National Broadcasting Company

by James Snyder
Last updated 2/21/04

The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) was founded in 1926 by the Radio Corporation of America, better known as RCA , and is currently owned by General Electric . NBC was created as the holding company for the assets acquired when RCA purchased the AT&T WEAF network and merged it with RCA’s WJZ network.  The NBC radio network formally opened with 24 stations on November 15 , 1926 with WEAF as its originating station.  NBC created two networks in 1927: the NBC Red network from the AT&T WEAF network assets and affiliates, and the NBC Blue network from the RCA WJZ network assets and affiliates.

NBC was created when RCA purchased radio stations WEAF New York, WCAP Washington, DC and the radio programming network from American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) in 1926 and merged those assets with its own WJZ New York, WRC Washington and radio programming network. The WEAF stations and network would become known as the NBC Red network, the WJZ stations and network would be dubbed the NBC Blue network (later to become ABC, the American Broadcasting Company ).

The WEAF network was created by the American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T) in 1921 to serve as a research and development for technologies involved with transmitting audio over wire and radio. AT&T's Western Electric division manufactured radio transmitters and antennas and needed a real-world environment to test their design and ability to transmit audio. AT&T's long distance and local Bell operating divisions were developing technologies for transmitting voice and music grade audio over short and long distances, via both wireless and wired methods. These effort came together to create radio station WEAF in New York City.

With a radio station broadcasting to the public, programming was needed. WEAF put together a regular schedule of programs of all types, and created some of the first broadcasts to encorporate commercial endorsements or sponsorships by commercial entities. The station met with great success, and with the opening of radio stations across the United States many stations wished to share programming. WEAF's first efforts in what would become known first as "chain broadcasting" and later as "networking" tied together The Outlet Company's WJAR in Providence, Rhode Island with AT&T's WEAF and WCAP in Washington, DC (named for the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company division of AT&T). With the success of this effort and the good audio quality of AT&T's phone line circuits, the WEAF network became a success.

At the same time, RCA was beginning to realize that sharing programming on stations in different cities also made sense. RCA licensed WRC in Washington, DC in 1923 and attempted to transmit audio between cities via low-quality telegraph lines, since AT&T refused outside companies access to their high-quality phone lines. The effort was poor at best, with the uninsulated telegraph lines incapable of good audio transmission quality and very succeptable to both atmospheric and man-made electrical interference.

In 1925 the management of AT&T decided that WEAF and its network were not compatible with AT&T's goal of providing universal phone service and began looking to sell the station and its network. AT&T found a ready buyer in RCA, whose primary business was radio broadcasting and manufacturing.  AT&T already had a relationship with RCA as well, since the RCA was created to hold many of the radio patents of AT&T, Westinghouse Electric, General Electric, and the American Marconi assets seized by the U.S. Navy in World War I.  A deal was struck where RCA would buy WEAF and gain the rights to rent AT&T's phone lines to transmit radio programs between cities.

In 1926 RCA bought WEAF, closed WCAP, created the wholly-owned division called the National Broadcasting Company and operated the New York stations and the two network efforts side by side for about a year. In 1927 NBC formally created two radio networks, the NBC Red Network with WEAF as its originating station distributing mostly entertainment and music programming; and the NBC Blue Network with WJZ as its originating station and concentrating on news and cultural programming.

Legend has it that the color designations originated from the color of the push pins the engineers at AT&T used to designate the affiliates of WEAF (red push pins) and RCA's WJZ (blue push pins). At various times in the 1930s there were several other color designation, with the NBC White, Gold and Orange networks operating in various configuration of the west coast.

The famous 3-note chimes of NBC came about after several years of trying different musical note combinations. The three note combination (G-E-C; not related at all to RCA's original stockholder General Electric)came from WSB in Atlanta, which used it for its own purposes until one day someone at NBC in New York heard the WSB version of the notes and asked permission to use it on the national network. NBC started to use the 3 notes in 1933, and it was the first ever audio trademark to be accepted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

NBC became the primary tenant in the brand new Rockefeller Center project in 1936. It would serve to consolidate radio operations, some RCA corporate operations, and the home of the flagship theatres of RCA-owned RKO Radio Pictures in the Radio City Music Hall of the RKO Roxie theatre (since torn down).    The entire complex of buildings RCA rented would be dubbed “Radio City” in honor of RCA and its NBC operations.

From its creation in 1934, the Federal Communications Commission had been studying the monopolistic effects of chain broadcasting (which is now called "networking") on the radio industry, and found that the NBC Red and Blue networks and their owned-and-operated radio stations owned by NBC controlled the majority of radio audiences, radio affiliates and advertising dollars in the American radio industry. In 1939 the FCC ordered RCA to divest itself of one of the two NBC networks and accompanying owned-and-operated stations. RCA fought the divestiture order, but divided NBC into two companies in 1940 in case the appeals were lost. The NBC Blue network became the "NBC Blue Network, Inc." and the NBC Red Network becoming the "NBC Red Network, Inc."

With the loss of the final appeal before the United States Supreme Court, RCA sold the NBC Blue Network, Inc. to Lifesavers magnate Edward J. Noble in 1943. He renamed the company "The Blue Network, Inc." but quickly realized that the name was not appropriate for a major radio network. After acquiring the rights to the name "the American Broadcasting Company " from broadcaster George Storer in 1946, the Blue Network, Inc. become the American Broadcasting Company. The NBC Red Network was renamed the NBC Radio Network after the Blue network was sold.

NBC entered the infant television industry at its very start, since parent RCA was deeply involved in the development of visual broadcasting.  The first station was W2XBS in New York City, operating from the top of the Empire State Building.  NBC’s experimental television broadcasts would grow to include W3XNB Washington, DC, W9NBQ Chicago, and W6NBT Los Angeles.  W2XBS would become WNBT-TV channel 2 on July 1, 1941 when the Federal Communications Commission licensed the first Commercial Television Broadcasting Licenses to NBC for WNBT, General Electric’s WGY radio for WRGB-TV Schenectady and CBS’ WCBW channel 1 New York City.  W3XNB would become WNBW-TV when licensed on July x, 1948 and WRC-TV in 1956.  W9NBQ would become WNBQ(TV) in 1948, and then WMAQ-TV in 195x.  W6NBT become KRCA Los Angeles in 194x and then KNBC-TV in 195x.

With the rise of cable television in the 1970s, NBC began to consider moving into cable content ownership.  It entered the fraw with the Consumer News & Business Channel (CNBC) in 1986, then would add MSNBC in 199x as a partnership of NBC and the Microsoft Corporation.  NBC would purchase Bravo from Rainbow Entertainment in 2003, and  added the Sci-Fi Channel and USA Network in 2004 with the acquisition of the cable assets of VUE.

Since General Electric's acquisition of RCA, NBC has been owned by General Electric . The NBC Radio Network name and logo was sold by General Electric in 1988 to Westwood One . While the chimes and an hourly newscast still appear on radio at certain times on weekdays, the NBC Radio Network as a programming service ceased to exist in 1989 and simply became a marketing brand name for programming produced by Westwood One.

In 1992 Westwood One would come under the control of Infinity Broadcasting, the radio arm of CBS.  It is no small irony that the NBC name would come under the control of the company NBC nearly put out of business in the 1930s and which served as the basis of a fierce competition between CBS-founder William Paley and RCA Chairman David Sarnoff until Sarnoff died in 1971.

NBC is moving into a new era in its existence with General Electric’s acquisition of the Universal assets of the French company Vivendi-Universal.  With the addition of Vivendi-Universal Entertainment (VUE), NBC now controls Universal Studios, Universal Television, the Sci-Fi Channel and USA Network cable channels and an extensive television syndication arm.