National Broadcasting Company Inc.

views updated May 14 2018

National Broadcasting Company Inc.

30 Rockefeller Plaza
New York, New York 10020
(212) 586-0610

Wholly-owned subsidiary of General Electric Company
Incorporated: 1926 as National Broadcasting Company
Employees: 6,000
Sales: $3.64 billion

The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) was the first permanent, full-service radio network in the U.S. The company provides network television services to affiliated TV stations, produces TV and radio programs, and operates seven TV stations. The NBC Network is one of several competing major national commercial broadcasting television networks and serves more than 200 affiliated stations within the United States.

The original owner of NBC was the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). RCA was formed after World War I by several large American companies in order to keep wireless (radio) technology in American hands. At the time, it was the leading manufacturer of radio receivers in the world.

RCAs goal in forming NBC was to be able to provide a large number of quality radio programs so that, as one of its newspaper ads said, every event of national importance may be broadcast widely throughout the United States. General Electric and Westinghouse also had ownership interests in NBC, but RCA bought them out in January, 1930 and remained the sole owner until 1986, when General Electric acquired RCA for $6.3 billion. NBC is now a wholly-owned operating subsidiary of General Electric.

NBCs first radio broadcast, on November 15, 1926, was a four-and-a-half hour presentation of the leading musical and comedy talent of the day. It was broadcast from New York over a network of 25 stations, as far west as Kansas City; close to half of the countrys five million radio homes tuned in. The first coast-to-coast broadcast soon followed, on New Years Day, 1927, when NBC covered the annual Rose Bowl football game in California.

The demand for a network service among local stations was mounting so rapidly that less than two months after its first national broadcast, NBC split its programming into two separate networks, called the red and the blue networks, to give listeners a choice of different program formats. By 1941, these two networks blanketed the country; there were 103 blue subscribing stations, 76 red, and 64 supplementary stations using NBC programs. The blue network provided mostly cultural offerings: music, drama, and commentary. The red featured comedy and similar types of entertainment. There were regular radio programs for children, and soap operas and religious programs. When the Federal Communications Commission declared in 1941 that no organization could own more than one network, NBC sold the blue complex, which became the American Broadcasting Company.

Early radio provided a forum for the popular vaudeville entertainers of the day: NBC hired many of themRudy Vallee, Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Ed Wynn, Eddie Cantor, Al Johnson, Groucho Marx, Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante, Bing Crosby, Red Skelton, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, and George Burns and Gracie Allen, to name a few. These performers had their own shows and appeared on each others as well.

From the first coast-to-coast broadcast of the Rose Bowl in 1927, sporting events were a radio mainstay. That same year, the red and blue networks tied in with a number of independent stations to broadcast the second Tunney-Dempsey fight from Soldier Field in Chicago. Two years later NBC broadcast the Kentucky Derby. During the 1920s and 1930s, the network featured the World Series many times. It also covered major football games, golf tournaments, and the Olympics in Los Angeles in 1932.

NBCs first special-events broadcast was Charles A. Lindberghs arrival in Washington on June 11, 1927 after his historic trans-Atlantic flight. In 1928, the network began coverage of national political events, covering the Republican and Democratic national conventions in 1928; the inaugurations of presidents Herbert Hoover in 1929 and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933; the opening of the 73rd Congress on March 9, 1933; and Roosevelts first Fireside Chat on March 12 of that year. NBC News was officially created in 1933.

The first international NBC broadcast was also in 1928, when the network carried a pick-up of President Calvin Coolidge opening a Pan-American conference in Havana.

In 1923 David Sarnoff, the founder of NBC, wrote a memorandum to the board of directors of RCA about something he called television, or the art of distant seeing. Television, he said, will make it possible for those at home to see as well as hear what is going on at the broadcast station. The groundwork for his vision had been laid by the invention of the cathode-ray tube in 1906the forerunner of the modern television picture tube.

RCA engineers began actively conducting television experiments in 1925, but it was not until 1939 that NBC began what is considered the first regular television service, with a telecast of President Roosevelt opening the New York Worlds Fair. The first television network broadcast occurred on January 11, 1940 when programming was transmitted from RCAs WNBT-TV New York City to General Electrics WRGT-TV Schenectady, New York, via automatic radio relays.

In 1941, NBC obtained a commercial television station license from the Federal Communication Commission for WNBT-TV and officially became the worlds first commercial television station.

Television programming was limited by World War II to four hours a day. In 1942 NBC Radio began featuring The Army Hour, an official weekly broadcast that provided on-the-scene reports from military bases and battle zones. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, the network cancelled all commercial broadcasts to provide continuous news coverage of the invasion of Normandy. Although World War II slowed the growth of television, NBC continued to experiment with new broadcasting concepts, including color television. During the mid-1940s NBC began to build a television empire the same way it had built its radio network. Its first television network consisted of four stations that covered New York City, Philadelphia, Schenectady, New York, and Washington, D.C.

After the war television began to expand news coverage, create new weekly variety and drama programs, and adapt popular radio shows to the screen. Meet the Press, a program featuring a panel of journalists interviewing important public figures of the day, debuted on NBC Radio in 1945. It switched to NBC Television in 1947, destined to become the longest-running show on television.

By this time, two more stations had joined the NBC-TV network. In 1947 there were only 14,000 television homes; at the start of 1948 this number had swelled to 175,000, and by the end of the year, nearly a million sets had been sold. During this time the number of operating television stations had mushroomed from 19 to 47.

By 1951 NBC had installed regular coast-to-coast network television service. Its first venture was covering the signing of the Japanese peace treaty in San Francisco on September 4, 1951. Popular early coast-to-coast programs included the All Star Revue with Jack Carson and The Colgate Comedy Hour with Eddie Cantor.

As the 1950s progressed, NBC Radio focused on news, sports, and public affairs programming while NBC Television implemented new programming formats, expanding its schedule from the late-afternoon and evening formats prevalent at the time to include a new kind of show, the early-morning weekly series. The Today Show, which began in 1952, was the pioneer among such programming, offering news, features, interviews, and entertainment in a two-hour, magazine-type format.

In 1953, NBC presented the first coast-to-coast transmission of a color broadcast; later that year, the Federal Communications Commission approved the RCA-backed National Television System Committees standards for color compatibility, which removed CBSs rival color system from competition. This new technology made it possible for viewers who did not own a color television set to receive all network programs on their old black-and-white sets, even if the program was broadcast in color.

Television programming continued to expand. As equipment was improved and miniaturized, it became easier for television teams to cover fast-action news in the field. In 1956 NBC aired the first videotape, and in 1962 the launching of the Telstar communications satellite made it possible to relay live video sequences from continent to continent almost instantaneously.

By the 1960s television was big business, and NBC continued to expand its programming with popular programs like The Virginian, Rowan and Martins Laugh-In, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and Star Trek. The network also initiated and presented the 1960 presidential debates between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. In 1964 it presented the first made-for-TV movie, establishing a new television format.

During the 1970s, though TV programming was swelling to an all-time peak, radio was sagging. NBC tried, unsuccessfully, to buoy radio sales by introducing several new programs. In 1975 NBC Radio introduced an ambitious 24-hour radio news network, the National News and Information Service (NNIS), but it was discontinued two years later for lack of audience and station clearance.

NBC was so disheartened by its lack of success in the radio arena that, in the early 1970s, it developed a plan to sell all of its radio stations and get out of the business. It never followed through, however, and by December, 1983 the network had completed the conversion of its radio transmissions from landlines to satellite. In 1985 NBC established a radio-programming distribution arm called NBC Radio entertainment, allowing it to get involved with a variety of programs such as country and jazz. With these changes, NBCs radio business became profitable again, but in 1988 NBC did finally decide to leave the business, and that year sold seven of its eight radio stations.

The mid-1980s were a hard time for NBC Television. In 1983, none of NBCs nine new shows were renewed and the network received low consumer ratings for the third year in a row. Some sources attributed this decline to poor management and a mishandled budget. The network quickly replaced low-rated programming and managed to bring its ratings up to second place by the 1984-85 season, and to number one by 1985.

In 1986, NBC facilitated the exchange of news between NBC-TV affiliates by launching the Skycom domestic and international satellite system. It became the only network to use satellites as its sole method of distribution. In the same year, General Electric Company acquired RCA for $6.3 billion and became NBCs parent company.

Since the late 1970s, television delivery technology has continually challenged the whole TV industry. NBC has been at the forefront in exploring the possibilities of new technology, investing in such successful vehicles as music video shows like Friday Night Videos and cable television. Some of its current projects include the development of wide-screen and high-definition television, and the production of theatrical films.

As TV enters a new age, one in which traditional network broadcasting has a decreasing importance, NBCs future will hinge on its ability to make the most of new technology and stay ahead of its competition.

Principal Subsidiaries

Living Music Enterprises; NBC Educational Enterprises; NBC Europe, Inc.; NBC News Bureaus, Inc.; NBC News Worldwide, Inc.; NBC Productions, Inc.; NBC Television Co., Inc.; Spectacular Music, Inc.

Further Reading

Campbell, Robert. The Golden Years of Broadcasting: A Celebration of the First 50 Years of Radio and Television on NBC, New York, Charles Scribners Sons, 1976; Gorowitz, Bernard (Ed). On the Shoulders of Giants: 1924 to 1946 The GE Story, Schenectady, New York, Elfun Society, Territorial Council, 1979; Schatz, Ronald W. The Electrical Workers: A History of Labor at General Electric and Westinghouse, 1923-60, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1983.

National Broadcasting Company Inc. (Nbc)

views updated May 29 2018


The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) debuted as a radio broadcast network on November 15, 1926, with a four-and-a-half hour music and comedy presentation. The show was broadcast from New York City over a network of 25 stations, and nearly half of the country's five million radio homes tuned in. NBC was jointly owned by RCA, General Electric, and Westinghouse until 1932, when RCA bought out the other two owners.

It is hard to overestimate the importance of the first coast-to-coast radio broadcasts. The very first one took place on New Year's Day, 1927, when NBC broadcast the Rose Bowl football game. Other early highlights of NBC Radio included the first special events broadcast, when aviator Charles Lindbergh arrived in Washington, DC, on June 11, 1927; the radio coverage of national political conventions in 1928; the presidential inaugurations in 1929 and 1933; and President Franklin Roosevelt's (19331945) first soothing "Fireside Chat" to a worried nation, on a cold night in 1933.

Radio also unified the national culture and advanced the assimilation process of millions of immigrants who up to that point had existed within the bounds of their own national cultures. For the first time in the nation's history millions of people hundreds of miles apart had the simultaneous experience of listening to the new sounds of swing music, as "dance shows" brought this powerful music genre to the radio-listening public. Benny Goodman, Paul Whiteman, Tommy Dorsey, and, way down in Texas, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys all became the pulse of the nation, which, thanks to radio, was now beating as one.

From the beginning, the demand among local radio stations for NBC's network service was high and the company split its programming into two separate networks, called the "red" and the "blue." In 1941 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled that no organization could own more than one network, and NBC sold the blue network, which became the American Broadcasting Company (ABC).

In 1939 NBC demonstrated television, a new invention, at the Chicago World's Fair, and began regular television programming from New York City. Television was made possible by the invention of the cathode ray tube in 1906. NBC founder David Sarnoff spearheaded RCA's research into "the art of distant seeing" through the 1920s and 1930s. In 1941 NBC obtained a commercial television license from the FCC for WNBT-TV, which became the world's first commercial television station.

World War II (19391945) slowed the growth of television, and programming was limited to a few hours a day during the war. NBC Radio broadcast onthe-scene reports from military bases and battle zones, and on D-Day, June 6, 1944, it provided continuous news coverage of the European invasion.

Television began to expand rapidly after the war: the number of homes with television sets grew from 14,000 in 1947 to nearly a million in less than two years. Television networks began to expand news coverage. New weekly variety and drama programs were created, and popular radio shows were adapted for television. Meet the Press, beginning on radio in 1945, switched to television in 1947 and became the longest running show on television.

NBC started its television network with four stations and by 1951 it had installed regular coast-to-coast network service. Two programming mainstays were introduced in the 1950s: Today (1952), an early-morning news and talk show, and The Tonight Show with Steve Allen (1954). In 1953 NBC introduced color television, presenting the first coast-to-coast color transmission. Later that year the FCC approved an RCA-backed standard for color compatibility, making it possible for people with black-and-white sets to receive network programs even if they were broadcast in color.

When NBC organized and broadcast the first presidential debates in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, the full impact of television on politics was felt. The way Kennedy looked on television was thought to have strongly influenced the outcome of the debates and the subsequent election. When Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, NBC provided an unprecedented 71 hours of coverage in which the whole nation once again participated in a national experience together and gave full vent to their grief. In 1964 NBC presented the first made-for-television movie, thus establishing a new genre of television program. During the 1960s NBC expanded its programming, launching popular shows such as I Spy, which featured Bill Cosby as the first African American lead in a television series, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, and Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, among others.

During the 1970s NBC's most popular programming included blockbuster movies, family series such as Little House on the Prairie, the comedy series Saturday Night Live, and several popular miniseries.

NBC Television suffered a drop in ratings during the early 1980s. By replacing low-rated programming it managed to climb back to the number one spot in 1985. Popular shows introduced by programming chief Brandon Tartikoff included Cheers, Hill Street Blues, and St. Elsewhere. Miami Vice (1985) and The Late Show with David Letterman (1982) also helped lift NBC's ratings.

In 1986 General Electric Co. (GE) acquired RCA for $6.4 billion and became NBC's parent company. Robert C. Wright was named to succeed Grant Tinker as NBC's president and chief executive officer (CEO). In 1988 NBC decided to leave their radio business, which had been struggling, and the company sold seven of its eight radio stations. In 1991 Tartikoff left NBC to head Paramount Pictures.

From NBC's early days as a radio broadcast network, sports programming had been an important component of its broadcasts. NBC dominated coverage of the Olympics in 1988 with its broadcast from Seoul, South Korea. It acquired the rights to the 1992 and 1996 summer Olympics and every summer and winter venue (except Nagano 1998) through 2008.

With cable television making more of an impact on television viewing habits, NBC began aggressively marketing the Consumer News and Business Channel (CNBC), to cable systems in 1988. CNBC began with a base of 10 to 13 million subscribers. It was originally conceived as a 24-hour all-business news channel, but consumer news was added to the mix before the channel launched in April 1989.

CNBC competed directly with Turner Broadcasting System's Financial News Network (FNN). In 1991 NBC acquired the bankrupt FNN for $154 million, increasing CNBC's subscriber base to 40 million households. Political consultant Roger Ailes was named president of CNBC in 1993. Under his direction CNBC underwent a makeover with better graphics and interviews during the day and a variety of talk shows during prime time in the evening. New talk show hosts added in 1993 and 1994 included Charles Grodin, Tim Russert, and Geraldo Rivera.

By 1997 CNBC had become a cash cow for NBC, generating about $120 million in revenues, a 33 percent increase over 1996. CNBC reached about 64 million households, or 90 percent of all cable subscribers. In 1998 CNBC's Wall Street coverage enabled CNBC to surpass CNN's viewership among 25to 54yearolds for the first time, even though CNBC reached 12 percent fewer households than CNN.

In 1996 NBC-TV and Microsoft joined forces to create MSNBC, an all-news cable channel designed to compete with CNN. When it debuted in July 1996, MSNBC enjoyed immediate distribution into nearly 20 million homes, with a goal of 35 million homes by 2000. It was distributed in Europe on NBC's Super Channel and CNBC, as well as in Latin America and Asia. As part of the joint venture, MSNBC Online would be launched via the Microsoft Network.

During nearly every season of the 1990s, including three consecutive seasons starting in 1995-96, the NBC television network was most-watched network in the United States. Comedy shows such as Seinfeld, Frasier, and 3rd Rock from the Sun were complemented by popular drama and prime-time news programs. From 1993 through 1998 NBC reported doubledigit gains in earnings annually, achieving $5.2 billion in revenue and pretax operating profits of about $1.15 billion in 1997.

NBC had also become stronger during the 1990s through strategic acquisitions and alliances. It owned 12 television stations reaching 26 percent of U.S. households. In 1993 it became an international broadcaster by purchasing a minority interest in Superchannel, a London-based pan-European satellite television service. In 1997 CNBC and Dow Jones entered into an alliance that was finalized in 1998 to share newsgathering and programming. In 1998 the company sold its one-third interest in the money-losing Court TV cable network to partners Time Warner and Liberty Media.

Throughout the decade other companies sought to purchase NBC from GE, but GE chairman John F. (Jack) Welch, Jr., turned them all down. Paramount offered $4.5 billion for NBC in 1992, and then Walt Disney Co. made a bid of $6 billion in 1994. Even media mogul Ted Turner attempted to negotiate an offer. After Seinfeld ended its nine-year run in May 1998 and NBC lost the network auction to televise National Football League games, reports began to surface that NBC was again up for sale. Possible buyers included Viacom, headed by Sumner Redstone, and USA Networks Inc., headed by Barry Diller.

In spite of such setbacks NBC was in a strong position at the end of the 1990s. It was the number one broadcast network. CNBC was a leader in business television, and the fledgling MSNBC was on track to break even by 2001. At the end of 1997 NBC president Robert Wright estimated NBC was worth about $17 billion overall, with its cable assets worth about four billion dollars and NBC-owned television stations worth about $7.5 billion. Following setbacks in 1998 outside analysts predicted NBC's earnings growth would flatten for the near-term future.

See also: Radio


Bilby, Kenneth. The General: David Sarnoff and the Rise of the Communications Industry. New York: HarperCollins, 1986.

Carsey, Marcy, and Tom Werner. "Father of Broadcasting: David Sarnoff." Time, December 7, 1998, 88.

"CNBC: Newest Initials in Cable." Broadcasting, July 25, 1988, 34.

Furman, Phyllis. "General Electric Reportedly Has NBC up for Sale." Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News, July 16, 1998.

Goldblatt, Henry. "Viewers are Bullish on CNBC." Fortune, December 29, 1997.

Lewis, Tom. Empire of the Air: The Creation of Radio. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Marin, Rick. "Rebooting the News." Newsweek, July 29, 1996.

when nbc organized and broadcast the first presidential debates in 1960 between john f. kennedy and richard m. nixon, the full impact of television on politics was felt. the way kennedy looked on television was thought to have strongly influenced the outcome of the debates and the subsequent election.

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