- MBS President Edgar Kobak, June 1948
Edgar Kobak was responding to an article in the June 9, 1948 issue of Variety that reported the network's board of directors had "shelved" plans for a national TV hookup for at least three or four years.
The hedging was nothing new: from the mid-40s on, MBS had been content to take the backseat and let the other networks do all the expensive preliminary work and bring the new medium up through its growing pains.
Kobak said MBS was content to leave actual video operations to its stockholder stations. "When the time comes of nationwide network facilities," Kobak said, "Mutual will be ready to serve our affiliates . . . Meanwhile, Don Lee, Yankee, WGN and WOR are forging ahead in television and will be able to serve other Mutual stations, and what does it matter whether they get service from the network as a network or from its stockholder stations?"
But Mutual was risking that its radio affiliates would sign on with other video networks. By mid-1948, 30 MBS affiliates were in one stage or another of video operations, including all but one of the network's stockholding stations (the exception was Detroit-Windsor's CKLW). By mid-1949, television stations owned by MBS stockholders in Boston, Chicago, Washington, DC and Los Angeles each had affiliation pacts with at least one of the TV networks.
There were several reasons for Mutual's failure to get into television. The first was obvious: money. The stations were losing enough on a local basis; adding the costs of a nationwide video hookup may have been too much for them to handle. But when Mutual affiliates met at the 1949 National Association of Broadcasters meeting to welcome new president Frank White (and say goodbye to Kobak), MBS board chairman Theodore Streibert of WOR told the affiliates that they should "give thought to not being left out of TV. That doesn't mean that we must all rush in and see how soon and how fast we can lose money; but it might well be worthwhile to invest in some losses at this stage of the game."
But Mutual's ownership setup also played a role: with the network owned by its stations - and not having a large corporation (as NBC had with RCA) to absorb the costs and muscle its affiliates - there was no central charge to get Mutual into the TV game. As a result, Mutual's stockholders moved into television unevenly, and didn't see eye-to-eye on how a television network should be set up - or how much money should be sunk into it.
The MBS board also thought time would be on their side: they didn't believe that the other networks were in a position to offer a full-time TV network anytime soon. But by the time WOR-TV New York (which would have been Mutual's TV flagship) signed on in the fall of 1949, there were already four video networks in operation - ABC, CBS, NBC, and DuMont, leaving MBS barely in the starting gate.
Meanwhile, several MBS shows had television counterparts, including "Twenty Questions" and "Meet the Press." Even "Queen for a Day" was televised in the Los Angeles area, and eventually along a seven-station West Coast network. But more often than not, they ended up hurting the radio broadcast. When, on an experimental basis, Fulton Lewis jr. was given a TV showcase in Washington DC, his radio sponsor there (an auto dealer) did a fast burn and immediately cancelled out. (Mutual had to renegotiate its contract with its top co-op commentator to keep him off TV; meanwhile, MBS had already locked up Gabriel Heatter's television services through 1953.) Likewise, when General Foods bought "Meet the Press" for NBC-TV, HiGrade Products, which sponsored "MTP" on radio in the top eight markets, also got sore and cancelled.
In 1952, MBS announced it was planning to get into the TV syndication business, including movies aired in "fringe" time periods like daytime and late-night. The network went so far as to contract with Blake Edwards (who later produced "Peter Gunn," "Mr. Lucky" and the "Pink Panther" movies) for a series, but they never made it past the blueprint stage.
Mutual's lack of video was alluded to at least once on the air: during a "Bob and Ray" broadcast, an "interview" was conducted with the man responsible for the pinpoint of light coming from a TV set in the first few seconds after switching it off - a public service provided by Mutual, it turns out, at a cost of $19 million a year. The interview would have come much sooner, Bob said, but the engineer had been overlooked in their search for people with unusual occupations. "This chap works for Mutual Television," he explained, "and . . . we never ran across him." The engineer (Ray) said that his job was independent of any department, but accounting placed him in TV engineering "to keep their books straight."
Fast forward more than a decade. In 1966, UHF station owner Daniel H. Overmyer drew up plans for a fourth national television network. Naming it after himself, he got former ABC-TV president Oliver Treyz to head it up, and started off with plans for a nightly, two-hour variety show from Las Vegas.
There was just one familiar problem: money. So in early 1967, Overmyer officials tried to interest the Mutual board of directors in a merger of the two, saying they needed some $500,000 to crank up production of the show, and more money to keep the network going until advertising dollars began to come in.
At the time of the Berry-Fraim purchase of Mutual the prior year, MBS President Robert F. Hurleigh indicated that the new management intended to expand into TV and work toward a fourth network. When the Overmyer Network was first announced, Hurleigh said the move wouldn't dissuade Mutual, but added it planned to "move along, one step at a time."
The Mutual board turned thumbs-down on the merger proposal, but three Mutual stockholders - Texas oil operator Jack McGlothlin; grain dealer, oil investor and land developer Willard Garvey; and James Nichols, a Texas advertising and public-relations man - thought enough of the idea to form a separate group with 11 wealthy western businessmen to buy the Overmyer Network, and rename it the United Network.
Aside from that, there would be no other connection between the two entities. Not that it mattered: the United Network and its "Las Vegas Show" (hosted by comedian Bill Dana) premiered May 1, 1967 on 125 stations with 13 advertisers. But it disappeared exactly one month later, crushed by the high cost of the network's telephone lines. . . and the cold feet of some investors who bailed out two weeks after the launch, scared off by the lack of advertisers. Another attempt to bring Mutual aboard was made in mid-May, and was again rebuffed. Although a flurry of summer commercial orders came in at the end of May, the remaining investors - faced with a $400,000 AT&T bill for the June lease on the long lines - abruptly pulled the plug after the May 30 show.
In retrospect, Mutual had probably dodged a bullet. It would also end any attempt to introduce cameras into the Mutual operation. Well, almost any: in February 1968, Joe Culligan announced that Mutual had acquired the rights to Robin Moore's novel "The Country Team," and would make it into a 90-minute feature film for theatrical release and a possible TV pilot. Mutual would put up the development money with former NBC impresario Pat Weaver. But that, too, failed to materialize, finally turning Edgar Kobak's grand prediction twenty years earlier into an empty promise.
Information on this page came from various issues of Variety and Broadcasting magazines.
Text copyright 2009 Kenneth I. Johannessen.
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