U.S. Compilation Documentary

Victory at Sea, a 26-episode series on World War II, represented one of the most ambitious documentary undertakings of early network television. The venture paid handsomely for NBC and its parent company RCA, however, in that it generated considerable residual income through syndication and several spinoff properties. It also helped establish compilation documentaries, programs composed of existing archival footage, as a sturdy television genre.

The series premiered on the last Sunday of October 1952, and subsequent episodes played each Sunday afternoon through May 1953. Each half-hour installment dealt with some aspect of World War II naval warfare and highlighted each of the sea war's major campaigns: the Battle of the North Atlantic, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Midway, antisubmarine patrol in the South Atlantic, the Leyte Gulf campaign, etc. Each episode was composed of archival footage originally accumulated by the U.S., British, Japanese or German navies. The footage was carefully edited and organized to bring out the drama of each campaign. That drama was enhanced by the program's sententious voice-over narration and by Richard Rodgers's stirring musical score.

Victory at Sea won instant praise and loyal viewers. Television critics greeted it as breakthrough for the young television industry: an entertaining documentary series that still provided a vivid record of recent history. The New York Times praised the series for its "rare power"; The New Yorker pronounced the combat footage "beyond compare"; and Harper's proclaimed that "Victory at Sea [has] created a new art form." It eventually garnered 13 industry awards, including a Peabody and a special Emmy.

The project resulted from the determination of its producer Henry Salomon and from the fact the NBC was in a position to develop and exploit a project in compilation filmmaking. Salomon had served in the U.S. Navy during the War and was assigned to help historian Samual Eliot Morison write the Navy's official history of it combat operations. In that capacity, Salomon learned of the vast amounts film footage the various warring navies had accumulated. He left military service in 1948, convinced that the footage could be organized into a comprehensive historical account of the conflict. He eventually broached the idea to his old Harvard classmate Robert Sarnoff, who happened to be the son of RCA Chairman David Sarnoff and a rising executive in NBC's television network. The younger Sarnoff was about to take over the network's new Film Division as NBC anticipated shifting more of its schedule from live to filmed programming. A full documentary series drawn entirely from extant film footage fit perfectly with plans for the company's Film Division.

Production began in 1951 with Salomon assigned to oversee the enterprise. NBC committed the then-substantial sum of $500,000 to the project. Salmon put together a staff of newsreel veterans to assemble and edit the footage. The research took them to archives in North America, Europe, and Asia through 1951 and early 1952. Meanwhile Salomon received the full cooperation of U.S. Navy, which expected to receive beneficial publicity from the series. The crew eventually assembled 60 million feet of film, roughly 11,000 miles. This was eventually edited down to 61,000 feet. Salomon scored a coup when musical celebrity Richard Rodgers agreed to compose the program's music. Rodgers was fresh from several Broadway successes, and his name added prestige to the entire project. More important, it offered the opportunity for NBC's parent company RCA to market the score through its record division.

Victory at Sea

Victory at Sea

When the finished series was first broadcast, it did not yet have sponsorship. NBC placed it in the line-up of cultural programs on Sunday afternoon. The company promoted it as a high-prestige program, an example of history brought to life in the living room through the new medium of television. In so doing, the company was actually preparing to exploit the program in lucrative residual markets. As a film (rather than live) production, it could be rebroadcast indefinitely. And the fact that Victory at Sea dealt with a historical subject meant that its information value would not depreciate as would a current-affairs documentary.

Victory at Sea went into syndication in May 1953 and enjoyed a decade of resounding success. It played on 206 local stations over the course of ten years. It had as many as 20 reruns in some markets. This interest continued through the mid-1960s when one year's syndication income equalled the program's entire production cost. NBC also aggressively marketed the program overseas. By 1964, Victory at Sea had played in 40 foreign markets. Meanwhile, NBC recut the material into a 90-minute feature. United Artists distributed the film theatrically in 1954, and it was subsequently broadcast in NBC's prime-time schedule in 1960 and 1963. The Richard Rodgers score was sold in several record versions through RCA-Victor. By 1963, the album version had grossed four million dollars, and one tune from the collection, "No Other Love," earned an additional $500,000 as a single.

The combination of prestige and residual income persuaded NBC to make a long-term commitment to the compilation documentary as a genre. NBC retained the Victory at Sea production crew as Project XX, a permanent production unit specializing in prime-time documentary specials on historical subjects. The unit continued it work through the early 1970s, producing some 22 feature-length documentaries for the network.

Victory at Sea demonstrated the commercial possibilities of compilation documentaries to other networks as well. Such programs as Air Power and Winston Churchill: The Valiant Years directly imitated the Victory at Sea model, and the success of CBS's long-running historical series The 20th Century owed much to the example set by Salomon and his NBC colleagues. The fact that such programs still continue to play in syndication in the expanded cable market demonstrates the staying power of the compilation genre.

-Vance Kepley, Jr.

NARRATOR Leonard Graves

PRODUCER Henry Salomon

MUSIC COMPOSER Richard Rodgers


October 1952-April 1953               Sunday Non-Primetime


Bluem, William. Documentary In American Television. New York: Hastings, 1965.

Kepley, Vance, Jr. "The Origins of NBC's Project XX in Compilation Documentaries." Journalism Quarterly (Urbana, Illinois), 1984.

Leyda, Jay. Films Beget Film. New York: Hill & Wang, 1964.


See also Music on Television; National Broadcasting Company; Sarnoff, Robert; War on Television