Academic journal article Journalism History

James Lawrence Fly V. David Sarnoff: Blitzkrieg over Television

Academic journal article Journalism History

James Lawrence Fly V. David Sarnoff: Blitzkrieg over Television

Article excerpt

In 1940 two unbending men opposed each other about technical standards for presenting television to the American public. Their battle reached the White House in a presidential election year, and the eventual solution created a pattern for deciding technical standards through government cooperation with industry. The Federal Communications Commission has used that patten-with variation-to find standards for FM stereo, color television, and high-- definition television (HDTV). This article traces the events by which this government-industry cooperation began.

This article also compares the participants and their views in 1940 with those appearing during the following half-century in the struggle to develop other media technologies, especially HDTV. The similarities reveal a pattern of problems based on group desires and fears that might arise during some future efforts to develop new media technology.

Four writers have characterized the 1940 conflict as a fight between FCC Chairman James Lawrence Fly and David Sarnoff, president of the Radio Corporation of America, who had spent ten years and ten million dollars to create a functioning television system and was naturally eager to sell television sets and provide programs for them; Udelson called their disagreement a "dramatic confrontation" and said that existing accounts were vague or "mired in partisanship."1 Typical of this partisanship was the comment by Fly's assistant, Nathan David, who said Fly "stood as one voice against the Goths of greed in a fledgling television business."2

The fight can also be considered a battle between the New Deal's view of government as the public's protector and the traditional freedom given to the marketplace. The conflict has been summarized briefly by Sarnoff biographers (as cited below) and by some broadcast historians.3

Fly became chairman in September 1939. The previous year the Radio Manufacturers Association (RMA) adopted television standards that were almost identical with Sarnoffs RCA system and submitted them to the FCC. The FCC set up a television committee on January 3, 1939, to examine various industry standards, including those of the RMA. Despite a decade-long series of demonstrations on both sides of the Atlantic, the committee decided the technology had not advanced far enough for the FCC to choose one set of standards.4 Sarnoff's demonstration of small, fuzzy images at the 1939 New York World's Fair got much publicity, and after RCA sold almost 200 experimental sets in Newburgh, New York, more than fifty people would gather to watch wrestling and boxing matches there on a single 7 1/2-by 10-inch screen. RCA chose Newburgh for a demonstration because it could receive signals from the RCA transmitter in New York City but was small enough (30,000) to provide a supposedly typical reaction to television.5

In January 1940, the FCC opened hearings on whether to permit limited commercial operation by which television stations charged sponsors for production costs but not for air tim--hus making no profit. The commission discovered an industry that disagreed about almost everything. First, according to Variety, deciding whether to permit full or only limited commercialization was "almost as tough a puzzle" as technical standards.6 Witnesses debated whether television was ready for any commercial operation at all. RCA, DuMont, Farnsworth, General Electric, and several smaller groups felt that it was; Philco and Zenith disagreed; Fly had doubts.7 Some broadcasters were reluctant to enter television, fearing it would wipe out their radio profits, but others were eager; Lewis Allen Weiss, Vice President of Don Lee Broadcasting System, told the FCC that sponsors were ready: "They would be willing to advertise if we could take the money."8 Many manufacturers hoped for profits from television. Thomas F. Joyce, Vice President of RCA Manufacturing, predicted that if the FCC would give the "go" signal, the public would buy twenty-five thousand sets. …

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