Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The 50th Annivesary of the TV Show Batman

It was fifty years ago tonight, on January 12 1966, that the TV show Batman debuted on ABC. Batman proved to be a veritable phenomenon. It was a smash hit in the ratings. Its debut episode alone had a phenomenal 27.3/49 rating, handily beating The Virginian on NBC and Lost in Space on CBS. Batman merchandise filled the stores, to the point that Sears and Montgomery Ward were able to devote multiple pages in their catalogues to goods inspired by the show. In 1966 it was impossible to escape Batman. In fact, perhaps the only phenomenon bigger than Batman in the mid-Sixties was The Beatles.

It was certainly an unusual situation, especially given the fad centred on a character who at the time of the show's debut had been around for 27 years. That having been said, contrary to popular belief, the TV show Batman did not put Batman on the map. During the Golden Age of comic books Batman was the second most popular character (after Superman) published by what would become DC Comics and probably the third most popular superhero at the time (after Superman and Captain Marvel). He was the first DC Comics superhero to appear in a live action film (the 1943 serial The Batman). With his first of many appearances on The Adventures of Superman on March 2 1945, he became the second major DC Comics superhero to appear on a radio show. Batman was already well-known among the general public before the debut of the TV show in 1966. Indeed, his name recognition probably helped the show. That having been said, the 1966 Batman TV show did insure Batman's continued popularity for the next several decades. In fact, it is quite possible that he is the most popular superhero in the world and has been for years.

While Batman was perhaps the biggest fad of 1966 and one of the biggest fads of the Sixties, the show itself did not have a long run. The smash hit of the 1965-1966 season, Batman left the air after only two years and two months. Despite its rather brief run, Batman proved to be a hit in syndication. Indeed, not only did the show air on several TV stations throughout the Seventies, but it has continued to do well in syndication to this day. Despite the several movies that have been released since the TV show left the air, it seems quite possible that the Batman TV series remains the best known reiteration of the character.

Given its success it should come as no surprise that Batman would have a lasting impact on both television and comic books. First, there are those who believe that it was two TV shows that saved ABC from going under in the Sixties: Bewitched and Batman. Today ABC is considered one of the "Big Three" broadcast networks, on par with the two older networks, NBC and CBS. That having been said, during the 1965-1966 season ABC was only a little better than The WB or UPN were in the early Naughts. Many places across the United States did not have ABC affiliates and often their shows would be shown on the local NBC or CBS affiliate of any given market at awkward times of the day.

Quite naturally this had an impact on the ratings. In the early Sixties it was not unusual for ABC to have only one show ranked in the top twenty for the year, and sometimes that show would rank in the lower half of the top twenty. Fortunately for the struggling network Bewitched debuted in 1964 and proved to be a hit. It was the number two show for its first season and remained in the top ten shows for the year for the next few seasons. When Batman proved to be a hit in 1966, then, it gave ABC one more highly successful show. Ultimately Bewitched and Batman may have largely been responsible for allowing ABC to last out the Sixties and to finally become the equal of CBS and NBC in the Seventies.

Batman would also be instrumental in cementing the practice of mid-season replacements. Mid-season replacements pre-date the 1965-1966 seasons by many years. Among the more famous mid-season replacements are the classic sitcom The Bob Cummings Show (AKA Love That Bob) and the Western Rawhide. That having been said, prior to the 1965-1966 season mid-season replacements were relatively rare and usually the networks would keep even extremely low rated shows on for an entire season.

All of this changed with the 1965-1966 season. ABC's fall line-up for that season failed catastrophically. So that the season would not be a total loss ABC then took a drastic course of action, scheduling more mid-season replacements than had ever been scheduled in the history of television up to that point. To promote these changes ABC hired Grey Advertising. Copywriter Irwin Fredman came up with the slogan "the Second Season", deciding that the changes ABC was making were so great that the constituted a whole new television season.

The cornerstone of ABC's so-called "Second Season" was Batman. The show had been slated to debut in the fall of 1966, but when ABC's fall line-up proved disastrous its debut was moved to January. While Batman certainly did save the 1965-1966 season for ABC, none of the network's other mid-season replacements survived that season. That having been said, in making such dramatic changes to their schedule at mid-season, ABC had set a precedent. In proving to be the smash hit of the season, Batman proved that a mid-season replacement could be as successful as shows that debuted in the fall. In the years following the 1965-1966 season all three networks would start scheduling mid-season replacements to take the place of shows that were not doing particularly well in the ratings. Particularly in the Seventies, these mid-season changes were sometimes every bit as drastic as those ABC made during the 1965-1966 season.

To some degree Batman would even have an impact on television comedies. Because Batman was meant to be an adventure show for children but a spoof of superhero conventions for adults, it lacked a laugh track. In 1966 nearly every American sitcom had a laugh track that took the place of a "live studio audience". Even Hanna-Barbera's "adult" cartoons, such as The Flintstones and The Jetsons, had laugh tracks. Batman would remain the only comedy on the air without a laugh track until The Monkees did away with their laugh track midway through the 1967-1968 season. While it would take literally years and some resistance from the networks (CBS insisted on a laugh track on M*A*S*H over the show's producers' objections), eventually the lack of a laugh track would become much more common on American sitcoms. In the past few years such sitcoms as 30 Rock, Arrested Development, Community, and Parks and Recreation, among several others, have aired without a laugh track.

As might be expected, Batman also had an impact on comic books featuring the character. While it does not appear that the "Batman" feature in DC Comics was in any real danger of cancellation as is commonly believed (see Comic Book Resources' "Comic Book Legends Revealed #408"), the show would cause some major changes in the "Batman" feature as it was published in the early to mid-Sixties. In the comic books the character of Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred had been killed off. His presence on the show resulted in him being resurrected in the comic books where he has remained ever since. Catwoman had not appeared in the comic books since 1954. Her appearance on the TV show resulted in her appearing in the comic books for the first time in 12 years. Because of the popularity of Catwoman on the show, William Dozier encouraged DC Comics to introduce more female characters who could be used on the show. The result was that the comic book company created the character of Batgirl, who was later incorporated into the TV show and has remained a major part of the DC Universe ever since.  The Riddler had been a very minor villain in the comic books (he had only appeared twice during the Golden Age), but the popularity of Frank Gorshin as The Riddler on the show turned the character into a major member of Batman's rogue's gallery.

Even fifty years after its debut Batman remains a highly successful TV show. It has persisted in syndication ever since it left the air in 1968 and has aired on such cable channels as F/X and IFC, as well as the nostalgia broadcast network ME-TV. After protracted talks between Warner (who own the rights to the character),  20th Century Fox (who owned the rights to the show), and other parties, Batman was finally released on DVD in 2014. It is quite possible that fifty years after its debut and such superhero shows as The Flash, Arrow, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., that Batman remains the most famous superhero show of all time.

(for a more detailed write-up on the history of the show readers might want to check out my two part "Batmania: How Batman Conquered America in 1966" as well as "Batman Turns 75 Part Three: Television, Radio, and Other Media")

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