When Television Was Young
Despite a promising 1929 start, two factors delayed the advent of television for 17 years.
First, the Great Depression slammed the infant industry two brutal blows. One was a sharp contraction in funding needed to complete technical development. Another was a paucity of consumer demand for non-essentials. TV was not the only casualty of weak consumer spending. For example, the recorded music industry released long-playing vinyl records in 1931, only to withdraw them owing to lack of demand. Along with TV, they were successfully reintroduced 17 years later.
Second, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) dominated radio, where it was making so much money that it wanted to delay television. For example, during the Great Depression radio advertising alone grew at a compound annual rate of 21%, rising from $29 million in 1929 to $185 million in 1938.
Accordingly, in 1932 RCA bought a nearly bankrupt Jenkins and put its television technology on the shelf. It also tried to buy out Farnsworth. When he refused to sell, RCA ruthlessly attacked Television Labs with a multi-year barrage of patent challenges intended to bleed the company white financially. After Farnsworth gained temporary funding from Philadelphia Storage Battery (Philco), RCA threatened denial of key license renewals for Philco radio products. At the time RCA controlled nearly all radio patents with the notable exception of FM, but that's another story and a good one.
There's no mistaking a David-and-Goliath echo in the Farnsworth-RCA struggle. For example, although Philo entered the Naval Academy with the second highest entrance exam score he soon dropped-out to focus on television. Despite lacking a college degree he was funded by San Francisco businessmen who thereby unintentionally pioneered the California venture capital business. To demonstrate the safety of air travel for speedy business trips, he took his wife aloft only to have her shout, "If you don't make (the pilot) land, I'll jump!"
Ultimately RCA was forced to license Farnsworth patents, but its holding action combined with the Great Depression and the disruption of World War II, delayed commercialization of television for nearly two decades. By that time Philo was sadly alcoholic and worn out.
Today the situation is comparable. Consumers of print, recorded music, and radio, have already demonstrated a decided preference for Internet forms of such content. Steady improvements in network bandwidth obviously portend an equivalent transformation of video. Yet powerful companies within gigantic economic stakes in the status quo, are unready for the transformation. Similarly, we've entered an economic downturn of unknown proportions.
Ultimately consumers, merchants, and advertisers, will want (1) all video on the Internet and (2) unlimited Internet access at the television. Consumers want it so they can view programs whenever they desire. It also provides Long-Tail content and enables a simple Google search for shows. Merchants and advertisers will like the accountability of a video-centric Internet. Online ads can spontaneously generate sales and sponsors can better target commercials while only paying for those that actually get watched.
Near the end of his life, Farnsworth recovered from his addictions to become an obscure, but venerated, industry statesman. When asked what he thought would be the future of television, he responded with a question:
"What do you want it to be? If you can imagine something, sooner or later you may achieve it; conversely if you don't imagine it, then there is no hope of it becoming a reality."
What do we want the future of TV to be?