1949 - 1952: Transition in the TV Age

It was an overflow crowd of confused Mutual affiliates that met at the 1949 convention of the National Associatiion of Broadcasters in Chicago. Most of them were unfamiliar with the inner-organizational friction that resulted in Ed Kobak being shown the door, and Frank White's hiring as new MBS president.

The affiliates, who were primarily concerned with how the executive reshuffle would affect their own setups, showed their gratitude to Kobak with a prolonged standing ovation.

Kobak announced he would serve as a consultant to Mutual at least through 1951. White made a brief talk in which he made no bones about there being a "big job ahead - one which will take brains, vision, money, and above all, courage."

White came to the network from Columbia Records, of which he had been president since January 1948. Prior to that, he was treasurer, vice-president and a board member of CBS. He had acquired a reputation as one of the industry's foremost negotiators.

He would need those skills more than ever.

In spite of the progress made during Kobak's tenure, Mutual's programming success remained spotty. Although there were popular sponsored programs, such as "The Shadow," "True Detective Mysteries," "Queen for a Day," the late-afternoon juvenile adventure strips, Gabriel Heatter's programs, as well as co-op leaders Fulton Lewis jr. and Kate Smith, Mutual was often unable to surround them with other high-quality programming. That led some accounts to head for the door.

By September 1949, the network had lost two big clients - Philip Morris (which sponsored "Against the Storm" and half of "Queen for a Day") and Bayuk Cigars (sponsors of the nightly "Inside of Sports") - and with them, billings worth more than two million dollars a year. Add to that the tightened radio economy in the face of television's encroachment, and many in the trade were convinced that Mutual's days were numbered.

That theory was only reinforced with Hooper's late November 1949 ratings report, which showed that Mutual had less than one-fifth the amount of sponsored time of either NBC or CBS between 6 and 11 p.m. during the week of November 1.


But the network soon started to turn things around. First, Mutual signed a seven-year pact to broadcast the World Series (sponsored by Gillette). Then, $3 million in new business was signed up in one week.

What's more, Mutual in the fall of 1949 found a sense of identity. For years, the network had been almost apologetic about the differences between it and the other networks, but in November 1949, it embraced them in a new trade advertising campaign with a new mascot.

"Mister PLUS" combined a plus sign and a microphone to become the first animated trademark in the business. Mister PLUS would appear in ads as a homburg-topped businessman, a baseball manager, a mountain climber, a knight in shining armour, even a cupid in mid-flight, all projecting and reflecting the flexibility in hookup selection and community-level marketing that was Mutual's stock in trade. Across the plus sign was emblazoned, "The Difference is MUTUAL!"

1950 would be a turning point for Mutual in many ways, something emphasized by Variety in awarding Mutual a 1951 "Showmanagement Award" for "Outstanding Promotion:"

"During 1950 Mutual decided it was time to stop behaving like
a bargain-basement imitation of either Radio City
or 485 Madison Ave. It faced up to the fact that it was a different
breed of animal . . . that Mutual had been born different. . .
that it had been brought up different . . . and that the basic difference
between Mutual and the other networks was both plural and positive.

"Mister PLUS sells network radio as well as Mutual's own form of it.
He continually promotes AM as a medium . . . as man's best means of
reaching man en masse . . . and as a better best today than ever before.
And he proves it.

"In a sense, 1950 was a turning-point year in the history of Mutual.
Before then, it had scant claim to anything better than fourth-network
status in a field of four. Since then, it has demonstrated prime rank
as the TV-Resistant Network . . . "

But perhaps the most important turning point for Mutual in 1950 would revolve around a single tragic event in Los Angeles.

When Don Lee died in 1934, his son Thomas inherited his multiple businesses, including the Don Lee Broadcasting System, which by 1950 included four California radio stations, one Los Angeles television station, a radio network that stretched up the West Coast, and a 19% interest in Mutual. By then the younger Lee had been in poor health for a number of years, the result of injuries received in an auto accident. Indeed, in 1948 Lee was declared incompetent, and guardians were appointed to handle his affairs. And that is where matters stood on January 13, 1950 (yes, a Friday), when 44-year-old Thomas S. Lee either fell or jumped to his death from the 12th story of a Los Angeles office building.

80-year-old R. D. Merrill, Lee's uncle by marriage and a partner in a Seattle lumber company, was named the sole heir to the $9.5-million estate, "to be divided as he sees fit." The auction process began in May 1950, and six months later, the winner of the radio and TV properites was General Tire and Rubber Co., bidding $12.3 million. The purchase doubled General Tire's stake in Mutual (it already owned 19% due to its ownership of the Yankee Network), and raised questions about whether it would have to sell some Mutual holdings to bring it down to the 30% maximum ownership allowed under Mutual's bylaws.

It also would change the whole complexion of the network. Up until then, WOR and Don Lee pretty much held sway in dictating or influencing MBS policy, often lined up against the other stockholding stations. Indeed, WOR had a financial stake in an almost-successful bid for the Don Lee properties, obviously directed at maintaining WOR's leadership within the Mutual framework. But with Yankee and Don Lee as one, the balance of power had shifted.

With the ownership changes came a new chair to the Mutual board: Thomas F. O'Neil, General Tire vice-president, and president of the new Yankee-Don Lee combination.

Another network's saga also had potential consequences for Mutual: ABC had been put up for sale by owner Ed Noble, and General Tire had become a third party in CBS' bid for ABC. If it had worked out, General Tire would have sold its Don Lee and Yankee interests, and stepped out of Mutual.

But what happened next changed Mutual for good. In November 1951, General Tire and R.H. Macy & Co. (owner of WOR) announced a merger, which gave the combined entity 58% of Mutual.

But while Mutual may have been TV-resistant, it was not TV-proof. Like the other radio networks, Mutual would soon enough find itself trying to stay afloat. Unlike the other radio networks, it almost went under.

Some information on this page came from various issues of Broadcasting, Variety, and Current Biography.

Text copyright 2009 Kenneth I. Johannessen.

No challenges to logo, sound or image copyrights are either inferred or implied.

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