The pigskin and the picture tube: the National Football League's first full season on the CBS Television Network.

Author:Cressman, Dale L.
Position:Columbia Broadcasting System

When the New York Giants and the San Francisco Forty-Niners kicked off a new NFL season on September 30, 1956, (1) the Columbia Broadcasting System became the first network to broadcast a full season of professional football games on network television. While overcoming substantial technical and contractual challenges, CBS also established an enduring system of regional telecasts and shifted control of broadcasting professional football from local broadcasters to networks. The relationship helped bring viewers to CBS Television on Sundays and influenced both the game and its bond with fans.

The history of sports runs parallel to the history of American broadcasting. On April 11, 1921, just months after signing on the air, pioneering radio station KDKA broadcast an account of a boxing match between Johnny Dundee and Johnny Ray (2) (Sterling & Kitross, 2002, p. 87). Similarly, television provided audiences with sports coverage early in its history. A portion of Philo T. Farnsworth's August 1934 demonstration of the world's first electronic television system included an informal scrimmage by members of the Philadelphia Eagles outside the Franklin Institute (Godfrey, 2001, p. 63). Five years later--mere weeks after RCA's demonstration of its television system at the 1939 World Fair in New York (Johnson, 1971, pp. 32-37; Smith, 2001, p. 49)--a baseball game between Princeton and Columbia Universities appeared on W2XBS, NBC's experimental television station in New York City (Dunlap, 1939). The first televised football game--a match between Fordham University and Waynesburg College of Pennsylvania--was broadcast on W2XBS the same year, on September 20 (Grosshandler, 1993, p. 4; Johnson, 1971, p. 44; Smith, 2001, p. 51). Professional football made its televised appearance a month later, on October 22. Played at Ebbetts Field in front of about 13,000 fans, the game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Brooklyn Dodgers was broadcast to about 1,000 television sets in New York City (NBC Sports, 1975; Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2006). Professional football made its network television appearance in prime time during the 1950 season. However, highlights, not full games were broadcast (McChesney, 1989, p. 62; Neal-Lunsford, 1992, p. 72; NFL, 1950). As Neal-Lunsford (1992, p. 59) points out, programmers were not initially sure what to put on television, but they considered sports a natural, since it was a mainstay of network radio. Initially boxing was television's preferred sport, dominating the prime-time schedule during the late 1940s. Whereas early television had difficulty following a small white baseball in a large ballpark, the boxing ring proved the ideal target for the primitive iconoscope camera. Football also possessed elements attractive to television: The football was easier for television viewers to see than was the baseball. Furthermore, the game provided frequent breaks between plays that allowed for commentary. Finally, viewers were drawn to the violent nature of the game (Bryant & Holt, 2006, p. 34). Nevertheless, it was college football that was popular with viewers. Professional football, CBS executive Sig Mickelson recalled, was "a blue-collar thing, for guys with no college to root for" (Harris, 1986, p. 13).

Ultimately, the Second World War slowed television's development until 1950, when television was reaching an estimated 30 million viewers or one-fifth of the country's population (Peterson, 1997, p. 196). Despite college football's popularity, selected NFL games began appearing nationally in 1951, thanks to a technological breakthrough. AT&T's new $40 million relay system became operational in 1951, making it possible for broadcasts to be shown live from coast to coast (Neal-Lunsford, 1992, p. 58; Von Schilling, 2003, p. 171). The DuMont television network televised five NFL games in 1951, including the championship game between the Los Angeles Rams and the Cleveland Browns. DuMont paid $475,000 for the rights to the NFL's annual championship games through 1955 (NFL, 1951; "Pro football and DuMont sign a $475,000 pact," 1951). By 1953, DuMont obtained rights to broadcast a game each week (Brooks & Marsh, 1979, p. 290; Neal-Lunsford, 1992, p. 73). Both DuMont and the NFL realized the benefits of the arrangement: Nine of the twelve NFL clubs ended the 1953 and 1954 seasons in the black, thanks largely to revenue from television, while DuMont realized its largest advertising income from coverage of professional football and basketball (Heldenfels, 1994, p. 167). An internal DuMont memorandum in late 1954 notes that Nielsen ratings for professional football had risen 26% over the previous year, while ratings for NCAA football had fallen 15% from the previous year (Hubbell, 1954). At the close of the 1954 season, DuMont estimated its football coverage reached 400 million viewers (DuMont, 1955). Such success did not go unnoticed elsewhere. Archival material indicates that in early 1954, NBC was investigating the potential costs of carrying the NFL and had even met with the league's commissioner, De Benneville "Bert" Bell, and various potential advertisers. In one memorandum written in early 1955, an NBC executive states, "I believe most strongly that NBC should carry pro-football" (Culligan, 1955, p. 1; see also Gardner, 1954; Martin, n.d.; Martin, 1955).

Despite its brief success covering professional sports, the DuMont network was "programmatically underdeveloped, poorly positioned in terms of its affiliates, and insufficiently supported by advertisers," (MacDonald, 1994, p. 65) and folded in 1955 (Weinstein, 2004, pp. 187-189), leaving individual NFL teams to negotiate television deals with local television stations. The major teams were successful in extracting revenues from local television stations and sponsors. However, the less prominent teams residing in smaller markets failed to receive any attention from local television stations. It was under these circumstances, in late 1955, that professional football gained the attention of television executives of CBS, whose concern for attracting viewers to their television sets on Sunday afternoons ultimately helped transform football into one of the most lucrative venues for television. In broadcasting the entire 1956 National Football League season CBS shifted professional football broadcasts from a model established by Major League Baseball in which local stations carried local teams' games to one in which networks would package, sell, and air multiple games in different regions of the country.

Literature Review

Much of the historical literature resides in trade books that concentrate on either the history of professional football itself or the history of the interaction of football and television. Foremost of those in the former category is MacCambridge (2005), who provides a sweeping and authoritative history of the National Football League, beginning with its 1920 inception in Canton, Ohio. Other authors who have concentrated on the league's history include Peterson (1997) who covered professional football's early years, Miller (2003) whose interests were confined to the development of the American Football League, Harris (1986) who identified what he claimed was the rise and fall of the NFL, and Burton and Crow (2002) who described 10 games that they argued were most important in influencing the history of the NFL. Similarly, Oriard (2001) traces the game's increasing prominence in American culture and pinpoints the 1958 NFL championship as a major turning point in that process.

Other authors, such as Johnson (1971), Powers (1984), Rader (1984), and Klatell and Marcus (1988) deal with the history of sports and football on television. A narrower focus is taken by O'Neil (1989), who concentrates on the CBS sports department, and Patton (1984), who examines professional football and its relationship to large broadcasting contracts, including those with CBS. Smith (2001) emphasizes intercollegiate athletics, but also includes valuable information about the relationship between professional football and television. Additionally, Smith describes the NCAA's fear of television, the NFL's acceptance of it, and the resulting troubled relationship between the NCAA and the NFL. Schultz (2002) provides a brief history of sports on television in the textbook Sports Broadcasting. Perhaps most pertinent to the present study is Mickelson (1998), who as head of CBS News was responsible for sports coverage on CBS, and describes the network's efforts to put the NFL's 1956 season on network. Mickelson is somewhat unique because most other works tend to emphasize the 1961 contract that NFL commissioner Alvin Ray "Pete" Rozelle negotiated with CBS.

Were it not for the emergence of the field of sociology of sports, communication historians would find a general dearth of scholarly research on broadcasting and sports. Wenner (1998, p. 6; see also Wenner 1989, p. 16) lamented the apparent disinterest of communication scholars, noting that until the early 1980s, the study of media and sport was "largely off the disciplinary map," save for the Journal of Communication, which had published Real's (1975) analysis of televised football as ritual and, later, a 1977 issue with a series of articles on sports broadcasting. This edition included Parente's (1977) examination of the symbiotic nature of television's relationship to sports and the changes sports have made to accommodate television in exchange for rights fees; Williams' (1977) content analysis identified a narrative structure unique to football broadcasts; Bryant, Comisky, and Zillmann's (1977) examination of the role commentary played in sports broadcasting, including the manufacture of drama that may not actually exist in the sport being broadcast (see also Comisky, Bryant, & Zillmann 1977); Goldstein and Bredemeier's (1977) finding that increased television coverage of sport influenced amateur sports...

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