ABC and Batman’s Fourth Commercial Spot
In the mid-1960s, it was industry practice to include just three minutes of commercials in every half-hour of prime time. When ABC premiered Batman in January 1966, it ignited a firestorm of controversy by adding a fourth minute. Affiliates protested and one station took the incredible step of refusing to air the campy, twice-a-week sitcom. Making matters worse was the disclosure that ABC was considering expanding the fourth commercial minute to all its 7:30-8PM programming. In the face of increasing pressure from affiliates, ABC eventually backed down.
From the 1950s through the 1970s, the typical network sitcom or half-hour drama ran between 25 and 26 minutes with opening and closing credits. Add in a few network bumpers and billboards and the amount of time left for commercials was limited. Dramas regularly ran for roughly 51 minutes. The number of commercials allowed during any given hour on the networks and many individual television stations was limited by the Television Code of Good Practice devised by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and introduced in 1952.
In January 1966, as ABC was preparing to unveil its “second season” of programming, Broadcasting reported that the network was restructuring its soon-to-premiere Batman in order to fit in a fourth commercial minute . The half-hour series, which would run on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 7:30-8PM, was set to premiere on January 12th. According to Broadcasting, “the amount of commercial time sold in a half-hour period in network nighttime schedules customarily totals three minutes” but adding another minute would be “well within National Association of Broadcasters’ code limits” . ABC planned to either shorten or remove “promos, logos, credits, billboards, etc.” to make room for the new minute and a network spokesman noted that just three seconds of actual program content would have to be removed .
A total of thirteen advertisers were on board for Batman: Kellogg, Anderson-Clayton, S.C. Johnson, Procter & Gamble, Bristol-Myers, Hunt Foods, Carnation, DuPont, Lehn & Fink, Polaroid, Merck and Noxzema .
Although early ratings for Batman were spectacular, some affiliates were less than thrilled with the fourth commercial spot. Still, ABC claimed a live and delayed 178-station clearance as of January 20th, which Broadcasting called “about average” for a program in the 7:30-8PM time slot . The Los Angeles Times reported on January 14th that after Baltimore’s ABC affiliate, WJZ-TV (owned by Westinghouse Broadcasting Co.) refused to air Batman, ABC sold the series to WBAL-TV, Baltimore’s NBC affiliate . WBAL-TV aired the Wednesday and Thursday episodes back-to-back from 2:30-3:30PM on Saturdays beginning January 22nd .
WJZ-TV filled Batman‘s two half-hours with The Legend of Jesse James and A Man Called Shenandoah, two ABC programs the station had previously pre-empted on Mondays in favor of a movie (the station had been showing the two series on Sundays) . Despite the WJZ-TV situation, ABC was of the opinion that the bulk of its affiliates were supportive, especially given the fact that it had revealed its plans for Batman to them as early as November 1965. Furthermore, some affiliates had sent the network “congratulatory messages” after the show performed so well. And according to the network the fourth spot was necessary to offset the weekly $150,000 cost of producing the double episodes, although this was disputed by some .
That wasn’t enough for WJZ-TV. The station told ABC in December 1965 that it would be more than happy to clear Batman but not with the fourth commercial, calling it “contrary to standard practice,” later suggesting that ABC drop one commercial each week on a rotating basis . One of WJZ-TV’s concerns was that the fourth commercial minute would be reproduced by the other networks. Hal Humphrey echoed the worry in a January 25th article in The Los Angeles Times, writing that “there is no law or regulation against it, but all networks by convention had previously agreed that three [commercials] to the half-hour in prime-time were sufficient” while noting after ABC’s move “now the worry is that NBC and CBS will claim they have to do the same to compete financially” .
On February 6th, Jack Gould discussed the controversy over Batman‘s fourth commercial in The New York Times, opining that “apparently the TV set owner had better brace himself for the addition of another minute of commercial advertising in evening network shows, but he may enjoy some measure of relief in a cutback of annoying clutter, the hodgepodge of audio and visual material that attends the opening and closing of shows” . Furthermore, Gould revealed that ABC had told both the Federal Communications Commission and the National Association of Broadcasters about its intention to add a fourth commercial, and “far there has been no hint of complaint from either body” . Perhaps most importantly “the ABC chain has yet to receive one letter from a viewer either detecting or protesting the change” .
Gould applauded ABC’s “administrative ingenuity in finding a way to add a spot while at the same time appeasing those who had complained of clutter. And by not tinkering with the actual length of program content [ABC President Thomas W. Moore] has blunted the effectiveness of the argument that rising commercialism inevitably determines how much non-commercial material a viewer gets” . On the other hand, he suggested that “general acceptance of a fourth commercial in a half-hour would solidify the degree of commercialism beyond any hope of subsequent modification” and pointed out that additional commercial breaks would force production staff to create “synthetic climaxes to accommodate the spots” .
Ultimately, Gould felt that despite the way ABC handled the introduction, “it has been the history of broadcasting that every subtle move to extract more revenue from a medium subject to the limitation of the number of hours in a day sooner or later has resulted in more advertising and commercialism, not less” . Even some advertisers weren’t happy about the fourth minute. Sherman J. McQueen, president of the Hollywood Advertising Club, told The Los Angeles Times that “I wish there were a trend away from all this clutter. We seem to be headed toward more commercialism, and that disturbs me” and used the Batman situation as an example 
In its March 14th edition, Broadcasting reported that ABC was thinking about adding a fourth commercial minute to a half-hour of prime time during the remainder of the week, with network officials willing to confirm “they were considering an expansion” and had reserved the right to include the additional minute in its 1966-1967 fall schedule . Nothing would be decided until ABC’s affiliates meeting took place in Chicago on March 26th, which the network hoped to walk away from with an agreement on the part of affiliates to add the new minute, perhaps in exchange for some form of payment .
On March 17th, Val Adams reported in The New York Times that Herbert B. Cahan, vice president of WJZ-TV, had resigned as chairman of the ABC affiliates advisory committee to protest the fourth commercial minute and in the hopes of gaining more freedom to oppose it. Cahan told Adams that “most affiliates are opposed to four commercials in ‘Batman.’ Last November, in an Eastern regional meeting of affiliates, a resolution was passed in opposition to the extra one-minute commercial in the show. The affiliates’ advisory board is unanimously opposed to extending the ‘Batman’ policy to other shows” . According to Cahan, affiliates had received a message from the network asking them to “reserve judgment” until the affiliates meeting in Chicago .
Westinghouse President Donald H. McGannon sent a letter to ABC-TV President Thomas W. Moore asking him to reverse the network’s position on expanding its use of four commercial minutes and to stop using a fourth commercial in Batman:
This concern finds its root in projecting what the industry may reasonably expect as a consequence of increasing the commercial content in prime time from three to four minutes. It is safe to assume that the next step will be the escalation of this pattern from two to five nights A.B.C. (a speculation that is practically a certainty, I gather), the spread of the same pattern to the other two networks in this time period and, finally, the escalation of the matter to the entire four hours of prime time on all three networks.” 
In its March 21st edition Broadcasting called the affiliates meeting “the battleground” over ABC’s proposed expansion of the fourth commercial minute in which the affiliates advisory committee would face off with network management (Cahan, Broadcasting said, was still a member of the committee, just not chairman) . ABC issued a statement asking affiliates “not to prejudge any situation until we have had an opportunity to study these important matters together” and promising to discuss the matter in Chicago . As for the possibility that the other networks would also use fourth minutes, Broadcasting reported that while both CBS and NBC denied interest in doing so, there was “widespread speculation–even among some NBC and CBS officials–that in time they would feel compelled to follow suit if ABC’s venture proved successful” .
According to The New York Times, at the Chicago meeting the affiliates advisory committee passed a resolution opposing the expansion of a fourth commercial minute. In response, the network promised to consider the resolution while working on its final plans for the upcoming season, which it said would see production costs rise 24% . Broadcasting reported in its March 28th edition that the network would wait until after the upcoming NAB convention, which would run from March 28th to March 30th . Meanwhile, opposition was spreading.
The ABC affiliates advisory committee wasn’t the only group fighting the expanding use of a fourth commercial minute. According to Broadcasting, “many station sales representatives were in the thick of it, contending that unless stopped the concept was almost sure to spread to other periods and probably other networks, and urging their station clients to oppose it. Station groups and other leading broadcasters affiliated with all three networks were also moving against the plan, some publicly and some privately” . Don Durgin, President of NBC-TV, sent his network’s affiliates board of delegates the following telegram on March 23rd:
We have no plans to change our present pattern of three minutes of commercials in half-hour evening programs or six commercial minutes in one-hour evening programs. We do not feel it is desirable to expand the number of commercials in such programs and hope this will not become an industry pattern at the network level. 
CBS also denied any plans to start using a fourth minute, with one official arguing “it’s a lousy idea and I hope nobody gets away with it” . Loius Wolfson, senior vice president of the broadcast division of Wometco (which had television stations in Florida, North Carolina and Washington), called on the president of ABC-TV to “show statesmanship by withdrawing this additional commercialization for the 1966-1967 season,” arguing that if the industry didn’t exhibit control over commercialism, it would be open to “justified criticism” .
The April 4th edition of Broadcasting reported that ABC, in response to its affiliates complaints, had decided to put any expansion on hold. But the network insisted it had only “tabled it” and had “not committed to anything,” leaving the door open to add a fourth minute later on . Asked to remove the extra minute from Batman, ABC replied that it had “advertiser commitments that prevent it from reducing commercial time” for the series . In response to the broader issue, affiliates decided to form an economic committee to study “the contractual and economic relationship between the network and the affiliate,” and not even the prospect of ABC paying for the right to use a fourth commercial did anything to sway them .
At a presentation held during the NAB convention, ABC officials explained that the cost of color programming meant the network would require some $40 million worth of “time-and-program sales merely to maintain their pre-color sales level,” with the cost of a typical prime time half-hour rising from $62,000 to $76,000 . Those four commercials during Batman would bring in $40,000 each during the 1966-1967 season, up from $32,500 during mid-season . And the network insisted that despite adding a fourth minute it was still making almost nothing on Batman and would take “an enormous loss” without it . Still, the network admitted it had “made tactical error in not giving affiliates a full description of their reasons before adding the extra minute to Batman, and also in not telling them of expansion plans instead of letting them hear [about it] from advertisers and agencies” .
The affiliates conceded that ABC was facing a financial burden when it added the fourth minute to Batman but insisted “they didn’t want to see it solved by expanding network commercial time” . ABC-TV President Moore, after previewing the networks new programming, told affiliates that “none of our bruises will become scars” and promised to keep their point of view in mind when “formulating our final plans at a future date” . Batman would keep its fourth commercial minute but ABC had learned its lesson.
The National Association of Broadcasters, in January 1968, updated its television code, limiting nonprogram material to 10 minutes per hour in prime time and the number of interruptions to two in half-hour programs or four in hour programs . The new regulations would go into effect on September 15th. A little over a decade later, in June 1979, the Justice Department filed an antitrust suit against the National Association of Broadcasters, charging that its television code restricted the amount of available commercial time in order to increase prices . A settlement between the Justice Department and the NAB, approved in November 1982, would abolish the association’s television code (despite the fact that only portions of it pertained to commercials) and on Thursday, January 17th, 1983 the NAB officially voted to repeal both its radio and television codes .
Additional Federal regulations, including a limit of 16 commercial minutes per hour, were lifted by the Federal Communications Commission in June 1984 . The New York Times reported at the time that both CBS and NBC had their own limits on commercials: CBS broadcast nine and a half minutes of non-program material during prime time while NBC broadcast ten minutes . As a result of this deregulation, and as many consumer advocates had warned, the number of commercials began to increase. Today, the average hour of prime time includes 17-18 minutes of nonprogram content, primarily commercials.
6 “Trouble in Batcave.” Broadcasting. 24 Jan. 1966: 40.
7 Page, Don. “TV Review: Batman, Robin; Two for the Hee-Haw.” Los Angeles Times. 14 Jan. 1966: C16.
8 “Trouble in Batcave.”
12 Humphrey, Hal. “And Now, a Word on the Sponsors.” Los Angeles Times. 25 Jan. 1966: C12.
13 Gould, Jack. “When Is a Blessing Not a Blessing?” New York Times. 6 Feb. 1966: X19.
19 Dutton, Walt. “Broadcast Awards Seeking to Upgrade TV Commercials.” Los Angeles Times. 14 Mar. 1966: C22.
20 “ABC-TV likes fourth spot.” Broadcasting. 14 Mar. 1966: 37-38.
22 Adams, Val. “‘Batman’s’ 4th Ad Arouses Protests.” New York Times. 17 Mar. 1966: 79.
25 “Affiliates fight ABC fourth spot.” Broadcasting. 21 Mar. 1966: 37-40.
28 Adams, Val. “Friendly Weighs Bids Outside TV.” New York Times. 28 Mar. 1966: 67.
34 “ABC-TV tables Batspot issue.” Broadcasting. 4 Apr. 1966: 38-42.
43 “Networks beat TV code opponents.” Broadcasting. 29 Jan. 1968: 21-23.
44 Kramer, Larry. “Suit Charges Broadcast Trade Restraint.” Washington Post. 15 Jun. 1979: E3.
46 Black, Norman. “Broadcasters Group Ends Code of Good Practice.” Associated Press. 20 Jan. 1983: AM Cycle.
46 Berger, Joseph. “Networks Give Ruling Little Impact.” New York Times. 28 Jun. 1984: C.18.
Originally Published January 7th, 2010
Last Updated February 20th, 2013