Who Killed Captain Video?

How the FCC strangled a TV pioneer.

The Forgotten Network: DuMont and the Birth of American Television, by David Weinstein, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 228 pages, $24.50

You could hardly hear anything above the storm of outrage that day. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had just announced it was easing restrictions on television ownership, allowing a single owner to hold stations that reach 45 percent of American households instead of 35 percent, and Congress was snorting and drooling and barking like Old Yeller at the end of the movie.

"We really are going into uncharted territory," bawled Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). "What the FCC has done here is very destructive," added Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.). "I'm very disappointed in the FCC. They completely and totally caved in to big broadcasting interest, in my judgment, against the public interest."

The ruckus grew so great that even Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) was roused from wherever he was sitting shiva for Strom Thurmond and the States' Rights Party. "This is not a Democrat or a Republican issue,'' Lott thundered. "This is not even really philosophical or regional. This is your view of the media and what type of regulations do we want in place to make sure that we have variety and diversity in the media and not a dominance by one company or just three companies."

Lott paused for breath, and in the background I could hear the faintest rustling noise. I am pretty sure it was Allen Du Mont, turning over in his grave. Or perhaps he was whispering a warning: Anytime somebody wants the FCC to protect consumers from big business, reach for your remote.

Du Mont, a TV manufacturer who began offering programming in an attempt to boost sales of his sets, created America's first television network in 1946, when he linked his pioneering stations in New York and Washington, D.C. It would grow to scores of affiliates and create some of the most memorable programming of television's infancy, including Jackie Gleason's Honeymooners, Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour, and the lovably discombobulated Captain Video and His Video Rangers, which not only introduced a generation to the enthralling possibilities of outer space but arguably prepared its brains for the onslaught of hallucinogens that would come in the 1960s.

But by 1955 Du Mont's network was out of business, strangled in its crib by an FCC that was protecting not consumers but its old (and generous) clients, the radio networks, which wanted to get control of the burgeoning new medium before it seriously threatened them. Du Mont was the first victim of an FCC protectionist jihad that for three decades confined Americans to a three-channel television universe populated by video mutants like My Mother the Car and My Living Doll.

The Forgotten Network, David Weinstein's absorbing account of Du Mont's rise and fall, is aptly titled. Even the explanation of why the network altered the spelling of its creator's name to DuMont has been swallowed by the sands of time. Most television histories mention DuMont only as a footnote, if that, and because the network left the air before the invention of videotape, its programs have mostly faded from memory. When The Hollywood Reporter recently compiled a list of every scripted network program that ran for more than 100 episodes, it omitted DuMont's Captain Video, which had more than 1,500, as well as Life Is Worth Living, the prime-time religious lecture that ran five years and outlived the network itself.

It is the programming that most fascinates Weinstein, an administrator at the National Endowment for the Humanities, and three-quarters of The Forgotten Network is devoted to cataloging its peculiar mix of horny daytime hosts, late-blooming vaudevillians, and dime-store space warriors. Though NBC, CBS, and ABC also had eclectic lineups in the early days as everybody groped around in the dark, inventing TV on a daily basis, the DuMont Television Network was especially quirky.

Allen Du Mont himself was an engineer who cared little about programming content; when he watched TV, he spent most of the time flipping from channel to channel, tinkering with the controls to see which broadcast had the sharpest image. (The New Yorker once cracked that "Du Mont is always stimulated by Milton Berle's horizontal resolution, if not his jokes.") Moreover, DuMont ignored the standard network business model of the day, in which a single sponsor bought an entire show, then exercised totalitarian control over its content. Instead, DuMont programs usually contained commercials from several different advertisers, which meant every comma of a script didn't have to be approved by Procter & Gamble or General Mills. The result was that DuMont producers had much freer rein than their counterparts at the other networks, and--for better or for worse--they used it.

That freedom was never more obvious than at 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, when Captain Video whipped out his nucleamatic pistols and thermal ejectors to do battle with evil across the galaxy. Arriving on the DuMont airwaves in 1949 and sticking it out until the network shut down six years later, Captain Video was the first, the last, and certainly the mightiest (he had to be; the prop budget was just $25 a week) of the rocket-jock heroes who magnetically, mesmerically drew America's kids to those early TV sets.

Forget that E.T./Close Encounters we-come-in-peace stuff; Captain Video's policy was to use the atomic rifle first and ask questions later. Spouting outlandish technogibberish--"Throw out the interlocks! Hand me the opticon scillometer!"--and brandishing equipment made from surplus auto parts, he warred ceaselessly on sinister life forms from every corner of the universe, including a few (like the Black Planet, where tyrannized workers slaved away on collective farms) that sounded suspiciously close to home.

Cheapjack sets (it was not uncommon for the camera to catch sight of the pots of hot water and dry ice that produced the mysterious mists that cloaked so many of Captain Video's alien worlds) were one of the show's signatures. Hopelessly inane scripts were another. Captain Video's original writer, Maurice Brockhauser, was a hack of such prodigious proportions that a frothing producer banned him from the set: "I don't want to see him, I don't want to talk to him!" Eventually such budding science fiction authors as Arthur C. Clarke and Damon Knight helped churn out scripts. Even so, filling a daily half-hour slot proved so difficult that the producers began inserting a bit where Captain Video would check his televiewer to monitor the activities of his rangers around the world--an excuse to toss in 10 or 15 minutes of shootouts, fistfights, and cattle stampedes clipped at random from old Westerns in the DuMont library. (Are you beginning to understand 2001: A Space Odyssey?) Adults found this stuff terrifyingly incomprehensible, but kids adored it; toy companies took in $50 million a year from sales of Official Captain Video decoder rings, crash helmets, and atomic weapons long before Walt Disney went into the coonskin cap business.

Captain Video may not even have been DuMont's weirdest character; that distinction probably belongs to Dennis James, the host of the daytime women's show Okay, Mother, a pre-Hefner ladies' man who was fond of double entendres and spent much of his airtime hitting on his pretty 18-year-old female sidekick. That show was so successful that DuMont lost it in a bidding war with ABC. Apparently we've been somewhat misled about the relative kinkiness of Eisenhower America.

But there was more to DuMont than eccentricity. The network developed several comedians, including Gleason, Morey Amsterdam, and Ernie Kovacs, who would later go on to stardom at other networks doing essentially the same material. It anticipated Sesame Street by two decades with a smarter-than-it-sounds program called Your Television Babysitter, and its Your Television Shopper was around way before cubic zirconium was cool.

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