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It's hard to imagine television without commercials, but in the medium's earliest experimental days, TV advertising was actually illegal.

Then on May 2, 1941, the Federal Communications Commission granted commercial licenses to 10 TV stations. Telecasters could, for the first time, charge fees for commercials.

Although commercial activity was still considered experimental in the early 1940s, advertisers started to dip in. Bulova Watch Co. was the first to spring into action.

During a July 1, 1941, Brooklyn Dodgers-Philadelphia Phillies baseball game, WNBT in New York aired what many insiders consider the nation's first official TV commercial. It was short, cheap and seen by just a few thousand people, but it was first.

The spot, called the "Bulova Time Check," flashed a watch on-screen with its second hand ticking, while a voiceover told viewers what time it was.

That first commercial cost Bulova $4 for air charges and $5 for station charges. There were about 4,000 TV sets in the New York area at the time.

The nation's first commercial undertakings were primitive by today's standards.

Fran Lee, a TV spokeswoman for a host of products beginning in the early 1940s, says starring in the early spots was not a glamorous job.

"Nothing was air-conditioned and there were these big, hot lights that made the heat almost unbearable. They used to hang pails of water around to cool the studio off, but it never worked. Here I was trying to sell something while I was dripping sweat and my make-up was running.

"And most of the time," continues the 84-year-old New Yorker, "the cameramen didn't know what they were doing. They were still learning how to use the equipment because it was all so new to everyone."

Even before FCC authorization and before Bulova, advertisers were already in the TV ballpark-literally.

In the summer of 1939, during the first Major League Baseball game ever televised, NBC ran experimental commercials for three sponsors. During a Brooklyn Dodgers-Cincinnati Reds game at Ebbets Field, sports announcer Red Barber delivered live pitches for Procter & Gamble Co., Socony Oil and General Mills products.

All three were radio sponsors of the Dodgers, and as a courtesy were given a free spot between innings of the first televised game.

Mr. Barber made commercial TV history when he donned a gas station attendant's cap and plugged oil, held up a bar of soap, and sliced a banana into a bowl of Wheaties.

Following the event, Variety reported: "It was not a very clear image pictorially, probably due to the overcast skies, but there was sufficient visibility to get a good idea of how commercials may be framed for television."

Ms. Lee recalls doing product "spots"-just like TV commercials-that ran within New York department stores in 1939.

The TV advertising experiments extend back as far as 1930, when some advertisers were attempting to take advantage of the fledgling medium. That year, a Boston TV station, W1XAV, ran a video portion of a CBS radio program, "The Fox Trappers," sponsored by a furrier.

Although the station wasn't paid for the rebroadcast from radio, the general counsel of the Federal Radio Commission ruled that the "commercial" was prohibited. The commission slapped W1XAV with a fine, declaring the nation's "real" first TV commercial illegal.

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