In 1949, A Network Withered and a New One Emerged

Terry Teachout always has something interesting to write about. His column “Sightings,” in Saturday’s WSJ this week was about a media giant’s demise…but this one happened in 1949.
Back then, everyone listened to network radio, but suddenly, everyone was talking about this new thing called television. Teachout points out that in the early days, television was a big money loser, and was kept going by the deep pockets of NBC and CBS.

You can see why it was a hard sell: Televisions sold for $685, half the price of a new car, and compared to the 85 million radios across the US, there were only 1.3 million TV sets. “NBC’s fledgling TV network lost $13,000 a day, or $116,000 in today’s dollars.” But all that was to change.

On January 11, 1949, eight stations on the East Coast and seven in the Midwest became linked via coaxial cable, and soon there was a big American network who could all watch Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater at the same time. Suddenly, ballgames, theaters and nightclubs were empty at 8 pm Eastern time. Jack Benny and Bob Hope switched to TV in 1950, and twelve years later the last radio dramas were cancelled.

Teachout’s point is that when the better experience of seeing and hearing became available, Americans has no hesitation about abandoning network radio–there was no loyalty despite the decades of pleasure it had given them. “Nostalgia, like guilt, is rope that wears thin,” he wrote.