ROBINSON, HUBBELL

U.S. Writer/Producer/Network Executive

Hubbell Robinson was active in American broadcasting as a writer, producer, and network programming executive for over 40 years. As the CBS executive who championed the 1950s anthology drama Playhouse 90, his efforts to develop high-quality programming that he described as "mass with class" contributed to CBS' long-lived reputation as the "Tiffany" network.

Robinson's broadcasting career began in 1930, when he became the first head of the new radio department at the advertising agency Young & Rubicam. In the era of early commercial broadcasting, when corporate clients sought new radio programs to sponsor, many advertising agencies helped develop program genres, such as the soap opera, that encouraged habitual listening. At Young & Rubicam, Robinson created and wrote scripts for the General Foods' soap opera The Second Mrs. Burton. The program's success was based, according to Robinson, on "four cornerstones": simple characterizations, understandable predicaments, the centrality of the female characters, and the soap opera's philosophical relevance.

During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Young & Rubicam became an important radio program provider, simultaneously producing The Jack Benny Show, Fred Allen's Town Hall Tonight, and The Kate Smith Hour, among others. As did other radio executives at Young & Rubicam, Robinson wrote many scripts and commercials, in addition to producing programs.

By the time Robinson joined CBS Television in 1947, his extensive background in radio programming had prepared him well for the new medium. Indeed, in his autobiography, As It Happened, then-CBS chairman William Paley referred to Robinson as "the all-around man in our programming department." As executive vice president in charge of television programming at CBS, Robinson championed and oversaw the development of such popular programs as I Love Lucy, You'll Never Get Rich (with Phil Silvers as Sergeant Bilko), and Gunsmoke.

However, according to Paley, "Culturally, [Robinson's] interests were levels above many of his colleagues.... His special flair was for high-quality programming." Robinson organized and championed the 90-minute dramatic anthology series, Playhouse 90, which featured serious dramas written by Paddy Chayevsky, Reginald Rose, and Rod Serling, among others. During its run from 1956 to 1961, Playhouse 90's plays included Requiem for a Heavyweight, A Sound of Different Drummers, The Miracle Worker, and Judgment at Nuremberg. Robinson was credited with bringing serious television drama to its peak with Playhouse 90.

For Paley and others at CBS, however, the anthology drama format was a drawback: its lack of continuity from week to week did not seem to encourage regular television viewing habits. But the networks' increasing reliance on filmed episodic programs was disparaged by many admirers of live anthology drama. Referring to critics' concern that network programming quality was declining, Robinson openly criticized the television industry's "willingness to settle for drama whose synonym is pap." Paley, on the other hand, expressed concern that as a network executive Robinson "may have lacked the common touch." Still, it was Robinson's stance that helped CBS deal with federal regulators when questions were raised about whether or not CBS programs served the(loosely defined) public interest.

Robinson returned to CBS briefly in 1962-63, and joined ABC as executive producer of the Stage 67 series and the on-location series Crisis! from 1966 to 1969. In the early 1960s, he was credited with helping erode stereotyping of African-Americans on television by distributing a memorandum calling for producers to cast African-Americans in a greater variety of roles. Robinson's contributions as a producer and programmer spanned the crucial decades of radio's maturity and television's early growth. As the executive responsible for the programming of both popular and innovative television programs in the 1950s, he helped CBS establish and maintain its reputation as the network with the highest ratings and best programming, a reputation that endured for several decades.

-Cynthia Meyers

 


Hubbell Robinson
Photo courtesy of Broadcasting and Cable

HUBBELL ROBINSON. Born in Schenectady, New York, 16 October 1905. Educated at Phillips Exeter Academy, graduated 1923; Brown University, B.A., 1927. Married 1) Therese Lewis, 1940 (divorced, 1948); 2) Margaret Whiting (divorced); 3) Vivienne Segal (legally separated, 1962). Worked as a drama critic for the Exhibitors Herald, 1927; reporter for Schenectady Union Star, Albany Knickerbocker Press, 1929; radio producer for Young and Rubicam, 1928; vice president and radio director, 1942; vice president and program director for ABC radio in New York City, 1944-45; vice president Foote, Cone, and Belding advertising agency, 1946; vice president and program director, CBS, 1947-56; executive vice president, CBS-TV, 1956-59; organized Hubbell Robinson Productions, 1959; senior vice president television programs, CBS, 1962-63; executive in charge of various productions, ABC TV 1966-69; contributing critic to Films in Review, 1971-74; film critic on CATV Channel 8 in New York City, 1969-72. Recipient: Television Academy award for distinguished service, 1958; Television Academy's Emmy Award, 1959; two TV Digest Awards, 1960; Producers Guild Award, 1962; Fame Award, 1967; TV Academy's Salute Award, 1972. Died in New York City, New York, U.S., 4 September 1974.

TELEVISION SERIES

1956-60 Playhouse 90 (executive producer)
1967 Stage 67 (executive producer)
1969 Crisis! (executive producer)

RADIO

The Second Mrs. Burton, The Jack Benny Show, Fred Allen's Town Hall Tonight, The Kate Smith Hour.

FURTHER READING

Boddy, William. Fifties Television: The Industry and Its Critics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.


Metz, Robert. CBS: Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye. Chicago: Playboy, 1975.


Paley, William S. As It Happened. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1979.

 

See also Anthology Drama; "Golden Age" of Television; Playhouse 90