Wednesday, January 13, 2021

How Bewitched and Batman Saved ABC in the Sixties

Today ABC, the American Broadcasting Company, is considered one of the major broadcast networks. This was not always the case. Throughout the Fifties and into the Sixties, ABC was always a distant third in the ratings to the two older networks, CBS and NBC. ABC had fewer affiliates than either CBS or NBC. What is more, many of ABC's affiliates were on UHF stations and lower powered VHF stations. This made it difficult for ABC to compete with either CBS or NBC. Many markets lacked an ABC affiliate, so that ABC's shows would air on the local NBC or CBS affiliate at odd times of the day (KRCG in Jefferson City, MO aired them after 10 PM).  After having experienced some success with Westerns and detective shows (such as Maverick and 77 Sunset Strip) in the late Fifties and the early Sixties, in the mid-Sixties there were those who doubted that ABC would survive.

Of course, ABC's dire circumstances might not seem obvious to someone looking at the top thirty shows in the Nielsen ratings for the 1964-1965 season. After all, the second highest rated show for that season was Bewitched. Airing on ABC, Bewitched was brand new, having debuted that season. What is more, ABC had a total of six shows in the top thirty (Bewitched, The Fugitive, Combat!, My Three Sons, Peyton Place, The Addams Family, McHale's Navy, and The Lawrence Welk Show). While ABC had six shows in the top thirty, however, it also had several shows in the bottom thirty of the Nielsen ratings. What is more, in the mid-Sixties ABC had more than its share of financial woes. It lacked the money to adequately compete with CBS and NBC. It was the target of takeover attempts by such companies as General Electric, Gulf and Western Industries, International Telephone and Telegraph, Litton Industries, and Norton Simon.

ABC was then in real trouble when its fall 1965-1966 schedule was a catastrophic failure. Of the 11 new shows that ABC debuted that fall, only three would survive to a second season. Out of the 15 lowest rated shows airing during the first two weeks of the fall 1965-1966 season, seven of them aired on ABC. Worse yet, out of the ABC shows that had ranked in the top thirty for the 1964-1965 season, only two would remain in the top thirty for the 1965-1966 season, Bewitched and The Lawrence Welk Show. My Three Sons also remained in the top thirty, but it had been snatched up by rival CBS.

Certainly the success of Bewitched propped ABC up during the 1964-1965 season. The show ranked no. 2 during the 1964-1965 season, a rare feat for a brand new show. What is more, it maintained high ratings into its second season. For the 1965-1966 season it came in at no. 7 in the ratings, tied with The Beverly Hillbillies on CBS.  Given how catastrophic the start of the 1965-1966 season had been for ABC, however, the network was clearly in need of another hit.

To prevent the 1965-1966 season from being a total washout, ABC then elected to dramatically retool its schedule in January. Failing shows would either have their time slot changed or be cancelled outright. A number of brand new shows would debut. The changes to their schedule were so drastic that ABC hired Grey Advertising to promote those changes. It was copywriter Irwin Fredman who came up with the slogan "the Second Season," based on the idea that the changes ABC were making were so great that they constituted a whole new season. Here it must be pointed out that the idea of mid-season replacements was nothing new at the time. In the Fifties, Dragnet, The Bob Cummings Show, and Rawhide had all debuted as mid-season replacements. That having been said, ABC debuted more mid-season replacements in January 1966 than any network ever had before.

Among those replacements was Batman, on which ABC pinned its hopes. It debuted on January 12 1966. ABC began promoting Batman in December 1966 with the slogan, "Batman is Coming!" The network aired promos for the show nearly every hour on the hour. There was a large 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. Given the amount of promotion Baman received, it should perhaps be no surprise that it was a smash hit upon its debut. The debut episode, "Hi Diddle Riddle" achieved a phenomenal 27.3/49 rating in the Nielsen ratings. The show aired twice a week, and its second episode the next day also received phenomenal ratings. What is more, Batman maintained phenomenal ratings for the remainder of the season. It also became an outright fad, perhaps the biggest in television history. In 1966 Batman was everywhere, from tons of merchandise in stores to magazine covers.

For the fall 1965-1966 season, ABC would only have three shows in the top thirty: Bewitched, the two episodes per week of Batman, and The Lawrence Welk Show. That having been said, both Batman and Bewitched were in the top ten. Ultimately, while Bewitched had helped ABC survive the lean years of the mid-Sixties, Batman gave it the shot in the arm it needed.

The phenomenal success of Batman would not last. When it returned in the fall of 1966, its ratings were respectable, but not nearly what they once were. Throughout the season its ratings gradually fell, so that there was even some question as to whether or not it would be renewed for a third season. Indeed, while it was a top ten hit in its first season, in its second season it did not even rank in the top thirty. Batman would ultimately be renewed for a third season, which would also turn out to be its last. Its last original episode aired on March 14 1968.

That having been said, Batman did what ABC meant for it to do. It breathed new life into a network that was failing. The 1966-1967 season would be better for ABC, with five shows in the top thirty. For the rest of the Sixties, ABC would have anywhere form three to six shows in the top thirty of the Nielsens for each season. What is more, in the 1970-1971 season ABC had the no. 1 show on the air, Marcus Welby, M.D. This marked the first time ever ABC would have a no. 1 show.

Of course, there would be other factors that would help ABC improve its fortunes as the Sixties progressed. ABC would pick up new affiliates during the decade and into the Seventies. For example, KCBJ (now KMIZ) in Columbia, MO opened on December 5 1971. That having been said, Bewitched and Batman helped ABC survive what was a difficult decade for the network. Had it not been for those two shows, it is possible that the network might not have survived, at least not in any form as we have known it. As it was, ABC would continue to grow in the Seventies until it would become the number one network in the 1978-1979 season, a first for the network.


Caftan Woman said...

Fascinating. The ways of programming and of getting and keeping an audience seem like alchemy.

Evil Woman Blues said...

Batman and Bewitched gave ABC a temporary shot in the arm but what saved them was Monday Night Football. It was a revolutionary concept that melded two words that would later further revolutionize sports broadcasting: entertainment and sports.
Hello ESPN.