Of Scandal and Power
Although video had failed to satisfy the expectations of many of its early idealistic supporters, it had still become a powerful and influential force in American life. In his poignant satire of the broadcast industry, Network, screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky in 1974 described television as "the most awesome goddamn propaganda force in the whole godless world."
Yet, in only its first decade, TV had demonstrated its awesome ability to persuade. When Joan Weber's song "Let Me Go, Lover" was used as background music on a Studio One drama in 1954, the exposure led to national popularity, and within a week her recording of the song was on the Billboard record charts where it soon reached the top position.
The managers of Elvis Presley understood the persuasive potential of TV, establishing their client's presence on twelve national telecasts between January 1956 and January 1957—six appearances on
Stage Show hosted by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, then two appearances on
The Milton Berle Show, one on The Steve Allen Show, and finally three on
The Ed Sullivan Show abandoning video (except for a “reset” appearance in May 1960 on The
Frank Sinatra Show following Elvis’ discharge from the U.S. Army) for more than a decade while the King of Rock and Roll flourished as a recording and motion picture star.
Those with the most faith in the persuasive power of the medium were the chief propagandists of television, the advertisers who spent billions of dollars annually to win customers for their products. Of course, where there was no real niche for a product to fill—as in the case of the Edsel automobile, introduced in the mid-1950s—TV advertising could not be effective. But where a potential market existed, the medium could be potent, especially when it was associated with a program high in the ratings.
Those companies underwriting the quiz show boom of the 1950s, for example, found video advertising rewarding. Net profits from Geritol sales were $10.5 million in 1956, but after Geritol began sponsoring
Twenty-One on NBC, profits reached $14 million in 1957 and $12.4 million the following year. Revlon, which underwrote
The $64,000 Question, was even more successful. Between 1950 and 1954, the cosmetics firm made an average annual profit of $1.2 million; but after buying
The $64,000 Question, profits for 1955 through 1958 averaged $7.68 million, and for 1959 and 1960 they averaged $11.1 million.
As a vestige of radio production procedures, early TV programs frequently were produced by advertising agencies on behalf of their corporate clients. Broadcasters did little more than stage and/or televise a packaged product. That the agencies were influential was obvious in the case of Young & Rubicam, which on one evening in early 1954 placed for several clients seven shows touching every evening time slot. Variety termed Sunday, March 28, "Y&R Night on TV" as the agency began at six-thirty with The Roy Rogers Show for General Foods, and finished at ten-thirty with What's My Line? for Remington-Rand.
While the television networks could sell Remington electric shavers and Geritol vitamin supplements, their greatest selling accomplishment was in selling their realization of television to the American people. It had begun with radio, when these programmers established high-caliber entertainment and a reliable flow of information as national broadcast standards. The selling continued in the early years of video as ABC, CBS, and NBC sought to convince the audience of their capability to telecast as well as they had radiobroadcast. Left in the hands of the networks, TV programming—which in other nations was often dull and pedantic and scarce—was a shining stage in the United States.
But the relationship between networks and audience was built on trust: the latter having surrendered its precious airwaves, the former in return presenting authentic, credible entertainment. It was, however, a spiritual relationship sorely tested by a program scandal of the late 1950s that shook the new industry and challenged the networks to reestablish a trust betrayed.
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