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In American television terminology, a fourth network is a reference to a fourth broadcast (over-the-air) television network. Over the years, many companies operated television networks which aspired to compete against the Big Three television networks (CBS, NBC, and ABC). However, from the 1950s until the 1990s, none of these start-ups lasted very long.

After decades of failed "fourth networks", many television industry insiders believed a viable fourth network wasn't possible. Television critics grew jaded. "Industry talk about a possible full-time, full-service, commercial network structured like the existing big three, ABC, CBS and NBC, pops up much more often than the fictitious town of Brigadoon," one critic wrote.

Some within the industry felt there was a real need for a fourth network; that complaints about diversity in programming could be addressed by adding another network. "We need a fourth, a fifth, and a sixth network," one broadcaster stated. But while critics rejected "the nightly tripe being offered the public on the three major networks," they were skeptical that a fourth network would offer better material: "[O]ne wonders if a new network lacking the big money already being spread three ways will be able to come up with tripe that is equal. Certainly a new network is not going to stress quality programming when the ratings indicate that the American public prefer hillbillies, cowboys and spies. A new network will have to deliver an audience if it is to attract the big spenders from the ranks of sponsors."

Advertisers, too, called for the creation of a fourth network. Representatives from Procter and Gamble and General Foods, two of the largest advertisers in the U.S., hoped the competition from a fourth network would lower advertising rates on the Big Three. Independent television producers, too, called for a fourth network after battles with the Big Three.

The 1986 launch of the Fox Broadcasting Company was met with ridicule by critics and with scorn by Big Three executives, who pointed out that the Fox network, like the failed television networks before it, would be seen mostly on poorly-watched UHF stations. Brandon Tartikoff gave Fox the dismissive nickname "the coat hanger network", implying that viewers would need to attach wire hangers to their television sets in order to view Fox programs. NBC head Grant Tinker stated, "I will never put a fourth column on my schedule board. There will only be three."

Despite the industry skepticism, decades of fourth network failures, and initial network instability, the new Fox network proved profitable by the early '90s, prompting calls for fifth, sixth, and even seventh networks.

Background

In the 1940s, four television networks began operations by linking local television stations together via AT&T's coaxial cable telephone network. The linking allowed stations to share programs across great distances, and allowed television advertisers to air their commercials nationally. Local stations became affiliates of one or more of the four networks. These four networks — the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), and the DuMont Television Network — would be the only full-time television networks during the 1940s and 1950s, for in 1948, the Federal Communications Commission suspended approvals for new station construction permits. Although other companies — including Paramount and Mutual — announced network plans or began limited network operations, these companies withdrew from television after the first few years.

The FCC's "freeze", as it was called, was supposed to last for six months. By the time it was lifted, in 1952, there would be only four full-time television networks. However, the FCC would only license three local VHF stations in each television market in the U.S. A fourth station, the FCC ruled, would have to broadcast on the UHF band. Hundreds of new UHF stations began operations, but these stations quickly folded because television set manufacturers would not be required to have a UHF tuner until 1964. Most viewers couldn't see what UHF stations were broadcasting, and advertisers wouldn't advertise their products on stations which no one could view. Without advertising revenue, UHF station owners either returned their station licenses to the FCC, or cut operating costs in attempts to stay in business.

NBC and CBS had been the largest, most successful broadcasters in radio. As they began bringing their popular radio programs and stars into the television medium, they attracted the biggest VHF television stations. In many areas, ABC and DuMont were left with undesirable UHF stations, or were forced to affiliate with NBC or CBS affiliates on a part-time basis.

On August 6, 1956, DuMont ceased regular network operations; the end of DuMont allowed ABC to experience a profit increase of 40% that year, although ABC would not reach parity with NBC and CBS until the 1970s. The end of the DuMont Network left many UHF stations without a reliable source of programming. Several new television companies were formed through the years in failed attempts to band these stations together in a new fourth network.

George Fox Organization network

George Fox, the president of the George Fox Organization, announced tentative plans for a TV film network in May 1956. The plan was to sign 45-50 affiliate stations; each of these stations would have a voice in deciding what programs the network would air. Four initial programs, Jack for Jill, I'm the Champ, Answer Me This, and It's a Living, were slated to be aired; the programs would be filmed in Hollywood. However, only 17 stations had agreed to affiliate in May. The film network never made it off the ground, and none of the planned programs aired.

Sports Network/Hughes Network

Also in 1956, Dick Bailey founded the Sports Network, a specialty television network which aired only sports programs. Millionaire Howard Hughes purchased the network in 1968 and changed the name to the Hughes Television Network. Speculation abounded that Hughes would add non-sports programs to the line-up, launching a fourth television network. One television critic speculated, "If Hughes does have the exciting sports programs they can change viewer's dialing habits. If dialing habits are changed might he extend his network facilities to include nonsport programming? It would be one way, less costly and with far less of a risk, to start the illusionary fourth network."

Despite the speculation, the Hughes Network never offered non-sports programs and never developed into a fourth major television network.

NTA Film Network

On October 15, 1956, National Telefilm Associates launched the NTA Film Network, a syndication service which distributed both films and television programs to independent television stations and stations affiliated with NBC, CBS, or ABC; the network had signed agreements with over 100 affiliate stations. The ad-hoc network's flagship station was WNTA-TVmarker, channel 13 in New York. The NTA Network was launched as a "fourth TV network", and trade papers of the time referred to it as a new television network.

The NTA Film Network offered dozens of programs to its affiliates, among them sitcom How to Marry a Millionaire (1957-1959), Western Man Without a Gun (1957-1959), sitcom This is Alice (1958-1959), Peabody Award winner Play of the Week (1959-1961), sports show The Bill Corum Sports Show (circa 1957), religious program Man's Heritage (circa 1957), The Passerby (circa 1957), courtroom drama Divorce Court (1957–1969), mystery Official Detective (1957–1958), talk show Open End (1958–1961), swashbuckler William Tell (1958–1959), adventure series Assignment: Underwater (1959–1960), cartoon Q. T. Hush (1960–1961), drama Sheriff of Cochise (later retitled U.S. Marshall, 1956–1958), Alex in Wonderland (1959), news program Newsbeat (1959–1961) and musical program Mantovani (1959).

Among its 1956–1957 offerings were 52 Twentieth Century-Fox films. Premiere Performance, a prime time block of Twentieth Century-Fox films, aired from 1957–1959. Other film blocks included TV Hour of Stars and The Big Night (both 1958–1959). The film network also announced provisional plans to telecast live sporting and special events (using network relays) by the 1959–1960 television season.

Despite this major fourth network effort, by 1961 WNTA-TV was losing money, and the network's flagship station was sold to the Educational Broadcasting Corporation that November. WNTA-TV became WNDT (later WNET), flagship station of the National Educational Television network, a forerunner of PBS. NTA network operations did not continue without a flagship station, although parent company National Telefilm Associates continued syndication services. Divorce Court was seen as late as 1969.

Pat Weaver's network

Pat Weaver, a former president of NBC, attempted to launch his own television network, not once but twice. According to one source, the network would have been called the Pat Weaver Prime Time Network. Although the new network was announced, no programs were ever produced.

National Educational Television

Educational television had existed since 1952, but was poorly-funded. Only a few educational stations existed during the 1950s. By 1962, however, 62 educational stations were operating, most of which had affiliated with the non-commercial National Educational Television (NET). That year, the U.S. Congress approved $32 million in funding for educational television, giving a boost to the non-commercial network. Although at the 1962 revamp of the organization, NET was branded a "fourth network", later historians have disagreed. McNeil (1996) stated, "in a sense, NET was less a true network than a distributor of programs to educational stations throughout the country; it was not until late 1966 that simultaneous broadcasting began on educational outlets."

Overmyer Network

Millionaire Daniel Overmyer built a chain of five UHF stations during the mid-1960s. In late 1966, Overmyer announced plans for a new fourth network, named the Overmyer Network. The name was later changed to the United Network, but the network itself broadcast only for a single month, and aired only one program, The Las Vegas Show. The lack of reliable VHF stations helped kill the new network, which started bleeding money. Shortly after the failed network ceased operations, one critic called the network a fiasco, and likened the failure to the earlier DuMont, NTA Film Network, and Weaver network failures.

Westinghouse or Metromedia

By the late 1960s, several fourth networks had come and gone. Television set manufacturers were required to include a UHF tuner in their sets after 1964, and it was thought this would help the cause of UHF stations and any company hoping to band (mostly) UHF stations together in a fourth network. Two companies, Westinghouse and Metromedia, were floated in 1969 as possible fourth network entries. Westinghouse was the owner of several VHF stations and produced several series which aired over its stations and others. However, Donald McGannon, president of Westinghouse, estimated it would take $200 million each year to operate a full-time television network and a modest news department. McGannon denied his company had full network aspirations.

Metromedia, the successor company to the defunct DuMont Network, was a healthy chain of independent television stations. Although Metromedia "dabbled at creating a fourth network", the company was content with offering series to independent stations on a part-time basis, "nowhere near the conventional definition of a network". In 1976, the company proposed a link of independent television stations called MetroNet. The proposed programming would consist of several Sunday night family dramas, on weeknights a half-hour serial and a gothic series similar to Dark Shadows, and on Saturdays a variety program hosted by Charo. The plans for MetroNet fell through when advertisers balked at Metromedia's advertising rate, which was only slightly lower than the Big Three's.

Operation Prime Time

Paramount Television Service

In 1978, Paramount Pictures made tentative plans to launch the Paramount Television Service, a new fourth television network; its programming would have consisted of only one night a week. Thirty Movies of the Week would have followed Star Trek: Phase II on Saturday nights. This plan was aborted when executives decided the venture would cost too much, with no guarantee of profitability. The decision was made to transform Phase II into Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Paramount continued to produce television programs for the Big Three networks.

Fox Network

By 1985, there were 267 independent television stations in the U.S., most of which were small UHF stations. In May 1985, News Corporation paid $1.55 billion to acquire six independent television stations in major U.S. cities from John Kluge's company, Metromedia. In October 1985, 20th Century Fox announced its intentions to form an independent television system which would compete with the three major U.S. television networks. 20th Century-Fox studios would combine with the former Metromedia stations to both produce and distribute programming.

The new Fox network launched in 1986 with 88 affiliates, many of them UHF stations. By 1988, the network was still struggling, and Fox executives considered pulling the plug on the network. However, by 1989 Fox had cracked the top 30 in the Nielsen ratings with The Simpsons, which became the first series from a fourth network to enter the top 30 since the demise of DuMont more than 30 years earlier.

Fox turned a profit by the early 1990s, and in 1996, was even able to lure major affiliates away from CBS. No fourth network had ever been able to lure a Big Three affiliate to its fold before.

References


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