TELEVISION USA – The Master Planners (Nov, 1961)
TELEVISION USA – The Master Planners
Here are the men who largely decide what you may and may not see on TV.
By JOHN BARTLOW MARTIN
Late on a Wednesday afternoon last spring Homer R. Heck, vice president in charge of broadcasting at the Chicago office of an advertising agency, Foote, Cone & Belding, left his office, took a taxi to O’Hare Airport and caught United’s jet flight 832 to New York. He was on his way to supervise the production on Sunday of a television broadcast for a client, Hallmark Cards. As the plane climbed over Lake Michigan, Heck, a slender man of fifty-two with a graying crew cut, began talking about the role an advertising agency plays in television. “At one extreme is the Hallmark show,” he said. “There we exercise a good deal of influence on the end product. Our client, Mr. Joyce Hall, takes a great personal pride in his television. He was the first to do a two-hour show on television, and it was Shakespeare. He did television’s first opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors.”
Sunday’s show, the week before Easter, Give Us Barabbas, was a drama about the thief whose life was spared when Christ’s was taken. Months ago Heck and the producer, George Schaefer, had got the script written and cast. Heck said, “The agency hardly ever has this creative a role in television any more. The other extreme is something else I’m doing these days— buying next fall’s shows for Armour and Company. There our job is to take advantage of the mass audience available in such shows as The Untouchables. We’ll simply buy minute insertions. It’s cheap. But we have almost no influence on the program.” Each network had offered about $8,000,000 worth of shows to Armour. Experts in Heck’s office were checking the shows’ ratings and figuring the cost per thousand, the magic figure in advertising—how much it costs to get the commercial into 1000 homes.
The stewardesses began serving dinner. Heck said, “Mr. Hall wants good ratings, of course, but he’s more interested in something else—prestige. Mr. Hall’s problem is unique. He has six major selling seasons for his greeting cards—Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, and so on. He doesn’t have to be on television every week. But a soap manufacturer can’t do this. He’s selling a product that he has to sell every day. He has to be on television all the time. And you can’t do good television on a weekly basis. Not big, important television. You can’t week after week do Hamlet.
But I do believe that on a smaller scale, honest approaches can be achieved. Too few people bother to worry about that. Some do—Red Skelton and Danny Thomas approach their jobs with honesty and sincerity. Fred Astaire rehearsed his show for three months and it showed. These are all popular shows. But they aren’t shoddy, and they aren’t vicious. I saw a show the other day that could have no other purpose than to shock, to disturb, to excite. We didn’t buy it—but it’s going on the air next season, because someone else bought it.”
The lights of Manhattan blazed beneath the wing, and the big jet banked sharply and headed down. Heck, looking out the window at the darkness, said, “When I see some of the pilot films offered this year, I can’t believe that anybody at the networks gives a damn. Or else they’re willing to take a chance for at least one more go-round. And with the new administration in Washington it may well be the last go-round. I don’t want Government interference— but we’ll get it if we don’t behave ourselves.”
Having previously covered a network and its affiliated stations, let us observe now the role of an advertising agency in the television industry. And let us go on to study the role of the fourth and fifth important influences on what comes into your living room, the Hollywood film maker and the talent agency.
Homer Heck looks vaguely like an English professor. His demeanor is grave. He is soft-spoken. He wears tight-fitting conservative suits, neat ties, shirts with French cuffs, a tight-fitting topcoat and horn-rimmed glasses. He carries a leather attache case. He travels constantly. Like most men who influence what millions watch on television, Heck himself seldom watches television for pleasure but, rather, has other interests—books, serious music, the theater, bridge, carpentry, decorating.
On Thursday and Friday Heck viewed pilot films and worked on the Armour buy. On Saturday morning he went to NBC’s studio 3K at 30 Rockefeller Plaza and began setting up the Hallmark commercials. The big high-ceilinged studio was cluttered with television cameras, props, flats, lights and cable—with fifty or sixty cameramen, carpenters, painters, stagehands and actors. It looked like a Heck and three other agency men were opening big cartons of Hallmark greeting cards. Heck went through the script. “D12, the legend of the Easter Bunny—let’s see how that looks,” and he set some cards up on a rack in front of a television camera, then stepped back to gaze at them critically. He spent the morning arranging cards.
At 12:30 he and the others went upstairs, got sandwiches and coffee from a little lunch stand, and stood around in a dark corridor, eating. (Television studios always seem cluttered with the remnants of hasty lunches.) At one p.m. he went to another studio where, in the control room, he watched a film of the opening commercial. It showed a little girl pulling a dog’s tail and watering some flowers, taking pennies from her piggy bank, buying Hallmark cards and presenting them to her father and grandmother and aunt. Accompanying the pictures an announcer read, with music under his voice, “A little child learns so much from mother, like don’t pull Sir Galahad’s tail, and do be nice to your neighbors. A child learns from experience too—how flowers blossom with kindness and care, how thought-fulness makes birds sing, and people understand and love one another. As she grew, Hallmark Cards helped her express her affection.” There was more. Over and over, Heck, other agency men, a director, a technician and a soundman watched it run. Heck told the director to lower the announcer’s voice level. He said the father’s kissing the little girl “bothered” him. He said the announcer was “dragging” one part of his spiel. With repetition the music grew maddening. Finally, Heck was satisfied, and they recorded it. Heck went back down to studio 3K, with the others trailing.
By now the cards and props were in place. Heck went up to the control booth. Camera rehearsal had begun. The director ordered the cameras trained on the commercials one after another for Heck’s inspection. Of one Heck said, “The vase is overpowering the card. We don’t see enough flowers. Too many of those ugly leaves.” Of another, “Tell him to rotate the card counterclockwise.” All afternoon they worked at this, taking infinite pains with each shot, moving cards and cameras. Once Heck muttered, “Nothing makes Mr. Hall madder than to clip the corner of his cards.” Occasionally he went down to the floor to rearrange props himself.
For weeks and months back in Chicago these commercials had been planned and written; this was the climax. Just so, for weeks and months the drama that was to carry their message had been produced. The amount of human energy that had gone into this enterprise was incalculable. The next day, in ninety minutes, it was all over—at 6:30 p.m. Barabbas went on the air live from Brooklyn and the commercials from Heck’s Rockefeller Plaza studio. Afterward Heck said, “We gave our all for Mr. Hall. Well, we’ll see the reviews tomorrow.” They were, it turned out, good.
An advertising agency plans the advertising “campaign” for its client, prepares the commercials, buys the time, selects the programs and in return takes a 15 per cent commission on what it spends for program and time. Last year Foote, Cone & Belding spent $120,000,000 for its clients, about 47 per cent of it on tele- vision. At the season’s peak its clients were sponsoring twenty-one evening network shows—Danny Thomas, Garry Moore, Groucho Marx, Loretta Young, Perry Como, Red Skelton, Andy Griffith, Candid Camera, Checkmate, Hong Kong, I Love Lucy, I’ve Got a Secret, Maverick, The Price Is Right, Twilight Zone, The Untouchables, Wanted Dead or Alive, Hall of Fame, American Heritage, Zane Grey Theater and Have Gun, Will Travel.
In recent years advertising in general has been attacked by intellectuals, educators and clergymen. Many advertising men feel that television got advertising “in trouble.” Some television commercials, especially those for laxatives, perspiration preventatives and proprietary drugs, offend viewers. Some commercials irritate purposely. Nearly all are intentionally louder than programs, to get attention. An agency man has said, “You see, we advertisers sometimes can be slobs. We have a mission. To sell. The best way is to take advantage of the contentment out there,” that is, the contentment of the viewing audience. “To throw a sop to the people and not disturb ‘em with controversy.”
When an agency is planning a “campaign,” its “media” department decides which of the various media to use—newspapers, magazines, television, direct mail, billboards, radio. Ed Stern, media head at Foote, Cone & Belding, has said, “Marketing factors decide. Who will buy this product—old ladies, boys, men? Where is the product distributed? What kind of product is it? A vacation trip is intrinsically interesting, so it runs in magazines, because the reader will sit back, read, dream, read again, but on television, zip, zip, it’s off. Automobiles have a higher intrinsic interest than scouring pads—you put them in magazines and put scouring pads in television. The scouring pad screams out fast, you can’t avoid it, and maybe the next time you go to the store you’ll buy the one you were yelled at about—but you wouldn’t read about it.”
All advertising has increased in recent years, but television advertising has skyrocketed. Between 1949 and 1959, total national advertising little more than doubled—but television advertising increased from about $60,000,000 to $1,500,000,000. Television’s enormous gain has come to a considerable extent out of the hides of newspapers, radio and the large mass-circulation magazines. People still read, perhaps more than ever, but many big advertisers selling high-velocity merchandise have turned largely to television. One of the reasons is cost per thousand—the cost of getting the commercial into a thousand homes. It is difficult to compare costs per thousand among different “media,” but a good many advertising men believe that cost per thousand is lowest on television. (How many of the thousand pay any attention is another question, one of many that makes such comparisons difficult.) A half hour of network time alone costs $60,000—more than a full-page ad in Life or The Saturday Evening Post— and a program to put in that spot costs at least as much more, but it reaches so many millions, the networks claim, that the cost per thousand is very low.
It is to figure cost per thousand that agencies use Nielsen ratings. Stern says, “With a few exceptions, like Hallmark, numbers are paramount in this business. When the Nielsen ratings come out, shows are canceled and heads roll. The networks point with pride to the top ten. Advertisers glow with pride. Hollywood says, ‘It looks like we’re dead.’ Producers jump off cliffs. We make predictions of ratings every day in planning our spending. Fred Friendly thinks eventually he’ll beat The Untouchables with CBS Reports. We disagree. We pride ourselves on being hard-boiled and realistic. The choice of time, the night, the competition, the lead-in show preceding are all important. But the mass appeal of the show is more important. Gunsmoke will always clobber a show like Hamlet.
Fairfax Cone, chairman of the executive committee of Foote, Cone & Belding, is a tall, rangy, sharp-featured businessman of fifty-eight. A while back, sitting in his quiet office, Cone commented on the programs viewers can watch. “The public decides what to watch,” he said, “but it doesn’t have many choices. Nobody knows what they might watch if they had different choices. At any given time about a third of them aren’t watching at all. I can go home tonight and read Adventures of the Mind or an Earthworm Tractor story in The Saturday Evening Post—but this choice is denied me on television. The real difficulty is that television set out to be a medium to make money instead of a medium of expression. Ben Franklin started out to say some things he wanted to say. So did all newspapers and magazines. But television didn’t.”
Cone had several ideas for improvement. To get sponsors for such small-audience shows as CBS Reports, networks should cut their time rates to fit the show’s audience, as magazines base rates on circulation. To avoid using up so much material, networks should repeat an entire week’s broadcast in the following week. To put on experimental programs, networks should pre-empt one week out of every thirteen that an advertiser buys. To avoid advertiser interference, networks should rotate commercials through their entire schedule as magazines do. Cone had little hope these reforms would be made—economics was against them. So he concentrated on his commercials. “People criticize television commercials because they’re so inescapable. You run ads in The Post saying, ‘Shrink hemorrhoids painlessly.’ Nobody kicks. But on television every ad is a full-page ad. So we have to be careful. We buy some lousy shows. But we don’t do lousy commercials.”
Today film dominates television. Some of it is old movies. But more is film made expressly for television. Film replaced live television because film can be resold and rerun again and again, and live shows cannot. A successful television film is a virtually inexhaustible gold mine. The profits from overseas reruns alone are huge. Variety has reported that a single half-hour film episode can realize $22,205 abroad. It brings $3000 in Canada and forty dollars in Hong Kong. Some stars, like James Arness of Gun-smoke, produce their own shows; some, like Dick Powell, produce others too. Thus they take their earnings as capital gains, not income, and they profit from reruns. To own your own successful television show means that you will never have to work any more.
Most of the film is produced in Hollywood. Television film-making there is a far bigger industry than movie-making. When television began, the established motion-picture studios, fearing its competition, refused to film programs for it.
Today all but two or three are making it. They are not, however, the leaders in the field. The leaders are, significantly, two companies connected with the two biggest talent agencies—Revue, owned by the Music Corporation of America (MCA), and Four Star, whose shows are sold by the William Morris Agency. Between them MCA and Morris represent as agents most of the leading actors, directors and producers in show business. Whoever controls the stars controls show business.
The secret of money-making on television film is to manufacture it fast. A motion-picture producer often spends from twelve to eighteen months making a movie. The producer of a live Playhouse 90 spent four or five months on it. The film makers turn out an hour-long television film in five days. A movie producer says “It looks it, too.” A Hollywood film syndicator says, “We aren’t in business to win Emmys.”
A talented writer who got his start in live television drama, intending to become a serious Broadway playwright, now lives instead in California and beside his swimming pool grinds out the episodes of a routine film series in a day and a half each. He owns the show, and it probably brings him $200,000 a year. He hates it, but who can give up a swimming pool? Nearly every writer in the industry says of his product, “It ain’t O’Neill but on the other hand it ain’t–” naming any show that competes with his. A producer’s assistant says, “I really did love live television. Even the men who pushed the cameras would say during rehearsal, ‘Look, I think I can get a better shot this way.’ We were all so damn proud of what we were doing. There is no such feeling in television film. It has to be done quickly and efficiently. Just get the footage, get it on budget and have it look pretty good. And don’t offend—if the sponsor is a cigarette company, don’t let your hero smoke a cigar. Of course, the producer cares terribly about making it a good show—well shot, well put together. But he is only a dedicated efficient technician. He is not creative. Television-film planning is the most depressing thing I ever saw. It’s all backward. Instead of looking for an exciting original idea, then getting the proper writer and director and actors to develop it, they do just the opposite. They sit around and say, ‘What we need on Thursday night is—well, let’s see, the other network’s got a Western, so I think we ought to come in with a Western. They haven’t got any sex symbols, so we’d better have a girl. Also we should have a father figure. Then 77 Sunset Strip has Kookie; Kookie is very popular, so we should have one, a Kookie but in a Western costume. We’ll have a villain that’s sort of like Paladin but costumed the way Josh Logan does it, all tight pants and biceps. Now write us a show to fit this cast of characters.’”
MCA—the Music Corporation of America—has been called “the octopus,” “the sausage factory,” and “the heart of American television.” No agency nearly so big ever existed before. A producer has said, “Through their contracts with stars, producers, directors and writers, they have irresistible strength and are in a position to impose their will upon studios and networks. They are the only agency that is also in everything else—manufacturing, distribution and syndication. (The Department of Justice’s antitrust division is investigating MCA. MCA’s lawyers declare it innocent.) The stars got them started. Now they are simply manufacturing Westerns and such on an assembly-line basis—they don’t need stars. All they need is profits.”
MCA was founded in 1924 by a Chicago oculist, Jules Stein, who began booking bands. Before long he was a talent agent for movie stars—a flesh peddler, as agents used to be called. Today Stein is MCA’s elder statesman, chairman of its board and a philanthropist. He and his family own most of MCA’s preferred stock and 1,419,000 shares of MCA common, currently worth nearly $100,000,000. Nearly all of MCA’s officers have been with the company twenty years. MCA was a closely held company until 1958. That year it bought the Universal-International studios for $11,-250,000 and went into television-film production in a big way. To do so it sold stock to the public. Last year MCA made more than $6,000,000 after taxes. Of its $67,000,000 gross, only $8,700,000 came from its agency commissions— $57,500,000 came from television film. Flesh peddling brings only small change compared to manufacturing successful television film.
Last year MCA turned out more than 700 half-hours of film and this year nearly 1000. A major motion-picture studio might make thirty-six hours. MCA makes far more film than all the major motion-picture companies combined. Lew R. Wasserman, today president of MCA— a lean, intelligent, darkly handsome man of forty-eight who owns 710,500 shares of MCA stock, now worth about $50,000,-000—says, “This is a manufacturing business. Basically we are in the business of putting film under our arm and peddling it.” MCA has been accused of forcing a network to keep its programs on the air by threatening to pull its stars off the network’s other programs. “It’s a fable of the industry,” Wasserman says. “How long would we be in business if we handled our talent that way?”
MCA’s Revue Studios cover 367 fenced acres beside the Hollywood Freeway, an incorporated city in itself, with its own post office, police force and fire department. Near its front gate are little gray stucco bungalows, producers’ offices, each with a sign identifying their programs—Bachelor Father, Wagon Train, Wells Fargo, others. Farther back are the thirty stages where film is shot, gray buildings vast and blocky as warehouses. Beyond is the “back lot.” It contains, among other things, a mountain. It contains permanent outdoor sets—New York streets, small-town streets, shopping districts, residential districts, town squares, restaurants, boats, piers, filling stations, swamps, European streets, Notre Dame cathedral, various churches, a European square, a Mexican village, native huts, a haunted house, a Western street built for Laramie, a quicksand pool, a stockade, movable and immovable rocks, three lakes, a movable river boat, a waterfall which can be turned on or off and vast arrays of stagecoaches, wagons, automobiles and airplanes. The whole place, including the mountainside, is wired with concealed electrical cable. The buildings look substantial and real, but they are made of plaster of Paris and are nothing but fronts. They are used over and over, redressed for different shows and shot from different angles.
An MCA executive says, “We’re the best. We’re quality picturemakers. Quality pays.” Last spring sixteen network shows were being produced at Revue. It owned some entirely, some partially. To some others it simply leased its facilities. The sixteen were Wagon Train, 87th Precinct, Thriller, Laramie, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Checkmate, The Bob Cummings Show, The Investigators, Tales of Wells Fargo, The Tall Man, Alcoa Premiere, Leave it to Beaver, Ichabod and Me, G.E. Theater, Bachelor Father and Frontier Circus.
Richard Irving, the producer assigned to Frontier Circus, has said, “We’ve learned how to put the money on the screen”—that is, how to shoot film efficiently. “Our biggest problem is to get freshness. We try to be as inventive and creative as we can. Frontier Circus is fresh, a little different. The basic idea of Frontier Circus is: What is the public interested in? Well, if they’re watching Wagon Train with a 35 Nielsen for five years, that’s what they want to see. So we’re taking the period in the Old West and instead of a wagon train, we’ve got a small circus that’s heading west.” (It is, of course, hauled by wagons.) The idea for Frontier Circus originated at Revue. Last March it filmed the pilot, sold it to CBS, and went into production with CBS as its partner. Already Irving had made five episodes. When he discussed the program last spring, he expected to have thirteen completed before the show went on the air October fifth. Each episode would cost more than $100,000. Three actors, Chill Wills, John Derek, and Richard Jaeckel, plus a guest star, would appear in each. “It’s a difficult show to move around,” Irving said. “It’s big and involved—we’ve got three lions, two elephants, two camels, some llamas, over fifty-four head of horses, 100 extras. We want to keep that bigness.” The nine writers and three directors each were earning $40,000 or $50,000 a year. Irving shot each episode in five days. One had taken six, but he hoped to make up the time. “That’s what we’ve learned most—how to do it fast.” The secret lay in advance preparation. He and his writer and director were working on the script they would shoot the following week—rewriting, picking locations on the back lot, setting up camera angles. They often did thirty-five camera shots in a day. Movie makers do four.
Irving said, “My goal is the family unit. So we’re not presuming to do a Playhouse 90. We’re doing an honest, intelligent story of conflict. We’ll appeal to kids—we’ve got elephants, lions, trapezes ; lions running around in a Western town. But we have an adult theme. The circus owner is motivated by bringing fun and laughter to the pioneers. Humanitarian. Make their life easier. Also, the theme is the growth of America. He believes there will be big cities in the West and he wants his circus to grow up with the country. So it’s a good wholesome American point of view.”
At six o’clock that evening the company—some sixty strong—gathered on a dry brown mountainside: camera crews, soundmen, grips, electricians, wardrobe and make-up men, others. It was cold and windy. Men were setting up lights and cameras. Actors in Western clothes were standing around. Two horses stood in a dusty road. The director said, “All right, fellas, let’s try it,” and a bearded, booted actor lay down in front of lights and a camera and asked, “What’s my first line?” The script girl said, “He’s a hard man to kill.” Dust and bugs swam in the harsh lights, and up the mountain a hawk swirled in the wind. “All right, roll it,” the director said, and they shot the scene. But one actor forgot his lines, and the director said, “Start from the top,” and they did it over.
Satisfied, the director led the way up the hill to the road. While lights were being set up, he talked to Richard Jaeckel, a handsome blond young actor in buckskin jacket, tight pants and boots. He seemed to be trying hard. He called the director “sir.” In the next scene, No. 36, Jaeckel overtakes a fleeing buggy and warns its occupants to hasten while he holds off the outlaw, Rip Torn. The director said, “This shot is pretty difficult. We have to make sure he overtakes the buggy where our lights are.”
Jaeckel was rehearsing, galloping rapidly up and down the mountainside road. Watching, the director said, “He’s a very nice boy. Very nice. No temperament, no problems.” The wrangler told somebody to get a shovel and fill a hole in the road so Jaeckel’s horse wouldn’t stumble. The assistant director called from up the hill, “All right, let’s go.” The buggy came up the hill, and the assistant director shouted, “All right, roll it,” and the cameras whirred as Jaeckel galloped up, overtook the buggy and wheeled while it sped on. “Cut,” the director called. “On the take-off there was no real feeling of speed or menace.” The girl in the buggy said, “It’s a pretty steep hill and the horses can’t go fast.” The director said, “All right, you stay out of the buggy. We don’t see you anyway.” They did it again, and the director called, “Print it,” meaning he was satisfied, and all hands adjourned down the hill to Laramie Street, a street in a Western town.
Others there had already set up cameras and lights. Stagehands were setting up preserved trees near the saloon to alter the appearance it had in Laramie. The director inspected them, instructed Jaeckel, and presently they began shooting. They worked quietly, in a businesslike way. They kept checking the script and their watches—the scene on the mountainside had taken longer than anticipated, and they must hurry to complete the film they had budgeted. Most of the shots were long shots of action, the staple of Westerns, which do not really require actors, only bodies.
Beyond the mountain in the real world a big fire was raging out of control in Hollywood Hills. Finished with the previous scene, the director led the way up the street to the doctor’s house. Two young actors were standing around, talking about getting drunk for the first time. The assistant director called, “All right, quiet, boys . . . roll it,” and Torn and Jaeckel came stamping up the street and onto the porch and into the house. “Cut,” the director said. Torn said, “I think I can do that one better.” The director and cameraman said nothing. They were examining the door of the doctor’s house. It was not the door that had been here previously when they had shot another scene. The director thought a moment, then, “This is an outdoor shot. I think it’s long enough so it won’t be noticed. Let’s wrap it up.” The assistant director called, “Wrap it up.” A small cheer went up. Everybody went home. It was eleven p.m. Beyond the mountain the sky was red with flame.
In his concluding installment next week Mr. Martin discusses possible cures for the deficiencies of TV. —The Editors.