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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
COMPOSER Richard Rodgers
HISTORY 26 Episodes
October 1952-April 1953
William. Documentary In American Television. New York: Hastings,
Vance, Jr. "The Origins of NBC's Project XX in Compilation Documentaries."
Journalism Quarterly (Urbana, Illinois), 1984.
Jay. Films Beget Film. New York: Hill & Wang, 1964.
on Television; National
Broadcasting Company; Sarnoff,