How were network television programs distributed in the early days of television?

From what I understand, nowadays local television stations receive their programming from the network they’re affiliated with via a satellite link. But television networks existed before there were communication satellites (and radio networks before that). So local stations must have gotten their national programming some other way back then.

Starting in the late 1950s, the technology existed to pre-record television shows on tape existed. Did CBS send out tapes of the latest episode of Leave it to Beaver to all their affiliates? Although physically distributing tapes wouldn’t work for live TV, and prior to that era literally all television was live. I imagine TV programming was more local in the live era, but I’m almost certain there were national TV broadcasts, and national radio broadcasts before that (FDR’s “fireside chats” being a prime example). So I’m guessing there would have had to have been a system of transmitters and repeaters in order to get the programming to the entire country.

Wikipedia has a good short history on this.

Basically, AT&T improved on telephone transmission lines by inventing a multi-layer co-axial cable. It was first used in 1941, but the war prevented real inter-city networks. The connections increased from two cities in 1946 to coast-to-coast transmissions that also included microwave repeater stations in 1951.

Many cities were still not connected. Those got network shows via kinescope. The system pointed a film camera at a television monitor. The resulting images were not high quality but were as easily shipped as regular movies. Most of what has been preserved from early tv actually comes from surviving kinescopes.

I Love Lucy is credited with being the first show to be filmed, since Lucy and Desi didn’t want to leave Hollywood. They started doing so in 1951 using three 35mm cameras, making their show the highest quality available. Other shows soon followed. Ampex introduced the 2" video tape VCR in 1963 and that superseded film as the standard for recording shows.

I don’t know exactly when every city got a co-ax connection, but all major cities certainly had one by the mid-1950s.

Exapno_Mapcase gave a very succinct answer which would handle most circumstances. The exception might be when one TV station carried programming from more than one network, a not unusual occurrence in many markets, even into the 1960s. A station I worked for carried programming from CBS, NBC, ABC and DuMont (before that network folded.) It was a primary CBS affiliate and a secondary NBC affiliate and would often switch back and forth between the two in prime time, when feasible, to carry programs as they were broadcast by both networks. They carried no ABC programming “live,” but instead ABC would send them programming on film, which they would air whenever they had time, usually in the 7pm slot on weeknights and just about any time on weekends. Thus, they could pick and choose all the best programs from all the networks. They were the only VHF station in the market and the UHFs were all pretty low powered, so The Big Three would always give them preference.

They had on file all their program grids going back to the 1950s. An example of how this worked would be a typical Sunday night in 1961. They would carry Disney’s Wonderful World of Color from NBC at 6:30pm (before the actual network broadcast), then switch to CBS for Dennis the Menace at 7:30 and Ed Sullivan at 8. Then back to NBC for Bonanza at 9, and CBS again at 10 for Candid Camera and What’s My Line. It was a lineup of the best TV had to offer on that night.

They had it made until 1962, when circumstances dictated that they had to choose one network. Having invested tons of money in color equipment, they went with NBC. Neither CBS nor ABC were offering much color programming at that time.

The kinescopes were terrible quality (compare this kinescope from 1952 with any random episode of the filmed I Love Lucy) but the TV’s themselves often had pretty questionable video quality, so the end result sometimes didn’t look much worse.

Another method, used primarily for syndicated programming, was for Station A to show the film (or later, videotape) and literally send it (via UPS or even mail) to Station B, who would then send it to Station C and so on. In the industry it was called “bicycling” and was especially popular with the cheap movie packages stations used to play in the afternoons. Since it didn’t much matter in what order the stations showed the episodes, a syndicator could make one copy each of a package of shows, send a different episode to each subscribing station, and in a week or two every station would have received a copy of every rotten movie, chain-letter style.

As XOldiesJock implied, station schedules were a lot more “flexible” in the olden times. It wasn’t unheard of for a smaller station to carry over a Sunday prime-time show to, e.g., 6:00 p.m. on Monday.

ETA: In cases like the evening news, where time was essential, the local station would make a kinescope of the show from the network monitor, then develop it like regular film (almost every station had the ability to develop and show film) and then broadcast it as soon as it came out. That’s how a West Coast station broadcast news from New York (which showed up on their monitors in mid-afternoon.)

It was more difficult internationally. There was great excitement when the BBC first managed to get live TV across the Channel and broadcast from Calais in 1950. By the time of the Coronation in 1953, for it to be shown in North America they had to rely on flying film over in the fastest warplanes.

And then there was the problem of accepting feeds from other countries’ own broadcasts, since in Europe there were at least three different technical standards to convert between.

Both problems led to the development of the European Broadcasting Union, and that’s why we have the Eurovision Song Contest: they wanted something other than big sports events and disaster news to show.

It wasn’t till the 60s that satellite communications came along - oh the excitement waiting for the first broadcast live between the UK and the US:.

As I recall, it was 1967 when they had the first live around-the-world rolling programme.

I recall sometime around 1964 or 1965 ad spots where it was a big deal when the North American networks could announce “for the first time…live via satellite” for news from Europe. they made a big deal about how it was new technology.

What I do wonder is who collects all that back TV magic. Does someone have every episode of Lawrence Welk or As the World Turns or My Mother the Car hiding in a vault somewhere? When someone becomes famous, we see obscure news footage or their early acting career in highlight moments from decades ago. Whose job is it to keep these archives?

(I vaguely recall some news about a fire in one movie vault a while ago…)

As a big fan of TV history, and I Love Lucy as a particular exemplar of that wonderful era of the 50s, I concur with the above with a couple of nitpicks and additional info.

The first Ampex videotape recorder (VTR, not VCR) was actually first introduced on March 14, 1956, at the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters in Chicago, to great applause from the audience when a live speech given by an Ampex executive was – seemingly miraculously – played back on TV screens minutes later.

Lucy and Desi indeed did not want to leave Hollywood. The CBS plan was to produce the show in New York, broadcast it live to the large eastern US audience, then use lower-quality kinescopes for the western area. The reverse just didn’t work, so Lucy and Desi – in an inspired bit of business acumen – offered to fund the extra cost of filming out of their own salaries so they could stay in Hollywood, provided that they retained syndication rights to the films. CBS readily agreed, because at the time, they considered sitcom reruns in syndication to have virtually no value. So I Love Lucy, in addition to becoming one of the most watched television shows of all time during its initial run, also become the most widely syndicated. It was one of many reasons that Lucy and Desi and their Desilu enterprise became Hollywood icons.

Jackie Gleason also enshrined some of The Honeymooners episodes in television history, using something called the Dumont Electrocam TV-Film system – cameras that captured TV images for live transmission while simultaneously recording on film. These Electrocam filmed episodes survive today as the “Classic 39” – 39 episodes that exist in film quality.

Presumably the production or broadcasting company keeps an archive. How clips and programmes then get into unofficial media like YouTube is another question - but in general, you name it, and somewhere there may well be a nerdy obsessive collector of it.

I do know there are periodic laments that the BBC wiped or recorded over various items people now recall as classics. But they have a huge set of archives.

In the early days of videotape, not only the videotape machines but the huge tape reels themselves were very expensive. It’s surprising how much was in fact wiped out just to be able to re-use the expensive tapes. There was also disdain for the idea that “reruns” would have any value, until the syndication of I Love Lucy episodes proved the conventional wisdom so very, very wrong.

I was still managing tape bicycling for some programs while interning at a Connecticut Public Television station in 1985 though by that time, we also had satellite distribution and part of my job was to set up the recording schedule for the engineers - they would typically have 2-3 options to capture the shows we wanted but we only had one recorder so we had to juggle.

Those 2 inch video tapes were surprisingly heavy - I dropped one on my toe once, and lost the nail.

Johnny Carson used to lament that the main archive of his early Tonight Shows was dumped at one point leaving only a few scattered copies left. Some NBC exec saw the cost of storage and that was that.

The later ones are still airing on an oldies channel and still making money.

Oh yes, it was commonplace, in the days of very few channels, to dismiss something as “just a repeat” or say “There’s nothing on, it’s all repeats”. But now there are plenty of channels whose strength is repeated archive stuff (well, some of it - I’ve been glad of the opportunity to see series I never saw first time around mumblety-odd years ago, but skip over endless Murder She Wrote or Judge Judy).

“There’s nothing on, it’s all repeats” was said in response to a somewhat different situation - there have been reruns showing in syndication in the US for as long as I can remember but the “it’s all repeats” wasn’t about those re-reruns shown outside of “primetime” on local stations ( such as I Love Lucy reruns on weekday morning in the 70s) nor was it about showing the same episode multiple times during a week, which was common with public broadcasting stations. The dismissal of repeats happened when a network show started airing repeats during the normal time slot , such as in the summer or between sweeps periods, so that there were no new episodes of a current , prime-time program between mid-December and mid-January.

Yes, VTR and the first program that used it also appeared in 1956. But not until Ampex introduced the 2 inch helical VTR that it became the broadcasting standard and led to the home VCR.

In the early days, recordings of television were less than worthless: they had negative value. Kinescopes and the later tapes piled up in enormous numbers, taking up enormous amounts of space and needing care, sorting, and labeling. For what? Television was considered as ephemeral as radio. Who wanted to watch a program twice? Especially since early programs were low-quality in production values, camera work, scripts, and, often, actors. Kinescopes made the quality worse, and televisions barely got good pictures when showing live broadcasts. Some marketing genius saw they could fill the 13 weeks of summer vacation with reruns of old shows, but only a few were worth the bother. And even if more were, you physically couldn’t squeeze 39 weeks of programming into 13. Many smaller cities still had fewer than three channels throughout the 50s. If something cost money rather than making it, executives knew exactly what to do: dump it.

And so they did. Most of early television is gone forever. The rest got saved because of fanboys. Literally. Like movie buffs who collected 16 mm prints of old movies, television-crazy fans started scrouging for kinescopes, and later tapes, of tv shows just because. Kinescopes could be shown on the same equipment as 16 mm movies. A few rich buffs had the money for 35 mm projectors. Both movies and tapes could be duplicated and traded to other fans for their unique treasures.

Just as movies had to be made for thousands of theaters so they were potentially everywhere, tv shows had to be made for hundreds of stations. Some stations saved some stuff for some reasons. The collectors went looking for anything they could beg, borrow, or steal. The stars helped. A few of them wanted everything their face had appeared in and got copies along with the stations. VCRs made the work easier. Monty Python literally bought up all the tapes of Flying Circus when they learned the BBC was about to dump them.

Today, collecting is an industry, pretty much as book collecting is. Just as there are libraries, there are now museums for preserving old tv. Google lists the big ones. The Library of Congress has a huge collection. The Internet Archive has over 2 million modern clips. Some Southern college my mind is blanking on has been taping every network news program for the past several decades and makes them available back to the networks and to historians and documentary filmmakers. Dozens of good smaller museums are findable all over the country, like the Early Television Organization in Ohio.

Similar organizations exist in most every country today. Some programs were sent over in English to be dubbed or closed captioned, so finds are always being made of shows unavailable in the U.S. but still in Argentina or somewhere.

No doubt a few attics or vaults or personal collections of the stars have stuff that have never been known publicly.

Paradoxically, we live in an era where far more is findable of early television than was available to any individual viewer in 1950, before the networks were completed.

Shout out for the Museum of Television in Toronto! It concentrates on the hardware: television receivers and such.

Bonanza was mailed to TV stations on the above mentioned color Ampex video tape.

I’ve sometimes wondered if TV series that may have lasted one season or less still exist on film in enormous warehouses. Who would want to pay to store (or even watch) a series that was a stiff 30, 40, 50 or more years ago? Like, for instance, “Camp Runamuck,” a sitcom that last 26 episodes on NBC in the 1965-66 season.

Apparently, shows like that are stored somewhere. You can watch it on Crackle.

Shows that lasted a full season are easy to find. There are ten times as many that lasted a half-season or less that are the ghosts.

I actually remember Camp Runamuck, because Nickelodeon aired reruns of it for a brief time in the 1980s (probably for the same amount of time it aired on NBC. So it must have existed somewhere.