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The Dawn of Television: A Look Back at the Oldest TV Stations

In today‘s age of ultra high definition flat screens, on-demand streaming, and hundreds of digital channels to surf through, it‘s easy to forget that television as we know it is less than a century old. The flickering black-and-white images transmitted by the first experimental TV stations in the late 1920s bore little resemblance to the crisp digital pictures we take for granted today. But those early broadcasts laid the technical and cultural foundation for what has become one of the most influential mediums in modern history.

The First TV Stations Take to the Air

The first television station in the United States is widely considered to be W3XK in Washington D.C., which began broadcasting on July 2, 1928. Owned by Charles Francis Jenkins, a pioneer of early TV technology, W3XK initially transmitted 48-line silhouette images using a mechanical scanning system before upgrading to a 60-line picture in 1929. Though it was the first station to offer regularly scheduled broadcasts to the public, it was hampered by technical limitations and shut down in 1932 amid the Great Depression.[^1]

Other early stations soon followed suit. In New York, RCA launched experimental station W2XBS in 1928, which is now WNBC and holds the record for longest continuously operating station in the country. It achieved several notable firsts, including broadcasting the first televised presidential speech by Herbert Hoover in 1929 and the first NFL game in 1939.[^2]

Out west, Don Lee Broadcasting started experimental station W6XAO in Los Angeles in 1931, which is still on the air today as KCBS-TV. It set a high bar early on, using a 300-line camera to broadcast hour-long programs 6 days a week.[^3]

Station Launch Date Location Current Status
W3XK July 2, 1928 Washington DC Off-air since 1932
W2XBS (WNBC) 1928 New York On-air
W6XAO (KCBS) 1931 Los Angeles On-air
W1XAY 1928 Boston Off-air since 1930
W9XAP 1930 Chicago Off-air since 1933

The Technical Challenges of Early TV

Broadcasting video and audio over the airwaves presented enormous technical hurdles in television‘s early days. The first electromechanical TV systems developed by John Logie Baird and Charles Francis Jenkins in the mid-1920s used spinning discs to scan images into electrical signals, which were then transmitted and reproduced by special receivers. These primitive setups could only generate small, low-resolution pictures at around 30 to 60 lines – a far cry from the 1080 pixel high definition standard of modern HDTVs.[^4]

The shift to all-electronic television systems using cathode ray tubes in the 1930s enabled slightly higher resolutions up to a few hundred lines. Bandwidth was also extremely limited, with most stations only allocated enough spectrum for a single low-quality audio and video channel.

Synchronizing sound and picture was another persistent issue. Many early stations lacked the capability to broadcast audio at all, relying on partnerships with radio stations to provide synchronized sound. The results were often less than seamless. For example, New York station WRNY, which began TV broadcasts in 1928 to complement its radio programming, often had audio that lagged behind the video feed by several seconds.[^5]

Despite these limitations, early stations still managed some remarkable demonstrations of television‘s potential. In 1928, General Electric‘s experimental station W2XAD in Schenectady, NY broadcast the first television drama, "The Queen‘s Messenger."[^6] The following decade saw a string of other milestones:

  • 1936: The BBC begins the world‘s first regular high-definition television service.[^7]
  • 1937: The first ship-to-shore telecast from a liner at sea.[^8]
  • 1939: NBC station W2XBS (now WNBC) airs the first televised professional baseball and football games.[^9]
  • 1940: The first network telecasts through coaxial cable link stations between New York, Philadelphia, and Schenectady.[^10]

Television Comes of Age

The pace of technical advancement accelerated rapidly after World War II. In 1946, there were fewer than 6,000 working TV sets in the U.S. Just 5 years later, nearly 12 million households had a television – almost a third of the country.[^11]

Year TV Households (Millions) % of US Households
1946 0.006 0.02%
1948 0.172 0.4%
1950 3.875 9%
1951 10.32 23.5%
1954 26.0 55.7%
1955 30.7 64.5%
1960 45.75 87.1%

The number of commercial stations grew in lockstep, from a dozen in 1946 to 69 by 1950 and 559 by the end of the decade.[^12] Major technical advances during this period included:

  • Expansion of the VHF band and opening of UHF frequencies to increase the number of available channels
  • Approval of the NTSC color television standard in 1953, with regular color broadcasts beginning in 1954
  • Increases in maximum video resolution from 525 to 625 lines

These developments vastly improved the television experience for viewers and accelerated TV‘s integration into daily life. By 1960, the average American household was tuning in for over 5 hours a day.[^13] Television had arrived as a cultural and economic force to be reckoned with.

Digital Revolution

The switch from analog to digital television in the late 20th and early 21st centuries marked another quantum leap forward in picture and sound quality. The development of high definition digital formats like 720p and 1080i delivered crystal clear images with up to 2 million pixels – over 6 times the resolution of standard definition TV.[^14]

Digital compression technologies like MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 enabled broadcasters to squeeze 4 to 6 standard definition channels or 1 to 2 HDTV channels into the same bandwidth as a single analog channel.[^15] This allowed for an explosion in the number of channels and programming options available. By 2020, the average American household had access to nearly 200 linear channels plus a virtually unlimited library of on-demand streaming content.[^16]

The widespread adoption of broadband internet in the 2000s opened the floodgates to new digital streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube. By 2019, more U.S. households subscribed to a streaming service (69%) than paid for traditional cable or satellite TV (65%).[^17] The line between "television" and digital video had irrevocably blurred.

Looking to the Future

What does the future hold for television? The short answer is more of everything – more channels, more content, more choice, more screens, more interactivity. Advances in digital technologies like 5G wireless networks, virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and cloud computing will enable new immersive and personalized TV experiences that we can scarcely imagine today.

One possibility is "holographic TV" – spatially synced 3D video displays that place the viewer inside a virtual environment they can interact with, enabled by 5G‘s high bandwidth and low latency. Japanese broadcaster NHK has already demonstrated an 8K resolution holographic system, though mainstream adoption is still years away.[^18]

AI will also play a transformative role in the future of TV. Imagine hyper-personalized viewing recommendations, interactive storylines that shape themselves to your preferences, virtual AI characters that converse with you directly through your screen. Big data and machine learning will allow broadcasters and platforms to understand our viewing habits more intimately than ever and tailor their offerings accordingly.[^19]

Self-driving cars and other autonomous vehicles will extend the TV viewing environment far beyond the living room. If you can take your eyes off the road, your daily commute instantly becomes prime viewing time. Automakers are already partnering with content providers to stream video to dashboard screens.[^20]

At the same time, concerns over data privacy, content moderation, and digital addiction will need to be addressed. The more television comes to resemble a two-way mirror into our lives, the greater the potential for abuse and manipulation. Policymakers and industry leaders will be challenged to put proper safeguards in place while still promoting innovation.[^21]

In many ways, the future of TV represents an amplification of the same basic contract that Charles Francis Jenkins struck with his viewers when he flipped the switch on W3XK in 1928 – the promise of a window into a wider world, the thrill of witnessing events and ideas beyond our own experience. The dizzying pace of technological change has made that window infinitely bigger, clearer, and more immersive than Jenkins could have possibly imagined.

But even as the number of pixels multiplies and the number of screens proliferates, the elemental core of television remains the same. It is a tool for transmitting human stories and experiences across space and time. A way to gather disparate individuals into a shared cultural narrative. An imperfect messenger for our collective dreams, fears, and aspirations as a society.

Nearly a century after the first stations crackled and fizzled to life, we‘re still grappling with the implications of that awesome power. If the story of television has taught us anything, it‘s that the unifying force of a new medium is matched only by its capacity to disrupt. As we chart a course through an uncertain digital future, the lessons of TV‘s early pioneers are more relevant than ever. They embraced a fledgling technology and dared to imagine where it might take us. Now it‘s our turn to envision what comes next.

[^1]: Early Television Museum. "Mechanical Television Stations of the 1920‘s and 1930‘s."

[^2]: Library of Congress. "NBC: A Finding Aid to the National Broadcasting Company History Files at the Library of Congress, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division."

[^3]: CBS Television City. "KCBS-TV: A 70-Year Legacy of Excellence."

[^4]: Stephens, Mitchell. "History of Television."

[^5]: Weinstein, David. "WRNY and the Birth of General Television."

[^6]: The Queen‘s Messenger (1928). BFI Screenonline.

[^7]: Alexander, Robert. "The Beginning of Television."

[^8]: RCA ad in Broadcasting, Aug. 15, 1937: 22.

[^9]: Saunders, Tim. "First televised baseball game: Instant replay, radio broadcast also debuted in 1939 college match-up." The Conversation, May 16, 2019,

[^10]: American Experience. "FCC Order."

[^11]: Stein, Cy. "The Rise of Cable Programming." The Washington Post Magazine, April 26, 1987.

[^12]: Sterling, Christopher and John Kittross. "Stay Tuned: A History of American Broadcasting." 3rd Edition, Routledge, 2001, p.575.

[^13]: Cobbett Steinberg, "TV Facts," New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1980.

[^14]: "Digital Television",,

[^15]: "Benefits of Digital Television", Federal Communications Commission, Nov 15, 2017,

[^16]: "Nielsen Estimates 120.6 Million TV Homes in the U.S. for the 2019-2020 TV Season," Sept. 27, 2019, Nielsen,

[^17]: "More U.S. households now subscribe to streaming services than traditional pay TV," March 18, 2019, Cision PR Newswire,

[^18]: Shagrir, Dror. "3 ways 5G will change the TV industry." World Economic Forum, Nov. 13, 2019,

[^19]: Fenton, Neil. "5 Impactful Applications of Artificial Intelligence in the Media and Entertainment Industry." Neilsen, May 21, 2018,

[^20]: Silver, Laura and Emily Vogels. "Screens on wheels: The expand- ing landscape of in-car entertainment." Pew Research Center, Oct. 28, 2019,– on-wheels-the-expanding-landscape-of-in-car-entertainment/

[^21]: Boddy, William. "The Future of Television." Science/Technol-
ogy/Human Values, Fall 1985, 10.4: 53-67.