DuMont Television Network - History - Programming

Programming

Despite no history of radio programming to draw on and perennial cash shortages, DuMont was an innovative and creative network. Without the radio revenues that supported mighty NBC and CBS, DuMont programmers had to rely on their wits and on connections on Broadway. Eventually, the network provided original programs which are still remembered more than fifty years later.

The network also largely ignored the standard business model of 1950s television, in which one advertiser sponsored an entire show, enabling it to have complete control over its content. Instead, DuMont sold commercials to many different advertisers, freeing producers of its shows from the veto power held by sole sponsors. This eventually became the standard model for U.S. television.

DuMont also holds another important place in American television history. WDTV's sign-on made it possible for stations in the Midwest to receive live network programming from stations on the East Coast, and vice versa. Before then, the networks relied on separate regional networks in the two time zones for live programming, and the West Coast received network programming from kinescopes (films shot directly from live television screens) originating from the East Coast. On January 11, 1949, the coaxial cable linking East and Midwest (known in television circles as "the Golden Spike") was activated. The ceremony, hosted by DuMont and WDTV, was carried on all four networks. WGN in Chicago and WABD in New York were able to share programs through a live coaxial cable feed when WDTV in Pittsburgh signed on, because the station completed the East Coast-to-Midwest chain, allowing stations in both regions to air the same program at the same time, which is still the standard for U.S. television. It was another two years before the West Coast got live programming, but this was the beginning of the modern era of network television.

The first broadcasts came from DuMont's 515 Madison Avenue headquarters, and it soon found additional space, including a fully functioning theater, in the New York branch of Wanamaker's department store at Ninth Street and Broadway. Still later, a lease on the Adelphi Theatre on 54th Street and the Ambassador Theatre on West 49th Street gave the network a site for variety shows, and in 1954, the lavish DuMont Tele-Centre opened in the former Jacob Ruppert's Central Opera House at 205 East 67th Street.

DuMont was the first television network to broadcast a film production for television: Talk Fast, Mister, produced by RKO in 1944. DuMont also aired the first television situation comedy, Mary Kay and Johnny, as well as the first network-televised soap opera, Faraway Hill. Cavalcade of Stars, a variety show hosted by Jackie Gleason, was the birthplace of The Honeymooners (Gleason took his variety show to CBS in 1952 but filmed the Classic 39 Honeymooners episodes at DuMont's Adelphi Theater studio in 1955-56). Bishop Fulton J. Sheen's devotional program Life Is Worth Living went up against Milton Berle in many cities, and was the first show to compete successfully in the ratings against "Mr. Television". In 1952, Sheen won an Emmy Award for "Most Outstanding Personality". The network's other notable programs include:

  • Ted Mack's The Original Amateur Hour, which began on radio in the 1930s under original host Edward Bowes
  • The Morey Amsterdam Show, a comedy/variety show hosted by Morey Amsterdam, which started on CBS before moving to DuMont in 1949
  • Captain Video and His Video Rangers, a hugely popular kids' science fiction series
  • The Arthur Murray Party, a dance program
  • Down You Go, a popular panel show
  • Rocky King, Inside Detective, a private eye series starring Roscoe Karns
  • The Plainclothesman, a camera's-eye-view detective series
  • Live coverage of boxing and professional wrestling, the latter featuring matches staged by the Capitol Wrestling Corporation, the predecessor to WWE
  • The Johns Hopkins Science Review, a Peabody Award winning education program
  • Cash and Carry, the first network-televised game show
  • The Ernie Kovacs Show, the first truly innovative show in what was then visual radio, not television

The network was a pioneer in television programming aimed at minority audiences and featuring minority performers, at a time when the other American networks aired few television series for non-whites. Among DuMont's minority programs were The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, starring Asian American film actress Anna May Wong, the first U.S. television show to star an Asian American, and The Hazel Scott Show, starring pianist and singer Hazel Scott, the first U.S. network television series to be hosted by a black woman.

Although DuMont's programming pre-dated videotape, many DuMont offerings were recorded on kinescopes. These kinescopes were said to be stored in a warehouse until the 1970s. Actress Edie Adams, the wife of comedian Ernie Kovacs (both regular performers on early television) testified in 1996 before a panel of the Library of Congress on the preservation of television and video. Adams claimed that so little value was given to these films that the stored kinescopes were loaded into three trucks and dumped into Upper New York Bay. Nevertheless, a number of DuMont programs survive at The Paley Center for Media in New York City, the UCLA Film and Television Archive in Los Angeles, in the Peabody Awards Collection at the University of Georgia, and the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.

Although nearly the entire DuMont film archive was destroyed, several surviving DuMont shows have been released on DVD. A large number of episodes of Life Is Worth Living have been saved, and they are now aired weekly on the Eternal Word Television Network Catholic cable network, which also makes a collection of them available on DVD (In the biographical information about Fulton J. Sheen added to the end of many episodes, a still image of Bishop Sheen looking into a DuMont Television camera can be seen). Several companies which distribute DVDs over the Internet have released a small number of episodes of Cavalcade of Stars and The Morey Amsterdam Show. Two more DuMont programs, Captain Video and His Video Rangers and Rocky King, Inside Detective, have had a small amount of surviving episodes released commercially by at least one major distributor of public domain programming.

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