Sunday, 20 April 2014

Good Weekly TV is Impossible

People wanted to hear and see their favourite stars. That’s why there was no turning back to silent films when talkies came in for good. And, for the networks, there was no turning back to radio as a primary entertainment medium once television arrived for good. Besides, there was simply far more money to be made in TV than radio. And the networks were in it for the money.

Still, it must have been hard to conceive or perceive around 1950 that radio, really, was finished. After all, it had been around for a full generation. It had stars, big stars. One of them was Jack Benny, who doesn’t seem to have grasped that network radio, as everyone knew it, was ending. He was mistaken that TV was only a fad and would co-exist with the kind of radio that would remain a full-fledged, big-time, dial-twisting box of show business.

He was astute enough to realise the inevitable about TV in the days before it was possible to tele-view something in Los Angeles and New York at the same time—that he and everyone else in radio would have to go into the new medium. And he was astute enough to understand television ate up material faster than radio. But he also thought he would remain in both radio and TV. That ultimately wasn’t his choice. The home audience decided that wouldn’t happen. It abandoned network radio before the networks abandoned it themselves.

This column is from February 5, 1950.

Matter of Simple Mathematics
Benny Tells Why No TV for Him

Associated Press Staff Writer
New York—Jack Benny doesn't claim to be a mathematical wizard, but he can tell the difference between four million and 85 million—even without his glasses.
That's the current ratio between television sets and radio sets in the United States. So the CBS comedian is content to perch on radio's throne a while longer before bidding for a place in video's growing but much smaller domain.
Benny, always at or near the top of Hooper radio audience ratings and always one of the leaders, says that when television has 10,000,000 or 15,000,000 sets in use “we’ll all have to get in.”
The Waukegan wit may take a whirl at television next season—Rochester, Maxwell and all—depending on the plans of his sponsor. But he expects it to be on an occasional basis, perhaps once in three months, “to make it an event.”
When he goes into television regularly, Benny says he will hold out for an every-other-week basis, and probably will ask to be relieved of his radio program.
“It's impossible to do anything good on television on a once a week basis with our type show,” says Benny, in from Hollywood for a brief New York stay.
Benny explains that although everyone in his radio show has been with him from 11 to 18 years, there still are major changes to be made as late as Saturday rehearsals for the Sunday night broadcasts.
“It takes us a whole week to prepare the radio show,” he points out. “So how are you going to do all that, and learn lines and positions by heart, and do a good television show every week.”
Meanwhile, Benny says any very good radio program will not have too much trouble from television for some time to come “although a mediocre radio program will not be able to compete with even mediocre television.”
After the novelty of television has worn off with a viewer, Benny says, it had better have a good program on the air or he will turn back to radio. That's provided, of course, radio has a top notch show going on at the same time.

Benny stopped making radio shows in 1955. It boiled down to money. His sponsor was putting it in television. But, in a way, Benny didn’t leave radio altogether. Those local radio stations didn’t fill all their time with news, disc jockeys, contests for housewives, play-by-play sports and Sunday religious broadcasts. There was a place for the past, too. Some stations ran copies of transcriptions of old network radio shows. A whole new generation got to hear, and become fans of, Jack Benny. But not in prime time, and not on a large, nation-wide hook-up funded by big-money sponsors. Those days were gone.


  1. CBS and (to a lesser extent) NBC really were still committed to trying to do something with network radio all the way through the end of the 1950s and into the early 60s -- they just weren't quite sure what it was; NBC was trying their Monitor format of something old, something new, while CBS stayed with more traditional options (I came across this ad a couple of days ago, touting CBS radio's fall 1959 lineup. No mention of Jack, who was firmly ensconced on TV by then, but the promo does tout Arthur Godfrey, Gary Moore, Amos and Andy, and Burns & Allen, where replaying the old shows could be justified since Gracie had retired from television a year earlier).

  2. This was two months before Bob Hope made his national TV debut on his Easter Sunday special, "THE STAR SPANGLED REVUE", over NBC; HE previously swore he'd NEVER appear on TV...but General Motors' Frigidaire division made him an offer he couldn't refuse: after he asked for $50,000 dollars to appear in ONE special {he thought that'd be the end of THAT, as NO ONE had yet received that kind of money to appear on TV back then}, they made him a counter-offer....$40,000 for the Easter special, and $150,000 for four additional specials over a two-year period. If there was one thing Hope liked more than a "hot audience", it was "hot money". He agreed, and embraced TV from then on. At the same time, CBS wanted George Burns & Gracie Allen to appear in a regular TV series- she declared, "I won't be pushed into it!". George said, "Let's make ONE TV test. If you're not comfortable in front of the cameras, I won't say another word about it." They "kinnied" a pilot [it's on YouTube]--- and Gracie WAS comfortable enough to agree to appear on a bi-weekly series, beginning that October. Jack was eventually convinced to make his "official" debut on a 45 minute special [originating from New York] on October 28, 1950.

    1. Hope, however, continued to produce his highly-rated specials in black-and-white for as long as he could get away with it - and as long as color gung-ho NBC would let him. His hand was evidently forced in December 1965 when his first color special aired - and his shows would be produced in color thereafter.

  3. Except for late Sunday afternoons, there were no half-hour "entertainment" shows on CBS' prime-time radio schedule in the fall of 1959, "J". Jack's last "first-run" radio show was taped in May 1955 (two seasons of "transcribed" repeats followed, from 1956 through '58). However, there WERE daytime shows, including "ARTHUR GODFREY TIME", 'THE GARRY MOORE SHOW", "ART LINKLETTER'S HOUSE PARTY", and assorted "soap operas" (and Peg Lynch's "THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR"). Freeman Gosden & Charles Correll appeared on a nightly "AMOS 'N' ANDY MUSIC HALL" at 7:05pm(et) [they were disc jockeys, along with "Kingfish"- spinning discs, cracking a few jokes, and interviewing various celebrities]. Burns & Allen's nightly five-minute "show" [7:40pm(et)] actually consisted of soundtracks of the "double routines" they'd done at the end of their filmed TV series between 1955 and '58 {Gracie had indeed retired the year before}.

  4. Huh. So Amos 'N' Andy was still on the radio airwaves as late as '59? That changes my perception of the closing gag of the 1960 Bugs Bunny short LIGHTER THAN HARE, in which Bugs, tuning his war surplus radio, wonders aloud if "'Amos 'N' Andy is on yet".

    I had always assumed his remark was supposed to humorously convey how out-of-touch and isolated Bugs was, since A 'N' A couldn't possibly still be broadcast on the radio airwaves, but once again, Bugs proves that while he may possess a certain amount of naivete, he is never clueless.