Dann: When CBS was king

Sep 2, 2002  •  Post A Comment

From 1963 until 1970, Michael Dann was CBS’s head of programming, based in New York City. That was a period that included several seasons of almost unbelievable ratings dominance for the network.
In 1963-64, for example, CBS had 14 of the top 15 shows (only NBC’s “Bonanza” made the list); in 1966-67, CBS had eight of the top 10 (with only “Bonanza” and ABC’s “Bewitched” preventing a clean sweep); and the following season, all of the top five series were on CBS.
Mr. Dann was praised for his many ratings successes at the time but he also was the lightning rod for many of the period’s controversies. He was blamed for turning CBS into the so-called Hillbilly Network, with such rural-oriented shows as “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Petticoat Junction” and “Green Acres.” It is said that he was against putting “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “All in the Family” on the air. It was during Mr. Dann’s tenure that such Golden Age institutions as Red Skelton and Jackie Gleason, each of whom had been on the air for two decades, were canceled. And finally, it was under Mr. Dann that one of the key shows of the Vietnam War era was born and died: “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”
Mr. Dann talked about all these battles–the truths and the myths–in a recent conversation with Electronic Media. He ended that conversation by saying, “I’m not trying to give you pat answers and I’m not trying to hide anything. One of the benefits of being geriatric is you can be honest.” He began by recalling his 80th birthday a year ago this month: Sept. 11, 2001.
Electronic Media: Did Sept. 11 remind you of Nov. 22, 1963, the day President Kennedy was killed? You’d been head of programming at CBS for just a few months, since that February.
Mike Dann: Absolutely. We were at the Dorado Beach Hotel [in Puerto Rico] at an affiliate board meeting. We had just had lunch and we were walking back, Dick Salant, who was head of CBS News, and [CBS President] Frank Stanton and I. And we got to the lobby and Dick was listening to the news on his own little personal radio, and Walter [Cronkite] was saying the president had been shot.
Here we were in Puerto Rico, three men responsible for the leading network. Walter was saying, `The president has been killed.’ What do you do? It was impossible to get through to New York right away; the lines were jammed. Frank Stanton looked at me and said, `Mike, we’re going to go off the air with entertainment programming until the president is buried.’ I said, `What are we going to do to fill?’ He said, `That’s your job.’ He said, `For when news isn’t being carried, you have to plan a schedule.’
We walked out of that room and we told the affiliate board members who were attending that we were staying with a news-controlled operation until after the funeral. We didn’t know when the funeral was going to be at that point.
[Editor’s note: In all, CBS News carried nearly 55 hours of continuous coverage of the assassination and its aftermath that weekend.]
The board members were a little taken aback: To go off the air until after [the funeral without] commercials was an extraordinary thing! It had never been done before in the history of broadcasting. …
We did a lot of things–the Verdi Requiem, church music, religious music; Brahms and Beethoven and chamber music; different nature programs; a lot of travel things; a lot of very gentle children’s programming. But no commercials.
There was so much happening that weekend. You had the [Jack] Ruby shooting [of Lee Harvey Oswald] on Saturday morning.
We worked practically 24 hours a day trying to find programming that would not repeat. And then the physical job of getting it cut to airtime!
The biggest programming challenge was if you put on anything but musical forms, everything had to be so carefully screened that it wasn’t upsetting to the country.
EM: What was the biggest difference between Nov. 22, 1963, and Sept. 11, 2001?
Mr. Dann: The live coverage, whether the planes hitting the building or the building falling, was unbelievable! And this time there were no objections from advertisers.
EM: There were objections in ’63?
Mr. Dann: Oh yes. Some of the broadcasters didn’t fully accept the fact that the tragedy should be covered for so long a period. They thought … life should go on.
EM: What was the tenor of those times, when you were heading programming at CBS in the ’60s?
Mr. Dann: It was totally dominated by three networks. Up until 1960 there was the struggle to introduce color, there was the struggle to have full coverage.
Bill Paley’s relationship with the programming department was extraordinarily close. Bill was never really concerned by how much a show cost. We were called the Tiffany Network. We were also called in the mid-’60s the Hillbilly Network.
EM: Did you feel bad about being called that?
Mr. Dann: Oh sure. Of course. I never looked at any of those shows after I put them on. I didn’t like them.
EM: You put them on because you knew there was a viewership?
Mr. Dann: They were relatively unpopular in New York, for example. By and large I operated under a principle I was trained in, and that was that there was no such thing as a good program executive with low-rated shows or a bad program executive with high-rated shows, and I never changed my position as long as I was working in the commercial networks.
While I did some things I’m very proud of, I never lost sight of the fact that if you want to do anything good, put on `S. Hurok Presents’ or Arthur Miller’s `Death of a Salesman,’ you had to be able to afford it.
[The hillbilly shows] saved my job and they also saved some very good shows. For example, the first year `The Dick Van Dyke Show’ was on the air … I put the show on 8 o’clock Tuesday night in the first year and it wasn’t successful at all. It got very good reviews; it was what I like to think of as a Tiffany show. You like good reviews, it makes you feel better, but it doesn’t mean a program continues. …
Paley called me up and said, `I like the show but I just don’t think we should have it in the schedule next year. What do you think?’
Well, he wouldn’t order something–ever–but he would tell you what he felt, and if you continued to disagree with him he would hold you responsible.
I couldn’t take a chance in the second season. I scheduled it behind `The Beverly Hillbillies’ and it became the No. 2 show on the air.
Imagine having the nerve! It violated all the rules [of audience flow]. But I’d learned from `December Bride,’ a perfectly ordinary show starring Spring Byington that became a No. 2 show when it followed `Lucy’ on Monday night. In syndication it never did anything; it couldn’t stand alone. …
That’s when we learned what `hammocking’ a new comedy was. Whenever we got a new show, I always hammocked it between two comedy shows that were successful.
EM: Is it true you opposed the original concept for `The Mary Tyler Moore Show?’
Mr. Dann: I wasn’t happy about it because I didn’t think Mary Tyler Moore would be a big star. Then we argued about whether [Mary Richards, her character] could be a divorcee.
Dick Van Dyke had just said he wanted to come back, so I said, `What the heck’ and gave him 26 [weeks] firm. Then Mary’s agents came in with Grant Tinker and said, `So what’ll you give us?’ And I talked to my staff and to Paley and we all agreed: 13 weeks firm.
Mary, she’s an actress, not a comedienne, we thought. Carol Burnett is a comedienne.
Boy were we wrong! … [MTM] did a gang comedy. Everybody in the newsroom was a comic and Mary sort of held it together. She was the George Burns.
EM: Why not let her be a divorced woman?
Mr. Dann: Because everybody knew her as a nice woman. Divorced? It was the Vietnam War! Who was her husband? Had he left her? And she had a child! They wanted a kid too. It turned out I wasn’t so wrong.
Dick Van Dyke not only had a failure of a show and Mary had a success but Mary spawned other shows from her production company [including `Rhoda,’ `Phyllis,’ `Lou Grant’ and `The
Bob Newhart Show’]. That was some investment!
EM: And the conventional wisdom is you opposed `All in the Family.’ True?
Mr. Dann: I got a call from [an agent] who said, `Norman Lear wants me to show you a pilot. It’s at ABC. They told me this morning they will pass.’
I said, `Fine, bring it over.’ And I looked at it and I was on the floor. I knew it was on the edge. `Kike,’ `nigger,’ `dago’–those are not words we usually use.
But I then called Freddie Silverman and Irwin Segelstein, who were my two No. 1’s, and said, `Take a look at this thing.’
They look at it and say, `It’s smashing, it’s wonderful!’ I called [CBS programming executive] Perry Lafferty and [his programming staff] and they go absolutely ape, and I showed it to [my boss] Bob Wood.
He thought it was pretty good, but said, `You can’t get away with it, can you?’ so I showed it to … [the program practices chief] and he said, `Maybe so.’
EM: And that was the end of the Hillbilly Network era?
Mr. Dann: Absolutely. I left that June and it went on the air four months later. I wanted to do it. They were negotiating for it when I left.
EM: And the Smothers Brothers controversies? You’re generally blamed for their cancellation at the height of their popularity.
Mr. Dann: I’d failed with four different shows opposite `Bonanza’ at 9 o’clock Sunday night. [After we canceled `The Garry Moore Show,’ a variety show opposite `Bonanza’], I called the William Morris Agency and said, `I need a variety show,’ and they said, `We have the Smothers Brothers,’ and I said, `Who are they?’
I called up Paley and said, `I found a show,’ and I ordered nine shows starting Jan. 16th and they went on the air and they were a runaway success. Everybody talked about them. Very often both [`Bonanza’ and `The Smothers Brothers’] were in the top 10.
They and `The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ and `Mission: Impossible’ gave us a new look. I had us cancel [Red] Skelton and [Jackie] Gleason, but those other shows gave us a new look. Especially Tom and Dickie Smothers appealed to a whole new generation.
EM: Is it true that you left CBS because you opposed most of those changes and wanted to hang on to those shows.
Mr. Dann: I was very disappointed [to lose Skelton and Gleason]. I didn’t have anything to take their places. The sales department was saying they couldn’t sell those shows, but they were top 10 shows.
But I was burned out too. It was my 20th year [as a head programmer]. I was not fired, I can promise you that. We were still winning.
The conventional wisdom that I was disappointed is very, very accurate, to say the least. I mean, canceling Skelton, who’s an institution, who’s getting 38 shares? I canceled shows getting 37, 38 shares!
EM: So you’ve got the Smothers Brothers on the air. What about the time you supposedly didn’t let folksinger Pete Seeger sing `Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,’ an antiwar song?
Mr. Dann: That caused some of the problem. Even getting Pete on the show was a problem. He’d never been on a nighttime show before. We put him on a CBS morning show so we could say to the advertisers he’s already been on the air. When we put him on the `Smothers Brothers’ show, we got a lot of complaints.
That [show] was the crisis of the week. It was the crisis of my emotional life [too]. It took me a long time to find a show that was successful [against `Bonanza’], and then the Southern affiliates in particular were always up in arms about [the brothers’] positions, especially on the Vietnam War. …
Frank Stanton was very close to Lyndon Johnson. He would be there Sunday evenings in the White House and I would get a call.
The compromise was … we went to Washington and said, `They finish shooting on a Tuesday. We will show the programs to affiliates on a Thursday. They can decide whether or not they want to carry it.’ And the affiliates said, `fine.’
Then what happened was, on a Wednesday, I called up Perry Lafferty and asked did they have the cassette of the `Smothers Brothers,’ because every week they were a bit late. It was only two weeks after we renewed [the show].
He said no, he didn’t have it. I said, `Where is Tommy?’ He said, `He’s in San Francisco.’ What I didn’t know was he was shopping for a new location for shooting [away from the Sunset & Vine studios], because he wanted to get away from the CBS eye.
So finally, Friday came and I still didn’t have the cassette. We had a meeting in Bob Wood’s office and … our chief attorney was there. Bob said, `Well, have you got the cassette?’ And I said, `I don’t.’ And [the attorney] jumped up and said, `We’ve got him!’
And I looked at him. I couldn’t believe it. I said, `What do you mean, “We’ve got him”?’ `Well,’ he said, `we’ve got to show it to the affiliates, so they broke their contract.’
And Bob Wood backed him and we canceled the `Smothers Brothers’ right then and there. And there was nothing I could do about it. I was always on their side, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was dead, dead in the water.
EM: What about cutting the Seeger song?
Mr. Dann: Oy, the trouble I had with that! Tommy was always playing games with me and the program standards and practices department. He’d leave in things that he thought we’d cut out and we would let them go by and he would get upset because we let them go by. He didn’t want them in the show. He just did it to tease us. You couldn’t win with him. He was really anti-establishment. It made him absolutely smashing with the kids. When [the attorney] jumped up and said, `We have him,’ I thought I was going to die. [The show] was a touch of class and we were proud of it.
EM: That was a show you canceled at the end of your CBS career. At the beginning, you canceled `Leave It to Beaver’ at the end of its first season. It was then picked up by ABC. Do you regret that?
Mr. Dann: We canceled `Leave It To Beaver’ after about three days of arguing among the executives simply because the ratings were just too low and the demographics then were appealing to such young people that on the whole it just didn’t attract the right advertisers. That was the sales department’s point of view. The program department, of course, wanted to hold it because the ratings were not bad, and we didn’t have very many gentle shows like that that were truly all-family. …
But in the end the sales department won, and many people were sorry to see it go. Incidentally, we got more mail probably about canceling `Leave It to Beaver’ when we did, so I was very happy to see ABC pick it up. It didn’t do much better over there, but at least it took the pressure off us.
[Editor’s note: Though popular in syndication, during its network run on both CBS and ABC “Leave It to Beaver” never cracked the top-25 highest-rated shows for any season.]
EM: Of all the shows you put on, which were you proudest of?
Mr. Dann: `The Defenders’ in drama was my favorite. The year we had [Judy] Garland and [Danny] Kaye [in variety shows] contributed to our image so much.
Louis Chunovic is a senior editor at Electronic Media.