Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Setting up SHOCK!: A TV Archaeology

Satellite television, commercial-free cable TV subscription movie channels, DVRs, Netflix... it's hard to imagine (or depending on how old you are, "hard to remember") what it was like to watch a movie on television forty-five or fifty years ago. To get a sense of this, we need to look at what television was like. First of all, choices were fewer and the competition between stations was more fierce; with only a handful of channels from which the viewer could choose, stations struggled to find a programming formula that would deliver the demographic lion's share of an audience to advertisers. Network offerings with big-name stars were meant to pull in viewers, but that was only for a few hours a day. The rest of the time was filled with local programs made in a station's own studios, syndicated TV shows (cartoons for kids, for instance), or old movies that were licensed to the stations and shown in the afternoon and late at night.

[Here are the TV listings for Sandusky, OH on Saturday night 20 October 1956, a year before SHOCK! Note that choice is limited to four stations: three from Cleveland and one from Toledo and with a lot of overlap. This illustration is typical of what I found in my sampling of television listings from across the US for October 1956 where the number of options varied between two and eight channels available--- San Antonio, TX and Newport, RI listed four channels, for example, where Oakland, CA boasted five.]

In the days before DVDs, motion picture studios didn't know what to do with the older movies that were mothballed in their storage vaults. Occasionally, a known money-maker would be re-released theatrically in hopes for a second milking, but the percentage of those proven winners was small compared to years-and-years-worth of a studio's massive weekly output that sat in storage. Dumping these "relics" (that was the general opinion of the time) on to TV stations for broadcast became a way for studios to make money off of these products again; for their part, TV stations found that it was cheaper and easier to show twenty year-old movies from 3:30-5:00 PM Monday-Friday than to produce seven and a half hours of original studio-produced programming every week.

In 1957, syndicator Screen Gems (a subsidiary of Columbia Pictures) paid Universal-International $20 million for a ten-year contract that covered 550 (some sources say 600) films made before 1948. Screen Gems gambled that they could re-sell these titles to network-affiliated and independent TV stations that were hungry for programming; they began to package movies together for TV sale, making sure that were enough recognizable titles in each to make up for the unheard-of and forgotten low-budget programmers that were also in the bundle.

One of the packages of Universal movies that Screen Gems crafted for syndication was called SHOCK! This consisted of 52 thrillers (one for every week of the year) that included horror movies, murder mysteries, crime melodramas, and wartime spy suspense flicks. Although SHOCK! did contain a few proven box-office hits (FRANKENSTEIN [1931] and THE MUMMY [1932]), most of the other bundled titles were regarded as disposable lowbrow distractions with little or no aesthetic or critical value. It was thought that these movies would be fine for killing time for viewers and filling airtime for stations late at night. But the "disposable" entertainments of SHOCK! became wildly popular, and as we shall explore, sparked a craze for monsters and horror that would transform US popular culture for decades.

Next: The SHOCK! Doctrine


Mirek said...

Not only were there very few stations in those days, but watching television was free, except for whatever extra you'd have to pay electricity-wise. For those who were born in more recent times, imagine--no cable bills!

The limitation on the number of stations and programming, the free aspect of TV, meant that once your family acquired a TV set, you joined other families across the country in typically watching the same programing. Despite the fact that the SHOCK! programing was sold to local channels, enough local channels across the country took the SHOCK! package to make watching these films a country-wide phenomenon (at least in major urban areas), which, as mentioned, proved very impacting at the time and for the future.

The Creeping Bride said...

Good points, Mirek (especially about free tv!)... I think that it's important to lay out what's different about watching movies on TV then as opposed to now especially for "those who were born in more recent times."

Horror fans born in the US in the 1980s and the early 1990s may not know anything other than cable/satellite TV and the easy availability of VHS and DVD players, so I thought it was worthwhile to break it all down a little bit when it comes to the SHOCK! revolution.

rogue evolent said...

You're always one of the best "reads" over at CHFB, and now I just find out (I'm slow :) ) today that you've got this cool blog.
Great post on the early days of Network and local affiliates television (and on Shock). Thanks.

The Creeping Bride said...

Thanks for following along, rogue evolent. We've just gotten underway, so you haven't missed much. But I suggest you dig back into some of the older posts that Mirek has put up over the last couple years... there's some interesting info and images there.

KRONOSIS said...

Our local CBS affiliate didn't pick up the SHOCK package until a year after it debuted. Key word in that sentence: local. If something similar to this occurred today, there would most likely be only one horror host, broadcasting on all affiliates across the country at the same time, same channel. But back then, local channels assumed most of the day's programming (except for Prime Time Viewing, and even then, Prime Time hours were different in different parts of the country). Television affiliates relied more on local programming and local talent to fill up the day's programming schedule. If an organ player could get a sponsor, he or she could purchase 5, 10, or 15 minutes of local air time on a given day.
There was no set rule that affiliates across the country had to show the SHOCK movies in any particular order. Stations that picked up the package probably debuted either FRANKENSTEIN or DRACULA to gain market share over their competition, with hopes of building up a weekly audience, but after the initial debut in each different market, it was up to the local station programming director as to what movie would be shown on any given day. And, as with the creation of different Horror Hosts as the package was picked up across the country, it was local sponsors that picked up the tab. One of the sponsors in our area was EARL SCHEIB. Another was SAM WOLFE AUTO.
This aspect of marketing television viewing has all but disappeared in today's world...
KEEP UP THE GOOD JOB, Creeping Bride!