Long before FOX became known as the fourth television network, another small company went up against NBC, ABC, and CBS: the DuMont Network.
DuMont was second to enter the network TV business, establishing a link between its New York City and Washington, D.C. stations in 1945, ahead of both CBS and ABC, and not far behind the creation of NBC. The network developed from the research efforts of DuMont Labrotories, founded by Dr. Allen B. DuMont, an early television inventor. DuMont developed the first long-lasting cathode ray tube, the basis of electronic television, and was first to offer a home television set to the public in 1939.
Needing additional funds to continue his research, Dr. DuMont sold a 26% interest of his fledgling company to Paramount Pictures in 1939. DuMont's involvement with Paramount ultimately proved to be a big mistake. Eager to hinder the development of television, which it perceived as a serious threat to the motion picture industry, Paramount thwarted DuMont's plans on many occasions. Eventually, Paramount would help to cause DuMont's downfall.
DuMont applied for an experimental television station in New York City, which went on the air as W2XWV in 1942. Two years later, the station was licensed commercially as WABD, channel 5 (for Allen B. DuMont). DuMont also owned WTTG in Washington, D.C. (originally W3XWT), also on channel 5, which received its commercial TV license in 1945. The first DuMont network telecast occurred on August 9, 1945, when the New York and Washington stations were linked via coaxial cable for the announcement of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. This was only a year after NBC's first network television broadcast.
During this time one of the main sources of television shows were already established radio dramas. Early television hits like Amos 'n Andy and I Love Lucy were based on popular radio shows. Since NBC and CBS already had established radio networks, they had a stable of shows that they could adapt for television. No one had thought of turning movies into TV shows yet, so DuMont’s connection with Paramount didn’t help them. In fact, the Paramount connection ended up hurting the network. During that time the network itself was only allowed to own and operate five stations, the rest were independent affiliates that were allowed to choose if and when they aired the network’s programming. Paramount owned two television stations separate from DuMont that did not air DuMont programming, but the FCC still counted these against DuMont’s station ownership.
As a result of this, very few stations carried the entire DuMont programming lineup. Only WABD in New York and WTTG in Washington carried the entire DuMont slate. WDTV in Pittsburgh was able to pick and choose from the programming of all four networks, and did, even though it was a DuMont owned-and-operated station. Independently owned stations like WGN (Chicago) showed a large number of DuMont programs, but at stations like WFIL (Philadelphia) and WCPO (Cincinnati), DuMont competed with ABC for program slots. When UHF stations began to reach the air, the network signed many new affiliates, but these new stations went largely unwatched.
Some of the most popular and influential shows on the DuMont network were Cavalcade of Stars, a variety show starring Jackie Gleason that eventually gave birth to The Honeymooners (which aired on CBS even though it was filmed in DuMont facilities); Life is Worth Living with Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, the only show ever to achieve meaningful ratings against powerhouse Milton Berle on NBC; and Captain Video, starring Richard Coogan, a children's space opera which was arguably the best-remembered and most popular show on the network. TV innovator Ernie Kovacs also did some programs for DuMont.
The FCC placed a freeze on the creation of new VHF television stations in 1948 and this resulted in DuMont being unable to gain ground against CBS and NBC, which had already locked up many of the existing stations thanks to their long-established radio ties. DuMont tried to establish a presence in many markets by using independent UHF stations, but these were often shoestring operations that were very prone to failure. Many television sets weren’t even able to receive UHF frequencies.
Due to its inability to form a cohesive network, DuMont was hemorrhaging money. The network attempted to merge with ABC in 1953, but Paramount Pictures was able to veto the deal. This merger would have created a powerful third network to challenge NBC and CBS, but Paramount was still obsessed with killing television instead of making money off of it. Paramount then essentially staged a coup d'etat in August 1955, and at last took complete control of the company. They fired Dr. Allen DuMont and installed a new company man as president. Many of the network’s shows were immediately dropped. The last program of any kind on the DuMont Television Network was Boxing from St. Nicholas Arena on August 6, 1956.
Most of the kinescopes from old DuMont shows were reportedly stored in an ABC network warehouse until the 1970's. According to testimony in front of the Library of Congress held in 1996, these programs were eventually dumped into New York Harbor by an unnamed lawyer to eliminate the high cost of preserving them. UCLA has over 300 DuMont network programs in their film collection, and the Museum of Television and Radio, with branches in New York City and Los Angeles, has some DuMont shows available for public viewing, as does the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.