Production: Programming

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For the first 25 years of network broadcasting, advertising agencies representing major advertisers had primary responsibility for assembling and producing the radio and early TV programs in which their clients' products were showcased. Agencies became both shapers and servants of popular taste and culture.

This went on from the late 1920s into the early '50s, by which time a number of factors began to erode ad agency influence on program production.

The involvement of ad agencies in program production was not always a smooth process. Senior agency executives were sometimes suspicious or indifferent to radio. Raymond Rubicam, who founded Young & Rubicam in 1923, had little interest in the new medium. But he was wise enough to stand aside for younger subordinates who did.

Agency control

By the end of the 1930s, agencies had established formidable bureaucracies that produced more than 80% of all network commercial radio programming. They oversaw vast staffs of joke writers, dramatists, singers, announcers, actors, comedians and major stars, all under the supervision of producers, directors and often writers employed directly by the agency broadcast departments.

By 1938, the radio department at Y&R was nearly 40% larger than the copy department; the latter was responsible for generating the actual commercial messages read by announcers during a show. Agency account execs became the liaison men overseeing it all.

The networks reserved the right to review program content to ensure that it conformed to their standards of taste, but on most matters the final authority was the sponsor. The agency controlled not only program production and content, but the choice of airtime as well. When a sponsor canceled a show, the agency would often hold the time period by offering it to another client.

When Texaco walked away from its "Texaco Star Theater" with Milton Berle in 1953, the TV program was picked up by Buick and became the "Buick Berle Show" in the same time period. The Kudner Agency handled both advertisers.

The networks, meanwhile, grew increasingly frustrated trying to accommodate this outside control. Coming out of World War II, CBS and NBC took active measures to expand their own production capacity, with a view toward developing and scheduling their own inventory of programming and selling it to advertisers. But the momentum of single sponsorship was still strong and radio was more powerful than ever after the war. Some believed the arrival of TV would shift the balance of production control toward the networks. But it would be a slow process because the same institutions and many of the same people who had built radio were now building TV using the same business models. In 1950, most of the top 10 TV programs were produced by a single agency, Y&R.

As radio programming had been before, most TV programming was produced live under agency supervision. For example, J. Walter Thompson Co. had a separate casting department to manage the weekly production of "Kraft Television Theater."

In producing "Man Against Crime" for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.'s Camel cigarettes, William Esty Co. ran the show directly out of its New York office through it own production staff, which commissioned scripts from a small army of free-lance writers. Among the instructions writers received were: only sympathetic characters should be seen smoking, never criminal types; no cigarette should be smoked in a state of nervousness; no story line could involve arson or a fire, lest viewers be reminded of the fires caused by smoking; and no one should ever cough.

Because the theater, like the advertising business, was largely centered in New York, agencies found a wealth of writing and acting talent particularly suited to the rigors of the weekly "TV theater" format. Kraft, Philco Corp., Westinghouse Electric Corp., Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Alcoa Corp. and U.S. Steel Co. all sought prestige as sponsors of live anthology drama series with their names built into the shows' titles. Young writers such as Rod Serling, Paddy Chayefsky and Reginald Rose found themselves attending regular script conferences at JWT and Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn.

In controlling the environments of their selling messages, most sponsors did not wish to associate their brands with provocative content that might antagonize potential buyers, particularly when such brands went into the homes of millions.

However, while advertisers and agencies struggled to hold onto their power over programming, they faced a new force not even they could control: the rising cost of TV production, by some accounts as much as 500% each year. In the early 1950s, it was among the most frequently discussed issues in the trade press. The situation played into the long-term goals of network executives, who were fighting to displace the advertiser influence that had burdened them since the beginning of radio.

To this end, NBC President Sylvester "Pat" Weaver promoted a relatively new broadcast program model called the "magazine" format. "Today," "The Tonight Show," "Home" and "Saturday Night Revue" were all launched in the late 1940s and early '50s as network productions and offered to advertisers in 15-minute segments, thus depriving any one agency of effective control over content.

While this made it possible for a number of smaller advertisers to enter TV, major advertisers such as Procter & Gamble Co., Lever Brothers and Colgate-Palmolive-Peet Co. continued to dominate the air, especially in daytime TV, where a number of soap operas were owned outright by advertisers. As late as 1959, NBC reported that 32 companies, or 10% of its advertisers, were responsible for 65% of its revenue.

Alternating sponsorship

But the ability of advertisers and their agencies to support full production of a single program was waning. The first line of retreat was alternating sponsorship, in which two non-competing advertisers would trade sponsorship every other week. By the 1955-56 season, Stopette deodorant and Remington Rand, alternated on "What's My Line?" After 21 years, Lucky Strike relinquished every other broadcast of "Your Hit Parade" to cosmetics marketer Richard Hudnut. At the same time, agencies began to scale back their broadcast departments.

As the decade went on, the networks became increasingly assertive in building their own schedules with more highly rated, self-produced shows. In 1956, CBS cleared a 90-minute slot in its Thursday night schedule to create "Playhouse 90." The sponsors of the three displaced shows (General Foods, Singer Sewing Machine Co. and Bristol-Myers Co.) were told that CBS would either bring them in as participating sponsors on "Playhouse 90" or try to find another time period for their existing shows. The advertisers saw it as coercion, if not outright eviction.

The role of agencies was in transition in the late 1950s, as their influence continued to decline. The turning point came with the scandal that broke in 1958 in which sponsors and agency producers were accused of rigging the outcomes of big-money quiz shows. With the support of Congress and a reform-minded Federal Communications Commission, the networks moved in and took virtually complete control of their schedules.

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