Programming For a Nation
If by the early 1950s television in the United States was already national in its physical arrangement, it also was already network in program content. Unlike broadcast radio, where the great national programmers emerged only after years of competition and invention, the TV networks were in place as soon as video became feasible and popular. By the end of 1949 a total of 92 of the 98 operating stations were network affiliated—the holdouts were 3 stations in New York City and 3 in Los Angeles—and by 1960 more than 96 percent of the 515 operative U.S. stations were network outlets.
The leader of the new industry
was NBC. As well as having the technological credentials of its parent company, RCA, the network was the
entertainment champion of the first half of the 1950s. This was the TV home of Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Bob Hope, Groucho Marx, and many of those dazzling stage personalities who quickly won customers and advertisers for early television. Here, too, were attractive shows in familiar genres:
Hopalong Cassidy, Front Page Detective, Your Hit Parade, The Philco Television Playhouse, and
The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports.
At the presidency of NBC in the early 1950s was Frank White, another in the succession of capable but obscure men who had directed the network since its inception. The real power at NBC was General David Sarnoff. As chairman of the board of directors at NBC, Sarnoff was the executive overseer of network policy and direction; however, as chairman of the board and former president of RCA, Sarnoff was the gray eminence who influenced network decisions and coordinated NBC operations with the rest of the electronics empire he had forged.
Ultimately, President Frank White—and after 1955, Robert W. Sarnoff—worked for the General. A reporter for Time magazine described the man in 1953 at the height of his corporate power.
Modesty, false or otherwise, does not disguise his power and success. His chill blue eyes shine with impatient energy, his boyish scrubbed pink face radiates cockiness. All 5 feet 5 inches of his bull-necked, bull-chested figure bristles with authority and assurance. He dresses with conservative, expensive elegance, even carries a gold frame to hold matchbooks.... He says there are three drives that rule most men: money, sex, and power. Nobody doubts that Sarnoff’s ruling drive is power. Says a deputy, "There is no question about it, he is the god over here.
The chief rivals to Sarnoff and NBC were William S. Paley and CBS. No matter that Frank Stanton had been president of the network since the early 1940s, the driving force at Columbia was Chairman of the Board Paley. Above all Paley maintained that programming was the essence of broadcasting. When he led CBS into the engineering/technical area of the business, the results were disastrous. His abortive attempts to overtake RCA as the technological leader of television cost the company millions of dollars. But through its ability to entertain, to attract the right stars, or to develop the popular new series, CBS quickly emerged from its junior status to become the premier network, a distinction it maintained for decades. By 1958, for example, CBS billings of $247.8 million surpassed NBC with $215.8 million and ABC with $103 million.
No network knew better than CBS how to entertain the American people. The average audience demanded stars, and if Columbia needed celebrated entertainers to meet that demand, Chairman Paley was not chary about spending money to lure the biggest. He had done it in the mid-1930s for CBS Radio, and he repeated it at the beginning of the video age. Through his legendary "raids" on NBC comedic talent in the late 1940s, Paley brought to CBS some of the most popular performers in the nation, among them Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and Red Skelton.
Paley attracted these NBC stars with an inventive bookkeeping arrangement. Because personal income taxes were so high (earnings exceeding $70,000 were taxed at 77 percent), a performer found it handsomely profitable to form his own production company, with himself as its chief asset, then sell the company to CBS for millions of dollars. The star would receive a salary while making television shows for the network, but income from the sale of his company was treated as a capital gain, taxable at a rate of 25 percent.
Paley and CBS were not timid, either, about gambling on new TV forms. While NBC invested in live comedy-variety shows, Paley and CBS turned to filmed situation comedies; and led by
I Love Lucy, sitcoms eventually destroyed stage comedy. In the early 1950s the network scheduled talk-show host Arthur Godfrey on two different weekly shows, and both ended up among the top ten. Paley brought newspaper columnist Ed Sullivan to host an hour-long variety show, and the program lasted from 1948 to 1971. A big-prize quiz show in prime time,
The $64,000 Question, precipitated an industry-wide rush to quizzers. With
Gunsmoke CBS introduced the adult Western in 1955 and launched a program trend that lasted fifteen years, and a series that served the network for twenty years.
Of the two smaller networks, ABC and DuMont, only the former had any lasting impact. The DuMont network was programmatically underdeveloped, poorly positioned in terms of its affiliates, and insufficiently supported by advertisers. With no radio network to build on, DuMont lacked the entertainers and the affiliated stations needed to compete against CBS and NBC. When DuMont did develop a talent of any consequences, such as Jackie Gleason, CBS and NBC had little trouble outbidding DuMont for his services.
ABC might have suffered a similar condition except for its merger in 1951 (approved by the FCC in 1953) with United Paramount Theaters (UPT), which brought needed capital to the struggling operation. As late as 1954 only 40 of the 354 stations operating in the United States were primarily ABC affiliates; in fact, the network had more secondary affiliations, business arrangements in which an NBC or CBS outlet agreed to broadcast a small percentage of the ABC schedule. By contrast, NBC had 164 primary affiliates and CBS had 113.
Moreover, in terms of network billings that year, ABC earned only 11 percent of the industry total, while NBC totaled 39 percent and CBS received 46 percent.
Although it was the home of a few successful series—Stop the Music beginning in 1949;
The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, launched in 1952; and Danny Thomas's
Make Room for Daddy, in 1953—Sterling "Red" Quinlan, an ABC executive in Chicago, has written of the lean early years in which bankruptcy seemed not out of the question. Another writer recalled a quip from the time suggesting that if the Korean War had been a series on ABC it would have been canceled in thirteen weeks.
Significantly for ABC, the merger with UPT brought new management that would revitalize the weak network. Leonard H. Goldenson came from UPT with experience in the exhibition of feature films. As a man who headed a chain of 651 movie theaters, he proposed to treat TV as he did the theater business. If youngsters were the major consumers of theatrical films, then bring youthful shows to network TV. Soon ABC was offering
The Mickey Mouse Club, American Bandstand, Maverick, and Disneyland—and emphasizing young stars such as Edd "Kookie" Byrnes, James Garner, and Ricky Nelson. Goldenson felt, too, that since TV was a visual medium, feature movies and short filmed scenes—especially when produced by the major Hollywood studios—would be more attractive than the public-service features and stage productions that had dominated the ABC evening lineup.
In Robert Kintner, president of ABC-TV when Goldenson became president of both ABC and its parent company, American Broadcasting-Paramount Theaters, the network had a competent and flexible broadcast executive who later headed NBC. Kintner led ABC when its evenings were filled with offerings such as
Chicago Wrestling, Politics on Trial, and Billy Graham's devotional series
Hour of Decision. For lack of glitzy products in 1952, ABC even offered
All-Star News, which appeared five times per week and consumed four and one-half hours of prime time. But Kintner survived the merger, following Goldenson along the road to Hollywood glamour that would bring to ABC filmed series produced by movie giants Walt Disney, Warner Brothers, 20th Century-Fox and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
If Kintner was malleable, Oliver Treyz, who headed ABC-TV from 1956 to 1962, was a true believer. In his late thirties when he became president, Treyz helped to turn the runt TV network around, driving ABC from a dismal third place to ratings equality with NBC and CBS. And he did it by avoiding public service while filling prime time with a barrage of youth-oriented action series such as
77 Sunset Strip, Adventures in Paradise, The Rifleman, and The Untouchables, offerings that featured violence, predictable plots, and handsome leading men. Although his decisions helped ABC toward financial respectability, his critics were less charitable, accusing Treyz of (1) dumping "four hours of garbage onto the rugs of the American people every night," (2) becoming "the Mahatma of Mediocrity," and (3) turning ABC into the "pulp fiction network."
Treyz never apologized for his programming philosophy. When some suggested that TV had a nobler mission to uplift and elucidate as well as to divert, he was frank: "Listen, when Pat Weaver was president of NBC, he was programming for people who shopped at Saks Fifth Avenue," Treyz lectured an interviewer in 1972. "I was programming for the people at Sears, Roebuck. There are more of them. They have the right to attention, too."
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