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Metromedia and DuMont

Overview

This profile considers Metromedia, John Kluge and US DuMont network.


It covers -

  • DuMont and Metropolitan
  • Metromedia
  • Kluge after the Fox sale
  • studies

DuMont and Metropolitan

The DuMont television network in the US was established by scientist and manufacturer Allen Balcom DuMont (1901-1965).

After graduate study DuMont - unrelated to the German DuMont Schauberg publishing group - had worked for Westinghouse Lamp and (from 1928) for Lee de Forest, initially in management of radio valves and subsequently in research into television, with notable improvements to the cathode ray tube technologies (reflected in work for the US military during the 1939-45 War on radar systems). DuMont established DuMont Laboratories when De Forest sold out to Sarnoff's RCA in 1930. In 1938 he launched what's been claimed as the first all-electronic television set sold to the public, beating RCA to the market but enjoying less success because of smaller resources. At that time he sold 50% of DuMont to Paramount Pictures, the studio, distribution and exhibition group.

In 1945 he established what in practice was the first US television network, linking his New York station WABD (Allen Balcom DuMont) to Washington station WTTG and WDTV Pittsburgh. Paramount independently operated two stations.

DuMont lacked the financial support and political clout of the dominant radio networks. Broadcast regulator the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) restricted DuMont from acquiring two additional stations - which would have taken it to then maximum number - by ruling that the Paramount stations formed part of the network.

DuMont's regulatory problems were complicated by the 1949 US Department of Justice order for the major Hollywood studios to spin off their cinema operations, with Paramount (subsequently a major component of the Viacom conglomerate), establishing United Paramount Theatres (UPT) as the vehicle for its cinemas. To comply with DOJ requirements UPT had to sell some assets and was thus sufficiently cashed-up to acquire the ABC network. ABC was intially established during the 1920s as the second radio network - the so-called Blue Network - of the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC).

Changing rules during the 1950s saw DuMont expand to seven stations, albeit with sale of WDTV to Westinghouse in 1956 for US$9.75 million. The DuMont network was separated from DuMont Labs and rebadged as the Metropolitan Network in 1955. In the following year it was acquired by John Kluge and associates. DuMont's manufacturing operations struggled during the rest of the decade, with its television receiver and audio hifi operations being acquired by Emerson Radio & Phonograph in 1958 and its oscilloscope and CRT manufacturing arm being absorbed by Fairchild in 1960.

Kluge and Metromedia

John Kluge (born 1914) migrated to the US from Germany in 1922, gained degrees from Columbia and other universities and served in US military intelligence during the 1939-45 war. While building a sizeable business broking supplies for supermarket chains he'd begun accumulating a radio network through stakes in small groups and individual stations on the US east coast. In 1956 he took control of Metropolitan, building on an earlier stake and buying out Allan DuMont for US$7m.

The Metropolitan network was subsequently renamed Metromedia and expanded through acquisition of independent stations, primarily relaying programming from the three dominant broadcasters rather than creating original content. In 1959 Metromedia acquired US billboard giant Foster & Kleiser, subsequently greatly expanded before sale to a GE Capital unit in 1986.

By that stake Kluge had begun to make major investments in mobile phone networks and long distance networks (notably in LDDS, the precursor of WorldCom). In 1984 he bought out the other shareholders in Metromedia. Two years later he sold Metromedia's stations to Rupert Murdoch's News group; with the Twentieth Century stations they formed the basis of the new Fox network. The sale reflected failure of efforts to establish Metromedia as a credible fourth network alongside ABC, NBC and CBS, perhaps unsurprising given relentless emphasis on cutting costs and apparently endless sitcom re-runs.

That failure was offset by acquisitions of sports and theatrical operations (eg the Harlem Globetrotters and Ice Capades), Playbill magazine, music publishing companies, television syndication operations and direct mail operations.

Kluge after the Fox sale

Kluge retained the Metromedia name, gaining control of Orion Pictures (a Hollywood 'mini-major' that included a major film library, Motion Picture Corp of America, the Samuel Goldwyn Company and cinema operator Landmark Theatre Group). He progressively sold his mobile phone networks, for around US$4.5bn, while continuing to collect miscellaneous assets (eg the Ponderosa Steakhouse, Bonanza, Bennigan's Irish American Grill & Tavern and Steak & Ale restaurant chains) and build his long distance telecommunication networks. By 1993 he headed the fourth-largest US long distance network, selling his stake in what had become WorldCom in 1996 for around US$1.2bn. (WorldCom's subsequent collapse is discussed on the Caslon Analytics site.)

He retained and expanded US telecoms backbone group Metromedia Fiber Network - which like WorldCom and Global Crossing was devastated by the dot-com and telco crash at the end of the decade - and expanded into broadcasting, cable tv and telecommunications in Eastern Europe and China through Metromedia International Telecommunications (MIT) and Actava Group.

In 1995 Kluge had bundled Actava, Orion Pictures, MCEG Sterling and MIT into Metromedia International Group Inc (MIG). It has been progressively selling major assets. Orion and other film operations for example went to MGM for US$573m in 1997, the group's soccer team was unloaded in 2001 and the Russian telco went in 2002. Kluge's personal worth, despite a high-profile divorce and losses, was estimated in 2003 at around US$10bn.

Studies

There has been no major biography of Kluge and academic study of the various Metromedias is at best patchy; much of the early writing about Kluge's activity in telecommunications is overly triumphalist.

Gary Hess' important An Historical Study of the DuMont Television Network (New York: Ayer 1979) reflects its origin as a doctoral thesis. A more recent view is The Forgotten Network: DuMont and the Birth of American Television (Philadelphia: Temple Uni Press 2004) by David Weinstein, supplemented by The DuMont Television Network: What Happened? (Lanham: Scarecrow Press 2002) by Ted Bergmann & Ira Skutch.

For context we recommend David Halberstam's The Fifties (New York: Villard 1994), Jeff Kisseloff's The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1920-1961 (New York: Viking 1995) and Erik Barnouw's A History of Broadcasting in the United States (New York: Oxford Uni Press 1966). Regulatory challenges are highlighted in James Baughman's excellent Television's Guardians: The FCC & the Politics of Programming, 1958-1967 (Knoxville: Uni of Tennessee Press 1985), Misregulating Television: Network Dominance and the FCC (Chicago: Uni of Chicago Press 1984) edited by Stanley Besen and Relucant Regulators: The FCC & the Broadcast Audience (Reading: Addison-Wesley 1978) by Barry Cole & Mal Oettinger.

The DuMont network is commemorated on several memorial sites (eg site), although most have an antiquarian focus on specific programs or performers such as Jackie Gleason. Some DuMont corporate archives are now held by the Library of Congress.

Ken Auletta's Three Blind Mice: How The Television Networks Lost Their Way (New York: Random House 1991) extends the account in David Halberstam's The Powers That Be (New York: Knopf 1979) about the three major US networks and papers such as the Washington Post in the 1970s to the early 1990s. Mice is richer than Auletta's disappointing The Highwaymen - Warriors of the Information Superhighway (New York: Random House 1997).

For Kluge's mobile phone activity see in particular Wireless Nation: The Frenzied Launch of the Cellular Revolution in America (New York: Perseus 2002) by James Murray, Anytime, Anywhere: Entrepreheurship and the Creation of a Wireless World (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 2002) by Louis Galambos, Big Deal (New York: Warner 1998) by Bruce Wasserstein and Money from Thin Air: The Story of Craig McCaw, the Visionary who Invented the Cell Phone Industry, and His Next Billion-Dollar Idea (New York: Crown 2000) by O Casey Corr.

James Baughman's 'The Weakest Chain & the Strongest Link: The American Broadcasting Company & the Motion Picture Industry 1952-60' in Hollywood In The Age of Television (Boston: Unwin Hyman 1990) edited by Tino Balio is concise and lucid. For the following decade see Les Brown's Television: The Business Behind the Box (New York: Harcourt Brace 1971).