The elite of high society in post-World War II Manhattan patronized the Regency Food Shop, “a natty grocery and meat market” at 80th and Lexington, according to the August 30, 1947, issue of The New Yorker.
Some of those shopping the aisles of the Regency included the wife of businessman and philanthropist Vincent Astor—who inherited about $200 million when his father was lost aboard the Titanic—as well as the spouses of famed Broadway composer Richard Rodgers and actor Fredric March. Mr. Rodgers already was renowned for composing the hit musicals “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel,” and two months earlier, in March 1947, Mr. March had picked up the Oscar for lead actor in the popular and critical favorite “The Best Years of Our Lives.”
The owner of the Regency Food Shop was Harry Dubin, who lived not far from his store in a spacious apartment at 86th and Madison.
Mr. Dubin thought he wanted to be a lawyer—and actually passed the bar—before he decided to go into the upscale grocery trade.
In today’s parlance, Mr. Dubin would be known as an early adopter. New York City had had experimental TV stations since 1928, but it wasn’t until 1941 that the FCC sanctioned commercial TV, starting in July that year. NBC’s experimental station, W2XBS, became WNBT (later WNBC). NBC was owned by RCA, which manufactured TV sets. NBC and RCA estimated there were 4,500 TV sets in homes in the New York City area in 1941, with another 900 in public areas, primarily bars.
In November, less than a month before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and drew the U.S. into World War II, Mr. Dubin bought an RCA TV set with a screen measuring 8 inches by 10 inches. Cost of the set was $395. By comparison, a brand-new 1941 fully loaded, top-of-the-line, four-door Chevy was priced at $895.
Flash-forward six years to the spring of 1947. Radio was still king, with manufacturers making 20 million new radios a year, selling to a base of 40 million radios already in the hands of consumers. New York City had three TV stations, all with a reach of about 50 miles. Within that 50-mile area it was estimated there were about 30,000 TV sets—and maybe another 14,000 across the entire country. For the entire year, only about 180,000 TV sets would be manufactured.
It was at this point, with stations owned by NBC, CBS and DuMont starting to transmit commercial programming fairly regularly, that The New Yorker decided to spend a few weeks with Mr. Dubin, his wife, his two kids and their Boston terrier and report on their reaction to the shows they watched on “this new branch of entertainment,” as the magazine characterized it.
The New Yorker was 22 years old, and this was the magazine’s biggest article to date about TV. In one of those coincidences that only brings a smile to one’s face years later, staring at the reader from the full-page ad opposite the beginning of the article is a huge picture of then-stage star Lucille Ball, pitching Schaefer as “The finest beer I ever tasted,” years before she became a TV icon.
The Dubins had had their TV for six years, but they were still enthusiastic about it. Echoing a lament that would forever be associated with TV, however, Mr. Dubin did have one complaint about the new medium: “[W]ith the children it’s not so good sometimes. I find they don’t get their homework done.”
May 7, 1947, was a partially cloudy day in New York; a typical spring high of 62 degrees with a trace of rain. The New Yorker writer Robert Rice joined Mr. Dubin, his wife, Juliette, and another couple who were friends of theirs to watch TV.
What none of them knew at the time is that they were to become witnesses to history. The hourlong program they were going to watch—broadcast live—has been called by some the most significant series in TV’s early years—the show that established the medium as a successful vehicle to sell products and services.
Here is Mr. Rice’s description of what they watched that night:
“[W]e tuned in WNBT, which was having a gala. ‘The Kraft Television Theatre,’ presenting ‘The Double Door,’ was to be seen for the first time on a cathode-ray tube in this or any other hemisphere. ‘The Double Door,’ in the likely event you’ve never heard of it, is a 15-year-old horror piece about a lady named Victoria who disapproves so strongly of her brother’s marriage that she locks his bride in an airtight vault. In the third act the bride is rescued, and Victoria goes off her rocker. The play lasted an hour and after it was over and the commercial had begun, Mrs. Dubin said she thought that, during a play whose action covered several months, the actress should have changed her clothes at least once. Being a groceryman, Dubin may be presumed to be a merchandising expert and he thought that Kraft proclaiming in its commercial that McLaren’s Imperial Cheese is ‘not plentiful and not low in price’ was a dubious inducement to purchase it.”
Au contraire, Mr. Dubin. He may have been an excellent grocer, but he was not the most astute of admen.
This was written about the show just nine weeks later: “‘The Kraft Television Theatre’ is showing a definite impact on sales,” according to the June 30, 1947, issue of JWT News, the in-house newsletter of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in New York City.
“McLaren’s Imperial Cheese, not advertised in any other medium except ‘Kraft Television Theatre,’ is enjoying a gratifying demand,” JWT News said. “Television viewers who are unable to purchase McLaren’s Imperial Cheese at their local stores have called Kraft Foods Company in N.Y. to find out where they can obtain the cheese. The audience, seeing melted, golden rich cheese pouring from a chafing dish over freshly made toast, can almost taste it, according to reports.”
JWT was interested in the show and its commercials because the agency was responsible for producing both. Programming during the early days of TV was based on the business model that had made radio such a success: The advertising agencies produced the radio shows on the radio networks for their clients as vehicles to encourage consumers to buy their clients’ products. The biggest, most successful agencies doing this were Young & Rubicam and JWT.
For example, one of the most popular radio shows ever was the “Chase & Sanborn Hour.” Owned by a major client of JWT, Standard Brands, Chase & Sanborn was a fashionable coffee throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The show hit its peak when it featured ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy—in fact, the program eventually was renamed “The Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy Show.”
To those raised in the visual eras of TV and the Internet, the appeal of a ventriloquist on radio may be puzzling, but the show was a popular hit.
In 1930, JWT had produced the first commercial TV broadcast anywhere for its Libby’s food client on W9XAP, an experimental TV station in Chicago, and the agency produced another show a few years later on an experimental TV station in New York.
In May 1946, JWT and Standard Brands decided the time was right to see what this new medium, TV, could do. It approached NBC and decided to sponsor a variety show called “The Hour Glass Show.”
Airing for 15 minutes on Sundays and an hour on Thursday nights, it was a grand experiment, as all sorts of techniques—as well as various content mixes and lengths of commercials—were tested. After 10 months and an outlay between $200,000 and $250,000, Standard Brands pulled the plug on the show, deciding it had learned enough about TV for the moment, and it would wait for a much bigger audience to use the new medium.
Executives at JWT particularly liked the short dramatic skits that were shown on “Hour Glass,” not least because they received positive viewer mail. The executives became convinced that an hourlong anthology drama series would be viable, and they pitched the idea to John Platt, vice president and advertising manager of Kraft in Chicago.
“Kraft appropriated $3,000 per week for time and talent,” recalled Ed Rice, the JWT ad executive working in its TV department who wrote many of the early scripts for “Kraft Television Theatre” as well as the commercials that appeared on the show. (Mr. Rice’s comments are from an internal JWT memo in the JWT archives housed at the John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising and Marketing History at Duke University. It is not known whether he was related to Robert Rice, who wrote the early TV story for The New Yorker.)
“The entire operation was experimental,” Ed Rice continued. “It was certainly not economical for Kraft to spend $3,000 in order to reach a potential audience of [relatively few people.] The National Broadcasting Co., which charged a nominal fee of $100 per hour for time on the air, could hardly pay for the electricity consumed for that money. The Thompson company’s 15% commission certainly did not cover the time of staff of all the people involved. Literary rights to the plays used were obtained for $50 per week, actors were paid $75 for the leading roles and $50 for all others. Everyone concerned was working because they believed in the future of television.”
Mr. Rice went on to praise Kraft’s ad manager, John Platt. “Mr. Platt of Kraft decided that the real way to test this new medium was to use it to advertise a product which was advertised in no other way. And so he picked McLaren’s Imperial Cheese, a product which not only had no advertising appropriation whatsoever, but had not even been distributed for several years.
“The power of television was evident almost immediately.” Despite New York’s relatively few TV sets, and “although there was no other advertising support for it whatsoever, still grocery stores could not keep up with the demand.”
Kraft was not the first marketer to use advertising on TV, nor was NBC the only network to encourage marketers, nor were JWT clients the only ones trying the new medium.
For example, four years earlier, in March 1943, WABD, a station run by the Allen B. DuMont Laboratories, offered TV time to agencies and their clients, according to Printer’s Ink magazine.
The first agency that responded was Ruthrauff & Ryan (a major agency at the time that was eventually acquired by Interpublic) and its client Lever Brothers. For more than a year they presented a half-hour variety program titled, descriptively enough, “Wednesdays at Nine Is Lever Brothers Time.”
Here is the description from the Feb. 9 Printer’s Ink about an ad on the show:
“[A] Lifebuoy [soap] commercial pictured a pretty girl sitting beside a telephone. Upon its ring, she picks up the receiver and, from the ensuing conversation, the audience learns that her engagement for the evening is canceled. Annoyance and regret are mirrored in her face. Then, in one corner of the picture, appears a miniature figure of the girl herself. The tiny figure, the girl’s Conscience, endeavors to show the young lady the error of her ways.
“‘What’s stopping you from having B.O.?’ queries Conscience. ‘How about trying Lifebuoy? You know all those millions of people can’t be wrong!’ The girl deliberates for a few moments. The scene changes to show her singing merrily in the bath tub, enthusiastically clutching a bar of Lifebuoy.”
Remember, commercials were live back then. This very early special effect was accomplished by using identical twin actresses. While one camera focused on a tight shot of the actress answering the phone, another camera took a long-shot of her identical twin sister “Conscience,” and that image was superimposed on the first.
As marketers were trying to figure out what kinds of commercials would work, just about everything was tried, including a few tricks that were rather deceptive.
“The televised commercial of a dog-food company was in the nature of a scientific experiment,” explained an article about TV commercials in the Aug. 18, 1947, issue of the New Republic.
“The test began when two bowls, one marked with the sponsor’s dog food, the other label a competitor’s, were placed on the television stage. As the directors sat tense in the control room, a dog galloped into the picture. Springing at the competitor’s bowl, it suddenly stopped in consternation, sniffed, shuddered and ran for the sponsor’s entrée, which it promptly consumed with a hearty appetite. Dog lovers viewing this scene on their television sets were thoroughly impressed. ‘It went over beautifully,’ remarked a producer. ‘We filled the competitor’s bowl with ammonia.’”
Beyond their instant success, what made the commercials on “Kraft Television Theatre” so impressive was their simplicity.
The principle of each spot, according to a JWT memo, “was based on never showing anything except what you are talking about, concentrating on the food itself, using table-top photography, no people and a voice-over.”
Indeed, all that was shown on most of the commercials were a pair of women’s hands preparing certain recipes. Viewers didn’t have to write down the recipes—as Kraft had done on radio, it instructed the audience to write in for the recipes.
The immediate commercial success of “Kraft Television Theatre” was a watershed moment. It established TV as a commercial medium.
Kraft never varied the simplicity of how its commercials communicated with viewers. “Kraft Television Theatre” ran for 11 years and four months. Unusual even at the time, the series never went on summer hiatus. The only times a show wasn’t produced was during the political conventions every four years. By the time the last cheese slice was diced, 650 dramas had been presented.
As the series continued, the dramas became better and better. More and more, young writers were employed to write original teleplays, and “Kraft Television Theatre,” produced by an ad agency, helped usher in the Golden Age of live television drama.