Commentary

When Television Was Young

Television was at the threshold of commercialization in 1929, well before the popular early shows of the late 1940s. Less than a year prior to the stock market crash, two pioneering companies issued public shares: (1) Jenkins Television Laboratories and (2) Television Laboratories, Inc. While Jenkins concentrated on an inferior mechanical image scanning technique, Television Labs founder Philo Farnsworth invented an electronic scanning methodology using cathode ray tubes. Farnsworth's success is underscored by the vernacular "tube" as a synonym for television.

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.

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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?

13 comments about "When Television Was Young".
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  1. Jonathan Mirow from BroadbandVideo, Inc., December 1, 2009 at 12:59 p.m.

    The future of television is that "television" really doesn't have much of a future. While broadcast used to be a license to print money (because every home had a TV) the fact is I can now watch video on either of the two laptops on my desk, my cell phone and a variety of other web-enabled devices. Video (however) has a VERY bright future on the internet. Just as the publishing world was rocked by IP technology - the "television" world is about to be significantly altered and the same scenario will play out: the dinosaurs will wake up one morning and wonder "what happened?" when (just like the newspapers and some guy named Craig) they find their cheese has not moved, it's grown legs and jogged out of state. Remember "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results" - what have broadcasters REALLY done to alter their model? Put old episiodes of Gilligan's Island online and expect that to work? There are only a handful of people out there who really have an inkling of the change about to occur - and they are NOT CEOs or GMs or major Broadcast Networks.

  2. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, December 1, 2009 at 1:18 p.m.

    Broadcasting was a necessity before the launch of geostationary satellites, because there was no other way to directly reach all the homes. Now that 89 percent of homes get their signals from cable or satellite, it makes no sense at all to preserve the over-the-air system, especially when it would be cheaper to subsidize the remaining 11 percent than to keep the present system of wasted spectrum. Even the FCC gets it now. I'm a former TV broadcast manager and a lifelong lover of broadcast TV, but it's time to recognize that the party is over. TV had its glorious 70-year run. NBC is being sold to Comcast. Last one out, turn off the [tower] lights.

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, December 1, 2009 at 1:20 p.m.

    Looks like Jay Leno back at 11:30 in the more things change, the more they stay the same vein. Maybe. ;)

  4. Thomas Siebert from BENEVOLENT PROPAGANDA, December 1, 2009 at 1:33 p.m.

    Terrific, informative piece. Thanks!

  5. Miles Roty from Oktane Micro Media, December 1, 2009 at 1:49 p.m.

    It's always great to get some historical perspective on where we are (or may be) as an emerging medium. As an independent Marketing & Content production company, we are still experiencing some uphill battle in sales efforts - even with the accountability, flexibility and attractive pricing we are able to offer. Amazingly, online/mobile video as a long-tail marketing tool still requires evangelization in the board room. A piece like this boosts confidence and enthusiasm that we are on the right path - well written Mr. Leigh... thank you.

  6. Rochelle Fainstein from Sterling Brands, December 1, 2009 at 3:33 p.m.

    terrific.

  7. David H. Deans, December 1, 2009 at 6:23 p.m.

    You asked "What do we want the future of TV to be?" Well, I'd like it to be truly "in the public interest" -- as it was intended when TV broadcasting was licensed by the FCC (no, we haven't forgotten that fact). I'd like it to be open to *real* unfettered innovation, and if any legacy company attempts to use restraint-of-trade practices to crush creativity or delay an invention, then I'd like the U.S. Justice Department to take decisive action in accordance with their charter (ditto, we also haven't forgotten that fact).

  8. Tim Mccormick from McCormick Fields, December 2, 2009 at 5:05 a.m.

    Let's face it.
    The media future isn't
    what it used to be.
    Apologies to Y. Berra.

  9. Pooky Amsterdam from PookyMedia, December 4, 2009 at 9:50 p.m.

    Great article - as far as the future of TV, I fully believe it will involve an active playing component from the audience. I have 2 shows which are broadcast live out of Second Life, and the audience plays right along with, for some hilarious and fantastic results. It is edge of your seat, tip of your fingers kind of involvement. With livestream and chatbridge enabling the ability to reach people is awesome. And to produce a game show as I do on the 3D immersive platform of Second Life is a fraction of what outworld TV charges.
    With this I can also develop branded shows and sponsored series.
    This is the future of television, digitally delivered and audience integrated. Sit back & relax has become lean forward & ENGAGE for this, "The Golden Age of the Internet."

  10. Peggy Lee from PPL Consulting, December 5, 2009 at 11:03 a.m.

    The future of television is tied to online--Google and others will direct content. The consumer viewer will have control. Nice.

  11. Eric Lamond from C3 Entertainment, Inc., December 7, 2009 at 8:03 p.m.

    The future of television will be part lean back, part interactive and part accessibility. The lean back aspect will stay because generations of consumers still enjoy that mode. Whether the content comes from traditional broadcasters (whose shelf life will probably end in the not too distant future), cable providers or pure Internet players, the accessibility issue will be a critical component even for the lean back audience. The ability to provide all types of interactive content will enjoy strong growth for the foreseeable future because there exists a very large audience desiring more and more content that allows for various types of inter play. Again, accessibility will be a major factor. The ‘I want it where and when I want it’ demand by consumers will be met sooner rather than later but the future of television, no matter how delivered, where delivered and by whom delivered, will be providing engaging content. Original content was king in the traditional television world. It will continue to be so in the future because providers will always find a way to monetize good content, whether through adverting, single view fees or subscription. Basically, the biggest change will be the box and the delivery system…not the concept.

  12. James Morsden from http://www.server-support-company.com/, January 25, 2011 at 6:16 a.m.

    Fun and entertainment is what television promises to everyone. There are lot of advantages and disadvantages of having a television. That is why people should be responsible to what they are watching.

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  13. James Morsden from http://www.server-support-company.com/, January 28, 2011 at 2:47 a.m.

    Great work. Television plays a major role in our daily living.

    <a href="http://www.server-support-company.com/">server support company nyc</a>

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