule. Even though the Paramount stations didn't air DuMont programming, the FCC still counted them toward DuMont's O&O limit, since the two nets were financial bedfellows. This resulted in DuMont being seen in far fewer markets than the other networks. Allen Du Mont had his chance to part ways with Paramount in 1950, but opted not to amid concerns that any other business partner might try to exert managerial power over his fledging network. Ironically, Paramount did just that, eventually seizing control of the DuMont Network from the inside and muscling Allen Du Mont out of his own company in 1955.
That's not to say the Paramount Television Network was without merit. Its puppet show Time for Beany won three Emmys and also the heart of Albert Einstein, who was a vocal fan of the show. So, don't be ashamed the next time you get high and watch Sesame Street all day; apparently the father of Relativity would have approved.
Why It Failed
The same rule about owned and operated stations that prevented DuMont from expanding also applied to Paramount, and it struggled to find competitive outlets for its programs. To make matters worse (and more confusing), United Paramount Theaters, an entity that was made separate from Paramount Pictures due to its monopoly on movie houses, merged with ABC in 1953, providing the cash-strapped network with the money it needed to remain afloat and ultimately solidify its place as the number three broadcaster.
There is debate among sources over when exactly PTN ceased operating as a true network, nevertheless, Paramount Pictures sold away most of its television assets by the end of the decade. It never tried to launch a network again.
Paramount Television Service: 1977-1977
Okay, that last part was a lie. Paramount entered the broadcast industry again in 1977, only this time its network planned to air one night of programming a week, banking on movies and a continuation of the Star Trek franchise called Star Trek: Phase II.
What It Gave Us
Nothing. The network never even got off the ground.
Why It Failed
PTS was projected to lose $40 Million right out of the gate, a figure that didn't sit too well with Gulf + Western, Paramount's owner at the time. Plans for the network were scrapped, and the Star Trek: Phase II concept developed into Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the franchise's first feature film. Set phasers to BORING.
A variety of other networks came and went between the fall of DuMont and Paramount and the 1990s: Some were short-lived program syndicators and not networks in the true sense of the word. Others, like Paramount Television Service, were planned, but didn't come to fruition. From this sea of failure, however, arose the FOX network, which proved to be the first viable competitor to the "Big Three" of NBC, CBS and ABC. But that still didn't stop more new networks from trying (and failing) to carve out a slice of the delicious American television pie. Fast forward to....
Prime Time Entertainment Network: 1993-1995
Backed by Chris-Craft Industries and Warner Brothers, PTEN originally programmed just one night per week in its first year, but moved to a whopping two-night-a-week schedule in 1994.
What It Gave Us
Following in the footsteps of the ill-fated Paramount Television Service, PTEN also built its lineup around a show about space, Babylon 5, or as it came to be known, "the poor man's Star Trek: Deep Space Nine." The network also aired Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, starring autoerotic asphyxiation aficionado David Carradine.
Why It Failed
Most of PTEN's stations were also affiliated with FOX, which greatly limited when the smaller network could schedule its programs. PTEN ceased network operations (but continued to syndicate Babylon 5 and Kung Fu) when its two corporate parents became involved in separate television ventures. Which brings us to…
United Paramount Network and The WB: 1995-2006
Paramount, now a subsidiary of Viacom, was back in the television game after producing and distributing popular series like Happy Days, Cheers and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Bolstered by this success-and its recent purchase of a group of television stations—the film studio pursued ownership of a broadcast network…again. It partnered with Chris-Craft Industries' United Television stations group to form UPN in 1995. The very same year, Warner Brothers launched The WB Television Network with Tribune Broadcasting.
What They Gave Us
Renewed faith in American broadcasting…Just kidding. Collectively, UPN and The WB were responsible for such train wrecks as Blue Collar TV, Love Boat: The Next Wave (a pun!), The Jamie Kennedy Experiment and Star Trek: Enterprise, the show that all but killed the Star Trek franchise until it was rejuvenated by J.J. Abram's movie reboot. We also have UPN to thank (or curse?) for bringing professional wrestling back to broadcast TV in the form of WWE's Smackdown.
Here's the epic opening sequence from Love Boat: The Next Wave. Go ahead and watch; they're expecting you.
To The WB's credit, it did air several shows that impressionable teens seemed to enjoy, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson's Creek, Charmed, Gilmore Girls and One Tree Hill, the latter of which continues to air on The CW along with Smallville, Supernatural and the former UPN series America's Next Top Model.
Why They Failed
UPN and The WB lost a reported $500 to 600 Million each, and were never able to compete in the ratings with NBC, CBS, ABC and FOX, now deemed, "The Big Four." Hell, they even had trouble matching Univision's audience levels. Both networks folded in 2006 when Warner Brothers and CBS Corporation (which assumed ownership of UPN in 2005 following the Viacom breakup) joined forces to create the aforementioned CW network. Word is the execs wanted a catchier name, but were pretty limited being that every possible permutation of "Paramount," "network," "television" and the letter "w" had already been exhausted.
Many former UPN stations—and some WB—were left without a network affiliation when The CW emerged. Strangely enough, News Corp.'s Fox Television Stations Group had purchased a slew of UPN stations before the network went under, and, with them and other affiliates, decided to form a new network called MyNetworkTV.
What It Gave Us
At first, MyNetworkTV packed its entire weeknight schedule with campy, over-acted, telenovela-inspired soap operas like Desire and Fashion House, the latter of which starred aging sexpots Morgan Fairchild and Bo Derek. When the execs finally realized nobody cared about how Esmeralda cheated with Eduardo behind Rodrigo's back (or some shit like that), they scrapped the telenovela model in favor of more common TV fare like sitcoms and reality programming. This, unfortunately, led to shows like Under One Roof starring the small, gold-plated entity known as Flavor Flav.
Why It Failed
Why do you think it failed? Low ratings. That, and MyNetworkTV was part of a larger $227 Million loss across News Corp.'s television interests in 4Q 2008. The network ceased airing original series last Fall, and is now a repository for syndicated shows like Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Deal or No Deal. So, if you're into murder and Howie Mandel, you're in luck.
So there you have it, your leisurely romp through the valley of the shadow of network television death. As for which of the current networks will be the next to bite the static-err-dust, only time will tell for sure…
Oh, who are we kidding? We're looking in your direction, NBC.
The following sources were extremely useful in putting this article together:
- The Forgotten Network: DuMont and the Birth of American Television by David Weinstein
- The Du Mont Television Network: What Happened? By Ted Bergmann and Ira Skutch
- Clarke Ingram's comprehensive website, http://www.dumonthistory.tv
- The online archives of Broadcasting & Cable, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, The New Yorker and the LA Times
- The online TV show databases of the Museum of Broadcast Communications and IMDB
Christopher Vespoli is a freelance writer and creator of the pop culture blog ANGELINA FAUXLIE. Originally from New York, he currently resides in Los Angeles where he writes, performs and produces comedy sketches and parodies for television and the web. His work has appeared on the Today show, the Maury show and CollegeHumor.com, and can be seen on his production company's YouTube channel.