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).
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.
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
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).
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.
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
Robert Lee. An Examination of Prime Time Network Television Special
Programs: 1948-1966. New York: Arno, 1979.
Vincent. Television Specials: 3,201 Entertainment Spectaculars,
1939-1993. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1995.
also Coe, Fred; Peter