This Month in Broadcast History: September

broadcast history
Television’s debut as an entertainer began 94 years ago with the airing of the first-ever TV drama. The one-act play, "The Queen’s Messenger," was chosen due to its relative simplicity—two characters and a single stage setting. (Image credit: Radio News Magazine)

Although the audience was very small, the picture quality poor, and production techniques quite limited, the Sept. 11, 1928 airing of the drama “The Queen’s Messenger” marks the introduction of television as an entertainment medium.     

While test images, static and moving, had previously been transmitted via television, the one-act drama, staged under the auspices of the General Electric Company and its television project leader, Ernst Alexanderson, marked the first-ever broadcast of a television program intended for entertainment.

The studio setup used in telecasting the drama is depicted in this diagram. Details of the flying spot cameras and scanning disc video monitors are also provided. (Note that ‘camera 3’ was trained on small props such a wine glass, keys, a pistol and a dagger, with the close-ups of the objects it provided used to move the action forward). (Image credit: Radio News Magazine)

The 40 minute-long production began at promptly at 1:30 p.m. eastern time, and as it unfolded in one of the research buildings on GE’s Schenectady campus, the action was captured by three fixed flying spot “mechanical” cameras operating at 24 lines and an unspecified frame rate.

The program was transmitted on three transmitters, with images sent at 379.5 and 31.4 meters (798 kHz and 9.55 MHz respectively) and audio on 21.96 meters (13.65 MHz). Due to the shortwave portion of the spectrum used for audio and one of the video transmissions, reports of reception came from as far away as the west coast. Unlike some 21st century television, it was reported that “voice and action came together through space in perfect synchronization.”  

Television’s first director, Mortimer Stewart, had previously directed and produced radio shows aired on GE’s WGY station. As there was no video control room, he directed and “switched” the show from the studio floor. Stewart is seen here at the controls of the three-channel “control box” (video switcher) used to fade from one shot to another. The device on the tripod nearest him contains a photocell used to convert light reflected from the actors and props into a video signal. The octagon-shaped object is one of the 3-inch television monitors used.  (Image credit: Radio News Magazine)


90 Years Ago – September 1932 – As the 1930s unfolded, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), under the leadership of David Sarnoff, was doing its best to move television out of the laboratory and into consumers’ homes. Sarnoff anticipated a bright future for the new medium, and was plowing a very substantial amount of Depression-era stockholder money into TV R&D. It seems, though, that one RCA executive somehow hadn’t gotten the message.

Despite disparaging remarks in 1932 from one company executive, NBC/RCA was already heavily committed to bringing television to American homes, with the creation of a transmission testing facility at New York City’s Empire State Building. Shown here are the transmitters created by RCA for early 1930s field testing purposes. (Image credit: Sarnoff Library photo courtesy of David Sica)

Broadcasting magazine (now TV Tech sister brand Broadcasting & Cable), reported in its Sept. 15, 1932 issue that the vice president in charge of RCA’s NBC network Pacific division, Don E. Gilman, had painted a rather dismal picture of television’s future during a “radio day” luncheon address at the recent Western Retailers Conference in San Francisco.

"The best radio sets now on the market will be obsolete before television is ready for general use," said Gilman. "My business obliges me to follow the progress of television closely, but I am personally so little impressed with it except for laboratory experiment that I would not be bothered having a television set in my home. Any radio dealer who is holding [radio] sales ideas in abeyance while awaiting the arrival of television is pursuing a short-sighted policy.”

There was no reporting of Sarnoff’s reaction to Gilman’s address. (For the record, RCA had set up shop in New York City’s Empire State Building the previous year and was busy conducting transmission field tests of the new medium throughout the greater Manhattan area. 

RCA’s Empire State Building field test operation utilized  separate antennas for picture (41 MHz) and sound (46 MHz.) These vertical dipoles were mounted on the triangular frame seen here. (The sectionalized object also mounted on the frame is a ladder.) (Image credit: Sarnoff Library photo courtesy of David Sica)

Four years later, in 1936, the BBC began airing scheduled television broadcasts, and was followed by NBC less than three years after that. It is to be imagined that 1932 model radios still had plenty of life left in them then when the “Auntie Beeb” TV service launched, and not all had yet been relegated to the junk pile even at the time of NBC’s television startup.)

71 Years Ago – September 1951: The long-promised coast-to-coast video linkage became a reality on Sept. 4, with AT&T Long Lines opening their transcontinental television service in time for President Truman’s address at the San Francisco Japanese peace treaty conference to be seen live across the nation. 


This AT&T Long Lines microwave relay tower, located in central Ohio, was part of the linkage for conveying coast-to-coast video in 1951. The special structure was designed along the lines of costal lighthouses in mind, as it included living quarters for personnel who would likely be needed to keep the equipment fully operational. (Image credit: James O'Neal)

The 2,750-mile $40 million (almost half–a-billion in today’s money) microwave system required the construction of some 107 relay facilities.

50 Years Ago – September 1972: The FCC is hard at work on its latest TV spectrum grab; this time it’s Channels 70 to 83. The NAB has joined the Association of Maximum Service Telecasters in opposing the surrender of TV spectrum for land-mobile radio use, as it would require some 800 TV translators operating in this 800 to 890 MHz region to go dark or relocate. 

In other industry news, ABTO (a partnership between ABC TV and Technical Operations, Inc.) now has its first customer for the technology it developed that allows black and white motion picture film stock to capture events in full color. Metromedia’s NYC outlet, WNEW-TV, announced that by mid-month it would be using the ABTO process—which involves lenticular filter encoding—for filming one-third of its news stories. 

This ABTO “color-from black & white film” ad touted the cost savings broadcasters could experience by adopting the technology developed by the company. It worked, but by the time it was ready to market there was little demand. (Image credit: ABTO)

ABTO color had previously been tested at several stations including Boston’s WNAC-TV and New Haven’s WNHC-TV. (The ABTO color-from-B&W scheme did work, but was not a commercial success, as by the time it was “ready for prime time,” most stations had already pumped up their news budgets to include purchase of color film stock and color film processors.) 

25 Years Ago – September 1997: Broadcasters are still reeling from the recent stroke of the pen that set the gears in motion for auctioning off several chunks of the 1,710 to 2,150 microwave band, including 50 MHz of the current BAS (Broadcast Auxiliary Service) spectrum used to relay programming and news from the field to the studio, as well as for long-haul intercity relay. 

The legislation requires the FCC to reallocate 100 MHz of the 410 MHz spectrum chunk, with the existing 120 MHz BAS allocation shrinking to just 70 MHz. In other FCC news, the Commission is considering using its powers to pre-empt local zoning ordinances that are delaying the construction of new towers needed for the on-going digital TV transition.