The Pigskin and the Picture Tube: The National Football League's First Full Season on the CBS Television Network

Article excerpt

When the New York Giants and the San Francisco Forty-Niners kicked off a new NFL season on September 30, 1956, (1) the Columbia Broadcasting System became the first network to broadcast a full season of professional football games on network television. While overcoming substantial technical and contractual challenges, CBS also established an enduring system of regional telecasts and shifted control of broadcasting professional football from local broadcasters to networks. The relationship helped bring viewers to CBS Television on Sundays and influenced both the game and its bond with fans.

The history of sports runs parallel to the history of American broadcasting. On April 11, 1921, just months after signing on the air, pioneering radio station KDKA broadcast an account of a boxing match between Johnny Dundee and Johnny Ray (2) (Sterling & Kitross, 2002, p. 87). Similarly, television provided audiences with sports coverage early in its history. A portion of Philo T. Farnsworth's August 1934 demonstration of the world's first electronic television system included an informal scrimmage by members of the Philadelphia Eagles outside the Franklin Institute (Godfrey, 2001, p. 63). Five years later--mere weeks after RCA's demonstration of its television system at the 1939 World Fair in New York (Johnson, 1971, pp. 32-37; Smith, 2001, p. 49)--a baseball game between Princeton and Columbia Universities appeared on W2XBS, NBC's experimental television station in New York City (Dunlap, 1939). The first televised football game--a match between Fordham University and Waynesburg College of Pennsylvania--was broadcast on W2XBS the same year, on September 20 (Grosshandler, 1993, p. 4; Johnson, 1971, p. 44; Smith, 2001, p. 51). Professional football made its televised appearance a month later, on October 22. Played at Ebbetts Field in front of about 13,000 fans, the game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Brooklyn Dodgers was broadcast to about 1,000 television sets in New York City (NBC Sports, 1975; Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2006). Professional football made its network television appearance in prime time during the 1950 season. However, highlights, not full games were broadcast (McChesney, 1989, p. 62; Neal-Lunsford, 1992, p. 72; NFL, 1950). As Neal-Lunsford (1992, p. 59) points out, programmers were not initially sure what to put on television, but they considered sports a natural, since it was a mainstay of network radio. Initially boxing was television's preferred sport, dominating the prime-time schedule during the late 1940s. Whereas early television had difficulty following a small white baseball in a large ballpark, the boxing ring proved the ideal target for the primitive iconoscope camera. Football also possessed elements attractive to television: The football was easier for television viewers to see than was the baseball. Furthermore, the game provided frequent breaks between plays that allowed for commentary. Finally, viewers were drawn to the violent nature of the game (Bryant & Holt, 2006, p. 34). Nevertheless, it was college football that was popular with viewers. Professional football, CBS executive Sig Mickelson recalled, was "a blue-collar thing, for guys with no college to root for" (Harris, 1986, p. 13).

Ultimately, the Second World War slowed television's development until 1950, when television was reaching an estimated 30 million viewers or one-fifth of the country's population (Peterson, 1997, p. 196). Despite college football's popularity, selected NFL games began appearing nationally in 1951, thanks to a technological breakthrough. AT&T's new $40 million relay system became operational in 1951, making it possible for broadcasts to be shown live from coast to coast (Neal-Lunsford, 1992, p. 58; Von Schilling, 2003, p. 171). The DuMont television network televised five NFL games in 1951, including the championship game between the Los Angeles Rams and the Cleveland Browns. DuMont paid $475,000 for the rights to the NFL's annual championship games through 1955 (NFL, 1951; "Pro football and DuMont sign a $475,000 pact," 1951). …