Georgians were talking about “radio with pictures” not long after WSB became the state’s first radio station in March 1922.
By the early 1930s, the Atlanta Journal, which owned WSB, was experimenting with mechanical television. Former Cox executive Marc Bartlett recounted, “RCA exhibited the mechanical system in the Atlanta City Auditorium in the late 1930s. The picture lacked definition and was limited to black and white images without gray halftones and receiving sets required a bulky spinning wheel with concentric holes to create the illusion of motion.” The technology never caught on.
The Journal had more luck with a primitive fax broadcasting system that transmitted the day’s newspaper to a home receiver outfitted with special photographic paper. But the marketplace didn’t respond to either product and the Journal remained focused on its newspaper and AM radio station until World War II ended.
In New York, CBS, NBC and DuMont Network flagship stations received their commercial licenses in 1940 but were forced to curtail broadcasting during the war. Most of their employees joined the war effort and replacement equipment to keep the stations going was impossible to get. Television had to wait.
By the time World War II ended in 1945, each network was serious about launching a sustainable television service, offering viewers in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles low budget programs like boxing, wrestling and baseball. At Wrigley Field, the debate about whether to broadcast Cubs games focused on revenue that would be lost by removing a few seats so cameras could be installed. Most viewers got their first taste of TV in bars, which could afford a 19” set.
The number of viewers was tiny. Stations gathered feedback by mailing postage-paid reply cards to all the registered owners of TV sets. None of the stations was turning a profit.
Again, the Atlanta Journal — now owned by former Ohio Governor James Cox — began to plan for the day when television in Georgia would be financially sustainable. The Cox organization had a history of being the first with new technologies and processes. Egged on by RCA president David Sarnoff, Cox management clearly saw the potential of television and made plans to launch stations in Atlanta and its home base of Dayton Ohio.
At the time, pioneer radio station WSB AM broadcast from downtown Atlanta’s Biltmore hotel, but it was clear that a television operation would require more space. So the Cox organization selected 16 acres of land two miles north of the Biltmore on West Peachtree Street near the exclusive Sherwood Forest neighborhood — a plot of land that the Confederates had used during their defense of Atlanta. Construction of a modest building designed to house a television station began in 1947 with a $500,000 budget.
Two of WSB’s competitors also began preparing to enter television. Toledo Ohio’s Fort Industry Company, which made a gasoline additive called Speedene, made plans for a television station to supplement the local radio station it owned, WAGA (590AM).
And the rival Atlanta Constitution newspaper, which owned WCON radio (550AM), planned to launch WCON TV. Radio station WGST (920AM), owned by Georgia Tech, dabbled with plans to enter television and set aside space for TV studios in the planned Alexander Memorial Coliseum.
By 1947, there was a race to be first on the air in Atlanta. But building a successful TV station was fraught with challenges. Georgians got their evening entertainment from the radio, huddling around receivers listening to shows like “Fibber McGee” and Jack Benny. Few Georgians owned TV sets. Building a station would be expensive and there were few people who had experience doing it.
Perhaps even more challenging was the lack of available equipment to put a station on the air. RCA, the primary manufacturer of consoles, tubes and transmitters, had a backlog of orders from companies (most often, newspapers) around the country that wanted to launch their own TV stations.
But there was an incentive to get it done. RCA owned NBC. Eager to sell broadcasting hardware and TV sets, RCA’s Sarnoff told owners of NBC radio’s affiliates, “I promise, you can invest a modest amount of money now or a great deal more money later, but television is our future.”
There was an implied threat, too. Sarnoff made it clear that if stations like WSB didn’t enter television soon, he would take his NBC affiliation elsewhere. That was serious, because radio stations were making tidy profits airing NBC’s programs.
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