In the modern era, NBC has split into dozens of niche channels and projects, which swim in every American's video bloodstream like an antibody looking for an infectious idea to latch onto and destroy.
NBC was begun by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), eventually to stand proudly alongside CBS and ABC. This was the reassuring 20th Century, in which everything big had a three-letter abbreviation. There was no torture of terrorists but merely DOD, and RET to the ROK, and welfare was simply HUD and HEW, and even spoke English without an African American accent, LOL. It was a nation where Grandpa still had decades left before discovering that permanent foreign involvement and the welfare state didn't work — and even after he did, he would keep getting checks in the mail from the SSA.
The Golden Age of Wireless
RCA had acquired two radio stations, WJZ in Newark and WEAF in New York City. RCA was perturbed that WEAF had more than three letters, and no less perturbed that no one could listen to both stations at the same time (as people had at most one radio).
At the time, no one wanted to listen to even one radio station, and they did so only because the only alternative was going outdoors and listening to sirens and gunshots. The scientists of the day were experimenting with using radio to send pictures as well as sounds, and RCA management was experimenting with running two businesses without two staffs. "We are starting a network" became a more pleasing posture than, "We are firing all the employees and keeping their pay."
RCA's boardroom looked admiringly at the Nabisco Biscuit Company, the first recursive abbreviation that sowed the ground for GNU (which stands for GNU's Not Unix). But it was nose-tweaking for RCA to pass over "Nabroadco" and name its new network the NBC Broadcasting Corporation, or NBC for short.
Laying off employees proved so lucrative that NBC started buying other stations to have more people to sack. To keep track of its properties and their empty desks, NBC divided them into the Red Network and the Blue Network. The Red Network was financially always in the red, while the Blue Network, with educational and cultural programming, was too blue-blooded to care that it was.
RCA was known as RCA Victor for a brief period following its acquisition of the upstate town of Victor, which is about as far off-Broadway as one can get and still be in New York State. It was here that the company opened America's first stage play revolving around transvestism: Victor, Victrola.
The tin age
No network could be complete without a jingle, and NBC turned to chimpanzees to devise one. A chimp named Bert stumbled on the Second Inversion C-Minor Triad that personified NBC, and did so in under six months of banging on a xylophone, while a counterpart team was still banging away at typewriters to complete even one of the major works of William Shakespeare.
In 1934, with America still mired in the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt thought it would be productive to claim that NBC unfairly forced viewers to choose between two franchises of the same company, which was presumably worse than what came before: having nothing at all. Nine years later, before Nine Old Men, NBC lost out and sold the Blue Network to Edward Noble, an executive who had previously tried to throw the drowning nation a roll of Life Savers. The Blue Network became ABC and the two networks began to engage in the desired, cut-throat competition despite having identical viewpoints and indistinguishable shows.
NBC devised programming to pander to voting blocs; Al Jolson wooed America's blacks, The Great Gildersleeve appealed to Jews, and Fibber McGee was aimed at the political class. Nevertheless, scientists demonstrated at the 1940 World's Fair that they could finally get a picture to appear on TV screens, which up to now were being used only as flower pots and to chock the tires of the family car, and Americans began to switch from radio to television. The Radio Corporation saw — as Radio Shack would not, sixty years later — that the toast was starting to be buttered on the other side, and flipped, creating its own television network.
NBC played to the new scientific invention by bringing TV cameras to baseball and football games in New York City — a feat that carried no small risk, as the most telegenic events during these games was spitting tobacco. A coincident technical feat was distributing the programming upriver to Schenectady, New York — which began the decline of television almost as quickly as it began the decline of Schenectady.
A hallmark of early television on NBC was product placement inside shows, something that is now unthinkable except when you pay $12 to see a movie. The NBC test pattern contained a Bulova watch, with its slogan, "If you wore one of these, you'd be home now" (rather than standing in front of a furniture store, looking at the TV in the window, in order to figure out what time it is). The Sunoco News was a forerunner of the modern Lockheed World News, and soap flakes were behind a broadcast of the risqué Truth or Consequences.
In the first-ever broadcast baseball game, which matched the former franchises of Brooklyn and Schenectady, play-by-play announcer Red Barber became his own pitch man between innings, successively bathing with Ivory Soap, dispensing Mobil high-test in the broadcast booth, and finally pouring himself a bowl of Wheaties and milk and eating a spoonful. This last preceded the top of the fourth inning, and there were two out before he was able to begin describing the plays again. The televised 1947 World Series was a smashing success, as the competitors were the two New York franchises. Baseball has learned from this to make the process so impartial that no one believes that large-market teams are favored.
In 1953, NBC convinced the FCC that viewers brought up on black-and-white television were secretly aching to view television in color — one of many technical advances that would force customers to junk their entire investment. The FCC adopted NBC's specifications, and damned if NBC didn't have color programming ready to go and its competitors did not. Unfortunately, the most compelling television was still baseball players spitting tobacco, which looked no better in glistening brown than it had in dark gray. Nevertheless, NBC billed itself as the "all-color network" and adopted as its logo the peacock — a bird that, even when animated, never spit out its own chaw.
Speaking of peacocks, the network hired Bill Cullen because it decided that The Price Is Right, even though the wardrobe was not. His suit coat may have resembled a test pattern, but unlike NBC's Bulova test pattern, you could not get the correct time of day from it. This innovation would have to wait for the arrival of Flavor Flav.
NBC sells out, literally this time
In 1986, General Electric (GE) bought RCA, because clock-radios and stereos with the RCA logo always sold better than gear from the Happy Ears Electric Company of Taiwan, even if that is who made them. Also, GE always wished it had a three-letter abbreviation because it looked suspicious only having two. RCA would take its place alongside Memorex and Dual as stand-in brands for nondescript Asian electronics. GE's slogan was, "We bring good things to Laos."
NBC returned to its spot beneath the GE umbrella as the network on which GE sponsored game shows on Sunday afternoon, like a real, red-blooded, American corporation. For example, College Bowl with Allen Ludden laid the groundwork for football's modern Bowl Championship Series, except for its curious lack of a game ball.
GE knew that, if it acquired too many media outlets, the anti-trust bureaucracy would force it to divest again. Wisely, GE first purchased the Congress.
Whether it was the sporadic court order to sell stations or entire networks, NBC adopted a left-wing, big-government philosophy at about the same time that ABC and CBS did too. It established a News Division as a more effective way to spew propaganda than have Sgt. Bilko read it.
The first newscast was in 1940, broadcasting from New York City on channel one. Channel one took a direct hit from Japanese kamikaze pilots in the attack that would force the U.S. to join World War II, and the large crater in the broadcast dial has not been repaired to this day. NBC News hired the trustworthy duo of Huntley and Brinkley, who initiated the genre of tag-team leftie bias. Following them was John Chancellor, whose lasting legacy is that the dialect spoken in the northern U.S. is referred to as "John Chancellor English," while the rest of the country speaks Jethro Bodine English, put-near.
NBC News was shocked to find that American viewers did not tune in to see Mr. Chancellor beautifully pronounce English words, so it found its niche as a business in the business of broadcasting anti-business news. The niche has had many memorable moments:
The exploding pick-up truck
In 1993, NBC News broadcast a segment of the investigative show Dateline alleging that General Motors pick-up trucks were unsafe and that their gas tanks could catch fire. Unfortunately, life does not fit neatly within the bounds of a 60-minute news exposé, and NBC reduced the number of re-takes by wiring up the trucks with explosives operated by plungers. Ratings fights were so severe at the time that studio hands used enough explosive to remove an entire wall of Studio 8H, which is now home to Saturday Night Live. This was the famous "fourth wall" and its dynamiting is the reason most modern SNL episodes pan out to show the entire stage as the stars jive about how cool it is to be them.
The Virginia Tech massacre
In 2007, Cho Seung-hui, the author of the Virginia Tech massacre, authored a multimedia presentation and mailed it to NBC News while taking a breather between two bouts of gunning down his fellow students. The package described his anger at the wealthy, though not the point of reacting by shooting the poor. Steve Capus, then president of NBC News, knew that some might call the material pandering sensationalism, but he called it "Must See TV," eventually permitting other networks to air a little of it provided they gave NBC News the credit as the network-of-choice for mass murderers.
The White Hispanic
In 2012, during the administration of Racial Healer Barack Obama, a black prowler and a white vigilante had a close encounter of the dead kind, as the latter was packing heat, and the former came to the gunfight armed only with a large chip on the shoulder. NBC News got the 911 call to police and doctored the tape to make it look that George Zimmerman was not just replying to the dispatcher when he reported Trayvon Martin's race, but volunteered it, out-of-the-black.
In fact, NBC News had a version of the audio that it never ran, in which John Chancellor was exhumed, miked up, and coached to say, "Nigga stole my bike!" — in Mr. Zimmerman's Floridian accent, which the corpse found mortifying.
Taking flak for not taking flak
In 2015, after describing to Stars and Stripes magazine a harrowing 2002 landing in Iraq through machine gun fire as a "personal and life-changing" episode and playing video on the NBC Nightly News, anchorman Brian Williams admitted landing safely in a separate helicopter an hour later. Williams explained that "constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area made me conflate the two."
This is an honest mistake, as it is easy to conflate a night when people are trying to kill you with a night when no one is. Indeed, many veterans who were supply clerks watch non-combat scenes from old war movies "constantly" until believing they were under fire and buy themselves Purple Hearts from the local Army Surplus. The apology mentions the two harrowing nights with troops in the Iraqi desert, which Williams experienced from a luxury hotel suite in Kuwait, though he surely conflated them from memories of long-ago Boy Scout Jamborees.
As media sharks circle blood and do not care whether it is the blood of fellow sharks, journalists sniffed for other conflations in the anchorman's heroic past, such as being caught in the post-Katrina epidemic of dysentery that the New Orleans Department of Health was not aware of. Fox News reporter Geraldo Rivera — his hair still parted unnaturally from the friendly-fire bullet he took from 300 miles away — called it a new low for journalism. Finally, Williams "stepped away" from the anchor chair. He consulted with Hillary Clinton — whose Bosnia firefight whopper is still intact — to decide how many days to lie low before he can respond to further inquiries with her signature sneer, "That's old news!" Finally, NBC News decided on 6 months without pay, and the NBC Nightly News went into re-runs, with no loss of relevancy.
The one that got away
The greatest left-wing scheme ever for NBC News was scooped by CBS. NBC News had used Microsoft Word to manufacture documents under the Texas Air National Guard letterhead to claim that President George W. Bush was of limited intellect and had received special treatment based on family connections — as preposterous as this might sound. But Dan Rather of CBS obtained the documents and worked them into an exposé of his own. NBC News was denied the giddy joy of proclaiming that "the documents are fake, but the story they tell is important." Fortunately, that left many other frauds for NBC News to manufacture.
The Internet age
American capitalism, once it realizes that everyone is marketing the same product, contrives mergers so that there are only three vendors (although sometimes, a reformer is elected, he mostly puts the three out of business, and they are merged into a single competitor that is declared "too big to fail"). However, around 1998, a time known as the "dot-com bust," the television industry went in the opposite direction. The media feces hit the windmill, resulting in small pieces strewn everywhere.
The NBC television network has fragmented into the following offerings:
- NBC, the original network for oldsters who believe that, by just declining to sign up for cable, they will someday be able to find Allen Ludden again. (They are referred to as the "Luddites.")
- CNBC, for fans of NBC News who want business news that is equally anti-business.
- NBC Sports, which recaptures the tobacco-spitting patina of televised sports during an era in which most leagues won't let their athletes bring tobacco into the stadium and are agitating against bubble gum as well.
- Telemundo, for Latinos who "love America too much to learn its language," as Jeb Bush would put it.
The world will never return to having only three networks. Marshall McLuhan famously said that every American will be his own network for fifteen minutes or so (though perhaps with as few viewers as MSNBC), until he gets acquired by a huge media corporation, or until he takes a close look at the script he is supposed to read and storms off the set.
NBC is now owned by NBCUniversal, which in turn is owned by ComCast, a media conglomerate LovedByTheAmericanPeople, because its cable bills are low and understandable and its advertising is so honest that none of it has to be followed by thirty seconds of legalistic disclaimers. One can only imagine how history would have unfolded if NBC had always been subject to the truth-in-advertising laws. Good night, Chet. Good night, David.