CBS: On The Air – A Celebration of 50 Years
In November 1976, NBC aired the first lavish network anniversary special, celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. Before long, ABC aired its own anniversary special in 1978, this one celebrating just a quarter century. But it was CBS that took the concept to a new level with a massive, week-long celebration of its fiftieth anniversary. Hosted by Walter Cronkite and Mary Tyler Moore, “CBS: On The Air – A Celebration of 50 Years” ran for an astounding nine-and-a-half-hours over the course of one week, beginning Sunday, March 26th, 1978 and ending Saturday, April 1st, 1978. Never before or since has a television network gone to such lengths to commemorate and reflect on its history.
On Sunday, November 21st, 1976, as part of its The Big Event series, NBC aired “The First Fifty Years,” a four-and-a-half-hour special celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the National Broadcasting Company, formed in 1926 by Radio Corporation of America and officially launched on November 15th, 1926. The special was produced by Greg Garrison with Orson Wells providing the narration. Hosts for specific segments included Milton Berle, Johnny Carson, Angie Dickinson, Gene Kelly, Gregory Peck, Jack Albertson and others [1, 2, 3].
The special aired from 7-11:30PM and covered a wide variety of topics relating to NBC, from the birth of its radio networks to coverage of the Hindenburg; from daytime soap operas to the network’s numerous medical shows. The special ranked third in the weekly ratings, behind only Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley (both on ABC) and helped NBC pull ahead of that network to narrowly win the week . More importantly, the success of “The First Fifty Years” proved to the other networks that anniversary celebrations could draw the attention of viewers.
The following year, on Sunday, October 23rd, 1977, NBC broadcast “The First Fifty Years-A Closer Look,” once again as part of The Big Event and once again narrated by Orson Welles. This time, the special was just two-and-a-half hours long and focused mostly on NBC’s comedy and musical/variety programming from the past five decades. It did not do quite as well in the ratings, ranking 12th for the week . But NBC still wasn’t done. Another special, “The First Fifty Years-A Closer Look (Part II),” aired on Tuesday, January 31st, 1978. Only two hours long, it covered drama and horror. Orson Welles was back as narrator for the third and final time. The special ranked 56th for the week .
The same week NBC was wrapping up its long 50th anniversary celebration, ABC broadcast its own special, on Sunday, February 5th, 1978. The baby of the networks, ABC saluted just twenty-five years of history with “ABC’s Silver Anniversary.” Despite the fact that ABC can be traced back to the early 1940s, it was the 1953 merger with United Paramount Theatres that ABC considered its official birthday. The four-hour special was produced by Dick Clark and gathered over 60 current and former stars, including Henry Winkler, Howard Cosell, John Travolta, Ed Asner, Gabe Kaplan and John Wayne. Comedian Alan King provided sarcastic jabs at the network’s early blunders. “ABC’s Silver Anniversary” ranked fourth for the week .
CBS was only slightly younger than NBC, dating its birth to September 18th, 1927 when the Columbia Phonographic Broadcasting System went on the air for the first time. On Sunday, September 18th, 1977 CBS Radio aired a three-hour retrospective from 7-10PM that began with an excerpt from the very first program — a six-hour musical program — the network ever aired . Emerson Stone, vice president in charge of CBS Radio News, explained that the retrospective was intentionally split into six self-contained half-hour segments, allowing listeners who who didn’t tune in at the beginning to “pick up a reasonable continuity” . The six segments focused on music, news, entertainment, sports, drama and more news. The retrospective also featured an interview with William S. Paley.
The September 19th, 1977 issue of Broadcasting featured a 71-page special section titled “CBS: The first five decades,” chronicling fifty years of CBS history, with a history of the company, profiles of CBS executives like Frank Stanton and John Blacke, articles on the company’s efforts at diversification, the CBS broadcast group, a plan to once again top the television ratings, the future and the history of CBS News, technological innovation on the part of CBS, and more. Also included was a list of current CBS radio and television affiliates as well as dozens of advertisements congratulating the network from affiliates, station groups, production companies, CBS itself and even rival networks. NBC’s full-page ad read “Congratulations to CBS on its 50th Anniversary. And welcome to the club!” .
But where was CBS television?
Les Brown, in an August 25th, 1977 article about the upcoming radio retrospective, reported that CBS-TV was working on a five or six-part anniversary special to shown on consecutive nights, but that it would not be seen until February 1978 at the earliest . At the prodding of William S. Paley himself, in May of 1977 CBS had started work on an elaborate television celebration that would put all other celebrations to shame. Alexander H. Cohen, famed Broadway producer and the man responsible for bringing the Tony Awards to television, was hired as executive producer . Why CBS waited until four months before its 50th anniversary to start preparations for a television special is unknown but the scope of the celebration could explain why it took so long to get on the air.
Rather than relying on a single broadcast, even one as long NBC’s four-and-a-half hour “The First Fifty Years,” CBS opted instead for an extravagant nine-and-a-half-hour, week-long series of specials called “CBS: On The Air – A Celebration of 50 Years.” The intent was to bring together more than 100 network stars, past and present, with Walter Cronkite and Mary Tyler Moore serving as overall hosts, with other stars and personalities stepping into to host nights they were most associated with (i.e. Lucille Ball would host Monday’s special). Cohen’s experience with the Tony Awards did not prepare him for “CBS: On the Air.” He told the Associated Press he wasn’t sure why CBS decided to have someone with his background produce the specials but suggested it might have been an attempt to “avoid a family fight over who would do it” and to “bring a broad-minded over [with] no prejudices” .
Cohen’s wife, Hildy Parks, served as head writer for the specials and also helped develop its creative concept. He explained that she would help viewers understand why certain television genres or programs were popular or critically acclaimed (for example, why Westerns so popular in the 1950s) by placing them in their proper historical context. As for his actual role as executive producer, Cohen called himself “essentially a critic” and a “highly overly paid one at that” .
According to Walter Cronkite, there were internal CBS News discussions regarding his co-hosting duties. He told the Associated Press that he “never had any doubts about the propriety of my appearing on the show. After all, I’ve spent most of my adult life on CBS, so it was only fitting that I would appear” . Cronkite called Mary Tyler Moore “a delight” and said working with her was “great fun.” Not so fun was the hectic schedule Cronkite kept for over a month, flying from New York City to Hollywood on Friday evenings and returning the following Sunday night or Monday morning. He even missed The CBS Evening News once due to a storm on the East Coast .
TV Guide Close Up – March 20th, 1978
Copyright © TV Guide, 1978 
Although CBS attempted to bring together as many of its stars as possible, a few were just unable — or unwilling — to be involved. According to TV Guide, Cher and Amanda Blake were sick and ABC would not let Cloris Leachman participate in a special on another network. And Charlton Heston, supposedly, would not give CBS permission to use his likeness . On Monday, March 13th, 1978 CBS threw itself a birthday party in New York City featuring some 75 minutes worth of footage from “CBS: On the Air” . More than 400 guests attended, including CBS network executives and radio/television stars. Executive producer Cohen was on hand, as was Walter Cronkite, who helped cut a large birthday cake. His co-host, Mary Tyler Moore, appeared via videotape.
“CBS: On The Air” premiered on Sunday, March 26th, 1978 with a two-hour installment airing from 9-11PM. Titled “The Night of 100 Stars,” it opened with a massive gathering of CBS stars, between 115 and 125 of them. In addition to Walter Cronkite and Mary Tyler Moore, Telly Savalas and Jean Stapleton acted as hosts. After an obligatory look at CBS radio broadcasts beginning in 1927, television programs that aired on Sundays were featured. Included were You Are There, Lassie, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and 60 Minutes.
The next five segments were each an hour in length, airing from 10-11PM on weekday evenings. Monday’s segment, “Have a Laugh on Us,” saw George Burns, Lucille Ball, Arthur Godfrey and Bea Arthur joining Mary Tyler Moore to introduce clips from I Love Lucy, The Goldbergs, East Side/West Side, December Bride and Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts.
Tuesday was “Chills and Thrills with a Laugh Chaser,” with Alan Alda, Garry Moore and Phil Silvers featuring You’ll Never Get Rich (aka Sgt. Bilko), the famous edition of Edward R. Murrow’s See It Now critique of Senator McCarthy, along with The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis and M*A*S*H.
TV Guide Advertisement – March 27th, 1978
Copyright © TV Guide, 1978 
On “Dreams Come True” Wednesday, Dick Van Dyke was joined by the “Peanuts” gang for a song-and-dance number. Also co-hosting were Buddy Ebsen, Cicely Tyson and Danny Kaye. Shows featured ranged from The Danny Kaye Show to The Millionaire, from The U.S. Steel Hour to Medical Center.Thursday was “Join the Family,” hosted by Richard Thomas and other cast members from The Waltons. Witness, Playhouse 90, and Hawaii Five-O were jut a few of the programs featured.
Friday was “We’re Getting Personal,” with hosts Lauren Bacall, Eve Arden, Bert Convy, Richard Crenna, Bonnie Franklin, Jim Nabors, Linda Lavin and Mary Tyler Moore. In addition to shows like I Remember Mama and The Twilight Zone, Lauren Bacall hosted a segment on Edward R. Murrow’s Person to Person, including an interview with her husband Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, and Senator John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy.
The special wrapped up on Saturday, April 1st, 1978, with a final two-and-a-half-hour segment airing from 8:30-11PM, titled “A Rootin’, Tootin’, Hootin’ & Hollerin’ Salute to Cowboys and Clowns,” with hosts Carol Burnett, Carroll O’Connor, Art Carney, Isabel Sanford, Tony Randall, Sherman Hemsley alongside Mary Tyler Moore and Walter Cronkite. Westerns, comedies and dramas were the focus, including Gunsmoke, The Jackie Gleason Show, The Defenders, The Frank Sinatra Show and Mission: Impossible. The Saturday segment, and the special as a whole, closed with a final song-and-dance number about spin-offs featuring Mary Tyler Moore, Carroll O’Connor and Danny Thomas followed by an address from CBS chairman William S. Paley.
Overnight ratings for the opening installment of “CBS: On the Air” were not particularly encouraging. Although Nielsen numbers gave the special a 41 share in New York City, topping the other networks, in Los Angeles and Chicago it drew a 34 and 33 share, falling behind ABC in both cities . Nationally, however, the two-hour installment held its own against ABC’s Sunday movie (SST: Disaster in the Sky) and tied with Quincy, M.E. as the 11th most-watched program of the week .
Hosts Mary Tyler Moore and Walter Cronkite
In part due to the strong ratings for the remaining six “CBS: On The Air” specials, CBS won the week of March 27th-April 2nd in the Nielsen ratings, only the third time during the 1977-1978 season it had done so . The six specials averaged a 21.3/37 Nielsen rating, easily winning their time slots (with the exception of Saturday night). Only the Thursday installment cracked the Top Ten, tying for eighth with the season finale of The Waltons, featuring the return of Ellen Corby following a stroke (the cast of The Waltons were the hosts of the Thursday installment) . Five of the six were among the Top 26 programs for the week; the Saturday installment ranked 44th .
The overall success of “CBS: On the Air” lead UPI’s Joan Hanauer — who called the specials “by far the most elaborate and successful network anniversary celebration” — and others to point out how the look back at its past programming helped CBS recapture some of the ratings success of that programming . Like other network anniversary celebrations, “CBS: On the Air” has never repeated nor has it been officially released on any format. However, The Paley Center for Media has more than 40 assets relating to the specials, including complete installments, clip compilations and rough reels (which may be rough cuts or work prints used during production).
In the decades that followed the initial spate of anniversary specials in the mid-to-late 1970s, the networks have each broadcast several additional specials. NBC aired a 60th anniversary special in 1986 and a 75th anniversary special in 2002. ABC had a 40th anniversary special in 1994 and a 50th anniversary special in 2003. And CBS aired two additional fiftieth anniversary specials: “CBS: The First 50 Years” in 1998, focusing solely on CBS television programs since 1948, and “CBS… 50 Years from Television City,” in 2002, celebrating five decades of the production facilities at CBS Television City. Finally, in 2003 came “CBS at 75.” FOX would get into the game in April of 2012 with “FOX’s 25th Anniversary Special.”
Here’s a complete list of network anniversary specials, broken down by network:
“ABC’s Silver Anniversary Celebration” (Sunday, February 5th, 1978)
“ABC’s 40th Anniversary Special” (Saturday, May 21st, 1994)
“ABC’s 50th Anniversary Celebration” (Monday, May 19th, 2003)
“CBS: On The Air – A Celebration of 50 Years: The Night of 100 Stars” (Sunday, March 26th, 1978)
“CBS: On The Air – A Celebration of 50 Years: Have a Laugh on Us” (Monday, March 27th, 1978)
“CBS: On The Air – A Celebration of 50 Years: Chills and Thrills with a Laugh Chaser” (Tuesday, March 28th, 1978)
“CBS: On The Air – A Celebration of 50 Years: Dreams Come True” (Wednesday, March 29th, 1978)
“CBS: On The Air – A Celebration of 50 Years: Join the Family” (Thursday, March 30th, 1978)
“CBS: On The Air – A Celebration of 50 Years: We’re Getting Personal” (Friday, March 31st, 1978)
“CBS: On The Air – A Celebration of 50 Years: A Rootin’, Tootin’, Hootin’ & Hollerin’ Salute to Cowboys and Clowns” (Saturday, April 1st, 1978)
“CBS at 75” (Sunday, November 2nd, 2003)
“The First Fifty Years” (Sunday, November 21st, 1976)
“The First Fifty Years-A Closer Look” (Sunday, October 23rd, 1977)
“The First Fifty Years-A Closer Look (Part II)” (Tuesday, January 31st, 1978)
“NBC 60th Anniversary Celebration” (Monday, May 12th, 1986)
“NBC 75th Anniversary Special” (Sunday, May 5th, 2002)
“FOX’s 25th Anniversary Special” (Sunday, April 22nd, 2012)
The DuMont Television Network never had an anniversary special, nor did UPN or The WB, although the latter did air a five-hour block of pilot episodes titled “The Night of Favorites and Farewells” on Sunday, September 17th, 2006 marking its 11-year history. Right after the special ended, The WB officially ceased to exist, merging with UPN to become The CW (which has yet to broadcast an anniversary special).
2 “NBC Salutes Fifty Years of Broadcasting.” Hartford Courant. 23 May 1976: 7T.
3 “Sunday.” Hartford Courant. 21 Nov. 1976: 6Q.
4 “NBC Is No. 1 In Weekly Ratings.” Hartford Courant. 25 Nov. 1976: 87A.
5 “World Series Helps ABC Keep Top Rating.” Hartford Courant. 26 Oct. 1977: 77.
6 Hanauer, Joan. “ABC shows take eight out of 10.” United Press International. TV WEEK, Eugene Register-Guard [Eugene, OR]. 11 Feb. 1978: 2B.
8 Brown, Les. “CBS Radio to Scan 50 Years.” New York Times. 25 Aug. 1977: 65.
10 [Advertisement]. Broadcasting. 19 Sep. 1977: 2.
11 Brown, Les. “CBS Radio to Scan 50 Years.”
12 Torgerson, Ellen. “A Party That’ll Last All Week.” TV Guide. 25 Mar. 1978: 6-10.
13 Buck, Jerry. “Alex Cohen: An Affable Broadway-Type Producer.” Associated Press. The Robesonian [Lumberton, NC]. 27 Mar. 1978: 3.
15 Thomas, Bob. “Walter Cronkite Takes On A New Role (Temporarily).” Associated Press. Toledo Blade TV Tab. 25 Mar. 1978: 1.
17 Torgerson, Ellen. “A Party That’ll Last All Week.”
18 “Accessories after the fact.” Broadcasting. 20 Mar. 1978: 49.
19 “Carol Burnett Says Goodbye.” United Press International. Sarasota Journal [Sarasota, FL]. 28 Mar. 1978: 1W.
20 Hanauer, Joan. “Once is not enough.” United Press International. Ellensburg Daily Record [Ellensbug, WA]. 29 Mar. 1978: 20.
21 “The good old days of programing for CBS bring in old time ratings, too.” Broadcasting. 10 Apr. 1978: 78.
22 Hanauer, Joan. “How Sweet It Was.” United Press International. The Bryan Times Entertainment Insert [Bryan, OH]. 7 Apr. 1978.
23 “CBS up in rating game.” Associated Press. Kingman Daily Miner [Kingman, AZ]. 5 Apr. 1978: 18.
24 Hanauer, Joan. “How Sweet It Was.”
2 From TV Guide, March 27th, 1978 (?), Page Unknown
Originally Published May 20th, 2007
Last Updated May 25th, 2012