America’s forgotten early television networks: Paramount Television Network and NTA Film Network

Most television historians in the United States will generally agree that in the early days of commercial broadcasting in the States, there were four television networks:  ABC, CBS, DuMont and NBC.  DuMont was, of course, the first full time commercial network but it ceased operations in 1955 as a network (it really ended a bit sooner, but we’ll say 1955 for our purposes.)  There was, actually, at least two more that operated in the 1940’s and 1950’s, though one just barely qualifies.

First, lets define the term ‘network’: a network is two or more stations that carry the same or similar programming that originates from one entity.  A more stricter definition is that they are also ‘linked’ together.  For the purposes of this article, we will forego the ‘linked’ together since that, in itself, is open to interpretation.

Paramount Television Network

Paramounttelevisionnetwork Paramount Pictures has had a long love affair with television and has had at least a sixty year longing for its own television network.  In 1938, Paramount invested $400,000 in DuMont Labs. While the cash was needed and Paramount had a genuine interest in television, they never capitalized in DuMont and, in fact, often took steps to hamper DuMont.  This rivalry began when Paramount built two television stations, WBKB in Chicago and KTLA in Los Angeles, starting in 1940.  Neither station had anything to do with DuMont.  When DuMont began network operations in 1946, neither Paramount station was an affiliate and, except for one year from 1947 to 1948, they never carried DuMont programming and, in fact, competed with DuMont.

In January of 1949, Paramount launched the Paramount Television Network.  The network, initially just a link from LA to San Diego, originally distributed its programming via kinescope recordings to its affiliate stations-a method used by the other network that came into being a few years later, more on that later.  PTN, like DuMont, attempted to build additional owned and operated stations but the FCC saw its interest in DuMont as part of the same company and DuMont’s three stations would bring the number of owned and operated stations to five, the limit for any one company.  This limitation and view by the FCC also hindered DuMont’s ability to expand and, ultimately, helped to end both networks.

PTN, despite the program delivery method, had a schedule and a fairly large slate of programming and at least one of its shows, Time for Beany, was fairly popular and actually won an Emmy Award in 1949.  As was typical of all network programming during that time, shows had to be ‘cleared’ by local stations and, as such, often did not air at the same time or day throughout the country.  Only NBC and CBS enjoyed synchronous programming for much of their schedules.  That is, they had enough clout and affiliates that could air much of the schedules at the same time and day.  That helped those two networks grow advertising dollars.  ABC and DuMont had to fight to get their programming on whenever they could.  Only one DuMont station could carry the full schedule.  ABC faired better but still had to fight.  PTN had an even worse time, especially given the method that they distributed their programming. 

At it’s peak, PTN had five regular series airing over 40 affiliates.  This was in 1950.  The network did not grow after that and, in 1953, finally ceased operations as a network.  However, the reason it died was due to the merger of ABC and Paramount’s now divested United Paramount Theater chain.  UPT was divested as a result of an antitrust action.  UPT was ruthless in its day but was cash rich.  ABC, on the other hand, was almost as poor as DuMont and desperately needed cash.  At one point, DuMont and ABC were going to merge.  Paramount scuttled that.  One result of the divestiture was the forced transfer of WBKB in Chicago to CBS.  By late 1955, UPT had just 15 affiliates.  While speculation raged that Paramount would absorb what was left of DuMont, as Paramount had staged a coup in the DuMont boardroom, they never did.  The DuMont stations were sold in 1959 and became part of the Metropolitan Broadcasting Company, which later became what is Fox Broadcasting today.

While PTN withered away as a network, that did not end the network television dreams of Paramount.   In the late 1960’s, Paramount acquired Desilu Productions.  Desilu owned the rights to Star Trek.  Star Trek, in the mid 1970’s, was enjoying a popularity that far surpassed its original network television run.  Wanting to build a ‘fourth’ network, and needing a big draw, Paramount decided to green light ‘Star Trek: Phase II’ as the foundation for its new television network.  The show would anchor the network and be followed by a movie of the week.  Paramount had second thoughts and decided to scuttle the network idea and produce the first Star Trek movie instead. 

Star Trek would, once again, be considered as the cornerstone for a Paramount television network.  In 1995, UPN began broadcasting and Star Trek Voyager was the flagship program. UPN was a joint venture between Paramount and Chris-Craft and lasted 11 years when it merged with Warner Brothers ‘WB’ network to form the CW.

NTA Film Network

NTAlogo While PTN and DuMont floundered, another upstart ‘network’ formed in 1956.  Called NTA Film Network, it was never a full time network like ABC, CBS or NBC.  It was really more of a programming service but, under many ‘network’ definitions, it qualifies as a bonafied network.  It  was launched as a ‘fourth network’ and had, at one point, had over a hundred affiliates and the financial backing of another film studio, 20th Century Fox (see a pattern?)  Like PTN, it’s programming was delivered, via film, to stations using the mail.  Programming was shipped to the affiliates as there was no microwave or coax cable interconnections.  PTN, at least, had SOME of its stations linked, NTA had NONE.  This alone nearly disqualifies NTA from network status.  However, one thing separated NTA from your normal syndicators:  its schedule.  Most of its stations agreed to air the programming simultaneously, giving the appearance of a national network.  Since Hollywood owned half of the network, there were lots of polished programming and fairly ‘major’ stars involved.  However, the network was never profitable and was shut down in 1961 when its flagship station, WNTA, was sold.  WNTA went on as the foundation for National Educational Television, the forerunner of PBS.  Without a flagship station, NTA ceased.  However, its parent company remained in business and continued syndicating programs.

It all comes around

The interesting thing to note here is how history has repeated itself.  DuMont, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, NTA, CBS, ABC and NBC are all intertwined.  Even PBS owes its existence to this hodgepodge of corporations.  Check it out:

  • Paramount invests in DuMont and also builds two stations
  • RCA, owner of NBC Red and NBC Blue, is forced to divest one of its radio operations.  NBC Blue becomes ABC.
  • DuMont ceases to exist as a broadcasting entity and its stations are sold and become the company later known as Metromedia.
  • 20th Century Fox buys 50% of NTA Film Network, but NTA Film shuts down five years later.
  • Rupert Murdoch buys controlling interest in TCF, the parent company of 20th Century Fox.
  • Murdoch also purchases Metromedia.  Fox Broadcasting is born.
  • Chris-Craft and Warner Brothers form the Prime Time Consortium, which later became PTEN, a network that became the WB when Chris-Craft pulled out
  • Paramount, along with Chris-Craft, forms UPN, the fifth network.
  • Warner Brothers, at the same time as Paramount, forms the WB, the sixth national network.
  • Paramount and WB merge the two now-struggling networks to form the CW.
  • myNetworkTV is born from what was left of UPN and the WB affiliates that were left out when the two merged. It is run by FOX Broadcasting.
  • Viacom and CBS merge.
  • CBS takes over the broadcast arm of Paramount.
  • CBS is a partner in the CW.

What a tangled web that was woven.  And, ultimately, the entire commercial broadcasting world was born from just three companies:  RCA/NBC, CBS and DuMont.  Of course, television’s landscape today is vastly different from what it was in 1946 when DuMont began commercial operations.  We’ve gone from a handful of disconnected, low definition, black and white stations to thousands of high definition, color stations and, oh yeah, add in cable and satellite operations.

There have been other attempts at commercial networks and many regional netlets, but none have survived or thrived.  Of them, PTEN had the best chance to survive until it’s partners split up.  PTEN had at least one popular program, Babylon 5.  It also saw the continuation of the Kung Fu program, which also proved popular. At its peak, PTEN had 177 affiliates and blanketed 93% of the country. Half of those affiliates also carried FOX programming.  Chris-Craft pulled out in 1995 and invested in UPN.  PTEN shut down in 1997.  Other networks came and went, including the Overmyer network and Hughes Television Network.

Today, in the US, there are eight commercial television networks, nine if you include Univision (which is owned by NBC.)  Of those, six can be traced all the way back to those three companies I mentioned above.  The networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, myNetworkTV, the CW and ION Television (funded by NBC at one point.)  The rest of the pack (and throw in myNetworkTV, CW and ION) are usually aired on digital sub channels, low power television stations, shared with a larger network or on former independent stations.  The combined viewership of them is about what FOX enjoys by itself.  In some ways, it harkens back to the early days in the 1940’s and 50’s.  The technology may be better and there is more money involved, but it is just as cut throat and those tiny networks have to fight just to stay on the air.  Worse for them, many people probably do not even know they exist.  Just like DuMont. Or PTN. Or NTA.  It all comes around.

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