Televising Professional Football in The Fifties

In 1939, NBC was the first network to televise a pro football game, the contest between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Brooklyn Football Dodgers. Using two cameras and about eight staffers, NBC broadcast the game to the roughly 1,000 TV sets in New York City at the time and to displays in the RCA Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. Regular broadcasts of games began after World War II, and the first NFL championship to be televised was the 1948 match between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Chicago Cardinals. In 1950, the Los Angeles Rams became the first team in the National Football League to arrange for all its games — both home and away — to be televised on the Dumont network. DuMont paid $75,000 for the rights to broadcast the games. Peter Kerr of the New York Times wrote, “Relatively few people in the early 1950s knew or cared about professional football.” They did not care until the DuMont network began televising New York Giants games in 1952. The next year the network expanded to covering other NFL teams on a weekly basis. (Sarmento, p.16.)

In 1950, the Los Angeles Rams and the Washington Redskins became the first NFL teams to have all of their games—home and away—televised. In the same year, other teams made deals to have selected games telecast. Locally and regionally televised games were broadcast as early as 1939, but on December 23, 1951, DuMont televised the first ever live, coast-to-coast professional football game, the NFL Championship Game between the Los Angeles Rams and Cleveland Browns. DuMont paid $75,000 for the rights to broadcast the game.

In 1952, DuMont only aired New York Giants games before moving to a more national scope the following season. During the 1953 and 1954 seasons, DuMont broadcast Saturday night NFL games. It was the first time that National Football League games were televised live, coast-to-coast, in prime time, for the entire season. Several of the games in 1953 and 1954 originated in New York (Giants), Pittsburgh (Steelers), or Washington (Redskins). All three of these cities had DuMont operations. In 1953, DuMont televised a Thanksgiving NFL game between the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers for the first time.

DuMont proved to be a less than ideal choice for a national broadcaster. The network had only eighteen primary affiliates in 1954, which was dwarfed by the 120 available to NBC. By 1955, the DuMont network was beginning to crumble. For instance, in 1955, NBC replaced DuMont as the network for the NFL Championship Game, paying a rights fee of $100,000. ABC acquired the rights to the Thanksgiving game. Meanwhile, most teams (other than the Giants, Eagles and Steelers, who received regionalized coverage from DuMont) were left to fend for themselves in terms of TV coverage.

DuMont ceased most programs in early April 1955, but still broadcast some sports events (a Monday-night boxing show and the 1955 NFL season). Prior to the 1956 NFL season, DuMont sold its broadcast rights to CBS. By 1955, NBC became the television home to the NFL Championship Game, paying $100,000 to the league for the rights. CBS’ NFL coverage began on September 30, 1956. Both NBC and CBS passed on the rights to the 1957 championship game. ABC apparently considered televising the game, but could not gain enough clearance of affiliates to make a telecast feasible. So for the third straight year, there was no telecast.

CBS’s first attempts to broadcast the NFL on television were notable for there being no broadcasting contract with the league as a whole. Instead, CBS had to strike deals with individual teams to broadcast games into the teams’ own markets, many of which CBS had purchased from DuMont. Often the games would be broadcast with “split audio” – that is, a game between two franchises would have the same picture in both teams’ “networks” with each team’s announcers, usually those working in their home markets.

The 1958 NFL Championship Game, played at Yankee Stadium, between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants went into sudden death overtime. This game, since known as the “Greatest Game Ever Played,” was seen by many throughout the country and is credited with increasing the popularity of professional football in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

From 1956 to 1959, the Baltimore Colts, Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles only had their away games telecast on CBS. When these three played at home, there was no need for the usage of split audio. Instead, the away team’s telecasts were produced in a simple singular audio-video feed. In 1959, 1960 and 1961, NBC had the rights to televise Colts and Steelers home games. While the game broadcasts were blacked out (as per NFL policy) in those cities, they were available to other NBC-affiliated stations.

The Chicago Bears and Chicago Cardinals only produced home telecasts for their vast network. Because of this, if the Bears played the Colts in Baltimore or the Cardinals visited Forbes Field to play the Steelers during this period, it was likely that the games were not televised by CBS (although from 1959 to 1961, they might have been shown by NBC). Meanwhile, the Cleveland Browns had their own network, part of Sports Network Incorporated (SNI) and Carling Beer.

By 1959, big-market teams such as the Bears and Giants had all their games televised, but small-market ones like the Packers and 49ers still did not. Upon becoming NFL commissioner, Pete Rozelle worked to ensure that every team got all its games on TV.