Friday, June 11, 2010

Kids' Afternoon Programming on American Television Part One

Time to Start the Show

When many younger Baby Boomers and Gen Xers think of children's programming on American television, they are likely to think of Saturday morning, when the bulk of such programming aired on American television throughout its history. And while it is true that for several years Saturday morning would be the home to the bulk of children's programming on American television, the fact is that the late afternoon has also seen its fair share of kid's shows. Indeed, there was a time when late afternoon was the preferred time for airing children's shows, well before the tradition of kids' programming on Saturday morning was established.

The practice of scheduling children's shows in the late afternoon was established on radio, well before the advent of regular, network television broadcasts in the United States. Indeed, the first regularly scheduled radio serial for children to air in the afternoon may well have been Little Orphan Annie. Based on the popular comic strip, it debuted in 1930 on WGN in Chicago. On April 6, 1931 it made its debut on the NBC Blue Network. It aired six days a week at 5:45 PM. Little Orphan Annie proved to be a huge success, running until 1942.

Little Orphan Annie would be followed by a number of shows targeted at children which either aired in the late afternoon or early evening. And many of these shows would see even more success than Little Orphan Annie would. The Lone Ranger aired at 7:30 PM EST for nearly the entirety of its run. Its companion series, The Green Hornet, aired as early as 4:30 PM EST and as late as 8:00 PM EST. For much of its history The Adventures of Superman aired at either 5:00 or 5:30 PM EST. Jack Armstrong, All American Boy aired at 5:30 PM EST for most of its run. The list of juvenile radio serials which aired in the late afternoon or early evening is not a short one. Among the late afternoon and early evening children's shows were Uncle Don, Challenge of the Yukon, The Singing Story Lady, Captain Midnight, and many others.

The late afternoon and early evening hours having been established as a time for children's programming in radio, it was only natural that when regular network television broadcasts began in the United States after World War II that children's shows on television would also be scheduled in the late afternoon and early evening. Contrary to popular belief, the first regularly scheduled children's show was not Howdy Doody. In fact, two rather famous children's show debuted before Howdy Doody, although in the same year.

Today it is difficult to say what the first regularly scheduled, network children's show was, but it is quite possible that it was The Small Fry Club.  Indeed, in The Complete Directory to Primetime Network TV Shows, Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh state that it might have been the first series to air five days a week. The Small Fry Club debuted on the DuMont network on March 11, 1947 (a full nine months before Howdy Doody). It starred "Big Brother" Bob Emery, who sang,  played the ukulele and banjo, told stories, and included educational segments on current events, history, literature, music, and so on. Often The Small Fry Club featured guest performers or speakers on topics of interest to children. The Small Fry Club lasted until June 1951.

The second important, afternoon children's show to debut in 1947 would see more lasting success than The Small Fry Club. On October 13, 1947, Junior Jamboree debuted on WBKB in Chicago. When it moved to WBNQ in Chicago on November 29, 1948, it would be renamed for its stars--Kukla, Fran, and Ollie. On January 12, 1948 it made its debut on NBC. As to the stars of the show, two of them were puppets created by the series' creator, puppeteer Burr Tillstrom. For the whole run of the show he was its only puppeteer. As to the puppets themselves, Kukla was the leader of the group, a character who resembled a clown but definitely was not one, and Ollie or Oliver J. Dragon, a somewhat roguish dragon. The only human star of the show was Fran Allison, a radio comedian and singer. The cast was filled out by other puppets, such as Fletcher Rabbit, the group's rather fussy postman, and Cecil Bill, the group's stagehand.

Kukla, Fran, and Ollie differed from many children's shows (and even adult sitcoms) of the time in that its humour grew out of its characters. Indeed, the quality of the writing on the show was such that it boasted many adults among its fans, including Tallulah Bankehad, Milton Caniff, Orson Welles, and others. Indeed, when the show was cut back to 15 minutes in 1951, it was not children who expressed anger at NBC, but the show's adult fans! In all, Kukla, Fran, and Ollie would run 10 years, until 1957. Kukla, Fran, and Ollie would later host The CBS Children's Film Festival on Saturday morning and still later would be featured in their own show on PBS from 1969-1971.

As to Howdy Doody, perhaps the most famous children's show of the Fifties, it debuted on December 17, 1947 under the title Puppet Playhouse. Its title would officially be changed in 1949 to The Howdy Doody Show. The series was at its heart a puppet show, starring a marionette named Howdy Doody. Howdy's original incarnation was a rather scruffy haired, goofy looking fellow in Western clothes. It was in 1948 the puppet's designer, Frank Paris, walked off the show with the original Howdy Doody. Since Paris rightfully owned the marionette, the show had no choice but to redesign Howdy. Fortunately, the producers found a way to explain Howdy's absence. As Howdy was running for President of the Kids in 1948, it was explained that he was away having plastic surgery in order to better compete with his handsome opponent, Mr. X. In the meantime, for nine months the show utilised a puppet covered in bandages until the new Howdy Doody was unveiled. When Howdy's new face was finally revealed, it was the familiar red haired, freckle faced boy that everyone identifies as Howdy Doody. The new Howdy Doody was designed by Thelma Thomas of Walt Disney Studios, who created the head and face, and Scott Brinker, the show's prop man,  who made the body. Howdy's country bumpkin voice remained the same.

Of course, Howdy Doody was not the only puppet on the show,. In fact, there was a whole slough of them, living in the town named Doodyville. There was Mayor Phineas T. Bluster, Flub-a Dub (a duke's mixture of various animals), Sandra the Witch, and many others. Of course, there were human characters as well, the most prominent being Buffalo Bob Smith.  Dressed in Western garb, Buffalo Bob Smith was the host for the show for the entirety of its run save for nearly the show's entire run, and was the voice of the puppet as well. While Buffalo Bob was recovering from his heart attack, master voice man Allen Swift (best known as Simon Barsinister and Riff-Raff on Underdog) voiced Howdy, while the show featured various guest hosts (including Gabby Hayes). Perhaps the most prominent human character besides Buffalo Bob was the mute Clarabell the Clown, played by the legendary Bob Keeshan (later to become more famous as Captain Kangaroo) until 1952. There was also Chief Thunderthud (played by Bill LeCornec) and Princess Summerfall Winterspring (originally a puppet, but soon replaced by the beautiful Judy Tyler).

From its beginning, The Howdy Doody Show  was wildly successful. It became the first NBC show to be aired five days a week. In 1952, NBC spun off a radio show based on the shit TV series. Starting in 1954 NBC used Howdy Doody's face for their colour test pattern.In 1955 Howdy Doody became one of the first TV shows on any network to air regularly in colour. Naturally, Howdy Doody  produced a ton of merchandise. In 1949 Dell published the first Howdy Doody comic book. There were also lunch boxes, wind up toys, Howdy Doody dolls, and numerous other items.

Unfortunately, The Howdy Doody Show was not immune to the changing television climate in the Fifties. It was on October 3, 1955 (which I'll discuss in more depth later) The Mickey Mouse Club debuted on ABC. The show proved to be a smash hit. Indeed, even though ABC had fewer affiliates than NBC, The Mickey Mouse Club still trounced Howdy Doody in the ratings. An hour in length and starting a half hour earlier than Howdy Doody, children were loath to switch from The Mickey Mouse Club to Howdy Doody. It was then in 1956 that The Howdy Doody Show moved from its weekday afternoon time slot to Saturday  morning. The Howdy Doody Show would only survive four more years on Saturday morning. Its run ended on September 24, 1960. The biggest children's show of the Fifties would not survive into the Sixties.

Here it must be pointed out that not every children's show which debuted in the late Forties was a puppet show. In fact, it was on June 27, 1949 that DuMont would debut a show that, in retrospect, was highly revolutionary. Indeed, Captain Video and His Video Rangers was American television's first science fiction programme. Created by DuMont vice president James L Caddigan, the show was set in 2254 and centred on Captain Video, head of the Video Rangers, who reported to the Commissioner of Public Safety. He was assisted by the young Video Ranger (no other name was ever given) and with the Video Rangers battled threats to interplanetary safety.

Captain Video and the Video Rangers aired live and on a shoestring budget at that. As a result the production was somewhat crude, although it did manage to take advantage of such recent technology as primitive luminance key effects, dissolves, and superimpositions. During every programme until 1953 either Captain Video or communications officer Ranger Rogers would check in on Captain Video's other agents (who looked suspiciously like cowboys) on a television screen. As a result, at least ten minutes of the half hour programme was devoted to clips from old Westerns. This allowed the crew to set up switch sets and to prepare for special effects. Although its scripts were attacked by critics early in its run, Captain Video and the Video Rangers  would improve over time. The special effects would improve noticeably after Alex Haberstroh and Leo Russell were hired in 1952. After 1952 the scripts were being written by such noted science fiction writers and fantasists as Arthur C. Clarke, James Blish, Damon Knight, and Jack Vance. By 1953 clips of old Westerns were no longer being used.

From 1949 to 1950 Richard Coogan starred as Captain Video. He would go onto star in the 1957-1959 series The Californians. From 1950 to the end of the series, Captain Video was played by Al Hodge, best known as the original voice of The Green Hornet on radio. Don Hastings played the Video Ranger for the entirety of the show's run. He would go onto appear on The Edge of Night and then to an extraordinarily long run on As the World Turns.

Captain Video and the Video Rangers proved extremely popular. It inspired a 1951 Columbia serial entitled Captain Video: Master of the Stratosphere. Fawcett Comics would also publish a Captain Video comic book. More importantly, the series would inspire yet other juvenile science fiction shows, including Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, Space Patrol, and Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers among others.

Unfortunately, the success of Captain Video and the Video Rangers could not save the faltering DuMont network. From the beginning DuMont had faced obstacles from the FCC rules (restricting the network's growth), AT&T, and even its business partner Paramount Pictures. While DuMont produced such legendary shows as Cavalcade of Shows (which introduced the world to The Honeymooners), Life is Worth Living, The Original Amateur Hour, and Captain Video and the Video Rangers, it was not enough to overcome these obstacles. By 1955 DuMont was in a position where it could no longer afford the expensive coaxial cable over which its shows were broadcast. It was then on April 1, 1955 that Captain Video and the Video Rangers ended its long run. Its last regularly scheduled programme, the game show What's the Story aired one last time on September 25 of that year.

It would be another struggling network that would debut another revolutionary children's show not long after Captain Video and the Video Rangers went off the air. ABC had been in much the same position as DuMont, struggling to compete with the two major networks (NBC and CBS). It was in 1953 that United Paramount Theatres merged with the meagre network, giving it a much needed boost in capital. In 1954 the network would also be greatly helped by the debut of Disneyland, an anthology series produced by Walt Disney. Dinseyland proved to be a smash hit, even producing an outright craze with the "Davy Crockett" miniseries. It was in 1955 that Walt Disney followed up this success with a children's show which would air five days a week on ABC, The Mickey Mouse Club. It debuted on October 3, 1955.

Today it is easy to take The Mickey Mouse Club for granted as simply a very popular, afternoon children's show of the Fifties and the show that launched Annette Funnicello to stardom. but at the time it was revolutionary. Previously television shows were made to appeal to adults (most of what aired on primetime), young children (shows such as Howdy Doody), or teenagers (American Bandstand and number of other dance shows). The Mickey Mouse Club was the first children's show designed to appeal primarily to what is now called "tweens," children between the age of ten and twelve. In more ways than one, then, The Mickey Mouse Club is the forerunner of such shows as Hannah Montana and The Wizards of Waverly Place.

The format of The Mickey Mouse Club was simple. It was a variety show for kids. An average episode of the show would consist of a newsreel, a classic Disney cartoon, an episode of one of the show's serials (including "Spin and Marty" and  "The Hardy Boys"), as well as musical and comedy segments.The show had an appealing cast, led by the adult host, singer, actor, and songwriter Jimmie Dodd. The cast consisted of Annette Funicello (the show's breakout star), future drummer Cubby O'Brien,  future makeup artist Tommy Cole, and several others.

The Mickey Mouse Club proved incredibly successful, so much so that it outstripped the once phenomenal Howdy Doody in the ratings. In fact, it was after only one year against The Mickey Mouse Club that Howdy Doody was cut back to Saturday morning. It was still highly rated when  it was cancelled in 1959, largely because ABC and Disney could not come to terms over the renewal of the series. The show could have possibly continued on another network, but ABC forbade Disney from either shopping The Mickey Mouse Club or Zorro to another broadcaster.

In many respects The Mickey Mouse Club was the last hurrah for children's programming in the late afternoon on the networks. As the Fifties progressed, there would be increasingly fewer and fewer children's shows on the networks in the late afternoon. At some during point during the 1951-1952 season, all four networks had at least one children's show that aired in the late afternoon or evening hours, sometimes more. By the fall of 1960 only ABC aired children's shows in the late afternoon (of course, DuMont had ceased to exist four years earlier). The decrease in children's programming on the major networks happened gradually. Throughout the decade CBS aired children's shows in the late afternoon only sporadically at best, finally ceding late afternoons to their local affiliates and abandoning children's shows in those time slots entirely in 1957. Between Howdy Doody and The Pinky Lee Show NBC had scheduled children's programming for most of the decade. When the network moved Howdy Doody to Saturday mornings and cancelled The Pinky Lee Show in 1956, NBC abandoned children's programming in the late afternoon altogether, save for a brief revival of Kukla, Fran, and Ollie in the 1961-1962 season.

ABC was the lone hold out among the networks when it came to late afternoon, children's programming. In the 1959-1960 the network showed reruns of both The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin and My Friend Flicka. In the 1960-1961 season ABC scheduled reruns of Captain Gallant, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, The Lone Ranger, and Rocky and His Friends. In the 1961-1962 season ABC aired no children's shows in the late afternoon, but returned children's programming to the time slot in the 1962 to 1963 season with Discovery. Discovery was an educational show which explored various topics ranging from science to art to history. It lasted one season in the late afternoon before being exiled to Sunday morning, where it remained until its cancellation in 1971. It would be the last network offering for children in the late afternoon for decades. From the Sixties into the Eighties, children's programming on the networks would only be seen on Saturday mornings and, for a time, on Sunday mornings as well.

As to the reason children's programming vanished from late afternoons on the networks, it came down to simple economics. In some respects late afternoons were more ideal for children's programming. In the Fifties and even the Sixties, more children were available to watch television in the late afternoon than on Saturday morning. What made the late afternoon less desirable as a time for children's shows than Saturday morning was the simple fact that many more adults were available to watch television in the late afternoon as well. In fact, the adult audience for the late afternoon was much larger than that of children. The end result was that advertises who bought spots on children's show in the afternoon would have to pay higher rates than advertisers who wanted to attract adults. In the end, it became simpler for the networks to simply cede the late afternoon to their local affiliates, who could then programme whatever they pleased.

Of course, this would not be the end of children's programming in the late afternoon on weekdays on American television. Many local stations had their own children's shows that would continue to air for many years, while others simply elected to show any number of cartoons. Although it might decrease in its sheer numbers over the years, children's programming on weekday afternoons would not completely vanish.

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