fortunes of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) have always
been closely tied to those of its parent company, Radio Corporation
of America (RCA). Unlike CBS, which was formed as an independent
programming enterprise, NBC came into existence as the subsidiary
of an electronics manufacturer which saw programming as a form of
marketing, an enticement to purchase radio and television receivers
for the home. The power and influence of a national network aided
RCA as it lobbied to see its technology adopted as the industry
standard, particularly during the early years of television and
in the battle over color television.
was formed after World War I when General Electric signed an extensive
patents cross-licensing agreement with Westinghouse, AT and T, and
United Fruit. The product of this alliance, RCA was owned jointly
by the four companies and was created for the purpose of marketing
radio receivers produced by G. E. and Westinghouse. As the alliance
unraveled during the late 1920s and early 1930s, due to internal
competition and government antitrust efforts, RCA emerged as an
independent company. In November 1926, RCA formed NBC as a wholly-owned
subsidiary. Shortly thereafter, RCA added a second network, and
the two networks were designated NBC-Red and NBC-Blue.
which had been merely a sales agent for the other companies emerged
in the 1930s as a radio manufacturer with two networks, a powerful
lineup of clear channel stations, and a roster of stars who were
unequaled in the radio industry. From this position of power RCA
research labs under the direction of Vladimir Zworykin set the standard
for research into the nascent technology of television. NBC began
experimental broadcasts from New York's Empire State building as
early as 1932. By 1935 the company was spending millions of dollars
annually to fund television research. Profits from the lucrative
NBC radio networks were routinely channeled into television research.
In 1939 NBC became the first network to introduce regular television
broadcasts with its inaugural telecast of the opening day ceremonies
at the New York World's Fair of 1939. RCA's goal was to produce
and market receivers and programs, to become the driving force in
the emerging industry.
RCA's dominance of the broadcast industry led to government scrutiny
in the late 1930s when the FCC began to investigate the legitimacy
of networks, or "chain broadcasting" as it was then called. The
result was the 1941 publication of the FCC's Report on Chain Broadcasting
which criticized the network's control of a majority of high-powered
stations and called for the divorcement of NBC's two networks. RCA
took the decision to court, but failed to overturn the FCC's findings.
In 1943 RCA sold its Blue network to Edward J. Noble, and this network
eventually became ABC.
After World War II, RCA moved quickly to consolidate its influence
over the television industry. While CBS tried to stall efforts to
establish technological standards in order to promote its own color-TV
technology, RCA pushed hard for the development of television according
to the existing NTSC technical standards established in 1941. The
FCC agreed with RCA, though the two networks continued to battle
over standards for color television until the RCA system was finally
selected in 1953. Throughout this period, network television played
a secondary role at RCA. In the early 1950s NBC accounted for only
one-quarter of RCA's corporate profits. NBC's most important role
for its parent was in helping to extend the general appeal of television
as the market for television sets boomed.
the 1950s and 1960s, NBC generally finished in second place in the
ratings behind CBS. NBC's prime-time schedule relied heavily on
two genres: drama, including several of the most acclaimed anthology
drama series of the 1950s (Philco/Goodyear Playhouse, Kraft Television
Theater), and comedy-variety, featuring such stars as Milton
Berle, Jimmy Durante, Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, Dean Martin and
Jerry Lewis, Bob Hope, and Perry Como. In spite of its dependence
on these familiar genres, NBC was also responsible for several programming
key innovations are credited to Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, who served
as the network's chief programmer from 1949 to 1953 and as president
from 1953 to 1955. Weaver is credited with introducing the "magazine
concept" of television advertising, in which advertisers no longer
sponsored an entire series, but paid to have their ads placed within
a program--as ads appear in a magazine. Previously, networks had
functioned as conduits for sponsor-produced programming; this move
shifted the balance of power toward the networks, which were able
to exert more control over programming. Weaver expanded the network
schedule into the "fringe" time periods of early morning and late
night by introducing Today and Tonight. He also championed "event"
programming that broke the routines of regularly-scheduled series
with expensive, one-shot broadcasts, which he called "spectaculars."
Broadcast live, the Broadway production of Peter Pan drew a record
audience of 65 million viewers.
ABC president Robert Kintner took over programming at in 1956 and
served as network president from 1958 to 1965. Kintner supervised
the expansion of NBC news, the shift to color broadcasting (completed
in 1965), and the network's diversification beyond television programming.
Through RCA, NBC branched out during the 1960s, acquiring financial
interest in Hertz rental cars, a carpet manufacturer, and real-estate
holdings. The network moved aggressively into international markets,
selling programs overseas through its NBC International subsidiary,
which placed NBC programs in more than eighty countries. By the
mid-1960s NBC had invested in thirteen television stations and one
network in eight countries.
under Kintner followed the network's traditional reliance on dramas
and comedy-variety. NBC formed a strong alliance with the production
company MCA-Universal, whose drama series came to dominate the network's
schedule well into the 1970s. After introducing movies to prime-time
with Saturday Night at the Movies in 1961, NBC joined with
MCA-Universal to develop several long-form program formats, including
the ninety-minute episodic series (The Virginian), the made-for-TV
movie (debuting with Fame Is The Name of the Game in 1966),
and the movie series (The NBC Mystery Movie, which initially
featured Columbo, McCloud, and McMillan and Wife).
During the late 1970s, after decades of battling CBS in the ratings,
NBC watched as ABC, with a sitcom-laden schedule, took command of
the ratings race, leaving NBC in a distant third place. To halt
its steep decline, NBC recruited Fred Silverman, the man who had
engineered ABC's rapid rise. Silverman's tenure as president of
NBC lasted from 1978 to 1981 and is probably the lowest point in
the history of the network. Instead of turning around NBC's fortunes,
Silverman presided over an era of steadily declining viewers, affiliate
desertions, and programs that were often mediocre (BJ and the
Bear) and occasionally disastrous (Supertrain).
the depths of its fortunes in 1981, mired in third place, NBC recruited
Grant Tinker to become NBC chairman. A cofounder of MTM Enterprises,
Tinker had presided over the spectacular rise of the independent
production company that had produced The Mary Tyler Moore Show,
Lou Grant, and Hill Street Blues. Tinker led NBC on a
three-year journey back to respectability by continuing the commitment
to quality programming that had marked his tenure at MTM. Along
with his chief programmer, Brandon Tartikoff, Tinker patiently nurtured
such acclaimed series as Hill Street Blues, Cheers, St. Elsewhere,
and Family Ties. The turning point for NBC came in 1984 when
Tartikoff convinced comedian Bill Cosby to return to series television
with The Cosby Show. Network profits under Tinker climbed
from $48 million in his first year to $333 million in 1985.
the mid-1980s NBC generated 43% of RCA's $570 million in earnings--a
hugely disproportionate share of the profits for a single division
of the conglomerate. In the mergermania of the 1980s, RCA became
a ripe target for takeover, particularly given the potential value
of the company when broken into its various components. General
Electric purchased RCA--and with it NBC--in 1985 for $6.3 billion.
When Tinker stepped down in 1986, G.E. chairman John F. Welch, Jr.
named former G.E. executive Robert E. Wright as network chairman.
Based on the continued success of the series left behind by Tinker,
NBC dominated the ratings until the late 1980s--when its ratings
and profits suddenly collapsed, leaving losses of $60 million in
1991 and just one show, Cheers, in the Nielsen top 10.
Rumors warned that G.E. was about to bail out, selling NBC to Paramount,
Time Warner, Disney, or perhaps even a syndicate headed by Bill
Cosby. G.E. management came under intense criticism for its sometimes
harsh cost-cutting, which many felt had damaged network operations,
particularly in the news division. G.E. was also blamed for misunderstanding
the business of broadcasting. The network suffered a series of public
relations debacles, including a fraudulent news report on the newsmagazine
Dateline and the bungled attempts to name a successor to Johnny
Carson as host of the flagship Tonight Show.
But General Electric held onto NBC, and Robert Wright remained in
charge. By 1996 NBC is once again the undisputed leader of network
television with the five top-rated shows most weeks. Under the programming
of Warren Littlefield, NBC has solid hits in Seinfeld, E.R.,
Frasier, and Friends. G.E. has also spent a considerable
amount of its own money to guarantee NBC the rights to the most
valuable televised sports events, including $4 billion for the rights
to broadcast the Olympics until well into the twenty-first century.
In addition, NBC has diversified substantially during the G.E. era.
The network owns minor stakes in cable channels such as Arts and
Entertainment, Court TV, American Movie Classics, Bravo, Sports
Channel America, and the History Channel. NBC founded a cable network,
CNBC, a business-news channel which is valued at more than $1 billion.
From this success it has spun off the cable network America's Talking,
which will be converted to an all-news channel thanks to an alliance
formed with computer software giant Microsoft. And the network has
invested $23 million in a Europe-based cable and satellite network
called Super Channel, which will extend NBC's global reach.
Barnouw, Erik. A History of Broadcasting in the United States.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.
J. Fred. One Nation Under Television. New York: Pantheon,
Tinker, Grant, with Bud Rukeyser. Tinker in Television: From
General Sarnoff to General Electric. New York: Simon and Schuster,
Weaver, Slyvester L. ("Pat"). The Best Seat in the House: The
Golden Years of Radio and Television. New York: Knopf, 1994.
See also American
Broadcasting Company; Columbia
Broadcasting System; Sarnoff,