To gain the advantage, Sarnoff orchestrated a public-relations masterstroke. Not only did RCA sponsor the World’s Fair Television Pavilion in New York City’s Flushing Meadow, but Sarnoff had also secured the rights to host and broadcast the opening ceremony, on radio and on its newfangled successor. He stocked New York department stores with newly minted RCA models.
The publicity leading up to the big event reinforced the stature of RCA. The New York Times asked Sarnoff to contribute an authoritative essay about the fair in a special section of the newspaper. Life magazine pictured RCA executives huddled around their newest model television, not mentioning that it may have been built illegally. Sarnoff billed the event as the beginning of commercial television broadcasting-a misleading claim, since in 1934 Farnsworth had conducted a 10-day series of broadcasts from Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute. Furthermore, in 1936, the Olympic games were broadcast live from Munich using equipment a German company had built under license from Farnsworth. But only a few dozen people in Germany had TV sets at the time and, since satellites had not yet been invented, the signal didn’t reach other nations.
At a press conference before the opening of the fair, Sarnoff strutted up to the podium, camera flashes bouncing off of his high forehead. “It is with a feeling of humbleness,” Sarnoff began, “that I come to this moment of announcing the birth in this country of a new art so important in its implications that it is bound to affect all society. Now, ladies and gentlemen,” he declared, with a grand flourish, “we add sight to sound!” Then he announced that RCA’s own NBC broadcast network would begin regular television broadcasts live from Radio City Music Hall. Several days later, at the opening ceremony, Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first president to be televised.
The ballyhoo of the event turned Sarnoff’s stunt into an official, historic event. The gathered throngs of media ate it up and reported it far and wide. “Last week, of course, witnessed the official birth of television,” reported The New Yorker. RCA was responsible for bringing us television. This was the new reality that the public perceived.
“We could have sued his pants off,” says Pem Farnsworth. But her husband was hoping to license the rights for producing televisions to RCA at the time. The plan was to maintain closely the patent ownership inside the Farnsworth Company, but to charge RCA and dozens of other companies an ongoing percentage on the sets that they would sell. So as not to disrupt any negotiations, Farnsworth decided to avoid any legal action. And he ended up selling RCA a $1 million license later that year.
During World War II, the U.S. government suspended manufacturing of consumer electronics entirely. But Sarnoff, now dubbed “the General” by Dwight D. Eisenhower in recognition of his wartime assistance, was already marshalling his forces for the expected postwar boom. “He drummed up the marketing bandwagon,” says Magoun. Right after the war, Sarnoff went on the road to convince his NBC radio affiliates to begin airing NBC television programs. Government regulators were trying to keep up, and the FCC forced RCA to divest half its broadcast holdings, leading to the creation of ABC.