February 21, 1940…TV’s First Regularly Scheduled News Debuts

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February 21, 1940…TV’s First Regularly Scheduled News Debuts

In a new area, where no one has ever been before, there are many “firsts”, and that applies to television too, but in TV’s case that has to be broken into two parts; the experimental-pre war period and the commercial-post war period.

This event, television’s first regularly scheduled news cast falls into the experimental-pre war period, where on this day in 1940, “Sunoco News With Lowell Thomas” debuted on W2XBS, NBC’s New York station.

In truth, the fifteen minute show done from NBC’s Studio 3H, was a simulcast of his NBC Radio show. It was broadcast only on Wednesdays at 6:45, as this was the day his radio show presented the daily news, plus a weekly summary of the news. Thomas had done a few TV newscasts in 1939 during the World’s Fair as part of RCA’s big effort to introduce the public to television. Even CBS’s W2XAB had tried a few local news casts with Richard Hubble as host.

No one is sure how long this Sunoco News show lasted, as some accounts have it ending in March and some say it ended in June, just before Thomas anchored the first live telecast of a political convention, the 1940 Republican National Convention, which was fed from Philadelphia to W2XBS in New York and on to W2XB in Schenectady.

It seems that the second regularly scheduled news show on NBC was the live, weekly “Esso Television Reporter” from March until May of 1940 hosted by William Spargrove, who narrated off camera. The live Esso program used organ music and on camera was a mix of newswire photos, maps and graphic miniature depictions of news event locations, as on-the-scene film reports were nearly impossible to get because no one had TV news departments.

In 1940, America was not involved in WW II yet, but Europe had been fully engulfed since 1938. As we will see, the war severely curtailed television in every way, but now we move to the commercial era.

Eight days before the July 1, 1941 conversion of W2XBS to WNBT and W2XAB to WCBW, Hitler began Operation Barbarossa which was Germany’s invasion of Russia.

On July 1, 1941, NBC’s first day of commercial broadcasting, from 2 till 5 they broadcast the Dodgers and Phillies baseball game sponsored by Bulova. At 6:45, “Lowell Thomas With The News” was broadcast and sponsored by Sun Oil (Sunoco).

It is not known how long this 15 minute weekly newscast lasted, but is known that Thomas hated being tied to a television studio. He was well known for globe trotting with his radio show, and often did the newscasts from his home, so I suspect it did not last long, which brings us the the next NBC pre war news show.

From July of 1941 till May of 1942, Sam Cuff hosted a weekly news commentary called “Face The War”, but the show ended as RCA and NBC cut television operations down to next to nothing five months after Pearl Harbor. The same was true at CBS.

On February 21, 1944, things started to stir a bit as “The War As It Happens” came to television on a weekly basis, and NBC News has been on the air more-or-less continuously since then.

The photo here shows Thomas in NBC Studio 3H in 1940. -Bobby Ellerbee


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