Fourth television network
In American television terminology, a fourth network is a reference to a fourth broadcast (over-the-air) television network, as opposed to the Big Three television networks that dominated U.S. television from the 1950s to the 1990s: ABC, CBS, and NBC.
When the U.S. television industry was in its infancy in the 1940s, there were four major full-time television networks that operated across the country: ABC, CBS. NBC, and the DuMont Television Network. Never able to find solid financial ground, DuMont ceased broadcasting in 1956. Later, many companies operated television networks which aspired to compete against the Big Three. However, between the 1950s and the 1980s, none of these start-ups endured and some never even launched. After decades of these failed "fourth networks", many television industry insiders believed a viable fourth network was impossible. Television critics grew jaded. "Industry talk about a possible full-time, full-service, commercial network structured like the existing big three, ABC, CBS and NBC, pops up much more often than the fictitious town of Brigadoon," one critic wrote.
The 1986 launch of the Fox Broadcasting Company was met with ridicule. Despite the industry skepticism and initial network instability, the Fox network eventually proved profitable by the early 1990s, becoming the first successful fourth network and eventually surpassing the Big Three networks in the ratings.
- 1 Background
- 2 Rationale
- 3 Failed attempts
- 3.1 1950s
- 3.2 1960s
- 3.3 1970s
- 4 Fox
- 5 Second tier networks
- 6 References
In the 1940s, four television networks began operations by linking local television stations together via AT&T's coaxial cable telephone network. The linking allowed stations to share television programs across great distances, and allowed advertisers to air television commercials nationally. Local stations became affiliates of one or more of the four networks. These four networks—the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), and the DuMont Television Network—would be the only full-time television networks during the 1940s and 1950s, as in 1948, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) suspended approvals for new station construction permits. Although other companies—including Paramount and Mutual—announced network plans or began limited network operations, these companies withdrew from television after the first few years.
The FCC's "freeze", as it was called, was supposed to last for six months. When it was lifted in 1952, there were only four full-time television networks. The FCC would only license three local VHF stations in each television market in the U.S. A fourth station, the FCC ruled, would have to broadcast on the UHF band. Hundreds of new UHF stations began operations, but many of these stations quickly folded because television set manufacturers were not required to include a UHF tuner until 1964 as part of the All-Channel Act. Most viewers could not receive UHF stations, and most advertisers would not advertise on stations which few could view. Without the advertising revenue enjoyed by the VHF stations, many UHF station owners either returned their station licenses to the FCC, attempted to trade licenses with educational stations on VHF or attempt to move a purchase a VHF station in another nearby market to move into theirs, or cut operating costs in attempts to stay in business.
Since there were four networks but only three VHF stations in most major U.S. cities, one network would be forced to broadcast on a UHF outlet with a limited audience. NBC and CBS had been the larger networks, and the most successful broadcasters in radio. As they began bringing their popular radio programs and stars into the television medium, they sought—and attracted—the most profitable VHF television stations. In many areas, ABC and DuMont were left with undesirable UHF stations, or were forced to affiliate with NBC or CBS stations on a part-time basis. ABC was near bankruptcy in 1952; DuMont's network was unprofitable after 1953.
On August 6, 1956, DuMont ceased regular network operations; the end of DuMont allowed ABC to experience a profit increase of 40% that year, although ABC would not reach parity with NBC and CBS until the 1970s. The end of the DuMont Network left many UHF stations without a reliable source of programming, and many were left to become independent stations. Several new television companies were formed through the years in failed attempts to band these stations together in a new fourth network.
Early network timeline
Some within the industry felt there was a need for a fourth network; that complaints about diversity in programming could be addressed by adding another network. "We need a fourth, a fifth, and a sixth network," one broadcaster stated. While critics rejected "the nightly tripe being offered the public on the three major networks," they were skeptical that a fourth network would offer better material: "[O]ne wonders if a new network lacking the big money already being spread three ways will be able to come up with tripe that is equal. Certainly a new network is not going to stress quality programming when the ratings indicate that the American public prefer hillbillies, cowboys and spies. A new network will have to deliver an audience if it is to attract the big spenders from the ranks of sponsors."
Advertisers, too, called for the creation of a fourth network. Representatives from Procter and Gamble and General Foods, two of the largest advertisers in the U.S., hoped the competition from a fourth network would lower advertising rates on the Big Three. Independent television producers, too, called for a fourth network after battles with the Big Three.
George Fox Organization network
George Fox, the president of the George Fox Organization, announced tentative plans for a television film network in May 1956. The plan was to sign 45-50 affiliate stations; each of these stations would have a voice in deciding what programs the network would air. Four initial programs, Jack for Jill, I'm the Champ, Answer Me This, and It's a Living, were slated to be aired; the programs would be filmed in Hollywood. However, only 17 stations had agreed to affiliate in May. The film network never made it off the ground, and none of the planned programs aired.
Sports Network/Hughes Network
Also in 1956, Dick Bailey founded the Sports Network, a specialty television network which aired only sports programs. Millionaire Howard Hughes purchased the network in 1968, changing the name to the Hughes Television Network. Speculation abounded that Hughes would add non-sports programs to the lineup, launching a fourth network. One television critic speculated "If Hughes does have the exciting sports programs they can change viewer's dialing habits. If dialing habits are changed might he extend his network facilities to include nonsport programming? It would be one way, less costly and with far less of a risk, to start the illusionary fourth network."
Despite the speculation, the Hughes Network never offered non-sports programs and never developed into a fourth major television network.
NTA Film Network
On October 15, 1956, National Telefilm Associates launched the NTA Film Network, a syndication service which distributed both films and television programs to independent television stations and stations affiliated with NBC, CBS, or ABC; the network had signed agreements with over 100 affiliate stations. The ad hoc network's flagship station was WNTA-TV (channel 13) in New York City. The NTA Network was launched as a "fourth TV network", and trade papers of the time referred to it as a new television network.
The NTA Film Network offered dozens of programs to its affiliates, among them sitcom How to Marry a Millionaire (1957–1959), Western Man Without a Gun (1957–1959), sitcom This is Alice (1958–1959), Peabody Award winner Play of the Week (1959–1961), sports show The Bill Corum Sports Show (c. 1957), religious program Man's Heritage (c. 1957), The Passerby (c. 1957), courtroom drama Divorce Court (1957–1969), mystery Official Detective (1957–1958), talk show Open End (1958–1961), swashbuckler William Tell (1958–1959), adventure series Assignment: Underwater (1959–1960), cartoon Q. T. Hush (1960–1961), drama Sheriff of Cochise (later retitled U.S. Marshall, 1956–1958), Alex in Wonderland (1959), news program Newsbeat (1959–1961) and musical program Mantovani (1959).
Among its 1956–1957 offerings were 52 films released by 20th Century Fox. Premiere Performance, a prime time block of 20th Century Fox films, aired from 1957 to 1959. Other film blocks included TV Hour of Stars and The Big Night (both airing from 1958 to 1959). The film network also announced provisional plans to telecast live sporting and special events (using network relays) by the 1959–1960 television season.
Despite this major fourth network effort, by 1961 WNTA-TV was losing money, and the network's flagship station was sold to the Educational Broadcasting Corporation that November. WNTA-TV became WNDT (later WNET), the flagship station of the National Educational Television network, a forerunner of PBS. NTA network operations did not continue without a flagship station, although parent company National Telefilm Associates continued syndication services. Divorce Court was seen as late as 1969.
Pat Weaver's network
Pat Weaver, a former president of NBC, twice attempted to launch his own television network. According to one source, the network would have been called the Pat Weaver Prime Time Network. Although the new network was announced, no programs were ever produced.
In mid-1965, radio businessman Vincent C. Piano proposed the Unisphere Broadcasting System. The service would have operated for 2.5 hours each night. However, Piano had difficulty signing affiliates; a year later, no launch date had been set, and the network still lacked a "respectable number of affiliates in major markets."
The network finally launched under the name Mizlou Television Network in 1968, but the concept had changed. Like the Hughes Network, Mizlou only carried occasional sporting and special events. Despite developing a sophisticated microwave and landline broadcasting system, the company never developed into a major television network.
National Educational Television
Educational television (ETV) had existed since 1952, but was poorly funded. Only a few educational television stations existed during the 1950s. By 1962, 62 educational stations were operating, most of which had affiliated with the non-commercial educational, National Educational Television (NET). That year, the U.S. Congress approved $32 million in funding for educational television, giving a boost to the non-commercial television network. Although at the 1962 revamp of the organization, NET was branded a "fourth network", later historians have disagreed. McNeil (1996) stated, "in a sense, NET was less a true network than a distributor of programs to educational stations throughout the country; it was not until late 1966 that simultaneous broadcasting began on educational outlets."
Millionaire Daniel Overmyer built a chain of five UHF stations during the mid-1960s. In late 1966, Overmyer announced plans for a new fourth network, named the Overmyer Network. The name was later changed to the United Network, but the network itself broadcast only for a single month, and aired only one program, The Las Vegas Show. The lack of reliable VHF stations helped kill the new, unprofitable network. Shortly after the network ceased operations, one critic called the network a fiasco, and likened the failure to the earlier DuMont, NTA Film Network, and Weaver network failures.
Westinghouse or Metromedia
By the late 1960s, several fourth networks had vanished. TV set manufacturers were required to include a UHF tuner after 1964, and it was thought this would help UHF stations and any company hoping to band (mostly) UHF stations together in a fourth network. Two companies, Westinghouse and Metromedia, were floated in 1969 as possible fourth network entries. Westinghouse was the owner of several VHF stations and produced several series which aired on its stations and those owned by other companies. However, Donald McGannon, president of Westinghouse, estimated it would take $200 million each year to operate a full-time television network and a modest news department. McGannon denied his company had full network aspirations.
Metromedia, the successor company to the defunct DuMont Network, was a healthy chain of independent television stations. Although Metromedia "dabbled at creating a fourth network", the company was content with offering series to independent stations on a part-time basis, "nowhere near the conventional definition of a network".
In September 1967, the Kaiser Broadcasting Company announced plans for live network operations by 1970. Kaiser owned eight UHF television stations, most of them in large cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, and Detroit. The planned network never gained traction, and Kaiser sold the stations in 1977.
In the 1970s, the "occasional" television networks started to appear with greater frequency with Norman Lear, Mobil Showcase Network, Capital Cities Communications and Operation Prime Time, all entering the fray along with Metromedia. In 1978, SFM Media Service, who assisted with the Mobil Showcase Network, launched its own occasional network, SFM Holiday Network and the General Foods Golden Showcase Network. SFM was a provider of ad hoc network as a service to other clients including Del Monte Foods.
MGM Family Network
MGM Television entered the field with its self-proclaimed fourth network, MGM Family Network (MFN), on September 9, 1973 with the movie Yearling on 145 stations. MFN was created to fill the family programming void from 5 to 8 p.m. due to the Prime Time Access Rule using MGM movies scheduled for one Sunday every two months. The premiere of MFN had a 40 rating.
In 1976, Metromedia teamed up with Ogilvy and Mather for a proposed linking of independent television stations called MetroNet. The proposed programming would consist of several Sunday night family dramas, a half-hour serial and a gothic series similar to Dark Shadows on weeknights, and a variety program hosted by Charo on Saturdays. The plans for MetroNet failed when advertisers balked at Metromedia's advertising rate, which was only slightly lower than the Big Three's and low national coverage, leaving for Operation Prime Time.
Paramount Television Service
In 1977, Paramount Pictures made tentative plans to launch the Paramount Television Service, or Paramount Programming Service, a new fourth television network. Paramount also purchased the Hughes Network, including its satellite time. Set to launch in April 1978, its programming would have initially consisted of only one night a week for three hours with 30 Movies of the Week that would have followed Star Trek: Phase II on Saturday nights. PTVS was delayed until the 1978-1979 season due to cautious advertisers. This plan was aborted when executives decided the venture would cost too much, with no guarantee of profitability. Paramount continued to produce television programs for the Big Three networks and Operation Prime Time, as well as first-run syndication. Paramount would eventually create a network, UPN, in 1993.
By 1985, there were 267 independent television stations in the U.S., most of which were UHF stations. In May 1985, News Corporation paid $1.55 billion to acquire six independent television stations in major U.S. cities from John Kluge's company, Metromedia. In October 1985, 20th Century Fox announced its intentions to form an independent television system which would compete with the three major television networks. 20th Century Fox studios would combine with the former Metromedia stations to both produce and distribute programming. Because Metromedia was the successor company to the DuMont Television Network, radio personality Clarke Ingram has argued that Fox was essentially not a new fourth network per se, but DuMont "rising from the ashes". Former DuMont stations like WNYW in New York City and WTTG in Washington, D.C. became Fox stations.
The Fox network launched in October 1986 with 88 affiliates, many of them UHF stations. This latest fourth network was met with ridicule by critics and with scorn by Big Three executives, who pointed out that the Fox network, like the failed television networks before it, would be seen mostly on poorly-watched UHF stations. NBC's entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff gave Fox the dismissive nickname "the coat hanger network", implying that viewers would need to attach wire hangers to their television sets to view Fox. NBC head Grant Tinker stated, "I will never put a fourth column on my schedule board. There will only be three."
By 1988, the network was still struggling, and Fox executives considered pulling the plug on the network. But by 1990, Fox had cracked the top 30 in the Nielsen ratings with The Simpsons, which became the first series from a fourth network to enter the top 30 since the demise of DuMont more than 30 years earlier.
Fox also had some advantages that DuMont did not have back in the 1950s. During its first few years, Fox programmed just under the number of hours to be legally considered a network by the FCC, allowing it make money and grow in ways that the established networks were prohibited from. News Corporation also had the money and the resources to get and keep programming and talent on Fox, while DuMont constantly operated on a shoestring budget. And the expansion of cable television in the 1980s and 1990s allowed more viewers to clearly receive UHF stations, along with their other local VHF stations, through their cable system without either over-the-air antennas or TV sets with limited channel tuners.
Fox became profitable by the early 1990s, thanks to successful shows like Married...with Children, 21 Jump Street, Cops, Beverly Hills, 90210, In Living Color, Melrose Place, and The X-Files. In 1994, Fox took the rights to the NFL from CBS, a move that by most accounts firmly established it as the fourth major television network. Soon afterward, Fox convinced several Big Three affiliates (most of them CBS affiliates) to switch to Fox—something no fourth network had ever been able to do before. By the early 2000s, Fox overtook both ABC and NBC in the ratings and began battling a resurgent CBS for the top spot. Fox became the most watched network in the U.S. for the first time in its history in 2008.
Second tier networks
With the success with Fox Broadcasting Company, several other companies started to enter the fray in the 1990s: PTEN (1993), UPN (1995), The WB (1995), PAX TV. United Television left the PTEN to form UPN in 1995, leaving PTEN as a primarily a syndicator of its remaining programs. In September 1999, NBC and Pax TV became affiliated networks when NBC purchased a 32% share of Paxson which lasted until 2003 when NBC sold its stake back to Paxson. In 2000, Viacom purchased CBS making UPN and CBS affiliated networks.
In 2006, UPN and The WB ended operations to combine into The CW. With former Fox stations aligned primarily with UPN without a network, Fox launched its second network, MyNetworkTV. Additional networks formed with the digital television transition gave stations the ability to multiplex while some subchannels are being used to host networks not currently in the market beginning in 2009.
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