Now comes the time for Jack Benny and CBS to put Bill Paley’s money where the comedian’s mouth is. The question before the houses of Paley and NBC emperor David Sarnoff is whether the jump proves bonanza or bust.
Paley loves nothing more tonight than having Benny in his stable. So much so that he’s more than willing to do what NBC refused, deal with Benny’s show through the comedian’s Amusement Enterprises production company. It allows Benny to put The Lucky Strike Program Starring Jack Benny on a capital gains basis—which he’ll defend all the way to the Supreme Court and win in due course—and let him keep more of his earnings than he could at NBC, under the still-intact war taxes taking 90 percent of incomes $70,000 per year or better.
Paley may like to gamble but even he has his limits. When Amos ‘n’ Andy jumped at the beginning of the current 1948-49 season, Paley borrowed $5 million from Prudential Insurance Company to cover his investment in the once-venerable team plus any future lurings over from NBC until CBS’s forthcoming own comedies hit stride.
The American Tobacco Company, sponsoring Benny for Lucky Strike, isn’t quite as sanguine as Paley. In fact, they’re scared to death Benny’s jump will cost them big if the comedian’s rating—a healthy 21.9 in 1947-48—drops when he hits CBS running. Thus Paley’s agreement to indemnify the cigarette maker against any rating drop, agreeing to pay American Tobacco $1,000 a point for every point Benny loses from his best NBC rating the previous twelve months.
Paley won’t end up having to pay one penny.
Because Benny is about to smother the Sunday night competition. His 22.9 for his CBS premiere comes in a tick higher than his NBC rating, and it’ll prove his season-long rating as well. It’ll be good enough to finish third overall and, on Sunday night, well enough ahead of Walter Winchell’s Jergen’s Journal (21.7) and Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy (20.1).
It won’t stop there. Benny’s CBS success also pumps a little fresh adrenaline into Amos ‘n’ Andy. The latter’s rating went into the proverbial tank against Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch in 1948-49′s first half, but a quick guest shot on Benny’s first CBS show and Benny’s powerful lead-in to their own show brings them home in fourth place on Sunday night and ninth on the season overall.
Benny hands CBS its first bona-fide Sunday night ratings champion since 1935, and that’s just the first of the favours the comedian does for the Tiffany Network-to-be. One after another, CBS targets a small pack of NBC comedy stars, and Benny himself will prod them into coming over the bridge to join him: Bergen & McCarthy, Burns & Allen (who’ve been on CBS before), and Red Skelton will come to CBS. Benny’s encouragement will also bring Bing Crosby and Groucho Marx over from ABC.
For the next seven season, Jack Benny becomes a CBS mainstay on Sunday night radio before transitioning, slowly but steadily, to a television run of over a decade aboard CBS. All this because a witless NBC committed a negotiating team insult and because its equally witless chairman held a tunnel-visioned view of his radio stars.
The postscript would be bittersweet, too: In the years following Benny’s jump to CBS, David Sarnoff finally deigned to meet his lost star . . . and the two men become friends. So much so that Benny will admit, quite sincerely, many years later, that if Sarnoff had met him even once in the years prior to tonight, he never would have left NBC no matter what.
Benny’s extremely nervous on the way to the CBS studios for his first show there. Rochester (Eddie Anderson) tries soothing him with the car radio. The constant ballyhoo of his coming premiere drives Benny slightly crazier. So does the traffic cop (Frank Nelson) who tickets them—for going through a red light that was green when the old heap (Mel Blanc, also 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.)
No need to worry, really. And you can just envision Bill Paley laughing. To the bank and otherwise.
CBS’s western division chief 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 . . .
Romance: It Happened Tomorrow (dramatic anthology; CBS, 1945)
Maxwell House Coffee Time with Burns & Allen: The Housewives’ Guild Upgrade (comedy; NBC, 1947)
Box 13: The Better Man (crime drama; Mutual, 1949)
The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show: Phil Thinks He’s Being Drafted (comedy; NBC, 1949)
The Whistler: Man on the Roof (crime drama; CBS, 1949)
Candy Matson, YUkon 2-8209: NC9-8012 (crime drama; NBC, 1950)