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New York Times

Article in New York Times, July 1, 1941.

June 28, 2021
Online Originals

July 1, 1941: The Day Commercial Television Was Born

This year marks the 80th anniversary of this now-ubiquitous medium.

Herbie J Pilato

Some reports claim television began in 1925.

That's when John Logie Baird and Charles Francis Jenkins worked independently of one another on both sides of the Atlantic and produced weak and blurry images on a screen no larger than one inch wide. Other documentation said it was 1928, when WGY, Schenectady, began broadcasting three days a week.

After that, things progressed quickly:

In 1930, NBC opened an experimental TV transmitter in New York. Twelve months later, WICR, operated by Gimbel Bros., went on the air in New York.

In 1932, CBS reported on the Presidential election broadcast over an estimated 7,500 television sets. Within just five years, 17 experimental stations began operation.

In 1938, NBC telecast Susan and God, starring Gertrude Lawrence. The following year, Allen B. DuMont placed the first fully electronic TV sets on the market. The New York World's Fair was televised, and a Princeton-Columbia baseball game became TV's first sportscast. In 1939, Pagliacci was telecast from the Met, the Republican Convention aired live, and CBS marked the first colorcast.

Around that same time, Ray Forrest became TV's first news anchor, announcer, personality, and political commentator.

As he recalled in a 1997 video interview with the Television Academy Foundation, "When radio was king in the early days of television, the announcers sounded stuffy and very elegant and unapproachable. When I got into television, which is the norm today, everybody was sort of relaxed and easygoing...I found that was the simplest way to do it."

In May 1941, the Federal Communications Commission issued commercial licenses to 10 American TV stations including NBC's WBNT in New York. With the arrival of July 1, 1941, and in an on-screen advertisement for the Bulova Watch Co., Forrest then went on to make history:

His inviting voice was heard in broadcast TV's very first commercial. The original ad was the onset of an industry that has generated billions of dollars in revenue over the last 80 years.

It all transpired when WNBT took to the airwaves with a favorite American pastime: baseball. Up to bat: the Brooklyn Dodgers vs. the Philadelphia Phillies at Ebbets Field in New York. During the broadcast of pop-flies, audience cheers, and woes, Forrest's voice was heard over the clear-view image of a Bulova clock that was transposed across a stark map of the United States.

Bulova was billed $9.00 for the ad, as Forrest uttered the now-famous words, "America runs on Bulova time." According to a report published by Ad Age in 1995, there were approximately 4000 televisions in New York in 1941.

Any movement in broadcast media during that time was significant. As Forrest recalled of a change in channel titles, "It was a big thing to look forward to." Before then, WNBT was known as W2XBS. So, he remembered the events of July 1, 1941, as "experimental," occurring on "a banner day."

"Suddenly," he said, "we became WNBT."

Forrest's voice confirmed the transformation with the following words: "This is now WNBT, the first commercial television station on the air."

Viewers would also hear Forrest say things such as, "It's 12:00 Noon, Bulova lunchtime," and so forth.

These rudimentary terms were heard all day long, during each broadcast of every show that aired on that monumental July 1, such as a Lowell Thomas newscast, a USO show, Uncle Jim's Question Bee, and a radio/TV simulcast of Truth or Consequences.

Ray Forrest in his Adam hat during the first on-camera commercial television broadcast.

Amidst it all, Forrest was also featured in a commercial, on-camera, this time for Adam Hats. This ad was broadcast during another transmission of sports programming, "either a boxing or wrestling," he said.

Whenever the camera would cut back to a studio shot, there would be several actors, walking about wearing hats. "And in the middle was Old Ray with an Adam Hat on," mused Forrest, who was also heard speaking the "commercial identification" narration for Adam Hats.

Forrest did not receive payment for the Adam commercial. But at least, he said, "I got to keep the hat."

Certainly, working in early television after World War II proved to be a challenge, mostly due to the oversized lights, cameras, and other such bulky equipment. Trailblazing stations like WNBT, CBS's WCBW, or WABC, affiliated with the "Alphabet" network, only broadcast about 15 hours a week at the time. With America's involvement in the War, financial resources to advance TV technology were diverted to the military.

Ray Forrest broadcasting in 1948

As a result, the more fertile seeds for the "Golden Age of Television" would not be planted until 1948. That's when certain former-vaudevillian stars like Milton Berle would transform into "Uncle Miltie" by way of his massive TV hit, Texaco Star Theatre.

Other hit TV shows would blossom with additional ground-breaking talents such as George Burns and Gracie Allen, and Ozzie and Harriett Nelson.

Each of these real-life husband-and-wife teams began on the radio with shows of their own. They, in turn, remained current by successfully bringing their personas to visual life on TV, as did Robert Young with Father Knows Best, Eve Arden with Our Miss Brooks, and Lucille Ball with I Love Lucy (inspired by radio's My Favorite Husband), and more.

But until all of that transpired, other lesser-known pioneers like Ray Forrest and Francis Henry Taylor laid the groundwork for what would arguably become one of the most influential communication creations of the 20th century and beyond.

On July 1, 1941, Taylor, then Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, marked his own historic hybrid moment for broadcast TV and the advertising age.

During another promotional announcement which aired on screen that day, Taylor said, in part, "We are living in a visual age where the complexities of modern civilization have demanded a minimum of words and a maximum of images...Television will be the instrument which will create as complete a revolution in the education of the future as the discovery of movable type and the invention of the printing press 400 years ago."


Herbie J Pilato, host of Then Again, a classic TV talk show streaming on Amazon Prime, is the author of several books about television. For more information, visit HerbieJPilato.com.

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