The two leading recipes for success are
building a better mousetrap and finding a bigger loophole.
Edgar A. Shoaff
For the first few decades of broadcast television, the then three major networks held a near-monopoly on the national audience. More often than not, on any given night it was likely nine out of every ten people watching TV were watching one or another of ABC, CBS, NBC.
But even then, in that small sliver of the audience not watching the nets, there was evidence of a viewer appetite for an alternative to the often formula-dominated programming of the big broadcasters. Statistically, they didn’t amount to more than what would, years later, come to be referred to as a “niche” audience, and you’d be making a hell of an assumption saying they were looking elsewhere for their TV entertainment because they wanted something better. But it was clear they were looking for something different…or, at the very least, something else. And they found it on independent (INTV) stations.
Not every television station in the U.S. was a network affiliate. True, most were, and, in the early days of TV, it was the rare bird suicidal enough to take on the challenge of being an indie station, fighting for air in a network suffocating environment with nothing even approximating the programming or promotional muscle of the nets. In 1949, only two of the 150 stations then operating in the U.S. were independent.
First of all, an indie needed to find a market that could support a fourth station. Through well into the 1970s, the networks held over 90% of all viewing. Obviously, the big advertising money was going to go where the big viewership was, and that gave the nets a lock on major advertisers. Even on a local level, regional advertisers wanted their products hyped as widely as possible, so they naturally gravitated to the strongest stations which, unsurprisingly, were network affiliates. That in mind, an indie broadcaster had to find an urban market big enough where there was enough ad revenue to support their station left over from advertisers the local net affiliates couldn’t take on (because their advertising time was all booked), or wouldn’t take on (because smaller advertisers couldn’t afford their prices for air time).
Some urban markets were big enough to support more than one indie. Take the New York City market — my home ground — for example, encompassing New York City and its suburbs, a good part of northeastern New Jersey, and part of southern Connecticut. With over eight million people in New York City alone, that makes for a total designated market area (DMA — that’s what marketing people like to call geographically defined markets) of somewhere around 15 million people, the largest TV market in the U.S.; big enough, in pre-cable days, to support three indies: WNEW, WOR, and WPIX.
Smaller markets, say those representing just a few hundred thousand people or less, might have only been able to support three network affiliates and no more. Some markets couldn’t even manage that. There were markets with just two net affiliates, or maybe only one full-time affiliate with another station splitting its time between two networks. There were markets so small they could barely support even one station.
Even in a fat, fertile DMA like New York, competition for indies was always tough. It was almost impossible for an indie station to go head-to-head against the affiliate’s network programming. The affiliate was, after all, running brand new programming paid for by and promoted with jillions of network dollars, while the indie could only run programming paid for out of the ad revenue taken in from its single, local market. What that often meant was the bulk of indie programming consisted of a mix of local sports (everything from pro baseball to pro wrestling), syndicated TV shows (oldies never died — they just recycled eternally on local indies), syndicated movies, and some locally-originated original programming, like news and local special events coverage.
This doesn’t mean that the indie couldn’t compete. It just meant it had to be a little shrewder about it with clever counter-programming. New York’s WOR, had, for years, a Thanksgiving tradition of running King Kong, Son of Kong, and Mighty Joe Young back to back, giving the kids something to watch on the family’s second TV while Dad parked himself in front of the living room set for a day of head-banging football.
This makes the point that without having to adhere to a network schedule, local indies could play.
WOR in New York, for example, back in the 1960s, whenever it wasn’t airing Mets games in prime time, under its Million Dollar Movie banner would run a movie several times during the week and then several times on Saturday and Sunday (sounds an awful lot like cable, doesn’t it?). This made for convenient movie-watching, especially if you wanted to see The Crawling Eye or Guadalcanal Diary a half-dozen times, or wanted to catch it without missing McHale’s Navy on ABC, and also helped WOR stretch its programming dollars further. Decades later, AMC Entertainment CEO Josh Sapan says, “I can (still) hear the music (the theme from Gone with the Wind) and see the graphics for Million Dollar Movie, and I conjure up images of being at great personal liberty late at night watching movies.”
Another good example comes from another of the New York indies. Back in the 1980s WNEW used to run something called “The Channel 5 Movie Club” Saturday nights at eleven p.m. which was usually a hole in network programming. WNEW programmers knew that their metropolitan viewing area contained a lot of hardcore movie viewers, so they created a program format which played right into those tastes. Viewers would send in postcards listing what movies they wanted to see. The WNEW people would draw randomly from the postcards. If a particular postcard named a movie WNEW had in its library, it would run the movie and have the postcard writer come in to host the airing. People got a kick out of seeing one of their neighbors stumble his/her way through the hosting gig, imparting a few trivia gems about the evening’s presentation as he/she went. As for the movie, sometimes it was an oldie, sometimes something not so old, but WNEW took a cue from pay-TV channels and ran the movies with minimal commercial interruptions (maybe only breaking two or three times) and with minimal cuts. When the Movie Club ran Sam Peckinpah’s controversial Straw Dogs, for instance, they clipped no more than a few seconds of sexual content out of the film, leaving most of the strong language and graphic violence intact.
How well did this work? At one time, the Movie Club held the Number One spot in the New York market at 11:00 p.m., beating out all other indies and the nets. In a particularly neat piece of scheduling, by starting the movie at 11:00, WNEW hooked at least some viewers that might’ve been tempted to turn to late-night net shows like Saturday Night Live which didn’t come on until 11:30. WNEW knew few people would change channels in the middle of a good flick.
Network affiliates are like fast-food franchises: whether you go to a McDonald’s in San Francisco or in New York, they look the same, the menu’s the same, the food tastes the same.
But the indies each had their own distinctive menus, their own unique flavors.
Film critic Stephen Whitty understandably remembers the New York indies by their film libraries: “…you quickly learned that Channel 2 (network affiliate WCBS) had all the MGM movies, Channel 5 (indie WPIX) the Warner Bros. films, and Channel 9 (indie WOR) most of RKO.”
They each had on-air personalities audiences came to bond with. New York kids growing up in the 1960s remember Officer Joe Bolton hosting an afternoon half-hour of Three Stooges shorts, and “Captain Jack” McCarthy who switched from his captain’s cap to a Good Humor cap to shill ice cream during his half-hour of Popeye cartoons, Chuck McCann backed by a cast of puppets on Sunday mornings.
Josh Sapan remembers Joe Franklin, host of the longest-running talk show ever, WOR’s The Joe Franklin Show. Franklin, who had the charisma of a low-wattage light bulb, managed to parade a host of past, present, and future stars through his show’s 50 years on the air while babbling through his bottomless mental trove of entertainment trivia.
Producer Gerald Abrams’ favorite memory is of The Soupy Sales Show on WNEW, an after school mix of slapstick and vaudeville shtick that was, in a sly, wink-wink nudge-nudge way, as much for older viewers as it was for kids.
Stephen Whitty remembers WPIX Channel 9’s Yule Log — an uninterrupted televised burning Yule log airing from Christmas Eve through Christmas morning backed by Christmas carols. He also recalls “…hearing as a kid that one of my fellow students had a father who was a big shot at a local station. As a result, he made sure (that on) every Catholic school holiday, his channel ran kids’ programming.”
What most nostalgics remember from their local indies are — in Stephen Whitty’s words — “The hambone horror movie hosts.” In New York, WNEW had Lou “The Creep” Steele, the station’s on-air voice showing up in a tux and impenetrable shades to host Saturday night’s Creature Feature. Monk executive producer David Breckman remembers Philadelphia’s Dr. Shock with his catch phrase, “Let there be fright!” who shared the city’s airwaves with another on-air ghoul, Zacherly. Los Angeles had Vampira in the 1950s, then revived the concept in the 1980s with the curvy, cleavage-spilling Elvira. Detroit had Count Scary, Dayton had Dr. Creep, New Orleans had Morgus the Magnificent…
Everybody had one…but there was only one of each. That was the beauty of the indie station.
If you struck out trying to find something you wanted to watch on the nets or the indies, there was always public television. Well, not always.
Since 1952, the FCC had been setting aside a number of TV channels for nonprofit use. Newton Minow, the “vast wasteland” guy, had pushed for noncommercial stations that would be immune to the pressures of commercial television. The idea was that such stations, supported by Federal and local funding, corporate contributions, grants and private donations — instead of advertising — would be free to concentrate on programming of greater artistic quality and integrity without having to worry about keeping advertisers happy. Minow got his wish (although years after he had left the FCC) in 1967, when the U.S. Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act which created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting whose primary purpose was to raise and distribute money to noncommercial stations, and which turned several hundred educational stations (they now number 360) into something of a fourth, nonprofit network. The Public Broadcasting Service was also set up to create and distribute programming to those same stations.
Public TV has brought some wonderful programming to viewers. Upstairs, Downstairs and I, Claudius are just a couple of the intelligent, adult limited series originally produced for British television that were introduced to American viewers through public TV’s Masterpiece Theatre showcase. Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and Fawlty Towers showed a flare for ruthless comedy generally absent from U.S. commercial TV and were also introduced to the American public courtesy of public TV. Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and The Electric Company are just a few of the wonderful educational programs aimed at kids produced by PBS which, unlike network kiddie programming, didn’t serve as platforms to hype new and expensive toys and games that kids just had to have. There were operas, plays, documentaries, in-depth news coverage, financial analysis, political discussions and more — all stuff that the nets wrote off as too boring or too limited in appeal.
And of late, PBS has been giving the commercial guys a run for the money, too. At this writing, British drama series Downton Abbey has been turning in commercial network-worthy numbers, and while Sherlock Holmes isn’t the same kind of blockbuster, it’s another hit for public broadcasting.
But while PBS has always been able to manage the occasional home run — like Downton Abbey, I, Claudius, Sesame Street, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Ken Burns’ landmark documentary series The Civil War — the overall standing of the PBS not-quite-a-network hasn’t improved that much decade to decade.
The commercial network share of viewing has gone from over 90% to somewhere around 50% give or take. If Nielsen is anywhere near right, all of those missing viewers have migrated, over the years, to cable and alternative pipelines like Hulu, Netflix, etc. Little, if any, has gone to public television, at least on a regular basis. PBS was, and remains, the broccoli of TV: good for you, but people would rather eat Twinkies.
This is how it was for almost a quarter of a century. “Watching TV” meant watching the broadcast networks. On a weak night, you might drift over to one of the indies (if you were lucky enough to live in a DMA that had one), or PBS if you felt like a bit of intellectual self-improvement.
But the chances were when you hit the on-knob (in those pre-remote days), you were going to wind up on either ABC, CBS, or NBC. A generation growing up over those first 25 years couldn’t help but think TV had always been this way…and it always would.
Next: Walson’s Mountain – The Birth of Cable TV