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Monday, August 22, 2016

When Sunday Night Became Event Night

Disney and RCA Create A Wonderful World Of Color TV Sales

Dateline December 1961: NBC execs and affiliates meet to celebrate 35 years of network success. Parent company RCA has a greater than ever stake in the peacock, its feathers plumed for record number of color broadcast hours (1,630 for 1961-62 said NBC trade ads). All of brass is convened at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, RCA board chairman Gen. David Sarnoff delayed thanks to stop-off in Oklahoma "to be inducted into an Indian tribe as a chief." Sarnoff had been media's power incarnate for longer than most people had been aware of television, and earlier, radio, him credited with virtual invention of broadcast itself. The Big Chief came west on prime mission to sell America on color TV, his partner in merchandising the biggest single name in family entertainment, Walt Disney. What wouldn't we give for a transcript of these two in private conference? Walt was deeper in bed with RCA than any advertiser his company had ever dealt with. Archaic days of ABC and Peter Pan Peanut Butter were by the boards for good --- this was Big business. Walt Disney's Wonderful World Of Color had premiered on Sunday, 9/24/61, and color set sales were rocketing since. Retail stores had customers at the door on Monday mornings, waiting for demo of RCA's color miracle. Would Walt take time to personally conduct NBC visitors through Disneyland during convention week? Yes, he would.

Sarnoff and NBC boss Robert Kintner estimated a million as "good round figure" of sales for color television, nearly half that generated since RCA's early '61 push. There were 179 NBC affiliates broadcasting in color, but prices for a home set came high, beyond reach of most. Initially $1000 when RCA first offered color in 1954, now the cost was half that, but how many had $500 to sink in such a luxury? Sarnoff and crew were confident we'd come up with it somehow, especially now that their network, at least on big viewing Sundays, was a virtual paint-box. The campaign needed a name like Disney's to shake consumer money off trees, and even though it would be mid-sixties before color really took hold, this was a good start. Whatever lucky family had a set could count on neighbors stopping in for Disney and Bonanza parlay. What child of the era didn't beg Mom/Dad for family purchase of the rainbow? That little COLOR box on TV Guide listings was narcotic all sought, but few could afford. I'd defy anyone who grew up in the 60's not to remember when a first color set entered the house.

NBC had been after Disney since his dissatisfaction with ABC became known, first for an animated situation comedy after fashion of The Flintstones, "nixed" by Walt, "who has frequently been described as a man who won't undertake a project unless he likes it," said Variety. He didn't like this one, so no go. Besides, each episode would cost upward of $80K, a figure NBC blanched at. They had their deal by then (February 1961) for the Sunday series, but wanted more. Would Disney let the network re-run his western shows from the ABC pact, such as Zorro, Texas John Slaughter, etc.? Thumbs down for that too, said WD. He was for color only, and a brightest showcase to display it. Walt would spend "way over what I get" from NBC, adding that "I'm not selling color for RCA. I'm selling it for myself." Here was certainly truth being told, as The Wonderful World Of Color would be a best-ever venue to promote all things Disney, including his theatrical features and the Anaheim park. First WD theatrical product to get the Sunday night push was Grayfriars Bobby, an October-November release that rode meteor of initial NBC Disney weeks, where it was advertised at conclusion of each high-rated episode.

Premiere night was brazen for making color the be-all for watching, Variety commenting that Disney's "entertainment quotient" was, at least for a first half, left "dangling on a promissory note" as he delivered what amounted to a "demonstration piece" for RCA television. Who'd complain, however, of Walt himself giving guided tour of Sunday night's future, now securely in his hands? Lead-in was The Bullwinkle Show at 7:00, also color, and opportunity for families to settle supper dishes and gather round the tube for main event that was Disney. NBC figured dials pointing their way for whole of an evening, Bonanza having been moved to 9:00 and also a showcase for color. Even black-and-white hiccup of Car 54 --- Where Are You? got traction for coming between Disney and the Cartwrights, Proctor and Gamble grabbing exclusive sponsorship in hope that Disney's audience would stick out another thirty minutes with the net while waiting for Bonanza. As to Disney sponsor, it was, of course, RCA, but also Eastman Kodak, which was a fit, as they were pitching color possibilities of a new camera line. The Wonderful World Of Color was bold statement that a black-and-white viewing world was soon to go, with NBC and RCA applying the push. Question, though: Did viewers lacking finance for the expensive new sets resent the crowd-out?

Disney emphasized progress, as he'd been wont to do over a long career, showing clips from Steamboat Willie to illustrate how he'd put a silent era to rout ("crude and primitive" he called the 1928 short). Glimpse Walt gives of first-in-Technicolor Flowers and Trees also points up refinements needed, that he had supplied with Fantasia, highlight of which illustrates animation in full-flower. The Wonderful World Of Color was nothing if not polished. There are songs, including a theme, written fresh for the occasion by the Sherman Brothers, and a new cartoon character, Prof. Ludwig Von Drake, joins the menagerie. Von Drake was less funny than talkative, easing some of Walt's host duty as weeks rolled up in that first season. Lengthy lecture on color values eats thirty minutes before we plunge into Donald In Mathmagic Land, a featurette that had gone out with Darby O' Gill and The Little People to 1959 theatrical dates.

Disney policy changed little for all of dramatic switch to a new network and color. Lots more would tune in, simply for muscle NBC had over comparative puny ABC. There would be library dependence, as with the old Disneyland program. First-run movies in two, even three, parts, captivated viewership over the 1961-62 haul. Second Sunday of premiere season offered The Horsemasters, a teens in saddle deal that Disney had shot on economy basis with an English crew. Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates, had been intended for theatres, said Variety, but re-routed to The Wonderful World Of Color, and amounting to a "World Premiere" of this rather handsome feature. More of latter was The Prince and The Pauper, which had Guy (Zorro) Williams in derring-do that rival networks could scarcely compete with for production gloss. Several of these saw Euro play in theatres, where they'd stand ground against any major release (The Prince and The Pauper presently streams in HD at Vudu and Amazon). Disney didn't want The Wonderful World Of Color to be a kid's show, and so doled out cartoon episodes sparingly --- he'd also drop westerns --- while ramped up was nature and Euro-shot "People/Places" stuff, which made each Sunday a decision for viewers. No two Disney episodes were alike, which was how he wanted it. The 9/24/61 premiere of The Wonderful World Of Color showed up recently on TCM's Disney night, hosted by Leonard Maltin, giving us a first opportunity in fifty-five years to savor a historic night in broadcasting. Let's hope more episodes are forthcoming.


Blogger tbonemankini said...

Being a comparative late comer to colour TV ownership,I still marvel at the ability of the MAD MEN of TV to sell colour TV on a B/W screen. Even though a lot like me had to do with second-hand exposure,most likely a friend or neighbour(less likely a relative!!!!),it had burrowed into the American dream in a relatively short time. Sweet aspirations. ....

6:04 AM  
Blogger Randy Jepsen said...

My dad got a color TV in the summer of 1964. The first show I saw in color was JEOPARDY. It was a magical time.

8:39 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

NBC's earlier attempt to bombard households with RCA color TVs had fallen flat when the network premiered BONANZA in September 1959. PERRY MASON, over at CBS, nearly blew the Cartwright's off the video map, coming close to a first year cancellation of the western series. Fortunately, someone at the peacock place convinced all to hang with Ben and Boys, and it took off that third season when moved to Sunday night.

10:51 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

My first color TV (an RCA) was delivered sometime on a Thursday morning during my eighth grade year of public schooling. I rode my bike home as fast as I could and watched NBC's 3:30 game show YOU DON'T SAY with Tom Kennedy. The female guest panelist was Pat Carroll (who is still with us). I don't recall the male. That evening, I watched JONNY QUEST, HAZEL and THE DEAN MARTIN SHOW in living color.

10:56 AM  
Blogger kenneth Von Gunden said...

When the promo for an upcoming show said "Brought to you in living color on NBC," I couldn't figure the show was still b/w on our old black-and-white set.

We did the neighbor thing for BONANZA and THE VIRGINIAN. Westerns were great for the hard-to-control colors on a new TV. But the tint on brown was really hard--you had to blend the red and the green controls. Brown horses often had a slight greenish cast to their coats. As for black people........well, it was the sixties, after all.

11:38 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Be neat if they aired the Disney World Of Color program with The Pastoral Symphony from FANTASIA uncut & uncensored as Walt meant it to be seen.

12:41 PM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks Jr said...

My Dad had monochromatic vision. He would not shell out the bucks for a color set. We never had a color set as a kid. I can remember spending an evening with neighbors watching their color set. It was one of my awesome technological moments. I had the misconception that a color set would play shows shot in B&W in color.

4:38 PM  
Blogger Donald Benson said...

In an age when cartoons, nature films and movie genres have their own cable channels, it's hard for whippersnappers to comprehend what a big deal "World of Color" was. My parents held out a long time before buying a Sony, mainly because we lived in an area where you were lucky to get a decent B&W image (I remember watching Smothers Brothers in B&W). "World of Color" was still event television, even in B&W.

Overseas theatrical runs of films like "Hans Brinker" and "Horse Without a Head" certainly defrayed or even covered production costs (was there still a financial incentive to spend foreign profits locally?); and the focus on eclectic, evergreen subject matter meant a high percentage of episodes could be repeated a few seasons later -- exactly as many Disney theatricals were re-released. "Alice in Wonderland" actually went BACK to theaters after a few TV showings. As kids we didn't complain. We looked forward to reruns of old favorites (and in time, Disney did allow old ABC episodes -- the ones he shot in color, at least -- to appear on "World of Color").

Once they built up a nice stack of perennials, did a season of "World of Color" cost that much more than, say, Bonanza? Three weeks with the ever-popular Scarecrow could offset an especially costly new episode. And Disney DID offer budget fare, like "My Dog the Thief" (sitcom antics about a kleptomaniac St. Bernard), the glorified movie trailers and milder documentaries.

Disney's foreign theatricals might be worth a post. He even released featurettes culled from the show (the Man In Space series and "Disneyland After Dark"); I think the featurettes got domestic play as well. Also in the 60s MGM marketed "Man From Uncle" two-parters as features, sometimes shooting new scenes to pad them out or add a mild raciness.

6:17 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

When you write that some productions had Euro releases, that is a sign that there are things still unknown in the United States and nobody is going to learn about them. Certain Disney features did not have Euro only releases, the were actually being shown all over the world except in the United States.

Europe is actually not a good point of reference for any film historian of worth: for instance, Harold Lloyd's SAFETY LAST was seeing in Latin America distributed in Paramount while to Europe it only arrived in 1927 and, by then, also distributed by Paramount.

In the sixties all of the Hollywood studios reedited a number of episodes of certain TV shows to be released as feature length films to movie theaters outside the United States. I vividly remember an episode of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE that was released to "European theaters" only... but I have the poster from Argentina which indicated that the movie was shown all over the world, except in the States (even though they were not the best episodes of series):

The Disney TV shows made it to Argentina for the first time in 1961 in a channel that was, then, a subsidiary of NBC. However, in 1963 the owners of that station rescinded their association with NBC and after that, the show (Disneyland) went to another channel that was a subsidiary of CBS. The shows were never broadcast in color because in Argentina color TV did not became officially available until May 1, 1980, even though some stations were already equipped by 1969.

Yet, the Disney shows were those originally produced for NBC. It was not until 1967 that the older shows produced in black and white became available, and Guy Williams literally moved to Buenos Aires due to the popularity of Zorro which, at least until recently, was still shown by the very same channel that originally aired the series with good ratings.

I know that Disney unquestionably repackaged some of his TV shows to be shown in movie theaters during the sixties. There was an important reason why this was done.

Since many shows were originally produced in color and broadcasts were still in black and white in most of the world, movie releases allowed studios to directly exploit their shows in color and without dubbed versions. The cost to produce these versions was insignificant and the revenues were not shared with the TV networks that originally financed those shows. Even made for television movies (or cable) were released to movie theaters, at least in Latin America: the pilots of the SPIDERMAN and THE INCREDIBLE HULK series were released as movies in Argentina and I saw the first of them in a theater myself. If you pay attention to the way the pilot of THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO was produced, you will note that it was done in a way so the image could be masked for widescreen exhibition, even though I haven't found ads for a theatrical release... yet.

I have seen many films in theaters in Buenos Aires that were either TV movies or TV series reedited as feature length films. The last I remember was TREASURY ISLAND with Charlton Heston in 1988

10:06 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Somewhere out there in an old TV station vault lies the Disney TV Show episode with the PASTORAL SYMPHONY in its politically incorrect as Walt meant it to be seen. Perhaps Argentina?

6:40 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

I remember we moppets filled my home town's STATE THEATRE to see THE SIGN OF ZORRO. Screams of anger prevailed as soon as we realized it was TV episodes we had earlier watched at home on Thursday nights.

Same thing with the first "theatrical" U.N.C.L.E. feature, but at least, it was in color, unlike the TV viewing at my house.

We never fell for another U.N.C.L.E. paste-up again.

10:04 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

During the sixties, Disney prepared movie packages that were in constant circulation. Here is an image of one of them, from 1962 in Rosario, Argentina.

Distributed by Rank, one of the movies was THE SIGN OF ZORRO. The actual show did not made it to Argentine television until several years later.

Those movies prepared from episodes of TV series were originally intended for markets in which those shows were originally unknown. Although regular TV broadcasts started in Argentina in 1951, the industry did not really developed until late 1960. For this reason, the shows that were actually available were not always the current ones and there was not enough space to present all of them.

This is why also the made for TV movies were frequently rerouted to theaters outside the United States, although a few went straight to television.

Here are two examples:

There are a lot of posters around there with either TV movies, pilots or episode compilation films ready to be rescued.

1:38 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

I didn't have color TV till getting a set as a wedding gift in 1972. Before that my only -- and I mean ONLY -- exposure to color TV was when visiting my uncle on Thanksgiving and/or Christmas, and one afternoon when we all trooped into a friend's house (this was probably around '65) to sample his family's brand-new machine. It was the only visit I ever made to see his TV because his dad, otherwise a nice guy, did not like kids other than his own in his house.

The main attraction of my friend's new TV was not just the spectacle of color. It was the tricks it would play. My friend, with great delight, demonstrated. We'd be watching something in bright, beautiful color, then my friend would go into the kitchen, open the refrigerator door and hold it open. As he did, the color slowly drained out of the picture. Within a minute, maybe two, we were watching a pure black and white image. Then he'd close the fridge and the color would, just as gradually, seep back into the picture. Neat trick.

Certainly we wished that we owned a color TV, but I don't think we ever begged for one. We knew all too well that such a thing was way out of our budget capability. We watched Uncle Walt and BONANZA religiously anyway. And I don't recall a single occasion when any of us said, "gee, I wish we could see this in color." Matter of fact, years later, when I saw BONANZA in color, I was shocked. I had totally forgotten that it had ever been that way. To me, it was just another black and white show from my youth.

2:45 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I vividly remember when in Argentina, the official color TV broadcasts started on May 1, 1980. It was quite a process.

First, two TV stations in Buenos Aires equipped themselves with color hardware imported from the United States with the intention to make the switch in 1972. Then, the Federal Government "banned" color broadcasts yet that was very soon ignored because Argentina committed around the same time to host the 1978 soccer world cup with a mandatory commitment to have a color signal.

Since then, color broadcasts were held for internal use or exhibitions. However, in July 1974, almost all of the stations were expropriated by the government and that delayed developments for a while. Yet, in 1975 the State owned channel (now TV Publica Argentina, which has an online stream available for free) rented Brazilian equipment to produce a live color broadcast to be seen at the OTI festival, even though domestically the show was only available in black and white.

Trials and rehearsal went through since then and in 1977 a new facility was built to handle the color broadcasts of the soccer world cup. For this purpose, a new station was established even though it was not broadcasting to domestic audiencfes as a channel. Before and after that, they were only producing some rather minor productions for demonstrations or exhibitions.

During the world cup people saw most of the games at home in black and white although in certain movie theaters and caf├ęs all over the country actually offered color broadcasts.

At this time, around August 1978, it was evident that color television was going to happen at some point. For these reason, a lot of people went to Brazil and Paraguay to purchase color TV sets even before they became available in Argentina. The domestically manufactured sets were actually more expensive at the time.

In 1979, the State TV channel merged with the company that handled the world cup broadcast on their location which they are still using. Since its beginnings the intention was to produce color broadcasts but they still went on the air in black and white... except, that when the regular broadcast time was over (from around 12:00 AM to 6:00 AM) they were actually repeating the shows and movies in color. Two of the other channels in Buenos Aires joined these "experimental" broadcasts.

On May 1, 1980, two channels in Buenos Aires switched to full color broadcasts. The third one joined by the end of the month and soon almost all of the channels in the country were broadcasting in color (Argentina does not have a formal network television system as in most countries).

However, one channel in Buenos Aires was unable to make the switch due to financial restrains and was forced to keep broadcasting in black and white. This station was in dire straits because the few shows that they have were actually failing. But later in 1980, the Federal Government rescued them by giving them money to purchase color equipment which they did beginning their color broadcasts during May 1981.

Color broadcasts in Argentina was distinguished by a few important changes. For a rather long while, black and white shows and movies banished almost completely. Among the few monochromatic things that remained were THE THREE STOOGES shorts, the movie THE LONGEST DAY and not much more. The Laurel and Hardy movies, silent comedy shorts and black and white cartoons vanished almost forever.

Old TV shows and movies gained a new life at this time because they were now available in color. Sometimes actors had to compete against themselves because one channel would put on the air a current show while another would play an old one.

Later in the eighties some channels, mostly cable, would resurrect a lot of black and white productions.

8:03 PM  
Blogger CanadianKen said...

My folks didn't get a color TV till the late 60's when I was away at college. The first thing I remember seeing on that set was a broadcast of "Yankee Pasha" with Jeff Chandler and Rhonda Fleming. And - boy - was that Fleming fueled color eye-popping!

3:26 AM  
Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

First color TV in 1966. I recall seeing BEWITCHED in color. I was impressed. :)

8:19 PM  
Blogger antoniod said...

I learned about the difference between reason and emotion from Ludwig Von Drake.

3:22 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

My dad owned an appliance store, so we were fortunate enough to get color TVs early on. He said "Bonanza" was responsible for selling more of them than any other show.

11:07 AM  

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