Thirty Seconds Over L.A. --- Part One
Among Greenbriar's favorite briar patches is movies' arrival to television, easily forgotten being fact that way more folks first saw pics there than in theatres. Huge was viewership when a biggie saw network premiere, attitudes then being same as now ... why pay for something you eventually can get free? By the sixties and unleashing of post-48 inventory, we'd for a most part chucked theatre-going in favor of short waits at home. Exhibitors poll of patrons found most assumed movies went tele-way within a year or so of theatre play. That wasn't accurate, but neither was it wide enough of truth to propel bodies off sofas and back into paying mode. The horror that was near-collapse of big screen attendance began when
Up to then, most features sold to TV were B's, British, or bank-repossessed. Major distribs guarded well their treasure and swore home viewers wouldn't pillage same. Old movies thus went unseen but for reissues and 16mm rental, these representing but a fraction of what vaults hid. It was Howard Hughes what breached walls with December 1955 tender of RKO's backlog to tubes. Blows continued landing on exhibition's solar plexus through a following year. Warners sold its pre-48 library outright that Spring, and by May 1956, 20th Fox was leasing fifty-two from its trophy case for airplay. "TV's Box Score," according to The Motion Picture Herald in June, '56, included 2,628 "first-class"
Loew's, Inc. had studied "very carefully" a surrender to TV since February, according to the Herald, but didn't want to sell the farm as had Warners and RKO, despite fifty million having been offered. Lure of half such a windfall had enmeshed WB/RKO in respective devil's bargaining with Associated Artists and General Tire. Despite $ realized, they'd see but a fraction of what pics would earn once syndicating began in earnest (WB cartoons alone were worth many times what the company took for their entire library). Loew's had dabbled in television with its MGM Parade, what MPH called an "ill-fated" (gone as of May '56) venture in partnership with the ABC network. Feelers were out for network unspooling of Metro oldies, but policy as of then discouraged web reliance on feature pics. NBC was ironclad against using them, while ABC had but dipped toes prime-timing a British package to notable lack of success. Only CBS broke bread with Loew's by leasing The Wizard Of Oz for November 1956 airing, but they'd have none of others from Metro's stash.
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Markets nationwide coveted MGM's library, the question being how many could meet their price. These fabled Biggest Of Big were conceded to be far and away most desirable of movie groups offered so far. KTTV put together a massive ad assault for 10/12/56's roll-out of Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, set for 8:00 to 10:30 PM and interrupted but twice for sponsoring Colgate products, each break held to two minutes. The movie would be shown in its entirety. Variety estimated KTTV sunk $100K into promotion for Thirty Seconds, $20,000 of that going to thirty-seven daily Southern Cal newspapers running half-page ads for the Friday night show, figure exceeds that normally spent when a studio opens a top film in a local first-run, said the trade. Choosing Thirty Seconds for an opener was wise --- it had stars still prominent (Spencer Tracy, Van Johnson, a starting-out Robert Mitchum) plus action and much fond viewer association.
Two-weeks' thumping found all local KTTV personalities using toy lion gimmicks on their shows, according to Billboard, along with MGM-supplied trailers for Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and others of the so-called "Great MGM Library." These are the same trailers originally used by theaters, said Metro field reps targeting buyer stations to help out with ballyhoo. Helicopters went aloft touting
Thirty Seconds Over
TV producer Dick Powell figured KTTV's two million viewer claim for hooey: We're playing a numbers game and don't know how they come up with the numbers. If Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo captured 54.6% of watchers, that meant four million or so people were home in front of their televisions between 8 and 10:30, and yet, said Dick, there were shoppers on the streets and traffic on the freeways. If Audience Research Bureau figures were accurate, to me, it would mean no stores did any business that night; there would be no traffic --- just about everybody would be home watching TV. Variety and theatre executives researched deeper and found that big-screen biz on the Friday night in question was, in fact, ahead of recent weekends: The damaging wallop that was anticipated would be dealt
Tokyo fallout lingered, the threat of its success affecting TV series producers as well as theatre-men. Bill Self was a former actor (for MGM, among others) whose Schlitz Playhouse Of Stars "was murdered" (Variety) by Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. We make a show for $30,000, and we're lucky if we get a star. Against this, we face a Metro picture which costs millions and has big names, to which Self darkly added, I think the move is suicidal for the majors too. MGM veteran Sam Zimbalist, whose own producing credits included Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, was reached by Variety's Dave Kaufman for post-broadcast comment: My own emotions were mixed --- I was pulling against the film because it was on TV, and I was very upset because it was so good. Zimbalist was surprised how well