Early TV Studios | July 21, 2016By Todd NebelThe year 1948 is often noted as the benchmark year for television. This was the year when commercial television finally took off while becoming a real force in the worlds of entertainment and communications. But, before Uncle Ed Sullivan, and the television freeze years between 1948 and 1952 (when demand shot up but the FCC kept station licenses down), there were many lingering doubts whether television would ever catch on —especially by those who knew it best; the network managers and the television technical personnel. Years earlier, an experimental learning period had begun for those working behind the scenes in the new industry. It was quickly apparent, following the green light given by the FCC for commercial development of television in the spring of 1941, that the production of a network television program would be more involved and complicated than putting on a network radio program. But just as the industry was poised to take off, with ten commercial stations on the air, Pearl Harbor occurred and the FCC halted further building of stations and licenses so that materials and personnel could go towards the war effort. Soon many of television's brilliant engineers were using their research talents in the armed services while the production of TV equipment for commercial use was ordered to stop. But broadcasting did not stop. Like being stranded on an island, a few thousand Americans were fortunate enough to own a television set. And about three quarters of these sets survived the war though many were in poor condition. Burke Crotty, one of NBC's first producers, said, “ In the early days of television the majority of television sets were in two places in New York City —RCA executives' homes or bars. I bought a brand new car in 1940 for a thousand dollars and they wanted $660 for this TV set when there was virtually nothing on the air. At that price, no one wanted them." But the few viewers who had television during the war did enjoy a gradual increase in entertainment programming during this experimental stage. The studio people, who would become the first generation of television technicians and directors, became artists in their own right as ingenuity compensated for small budgets and limited manpower. Many worked overtime on their own time because there was no money and radio was still the networks', as well as America's, darling. Most of the early television stations like WCBW (CBS) and WNBT (NBC) in New York, had been converted from experimental to commercial status in 1941. By FCC regulation. both stations were on their air about 15 hours a week. Most television programs in those early years were produced within the studio as discussions, game shows, musical programs, wrestling and boxing matches. Some sports events were covered live or on a remote basis. Films, particularly free ones, were also widely used. Many early television stations varied greatly in layout, construction and equipment. In the largest cities, giant radio studios designed for large studio audiences, including NBC's famous 8H, the home of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, were converted for television, and downtown motion picture and stage theatres were converted as well. Overall, an emphasis by the networks on controlling the costs related to television while radio still flourished, was obvious in many ways in the new industry. To begin with, many stations established a single makeshift studio (few could afford two), in a building designed originally for some other purpose with a ceiling too low for proper lighting. Usually, there was poor soundproofing, inadequate or non-existent air conditioning, and a rabbit's maze of offices and corridors. Apart from the set, the only necessary equipment included two studio cameras and their control units, at least one film chain for showing motion pictures, slides, or stills and a network connection. And when one of the hand-made cameras broke down, as they usually did during a live performance, the show would continue with only one camera. Many studios were oddly shaped or had supporting columns that interrupted space, camera movement and lighting. Some studios were housed in war surplus quonset huts. And when a studio was specifically built, it was usually made of inexpensive cinderblock construction. In this TV training ground of the early to mid 1940's, many first-generation television engineers likened and sought out an even-illumination of fluorescent lighting for their television sets. However, the creative production people most frequently won out by their desire to use motion picture lighting techniques because fluorescent could not be dimmed and was found to be inappropriate for dramatic lighting. Another problem which had to be addressed occurred when cameras moved over irregular wooden floors creating bumps and wiggles which were frequently seen on the air in those early days. And, if the viewer hadn't already seen enough, the microphones (which were originally designed for radio) often appeared in the picture because they had to be positioned very close to the actors to reduce echo and background noise. Monochromatic makeup (black, white or purple) had thankfully been discarded (from the actors point of view) early on, but few studios continued with anything but shades of gray for their settings. Soundproofing followed radio practice and absorbent materials were draped everywhere that the fire inspectors would permit in an effort to soak up echoes, camera noise and other movement. Since all programs were live; actors and other talent had to watch not only the script, director and clock, but the camera as well. The tremendous heat from the lighting (an actor could lose seven to ten pounds during a performance) made air conditioning essential for the sake of both people and equipment. However, because of power demands, costs and noise from air conditioners, many studios were uncomfortable hot houses even in the dead of winter.The issue of harmful lighting remained a major obstacle to the success of television because of the fiery intensity of the lights necessary to get a decent picture (perspiration could frequently be viewed falling from actors and then literally boiling off tabletops!). It was not until the invention by Vladimir Zworykin of a tube, called the image-orthicon, that was extremely sensitive to light, that television looked like an instrument that couldn't miss. Suddenly, television could now create a quality picture for television drama with the atmosphere and mood that a motion picture director would require. When the war ended, the race to mass produce television sets and make commercial television a reality went into high gear. At the time of Pearl Harbor there had only been a few thousand set in the country. By 1947, there were 170,000 and by the end of 1948, a quarter of a million. Shows like Milton Berle' Texaco Star Theatre were emptying city streets on Tuesday nights. A movie house manager in Ohio raised a sign on his theatre door: "Closed Tuesday — I want to see Berle, too!" But the first days of network television were probably the most remarkable. An exceptional group of artists came together to create the first shows and later, after the war, would conspire to produce the Golden Age of TV. Television was a miracle back then.