In our first examination into the origins of television remotes, we explored the first mobile units designed to leave the confines of studios and cover events, particularly sports, from anyplace they could get a signal back to the transmitter. Just as television shifted from experimental to a commercial enterprise, World War II broke out.
During the war, “television was put on the back burners.” As the US went to war, stations were told to cut back on production and limit their programming time. By the end of the war, only six television outlets remained on the air. Not much direct work on television took place. The stations that did stay on the air devoted much of their programming to civil defense training and other war related activities.
However, that didn’t mean the technology wasn’t advancing. Just the opposite. The research in electronics to come out of the war, most notably in radar, could be directly applied to television. In addition, the end of the war made a well-trained corps of technicians and engineers available to develop, operate and maintain the specialized equipment television required. Those skills were put to work quickly as new television stations were going on the air all across the US.
The general public was anxious to move on to peacetime pursuits and take advantage of an economy revitalized by the war. They had been suffering through shortages and sacrificing due to rationing. Now there was a pent up demand for appliances to make life easier, more productive or just new and frivolous. Television filled that last void. Applications for new television stations came into the FCC at a rapid rate as television took off in the US. By 1949, the number of television stations on the air had grown to 77.
In Chicago before the war, William C. “Bill” Eddy was running WBKB, Chicago’s first commercial television station (beginning as experimental station W9XBK in 1939) for Paramount Pictures. Eddy built the station from scratch for $60,000 dollars (most pre-war stations at the time were costing $500,000 to get on the air) and had it on the air in just five months. The station was one of the six that continued to broadcast during the war.
Eddy was also one of those responsible for so many servicemen bringing back electronics expertise. When WWII broke out, he re-enlisted and created the educational curriculum necessary for the training of radar and microwave technicians and maintenance personnel. Many a future television engineer began his career in electronics under the training curriculum developed by Eddy.
After the war, Bill Eddy turned his attention back to WBKB. His crew built their remote truck. Taking economy one step further, Eddy is the only one I’ve found who built his own cameras, too. Station personnel at other local stations also built their remote units. Even though they didn’t go to the Eddy’s extent, they did re-engineer some of the equipment that went into them to make the units lighter and more reliable (early TV equipment didn’t take well to being bounced down the road in a truck).
Baseball was the sport of choice for television in those early days. In 1949, 31 of the stations on the air were covering games of the American and National leagues and various minor league teams of their cities. Stations generally used only two or three cameras to cover the games. Jim Boston and George Hoover in their book TV on Wheels said “The early trucks didn’t carry many cameras, but the early television viewer was largely content with a couple static shots of the action, be it a ballgame, parade or city council meeting.”
Another example of “building their own” was Klaus Landsberg in Los Angeles. Landsberg put the experimental version W6XYZ (later to become KTLA) on the air September 18th, 1942 for owner Paramount Pictures. Under his guidance the station was possibly the most involved with remote originations of any local station of that time period. Landsberg began with two DuMont cameras to enable the station to do live production. Landsberg had a different approach. He didn’t install the cameras in the small Paramount sound stage that was to be the station’s first studio. He installed them in the remote truck built by his station’s engineering staff.
The late John Silva, another ex-serviceman turned television engineer (having been a radar officer in the Navy) eventually became chief engineer for KTLA. In an issue of “Tech-Notes,” Silva described how that first remote unit for W6XYZ was used.
According to Silva, the remote unit was used for both studio and remote programming. When there was a need for a studio production, the truck was driven onto the stage and cabled up to the transmitter. When the cameras were needed at a remote site, they would load them onto the truck, disconnect the truck from the transmitter and drive it to the location. Days in advance, the station would arrange for a new service the telephone company was beginning to offer the fledgling television industry – a local coaxial cable video loop (called a “point of presence” or PoP) – to be installed at the location.
AT&T and their family of companies known as Bell Telephone also advanced their technology during the war. The Research and Development division of the company, known as Bell Laboratories, invented the modern coaxial cable. The telephone company developed coax to increase the volume of calls their cable could handle. A byproduct of coax cable was that it made electronic television possible. It could carry the increased bandwidth required by the new medium that standard copper wire could not. It allowed the interconnection of television components from camera to transmitter. Each telephone company coax route of that time could handle 480 telephone calls or one television signal.
When dispatched for a remote, the homemade studio in a truck was setup at a site accessible to one of Pacific Bell Telephone’s coax cable loops to transmit the video back to the station and the television transmitter. Leaving the station without the capability for studio origination ordinarily would be a problem. However, in those experimental days the station was only on for an hour or so a day.
Silva was put to work on the construction of a new portable microwave link (transmitter and receiver set) to enable remote telecasts from anywhere in the Los Angeles area that had line of sight to Mount Wilson, the new site of the station’s transmitter. Microwave transmission would free the station from the expense and time delay of having a telephone company origination point installed.
In June of 1946, RCA released new cameras (the TK30A) replacing the light hungry Iconoscope tubes and early Orthicon tubes with the more sensitive Image Orthicon tubes. The new tube was 100 times more sensitive than any pickup tube prior to its introduction. It significantly reduced the amount of light required to make acceptable television pictures and solved the problems encountered when the heat from the lights made actress’ mascara melt. The development of the tube was yet another example of television benefiting from the war effort.
“A military secret until now, it can be revealed that it makes use of the most advanced results of more than twenty years of research not only in television pick-up tubes, but in electron optics, photo-emission processes, electron multipliers and special materials,” said E. W. Engstrom, Research Director for RCA Laboratories, to the press at the tube’s introduction to the public.
The military research had also helped to create cameras that were also lighter, smaller and more stable making them easier to use on remotes. The crew at W6XYZ quickly put together a new, improved remote unit around this camera in a larger truck. Even these second generation mobile units were still no bigger than a local delivery van (many were referred to by their crews as “bread trucks”).
The W6XYZ crew followed in the footsteps of their counterparts at W6XAO (Don Lee Broadcasting) had made before the war. On January 1st, 1947 they began a tradition that has lasted to this day when they tried out the new remote unit on the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade. Three weeks after the Rose Parade, the station would become the first full-fledged commercial station west of the Mississippi under the call letters KTLA. Their pioneer efforts and involvement with the Rose Parade show up in a later technical development as you’ll see further on in this article.
Remotes became a staple of KTLA’s programming. So much so, the station quickly built an identical second mobile unit. Many entertainment shows, news and sports events would be covered by these two units in the years that followed. This included the aftermath of the explosion of an electroplating plant in Los Angeles, the first live on the spot news coverage ever to be seen on television.
Several years later, this same equipment would be used on the first live nationwide coverage of an atomic bomb test in the Nevada Desert (the story of the first televised A Bomb test was explored in a previous article in this series).
For stations that could afford it, mobile unit manufacturers did exist. RCA seems to have had the most on the road. The units were produced as part of RCA’s product line and given model numbers that began with “TJ”. As best as I can determine, the first of these was the TJ-48.
Another remote unit design came from the DuMont Corporation. DuMont was another early television network started to provide programming that would sell its parent company’s television receivers. Unfortunately, DuMont lacked a radio network to build an affiliate base upon. DuMont was also hamstrung by a minority ownership by Paramount Pictures who directly controlled its own television stations (KTLA in Los Angeles and Bill Eddy’s station, WBKB, in Chicago). The FCC had ruled even though DuMont had no control over the two Paramount owned stations, they still had to be counted as part of the five station “Owned & Operated” limit. Holding DuMont back from gaining a full roster of owned and operated stations, particularly in two of the largest markets in the nation, put it at a distinct disadvantage in competing with the other networks.
By 1956, the DuMont Television Network was out of business but not before the company built several Telecruiser remote units. DuMont sold several to their affiliates and others. While the home built units and even the RCA units were built on the general delivery van model, Telecruisers looked more like city buses.
Nearly all the trucks in this era, whether homebuilt or manufactured, would be set up the same way and seldom carried more than two or three cameras whether they were local station or network trucks. There was space for a director, a video “shader” and an audio person. There just wasn’t room for any more people or equipment. And, as Boston and Hoover commented in TV on Wheels, “the hope was that at least one [camera] would work at airtime.” Probably truer than engineers would like to have believed. Titles and credits were printed using white letters on a black background and positioned on a music stand next to one of the cameras and either superimposed using “split bars” or luminance keyed over one of the other cameras, depending on the capabilities of the video switching unit.
Some rental trucks began to be available in the late fifties. They weren’t much different from the local station trucks. They kept busy supporting regional ad hoc networks covering college sports around the US when the unit wasn’t doing a program for a local station that didn’t own a truck.
The programming was all live as video tape wasn’t invented until the late 1956. Even after tape became a staple of local station operations, remote productions not intended to be live would send the program by microwave or telephone company coax to the station to be recorded. The size, weight, technical complexity and cost of the early two-inch quad tape machines prohibited their use on remote setups although a few operations tried.
Local stations used remotes for all kinds of community events. They appeared everywhere in the communities they serviced. Sometimes a station would just park the unit on the street and interview passersby. TV stations needed an audience and a truck painted up with the stations call letters and channel number was good self-promotion. It also showed the station was interested in being a part of the community.
Naturally, sports coverage was a primary source of programing for the trucks. Games and matches of all kinds filled airtime with action that would draw an audience. They also allowed engineers to hone their expertise with the routinely finicky equipment.
No sooner had black and white television taken off than color became the buzz as RCA, CBS and others competed to win a standards war. As they had done in 1938, RCA put their experiments on wheels. According to the late television historian Ed Reitan, as early as “May 21, 1951, a live color pickup was originated at Palisades Park” in New Jersey. “The same motor van was used that had housed the first mobile pre-war black and white iconoscope cameras in 1938 [and used] a single large “coffin” color camera was used.”
In December, 1953, the FCC approved RCA’s “compatible color” system as the standard for American color television.
However, color took a while to catch up to black and white. First, receivers had to be manufactured and made available to the public to buy. At the same time, there had to be color programing available to give viewers an incentive to own one of the expensive receivers. It was a classic example of “which came first – the chicken or the egg?”
For years, network color shows were few and far between. CBS flirted with color here and there only if an advertiser would pay the additional production costs. ABC, being the most frugal, didn’t even bother until 1962 and then it was only filmed shows at the outset. RCA had a vested interest in getting color sets into American homes so NBC was the only network pushing the production of color programming. The company built remote trucks for use by NBC and its affiliates but also for lease to other stations and to use for demonstrations to help sell color to the public.
The first nationwide program sent from the west coast to be produced in color was a remote. Even though there had been several color test programs aired nationally before RCA color was approved, the public was only viewing them in black and white. In spite of that and to begin creating demand, on January 1st, 1954, just days after the approval of the RCA compatible color system, NBC aired the Tournament of Roses Parade from Pasadena, California.
Very quickly, RCA began marketing color mobile units, the first of which became available in 1954.
At first, there weren’t very many takers on the affiliated station front. Local programming remained in black and white due to the cost of upgrading the physical plant. Carrying network programming in color only required some minor modifications to the station’s transmitter. Even if a station was willing to cough up more than $100,000 for local color origination equipment (not including live cameras), replacing a black and white remote truck with color was an extravagance few stations could afford.
Most stations that managed to buy color cameras couldn’t afford more than one or two. Stations that bought only one color camera would do programs with just their one color camera or cut between color and black and white images within the same program. Several stations, however, got creative in affording color mobile units. Stations like KTLA in Los Angeles or the Crosley group of stations in Ohio and Indiana. All had color remote units early on but made them happen in different ways.
In 1955, KTLA was one of the first six stations in the United States (outside some NBC owned stations) and the first station not affiliated with a network with live color cameras. As previously mentioned, KTLA built their own first and second generation black and white remote units. They did it again with color. The station designed their unit around a custom built single axle Fruehof trailer.
To make it cost effective, station personnel, still lead by Klaus Landsberg, designed the unit to operate just like the station’s original black & white mobile unit. The trailer would be the control room even when the cameras were working in the KTLA studios and would be connected to the house systems. But when needed on location, the cameras would be loaded on the trailer and be off to the remote site.
Some local operations, particularly those with sports origination contracts or multiple station groups were able to justify the expense of a remote unit purchased from RCA. In 1956, Crosley Broadcasting did just that. Home for the unit was the flagship station WLWT in Cincinnati. When not on a remote it was pulled up alongside the station and the color cameras were brought into one of their studios much like KTLA. However, the unit would also be shared among the other stations in the Crosley group (Dayton and Columbus in Ohio and Indianapolis, Indiana). In addition, it would be put to work covering Cincinnati Reds baseball at Crosley Field.
As the 1960’s (and color television) matured, network affiliates relied less and less on local origination. Many stations that couldn’t justify the acquisition of a color unit got out of the remote business and either sold their black & white units or donated them to public television outlets or university video operations. If the need arose, they could seek out one of the rental units beginning to come onto the market.
Rental units weren’t a new thing. RCA had demonstration units available to their customer stations as well as for demonstrating color for the public. As early as 1960, Red Skelton had three “busses” built for color TV tape recording, primarily for use at his Hollywood studio lot but also available for productions on the road. The Glenn-Armistead company, also based in Los Angeles was supplying a rental unit to network shows.
During this period, the networks were expanding their sports coverage. American football had not been as popular on television as baseball. The American pastime was what viewers enjoyed during the season on several nights a week with games on the weekend, too. College football was limited to Saturdays and Pro Football was only on Sundays. Some games were covered as teams made their own deals with stations or, as baseball was doing, creating their own ad hoc networks.
In the decade of the 1960’s that popularity began to shift thanks to the arrival of Pete Rozelle as the commissioner of the National Football League (NFL). Rozelle worked to ensure every team got all its games on TV. CBS carried the NFL games and NBC covered the games of the American Football League (AFL). In the mid-60’s, the two conferences agreed to a merger and created the first World Championship game on January 15th, 1967, later to become known as the Super Bowl. ABC, not to be left out of the mix, created Monday Night Football and telecast the first game on September 21st, 1970.
The program was created by the new president of ABC Sports, Roone Arledge. When Arledge joined ABC in 1960 as a producer of their NCAA football telecasts, he set out to change how people watch football on television. He recognized that television couldn’t just cover the game. Television had to bring the fan to the game. Through Arledge, “The games were transformed into events through… jazzy technical innovations…” Technical innovations like slow motion, up close and personal and among the first to use instant replay. The list goes on.
On October 5th, 1975, a film crew documented ABC Sports’ production of the Ohio State vs. UCLA football matchup. The legendary Andy Sidaris (creator of the “honey shot”) is the director. The resulting film “Seconds to Play” is referenced below (in two parts).
Other sports were growing, too. Network sports coverage mushroomed through the 1960’s and 1970’s. In TV on Wheels, Boston and Hoover wrote “Up until the 1980’s, the amount of sports coverage done by the networks didn’t require a lot of outside help.”
However, the growth of coverage (thanks in part to satellites and private fiber carriers) has resulted in practically every game being covered as stations cherry pick the ones that mean the most to their coverage area. Also, the addition of what used to be considered minor sports such as professional golf, professional hockey, auto racing, gymnastics, etc, have resulted in a plethora of remote broadcasts taking place all over the country, indeed, the world.
On top of that, the sophistication and expansion of the productions of the productions themselves have grown with more cameras, replays and graphics enhancing the programs. Rather than just working out of one remote trailer, network coverage expanded into compounds of specialized trucks and office trailers. ABC, CBS and NBC found themselves needing more remote equipment then they owned (When Fox entered big league sports they used vendor trucks from the beginning) as well as needing to continually upgrade and expand.
Facing huge capital construction costs, the networks began looking at ways to make budget cuts. The result was for them to sell off their “rolling stock.” NBC was the first American network on the road with remote units was the first to sell in the mid 90’s. They were followed by CBS in 1998. Finally, ABC sold their units in 2000.
Even KTLA, the station that built its own production trucks over the years resorted to renting a unit when it began covering the Tournament of Roses parade every New Years Day in High Defiinition.
Even the vendors now are consolidating and looking for ways to save money. As I described in my first article, Internet Protocol is under investigation as is moving a lot of the control aspects of the remote from on site to off site.
Going forward, some of the advancing technology will actually improve the viewing experience. According to Joe Schackleford of NEP/Sweetwater Digital Productions, “Back at home you’ve got your server farm. Every piece of video information all the way back to whenever [is stored there].” For example, a player executes an unusual play. The announcer says he hasn’t seen that since so and so did that back in 1985. The producer “dials it up on [his] little touchpad and brings up that clip. Kind of hard to do that in a truck. It all works for a more entertaining environment.”
It will have to. The viewing public expects to see spectacle – not only of the sport itself – but of the coverage of that sport. There is no going back to the day when three or four cameras would cover a football or baseball game. Just like when we look back on remote broadcasts from decades ago and smile at how simplistic they were, a new generation will look at our current recordings and wonder why we were so boring. Whatever the new technologies bring to remotes, we do know they will make productions cheaper, better, more efficient and awesome!