KRAFT TELEVISION THEATRE

U.S. Anthology Series

Kraft Television Theatre proved to be one of the most durable and honored programs of the Golden Age, airing on NBC from 1947 to 1958. Produced by the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, this live anthology drama was designed to mesh with Kraft's overall marketing strategy, which stressed the concept of "gracious living," an appeal to middle class, suburban, family values. Kraft Television Theatre featured quietly paced, intimate dramas; as one Kraft representative put it, the show was be a "respectful guest in America's living rooms."

Although Kraft Television Theatre quickly established itself as a critical favorite after its premiere in May 1947, in Kraft's estimation the show was only as useful as its ability to move product. In this it succeeded beyond fondest expectations. The first indication of the magnitude of the program's sales prowess came from Thompson's Sales Department which reported in June that McLaren's Imperial Cheese, a new Kraft product advertised nowhere else but on television, was flying off grocers' shelves.

The decision to feature food preparation over hard-sell personality or price appeals was not made lightly. Kraft's advertising personnel were concerned that using a model or a recognized spokesman would detract from the product, so Thompson designed live commercials that used a single-focus technique. Each program had, on average, a pair of two minute breaks, at which time cameras focused on a pair of feminine hands as they demonstrated the preparation of various dishes as announcer Ed Herlihy relayed the recipe to the viewer. This careful approach paid off for Kraft; sales of advertised products rose dramatically in television cities and, even more importantly, a poll conducted by Television magazine in November 1947 showed that Kraft Television Theatre had the highest sponsor identification of any show on television.

Kraft and Thompson prided themselves on keeping costs at a minimum in the early years. The dramatic emphasis was on warm and engaging family fare ("realism with a modest moral," as one executive said) solicited from young playwrights in New York; all performers were selected by Thompson's Casting Department. Although the show was almost entirely an agency product, NBC took a great interest in the program's operation--too much, at times, for the agency's liking.

Still, Kraft Television Theatre remained Thompson's defining program, and through its long run (the show never went on hiatus during its eleven years on the air), featured such outstanding plays as Rod Serling's "Patterns," "A Night to Remember," in which the Titanic disaster was memorably reproduced, and a version of Senator John F. Kennedy's book Profiles in Courage. Several noted directors, including George Roy Hill, Fielder Cook, and Sidney Lumet, also served their apprenticeships on the program.

In October 1954, a second Kraft Television Theatre debuted, this time on ABC. The addition of another series surprised many industry observers who expected Kraft, if anything, to pare their television activities. The original Kraft Television Theatre was never a ratings success, but Kraft apparently never expected it to be, consistently claiming that they measured the show's popularity by the number of recipe requests, not by its Nielsens. The ABC version was conceived with the intent of creating another advertising vehicle for Kraft's burgeoning product line, such as the new Cheez Whiz. However, sales figures from products advertised on the ABC program did not justify the additional $2 million in costs, so Kraft pulled the show in January 1955.

By 1958, the anthology drama had yielded to serial narratives with their recurring characters and situations, and in April 1958, after a sustained period of ratings lassitude, Kraft decided to sell the rights to the program to Talent Associates, a production company headed by David Susskind. The movement from agency to package production relieved much of Kraft's financial obligation to the show, as they could now split production costs with Susskind. Kraft Television Theatre remained on the air only a few more months before it was completely reconfigured by Talent Associates as Kraft Mystery Theatre, which lasted until September 1958.

-Michael Mashon

 

ANNOUNCERS

Ed Herlihy (1947-1955)
Charles Stark (1955)

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

NBC
May 1947-December 1947         Wednesday 7:30-8:30 January 1948-October 1958     Wednesday 9:00-10:00

ABC
October 1953-January 1955         Thursday 9:30-10:30

FURTHER READING

Hawes, William. The American Television Drama: The Experimental Years. University, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1986.

Kindem, Gorham, editor. The Live Television Generation of Hollywood Film Directors: Interviews with Seven Directors. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1994.

MacDonald, J. Fred, One Nation Under Television: The Rise and Decline of Network TV. New York: Pantheon, 1990.

Skutch, Ira. Ira Skutch: I Remember Television: A Memoir. Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1989.

Stemple, Tom. Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing. New York: Continuum, 1992.

Sturcken, Frank. Live Television: The Golden Age of 1946-1958 in New York. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1990.

Wicking, Christopher, and Tise Vahimagi. The American Vein: Directors and Directions in Television. New York: Dutton, 1979.

Wilk, Max. The Golden Age of Television: Notes From the Survivors. New York: Dell, 1977.

 

See also Advertising, Company Voice; Advertising Agency; Anthology Drama; Golden Age of Television; Hour Glass