Sunday, June 11, 2006

And So It Begins: March 10, 1962

If Oscar Katz had never made another "enthusiastic" programming choice in his career, this one would assure him a place in TV's Hall of Fame.

This early mention of a situation comedy that would premiere on September 26, 1962 was just the kick-off to reams of coverage that followed in the wake of its nine-season run... very little of it positive. Did Katz forsee the impact this show would have, not just on his network, but on television comedy as a whole? Undoubtedly he would say "Yes."

The Beverly Hillbillies shot to #1 in the ratings in a mere three weeks. That was unprecedented; even I Love Lucy - at a time when there were fewer sets and fewer choices - took three months just to get to #2. To complicate matters, most serious critics hated this show. Renowned author (and then-critic for TV Guide) Gilbert Seldes practically found himself apologizing for liking it: "The whole notion on which The Beverly Hillbillies is founded is an encouragement to ignorance - in a time when our only salvation lies in education. But it is funny. What can I do?"

Katz's selection did much to shape the future of CBS. When the Hillbillies debuted, the network already had one sucessful folksy sitcom: The Andy Griffith Show. Once Hillbillies soared, CBS pulled out all the stops. Hillbillies begat Petticoat Junction, which begat Green Acres. And Griffith begat Gomer Pyle, USMC and later Mayberry R.F.D. By the time Hee Haw came along at the end of the decade, CBS had settled into its role as the Cornpone (or maybe Cornball) Broadcasting System.

But just why did the Hillbillies get so far so fast with viewers? "It's the least obvious, most unpredictable material I've ever been associated with," said Buddy (Jed) Ebsen early on. "Sixty million viewers can't be wrong," affirmed Irene (Granny) Ryan. Both were show business veterans, going back to the vaudeville era. And both were correct.

America certainly took this series to its heart. It's probably no accident that it reached #1 right around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. When the nation was plunged into shock and grief on Friday, November 22, 1963 by the assassination of President Kennedy, it quickly tuned to The Beverly Hillbillies for comfort. For years, the seven episodes that immediately followed that terrible weekend were the highest rated TV shows ever. Once you deduct sports, movies and mini-series from the mix, you'll still find them in the Top 20.


Anonymous said...

Trivia note: the Bob Osborne who plays a bank employee named "Jeff Taylor" in a scene with Raymond Bailey and Nancy Kulp in the first episode of the series is the same Robert Osborne whose presence graces Turner Classic Movies.

Paul Duca said...

Osborne was one of the young hopefuls Lucille Ball had in her "Desilu Workshop"