Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The American 1965-1966 Television Season

There are a few people today who seem convinced that we are currently living in the Golden Age of Television. While it is true that there are a number of high quality shows on the air today, what they overlook is the fact that these shows are spread out over a number of broadcast networks, cable channels, and streaming services. That we are not living in the Golden Age of Television can easily be proven by looking at television schedules from Fifty and Sixty years ago. At a time when there were only three major networks on the air (counting DuMont, four in the early Fifties), as many quality shows were produced then as are produced now with all the cable channels and streaming services. Indeed, a look at the 1965-1966 season shows that there were then as many good shows on the air as there are now, if not more.

A number of shows debuted during the 1965-1966 season that would persist in reruns to this day, nearly all of them considered classics. In fact, many of these shows often debuted on the same night on the same network. Although many might debate its quality as a science fiction series, Lost in Space has a cult following and remains a camp classic. The show debuted the same night as the classic, surrealist rural comedy Green Acres, on September 15 1965 on CBS.

Indeed, some of the classic shows from the 1965-1966 even debuted back to back on the same network. On Friday, September 17 1965 the classic spy-fi/Western The Wild Wild West debuted on CBS. It was immediately followed on that network by the classic spoof of prisoner-of-war movies Hogan's Heroes. The following night, Saturday, September 18 1965, I Dream of Jeannie and Get Smart debuted back to back on NBC.

The fall of 1965 would see several classic shows debut that have persisted in syndication ever since. In addition to the aforementioned shows, the long running crime drama The F.B.I., the wildly popular Western spoof F Troop, I Spy, The Big Valley, and the cult favourite Honey West all premiered that fall. It is safe to say that on some nights many people had difficulty deciding what to watch.

Of course, there were many shows from previous seasons that returned for the 1965-1966 season. Such long time favourite sitcoms as My Favourite Martian, The Lucy Show, The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, McHale's Navy, and The Donna Reed Show all returned. Hit sitcoms new during the 1964-1965 season, such as Bewitched, The Munsters, and The Addams Family, came back for second seasons. There were also several returning classic dramas, including Perry Mason, Bonanza, Combat!, The Fugitive, Dr. Kildare, and The Virginian. Hit dramas from the 1964-1965 season were also back. Daniel Boone continued to be strong, while The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had blossomed into a full scale phenomenon. There were also such classic variety shows and anthology shows as The Ed Sullivan Show, Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Colour, and The Andy Williams Show. The popular and long running Dean Martin Show made its debut that season.

Of course,  it must be pointed out that the 1965-1966 season was the first in which the majority of shows were broadcast in colour.  Of the networks NBC was far in the lead with regards to colour programming. As of fall 1965 only two of their primetime shows were broadcast in black and white: Convoy and I Dream of Jeannie (which would become the last primetime show on NBC to be regularly shown in black and white). CBS lagged somewhat behind, with a little over half of their shows broadcast in colour. ABC, the smallest and historically lowest rated network, lagged far behind with regards to colour programming, with only about 36% of all their shows aired in colour as of fall 1965.

Beyond being the first season in which the majority of shows on primetime were in colour, the 1965-1966 season was also the first season in which the three networks premiered all of their shows during the same week--September 13 to September 19. ABC had pioneered the idea of a "premiere week", a week when every new show would premiere, during the 1963-1964 season. Prior to that the networks would spread the premieres of news shows throughout September and sometimes even into early October. It's for that reason that in the 1955-1956 season Gunsmoke debuted on September 10 on CBS, but The Phil Silvers Show didn't premiere until ten days later on September 20 on that same network. CBS followed ABC in adopting the practice of "premire week" in the 1964-1965 season, although that season they chose the week following that of ABC's premiere week. With the 1965-1966 season all three networks adopted the practice of premiere week. They also happened to choose the exact same week for their premieres.

Looking at the schedule for the fall of 1965, today one would think all three networks would have done remarkably well that autumn. Sadly, this was not the case for ABC, the smallest network that was perennially third in the ratings. The fall 1965 lineup for ABC literally proved to be catastrophic for the network, who received their worst ratings in years. In fact, of the 11 shows that debuted on ABC in the fall, only three would survive to a second season. To save the season as a whole, ABC then decided upon what was then a drastic course of action. Quite simply, in January they not only rearranged their schedule, but they cancelled several shows and replaced them with mid-season replacements.

Contrary to popular belief, mid-season replacements had existed well before the 1965-1966 season and ABC did not invent them. Such popular shows as Dragnet, The Bob Cummings Show, and Rawhide had all debuted as mid-season replacements. That having been said, none of the networks had ever debuted as many mid-season replacements in January as ABC did during the 1965-1966 season, nor did they rearrange their schedules quite so dramatically. So big were the changes that ABC made to their schedule that they hired Grey Advertising to promote those changes. It was copywriter Irwin Fredman who came up with the slogan "the Second Season", deciding that so great were the changes ABC had made to its schedule that it constituted a whole new television season.

The lynchpin of ABC's so-called "Second Season" was Batman, a superhero spoof based on the then 27 year old comic book character. Originally ABC had planned to debut Batman in the fall of 1966, but as disastrous as the fall of 1965 had proven for the network, it was decided to move its debut up to January 1966. ABC launched a promotional campaign for the show, centred around the slogan "Batman is Coming". Promos for the show appeared on ABC nearly every hour on the hour. There were a number of newspaper ads and billboards for the show. ABC even hired a skywriter to emblazon the slogan "Batman is Coming" above the Rose Bowl. When Batman debuted in January 12 1966, it received phenomenal ratings. In the end it became the centre of possibly the biggest fad in the history of television and ABC's second most successful show of the Sixties after Bewitched.

None of ABC's other mid-season replacements proved nearly as successful as Batman. Shows such as The Double Life of Henry Phyfe and The Baron (an import from Britain) barely lasted the season. ABC had set a precedent, however, so that since January 1966 the networks have relied upon mid-seasons replacements more frequently than they had before. While ABC saw little success with most of their mid-season replacements beyond Batman, they would see a good deal of success with a show that made its debut on the network on March 28 1966. The Avengers had debuted in the United Kingdom in 1961 and had proven phenomenally successful there. While The Avengers would not prove to be quite as successful in the United States (it never ranked in the top thirty shows for the season), it did develop a large and loyal cult following and remained on ABC for the next three years.

ABC was not the only network to utilise mid-season replacements during the 1965-1966 season, although in one instance for CBS it was simply a case of bringing back a show that had aired earlier on the network. Secret Agent (as the hour long version of the British show Danger Man was known in the United States) had debuted on CBS on April 3 1965 as a summer replacement series. Secret Agent returned to CBS as a mid-season replacement on December 4 1965. Another mid-season replacement on CBS was a brand new show. To replace the ageing Western Rawhide, CBS debuted the popular children's drama Daktari on January 11 1966.

So far I have only discussed primetime television, but the 1965-1966 season would be a good one for Saturday morning cartoons as well. Depending upon whom you ask, either the 1963-1964 season or the 1964-1965 season was the first Saturday morning on broadcast networks as many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers would know it. For the 1965-1966 the networks continued to expand their blocks of animated cartoons on Saturday mornings. NBC, who had only aired an hour of cartoons in the 1964-1965 season, expanded to a whole two and a half hours. ABC, who had only aired two hours of cartoons in the previous season, expanded their block of cartoons to three hours. Oddly enough, CBS, who had pioneered the scheduling of cartoons on Saturday morning with Mighty Mouse Playhouse in 1955, remained steady at three hours of cartoons, the same as the previous season.

There were several notable cartoons that debuted on Saturday morning in the fall of 1965. Perhaps the most notable was The Beatles, a cartoon based on the band of the same name. The cartoon was the first to be based on actual people (beating out the syndicated Three Stooges cartoon by a few weeks) and proved to be very successful. It was the highest rated cartoon for the 1965-1966 season. It aired on ABC. Also of note was the debut of Tom and Jerry, an anthology of old MGM theatrical animated shorts featuring Tom and Jerry, as well as Droopy. While rival Warner Brothers had embraced television years ago, MGM had resisted releasing their Tom and Jerry shorts and their Droopy shorts until 1965. It debuted on CBS. Also debuting on Saturday morning in the fall of 1965 were The Atom Ant/Secret Squirrel Show on NBC and Milton the Monster on ABC.

The 1965-1966 season saw a number of classic shows debut, everything from The Wild Wild West to Batman. It also saw a number of developments that would continue to impact television for years. ABC's so-called "Second Season"s solidified the use of mid-season replacements. NBC and ABC both expanded their lineups of Saturday morning cartoons. By the end of the decade Saturday morning cartoons blocks would be eight hours in length. Most importantly it was the first season in which the majority of prime time shows were aired in colour. The following season, the 1966-1967 season, would be the first in which nearly all primetime network TV shows were aired in colour. The 1965-1966 season was a pivotal one for American broadcast network television. It was also one that would seem to put to rest any claims that today is the Golden Age of Television.


ajwrites57 said...

Awesome Terence. Some real classics there.

Hal said...

Arguably my favorite season in the history of U.S. television. Certainly one that saw more of my all time favorite rewatchables premiere than any other. F TROOP is my all time favorite U.S. TV show; BATMAN and I DREAM OF JEANNIE would be in my top 20, and GREEN ACRES and GET SMART! aren't far behind them. Also, I have many all time faves among the holdovers. There's even a number of flops that I have a great deal of affection for (HONEY WEST, AMOS BURKE: SECRET AGENT).

Terence Towles Canote said...

Hal, I think for me it might be too tough to call. The 1965-1966 season saw the debut of The Wild Wild West and the American debut of The Avengers, two of my favourite shows of all time. Batman is in my top ten as well, while Get Smart and I Dream of Jeannie are among my favourites as well. But then the 1964-1965 season saw the debut of The Addams Family (another top ten show for me), The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Bewitched, Gilligan's Island, and Daniel Boone. It also featured what may be my favourite "flop" of all time, My Living Doll with Julie Newmar. I think for me it might be a tie between the two seasons! The mid-Sixties were certainly good years for American television.