Uncle Miltie's lasting legacy

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In the late `40s, Milton Berle's TV show motivated Americans to go out and buy a little black & white set so they could watch his raucous vaudeville routines, the seltzer-schpritzing, mugging with blacked-out teeth and manic skits. Yes, he was usually tasteless and crude. But, hey, the show was live. It was TV. It had yucks. It was better than those B&W test patterns. And it was free.

The death of "Uncle Miltie" last month, at 93, inspired articles about how and why he became our "Mr. Television" but also set in motion attempts to relate his six-year "Texaco Star Theater" run to today's marketing environment. What long-forgotten secrets of Berle's success can be applied to audience-building, brand loyalty and lasting impact in this new century? The answer: for TV advertisers, few if any.

Berle's success blurs today's marketing vision. Our latest, most ambitious TV deals cannot come close to matching what Berle and his Texaco sponsor accomplished back in TV's pioneering `40s and`50s. Yet the Berle era is destined to remain a narrow, primitive model, chiefly because today's marketplace carries enormously higher price tags, and more options.

not like `the early days'

Take the latest big deal: Ford Motor Co.'s agreement to give NBC $9 million worth of network advertising in return for heavy cross-promotional marketing and tie-in marketing programs involving Lincoln vehicles and Jay Leno's "Tonight" audience. It has been described as "reminiscent of the early days of TV, when advertisers unsubtly sponsored entire shows."

Really? Is "Tonight" being renamed, "The Lincoln Star Theater?" In "the early days," newly installed TV executives desperately looked to radio for their programming, just as earlier radio executives looked to vaudeville. There were only around 100,000 TV sets in use in January 1948, when Kudner Agency Exec VP Myron Kirk began working on transferring his Texaco-sponsored Berle radio show to TV.

Warning: The following paragraph may cause dizziness and elevated blood pressure among many TV advertisers. Reader discretion is advised.

When "The Texaco Star Theater" officially made its debut on NBC-TV in September 1948, its weekly budget was $15,000. That's not even $1 million for a full 39-week season. Berle-TV star, director, producer, writer, costumer, makeup man, whatever-received $1,250 per show.

By 1949, however, there were 700,000 home TV sets in use, Berle was up to $6,000 a week, and in TV Land more Americans were visiting their TV-equipped neighbors' homes to enjoy the show.

During the next two years, 7.4 million more TV sets were added and major advertisers rushed to attach their names to TV programs. Along came "Hallmark Hall of Fame," "Ford Startime," "DuPont Show of the Month," "GE Theater," "Camel News Caravan," "Bob Hope's Chrysler Theater," "Gillette Cavalcade of Sports," "Kraft Music Hall." Full sponsorship's glory years-with 60-second commercials-were under way. Of course, during the next 10 years ad costs escalated by 500%, and doubled again between '59 and '71. Advertisers, forced to scale back, settled for alternate-week or co-sponsorship arrangements, 30- and 10-second spots, and looked for TV "specials" to get attention. Our Mr. Television, burned out by then, was headlining "Jackpot Bowling."

In 1976, recalling those years, Dick Pinkham, chairman of the Ted Bates & Co. executive committee, referred to Uncle Miltie's 8 p.m.-to-9 p.m. Tuesday hour as TV's "golden time period." The reasons? One advertiser, Texaco, owned the time period, had its name on a show tailored to attract its target audience, enjoyed cost-protection and even had in-show commercials delivered by the star. For a bonus, Mr. Pinkham cited a viewer "gratitude factor," long gone with the advent of the TV scatter buy.

He could have tossed one more bonus onto the pile-Berle's opening jingle: "Oh, we're the men of Texaco/We work from Maine to Mexico/There's nothing like this Texaco of ours ...." It's still out there.

not even close

Can any of today's time periods-gold, silver or bronze-compare? Will the Lincoln-NBC-Leno concerts become a 21st century version of Kudner-Texaco-Berle? Or the modest Dr. Scholl's product placement tie-in with CBS's "Survivor?" Or any number of major advertiser ties to seasonal TV specials or sports events? Not even close.

The point is that Berle's impact will always be a historic curiosity, an incentive, a case history of ultimate TV power. But it's not a realistic advertising goal given today's media milieu.

Instead, Berle's accomplishment should inspire advertisers to go the non-TV route with customized, well-funded marketing programs linked to all sorts of worthy causes at city, state, regional or national levels. Creative, serious, long-range tie-ins can generate lasting, Berlean exposure for sponsors. And the cost, relatively, would be more manageable. Throw in that "gratitude factor" and TV's fabled Uncle Miltie impact can yet serve to inspire marketing's next legends, out where blacked-out teeth and outrageous comedy skits aren't the whole story.

Fred Danzig, Advertising Age's editor for 10 of his 33 years with this newspaper, happens to have been one of those who would watch Uncle Miltie on a neighbor's TV set. Last month, he and that neighbor's daughter celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

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