ITV, American Style 

14 June 2001

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is more than 20 years old. The formatting may be strange, links broken and/or images missing. The text may have been superseded by subsequent events or later research.

Americans like myself would be very surprised to have visited Britain in the 1950s and early 60s. By the middle 50s, most American television set owners had access to three channels. In some cities, like Chicago, it would be five channels. In New York and Los Angeles, seven channels each.

Britain, of course, had fewer frequencies for television, and as a result only one channel until the mid-fifties. But even after ITV came into being some British viewers would have a choice of only two channels for many years to come.

What if the US regulatory agency for broadcasting, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had only a limited number of television broadcasting frequencies and room for no more than one national network? How would the FCC have determined who got what stations?

Had there been only room for one national television network in the US, based on a scarcity of channels, the FCC may well have done what the British did – divide the country into regions with each region going to a different broadcaster.

Let us assume that this was going to be the case in America, but let us also assume that the sound radio broadcast frequencies as we know them also existed, meaning there would be numerous radio broadcasters but few television broadcasters. Who might have gotten what in what region?

Given its huge population, New York might have been made a separate region, like London. The National Broadcasting Company (NBC), the largest US radio network in the 1940s and subsidiary of RCA, probably would have gotten New York City.

In the “golden days” of American radio, “The Yankee Network” (founded by a man named John Shepard) provided programmes to radio stations throughout New England; perhaps they would have gotten a TV licence for the New England region and New York State (except for New York City).

A midwest (Great Lakes states) region probably would have resulted in spirited competition between Chicago radio station WGN and Cincinnati radio station WLW for the regional licence.

A licence for the Middle Atlantic States region might have involved bids from radio broadcasters in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington. Most likely to get it might have been WFIL in Philadelphia, based on the fact they had fed some programmes to the American Broadcasting Company (ABC; once known as the NBC Blue) network.

The Southeastern states weren’t as populated as they are today, and such a TV region might have included everything from Tennessee to North Carolina and southwards, including Georgia, Florida, etc.

The regional licence probably would have gone to Nashville radio station WSM, although Atlanta radio station WSB probably would have bid. The Northern Plains states (Iowa, Minnesota, the Dakotas, etc.) probably would have wound up in the hands of radio station KSTP in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

The Southwestern states (Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico) probably would have gone to radio station WBAP in Dallas/Fort Worth, while Denver station KOA would have probably gotten the right to be the television licensee for the Rocky Mountain states. And the licence for the West Coast (California, Oregon, Washington State, plus Alaska and Hawaii once they became states) probably would have gone to Don Lee Broadcasting of Los Angeles, which had a regional radio network on the West Coast and had been well-regarded in that region.

When ITV came on the scene in the U.K., a separate organization, Independent Television News (ITN), was formed to produce news bulletins and news programmes. However, had the ITV approach taken hold in the United States, the FCC may have decided to grant a separate licence to someone to produce news programmes.

Despite being a major US nationwide radio network, I feel the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) would not have applied for any regional TV licence, but instead would have applied for the licence to produce news programmes, especially as CBS had won wide acclaim throughout the USA for the quality of their radio newscasts during the Second World War.

The “US TV” network would have been somewhat “co-operative” like ITV, meaning local/regional licensees would produce programmes not just for local broadcast, but for network broadcast as well.

Had the above scenario taken hold in the US it is safe to assume that NBC (New York) and Don Lee (Los Angeles) would have produced the great majority of US TV programmes, with WGN in Chicago producing some, and CBS (with studios and newsrooms in both New York and Washington) producing news bulletins.

Of course, there were enough television channels available in the United States for three (and later more) free-to-air broadcast TV networks to become established. But had there been only room for one TV transmitter in each medium and large sized city, and only one nationwide network, who knows?

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