VOICE OF FIRESTONE, THE

U.S. Music Program

One of network television's preeminent cultural offerings, The Voice of Firestone was broadcast live for approximately twelve seasons between 1949 and 1963. With its forty-six piece orchestra under the direction of Howard Barlow, this prestigious award winning series offered viewers weekly classical and semi-classical concerts featuring celebrated vocalists and musicians. This series is also highly representative of the debate that still rages over the importance of ratings and mass-audience appeals as opposed to cultural-intellectual appeals targeted to comparatively small audiences in the development of network television schedules.

Sponsored throughout its history by the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, The Voice of Firestone began as a radio offering in December 1928, and transferred to television as an NBC simulcast on 5 September 1949. Long on musical value but often short on television production value, the show was faulted occasionally for its somewhat stilted visual style, its pretentious nature and its garish costume choices. In time, however, the series drew critical praise and a consistent audience of two to three million people per broadcast.

Notwithstanding its "small" viewership, the Firestone series vigorously maintained its classical/semi-classical format adding only an occasional popular music broadcast with stars from Broadway, night clubs and the recording industry and an occasional theme show developed around various topics of interest, e.g., 4-H clubs, highway safety and the United Nations. The program attracted the great performers of the day for nominal fees with Rise Stevens setting the record for program appearances at forty-seven. In his Los Angeles Times feature of 1 November 1992, Walter Price observed that the Metropolitan Opera star "had the face, figure and uncanny sense of the camera to tower above the others in effect."

In 1954, The Voice of Firestone's audience size became a major issue. Citing low ratings and the negative effect of those ratings on other programs scheduled around it, NBC demanded a time change. Historically, the show had been broadcast in a Monday, 8:30-9:00 P.M., prime time period. As an alternative, NBC officials suggested leaving the Monday evening radio program in its established time but moving the television version to Sunday at 5:30 P.M. or to an earlier or later slot on Monday. Firestone officials, considering the millions their company had spent for air time and talent fees over the previous twenty-six years, refused to budge.

Determined to lure viewers away from Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, CBS' highly rated competition for the time period, NBC exercised control of its schedule and canceled both the radio and television versions of The Voice of Firestone effective 7 June 1954. The following week, the simulcast reappeared on ABC in its traditional day and time where it remained until June 1957. In that month, the radio portion was dropped but, after a summer hiatus, the television show returned on Monday evenings at 9:00 P.M. In June 1959, despite more popular music in its format, poor ratings again forced the show's cancellation in favor of the short-lived detective series Bourbon Street Beat.

Amid numerous critical outbursts, threats of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) action and a joint resolution by the National Education Association and National Congress of Parents and Teachers lamenting its cancellation, all three networks offered Voice of Firestone fringe time slots which the Firestone Company rejected. ABC officials indicated that the series was simply the victim of the greater attention paid to television ratings. In radio, critics pointed out, audience delivery to program adjacencies was never considered as important as it was in television and concert music programs in prime time were regarded as too weak to hold ratings through the evening schedule. Condemning the loss of the Firestone program, Norman Cousins wrote in his 9 May 1959, Saturday Review editorial, that stations were now pursuing a policy designed to eliminate high quality programs "even if sponsors are willing to pay for them." Cousins decried the fact that station managers measured program weakness through ratings, and a "'weak spot' in the evening programming . . . must not be allowed to affect the big winners."

The Voice of Firestone was brought back to ABC on Sunday evenings, 10:00-10:30 P.M., in September 1962. However, despite numerous commendations, positive critical reviews and a star-studded rotation of musical conductors and performers, the audience remained at two and a half million people. The Voice of Firestone left the air for its third and final time in June 1963. With its passing, the American public lost an alternative form of entertainment whose long heritage was one of quality, good taste and integrity.

-Joel Sternberg

NARRATOR
John Daly (1958-1959)

REGULAR PERFORMERS
Howard Barlow and the Firestone Con-cert Orchestra

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

NBC
September 1949-June 1954                  Monday 8:30-9:00 ABC June 1954-June 1957                   Monday 8:30-9:00 September 1957-June 1959                  Monday 9:00-9:30 September 1962-June 1963               Sunday 10:00-10:30

FURTHER READING

Adams, Val. "Firestone Show to End on June 1." New York Times, 15 April 1959.

Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory To Prime Time Network TV Shows 1946-Present. New York: Ballantine, 1979; 5th edition, 1992.

Cousins, Norman. "The Public Still Owns the Air." Saturday Review (New York), 9 May 1959.

"Firestone at 8:30." Newsweek (New York), 21 June 1954. "Firestone Loses Its Voice." Business Week (New York), 22 May 1954.

"Firestone's Voice Silenced by N.B.C." New York Times, 15 May 1954.

Gould, Jack. "Radio-TV in Review." New York Times, 26 May 1954.

_______________. "Victim of Ratings." New York Times, 19 April 1959.

"Old Opera House now Big TV Show." New York Times, 15 June 1954.

"Paramount Seeks to House TV Show." New York Times, 3 June 1954.

Price, Walter. "Before MTV, There was Opera." Los Angeles Times, 1 November 1992.

Shanley, John P. "Television: Death At 31." New York Times, 2 June 1959.

Shepard, Richard F. "Firestone Series Returning to TV." New York Times, 28 March 1962.

Spalding, John Wendell. An Historical and Descriptive Analysis of the "Voice of Firestone" Radio and Television Program, 1928-1959 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 1961.)

 

See also Advertising, Company Voice; Music on Television