Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Firing the Stars

TV shows get cancelled all the time. They have been for years. But there’s a little difference between now and 50 years ago.

For one thing, there were only three networks. For another, many of the big names who were punted off the airwaves had been in living rooms for decades, starting back in the radio days. And for another, at CBS there was a network president by the name of Jim Aubrey who acquired a reputation of being a cold-blooded, calculating executive who really loved firing people. The bigger the name, the better.

The question of “Was (s)he fired or did (s)he quit?” gets bandied about even today in broadcasting circles when someone of note departs. It certainly did 50 years ago. For example, the September 10, 1965 edition of Life magazine (reprinted in the book CBS: Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye) gives the impression that Aubrey fired Jack Benny. Benny himself stated he pulled the plug. News reports in the trades and popular press bear out Benny’s version of the story, although one can picture Aubrey wanting to play a power trip on Benny for complaining (and not for the first time at CBS-TV) about the show leading into his.

Hal Humphrey of the Times-Mirror Syndicate (at least I think he was still there at the time) came out with this story published in papers of February 1, 1964 of huge stars who moved on, some of their own choosing.

The Fine Art of TV Firing
HOLLYWOOD—TV networks are showing more originality in the way they fire their stars this season—more, in fact, than they are showing in their programs.
Most popular technique for giving a star the heave-ho seems to be the letter of resignation, which is carefully composed by the network, then sent to the star along with a vial of arsenic.
The star has the choice of signing and returning the letter of resignation (most networks include a self-addressed envelope) or drinking the arsenic, or both.
Judy Garland sent her letter last week. CBS-TV president James Aubrey dutifully accepted it, but said how sorry he was that "she has reached this decision." Aubrey can only hope now that Judy keeps a stiff upper lip and doesn't commit any treasonable act on any of her remaining shows the way Jerry Lewis did. Jerry sent back his letter to ABC-TV last November, but as Christmas drew near and he began feeling sorry for the 119 offspring of the band members, Jerry blurted out right on the show that he'd been fired.
Jack Benny didn't play the game according to the Aubrey rules either. Instead of mailing his letter, Jack called up his old employers (Sarnoff & Son) at NBC last fall and they hired him back for next season.
In a suit over such highhanded treatment, CBS-TV's Aubrey immediately let it be known that he had not picked up Jack's option. Things can get rough on those upper levels when somebody breaks the rules.
NBC-TV doesn't seem to have as ingenious a firing department as ABC-TV and CBS-TV. A vice-president of NBC was on his way from New York to Hollywood by slow freight to inform Richard Boone that his drama series was kaput.
But before the train arrived, word had reached the press, where Boone read his own obituary.
Jack Paar pulled a switch by firing NBC a couple of months ago. Now, however, the word is that Jack is ready to sign up for next season, but the network is getting Alfred Hitchcock back from CBS and threatening to put the rotund crime master into Paar's time spot.
Aubrey apparently fired Hitchcock because CBS wasn't allowed what we in Hollywood euphemistically call "artistic control" over the Hitchcock shows. If one isn't really a big, big star, firing him is more of a routine project.
Sometimes the first clue a star has that something may be wrong is when George, the maitre d' at Hollywood's Brown Derby, puts him at a booth next to the kitchen.
This happened to Alan Young just before he was fired from CBS years ago. Alan got even with them, though. He came back with a horse named Mr. Ed, and how do you get a horse to sign a letter of resignation?
Another sure-fire test for a star to make, if he has the courage, is to call the network he's appearing on and ask for himself. When the operator on the main switchboard says, "who did you say?" you can figure that everything isn't copesetic in the front office.
A star sponsored by car manufacturers has a reliable barometer for his future. If the next year's model car isn't delivered for his private use a week before it is delivered to the showrooms, he can begin to think about summer stock or a European tour.
There's no question that the firings this season have unnerved everyone. Even the usually unruffable Walter Cronkite last week introduced Richard Nixon on his newscast as "President Nixon."

Cronkite’s fluster was rather prescient, and not just because Dick Nixon convinced Americans in 1968 to make him president a few years after his political career appeared dead. Cronkite himself was “fired” by CBS in 1964 in a rather infamous counter-programming move against NBC’s Democratic Convention coverage. The press erupted, mainly in dudgeon over people in charge of news operations daring to think about ratings (how things have changed). The move failed and Cronkite returned to his rightful spot atop the CBS News pecking order and went on to become The Most Trusted Man in America.


  1. Yes, the sliminess that was Jim "The Smiling Cobra" Aubrey... a character that would fit right in at "Mad Men."
    Aubrey, of course, would himself be fired....

  2. Lewis' ill-fated talk show aired its last episode on 12/21/63, so the publication year for the article would have to be 1964, not 1962.

    1. And Judy Garland's series aired during the 1963-64 season, terminated early in 1964, so, yes, it has to be 1964.

  3. And, of course, there's the whole Keefe Brasselle mess, which was Aubrey's downfall. To the tears of, I think, no one.

  4. CBS almost seeing it's Nielsen win streak over NBC ended in the 1964-65 season (in part due to the Keefe Brasselle mess) as much as Aubrey's personality and his actions may in the end have been why Bill Paley gave him the heave-ho.

  5. Hitchcock- and MCA/Universal- "controlled" his program. And that was infuriating to Aubrey, who LOATHED dealing directly with stars and their talent agencies. He preferred to make his own deals----especially those with Marty Ransohoff's "Filmways", who provided him with "MISTER ED", "THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES", and "PETTICOAT JUNCTION"......and United Artists.....and his old buddy Keefe Brasselle {"Richelieu Productions"}, who sold him three series without pilot episodes for the fall of 1964 [I needn't tell you WHICH three they were, as they all "tanked" by the end of the season]. Aubrey wanted to control "his shows". And Jack Benny was one of those "CBS stars" Aubrey personally HATED, because of his ties to MCA [they forced him to renew "CHECKMATE" for a second season, because MCA hinted that Jack, who produced the program {through "JaMco Productions"}, might not return for another season if they DIDN'T give "CHECKMATE" another chance]. In his fictional account of his relationship with Aubrey in "The CanniBalS", Keefe Brasselle claimed his 1961 pilot for a series called "BEACH FRONT" was scuttled because CBS HAD to renew "CHECKMATE" instead- and Aubrey didn't care for MCA telling him what to do, or schedule (of course, fictitious names and titles were used in the book).

    1. According to "Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye" (by Robert Metz), Aubrey fired one of the "Petticoat Junction" girls because he wanted someone with a bigger bosom.
      That book, and Bill Paley's memoir "As It Happened," shared the story of Aubrey's firing: when Paley went into Frank Stanton's office and said "he's got to go," Stanton did not need to ask "who."