Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Opera Wednesday

By Mitchell Hadley

Continuing TV week, let's look today at one of the most controversial programs of the 50s - The Voice of Firestone.


Indeed. In the early days of television, sponsors had great control over programming. The sponsor bought the time, therefore they were entitled to fill it as they liked. (This is one reason why so many of the shows from TV's past had the sponsor's name in the title.)

The Voice of Firestone began on radio in 1928, and transitioned to television in 1949. As the title suggests, it was sponsored by the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company (in fact, Mrs. Harvey Firestone composed the show's popular theme), and they were rightly proud of it. For thirty minutes each week the program featured the best in classical (and occasionally more "popular") music, with some of opera's greatest stars.

It may be hard to imagine that such a program could exist on commercial television today, but in fact it was also very hard to imagine it back in the 50s. The show was never what one would call a ratings bonanza, and by 1954 it was dragging down NBC's entire Monday night lineup, the low ratings making it increasingly difficult for NBC to sell commercial time in the following half-hour. (The show was broadcast at 8:30 ET, meaning there were still two hours of prime-time programming following it.) NBC broached the idea of moving Voice to a different timeslot, but Firestone objected - its faithful (and older) viewers might not be able to watch in another time period.

Using the Ronald Reagan "I'm paying for this microphone" philosophy (in fact, they paid $1 million annually for the timeslot), Firestone moved the program (television and radio) over to ABC, which at the time was desperate for anything resembling prestige. However, by 1959 the ratings monster had reared its ugly head once again. This time, when ABC tried to move the show to a later time, Firestone pulled the program off the air completely. There were threats of a Congressional investigation into the use of ratings to determine programming content, and letters to the editor poured in from everywhere (including, one would imagine, people who'd never been regular viewers). The show made a brief comeback in 1962, but it lasted ten months before it going off the air for good. Firestone, disillusioned with the whole process, put their advertising dollars into television sports, notably college football and the Pro Bowlers Tour.

We may chuckle at how naive things were back then - I mean, the very idea that ratings could influence programming! Times change, of course, and the same sponsors who brought us programs such as Voice were also responsible for demanding they get the most for their advertising dollar, which is often measured in terms of viewership numbers. Of course, sponsor involvement worked for good and bad back then (the quiz show scandals, for example), but I can't help thinking that something was lost when ratings became king. We talk often about "diversity" and how good it is, but when it comes to television, we still worship at the altar of the bottom line.

Enough of the words - let's take a look at an early episode of Voice of Firestone. Here, complete with the television, is Jan Peerce singing the famous "Vesti la giubba" from Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. Howard Barlow conducts the Voice of Firestone Orchestra, in this broadcast from January 9, 1950.

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