The television special is, in many ways, as old as television itself. Television specials are (usually) one-time only programs presented with great network fanfare and usually combining music, dance, and comedy routines (or "bits") presented in a variety show-type format. When television was still new, specials were common, in that weekly, ongoing shows were expensive to produce and not yet proven as tools for securing long-term viewer loyalty. Hence, the early days of television did consist of many one-time only presentations such as: "The Damon Runyon Memorial Fund" (1950, TV's first telethon hosted by Milton Berle), the "Miss Television USA Contest" (1950, won by Edie Adams), "Amahl and the Night Visitors" (1951, the first "Hallmark Hall of Fame" program), and the "Ford 50th Anniversary Show" (1953, featuring duets between stage stars Mary Martin and Ethel Merman).

But the TV special entered its greatest and most prolific phase in 1954 when genius programmer Sylvester "Pat" Weaver conceptualized what he called television "spectaculars." These one of a kind, one-night broadcasts were Weaver's attempt to bring new and larger audiences and prestige to the television medium and to his network, NBC. Breaking with the format of television at that time, the spectaculars regularly pre-empted the normal network program schedule of sponsored weekly shows. It was a controversial gamble--to forgo single sponsorship by companies (basically money in the bank for the network) on these nights in order to regain air time on the Mondays, Saturdays and Sundays of every fourth week for the presentation of his spectaculars. Instead, following his trademark "magazine" formula for sponsorship, Weaver sold different segments of each spectacular to different sponsors, in the process laying the foundation for the future of multiple sponsorship and commercials on all of U.S. television.

In creating his spectaculars, Weaver drew on the talents of three producers--Fred Coe, Max Liebman, and Albert McCleery. Coe created his works for Producer's Showcase, airing on Mondays, Liebman for his series Max Liebman Presents on Saturdays, and Albert McCleery on Sundays for the Hallmark Hall of Fame. Under Weaver and his team of producers the spectacular could be a musical extravaganza (such as Peter Pan, with Mary Martin repeating her Broadway triumph) or a play (such as Coe's Our Town, with Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint and Frank Sinatra) or a dramatic film (such as Olivier's Richard III).

In time, spectaculars became known by the less hyperbolic term "special" and generally they were shortened in length; most lasting only one hour as opposed to the ninety minutes to three hours sometimes taken by NBC. For the most part, specials took on a lighter tone, becoming variety oriented, with the emphasis on music, dance and elaborate production numbers. This era of the special saw the presentation of such benchmark television offerings as Astaire Time with Fred Astaire and Barrie Chase (1960), Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall, with Julie Andrews and Carol Burnett (1962), My Name is Barbra, starring Streisand (1964), and Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music (1964).


These types of programs continued successfully on into the late 1960s and 1970s featuring such diverse talents as Carol Channing, Bill Cosby, Elvis Presley, Liza Minnelli, Lily Tomlin, Shirley MacLaine, Bette Midler, Ann-Margaret, Olivia Newton-John, Tom Jones and Carol Burnett, who often paired herself with the other performers such as Beverly Sills, Dolly Parton or Julie Andrews. Throughout this period, stars of contemporary television programs such as Lynda Carter, Cheryl Ladd and Ben Vereen also headlined occasional hour-long specials, frequently with substantial ratings success.

As the weekly variety show all but disappeared from network television (The Carol Burnett Show, TV's last successful variety show, ceased in 1978), the trend also signaled the beginning of the decline for the television music-dance special. As audiences began to prefer their musical entertainment from other media, or in shorter forms like the music video, the hour-long, star centered special began to appear dated. At the same time, the shows were proving too expensive to produce in relation to their ratings.

Currently, with the exception of such yearly traditions as award shows, Christmas specials, pageants such as Miss USA, annual NBC installments by the unsinkable Bob Hope, and NBC's This Is... series (which have so far spotlighted Michael Bolton and Garth Brooks among others), the television special/spectacular is now the domain of channels other than ABC, CBS, FOX, or NBC. PBS, for example, will often present films of Broadway musicals and pay cable stations such as HBO, the site of Barbra Streisand's most recent concert special, will air the highly touted entertainment event. Increasingly, pay-per-view is becoming the purveyor of the made-for-television extravaganza, having so far offered audiences the musical talents of David Hasselhoff and an extremely popular and profitable concert by the country music duo The Judds. In the world of 50-channel television, then (not to speak of the 500-channel universe), it is difficult to know what events might qualify as "special," harder still to identify the truly "spectacular."

-Cary O'Dell


Bailey, Robert Lee. An Examination of Prime Time Network Television Special Programs: 1948-1966. New York: Arno, 1979.

Terrace, Vincent. Television Specials: 3,201 Entertainment Spectaculars, 1939-1993. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1995.


See also Coe, Fred; Peter Pan; Programming; Weaver, Sylvester (Pat)