College Football on TV during the Fifties

The first televised college football game occurred during the “experimental” era of television’s broadcasting history, when a game between Fordham University and Waynesburg College was broadcast on September 30, 1939. It was hardly a sophisticated production. Just one camera and one announcer, Bill Stern, one most famous sportscasters of the time. It was a showcase telecast for the attendees of the New York’s World Fair.

One month later on October 23, 1939, Kansas State’s homecoming contest against the University of Nebraska was the second broadcast and first homecoming game to be broadcast on TV. The following season, on October 5, 1940, what is described as the “first commercially televised game” between the University of Maryland and the University of Pennsylvania was broadcast by Philco. Fairly sporadic broadcasts continued throughout World War II.

By 1950, a small number of football schools, including Penn (ABC) and the University of Notre Dame (Dumont), had entered into individual contracts with networks to broadcast their games regionally. ABC paid Penn $150,000 for the right to broadcast its home games during the 1950 season. However, prior to the 1951 season, the NCAA – alarmed by reports that indicated television decreased attendance at games – asserted control and prohibited live broadcasts of games. Although the NCAA successfully forced Penn and Notre Dame to break their contracts, the NCAA suffered withering attacks for its 1951 policy. The NCAA faced threats of antitrust hearings and eventually caved in and lifted blackouts of certain sold-out games. Nonetheless, the first national broadcast of a live college football game, which was also the first coast-to-coast live broadcast of any sports contest, was Duke at the University of Pittsburgh on September 29, 1951 on NBC.

For the 1952 season, the NCAA relented somewhat, but limited telecasts to one nationally broadcast game each week. The NCAA sold the exclusive rights to broadcast the weekly game to NBC for $1,144,000. The deal allowed NBC to select one game a week to broadcast on Saturday afternoons, with the assurance that no other NCAA college football broadcast would appear on a competitive network. The first game shown under this contract was Texas Christian University against the University of Kansas, on September 20, 1952. Kansas defeated TCU 13–0. Bowl games were always outside the control of the NCAA, and the 1952 Rose Bowl was the first national telecast of a college bowl game, on NBC.

In 1953, the NCAA allowed NBC to add what it called “panorama” coverage of multiple regional broadcasts for certain weeks – shifting national viewers to the most interesting game during its telecast. NBC lost the college football contract beginning in 1954. There were some attempts at workarounds during this time frame. ABC Sports ran some Notre Dame Fighting Irish football games in the fall of 1953. The Notre Dame games were condensed and broadcast the night after they were played. NBC regained college football rights in 1955 and aired games through the 1959 season.