Tuesday, May 10, 2005

SEARCY ’46 – ’56 - Part 20

Chapter Fifteen

Tom Pry

Snap, Crackle .. Hiss? – Part 3: The Big Wars

“General” David Sarnoff, legendary head of RCA/NBC, may’ve driven Edwin Armstrong (inventor of FM radio) to suicide, but he drove Bill Paley to distraction.

Paley was head of CBS. He was the wealthy 27-year-old son of a very successful cigar manufacturer. Paley took over a radio station that dad had unintentionally acquired and didn’t know what to do with, and turned it into a major network and entertainment powerhouse.

Why on earth should these two monumental egos be considered of importance in what is basically a “think back” series on White County? The answer is that the running fights between these guys directly affected us here.

The fight started over phonograph records.

IN THE BEGINNING, says this stentorian voice, there were two speeds: 78 and 33-1/3 rpm. The 78s are still in the memories of most readers of this tome. 10 inches across – 12 for a really long classical number – they could hold a tad over 3 minutes of music. An “album” was a huge book of 78s, all of it weighing enough to pop a hernia.

As for 33’s … follow this close, kids, it gets a little technical. The size of the needle on a 78 was 3.0 mils; on a 33, 2.5 mils, close enough that most people never bothered to change the needle. The other, bigger difference was that you never saw these 33s in your home: they were exclusively for use in radio stations. The bands on them did NOT run from one to another: each stood by itself. And the cotton-pickin’ things were frequently 16 inches across, definitely not something that would fit on your home phonograph.

You could get a whole 30 minute program on one side of one of those discs. More often, though, what you got was commercials, plus the occasional legal announcement from the local Voice to the effect that “Portions of today’s programming have been electrically transcribed.” Those in The Biz referred to them as “E.T.s,” long before Spielberg made a cute little alien by that name: Electrical Transcription. As for that announcement, we were legally required to make MRA’s (Mechanically Recorded Announcements) one or more times a day well into the sixties, as if the FCC were afraid that some dimwit would think we had crammed the entire Percy Faith Orchestra into the KWCB studios for one short song. “Portions of today’s programming were recorded earlier for presentation at this time.” Well, Percy MIGHT have been there in the middle of the night ….

‘Long ‘bout 1948, the lads at CBS Laboratories discovered how to make a .001 mil groove on a consistent basis. Ouila!, the Microgroove was born and, using the previously professionals-only speed of 33-1/3, suddenly you could get an entire album, 45 minutes of music, on one 10-inch disc!

It hurt David Sarnoff’s pride to have to pay royalties to Bill Paley for anything, let alone records. The General’s legions went to work and, using the same Microgroove, put it on a little 7-inch donut with a HUGE hole in the middle, recorded on it at 45 rpm (why 45? ‘Cause it wasn’t 33-1/3, I suppose) and said, “Here’s the way to distribute music! Ain’t they cute?”

War had been declared. RCA started churning out little 45 players that they sold at cost, just to get them out in the marketplace, the industry as a whole was making a killing on 3-speed phonos, and we just sat back and watched the whole circus play out.

CBS tried 33-1/3 singles. RCA tried 45-rpm albums. Neither was successful. The RCA attempt at albums was particularly lamentable, since it involved trying to get 3 cuts on each side of a 45 (3 45s to an album). Now, the only way to reduce the size of a recording groove is to lower the recording volume. So, you’d throw on one of these EPs (Extended Play) recordings, adjust the volume to please – and when one of the regular 45s dropped down to play next, the difference in loudness would blow you right out the front door!

Eventually, the whole war ended in a kind of draw: 45s for singles, 33s for albums. And we kept getting 78s at radio stations until about 1955. There the whole thing stood until CDs came along in the 1990s, not bad longevity for a technical system in the 20th Century.

(Oh, for the record: there WAS one other record speed. This was 16-2/3rds, used for Talking Books, and it lasted until the Phillips company came along with their cassette system in the mid-60s.)

In the TV world, the same protagonists were at work determining what system of color would invade your home. CBS had the edge in this one. While their system wasn’t completely compatible (i.e., a black and white set couldn’t display a CBS color signal), for a whole $25, a gadget could be put on the ole black & white TV that DID make it compatible.

That “gadget” was a balsa wood wheel filled with colored gels, and a motor that kept it spinning at high speed. While that sounds awkward as hell, it actually produced a technically superior picture, and it was to this system that the FCC gave their nod of approval about the time most of us were entering high school. Besides, CBS was just a short step from making it a purely electronic signal and ditching the wheel.

RCA/Sarnoff was livid. Hundreds of millions of dollars were at stake here so, using many of the same techniques with which Edwin Armstrong was personally and professionally destroyed, the RCA boys started after the FCC.

The tack the Boys from Camden (NJ) took was interesting: they pestered the FCC into “reconsidering” their decision to make the CBS system the industry standard, and extending the decision period. Not change their minds, necessarily, but to think about it a bit more.

The instant the FCC extended the decision period, the RCA megalithic machine went to work. Factories cranked out RCA system sets, which were then sold at cost. The public relations machine went to work warning about the family massacres that would result from the CBS color wheels coming apart in the middle of a program (balsa wood and plastic “paper”? C’mon, folks). The ugliness of having that damn wheel in the middle of the living room, etc, ad nauseum.

When the reconsideration period was over, the FCC was faced with over two million RCA system sets in the hands of consumers, a fait accompli that even the FCC couldn’t ignore, so they gave the official stamp of approval to RCA and that was that.

NBC’s first regularly scheduled network colorcast hit the schedule in the fall of 1953, the “Home Show” with Arlene Francis and this newcomer, Hugh Downs (I thought it was a figure of speech when he’d written me several months earlier saying that he had commitments that “.. threaten to even invade my living room”).

CBS waited until the 60s or so before they finally bit the bullet and went color, which is why so many old CBS reruns – Gunsmoke, Jackie Gleason, etc. – are in black & white.

I just wanted to put the battle of the big boys on record. I find it funny/sad that CBS et al is now owned by Japan’s Sony Corporation, and RCA’s pieces are split between General Electric (soon to be sold) and Europe’s Phillips Corporation.

History today, but kind of interesting – if annoying – to watch When We Were Kids.

(Series originally published late 2003/early 2004 on the old site).


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