NBC’s Disappointing 90th Anniversary Special

If you sat through “The Paley Centers Salutes NBC’s 90th Anniversary” in its entirety on Sunday, I salute you. I planned on only watching just the first hour of the three-hour special, which ran on NBC from 8-11PM ET. Am I the only person who assumed it would present nine decades of NBC history chronologically? Watching the first hour, I hoped, would get me through the first few decades.

Instead, the special started with a segment about various 1990s sitcoms (Friends and Seinfeld, among others) before jumping from genre to genre. Segments focused on sitcoms, family dramas, sci-fi, sports, news, etc. I ended up watching all three hours of the disjointed special and live-tweeted the entire broadcast.

For someone like me, obsessed with television history, NBC’s 90th anniversary special was a disappointment. For a number of reasons, it was more frustrating than entertaining or informative. If you didn’t watch it live, it’s available at NBC’s website. You may also be able to find it On Demand.

Keep reading for my thoughts.

All About the 1980s and 1990s

I understand why NBC and The Paley Center focused much of their attentions on Must See TV from the 1980s and 1990s, despite this supposedly being a 90th anniversary special. I really do. But that doesn’t excuse all but ignoring the 1940s and 1950s, not to mention the 1920s and 1930s. The National Broadcasting Company was founded in 1926 and for decades was known for its radio network(s) and not television.

If I recall correctly, radio came up only once or twice during the entire three-hour broadcast. True, a handful of segments highlighted some early NBC TV stars and shows, like the news segment and the variety segment. There was some black-and-white footage–all cropped, of course–mixed in.

Even the 1960s and 1970s were barely covered. Star Trek popped up two or three times. At least a dozen or so sitcoms, variety shows, and dramas from those decades were discussed, like Chico and the Man, Police Woman, and Little House on the Prairie.

But the intent was clearly to highlight the last 30 years of NBC television, not the last 90 years.

Cropped Footage

From the very start, it was obvious NBC has very little respect for its past. All of the footage from the 1940s through the 1990s was cropped to fit widescreen TV sets. This is typical for retrospectives and documentaries and news reports. It’s not surprising that NBC opted to crop everything. But it is frustrating.

It’s bad enough that NBC offered up cropped scenes from sitcoms and dramas. Time and time again, characters had their heads cut off or quality suffered due to 4:3 aspect ratio video being cropped and blown up to 16:9 aspect ratio. When it comes to news footage, cropping is just plain wrong. From a historical and archival perspective, cropping news footage is inexcusable and inaccurate.

I hesitate to call cropping news footage deceptive but at the very least it is potentially misleading.

Poor Quality Footage

On multiple occasions, NBC utilized poor quality footage. There’s no way to know for sure, but to me some of this footage looked like it came from YouTube. I’m not talking about scratchy film or jittery video. No, these clips looked heavily compressed and blocky. I recall a particularly low-quality clip from Bonanza. And all of the scenes from Julia were in rough shape.

The closing montage included a clip of NBC President Robert Sarnoff speaking during the dedication of NBC’s new TV station in Washington, D.C. in May 1958. It starts in black and white then, after Sarnoff presses a button, switches to color. For the record, this dedication program happens to be the earliest surviving color quad videotape recording. The clip used last night was all but unwatchable.

Final Thoughts

I did not have high hopes for NBC’s 90th anniversary special. “The Paley Centers Salutes NBC’s 90th Anniversary” failed to meet even my low expectations. The focus on recent, familiar sitcoms I can forgive, grudgingly. Refusing to even acknowledge the early years of NBC is unforgivable. Cropping footage is a major frustration and disrespectful yet also how the TV industry almost always treats pre-widescreen footage. They’ll continue to do it and I’ll continue to gripe about. I’m afraid that ship has sailed.

The poor quality footage likewise reveals a complete lack of respect for TV history. I’m sure it’s cheaper to use readily available footage (perhaps directly from YouTube) even if it looks terrible. It’s a mystery to me why nobody seems to care.

Did I really think NBC was going to spend half an hour on 1940s television? No, I did not. Did I really think obscure and short-lived shows like It’s a Man’s World, Camp Runamuck, or Supertrain would get mentioned? No, I did not.

I wrongly assumed Kraft Television Theatre would come up at some point, however. Rod Serling, anyone? “Patterns” is one of the most famous programs from the Golden Age of Television. I also thought NBC’s role in pushing color television would be worth a few minutes.

Whoever NBC expected to watch its 90th anniversary special, it wasn’t people like me who appreciate and care about the history of television.


Did you watch “The Paley Centers Salutes NBC’s 90th Anniversary” on Sunday? Were you as disappointed as I was? Hit the comments with your thoughts.


29 Comments

  • David says:

    I did not watch it, but I do find that programs of this type typically gloss over or ignore completely anything prior to the last two or three decades.

  • Diane Quartarolo says:

    It looked like a corporate PR piece. A very brief clip of “Twenty One” but no mention of the quiz show scandals (which they did mention in their 50th anniversary show). And nothing at all about Ernie Kovacs (who, among many other things, was the main inspiration for “Laugh-In.”

  • michael s says:

    I am admirer of the Paley Center. In my research of TV, people like David Bushman have been very helpful to me. But this is the second Paley Center special and both have been embarrassingly bad.

    It was a clip show that NBC used as a 90 minute commercial for its current lineup. More time was spent looking at the 21st Century shows than anything before the 1970s.

    TV has always had a hard time respecting its own past. Even the PBS looks have been full of errors and unable to see the past beyond a few popular shows,

    But it is to be expected when movies get cable networks such as TCM and TV gets TVLAND. Or when networks such as MeTV has a Facebook test on Mary Tyler Moore Show and get Grant Tinker’s name wrong.

  • Matthew says:

    NBC in general does a horrible job maintaining their legacy. They retained almost none of their old kinescope and videotapes. (This is why NBC likely could never have a venture like Decades, which relies on CBS’s archival holdings of old shows, news footage, etc. It may also be a reason for the YouTube-quality clips on the anniversary special.) Inquiries from historians and other folks seeking to research older programming are provided evasive answers, suggesting they aren’t welcome.

    There are indeed wonderful people at the Paley Center, but my impression of that place is that it’s a little dysfunctional and the right hand doesn’t always know what the left hand is doing. By which I mean, I can easily see some of the empty suits working there assisting NBC, and the folks working there who actually know about TV history being left out of the loop. It’s happened before.

  • michael s says:

    Matthew, I don’t know enough about the place but I wonder if it is more financial challenges that cause the problems. The last Paley Center special was produced by outside production company and I don’t know how much the Paley people who care about TV were involved. I don’t know how much say they had for this show.

    Like TVLAND, when money is the main need respect for TV’s history can be lost.

    The Paley Center has some great programs such as salutes you can attend that feature the talent behind the TV series. I have been in the audience for many of those but they focus on new shows that will sell tickets instead of the old forgotten stuff I am interested. They are privately owned and depend on donations and fundraisers. I just wish they could afford to put TV history in front of making enough money to survive.

  • charles perry says:

    One thing that really annoyed me was the lack of soap operas. “Santa Barbara” is my all-time favorite and won several Emmys, but no mention of it all. At the very least, they could have had a clip of Robin Wright in the “Star Is Born” segment. Kelsey Grammer said that they’ll make it right when NBC turns 100, but don’t bet on it!!

    • Jay says:

      I totally agree. Santa Barbara was a great show.
      But let’s not forget Days Of Our Lives, a show that’s still on the air and has been since November 1965.

      • charles perry says:

        Yes, and we can’t forget “Another World”, even though NBC forgot that both Kelsey Grammer and Ray Liotta both appeared on it.

  • Michael Spadoni says:

    Here are my observations on NBC’s 90th Anniversary Special:
    1. “The Cosby Show” was barely touched upon and much of the focus was on co-star Phyllis Rashad with little Bill Cosby. What a difference multiple allegations make!
    2. Did NBC and the Paley Center think the millennials wouldn’t be interested in the network’s offerings of the 1950’s and 60’s? Obviously there was more live drama on NBC than just “Marty” (“Patterns” certainly was among them–so nice it was staged TWICE).
    3. Little mention of NBC’s daytime history? Glaring omission! Ditto NBC News’ most vital period (the Huntley-Brinkley years).
    4. Agree about the quality of the clips. Come on folks, spend a little cash to digitize what few glimmers of history made it on air.
    5. I recall in 1986, the “Today” show had a segment about failed TV series with many examples coming from NBC. The special could have devoted a segment to such Peacock flops as “Supertrain;” “My Mother The Car” and every one of NBC’s 1983-84 fall series!
    6. There were some good moments to the special, but they seemed few and far between. Thank goodness for the DVR, which reduced the time considerably after fast-forwarding the endless ads and promos (OK, I’ll make an exception for “This Is Us,” but little else).
    Better luck on your centennial special, NBC!

  • Randy says:

    Sigh. They could have done better by just dragging out “NBC’s Fabulous Fifty” and re-running it.

  • Steve Thomas says:

    I’m an editor and technical director and have worked in television production and broadcasting for over 38 years. I agree that archival footage shot in 4:3 should not be cropped and expanded to fit 16:9, especially when used as source material for an historical program. What little record we still have of the early years of television should not have its quality compromised just to satisfy the current bean-counters.

  • Chuck Collins says:

    This show was cursed from beyond the grave. You can hear his ghost getting the hysterical last laugh. What ghost? Just look at whose name is in front of this special for NBC!!!

  • Karen Martin says:

    Since NBC began in 1926, shouldn’t a 2017 special be the 91st anniversary? One of many oddities that made me wonder if any real thought went into the program.

    As a teenager I watched NBC’s 50th anniversary special, but don’t remember details. I seem to recall radio shows received a fair amount of coverage, but back in 1976 many of the biggest radio stars were still alive, and still popular. I assume many of the old-time radio stars took part in the 50th anniversary special.

    I didn’t see the first hour of the 90th anniversary show, but during the last two hours I believe clips from Dragnet and the TV movie Marty were the only pre-1980s shows shown without having a star reminiscing about how great it was to work on the series.

    Perhaps NBC had the theory that if a show didn’t have a still alive — and still popular — person attached to it the show had no relevance to the audience they wanted to attract.

  • Alan Maretsky says:

    I watched the first hour or so and deduced it was a disjointed clip show. It is too bad that NBC in its infinite wisdom has chosen to erase, toss out or otherwise destroy the materials that made the network what it is. I betting whoever produced this wasn’t even alive when NBC went color!

  • Jim says:

    Some of the clips look like they were taken off of Youtube

    • Patrick McNamara says:

      It’s possible the digitized the material with early computers and didn’t have the resolution. If you’re going from tape to digital it’s hard to get much better than 640×480. If you blow that up, then crop for widescreen you’re going to get pixilation. I noticed that with many of my earlier recordings that I digitized.

  • Mike Doran says:

    I admit to doing a lot of fast-forwarding when I did my after-the-fact viewing of this, but there is one thing …

    I know that the company involved is now The Competition –

    – but no mention in the whole show of Walt Disney?

    Given that The Other Competition got inadvertent top billing, it did seem a bit odd …

  • James Shell says:

    I agree with everything that has been said here. The funniest part was when they patted themselves on the back over how well they’ve handled their late-night schedule… no mention of the Leno/Letterman or O’Brien/Leno debacles. And as usual, Steve Allen was given short shrift. Grammer said “NBC invented the late-night talk show.” No, they didn’t; Steve Allen did. And I believe that one of the clips of him they showed was actually from his Sunday-night variety show, not The Tonight Show.

  • Patrick McNamara says:

    I’ve yet to watch the show. I’ve likely held off knowing that it wouldn’t really be historical. But if they’re going to call it a 90 year special then they really should be talking about radio.

    This is the sort of special that should not be made by the network. They just turn it into a sales tool, leaving out all the true history.

    And the scary thing is that it’s the Paley Center people rely upon to preserve old TV. If they do a bad job of it or if they run themselves into financial ruin it could mean the loss of a lot of old TV material.

    • Neville Ross says:

      This is the sort of special that should not be made by the network. They just turn it into a sales tool, leaving out all the true history.

      This disgraceful incident is why it’s better that PBS do this for all of the networks instead of the networks themselves, as they’ve been doing for a while now. This is also why each and every American needs to resist these media mergers when they happen (examples of why this has messed things up mentioned here), so that instead of getting companies that don’t give a shit about TV/music/radio/movies, etc. we get companies that do give a shit, and care about their past (case in point: CBS and Star Trek,, with CBS not bothering to do a 50th anniversary special despite the franchise being now owned by CBS since 2007.) Just like how the CBC here in Canada handled their 50th anniversary by spreading out the special all year round instead of in one gulp, the networks should be dong that when and if they ever celebrate their anniversaries.

      As it is, this only shows how these networks are dying, and giving way to streaming services, or what was predicted by Data in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘The Neutral Zone’.

  • anthony says:

    Programs in Sunday’s NBC 90th anniversary special (groupings are by segment; programs only listed once and in first segment they appeared):

    Flipper (opening montage; not mentioned in actual program. Others in montage listed elsewhere)

    Friends, Mad About You, Will & Grace, Seinfeld, Frasier

    The Colgate Comedy Hour, The Bob Hope Show, The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, The Flip Wilson Show, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, The Dean Martin Show, Texaco Star Theatre, Your Show of Shows, The Perry Como Show, The Andy Williams Show

    ER, Little House on the Prairie, Bonanza, The Virginian, St. Elsewhere, Highway to Heaven, The West Wing, Freaks and Geeks, Parenthood, Friday Night Lights, This Is Us, Sisters, Dr. Kildare, Heroes, Star Trek, Quantum Leap

    Tonight, Tonight Starring Jack Paar, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Late Night with Seth Meyers, Late Night with David Letterman, Last Call with Carson Daly, The Nat King Cole Show

    Julia, Police Woman, Love Sidney, An Early Frost, L.A. Law, Days of Our Lives

    Parks & Recreation, Diff’rent Strokes, The Golden Girls, Suddenly Susan, 30 Rock

    Cheers, The Office, Superstore, Scrubs, NewsRadio, Chico and the Man, Wings, Night Court, The Cosby Show, Just Shoot Me!

    Camel News Caravan, Today, NBC Nightly News, The Huntley-Brinkley Report, Meet the Press, Dateline

    Saturday Night Live

    Hill Street Blues, Blindspot, Quincy, M.E., Peter Gunn, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Remington Steele, Medium, Ironside, Chicago P.D., Hannibal, Shades of Blue, Homicide: Life on the Street, Crime Story, The Blacklist, The A-Team, In the Heat of the Night, Matlock, Law & Order, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Dragnet, Columbo, Knight Rider, The Rockford Files, Chicago Med, Chicago Fire

  • Eric Paddon says:

    NBC’s 50th Anniversary special from 1976 is the only one worth watching from a history and archival standpoint. Insomuch as I have no interest in anything they did in the 40 years afterwards, four hours devoted to its earlier history is more than I could ever have hoped to see.

    NBC’s 40th anniversary special is available on YouTube but in a testament to how poor NBC’s preservation was then, it is devoid of archival material and is presented more as a news documentary anchored by Huntley with interviews and reminiscences.

  • ERIC R. PLEASANT says:

    The 90th anniversary special was worthless and not worth seeing. Nuff said!

  • MoreGruelPlease says:

    Agreed. “Worthless” is the perfect word. Because they tried to cram too much into three hours, I would also describe it as manic.

    Not enough nostalgia there for us oldsters, and not enough new-er material to keep the young viewers watching. I wonder what type of viewer they were targeting with this?

    No idea how, or why you would ever fit 90 years of anything into 2 hours and 20ish minutes of TV minus commercials. And I did notice multiple clips coming from youtube. The one that stands out in my mind was a clip from LA Law that was from youtube. Why would they have pulled it off youtube when it’s out on DVD?!

  • Bob says:

    Kelsey Grammer looked so tired & bored doing this special. I could see his eyes literally reading the material slowly from the teleprompter. His jacket was one size too small and it looked like he could barely stand in place in front of those really fake looking green screen backgrounds.

  • don says:

    Skipped it, but glad to have read your review. I suspected that Ross & that monkey would be given as much airtime as Bob Hope. Insulting.

  • Linda Campbell says:

    Great review. I was having trouble figuring out why NBC’s tribute to itself was so uninteresting. Although I watched all of it, for me the show tanked shortly after starting. In contrast, PBS retrospectives about TV have been engrossing. Also, I’m a stalwart fan of Kelsey Grammer but he wasn’t a good fit for this. His demeanor lacked enthusiasm and his delivery was often wooden.

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