Question: I was looking through the TV Guide Online feature on old TV listings and saw that in the early 1950s there was a fourth network, the DuMont network. I had never heard of it before, and I was wondering if you could give me a little background on it. What happened to it? And what happened to the shows that aired on it when the network went off the air? Thanks.
Answer: Well, Jane, it's actually a fairly convoluted story, but I'll see if I can give you the simple version. DuMont, the original fourth network, was the creation of electronics whiz Allen B. DuMont, who first made his name manufacturing cathode-ray tubes before moving into radio and then TV sets. His company experimented with TV broadcasting for years before getting its first commercial broadcast license in 1944 for what is now New York's WNYW. Two years later, as NBC started its three-station "East Coast Network," DuMont opened a Washington D.C. station and a race began to build a network.
Again, in a story too complex to get into here, ABC and CBS got into the game a little later ABC because it didn't have a New York station to use as a mother ship and CBS because it was hanging back until a standards battle over color broadcasting shook out. But once all the parties got into the game, the fact that ABC, CBS and NBC each had radio networks to finance their TV efforts (a situation that struck some FCC commentators as odd since radio was paying for its own competition) and to provide them with affiliate opportunities and a talent pool meant that DuMont was stuck in a very distant fourth place.
Still, the little network that could soldiered on, but the situation was made increasingly bleak when backer Paramount Pictures, which owned half of DuMont's parent company, refused to kick in any financial help after 1939 and when a government ruling prevented DuMont from putting together the crucial five big-city stations that the network needed to pull in sizable revenues and to ensure that shows would be widely seen. Despite some pioneering programming efforts it introduced Jackie Gleason's Honeymooners to the world and broadcast the first network newscast from Washington, the first regularly scheduled children's show, the first live prime-time NFL games and the first daytime schedule DuMont couldn't make a go of it and the network went under in 1955. In an odd way, though, DuMont didn't really die. Paramount's TV stations, bought four years later by John Kluge, became part of Metromedia and they served as building blocks for the creation of Rupert Murdoch's Fox today's fourth network in 1986.
Now, programming-wise, you can find some of old DuMont shows on DVD, Captain Video in particular. Look around online for that, Rocky King, Detective and The Plainclothesman, and enjoy.