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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Charles Stark (1955)
May 1947-December 1947 Wednesday
7:30-8:30 January 1948-October 1958 Wednesday
October 1953-January 1955
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Years. University, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1986.
Gorham, editor. The Live Television Generation of Hollywood Film
Directors: Interviews with Seven Directors. Jefferson, North
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MacDonald, J. Fred, One Nation Under Television: The Rise and
Decline of Network TV. New York: Pantheon, 1990.
Ira. Ira Skutch: I Remember Television: A Memoir. Metuchen,
New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1989.
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.
Max. The Golden Age of Television: Notes From the Survivors.
New York: Dell, 1977.
Company Voice; Advertising
Age of Television; Hour