A brief history of TV production in NYC

Chart the rise of New York’s television industry, from the first TV broadcast to the return of The Tonight Show, whose new, Jimmy Fallon–hosted iteration premiered this week

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Photograph: Noah Devereaux

On Monday, when Jimmy Fallon delivered his first Tonight Show monologue from Rockefeller Center, it marked the beginning of a new era in late-night television. But it was also a victory for NYC’s TV industry, as the Big Apple reclaims the iconic program, which moved from Midtown to Burbank, California, more than 40 years ago. In honor of this momentous occasion, take a look back at some of the key moments in New York City’s television history.

  • Photograph: Shutterstock

    1928: Live TV makes its debut

    On August 14, publisher and inventor Hugo Gernsback began experimenting with live television broadcasts on New York City’s WRNY, the radio station he founded to promote his work. He got as far as transmitting silent images before his business, saddled by the costs of the newfangled technology, went bankrupt in early 1929.

  • 1939: NBC begins regularly scheduled broadcasts

    The real history of television as we know it began on April 30, 1939, when NBC launched a regular schedule of broadcasts. First up was the opening of the 1939–40 World’s Fair in Flushing, Queens. The ceremony featured a speech by FDR, making him the first U.S. President to appear on the boob tube.

  • 1941: The TV commercial is born

    Just two years after NBC debuted, television executives wised up to what would become one of the medium’s most game-changing elements: paid advertising. On July 1, 1941, just before a Brooklyn Dodgers game was broadcast live from Ebbets Field, WNBT (now WNBC) turned a test pattern into an advertisement for Bulova…and television commercials were born.

  • Photograph: CBS/Landov

    1952: Guiding Light turns NYC into a soap-opera haven

    After making the transition from radio program to television show, the production of Guiding Light moved to New York City. It remained in Gotham until the show’s cancellation in 2009. The iconic soap opera, which holds the Guinness World Record for longest-running television drama, helped attract a number of other daytime dramas—including the now-defunct All My Children and One Life to Live—to the city.

  • Photograph: courtesy Sesame Workshop

    1969: Sesame Street premieres

    While fans of the show have long argued about how one might actually get to the famed fictional roadway (some say it’s on the Upper West Side, others suggest heading to the East Village), there’s no disputing the date that this groundbreaking children’s show made its TV debut: November 10, 1969. Originally filmed in Manhattan—first at Teletape Studios on the Upper West Side, then at Dick Cavett’s former studio on Ninth Avenue and 55th Street—the program moved its production to Kaufman Astoria Studios in Astoria, Queens, in 1993.

  • Photograph: courtesy NBCU Photo

    1972: The Tonight Show flees to California

    In May 1972, after 18 years of filming in New York City, The Tonight Show—with Johnny Carson as its host—packed up and headed west to Burbank, California. It remained there through Jay Leno’s hosting duties, which began after Carson retired in 1992.

  • Photograph: courtesy NBCU

    1975: Saturday Night Live debuts

    When Lorne Michaels’s late-night sketch-comedy series premiered on October 11, 1975, it was simply known as NBC’s Saturday Night. George Carlin hosted the now-iconic show’s very first episode, with Billy Preston and Janis Ian providing the musical entertainment.

  • Photograph: David Shankbone

    1975: The Museum of Television & Radio opens

    Now known as the Paley Center for Media (the name was changed in 2007 to acknowledge the rise of video and digital), communications executive William S. Paley founded this museum in 1975 to encourage a wider discussion of the cultural and social significance that broadcast technologies play in the world.

  • Photograph: Wikimedia Commons user 'AAK'

    1983: Silvercup Studios opens

    Originally, the Long Island City studio—the city’s largest production facility—was mostly used for music videos and television commercials. But beginning in the 1990s, its primary use shifted to television series, with a number of hits—Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Mad Men and 30 Rock among them—eventually calling Silvercup home.

  • Photograph: Alan Singer/NBCU Pho

    1990: Chung-chung! Law & Order debuts

    Following its premiere on September 13, 1990, Law & Order singlehandedly helped redefine the city’s television production landscape. Over the next 20 years, the show produced 456 episodes—all of them filmed on location throughout the five boroughs—and spawned a handful of spin-offs that helped reinvigorate the local production scene. When the original series closed its final case in 2010, the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting estimated that its run had contributed as much as $1 billion to the city’s economy. (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit still airs on NBC—and still films in Gotham.)

  • Photograph: Time Warner Cable News NY1

    1992: NY1 Launches

    The brainchild of Richard Aurelio, president of Time Warner Cable’s New York City group, NY1 made its debut on September 8, 1992, offering quick summaries of the city’s biggest headlines and, of course, traffic and weather reports. (But it wasn’t until 1997 that New York’s favorite newscaster, Pat Kiernan, joined the team.)

  • Photograph: courtesy Magnolia

    2000: Sex and the City kicks off the cupcake craze

    In a testament to television’s ability to affect real life, a simple act—Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) eating cupcakes and talking about their love lives on the July 9 episode of Sex and the City—kicked off the Magnolia Bakery/cupcake revolution in NYC. Soon after, tour buses started crowding the original Magnolia location’s tiny West Village street, and lines started snaking around the corner.

  • Photograph: Shutterstock

    2011: NYC has a landmark year for TV production

    On August 22, 2011, then-mayor Bloomberg excitedly announced that television production was back in NYC in a big way, with a record number of prime-time series (23) being shot in the area, creating an industry that contributes 100,000 jobs, supports 4,000 local businesses and contributes $5 billion in annual revenue to the local economy.

  • Photograph: Jill Lotenberg

    2013: The first NYC backlot opens in Astoria

    With business booming, the future looks even brighter for New York City’s television production industry. On December 13, the city’s first and only outdoor stage opened at Kaufman Astoria Studios. The 34,800-square-foot space will allow productions to get all of the texture of an authentic NYC backdrop within a secure, controlled environment.

Photograph: Shutterstock

1928: Live TV makes its debut

On August 14, publisher and inventor Hugo Gernsback began experimenting with live television broadcasts on New York City’s WRNY, the radio station he founded to promote his work. He got as far as transmitting silent images before his business, saddled by the costs of the newfangled technology, went bankrupt in early 1929.


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