May 21, 2022

This week in TV Guide: May 21, 1954

It's been said, by no less an authority than me, that a wedding is the last refuge of television shows. It can be used to boost ratings, to inject new life into an aging storyline, to spin-off a character into a new series, or some combination of all three. Invariably, however, such nuptial events prove to be ratings blockbusters, and one of television's first such "events" is the wedding of Robinson Peepers and Nancy Remington on Sunday night's episode of the long-running sitcom Mister Peepers. (6:30 p.m. CT, NBC)

To many, the wedding, "after two years of timorous all-but-kissless romance," comes as something of a surprise. Wally Cox himself, who plays "TV's bucolic boy scout" and is, himself, a bachelor, expresses a mild surprise at this turn of events. "Peepers never struck me as having the nerve to marry," Cox says. "He's not only out of step with the world; I think he's a pretty ineffectual male. Pat [Benoit, who plays Nancy] and I used to speculate on what Peepers really does think—or do. I kind of look at him in wonder, don't you?" Benoit herself noted that "Wally always told people Robinson would never marry."

The producers, however, think differently. "Nothing could be more fitting for a family show. Marriage would open up new story lines. It is definitely popular with women. It sets an example for America's youth. And Nancy's luck might encourage all impatient, single girls." Acknowledges Cox, "Nancy might also look foolish dating a man for two years without getting anywhere. My writers would be the ones who know." 

Those writers have grand ideas; says Jim Fritzell, "Lots of story sequences and all the time people growing." Cox wants guarantees, though; when director Hal Keith promises him that "This will positively not degenerate into a family situation comedy—the idiot husband sort," Cox replies, "If it did, they'd have to get a new actor."

The Peepers wedding becomes one of the biggest TV events of the year, as such things will. However, the show only runs one more season after the "Wedding of the Year." This is also a common occurrence; sometimes the tension that's held the series together disappears (Moonlighting, although there was no marriage); sometimes the writers find out that those extra storylines didn't work after all (Rhoda); sometimes, the show's ratings just take a fall (The Farmer's Daughter). That doesn't stop shows from taking the plunge, though, and they aren't all disasters; My Three Sons ran for two more seasons after Steve Douglas remarried, and The Danny Thomas Show, which wisely had the wedding occur off-screen (during the summer break), ran for seven successful seasons.

I'm certainly pro-marriage, but I'm most certainly not a romantic, so I can't say that I approve of this disturbing trend. Were it not for the fact that Mister Peepers is a genuinely funny show, it would have a lot to answer for.

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"The public is becoming surfeited with outlandish crime," according to Martin Manulis, and we're not talking about Congress on television. No, Manulis is referring to Suspense, the long-running show of which he's now producer. It's not that rough stuff is altogether gone, but Manulis promises it will be tasteful violence. "There'll be no more hoods or professional gangsters," he promises. "In many cases we've found ourselves doing documentaries, rather than criminal suspense stories." 

So far, so good; ratings are up, as are fan letters, and Suspense has broadened its subject matter far beyond "routine crime stuff." Stories from Dickens, Zola and Balzac have found their way to the tube—just as crime comes in many forms, suspense can be psychological as well as physical,— and Manulis even toys with the idea of bring a straight drama to the show. He knows if the ratings don't bear out the change in the long run, it'll be back to the old formula, but he's betting that they will.

It does seem, as I've mentioned before, that violence on television has been an issue ever since shortly after television was a thing, and Herman Lowe's article on the state of the industry acknowledges that "[i]t affects almost everything it touches, and the length of its reach never ceases to amaze. We all know those stories about how movie theaters suffered on the nights when Milton Berle was on. A national organization of restaurants complains that people are eating at home instead of going out, so they won't miss the quiz and variety shows. In Little Rock, the transit system proposed a rate boost because of a fall in revenue—too many people staying home watching TV.

But things aren't all negative. Some within the trade refer to television as "The Monster," meaning that it doesn't know its own strength. For example, how much of the economic boom is television responsible for? "In a handful of postwar years, it has proved itself one of the most persuasive merchandisers of goods and ideas in history." There's a whole new line of furniture: television chairs, television tables, television lamps. American manufacturers "are turning out more sets annually than the rest of the world combined."  

That means, according to Paul A. Walker, former chairman of the FCC, that "within two years after a station goes on the air, the great majority of families in that community buy TV sets ranging in price from $200 to $400." This means not only business for the retailer, but for the repairman and the local utility. And we can't forget that the station pays out between $200,000 and $1,000,000 annually in salaries, plus taxes to local, state, and Federal governments. And sponsors pay $8 million to $10 million annually to have sporting events televised.

So television seems to be the golden goose, doesn't it? But there's one thing television has done for which it can't be forgiven. "TV brought millions of Americans directly into the convention hall to watch the Republicans and Democrats choose their Presidential nominees." Indeed, it will make it easier for politicians to communicate with more people at one time than they ever thought possible. Almost enough to make you get rid of your TV, isn't it?

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Well, that was fun, wasn't it? And now for some more fun.

On Friday night at 10:00 p.m., Chicago columnist and television host Irv Kupcinet hosts the fifth annual Cerebral Palsy Telethon (ABC), a 28-hour, star-studded extravaganza with Sarah Vaughan, Don McNeill, Fran Allison and Burr Tillstrom, Johnny Desmond, Walter Slezak, Melvyn Douglas, Ray Walson, Bill Hayes, and many more. The goal is $600,000; not quite sure how much they made, but if you're interested, here's a clip (one of two on YouTube) from that 1954 telethon:

On Sunday, Meet the Press (5:00 p.m., NBC) hosts an unusual show, one we wouldn't see nowadays: a debate between William White, President of the New York Central Railroad, and Robert Young, former President of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad. The two are battling for control of the NYC; Young is leading what turns out to be a successful proxy fight to oust management of the debt-ridden railroad. According to the always-reliable Wikipedia, Young found the New York Central in worse shape than he'd imagined, and after suspending dividend payments, he committed suicide in January 1958.

Ed Sullivan's rival in these years is the Colgate Comedy Hour, and I'll present their lineups to you without judgment: 

Sullivan (7:00 p.m., CBS): Ed introduces a film segment from Gone With the Wind, featuring Clark Gable, Vivian Leigh, and Leslie Howard. Guests include comedy team Betty and Jane Kean; singer Mindy Carson; "Mr. Pastry" Richard Hearne; dancers Page & Bray; and English singing star Dickie Valentine. Film producer David O. Selznick appears to discuss the story behind the reissue of Gone With the Wind.

Comedy Hour (7:00 p.m., NBC): Tonight's stars are Bud Abbott & Lou Costello. The Sauter-Finnegan Orchestra, Hoagy Carmichael, and the little singing comedian, Ricky Vera, are guests. Unlike Sullivan, skits make up most of the Abbott& Costello shows.

On Wednesday, Kraft Television Theatre (8:00 p.m., NBC) presents an adaptation of "The Scarlet Letter," Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous morality play, starring Kim Stanley as Hester Prynne and Leslie Nielsen as the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale. Then, on Thursday, Anthony Ross stars as the title character "Dodsworth," Sinclair Lewis's grim story, on Kraft Television Theatre (8:00 p.m., ABC).

Wait a minute, you say, what's this? Two shows with the same name? So which is it: Kraft Television Theatre Wednesday night on NBC, or Thursday night on ABC? The answer is, both. The shows are produced by the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, which represents Kraft; the cheese company sponsors both hours, which adds up to 104 hours of live programming per season. The two shows function as one; Kraft employs six full-time producer-directors, each responsible for one hour every third week. Each episode employs 16 to 18 actors per episode, and with four shows in production at any one time, that means an average of 60 to 70 actors per week. 

The complex setup works like clockwork, as it would have to in order to make everything happen. And the results? The NBC version is number one among hour-long dramas, with the ABC edition gaining each week. Of course, companies and their sponsors don't have control over the schedule the way they once did, but still—can you imagine anything like it?

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Some news from the New York Teletype: Dragnet has bumped I Love Lucy from the #1 position in the ratings, according to the latest American Research Bureau report. It's News to Me, the panel quiz show hosted by John Daly, will be back on CBS this summer, replacing You Are There. That will make two shows that Daly is hosting on the Tiffany Network, while he's head of the news division at ABC. 

In Hollywood, an addendum on Dragnet: a character in a recent episode called a movie "a lousy show," which resulted in a stink coming from some movie exhibitors (remember how touchy they are when it comes to television), with the result that Jack Webb apologized for "bad and thoughtless editing on my part." Du Mont, which makes television sets in addition to broadcasting the shows that appear on them, is predicting a 21-inch color set in the next two to three years, running about $500. And Walt Disney will be originating his ABC show from a new, $9,000,000 amusement park he's building—Disneyland.

In local news, WGN premiered the new film series Life With Elizabeth last Sunday, starring "America's new sweetheart, Betty White." Local sports shows covering the Chicago Cubs are miffed that the Cubbies are charging $100 for guest appearances by their players on TV sports shows, up from $50. It's the same amount they charge for other personal appearances (aside from charity events); the sportscasters say they'll continue their $50 policy whether the Cubs are along for the ride or not.

And finally, "The average family now watches TV a total of five hours, 46 minutes each day," according to Nielsen. By contrast, in 2010, the peak of television viewing, the average family watched 8 hours and 55 minutes per day. Which just goes to show that there's always room for improvement. TV  

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