Monday, September 24, 2018

TV Deep Dive: Television Economics in the 1950’s

American commercial television has always been solely supported by advertisers. While other countries like the UK chose to support their programming through taxes on televisions, that option was never seriously considered in the United States. While the economics behind television have changed over the years, the basic need for sponsorship money has remained the same. This week, we’re taking a deep look at the economics behind your favorite shows through the years. Today, we’ll begin in television’s earliest days.

In the early years of television, programming was seen as disposable. Who would want to ever watch the same programming over again? Most programming went out live and was rarely recorded. When it did get recorded, a simple device known as a kinescope was used. The kinescope was just a camera pointed at a television screen running the broadcast. The result left a lot to be desired, but nobody really cared for the most part. After all, who would ever want to watch this programming again? This thinking kept budgets down because the networks knew that they only had one chance to profit from their programming. The math was rather simple:  (sponsorship) - (Production cost) = profit. As long as sponsorship was higher than the production cost, the network would be happy and profitable. 

Since the networks wanted to take less risks, they would often produce programs with just one sponsor. Instead of having to beat the bushes for multiple sponsors and hope they can sell enough slots to make a profit, the sponsored shows only required them to negotiate with one sponsor and lock-in a guaranteed profit. Instead of having to break for ads, many of these sponsored shows would work their ads into the programming itself. Texaco Star Theater was a perfect example of this.

These shows often made less money than other unsponsored programming and sponsors had a huge amount of control over the programming. If Texaco wanted something cut from Texaco Star Theater, it got cut regardless of what the talent requested. While the network could earn guaranteed profits with this format, it had to give up most of its autonomy. This method of financing programming would get disrupted by a Cuban bandleader who had no experience in television, but who would teach the network veterans a lesson in the future of television.

Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball were trailblazers. When they first approached CBS with the idea that became I Love Lucy, the network loved the idea but wanted some changes- the first and biggest of which was to cast someone else as Lucy’s husband. The idea of a Cuban man married to an “American” woman was seen as being too controversial. Both Lucy and Desi insisted that they would play the married couple, racists be damned. CBS caved on this and another demand- that I Love Lucy be recorded on film instead of going out live. This added to the production costs of the show, but CBS acquiesced to get the production off the ground. They thought that Desi was just being eccentric, but Desi saw something that they didn’t- that these shows could live on forever, generating money in perpetuity through reruns. When I Love Lucy became a mega hit, Desi’s decision to produce the episodes in a way that would guarantee them a future looked like a stroke of genius. And it was. His visionary decision would bring a tsunami of change to the American television landscape.

Friday, September 21, 2018

“And All The Rest”: Marry Christmas

The Hallmark Channel has unbelievably announced that it has produced 36 new Christmas films for THIS YEAR ALONE. That is insane when one realizes that Hallmark has already made well over 100 Christmas movies in the past. How could they possibly find new material for 36 Christmas films? By constantly repeating the same four basic storylines.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

“Love in the Afternoon”: The Nurse’s Station

The nurse’s station on General Hospital has always been the center of gossip and intrigue on the show since the very beginning when it was manned by Nurse Jessie Brewer.

Nurse Jessie supervised the goings on at General Hospital from the very beginning until the actress portraying her (Emily MacLaughlin) passed away. Always wearing her trademark sweater, Nurse Jessie was ready for anything and often served as a reliable source of gossip. (This was years before HIPAA.) In her later years, Emily often revealed some of the show’s secrets- for example, her trademark sweater wasn’t a fashion choice. The set was very cold and Emily was often just sitting or standing at the nurse’s station during her scenes. Therefore, she began wearing the sweater for practical reasons, offering to take it off while filming. The producers, however, thought it looked good with her ensemble so it became an important part of her wardrobe. The biggest secret, however, was why there was a nurse’s station to begin with- and it probably isn’t the reason you’re probably thinking.

Originally, ABC and the show’s sponsors felt that the show’s audience wouldn’t remember key plot points or scenes past a couple weeks. If audiences became confused about what was going on, ABC feared that they would tune out. That’s why many soap operas featured clunky scenes where a character would tell another character something they should have already known. For example- “As you know, Monica- your aunt- is the sole manager of our Quartermaine Family trust.” How could this explanatory dialogue become less clunky? By having it spoken by gossipy nurses! For example- “Did you hear? Ned’s aunt Monica is the sole manager of the Quartermaine Family Trust! I bet that must be awkward!” While the explanatory dialogue could still become repetitive, having it repeated by gossipy nurses made it feel slightly more natural.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

“Toon In” Inappropriate 1980’s Cartoons

The 1980’s were a time of deregulation and rampant cocaine use. These two things collided on Saturday Morning Television when R rated movies were turned into cartoons. Certainly only cocaine use could explain why Hollywood executives commissioned cartoons based on violent, inappropriate films.

Rambo saves Christmas by helping Santa with his slay.

Rambo was a film about a Vietnam veteran with severe mental issues and PTSD. Using a credo of “shoot first, ask questions later”, the violent, mentally addled John Rambo had to be a perfect role model for kids, right?

Bitches leave. Kids stay.

Robocop was meant to be a satirical look at the glorification of violence during the 1980’s. That fact was lost on Orion Pictures, which was eager to turn the film into a profitable franchise, regardless of the violence.

The Blue Oyster Bar? Is that a day care center?

The Police Academy films were full of off-color jokes and crude humor. Perfect for a children’s cartoon, right? Certainly nobody thought that would be a good idea- except for some drug addled Hollywood executives.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Serious Business: Who Shot J.R.?

It was the question that permeated pop culture during the summer of 1980- “Who Shot J.R.?” Referring to the shooting of J.R. Ewing, the villainous lead of the blockbuster drama Dallas, the storyline that would captivate the world was actually created to deal with a contract dispute with the character’s portrayer- Larry Hagman.

Originally hired as a supporting player, Larry’s character had turned into the centerpiece of the show and Hagman wanted his salary to reflect his importance to the show. CBS initially balked at his demands and ordered a cliffhanger in which JR Ewing would be shot, his survival in doubt. As the negotiations continued, the important question wasn’t really who shot the character, but whether he would survive. CBS eventually came to terms with Hagman while the storyline became a phenomenon. A writer’s strike further delayed the reveal of the assassin until November 23, 1980, when a then record audience of over 80 million viewers turned in to find out that Kristin Shepard, J.R’s mistress, had shot him. It almost seemed anti-climactic.

Monday, September 17, 2018

“Happy Days”: Police Squad & Belushi

One of the recurring jokes featured during the Police Squad opening credit sequence was to feature a “special guest star” who would then get immediately murdered. Among the celebrities “murdered” in such a manner were Robert Goulet (who would later get a role in Naked Gun 2 1/2.) and Lorne Greene.

One celebrity who had been scheduled to get “murdered” by drowning was John Belushi. In the segment, Belushi was shown being fitted for “cement shoes” then thrown into the water. The scene was filmed but was removed from the episode after Belushi passed away due to a drug overdose. A segment featuring Florence Henderson getting shot was repeated in its place and the footage from the original segment was destroyed out of respect to Belushi’s family.

Friday, September 14, 2018

“The Brady Bunch Hour”: Keep on Movin’

After the huge success of the Brady Bunch Hour pilot episode, the show would go off the air for almost two months. The rushed nature of the production gave the Kroffts little time to retool things based on ABC not being fully happy with the pilot. An odd choice was made to introduce Rip Taylor to the show as a neighbor, because why not? It was such a random choice, one can only assume he was the only one they called who answered the phone.

Why am I here? The folks at the Bullock’s credit card department threatened to break my legs if I kept missing my payments!

The challenges of keeping the indoor pool running and clear enough for filming made the production a 24/7 slog. The massive budget required cuts elsewhere, so public domain songs were used extensively. ABC also provided cheap guests who either had a contract with the network, were promoting something and thus willing to work for scale or were just desperate for work.

Uh, something tells us that your husband isn’t interested in Charo, Carol. Rip Taylor on the other hand...

Despite the high ratings, critics savaged the show. Many people thought that possibly they had just hallucinated the thing. In the months between the first and second episodes, public sentiment seemed to turn against the show. Some people were upset that Jan was being played by a different actress. Others saw the show as being one tacky mess. The Kroffts had no real time to evaluate the feedback coming in. They were rushing to catch up. It was probably impossible to fix this mess, but the rushed production schedule didn’t really help.

Hey kids, dig those hip and with it guests!

ABC and the Kroffts would soon find out what America really thought about this show. By the time the show returned, the ratings had plummeted and the show was a laughingstock. 

Now we understand why Robert Reed signed up for this show.

The show began getting moved around the schedule and it soon became obvious that it wasn’t working out. While ABC saw the failure as just another show that didn’t work, it was disastrous for the Kroffts. The Atlanta indoor theme park that they had opened in 1976 had shut down and gone bankrupt just weeks before The Brady Bunch Hour premiered. They desperately needed the show to work. When it didn’t, the Kroffts were no longer sought out for big name projects. The final nail in their coffin would be the even worse Pink Lady and Jeff Variety Show. That show would also end the reign of the variety show for decades.

Elizabeth- my career is coming to join you!

After the show was canceled, it seemed like the Brady franchise was essentially dead, though it would be resurrected just three years later on NBC’s The Brady Brides. The Brady Brides pilot film would be the first- and last- time that the entire bunch would be reunited together. The Brady Bunch Hour would become forgotten- a long ago project that might have been a hallucination- until Nick at Nite realized that it had the show in its catalog and did a random airing. The show took off, becoming a cult sensation. The tacky time capsule of 1970’s kitsch had finally found an appreciative audience.


Thursday, September 13, 2018

“The Brady Bunch Hour”: Time to Change

For better or worse, on November 28, 1976- Thanksgiving Weekend in the United States- The Brady Bunch Hour premiered on ABC.

The show was highly anticipated and heavily hyped. ABC’s promotional machine went into high gear, putting the Bradys on every magazine cover that was willing to have them. The premise of the show was that Mike Brady moved his family out to Hollywood so that they could perform in their very own variety show. A variety show with actors pretending to put on a variety show? Very meta! The premiere featured the Osmonds, repaying their debt to the Bradys for the ratings boost by helping launch their show. A wholesome, Mormon approved 1950’s themed musical sequence takes place, with the Osmonds looking soulful and talented in comparison with the Bradys.

Conformists With A Cause!

The plot of the show (such as it was) centers on how untalented Mike Brady is. He’s so untalented that Bobby decides to hire Tony Randall to play “Mike Brady”. Even more meta! The sad part of this plot is that Robert Reed was indeed not too musically talented or coordinated, though he practiced harder than anyone and wanted to get better as a performer. Hopefully he didn’t take this plot too personally.

An effete, prissy stiff? You’re the perfect person to play ‘Mike Brady’!

ABC wasn’t too impressed with the premiere and ordered changes and retooling of subsequent episodes before this one even aired. Despite its misgivings about the quality of the first episode, ABC got massive ratings for the premiere. America tuned into the tacky spectacle in record numbers- but would it tune in again for episode two? Stay tuned!

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

“The Brady Bunch Hour”: That’s the Way They All Became The Brady Bunch

ABC wanted to strike while the iron was hot and get its Brady Variety Show on the air as soon as possible. As a result, there was little time to make the pilot. ABC decided to produce the pilot as a special that would run before the end of 1976 with the first season beginning in January of 1977. To stay on schedule, ABC was going to have to pickup the show before it knew how successful the pilot would be or whether it met the network’s quality expectations. 

Despite not having any involvement with the show, The Brady Bunch creator Sherwood Schwartz decided to help out Sid and Marty Krofft by sitting down with them to talk about the cast, its strengths and weaknesses. Schwartz’s biggest warning was about family patriarch Robert Reed. Reed was a constant pain for Schwartz, criticizing the show and rewriting scripts, despite the fact that his rewrites were never used. Reed had been written out of the series finale because of his bad attitude. Schwartz was sure that if anyone on the cast would cause problems on the show it would be him.

Nothing could be further from the truth, however. Robert Reed was the most enthusiastic member of the variety hour cast. In fact, he probably worked harder than anyone else. He resented his lack of music and dance ability and practiced more than the rest of the cast. Apparently Reed enjoyed the singing, dancing and pageantry involved in the production of a variety show. The Kroffts would find challenges elsewhere.

In order to make the show stand out from the rest of the pack, the Kroffts decided to build a huge set, complete with a gigantic pool. The pool would be used by the newly formed ‘Krofftettes’, a water follies group who would perform various tricks and frolic in the pool. This ambitious set piece would cause huge headaches for the production. The only large soundstage in Los Angeles that the Kroffts could afford was at Gene Autry’s Golden West Studios, which was a creaky facility in a shady location. Building the large pool was a nightmare; keeping it clear enough to film in was seemingly impossible. The cold soundstage mixed with overly treated water made life miserable for the Kroftettes.

The Bradys were also a problem. The only two musically inclined members of the cast were Florence Henderson and Geri Reischl. While the other castmembers had performed in the past on various pop albums, they were out of their league when it came to a weekly variety show. It wasn’t too big of a deal, though it made rehearsals a bit tedious. Some castmembers recall that Mike Lookinland in particular would get punchy and stubborn during some of the long recording sessions. Still, the production lurched forward. As the pilot wrapped, however, Sid and Marty Krofft realized that the show was missing something. Sherwood Schwartz knew what, or rather who, it was- Ann B. Davis. Ann had moved to a religious retreat and it was thought that she wouldn’t want to return. Ann, however, loved her “family” and eagerly signed up for the show. The family was (mostly) reunited. Would their fans and viewers return too?

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

“The Brady Bunch Hour”: This Crew Would Somehow Re-Form A Family

After the successful “reunion”, Fred Silverman tasked the brothers Krofft with reassembling the Bradys for an all new variety show. Despite the ridiculousness of the concept, the Kroffts went all in on the project, eager to get a project going that would free them from the restrictive Osmonds.

They didn’t know how receptive the family would be. They had only scraped together Florence Henderson, Mike Lookinland, Susan Olsen and Maureen McCormick for the Osmond show. Could they get the rest of the family? And what about Robert Reed? He had been the biggest pain on the set of the original show, often rewriting scripts that particularly irked him, none of which were ever used. The Kroffts were pleasantly surprised; Reed was one of the first to sign on and the most enthusiastic cast member on the set. One by one the other castmembers signed on, with one glaring exception- Eve Plumb.

Contrary to rumor and legend, Eve Plumb didn’t refuse to participate on the show. She was indeed trying to leave “Jan Brady” behind, but she was still willing to revisit her most known role. She just couldn’t fully commit to the show due to her other projects. ABC and the Kroffts, having signed everyone else stood firm. Eve’s participation needed to be all or nothing. She passed. By this time, word had finally reached Sherwood Schwartz and Paramount that ABC was trying to reunite the Bradys. Schwartz was initially upset, since he had control of the rights to the show. Since ABC and the Kroffts had already signed most of the original cast, and the kids desperately needed the money, he gave his blessing to the project. The original show had made him a millionaire several times over while the actual Bradys were no longer making a dime from the show. Perhaps he felt he owed them. In any event, the publicity ABC was sure to drum up for the variety show was certain to bring more attention to his reruns, generating millions more for him.

After a quick casting search, the Kroffts found their new Jan Brady- Geri Reischl, who was embraced by the original cast. The Bradys were reunited- but would Robert Reed’s old habit of objecting to everything rear its ugly head? Could the Kroffts knock this Bunch into shape on the compressed schedule they were given by ABC? It would take a Herculean effort to get this project off the ground- would the Kroffts be able to do it? Stay tuned!

Monday, September 10, 2018

“The Brady Bunch Hour”: Here’s The Story...

Not every television show has a long life; in fact, most shows barely last past one season. Despite the long odds, there are hundreds of new shows produced each year from thousands of submissions. While many of these long forgotten shows live on solely due to their awkward publicity photos, others stand out because of how bizarre they were.

No, we’re not talking about Ferris Bueller, but apparently Jennifer Aniston *can* lose...

One of the most bizarre one and out television shows that ever escaped from Hollywood was The Brady Bunch Hour, a bizarre variety show that was based on the classic ABC sitcom The Brady Bunch. Today, The Brady Bunch is known as a classic, ubiquitous sitcom, it was anything but during its initial run on ABC. The show was in constant fear of being canceled, ABC’s renewal decisions coming in at seemingly the last minute. Most of the show’s side projects, like the soundtrack albums and concert tours, were made to build the show’s visibility, not to take advantage of its success. The show’s biggest success came after it was canceled and entered syndication. The show was given the lucrative afterschool timeslot in most American television markets, and it was here that it became the legendary success that it is known for today.

Unfortunately for the young cast, however, that success translated to few dollars. While reruns were a thing in 1969 when the Brady kids signed their contracts, the idea of perpetual residuals was not. Paramount Television only paid the Brady kids residuals for the first six reruns. After that, they would receive no further remuneration. By 1976, residuals had dried up and most of the kids were unable to find further Hollywood work. The huge success that the show had garnered since its syndication run was definitely noticed by ABC executive Fred Silverman, who suggested that the sagging Donny and Marie variety show host a reunion of sorts for whichever Brady Bunch castmembers were willing to appear. The heavily hyped episode was a huge success. If ABC could mine ratings gold from just four Bradys, what magic might occur from a full fledged Brady spinoff variety show?

Just like formulaic disaster movies dominated the box office in the 1970’s, tacky variety shows dominated television. Featuring tacky, lavish music performances and lame ‘comedy’ sketches, these variety shows were all over television at the time. One of the tackiest, lamest shows was Donny and Marie, a show produced by Sid and Marty Krofft for ABC. Donny and Marie’s strict Mormon parents controlled most every aspect of the show. Sid and Marty Krofft were eager to create their own hit show from scratch, one completely controlled by them. That’s why they were completely receptive when Fred Silverman asked them to quickly setup a new variety show featuring the Bradys. In fact, both ABC and the Kroffts were so excited about getting this new show off the ground, they completely neglected to get permission from either Paramount or original Brady Bunch creator Sherwood Schwartz. Would this prove to be a big problem? Would they get the entire family to come back for this ambitious project? Oddly enough, these would eventually be the least of their worries.