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.

Most intriguing of all was Life Is Worth Living, a weekly chat by the Catholic bishop Fulton J. Sheen on ethics and philosophy that for many Americans was probably an introduction, however cursory, to the thought of people like Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. Sheen's plain-talk approach, soft peddling Catholic doctrine while twitting himself with gentle self-deprecatory humor, turned Life Is Worth Living into a genuine hit: It ran Frank Sinatra's CBS show in the same time slot off the air and made enough inroads against Milton Berle on NBC that the comedian was moved to remark that if you were going to tank in the ratings, it might as well be against a show written by the guy who scripted the Bible. Life Is Worth Living is virtually the only DuMont show to have survived the network's plunge into obscurity; reruns still air on the Eternal Word Television Network, the Catholic Church's cable channel.

Bishop Sheen stayed with DuMont until the day it went dark before moving his show over to ABC. More typically DuMont built a star's reputation, then watched him bolt to another network with deeper pockets. For most of its life, DuMont tottered on a financial abyss, too poor to promote its programs or to fund them properly. (The stark, seedy look of Jackie Gleason's Honeymooners apartment had as much to do with the poverty of DuMont's props department as with any creative impulse.)

Part of the problem was Allen Du Mont himself, a visionary engineer but an uncertain businessman and a political naif. A polio victim whose bed-bound childhood was spent putting together crystal radio kits, he went to work after college manufacturing radio tubes first for Westinghouse, then for DeForest. When the latter went bust, he set out on his own in 1929, building cathode-ray tubes in his garage. Initially the fragile tubes were used mostly in medical and military equipment, but as Du Mont improved their shelf life, television became a practical possibility. In 1938 he started manufacturing sets. Two years later he set up New York City's second TV station, hoping to stimulate sales.

Du Mont had little experience with the retail public and none with show business, and it showed. He staffed his boardroom with military men–one former admiral regaled everyone who would listen with tales of the epic battles he staged nightly in his bathtub with model ships–and his network with their cronies and kids. He funded his move into television by selling part of his company to Paramount in a disastrously structured deal that gave the penurious studio virtual veto power over his spending.

But Du Mont's real problem was the FCC, long a lackey of the big radio networks, NBC and CBS. (ABC–only recently spun off from NBC, where it had been one of the company's two radio nets–was somewhat less powerful.) Those years were what one FCC commissioner would later recall as "the whorehouse era," when mythic network lobbyists like Scoop Russell and Earl Gammons magisterially strolled Washington hallways, dispensing cash and instructions to their federal minions. The networks were determined to extend their broadcast hegemony into the new medium of television, and they used the FCC as their Praetorian Guard.

The FCC's target of choice was affiliations. The commission, arguing that television needed to be local, had already capped the number of stations that could be owned outright by any one network at five. Because its partner Paramount owned an independent station in Los Angeles, DuMont could have only four, a 20 percent competitive disadvantage. (Curiously, the FCC's concern for a healthy television industry did not extend to the blatant ways the networks retarded the development of TV. For years there was no television during daylight because CBS, NBC, and ABC didn't want to cut into their daytime radio audiences; only when DuMont began making money with its daytime lineup did the other nets reluctantly join in.)

DuMont was free to seek affiliation agreements with other stations. But its disadvantages were even greater when it came to affiliation. About 80 percent of television station owners also owned radio stations, and they were not willing to risk losing profitable network radio shows by linking their TV channels to DuMont, which had no radio programming to offer.

The killing thrust was yet to come, though. In 1945, with only a handful of TV stations on the air, the FCC–whether through cupidity or stupidity is unclear–had ruled that only 13 channels in the very-high-frequency (VHF) portion of the broadcast spectrum would be set aside for television. (That was later reduced to 12.) The commission's blunder was soon apparent. As more stations began setting up shop, their signals banged into one another. First stations in the same city were for the most part prohibited from broadcasting on adjacent channels (for example, 8 and 9), which cut the available channels in half. That didn't solve the problem; stations as far as 150 miles from one another suffered interference if they broadcast on the same channel. That effectively limited most metropolitan areas to three channels–meaning one network would lose out. Almost inevitably, that would be DuMont.

DuMont offered a plan that would have at the very least doubled the number of TV channels available in each city: The network proposed using VHF channels in some cities and the new UHF (ultra-high-frequency) channels (14 and higher) in others. Instead, the FCC decided to mix the two frequencies in each city, leaving established stations where they were and assigning newcomers to UHF. But that required viewers to buy an expensive new tuner and antenna to watch the UHF stations, and as DuMont predicted, most of them didn't. Why bother, when they could go on watching VHF for free?

The result was that just seven cities in America had four or more TV stations, and DuMont was frozen out. By 1952 its affiliates could reach only about 40 percent of American television sets. The network's final three years of operation were a tortuous end game, with DuMont selling parts of itself to stay afloat until there was nothing left.

Weinstein pulls no punches in describing the FCC's connivance with the dominant networks or the lethal effect it had on DuMont. But he also quotes without objection network executives such as ABC's Len Goldenson saying there was barely enough advertising to support three networks. That's the fox denouncing henhouse overpopulation. At the time the FCC was sticking a regulatory shiv in DuMont's back, television was taking off like one of Captain Video's runaway rockets. In 1947 the annual production of TV sets was 160,000; by 1950 it was 7.3 million. Advertisers could no more have ignored that than the Titanic could have ignored the iceberg.

Weinstein's book closes with the demise of DuMont. He would have had to continue for another three decades to give it a happy ending. The FCC continued to scamper alongside the feet of its network masters for another 30 years, a vigilant watchdog against competition. It battled cable television ("pay TV," the commission derisively labeled it) for years. In pre-satellite days, cable systems related their signals via microwave; the FCC denied licenses to microwave companies that did business with cable. Even when the outright ban was lifted, cable was blocked from the 100 biggest TV markets and forbidden to offer original programming. The FCC was forthright in saying it didn't want cable "siphoning off" viewers from the broadcast networks.

It wasn't until the mid-1970s that a series of court decisions began freeing up cable to compete. The result was not just cable-only channels such as CNN and HBO but a rebirth of broadcasting. On cable, UHF channels were no longer weak and fuzzy, and it was mostly on UHF stations that Fox, the first new American network in 40 years, made its 1986 debut. (Ironically, Fox's VHF affiliates included several stations founded by Allen Du Mont.) Since then, three more networks–the WB, UPN, and Pax–have been born, and in each case the umbilical cord leads straight to cable. Of the WB's 200-plus affiliates, more than half are essentially cable-only channels that cannot be picked up with an antenna.

Meanwhile, the lowest-common-denominator ethos of the three-channel world has been shattered; to compete with Tony Soprano and Carrie Bradshaw, the broadcast nets have been forced to come up with better, bolder programming of their own. And if you don't like it, then watch a ballgame (there are more than 30 sports channels these days), the news (around the clock, not just when Walter, Chet, and David feel like it) or even the Weather Channel. The days when Tuesday night meant choosing between Petticoat Junction, Peyton Place, and an old movie are gone forever. Forget what you hear from TV critics–this is the Golden Age of Television.

And the Trent Lotts and Olympia Snowes of the world want to unleash the FCC on it? As Captain Video used to say, "Let's blast them to space dust!"