Network Daytime Programming
If an intent of the networks had been to develop profitable daytime schedules, by the end of 1954 the goal had been realized—at least at CBS and NBC. By that date 35.2 percent of CBS television revenues came from daytime advertising. At NBC the total was 25.7 percent. The figure was considerably lower at ABC, which did not launch a full daytime schedule until September 1958. And at DuMont, a network sliding toward economic collapse, daytime shows and billings were anemic.
While the rivalry between CBS and NBC might appear to be close, in terms of soap operas CBS held an overwhelming advantage. In fact, throughout the 1950s NBC was unable to develop successful soaps. Between a few early years with
Hawkins Falls—its first daytime serial—plus The Doctors (1963-82) and
Another World (1964–present), NBC broadcast a string of highly forgettable daytime dramas. While rival CBS in the first half of the 1950s was televising popular, long-lasting soaps such as
Search for Tomorrow, The Guiding Light, and Love of Life, NBC offered disasters such as Miss Susan, First Love, Three Steps to Heaven, and
Follow Your Heart.
CBS developed a few unpopular programs, among them The Egg and I, Woman with a Past, Portia Faces Life (later called
The Inner Flame), and The Seeking Heart. But if Nielsen ratings are an indication of network accomplishment, the CBS record was formidable. Among the top four soap operas in each of the fifteen TV seasons from the fall of 1952 to the spring of 1967, CBS programs held every position except one:
Hawkins Falls was rated third in 1952-1953. Not until the 1978-1979 season, when the ABC serial
All My Children became the most watched soap, did CBS relinquish the top ranking. And no NBC serial has ever been rated number one.
Ironically, for many years NBC soap operas on the radio had been overwhelmingly popular.
Stella Dallas, Ma Perkins, Pepper Young's Family, Life Can Be Beautiful, Just Plain Bill, and
Road of Life, all among the most successful serials in the history of daytime broadcasting, were heard on NBC. NBC radio was strongly committed to the genre: in the fall of 1948 that network aired nineteen different quarter-hour daytime dramas, while CBS offered only sixteen such shows. That NBC television never was competitive within the genre seems to have been a consequence of the programming philosophy of Pat Weaver, the network's vice president for television in 1949-53, and its president from December 1953 to December 1955.
Weaver envisioned television as something more than sight radio. He espoused the noble notion that the medium would be the conduit for social betterment, an "enlightenment machine" that would create an all-people elite." Weaver speculated in 1951, "Television will become the chief instrument accelerating self-realization in our viewers. It is this broad job and the fact that devices can be used to give people things that they do not really want—this is part of the television impact for the future." Influenced by the long-form programming on NBC's prime-time schedule, particularly its sixty- and ninety-minute comedy-variety shows, he sought to fill large daytime segments with lengthy shows in what
Variety in 1951 termed NBC's "Think Big" concept.
Weaver favored the magazine format, which he employed successfully to cover two hours in the early morning with
Today, which premiered in January 1952. And he blocked out 105 minutes in the late evening, which debuted as
Tonight! (later called The Tonight Show), hosted by Steve Allen in the fall of 1954.
But long-form, conversational shows seemed to work well only in fringe viewing hours. This became evident with his attempt to fill the later morning and afternoon. Weaver produced
Home, a one-hour weekday magazine feature hosted by "Editor in Chief" Arlene Francis and staffed by "contributing editors" with specialties in fields such as food, home decoration, and family affairs. Although it ran from early 1953 until mid-1957,
Home never generated the ratings NBC anticipated.
In a similar fashion, Weaver sought an antidote to afternoon soap operas with
Matinee Theater, an hour-long showcase offering live plays five days a week. The productions were often new stagings with new casts of plays that had appeared recently on evening dramatic series such as
The Kraft Television Theater and Robert Montgomery Presents. Although relatively few viewers owned color TV receivers (There were 37.8 million sets in U.S. homes by the end of 1955; that year only 50,000 color sets were purchased.), the daytime versions were enhanced by being telecast in RCA-compatible color.
Including reruns, Matinee Theater televised 671 plays in its run from October 1955 until June 1958, but it was an expensive program, costing $100,000 per week to produce (the quarter-hour
Search for Tomorrow cost about $9,800 per week). More importantly, it failed to attract large audiences.
While Weaver was busy structuring daytime TV to match his programming philosophy, NBC in the 1950s was doing little with the soap opera. There were a few false starts, such as the premieres of seven soaps in 1954 and four in 1958, but the network failed to nurture its dramas, canceling four serials in 1954, seven in 1955, and three in 1958. At one point in 1957 NBC televised only one daytime serial (compared to eight at CBS),
Modern Romances, an anthology program that each week told a complete story in five quarter-hour installments.
When it was not in blocs of time for its longer shows, NBC was placing its daytime faith in
quiz and audience-participation offerings such as Concentration, The Price Is Right, and
Queen for a Day. At times these were among the most popular programs on daytime TV. But the backbone of morning and afternoon TV remained the dramatic serial. The soap opera tended to capture viewers' imaginations and hold them through years of loyal attention. And chronically popular soaps served to enhance the ratings of the quiz and audience-participation shows on a network schedule. This point was driven home in early 1954 when Procter & Gamble shifted two of its audience-participation shows—worth $8.8 million annually in advertising—to CBS reportedly as "a repudiation" of NBC for failing to support soap operas.
Conversely, CBS leaders William S. Paley and Frank Stanton held no lofty notions about daytime network TV. They understood the importance of soaps, as did Procter & Gamble, which reported that by mid-1954 the audience for the genre was now larger on television than on radio. By the late 1950s, while NBC was still seeking the formula for daytime success, CBS had a special unit, headed by a former executive from Procter & Gamble, strictly concerned with the development of soap operas.
Even CBS daytime audience-participation shows reflected the sentimentality of the soaps.
The Verdict Is Yours offered serialized courtroom trials intended to draw viewers into emotional cases that would test their sense of justice and ensure their loyalty to CBS. The network also brought melodrama to quiz programs. On
The Big Payoff, male contestants who best described the deserving women in their lives were given the opportunity to reward feminine selflessness by winning furs, vacations, jewelry, and other valuable prizes for their women. On
Strike It Rich from May 1951 to January 1958, needy contestants with sad personal problems competed as much for public sentiment as for dollars. In a case of life imitating art, however, many less fortunate people came to New York City in hopes of being selected to appear on
Strike It Rich. Ironically, city social services agencies criticized the program as a heartless exploitation of human misery because many of the migrating would-be contestants soon turned to city, state, and private welfare for assistance.
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