After Hours

Geek Trivia: A television original

What was the first dramatic television program ever broadcast, and what stations carried the show?

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In the early days of television, engineers and developers faced a staggering array of technical broadcast problems, not the least of which was a need for broadcasting bandwidth. Early television broadcast signals, which featured far lower resolution and image quality than the 1940s' first commercial versions, required many times the bandwidth of competing radio signals.

This competition is partly to blame for the lack of a VHF Channel 1 on virtually all post-World War II commercial television sets. The original FM frequency designations for TV Channel 1 and early FM radio stations interfered with one another, so the U.S. Federal Communications Commission did away with Channel 1 in the late 1930s.

This change came too late to shift the remaining channel specifications, casting Channel 1 into the dustbin of technological obscurity. Channel 1 later found use by land mobile two-way radio traffic, such as that used by police dispatchers.

Ironically, the first television broadcasts would have been severely lacking without the help of FM radio; the first TV stations depended on partner radio stations to carry the sound for their programs. Such was the case for the first dramatic television program ever broadcast.


What was the first dramatic television program ever broadcast, and what partner television and radio stations carried the separate audio and video components of the show?

The program was a live broadcast of the J. Harley Manners play, "The Queen's Messenger," carried by the experimental television station W2XAD in Schenectady, NY, and the radio station WGY in Albany, NY.

The play debuted as a broadcast on Sept. 11, 1928—more than a decade before the FCC would authorize commercial television broadcasts.

The broadcast involved the use of three cameras that could only show close-ups of the actors' faces or hands due to the restricted features of the technology. To guide the actors' performances, the director viewed their captured images on a tiny three-inch by four-inch screen. While broadcasting, engineers manually cut between live camera images through the use of a crude control box.

"The Queen's Messenger" lasted 40 minutes and was free of commercial interruption—which offers a glimpse of just how far television shows have progressed in the last 75 years.

The television station W2XAD was a research station run by General Electric broadcasting pioneer Ernst F.W. Alexanderson. W2XAD also experimented with regular news broadcasts to the surrounding television community of about four households.

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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