Sunday, 9 March 2014

Television Worries

In 1947, there was television, but there wasn’t television.

There were about a dozen stations scattered across the U.S. and no hook-up between the east and west coasts. The networks, such as they were, didn’t offer programming during much of the week, and all the big stars were still on radio.

But television had been steadily developing after the war and the FCC was in the process of tripling the number of stations with the granting of licenses. The big stars of radio knew it would just be a matter of time before TV would be calling them.

Television may have still been developing in 1947 but Jack Benny could already see the pitfalls for someone like himself. Radio painted pictures in people’s minds. Seeing the same thing on screen couldn’t possibly measure up to someone’s imagination. And Jack realised that TV would swallow material even more than radio. No doubt that’s why he committed himself to only four shows on his first season in 1950-51.

As it turned out, Benny didn’t do “a whole new kind of program” as he predicted. In fact, many of his successful routines on TV were taken from old radio scripts, in some cases verbatim. Here’s what he had to say in a United Press column that appeared in newspapers beginning September 24, 1947. As a matter of interest, the Brooklyn Eagle of that day reveal TV listings in New York City consisting of test patterns, news, a movie, sports events, a kids’ show, a soap opera (“Highway to the Stars”) and a disc jockey programme. It’d be a year before the Uncle Miltie phenomenon made manufacturers of TV sets very happy and profitable.

Jack Benny Fears Television Advent Will Spoil Act
United Press Hollywood Correspondent

HOLLYWOOD, Sept. 24 (U.P.)—Television, Jack Benny lamented today, will probably louse up that nice, soft deal he's worked 16 years to perfect. He'll have to start all over.
So, he says, will every ether radio funnyman. Which is probably why the veteran jokesters are beating no drums to hurry up this miracle of the air waves.
“All the comedy shows—as we know 'em—will die out,” Benny says. “You'll have a whole new kind of program. I imagine we'll have to go in for plays. Heaven help my writers!”
No more peering through spectacles at neatly-typed scripts. The scripts will have to go. So will those spectacles. And ditto for the sound effects.
“Because the audience will be looking right smack at us,” Benny explained. “And we'll never be able to get as wild over a television screen as the listeners have us get in their own minds.”
Take that business of “tightwad” Benny clomping down to the basement vault.
“We could do that for television,” he said, “but it'd never be as funny. Neither would the squeaking hinges. Or my smoking old Maxwell. Or making Phil Harris put his dimes in my cigarette machine. All those gimmicks paint mental pictures that are twice as hilarious as what really goes on.”
The only funnyman who won't have to begin from the bottom again, Benny figures, are the boys who rely on visual antics for their giggles. “People like Billy De Wolfe and Danny Kaye and Danny Thomas,” plugged the only man in the business who can afford to. “They don't have situation comedy. They are funny just to watch.
“Fred Allen's puss might be, too.” Benny added. “But he's not taking any chances on the kind of chuckles the Benny pan might bring on.
“Nope, what we'll have to do is a fast switch to half-hour comedies,” he said, “and that'll be murder. I don't see how we could do a show oftener than once a month.”
Benny figures it'll take him that long to get that “hilarious” play written, sets built, costumes made up, cast hired, and all his lines memorized. His only consolation is that old “enemy Allen” will be in the same fix.
Meanwhile, he's starting his 16th consecutive year Oct. 5 on good, old-fashioned radio. And he's plenty thankful that television's still limited to fights and football games.
“By the time everybody has a home set,” Benny grinned, “I'll probably be too old anyway. Let the kids worry about it I'll be retired to the golf links.”


  1. I'm happy Jack was wrong here, though he was probably smart to take it slowly in the early going to see what did and what didn't work (his movie experience probably helped here, especially in the filmed episodes, which in the single-camera format were pretty much the equivalent of the theatrical two-reelers and allowed the show to expand into visual/special effect gags that couldn't be done on the radio).

  2. Jack continued his radio show during the first five years of his TV appearances; by the time he finished his first season of alternate week TV shows in May 1955, the radio series ended; he didn't WANT it to end, but American Tobacco, his sponsor, insisted they wanted to sustain him on television exclusively, and that there just wasn't enough of an audience to justify the cost of sponsoring his weekly radio show for another season. He was perfectly free to find another radio sponsor, but Jack decided to end his radio career with the May 22, 1955 episode.