2 January: Betting big on Benny . . .

Benny proved worth Paley's big gamble. (Photo: CBS.)

Jack Benny proved better than merely being worth Bill Paley’s big gamble. (Photo: CBS.)

So Jack Benny has made the jump—and caused quite a stir in the bargain—from NBC to CBS, after contract negotiations with the senior network turned grotesque, in Benny’s view, when a former prosecutor who’d humiliated him needlessly in an unlikely court case turned up on the NBC negotiating team.

The question before the house is whether the jump will prove a bonanza or a bust.

CBS chieftain Bill Paley loves nothing better right now than having Benny in his radio stable. He’s also more than willing to deal with Benny through the comedian’s Amusement Enterprises production company, the better to allow Benny to put his show on a capital gains basis (which he’ll defend all the way to the Supreme Court and win) and let him keep more of his earnings than he’d kept at NBC under the still-intact wartime taxes taking 90 percent of incomes $70,000-per-year or better.

But even Paley isn’t that much of a gambler. When Amos ‘n’ Andy jumped at the beginning of 1948-49, Paley borrowed $5 million from the Prudential Insurance Company of America to cover his investment in that once-venerable team and future lurings over from NBC while CBS’s new in-house comedies took their time to hit stride.

With Jack Benny, however, Paley and CBS face another dilemna. Sponsor American Tobacco Company (for Lucky Strike cigarettes) is even more nervous about the Benny jump than either Paley or Benny are. They’re scared to death that a Benny jump will cost them big if the comedian’s Hooper rating—a healthy 21.9 in 1947-48—drops once he hits CBS running. Thus does Paley roll big dice on his incoming star: He agrees to indemnify American Tobacco against any drop in Benny’s rating. In return for Lucky Strike following Benny to CBS, Paley agrees to pay the tobacco maker $1,000 per point for every rating point lost.

Not only doesn’t Paley end up having to pay a plugged nickel, but Benny is going to smother the Sunday night competition. First, his CBS rating will be 22.9—a tick higher than his NBC rating, indicating his entire audience moved with him. Then, that 22.9 rating will prove to be his rating for the season, good enough for a third place finish on the season overall and well enough ahead of second place Walter Winchell and his Jergen’s Journal (21.7) and Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy (20.1) on Sunday night.

The Lucky Strike Program Starring Jack Benny (eventually to be just The Jack Benny Program) will also pump some fresh blood into Amos ‘n’ Andy—the latter, whose ratings hit the tank against Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch at season’s first half, got enough of a jolt, from a quick guest shot on Benny’s first CBS show to getting Benny’s lead-in by following his show on Sundays, to finish in fourth place on the night and ninth on the season as a whole.

Benny will hand CBS its first bona-fide Sunday night ratings champion since 1935. And that won’t be the end of the favours he does CBS the rest of the season. One after another, CBS will target a small pack of NBC comedy stars—and Benny himself will prod those stars to join him over the bridge: Bergen & McCarthy, Burns & Allen, and Red Skelton will cross over from NBC. Not to mention Bing Crosby and Groucho Marx moving to CBS from ABC on Benny’s encouragement.

For the coming seven seasons Jack Benny will be a CBS mainstay on Sunday nights at seven and transition, slowly but steadily, to a television run of over ten years when Benny decides to accommodate the camera at last. All because a witless negotiating team insult and a tunnel-visioned view from David Sarnoff—that his stars had nothing to do with his network’s success and endurance—finally drove his arguable most identifiable radio star into the arms of a network whose chief believed his network was nothing without its program stars.

And there would be a bittersweet postscript: In the years following the Benny jump, Sarnoff will finally deign to meet his long-lost star. (He had never done so in all the years Benny was an NBC institution.) And Benny will say, quite sincerely, that if Sarnoff had done so even once in the years prior to 2 January 1949, Benny would never have left NBC no matter what.



The Lucky Strike Program Starring Jack Benny: The First Show for CBS (CBS, 1949)


Jack (Benny) is extremely nervous on the way to the studios for his first CBS show. Rochester (Eddie Anderson) tries to soothe him with something on the car radio. The constant ballyhoo of his coming premiere drives him slightly crazier. So does the traffic cop (Frank Nelson) who tickets them . . . for going through a red light that was green when the old Maxwell (Mel Blanc, who also plays the studio doorman and Mr. Kitzel) started going through the intersection. (Only a louse would give you a ticket . . . shake hands with Officer Sam Louse.)

CBS’s head of western division Don Thornburgh makes a guest appearance. Amos: Freeman Gosden. Andy: Charles Correll. Mary: Mary Livingstone. Phil: Phil Harris. Dennis: Dennis Day. Sound engineer: Herb Vigran. Announcer: Don Wilson. Music: Mahlon Merrick, Phil Harris Orchestra, Dennis Day, the Sports Men. Writers: George Balzar, Milt Josefsberg, Sam Perrin, John Tackaberry.

Further Channel Surfing . . .


Maxwell House Coffee Time with Burns & Allen: The Housewives’ Guild Upgrade (NBC, 1947)—George Burns, Gracie Allen, Bea Benaderet, Hal March, Mel Blanc. Gracie and Blance feel let down having to go home to their mere husbands after seeing a Gregory Peck film, prompting them to teach the men how to treat their wives after they’re married. Grade A. Writers: Paul Henning, possibly Hal Block, George Burns.

The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show: Phil Thinks He’s Being Drafted (NBC, 1949)—Phil Harris, Alice Faye, Robert North, Elliott Lewis, Jeanine Roos, Anne Whitfield, Walter Tetley. So much for Phil thinking he was too old to be drafted (“They retire old destroyers, the least they could do is give me the same consideration!”) and a World War II Navy vet to boot. Ship, oy! Writers: Ray Singer, Dick Chevillat.


Crime Drama

Box 13: The Better Man (Mutual, 1949)—Alan Ladd, Frank Lovejoy, Sylvia Picker, Edmund MacDonald, Alan Reed, Lurene Tuttle, Luis Van Rooten. Wealthy Charles Winthrop offers Holliday $100,000—assuming the sleuthing writer can find the hidden cash before three others do, and in any one of several places, based on clues mailed to all the hunters. The hunter may get captured by the game. Writer: Russell Hughes.

The Whistler: Man on the Roof (CBS, 1949)—Bill Forman, Tom Holland, Lorette Hilbrant, William Conrad. A store garage announcer and traffic manager hoping for a big break witnesses a police detective’s murder and decides his break is in blackmailing the killer, until the killer seems to catch a break of his own by way of an intermediary. It works, somehow. Writer: Steve Hampton.

Candy Matson, YUkon 2-8209: NC9-8012 (NBC, 1950)—Natalie Masters, Henry Leff, Jack Thomas, Lew Tobin, Harry Bechtel, Jack Cahill. Mallard asks Candy (Natalie Masters) to probe the legitimacy of an insurance claim tied to a local small plane accident. Quite a flight. Writer: Monte Masters.


Drama/Dramatic Anthology

Romance: It Happened Tomorrow (CBS, 1945)—Ralph Bellamy, Joan Allison, Edgar Staley, Frank Reddick. Reporter Larry Stevens recalls his first newspaper job and his first girl —and the demand of her guardian uncle that led him to wish for getting tomorrow’s paper today and thus a leg up on his competition. Kind of hokey in its time, but this story may help inspire the mid-1990s television hit Early Edition, about a disillusioned young man who gets the next day’s newspaper and tries to change certain reported events in advance. Host: Frank Graham. Writer: Jean Holloway.

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2 Responses to 2 January: Betting big on Benny . . .

  1. Yowp says:

    The judge in the Benny case was Vincent L. Leibell. He had nothing to do with NBC.
    You’re thinking of the federal prosecutor, John T. Cahill. And I, frankly, don’t see Cahill being a factor. The network switch was about money. You don’t let fleeting personal things get in the way professionally, especially when you’re talking big money.

    • Jeff Kallman says:

      Thanks for the clarification about Vincent Leibell, who rarely gets mentioned when discussing that part of Benny’s life, though I thought I had been clear enough that Cahill didn’t handle Benny when he was a judge. Unfortunately, however, you probably sit in the minority regarding Cahill, who most certainly did overdo things in that late 1930s case, and whose presence among NBC’s negotiators proved the final among several straws not the least of which seems to have been David Sarnoff’s rather smug attitude toward the performers and broadcasters who made his network’s name in the first place. (If you were in Sarnoff’s position and Jack Benny was doing that much for your network, wouldn’t you think it reasonable to meet the man even once while he’s on your network? Bill Paley befriended Benny for a couple of years before Paley even thought he might have a shot at bringing Benny to CBS.)

      The money issue involving Benny’s Amusement Enterprises probably could have been resolved in reasonable negotiations, of course; NBC’s legal beagles simply seemed to be uncertain whether dealing with Benny through his company was proper, and you may remember I noted Benny had to go all the way to the Supreme Court to prove Amusement Enterprises wasn’t merely a holding company. (There was another NBC official who stated flatly that the network simply refused to deal with such production companies established by the performers on the network, but I’m not sure just yet—I’d have to dig further—whether it was an irrevocable network policy.) They probably could have kept Benny in the long run but for the Cahill issue. For better or worse there are some issues that all the money on earth can’t or won’t resolve.

      If you think personal grudges don’t come into play in matters of pure business, think again. Hard. Benny wasn’t even close to the only man in history who made a business move based largely on a personal grudge, even if carrying one in the first place seems to have been rare enough for him. For better or worse, men and women have made business decisions based on personal issues for ages. I can give you a classic example in baseball: the Messersmith case, the one that finally established baseball’s free agency.

      Andy Messersmith’s original reason for pitching without signing a new contract in 1975 and playing under the strict letter of the one-year option clause went back to a) the Dodgers’ demurring on including a no-trade clause in the deal, which could have been negotiated further; and, b) then-Dodger general manager Al Campanis injecting a personal issue into their contract talks, which to Messersmith was non-negotiable. Messersmith to this day won’t say what the issue was, it cut him that deeply. But after that insult he refused to talk contract any further unless it was with then-team president Peter O’Malley. Only as the season wore on—and the Dodgers kept attempting to sweeten his potential pot (they kept offering him staggering money for the time but refused to budge on the no-trade issue)—did Messersmith agree, apparently that August, when players’ union director Marvin Miller asked him if he was willing to make a test case of the reserve clause. He finished the season (he led the National League in ERA) and filed his grievance and the rest, of course, is history. But the Messersmith case didn’t exactly begin with any ideas about testing the reserve clause—it began with a needless personal insult.