Monday, 26 January 2015

British Shows on American Network Television in the Fifties and Sixties Part Four

Today it is nearly unknown for a British show to air on one of the American broadcast networks. What is more, this has been the case for the past several decades. This was not always the case, however, as in the Fifties and Sixties several British shows aired on the American broadcast networks. The peak for British shows on the American networks was in the mid-Sixties, although they would continue to appear throughout the rest of the decade. The 1968-1969 season would be a turning point for British shows on the American broadcast networks, as the two most popular British shows in the United States in the Sixties both ended their runs: The Avengers and The Saint. Despite this a few more British shows would air on the American broadcast networks in the late Sixties and early Seventies.

In fact three British shows would air in the 1970-1971 season, all of them on NBC. The first of these shows actually ended before it even aired in the United States. Strange Report could be described as a Transatlantic production as it was co-produced by ITC in Britain and Arena Productions in the United States. Arena Productions had earlier produced Dr. Kildare and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.  The initial plan was that the first half of the series Strange Report would be set in the United Kingdom and the second half in the United States. For reasons discussed below, this never happened.

Strange Report starred Anthony Quayle as Adam Strange, a former criminologist for the Home Office who solved the most bizarre of mysteries in London. He had his own laboratory in which he could use the latest in forensic science to investigate cases. He was assisted by a young American researcher Hamlyn Gynt (played by Kaz Garas), as well as his neighbour Evelyn McClean (played by Anneke Wills), and  Professor Marks (played by Charles Lloyd-Pack). Overall the show had a more realistic tone than many of the British action/adventures shows of the Sixties, and touched upon such issues as racism, human trafficking, and student protests.

Strange Report debuted in the United Kingdom on ITV on September 29 1969. Sixteen episodes were produced, but unfortunately that would be all that would be produced.  Star Anthony Quayle decided not to continue with the show and so Strange Report ended. Regardless, it aired as a mid-season replacement on NBC. It debuted on January 8 1971 in the United States.

Along with The Strange Report and Kraft Music Hall Presents: The Des O'Connor Show, the second British show to air on NBC in the 1970-1971 season would be a change from the many British action/adventure shows that had aired on the American broadcast networks in the Sixties. While The Strange Report was a mystery anthology and Kraft Music Hall Presents: The Des O'Connor Show was a variety show, From a Bird's Eye View was a situation comedy.

Like many of the British shows that aired on the American broadcast networks in the Sixties, From a Bird's Eye View was a Transatlantic production. It was in 1969 that Lord Lew Grade of ITC visited the United States and asked legendary character actor and television producer Sheldon Leonard to produce a situation comedy in England that would star Millicent Martin. Of course, Sheldon Leonard was already an established name when it came to producing situation comedies, having produced both Make Room for Daddy and The Andy Griffith Show. Millicent Martin had been the singer of topical songs on That Was the Week That Was, as well as the star of her own show in the United Kingdom, Mainly Millicent. From a Bird's Eye View would be produced by both ITC and Sheldon Leonard Productions.

Before settling on From a Bird's Eye View, the titles Meet Millie and Up She Goes were considered for the show. From a Bird's Eye View centred on a harebrained British stewardess, Millie Grover, and her sharp witted American co-worker, Maggie Ralston, both of who worked for International Airlines. The role of American stewardess went to Patte Finley, who was partly selected for her height. At 5 foot 3 she would not tower over Millicent Martin, who stood only 5 foot 1.

From a Bird's Eye View would take some time to reach American airwaves. According to Charles Witbeck in an article in the April 4 1971 issue of The Toledo Blade, From a World's View was planned to debut in the fall 1969-1970 season. It lost a a spot on NBC's 1969-1970 season in favour of the sitcom The Debbie Reynolds Show. It was then planned that it would be a mid-season replacement during the 1969-1970 season, but for whatever reason that did not happen. It was then in consideration for a spot on NBC's 1970-1971 fall schedule. It was passed over in favour of the short lived sitcom Nancy. In the meantime From a Bird's Eye View debuted in the United Kingdom on ITV on September 18 1970. Finally, on April 5 1971, nearly two years after it had been made, From a Bird's Eye View debuted in the United States on NBC.

Ultimately From a Bird's Eye View would not prove to be a success in the United Kingdom or the United States, although it would see some success on the international market. Regardless, a second series would not be made.

The third British show to air on NBC in the 1970-1971 would be a summer replacement. The Des O'Connor Show was a popular variety and talk show that debuted in the United Kingdom on ITV on May 29 1963. Hosted by comedian Des O'Connor, the show proved very popular in the United Kingdom over the years. During the 1970-1971 season NBC imported The Des O'Connor Show as a summer replacement for Kraft Music Hall. In the United States it aired under the title Kraft Music Hall Presents: The Des O'Connor Show.

Kraft Music Hall Presents: The Des O'Connor Show debuted in the United States on June 21 1971 on NBC. While Kraft Music Hall Presents: The Des O'Connor Show would only run during the summer of 1971 in the United States, this would not be the end of The Des O'Connor Show. It continued until December 28 1973 in the United Kingdom. It would be followed by another variety show hosted by Des O'Conner on ITV in 1974, Des O'Connor Entertains. Des O'Conner Entertains ran until 1976. By 1977 Des O'Connor would have yet another show, Des O'Connor Tonight, which aired on BBC Two for  years before shifting to ITV. It would last until 2002. It would seem that even a lack of success in the United States would not prevent Des O'Connor from having a show.

The 1971-1972 season would see two different British shows debut on American broadcast networks. What is more, both of them would actually debut on the fall schedule. The first of these was another Transatlantic production. In fact, like From a Bird's Eye View, Shirley's World would be produced by Lord Lew Grade's ITC and Sheldon Leonard Productions. And like From a Bird's Eye View, Shirley's World was also a sitcom.

Shirley's World was shot mostly in the United Kingdom, but starred American film star and dancer Shirley MacLaine. Miss MacLaine  played a photojournalist with John Gregson as her boss, the editor at World Illustrated magazine. Although largely a British production, in many respects Shirley's World was part of a cycle unfolding on the American broadcast networks with major stars appearing in situation comedies. The cycle started with The Doris Day Show in the 1968-1969 season. It was followed by The Debbie Reynolds Show in the 1969-1970 season, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Partridge Family (starring Shirley Jones), and The Smith Family (starring Henry Fonda) in the 1970-1971 season.

Despite featuring a major star, Shirley's World would prove to be a failure. The series debuted in the United States on September 15 1971 on ABC. It had the misfortune to be scheduled against the last half hour of Medical Centre on CBS (which ranked #13 in the Nielsens for the season) and The NBC Mystery Movie on NBC (which ranked #14 in the Nielsens for the season). With extremely low ratings ABC cancelled Shirley's World at midseason. Curiously it aired on ITV after it had ended its run in the United States. It debuted in the United Kingdom on April 7 1972.

The second British show to debut on an American broadcast network would also be the last major adventure series to come out of Lord Lew Grade's ITC. The Persuaders! was created by Robert S. Baker, who had produced the entire run of the show The Saint. In fact, The Persuaders! largely grew out of The Saint. The show took its inspiration from the episode "The Ex-King of Diamonds", which had aired during the final series of The Saint. In "The Ex-King of Diamonds" Simon Templar (AKA The Saint) teamed up with a Texas oilman and adventurer named Rod Huston (played by Stuart Damon). Together the two of them discover a plot by a deposed king to amass a fortune to regain his throne through gambling. The Persuaders followed the lead of the episode of The Saint "The Ex-King of Diamonds" in teaming a British hero up with an American one.

The Persuaders! was arguably the most ambitious action/adventure show ever produced by Lord Lew Grade's ITC. It cost £2.5 million, making it the most expensive show ever made in the United Kingdom up to that time. It was also the first ITC show that was shot largely on location in Europe, as opposed to the studio backlots utilised by every previous ITC show. The Persuaders! also starred two major stars. Roger  Moore and Tony Curtis. It would be the first television series in which film star Tony Curtis ever starred.

The Persuaders! starred Roger Moore as Lord Brett Sinclair, a British peer who attended both Harrow and Oxford, served in the British Army, and formerly drove race cars; and Tony Curtis as Danny Wilde, who had grown up in the slums of New York, served in the United States Navy, and then made millions of dollars in oil. The two men did not particularly like each other when they first met and tore up a hotel bar room on the French Riviera during a fight. The two men were arrested and were then given a choice by retired Judge Fulton (played by Laurence Naismith): they could either spend ninety days in jail or help him right wrongs. The Persuaders then followed the adventures of Lord Brett Sinclair and Danny Wilde, both the cases they took on behalf of Judge Fulton and those they took on their own.

The Persuaders! debuted in the United Kingdom on ITV on September 17 1971. It debuted in the United States on the following day, September 18 1971, on ABC. The Persuaders! did very well in the United Kingdom, where it ranked in the top twenty most watched shows. It was also successful internationally. It aired in over fifty different countries and was very popular in Continental Europe. Unfortunately it would not do well in the United States. Scheduled on Saturday night at 10:00 Eastern, The Persuaders! generally came in third place to Mission: Impossible on CBS and The NBC Saturday Night at the Movies on NBC. At mid-season ABC moved it to Wednesday night--ironically in the time slot vacated by Shirley's World. There it fared no better. Its last episode on ABC aired February 25 1972. Despite its success in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, its failure in the United States meant there would not be a second series.

It would be the 1972-1973 season that would see the last hurrah for British shows on the American broadcast networks in prime time. Like the successful This is Tom Jones before it, The Julie Andrews Hour was a variety show. It was Lord Lew Grade who conceived of a variety show starring Julie Andrews. Lord Grade had first met Julie Andrews when she was only six years old and he was a talent agent and she was a child performer. He had wanted to sign Miss Andrews when she was fourteen, but talent agent Charles Tucker had signed her first. Having long thought Miss Andrews was extremely talented, Lord Grade thought a variety show starring her could be a success.

It was then that Lord Lew Grade contacted Julie Andrews's agent, Arthur Park, in order to persuade her to star in a television series. Lord Grade made Julie Andrews an extremely lucrative offer. She would make twenty four episodes of the TV series with an option for five years more. The fee for the first two years alone was $2 million. Lord Grade also guaranteed a feature film that would be directed by her husband Blake Edwards and shot in Europe. It was perhaps the mention of a feature film which persuaded Julie Andrews to accept the deal. Although she agreed to the television show, Miss Andrews still viewed herself as a film star.

The show was produced by Nick Vanoff, who had produced episodes of The Perry Como Show as well as the majority of the run of The Hollywood Palace. A number of big name stars appeared on the show, including Harry Belafonte, Jack Benny, Diahann Carroll, Sammy Davis Jr., Angela Lansbury, Donald O'Connor, Carl Reiner, and the Smothers Brothers.

The Julie Andrews Hour debuted in the United States on ABC on September 13 1972. It debuted in the United Kingdom only a few days later on September 16 1972. Unfortunately, despite the star power of Julie Andrews and many of her guest stars, The Julie Andrews Hour would not be a success in the United States. Scheduled against Cannon on CBS (which ranked #14 in the ratings for the season),the ratings for The Julie Andrews Hour were disappointing. In January 1972 ABC moved The Julie Andrews Hour to Saturday where its competition was even worse. The Julie Andrews Hour found itself scheduled opposite The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show on CBS. Its ratings dropped and ABC cancelled The Julie Andrews Hour after 24 episodes.

While The Julie Andrews Hour did poorly in the ratings, it did win seven Emmy awards and was nominated for two more. Perhaps because of this  ABC gave Miss Andrews five TV specials that would be aired between 1973 and 1975.

The Julie Andrews Hour would be the last British show in the Seventies to air on an American broadcast network in prime time. This is not to say that American commercial television was entirely without British shows. Space 1999 and The Muppet Show (both produced by Lord Lew Grade's ITC) aired widely in syndication in the United States. ITC produced two religious themed mini-series, Moses the Lawgiver and Jesus of Nazareth, both of which aired on American broadcast networks (the former on CBS and the latter on NBC).  A continuation of a classic British show of the Sixties and a reboot of another would air on CBS late in the Seventies. The New Avengers was a continuation of The Avengers which teamed John Steed (played by Patrick Macnee) with two new partners. It first aired on CBS in 1978 as part of its CBS Late Movie. While The New Avengers only ran for two series, CBS would repeat the series frequently throughout the Eighties. Return of the Saint was a reboot of The Saint with Ian Ogilvy as Simon Templar. Return of the Saint also aired on The CBS Late Movie, starting in 1979. It ran for only one series. Both The New Avengers and Return of the Saint had the unexpected effect of renewing interest in The Avengers and The Saint in the United States.

The Julie Andrews Hour marked the end of nearly twenty years of British television shows regularly appearing on American broadcast network schedules. While The Vise aired on ABC before it,  the debut of The Adventures of Robin Hood on CBS marked the beginning of nearly two decades during which it was rare that at least one British show did not air on one of the American broadcast networks during any given season.

In fact, British shows would play a significant role in at least two cycles in American television shows. It was The Adventures of Robin Hood that spurred a cycle towards swashbuckler shows that overtook both sides of the Atlantic, although mostly in syndication in the United States. British entries in this cycle included The Adventures of Sir Lancelot and The Buccaneers. American entries in the cycle included Zorro and Tales of the Vikings. British shows also played a significant role in the spy cycle of the Sixties in the United States. Arguably the cycle had begun on British soil with Danger Man and The Avengers. It was a combination of the James Bond movies and the American show The Man From U..N.C.L.E. that would bring the spy craze to the United States. Some of the most popular spy shows to air in the United States in the Sixties were British shows: Danger Man (the hour long version under the title Secret Agent), The Avengers, and The Prisoner.

Of course, the sorts of British TV shows that aired on the American broadcast networks in the Fifties and Sixties would change over time. In the Fifties most British TV shows aired on the American broadcast networks tended to be either crime dramas or swashbuckler shows. By the Sixties the British shows aired on the American broadcast networks had shifted towards spy shows and adventure shows. Towards the end of the Sixties and the beginning of the Seventies  both variety shows and sitcoms produced in Britain appeared briefly on the American networks. While most people today tend to think of the British shows that aired on American television as mostly being spy shows, that was only the case for a period in the Sixties.

As to why the American broadcast networks stopped airing British shows, that is difficult to say. It is probably due to a number of factors. It is perhaps no coincidence that after 1971 only a very few British shows aired on the American broadcast networks. After all, it was at the start of the 1971-1972 season that the Prime Time Access Rule enacted by the Federal Communications Commission took effect. The Prime Time Access Rule grew out of the FCC's concern over the dominance of the broadcast networks in television production and programming. The Prime Time Access Rule was then meant to increase diversity on local stations, allowing them to air different sorts of shows in time slots that once belonged the networks. To this end, the Prime Time Access Rule restricted network programming to 8:00 PM Easterm/7:00 PM Central to 11:00 PM Eastern/10:00 PM Central on most nights. This meant that the networks lost several hours' worth of time slots. With fewer time slots to fill, the American broadcast networks did not have to order as many shows as they once had. Of course, when it came to ordering shows it would be no surprise if the American networks preferred shows produced in the United States to those produced in Britain.

Another factor in British shows no longer airing on the American broadcast networks since the early Seventies may have been differences in the standards British broadcasters and the American networks had with regards to violence. Following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968, the American broadcast networks were faced with renewed outcries over violence on television. The networks then severely cut the amount of violence contained in television shows. This presented a problem for action/adventure shows produced in Britain, which sometimes contained a greater amount of violence than their American counterparts. Indeed, in the January 3 1969 issue of Time magazine, The Avengers was referred to as "a festival of sado-masochism and murder."

For the entirety of the Seventies the American broadcast networks would be very restrictive with regards to violence, even as British shows grew more violent than ever. In the United Kingdom the Seventies was the era of such ultraviolent TV shows as Van der Valk, The Sweeney, and The Professionals. Perhaps there is no better example of the differences between the attitudes towards violence of the American networks and British broadcasters in the Seventies than CBS's treatment of The New Avengers, a show that was much less violent than either The Sweeney or The Professionals.  According to Ray Austin, who was a stunt arranger on The Avengers and directed several episodes of The New Avengers, violence was the reason that CBS chose to air The New Avengers in a late time slot rather than in prime time. With the American broadcast networks severely limiting the amount of violence in television shows, it is very doubtful that they would have considered airing British action/adventure shows of the Seventies that were often much more violent than the average American show of the time. It would not be until the mid-Eighties that the American broadcast networks would become less restrictive with regards to violence, by which time they had not aired a British show in primetime in years.

Another factor that may have played a role in the American broadcast networks ceasing to air British shows with any regularity may have been the possibility that they simply were not that committed to airing British shows to begin with. While in the Fifties most British shows debuted in the fall, by the Sixties the American broadcast networks were more likely to use British shows as mid-season or summer replacements. The half hour version of Danger Man aired as a summer replacement show on CBS. The Baron made its debut on ABC as a mid-season replacement. The Saint spent its entire time on NBC as either a summer or mid-season replacement. The Avengers began its run on ABC as a summer replacement show and was then a mid-season replacement before finally earning a spot on ABC's fall schedule. For most of the Sixties and into the Seventies, the American broadcast networks seemed to treat British shows as filler, something to put in time slots when they had nothing else. This would seem to show a lack of faith on the part of the American broadcast networks in British shows to attract an audience. If that was the case, it should be little wonder that the American broadcast networks stopped airing British shows.

Of course, the biggest factor in the American broadcast networks ceasing to air British shows may well have been ratings. Only a very few British shows that aired on the American broadcast networks in the Fifties and Sixties could be considered hits. While some of them developed very loyal followings in the United States, it is perhaps notable that no British shows ranked in the top twenty highest rated series for any given season. The fact that no British shows became smash hits in the ratings on the American broadcast networks was probably complicated by a number of failures in the late Sixties and early Seventies. After the relative success of Danger Man, The Avengers, The Saint, and This is Tom Jones, there were such low rated shows as From a Bird's Eye View, The Persuaders!, Shirley's World, and The Julie Andrews Hour. It should be little wonder, then, that the American broadcast networks showed no interest in Space 1999 or The Muppet Show.

From 1955 to 1973 twenty six different shows of British origin aired on the American broadcast networks. Many of these shows would become classics that would continue to air in the United States in syndication for decades, including The Adventures of Robin Hood, Danger Man, The Avengers, The Saint, and The Prisoner. In contrast to the Fifties and Sixties, the following decades would see almost no British shows aired on the American broadcast networks. That having been said, it seems possible that in the coming years this could change. In the past several years British television shows have seen a rise in popularity in the United States. Downton Abbey, Sherlock, and Call the Midwife (airing on PBS in the United States), as well as Doctor Who on BBC America, have all developed loyal following in the United States. It would seem possible that if more British shows catch on with audiences in the United States, the American broadcast networks will have to take notice. If they do, we might once more see British shows airing on the American broadcast networks as they once did in the Fifties and Sixties.

1 comment:

antoniod said...

I think another factor in the disappearance of British shows from network TV in the 70s was the network's increasing habit of changing the formats of shows mid-run in response to ratings or other feedback. Brit shows tended to be already "In the can", so the US networks running them couldn't add a cute kid or a dog to them.