After years of unpaid experiments, the FCC officially opened up the airwaves to commercial television broadcasting on July 1, 1941.  NBC’s experimental W2XBS in New York City received the first commercial license becoming WNBT. That very same day, at 2:30PM just before a broadcast of a Brooklyn Dodgers – Philadelphia Phillies baseball game, NBC aired the very first television commercial in the world.

That’s the story according to Ad Age, Fortune, Entertainment Weekly, Slate, Adweek, OpenCulture and many more. Even the official Emmy’s site has an image of this very commercial in their write up.

Only one problem – THAT’S NOT THE AD THAT AIRED!!

Here’s a picture of the ad as it was created:

rca_bulova_ad-1

We have corroboration on the design of the advertisement from a piece that ran in Broadcasting Magazine July 14 1941

First Watch Ad

 

Further corroboration comes from Jim Von Schilling’s book, “The Magic Window: American Television, 1939-1953

WNBT aired TV’s first commercial at 2:30PM; i was simply a picture test pattern that had been redesigned into a working clock, ticking off the seconds in front of the TV camera. The sponsor’s name, Bulova, appeared on the clock, which ticked for a full minute at 2:30 and later again that night. Bulova paid four dollars for the afternoon spot and eight dollars for the evening, and afterwards they signed up for thirteen weeks of similar commercials. (page 37)

Okay so a bunch of sites saw a YouTube video claiming to be the first TV ad ever produced and bought it? So what? People make mistakes. I certainly have.

But this mistake sheds light on a common cultural problem – our technological complacency. We live in a world of streaming media and camera phones in every pocket. Recording anything today is trivial.

But that wasn’t the case in 1941. Sure we have lots of films that look great from that era – recording an image onto celluloid film was well established. Recording an electronic television signal however… that was not quite there. The first solution was called Kinescope – and guess what it used? Film.

Kinescope

 

That’s a film camera taking a picture of a TV screen – yeah… the same way kids today record shows off the TV by pointing their phone at the screen. Video Tape as we know it didn’t come about until the early-mid 50s.

So the only way to watch television in 1941 when this first broadcast was made was to watch it live. No record of these early television days exist, at least not the video portion (they did record the audio). Certainly no YouTube video of the first ad exists.

But we’re so ready to believe because these miracles are so common place today that we expect them to have existed forever. There are so many ways technology makes and shapes our lives that we lose sight of where we are in history.

We lose perspective in our complacency.

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