When I was hired in 1949 to be in charge of television at NBC, I had one specific idea: It would be a terrible mistake to let TV be run like radio. Radio networks sold time to their [advertisers], and each client did what he wanted with it—the big artists were all controlled by sponsors. I went to NBC with the understanding that we would be a programming company that sold advertising, we wouldn’t just sell off our time. It was a massive change.
Jack Benny, who was on CBS, was actually signed by the American Tobacco Company. I didn’t do that. We signed Bob Hope, and he could only work on NBC. It was a fight from the very beginning because the agencies didn’t like my plan. They liked watching the dress rehearsals with their clients and then telling the artists what to do. I said, “None of that, it’s a different world.” I sold my shows by the minute. Never before had anybody sold minutes on a network, but by the time I left, after eight seasons, it was accepted.
Comedy was the absolute big, big hit in those days. I wanted to force as many people as possible to watch the Philco Television Playhouse, and the way I did that was to have it follow the Comedy Hour with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Hope and other stars. We used comedy every night at 8 P.M. to get the major audience and then try to have it flow into more rewarding material, things that would inform, inspire and educate. All things were possible. In 1955, for Producers Showcase, I brought in the Royal Ballet dancing Sleeping Beauty with Margot Fonteyn, and there was no drop-off in the minute-by-minute rating. We had Katharine Cornell in her Broadway play The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Humphrey Bogart in his only TV performance, The Petrified Forest, and things like Tosca with Leontyne Price.
We got a tremendous reception from the consumers. We gave them a living theater. Today, the networks only appeal to the heavy viewer centers, the people who watch television all the time. We went out and found the segments of the population that weren’t using television, and then we’d do something to make them use it. The Today show was a morning service that everyone said would fail. They called it Weaver’s Folly. When we found that almost half the women weren’t watching the soaps, we started the Home show with Arlene Francis and Hugh Downs, which brought in new money and new viewers. If you only go after the heavy viewer center, all your shows start to look alike.
When the advertisers said, “We want Peter Pan but not the Metropolitan Opera,” I’d say, “Look, fellas, if you want to advertise on Producers’ Showcase, these are the programs. If you don’t want it, don’t buy it.” There are tricks to get the big audience. You don’t have to do it by getting your nose broken by a chair.