Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark

Nov 12, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Nat “King” Cole was not the first African-American to star in his own TV show. Ethel Waters and Hazel Scott, to name but two, preceded him. But when Cole’s show debuted on NBC on Nov. 5, 1956, he was certainly the biggest black star to get his own show after TV had become relatively established.
But a year later, Mr. Cole’s weekly musical show, which had featured some of the biggest names in the recording industry, was off the air, having found no national sponsors.
“I think it’s a case of these agencies being afraid of the dark,” Mr. Cole told Los Angeles Mirror-News columnist Hal Humphrey.
Mr. Cole was even more blunt in a piece he wrote for Ebony magazine. “Madison Avenue, the center of the advertising industry, and their big clients didn’t want their products associated with Negroes. They scramble all over each other to sign Negro guest stars to help boost the ratings of white stars, but they won’t put money on a Negro with his own program. I’m not a chip-on-the-shoulder guy, but I want to be frank about this. Ad Alley thinks it’s still a white man’s world. `The Nat “King” Cole Show’ put the spotlight on them. It proved who dictates what is seen on TV: New Yorkers and particularly Madison Ave. They control TV. They govern the tastes of people.”
“All Southerners,” Mr. Cole wrote, bitingly, “are not in the South.” In fact, according to Newsweek magazine at the time, nearly half of the 77 stations that carried the show were in the South.
Mr. Cole was quick to praise NBC and General David Sarnoff for standing behind his series. “At one point, when the show was scheduled to go off the air, [General Sarnoff] sent a memo to his staff: `Find another spot for the Nat Cole show-fast.”’
While the show never found any national sponsors, local stations around the country had found 30 marketers willing to advertise on the series. These included Rheingold Beer, Italian Swiss Colony Wine and Colgate.
The next time a black entertainer would get a shot hosting a regularly scheduled national variety show was not until 1966, also on NBC: “The Sammy Davis, Jr. Show.” Mr. Davis had been a big hit as a guest, almost a decade earlier, on “The Nat `King’ Cole Show.”