Sunday, August 8, 2010

Watching Movies on Television in the Summer

Summer means vacation for American schoolchildren. This also means a good deal more free time as well. For kids this means long days spent outside playing with one's friends, playing games of baseball, spending time at the pool, and for some even a week at summer camp. For many it will also mean more time to watch television, much of which will be spent watching movies on DVD or Blu-Ray or perhaps the many cable channels.

To a large degree summer vacation has not changed for schoolchildren over the past several decades.It is true that, hard as it may be to believe, there was a time when there were not even VHS tapes, let alone DVDs or Blu-Ray. This did not mean that children in those earlier eras did not spend a good deal of time watching movies on television. While many households did not yet have cable and VCRs would not become commonplace until the very late Seventies, in those days both the networks and the local channels would show feature films several times a week. It was on network television that I would first see such films as Jason and the Argonauts (1963), A Hard Day's Night (1964), Help! (1965), One, Two, Three (1961), and The Dirty Dozen (1967). On local stations I would see older, classic films, from Casablanca to the Universal horror movies.

Of course, it had not always been this way. There was a time when the only movies one might see on television would be older films from the Thirties or maybe the Forties at the latest, and then primarily B-movies shown on local television stations. Feature films were largely unknown on the networks in the Fifties, with the exception of such special events as The Wizard of Oz (first shown on CBS in 1956) . It was fairly big news in 1955 when ABC aired films (although often greatly edited to fit in the time slot) from the Forties (including Great Expectations and The Red Shoes) from Britain's J. Rank Organisation under the title Famous Film Festival (it only lasted a season). It was even bigger news when  Screen Gems syndicated a package of classic Universal horror movies to local television stations in 1957 under the name Shock! For the most part, major motion pictures were not a part of the television experience of children in the Fifties.

All of this changed in September 1961 when NBC debuted NBC Saturday Night at the Movies. It was in 1961 that NBC bought the rights to 31 films made after 1950 from 20th Century Fox. The movie anthology series debuted on September 23, showing How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) starring Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable, and Lauren Bacall. During that first season NBC Saturday Night at the Movies would show  Monkey Business (1952) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) among many other films. NBC Saturday Night at the Movies received very good ratings, so good that the other networks would follow suit with their own movie anthology series. In 1964 ABC debuted its first movie anthology series, The ABC Sunday Night Movie. CBS, then the highest rated network, would wait until 1966 to debut its first movie anthology series, The CBS Thursday Night Movies. By 1968 movie anthology series were so popular on television that, between the three networks, there was one on every night of the week.

While feature films would become rather common place on network schedules in the Sixties and Seventies, there were some distinct disadvantages to watching them on network television as opposed to watching them on DVD or even a cable channel. As might be expected, there would be commercial interruptions. Movies would be edited to run in the time allotted by the network and, especially after 1967, edited for content as well. As the letterbox format would not be developed until the Eighties, movies would always be shown in full screen. Naturally, the many films shot in the widescreen processes popular in the Fifties and Sixties would then look rather strange on television. Another disadvantage to watching movies on television was that there would often be some time before the end of a movie's second run and its debut on the small screen. As is shown above, How to Marry a Millionaire was already eight years old when it made its network debut. The Day the Earth Stood Still was even older, at eleven years old. While many of the movies that aired on that first season of  NBC Saturday Night at the Movies were fairly old, this would change rather soon. On average, the movies that aired on network television were anywhere from three to four years old. Eventually this would change, so that films would sometimes make their television debuts when they were only two years old.

As far as I know the networks did not intentionally try to differentiate themselves in the feature films they showed. When I was growing up , however, I did notice some differences in the films shown on the three networks. CBS, being the top network for many years, tended to get most of the big box office hits. NBC would get some of the big box office hits, their movie anthology series being filled out with films that did moderately well or even poor at the box office. ABC usually got a few of the big movies (The Bridge on the River Kwai, Patton, Oliver), but more often they were simply left with whatever was left over. Even as a child I noticed differences between what was shown during the fall-spring television season and the summer. Even then some movies would only be shown at certain times of year. The Wizard of Oz was always shown in the spring. The Ten Commandments was always shown around Passover and Easter. With a few exceptions (mostly on CBS and mostly action films), the biggest movies were generally shown only once during the fall-spring television season and were not repeated during the summer. Of course, this did not mean that the network's summer schedules were absent of any good films.

Indeed, some of my fondest memories of watching movies on television as a child occurred during the summer. As might be expected, most of them were on CBS. During the summer CBS showed some of the biggest action movies ever made, including The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, and The Guns of Navarone. CBS would also show comedies including Support Your Local Gunfighter, The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming, and, one August, the Herman's Hermits movie Hold On (I remember that one fairly well). CBS had the rights to the entire Planet of the Apes series, and would often repeat the films in the summer. Perhaps my fondest memory of watching movies on CBS in the summer was Yellow Submarine. In fact, although my memory may fail me, it seems to me that they showed it every year around or on July 4. Since that time I have associated Independence Day with the band that inaugurated the British Invasion...

NBC also aired several good movies during the summer, although they would tend more towards spy thrillers and comedies than big action films. I remember they showed both The Satan Bug and The Ipcress File in the summer. One of my fondest memories of watching movies on NBC was when we came home from our weekly grocery shopping trip to find The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao was on. I also have fond memories of watching They Might Be Giants, a forgotten gem in which George C. Scott plays a millionaire who thinks he is Sherlock Holmes, on NBC Saturday Night at the Movies. Perhaps because CBS got the rights to so many of the huge films, They Might Be Giants was hardly the only obscure film ever shown on NBC. One Saturday night they showed Doppelgänger (AKA Journey to the Far Side of the Sun), a now largely forgotten sci-fi film produced by Gerry Anderson. It was also on NBC in the summer that I first saw The 300 Spartans, the 1962 film based on the same battle as the more recent movie 300.

I don't have nearly as many memories of watching movies on ABC as I do of watching movies on CBS or NBC. Perennially the third ranked network, ABC did not have the money to get as many big box office films that CBS or NBC did. They did get the rights to the James Bond movies. The first time I would ever see most of the James Bond movies would be on ABC in the Seventies. They showed at least one Bond movie a month for years, so that much of my summer television viewing as a child consisted of watching 007 in action. To this day I associate summer with Sean Connery as James Bond. ABC also received the rights to show the Matt Helm movies. They did not show them as often as the Bond movies, but it seems to me that they were often repeated during the summer. ABC would show only a few of their big box office movies in the summer. I remember them showing The Italian Job, Ice Station Zebra, and In Harm's Way. Until the late Seventies, ABC really would not be on equal footing with CBS or NBC.  Perhaps because they were the lowest rated network, I remember ABC showing some rather odd, even obscure movies. Indeed, they even showed the feature film based on the hit series Batman in July 1971, even though ABC had cancelled the show three years earlier! They also showed such films as The Brain  (a 1969 comedy with David Niven as the world's smartest thief), Modesty Blaise, and The Assassination Bureau in the summer. Oddly, while I don't remember Modesty Blaise that well, my memory of The Brain is very fresh--it was actually one of the first David Niven movies I ever saw. ABC also showed some Hammer films in the summer, including Quatermass and the Pit (under its American title, Five Million Miles to Earth) and Hands of the Ripper.

Sadly, movie anthology series began to decline in number in the early Seventies, a decline which accelerated in the late Seventies. In 1978 the original movie anthology series, NBC Saturday Night at the Movies, ended after seventeen years. By the mid-Eighties the movie anthology series were largely dominated by made for TV movies (the sort I called "The Exploitation Movie of the Week"). For much of the Nineties there would be only four movie anthology series on the networks (one each on CBS and ABC, two on NBC). The last two movie anthology series, CBS Sunday Night Movies and NBC Sunday Night at the Movies, would not even survive into the Naughts--they both ended their runs in 1999. The reason for the slow decline of the movie anthology series was quite simply that new outlets for feature films other than the broadcast networks evolved over time. In 1972 HBO was founded, the first successful, nationwide, premium movie cable channel. It would be followed by The Movie Channel and Showtime. Cable television also expanded at a rapid rate in the Seventies and Eighties, creating yet more outlets for movies. While the VCR had existed in some form since 1963, it would not be until the Seventies that they would become commercially viable. With the introduction of the Betamax and VHS formats in the late Seventies, VCRs would become commonplace in the Eighties. As if premium movie channels, the expansion of cable television, and the introduction of the VCR was not enough, DVDs would be introduced in the late Nineties. Not only would they make VCRs largely obsolete, but they also probably hammered the nail in the coffin of the network movie anthology series. Today the networks are more or less in the same position they were in the Fifties--only showing feature films as special events.

Of course, movies were not shown only on the networks in those days, but on local stations as well. In fact, in the days before sport and infomericals dominated the schedule, local stations would show movies on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. These would be older movies than one would see on the networks, often from the Thirties and Forties. In fact, it was not unusual for a local station to schedule a specific, old movie series (such as "Blondie" or "Ma and Pa Kettle") or a specific genre (such as Westerns) in a given time slot on the weekends . I spent many summers on Saturday afternoons watching KOMU, which rotated showing the old Sherlock Holmes movies and Charlie Chan movies each week. KRCG had its own regularly scheduled, movie time slot every Saturday night at 10:30. It was called Tales of Terror and was hosted by weatherman Lee Gordon as The Count. As one can probably tell by its title, classic horror movies were shown on Tales of Terror, from Frankenstein (1930) to, well, Tales of Terror (1962).  KMIZ, by far the youngest of the local stations, would show B-Westerns on Saturday afternoon. Having spent many summers watching these B-Westerns on Saturdays, I rather suspect I have seen every Gabby Hayes movie ever made.Other than the movies they showed on a regular basis, the local stations would show an eclectic mix of films. I remember one Sunday afternoon KRCG showed Fail Safe. Another Sunday afternoon KMIZ showed The Kid From Brooklyn.

Being network affiliates, the local stations were somewhat limited in how much time they could show movies, a certain amount of their time being occupied by network offerings. This was not the case with KPLR, the independent station out of St. Louis. As an independent station, KPLR could not rely on a network to fill its schedule. As a result it showed a lot of movies. And as the oldest independent station in the state, it was well established enough that it could afford some rather big name movies. It was on KPLR that I first saw Bringing Up Baby, Casablanca, Pillow Talk, The Vikings, El Cid, and many other movies. Like KOMU and KRCG here in mid-Missouri, KPLR had those times it devoted to specific movie series or genre of movies. On Saturday afternoon they would show one "Bowery Boys" movie followed by an Abbot and Costello movie. I have fond memories in the summers of watching such films as The Time of Their Lives and Buck Privates. Saturday night KPLR had "Western Theatre," when they would show classic Westerns. Sunday afternoons they had what they called "Tarzan Theatre,." which showed the whole range of Tarzan movies from Tarzan the Ape Man to the ones made in the Sixties. Week nights they devoted to a variety of films, from the Thirties to the Seventies. I remember in the summer watching such diverse films as WestWorld, Our Man Flint, Angels with Dirty Faces, Casablanca, and Duck Soup all on KPLR. In the days before TCM, KPLR was a classic movie buff's dream.

Sadly, since the Seventies the number of feature films on local channels has decreased enormously. There can be no doubt that much of this is due to the same factors that spelled the end of the networks' movie anthology series: the emergence of premium movie cable channels, the expansion of cable, and the development of such technologies as the VCR and the DVD. That having been said, movies on local stations would have two other factors that worked against them. In the Eighties and Nineties the networks would greatly expand the number of sporting events they showed on Saturday and Sunday afternoons (even though there are specialised cable channels such as ESPN for these things...). This would give local stations less time in which they could show feature films. Another factor which worked against movies being shown on local stations was the development of the infomercial in the Eighties. Sadly, many programming managers at many local stations in the United States have chosen to air infomercials (which make money whether people watch them or not) on those rare Saturday and Sunday afternoons when the networks are airing no sport rather than airing movies. Since the mid-Eighties what was once a movie buff's wonderland has developed into a vast wasteland on local stations throughout the country.

While those of us nostalgic for the days of old may lament the fact that movies are no longer shown with any kind of frequency on networks and local stations, it cannot be denied that kids today have more access to watching movies than we ever did. There are many different premium channels, from Starz to The Sundance Channel, which show movies. There are specialised cable channels, such as TCM and The Fox Movie Channel. There is both DVD and Blu-Ray. Indeed, today's schoolchildren can watch almost any given movie any time they want, whether through DVD, Blu-Ray, or pay cable. In the old days one had no choice but to wait until his or her favourite movie came on television. Given the many different means through which today's kids can watch movies, there can be no doubt that many of them choose to spend their summers watching feature films. And there can be no doubt that twenty years from now they will have fond memories of doing so.


Raquelle said...

Geez louise. You went over and above on this. This just proves to me that you are a walking encyclopedia on pop culture. Well done!

J. Marquis said...

One of my favorite summer memories is watching "She" starring Ursula Andress on television.