Decline of TV Showmanship

Certain movies shown on network TV used to be treated as cultural milestones.
August 27, 2007
Toward the end of the movie “Matinee” the movie distributor that Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) is trying to sell his movie to is observing the melee taking place around the movie theater when the audience becomes convinced that nuclear war is taking place in real life. As he watches the madness he remarks, “He’s put the showmanship back!”

Showmanship is lacking these days in the exhibition of movies, particularly on TV. 20 years ago a movie being shown on Broadcast TV for the first time was greeted with great fanfare. Big part of this was due to the amazing amount of time that transpired between original theatrical release and broadcast television exhibition. In the 1980s that could be as long as five years. In the earlier days of post war movies being shown on TV, that wait was longer.

In the earliest days of TV the only movies shown were mostly pre-1949 B-movies and old Saturday matinee serials. The big studios saw TV as an enemy to be fought and naturally did not want to help the networks beyond using them promote their current movies. Then in the early 1960s NBC struck a deal with 20th Century Fox and purchased TV rights for several movies. The first was “How to Marry a Millionaire” (1953). The established precedent became that studios would release movies theatrically and then re-release them a prescribed amount of times before relinquishing them to be shown on TV. This was driven by profit motive by the studios. Over time as home entertainment evolved this waiting period began to include premium cable channels like HBO and then home video. So a movie would be released to theaters, then at least six months to a year later (depending on how successful the movie was) it would be released on home video and then it would be shown on premium cable three to six months after that. This is a generalization of course, I’m sure there were some exceptions with time in some cases After a movie saw a generous amount air time on cable it would graduate to broadcast network TV where the 50% of American households (like mine) who didn’t have cable could see it. It always seemed a little weird to watch a movie and after the opening credits see the words “Edited for Television” at the bottom of the screen. I used to wonder what we were being protected from, but that was before forth grade, when my vocabulary um… expanded.

Showing a movie on TV for the first time was often marketed a cause for celebration, especially if the movie in question was particularly popular. A good example is the first time “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was shown on ABC. As you’ll see in the link below ABC discarded its usual movie-of-the-week theme music for John Williams “Raiders March”.

(to see links open a new browser and copy and paste the link to the address bar)

The first movie I remember seeing in the theater was E.T. The first movie I remember seeing on TV was Superman. At the time I was a huge “Superfriends” fan and could not fathom the idea of how a man could realistically look like he was flying. We kids were told that we could stay up and watch if we took naps. The hours between coming home from church and the movie starting went by like a month of Sundays. The movie-of-the-week opening with the 3-D star tunnel graphics and red, white and blue color scheme (as if to remind the viewers, ‘We’re the AMERICAN Broadcasting Company, unlike those Nazis over at NBC or them commies at CBS) combined with a philharmonic sounding score and Ernie Anderson announcing the two to three hour spectacular that was to follow with exciting shots from the movie was enough to make me engage in typical five-year-old ‘I can’t believe this is actually going to happen’ hysterics. A good example of this (oddly enough of “Superman”) is in the link below.

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Pretty much any broadcasting entity that showed movies did it with some kind of flair.

From Network…

to local…

to cable…

But over time the showmanship died. The intros and bumpers got shorter and less flashy and now they have all but died out. Gone from most networks. (ABC might still do it but it’s been a long time since I looked) Forget local, they don’t have the money anymore. And the ones on cable movie channels are too short to make you care. Nowadays if you catch a movie on TV you get nothing but the movie it self. It’s as if they’re saying “Here it is, you’re lucky you got it.” No flashy intro, no hyperbolic announcer, nothing. You get a commercial, a promo for some other show and then the studio logo and the movie starts. There just isn’t ant showmanship anymore. There is one notable exception, Turner Classic Movie has a plethora of cool bumpers and intros they’ve been using since 1994 that somehow never age. (and you can’t beat Robert Osborne’s introductory lectures) So here’s to showmanship!
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