American Broadcasting Company

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American Broadcasting Company
ABC Circle Logo
Type Broadcast radio network and
television network
Country United States
Availability National; also distributed in Canada and certain other North American countries
Owner ABC Inc. (The Walt Disney Company)
Key people
Launch c. 1944 (radio network);
April 19, 1948 (television network)
Past Names NBC Blue Network

The American Broadcasting Company (ABC) is a television and radio network in the United States. Created in 1943 from the former NBC Blue network, ABC is owned by The Walt Disney Company, and the formal company name is ABC, Inc. Corporate headquarters are in New York, while programming offices are in Burbank, California, adjoining the Disney Studio.



Creating ABC

From the organization of the first true radio networks in the late 1920s, broadcasting in the United States was dominated by two companies, CBS and RCA's NBC. Prior to NBC's 1926 formation, RCA had acquired AT&T's New York station WEAF (later WNBC, now WFAN). With WEAF came a loosely-organized system feeding programming to other stations in the northeastern U.S. RCA also took control of a second such group, fed by Westinghouse's Newark station WJZ (now WABC, New York.) These were the foundations of RCA's two distinct programming services, the NBC "Red" and NBC "Blue" networks.

After years of study the FCC in 1940 issued a "Report on Chain Broadcasting." Finding that two corporate owners (and the co-operatively owned Mutual Broadcasting System) dominated American broadcasting, this report proposed "divorcement," requiring the sale by RCA of one of its chains. NBC Red was the larger radio network, carrying the leading entertainment and music programs. In addition, many Red affiliates were high-powered, clear-channel stations, heard nationwide. NBC Blue offered most of the company's news and cultural programs, many of them "sustaining" or un-sponsored. Among other findings, the FCC claimed RCA used NBC Blue to suppress competition against NBC Red. Since the FCC did not regulate or license networks directly but had influence only by means of its hold over individual stations, it said, "No license shall be issued to a standard broadcast station affiliated with a network which maintains more than one network." NBC argued this indirect style of regulation was illegal and appealed to the courts, but the FCC was upheld, so the Blue network had to be sold.

The task of selling of NBC Blue was given to Mark Woods; throughout 1942 and 1943, NBC Red and NBC Blue divided their assets. A price of $8 million was put on the assets of the Blue group, and Woods shopped the Blue package around to potential buyers. One such, investment bank Dillon, Read made an offer of $7.5 million, but Woods and RCA chief David Sarnoff held firm at $8 million. What the Blue package contained was: leases on land-lines and on studio facilities in New York, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles; contracts with talent and with about sixty affiliates; the trademark and "good will" associated with the Blue name; and licenses for three stations (WJZ in New York, San Francisco's KGO, and WENR in Chicago - really a half-station, since WENR shared time and a frequency with "Prairie Farmer" station WLS.)

Edward Noble, creator of the Life Savers candy and owner of the Rexall Drug chain, was interested. The asking price of $8 million would prove to be the selling price. In order to complete the station-license transfer, Noble had to sell a New York station he owned, and FCC hearings were required. Another stumbling block was Noble's intention to keep Mark Woods on as president, which led to the suggestion that Woods would continue to work with (and for) his former employers. This had the potential to derail the sale. During the hearings Woods was asked if the new network would sell time to the AFofL; Woods responded "No". When Noble was questioned on similar points, Noble hid behind the NAB code to avoid answering. Frustrated, the chairman advised Noble to do some rethinking, which apparently he did, because on October 12, 1943 the sale was approved. The new network sold air time to organized labor.

Known until mid-1944 as "The Blue Network," the company was re-christened American Broadcasting Company. This set off a flurry of re-namings; to avoid confusion, CBS changed the call-letters of its New York flagship from WABC to WCBS; seeing a trend, RCA re-named its New York flagship as WNBC. In 1953, ABC's New York flagship WJZ took on the abandoned call-letters WABC.

The new ABC radio network began slowly; with few "hit" shows, it had to build an audience. Noble sprang for more stations, among them Detroit's WXYZ; one of the founding stations of the Mutual network, WXYZ was where The Lone Ranger, Sergeant Preston, Sky King and other popular daily serials originated. With this purchase, ABC instantly acquired a bloc of established daily shows. Noble also bought KECA (now KABC) in Los Angeles, to give the network a Hollywood production base. Counter-programming became an ABC specialty, for example, placing a raucous quiz-show like Stop the Music against more thoughtful fare on NBC and CBS. ABC also abolished a long-standing ban on pre-recorded programming; advances in tape-recording brought back from conquered Germany meant that the audio quality of tape could not be distinguished from "live" broadcasts. As a result, several high-rated stars who wanted freedom from rigid schedules, among them Bing Crosby, moved to ABC. Though still rated third, by the late 1940s ABC had begun to close in on the better-established networks.

Enter Leonard Goldenson

Faced with huge expenses in building a radio network, ABC was in no position to take on the additional costs demanded by a television network. To secure a place at the table, though, in 1947 ABC submitted requests for licenses in the five cities where it owned radio stations; by coincidence, all five applications were for "Channel 7." On April 19, 1948 the ABC television network went on the air.

For the next several years, ABC was a televison network mostly in name. Except for the largest markets, most cities had only one or two stations. The FCC froze applications for new stations in 1948 while it sorted out the thousands of applicants, and re-thought the technical and allocation standards set down in 1938. What was meant to be a six-month freeze lasted until 1952, and until that time only 101 stations were licensed to broadcast. For a late-comer like ABC, this meant being relegated as a secondary affiliate in many markets. By 1952, it had only fourteen full-time affiliates, of which five were company-owned. Further, without the high-powered radio names that propelled NBC and CBS, ABC and fellow start-up DuMont commanded little affiliate loyalty.

Divorced from Paramount Pictures at the end of 1949 by Supreme Court order, United Paramount Theaters was a company with plenty of money and nowhere to spend it. Cash- and real estate-rich, UPT head Leonard Goldenson immediately set out to find investment opportunities. Barred from the film business, Goldenson saw broadcasting as a possibility, and approached Noble about buying ABC. Since the transfer of station licenses was again involved, the FCC set hearings. At the heart of this was the question of the Paramount Pictures-UPT divorce: were they truly separate? And what role did Paramount's long-time investment in DuMont Laboratories, parent of the television network, play? After a year of deliberation the FCC approved the purchase by UPT in a 5–2 split decision on February 9, 1953. Speaking in favor of the deal, one commissioner pointed out that UPT had the cash to turn ABC into a viable, competitive third network.

Shortly after the ABC–UPT merger, Goldenson approached DuMont with a merger offer. Though it had been a pioneer in television broadcasting and was especially creative in programming, DuMont was in financial trouble. Under Goldenson's proposal, DuMont would get $5 million in cash; guaranteed advertising time for DuMont television receivers: the merged network would be called "ABC-DuMont" for at least five years; and DuMont staff would have a secure future. However, DuMont's nervous minority shareholder Paramount Pictures vetoed the sale, afraid of reviving anti-trust charges. By 1956, the DuMont network had shut down.

The 1960s

After its acquisition by UPT, ABC at last had the means to offer a full-time television network service. By mid-1953 Leonard Goldenson had begun a two-front campaign, calling on his old pals at the Hollywood studios (he had been head of the mighty Paramount theater chain since 1938) to convince them to move into programming. And he began wooing station owners to convince them that a refurbished ABC was about to burst forth. In some markets, like Seattle, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, he convinced long-time NBC and CBS affiliates to move to ABC. His two-part campaign paid off when the "new" ABC hit the air in October, 1954. Among the shows that brought in record audiences was "Disneyland," produced-by and starring Walt Disney. MGM, Warner Bros. and Twentieth Century-Fox were also present that first season. Within two years, Warners was producing ten hours of programming for ABC each week, mostly interchangeable detective and western series.

While ABC continued to languish in third place in national ratings, it often topped local ratings in the larger markets. With the arrival of Hollywood's slickly-produced series, with their emphasis on those old standbys sex and violence, ABC began to catch on with younger, urban viewers. As the network gained in the ratings, it became an attractive property, and over the next few years ABC approached, or was approached-by GE, Howard Hughes, Litton Industries, GTE, and ITT. ABC and ITT agreed to a merger in late 1965, but this deal was derailed by FCC and Department of Justice questions about ITT's foreign ownership influencing ABC's autonomy and journalistic integrity. ITT's management promised that ABC's autonomy would be preserved; while the merger was approved by the FCC, the Justice Department was not convinced, and the deal was called off on January 1, 1968.

As had happened at NBC and CBS, from the mid-1950s ABC's radio audience gravitated to television. By the early 1960s, the radio network schedule consisted of a few long-running serials, Lawrence Welk's musical hour (simulcast from television), and Don McNeill's daily "Breakfast Club" variety show. ABC made a last-ditch effort to retain the radio audience by filling the schedule with talk-shows, but gave in after a few years. In 1968, ABC's remaining programming service was split in four parts, offering customized news and features for pop-music-, news-, or talk-oriented formats. Later, that plan was further broadened to offer seven formats, and ABC returned to programming by offering its more popular local talk shows to national audiences.

Success at Last

Despite its relatively small size, ABC found increasing success with television programming aimed at the emerging "Baby Boomer" culture. Producer Roone Arledge helped ABC's fortunes with innovations in sports programming, creating Wide World of Sports and Monday Night Football. By doing so he helped to make sport into a multi-billion-dollar industry, and was rewarded by being made head of ABC News and Sports.

By the early 1970s, ABC was showing signs of overtaking CBS and NBC. Broadcasting in color from the mid-1960s, ABC started using the new science of demographics to tweak its programming and ad sales. ABC invested heavily in shows with wide appeal, especially situation comedies, but also offered big-budget, extended-length miniseries, among them QB VII, and Rich Man, Poor Man. The most successful, Roots, based on Alex Haley's novel, became one of the biggest hits in television history. Combined with ratings for its regular weekly series, Roots propelled ABC to a first-place finish in the national Nielsen ratings for the 1976–1977 season— this was a first in the then thirty-year history of the network.

ABC's dominance carried into the early 1980s. But by 1985, veteran shows like The Love Boat had lost their steam; a resurgent NBC was leading in the ratings. ABC relied on that staple of programming, the situation comedy. During this period ABC seemed to have lost the momentum that once propelled it; there was little offered that was innovative or compelling. Like his counterpart at CBS, William S. Paley, founding-father Goldenson had withdrawn to the sidelines. ABC's ratings and the earnings thus generated reflected this loss of drive. So it was not a total surprise when in 1985 ABC was taken over by media company Capital Cities Communications; the corporate name was changed to Capital Cities/ABC.

In 1984-85, ABC began the transition from coaxial cable/microwave delivery to satellite delivery via AT&T's Telstar 301. ABC maintained a West Coast feed network on Telstar 302, and in 1991 scrambled feeds on both satellites with the Leitch system. Currently, with the Leitch system abandoned, ABC operates clear feeds on Intelsat Americas 5 and Intelsat Americas 6, in addition to digital feeds on both satellites.

Acquisition by Disney

In 1996, The Walt Disney Company acquired Capital Cities/ABC, and renamed the broadcasting group ABC, Inc. ABC's relationship with Disney dates back to 1953, when Leonard Goldenson pledged enough money so that the "Disneyland" theme park could be completed. ABC continued to hold Disney notes and stock until 1960, and also had first call on the "Disneyland" television series in 1954. With this new relationship came an attempt at cross-promotion, with attractions based on ABC shows at Disney parks and an annual soap festival at Walt Disney World. The fomer president of ABC, Inc., Robert Iger, now heads Disney.

Despite intense micro-managing on the part of Disney management, the flagship television network was slow to turn around.

Borrowing a proven Disney formula, there have been attempts to broaden the ABC brand name. The short-lived ABC Cable News began in 1995; unable to compete with CNN, it shut down in 1997. Undaunted, in 2004 ABC launched a news channel called ABC News Now. Its aim is to provide round-the-clock news on cable, the internet and mobile phones.

A 2003 Nielsen estimate found that ABC could be seen in 96.75% of all homes in the United States, reaching 103,179,600 households. ABC has 201 VHF and UHF owned-and-operated or affiliated stations in the U.S. and U.S. possessions.

Since the 1950s, ABC has split "live" production between east- and west-coast facilities; ABC Television Center West in Hollywood, (once the Vitagraph film studios) accommodates sets for the daily soap operas; and the ABC Television Center East, once clustered around a former stable on West 66th Street, is now split between several soundstages in New York.

Radio & Records Magazine early in 2005 said that Disney/ABC would sell its radio stations and radio-network operations. For major media conglomerates, this has become a chess game which allows them to swap stations in order to end with more television affiliates. Speculation is that the buyer for the ABC radio networks is Westwood One, a Viacom unit that in recent years has taken over the remains of the NBC, Mutual and CBS radio networks. Thus in sixty years the radio business comes more-or-less full circle, but now with one owner instead of two.

ABC identity

ABC logo used from 1957 to 1962.
ABC logo used from 1957 to 1962.

Before its early color transmissions, the ABC identity was a lowercase 'abc' inside a lower case 'A'. That logo was known as the "ABC Circle A." The logo was modified in the fall of 1962 when ABC started using the current "ABC Circle" logo (designed by Paul Rand) with ultra-modern (for its time) lower case 'abc' inside. The typeface used is a simple geometric design inspired by the Bauhaus school of the 1920s; its simplicity makes it easy to duplicate, something ABC has taken advantage of many times over the years (especially before the advent of computer graphics). It does not correspond to a particular font, however, several common geometric typefaces (including Avant Garde and Horatio) are close, and a recently developed typeface is inspired by it. A variation of ABC's logo is used by Brazilian TV network SBT.


Launched September 27, 2004, ABC1 is a British digital channel on Freeview's digital terrestrial service, owned and operated by ABC Inc. Its current schedule is a selection of past and present American shows, mostly from ABC, and is offered 24 hours a day on the digital satellite platform, and from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the digital terrestrial platform, Freeview.

See also

Notes on Sources

  • Barnouw, Erik. The Golden Web: A History of Broadcasting in the United States, 1933-1953. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.
  • Goldenson, Leonard, and Marvin J. Wolf. Beating the Odds: The Untold Story Behind the Rise of ABC. New York: Scribners, 1991.
  • Kisseloff, Jeff, The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1920-1961. New York: Viking Press, 1988.
  • Sampson, Anthony. The Sovereign State of ITT. New York: Stein and Day, 1973.
  • Sobel, Robert. ITT. New York: Truman Talley - Times Books, 1982.

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