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On This Day in History, January 29: TV Pioneer From Brooklyn

Allen Balcom DuMont, a native of Brooklyn, was born on Jan. 29, 1901, to William Henry Beaman and Lillian Felton (Balcom) DuMont. He evinced an interest in electricity while still in elementary school, and an early illness which forced him into a more or less sedentary life encouraged this interest.

At the age of 14 he studied telegraphy, obtained a license as a first class commercial operator and, during the years 1915-20, worked in the summertime on coastwise and transatlantic ships. When, in the latter years of that decade, wireless telephony, or radio, was making strides toward perfection and popularity, DuMont also built and operated the amateur transmitting station W2AYR.

About the time that young DuMont was ready for college, he chanced upon a book published by the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., to illustrate the work of its alumni. In the collection of pictures was one of the Brooklyn Bridge, which impressed the Brooklyn-bred youth, and along with the other contributions of the graduates, influenced him to enter the institute in 1919. One year during his summer vacation from college, he went, as was his custom, to sea as a radio operator. The ship was bound for Copenhagen, but the ship’s ports of call included more than those originally scheduled; DuMont did not return to school until Christmas, and thus, because of his enthusiasm for radio, was compelled to remain an additional year at the institute.

DuMont graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic and took a position with Westinghouse Lamp Company in Bloomfield, N.J., as engineer in the development laboratory, later as engineer supervising the manufacture of different types of radio receiving tubes. His inventiveness soon produced numerous improvements in tube and tube equipment — altogether he applied for 10 patents on these new changes.

In 1928, DuMont joined the De Forest Radio Company of which Lee De Forest, inventor of the audion tube, was president. While at De Forest, DuMont had occasion to study and work with the De Forest television project. Ultimately DuMont established his own laboratories, which were mainly involved in manufacture of the cathode-ray tube. When DuMont marketed the first large screen (14-inch) home TV set in 1938 it entered the first phase of its broadcasting career. By 1946 the DuMont plants were four in number. DuMont formed his own network, which showcased some of our favorite performers, including Jackie Gleason and Sid Caesar.

NBC and CBS became the two giants of TV broadcasting. ABC and DuMont were far behind, fighting for survival — for it was rapidly becoming apparent that there was room for only one other network in the U.S. There were several reasons for this. For one thing, the talent pool available for successful TV shows was limited and very high-priced. NBC and CBS had so many of the trump cards that there just wasn’t much left over for another network, much less for two others. Whenever a new talent emerged on DuMont or ABC, such as Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour or Jackie Gleason, he would soon be stolen away by the “majors” with the promise of much more money.

Even more important, there were a limited number of stations to go around. Outside of New York and a few other large cities, very few places in the U.S. were serviced by more than two, or perhaps three, stations. NBC and CBS always got the best station in each city, leaving ABC and DuMont to fight for the scraps, or to be viewed only part-time on a “shared” station.

In many ways DuMont seemed to be in a good position to become America’s third network. Knowing that large amounts of capital would be needed for television development, DuMont obtained financing from giant Paramount Pictures in 1938 and began active TV programming in the early 1940s. DuMont was close on the heels of NBC in setting up a network in 1946-’47, and its production facilities were the most elaborate in the industry. What went wrong?

One important factor working against DuMont was the fact that his company did not operate a radio network, as did NBC, CBS and ABC. An established radio network not only provided its competitors with a ready talent pool to draw on, but also gave them a foot in the door in signing up choice affiliates (which were usually associated with network radio stations) in many cities. Another devastating blow was a ruling by the government that DuMont, unlike the other three networks, could not own the legal maximum of five television stations.

Most of the affiliates over which the TV networks send their programs were locally owned. Each network could by law own outright only five VHF stations. These five were critically important because they provided the base of revenues to support the network (for years the networks themselves all lost money). They also guaranteed that all of the network’s programs would be seen in at least those five markets. NBC, CBS and ABC each obtained their quota of five stations early in the game. But because of a series of complicated legal rulings involving his relationship with Paramount Pictures (which also owned stations), DuMont could not, and thus was denied both the revenues and guaranteed program clearances that a full roster of five big-market stations could provide. In addition, Paramount refused to give DuMont any further financial support after 1939. When the ABC network merged with United Paramount Theaters, DuMont’s fate was sealed, and it went out of business in 1956.

Allen Dumont died on Nov. 16, 1965.

This article was written by Vernon Parker (1923-2004)

January 27, 2012 - 9:52am


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