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David Weinstein

The Forgotten Network
DuMont and the Birth of American Television

David Weinstein

A Q&A with the Temple University Press author about the early days of American network television

Q: Was DuMont really America's first television network?
A: DuMont and NBC each can lay claim to being America's first television network. Each firm conducted experimental transmissions throughout 1946 and began to air a few hours of programs, three or four nights a week, by early 1947.

Q: DuMont got started in a Montclair, NJ basement. Where did its first station air?
A: In November 1940, DuMont inaugurated its first television station: New York City's experimental W2XWV (later WABD and WNEW). At the time, the city had only one other TV station. DuMont continued to own and operate a New York station as WABD, Channel Five, after World War Two. It also owned stations in Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh. DuMont's three stations served as the foundation for a network that had affiliates in most major markets, from New York to Los Angeles.

Q: How did Allen Du Mont get his start in the industry?
A: Allen Du Mont was an engineer and an inventor who had a talent for designing and manufacturing electronic equipment. He worked for several radio companies in the 1920s and acquired a reputation for dramatically increasing the production of radio tubes. Du Mont started his own company, DuMont Laboratories, in 1931. Initially, DuMont built and sold high-quality cathode-ray tubes. In 1937, well before television was available commercially, DuMont applied for its first permit to build a television station. The next year, it began manufacturing television receivers. Du Mont's story illustrates the possibilities and pitfalls of entrepreneurship in mid-century America, with particular attention to the emerging television industry.

Q: Allen Du Mont was more reserved and private than some of the television executives at other networks. Do you feel his image helped or hurt him in this cutthroat industry?
A: Until now, DuMont was not recognized for his many achievements as a television pioneer. The Forgotten Network looks at the birth of television through DuMont's business and programming practices, rather than those of CBS or NBC, examining why DuMont did not succeed in network television beyond 1955. It provides a nuanced analysis of the origins and development of the three-network system that dominated television until the rise of cable in the 1980s. The book also provides a historical context for contemporary debates regarding media competition, the public interest, and government regulation of media ownership.

Q: What programs defined the DuMont Network?
A: Captain Video, Life Is Worth Living, and Cavalcade of Stars—the variety program on which Jackie Gleason developed The Honeymooners. DuMont also aired shows that were not especially popular in their time, but have become cult favorites today, such as The Ernie Kovacs Show.

Q: Which program is your favorite?
A: I loved hunting down and watching all of the old kinescopes of programs. It seemed like each program provided a different surprise. One of my favorites is a show called The Plainclothes Man, an inventive, visually exciting detective show. Much of the program was shot from the first-person perspective of a detective, known only as "lieutenant," who is never seen by the viewers. We see what the detective sees. When the lieutenant scans a room, for example, the camera spins around. When he interrogates a tough guy, the suspect looks directly into the camera. The Plainclothes Man offered a new way of making detective programs. Although the show had a loyal following and it aired for nearly five years, very few kinescopes of the program have survived, and nobody knows about The Plainclothes Man today.


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