CBS: On The Air – A Celebration of 50 Years

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 in 1978. Never before or since has a TV network gone to such lengths to commemorate and reflect on its history.

The Birth of the Anniversary Special

On Sunday, November 21st, 1976, NBC aired “The First Fifty Years” as an installment of The Big Event. The four-and-a-half-hour special celebrated the 50th anniversary of the National Broadcasting Company. (Formed in 1926 by Radio Corporation of America, NBC officially launched on November 15th, 1926.) Hosts included Milton Berle, Johnny Carson, Angie Dickinson, Gene Kelly, Gregory Peck, Jack Albertson and others. Orson Wells served as narrator [1, 2, 3].

The special covered a variety of topics, from the birth of NBC Radio to daytime soaps to prime time medical shows. It ranked third for week in the Nielsen ratings, helping NBC pull ahead of that network to narrowly win the week [4]. More importantly, the success of “The First Fifty Years” proved to the other networks that anniversary celebrations could draw an audience.

NBC broadcast a second anniversary special (“The First Fifty Years-A Closer Look”) on Sunday, October 23rd, 1977. Once again, it aired as an installment of The Big Event and, once again, Orson Welles served as narrator. Only two-and-a-half hours long, it 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 [5].

The network still wasn’t done. A third special–“The First Fifty Years-A Closer Look (Part II)”–aired on Tuesday, January 31st, 1978. Just 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 [6].

That same week, on Sunday, February 5th, ABC broadcast its own anniversary special. “ABC’s Silver Anniversary” saluted just 25 years of history. (The network traced its birthday to a 1953 merger with United Paramount Theatres.) Dick Clark produced the four-hour special, which gathered over 60 current and former stars, including Henry Winkler, Howard Cosell, John Travolta, Ed Asner, Gabe Kaplan, John Wayne, and Alan King.

“ABC’s Silver Anniversary” ranked fourth for the week [7].

CBS Celebrates Five Decades (But No TV)

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 the network aired [8].

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 didn’t tune in at the beginning to “pick up a reasonable continuity” [9]. 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. It included 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 featured 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!” [10].

But where was CBS television?

A Celebration To End All Celebrations

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 [11]. At the prodding of William S. Paley himself, in May 1977 CBS started work on an elaborate television celebration that would put all other celebrations to shame.

The network hired Alexander H. Cohen, famed Broadway producer and the man responsible for bringing the Tony Awards to television, as executive producer [12]. Why CBS waited until four months before its 50th anniversary to start preparations for a TV special is unknown. Perhaps the scope of the televised celebration explains 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 goal was to bring together more than 100 network stars, past and present, with Walter Cronkite and Mary Tyler Moore serving as overall hosts. Other stars and personalities stepped up to host nights they were associated with. For example, Lucille Ball would host the Monday 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” [13].

Cohen’s wife, Hildy Parks, served as head writer for the specials and also helped develop the overall creative concept. According to Cohen, the objective was to help viewers understand why certain TV genres and programs were popular or critically acclaimed by placing them in their proper historical context. One example: why Westerns were so popular in the 1950s. Cohen referred to himself as “essentially a critic” and a “highly overly paid one at that” [14].

According to Walter Cronkite, there were internal CBS News discussions regarding his co-hosting duties. He told the Associated Press 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” [15]. 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 [16].

TV Guide Close Up
TV Guide Close Up – March 20th, 1978
Copyright © TV Guide, 1978 [1]

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 while ABC refused to allow Cloris Leachman to participate in a special on another network. Supposedly, Charlton Heston declined to give CBS permission to use his likeness [17].

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” [18]. 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 – Night By Night

“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, the focus turned to TV shows that aired on Sundays. 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
TV Guide Advertisement – March 27th, 1978
Copyright © TV Guide, 1978 [2]

On “Dreams Come True” Wednesday, Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang joined Dick Van Dyke 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.

Not A Blockbuster, But Still A Success

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 [19]. 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 [20].

Hosts Mary Tyler Moore and Walter Cronkite
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 [21]. 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, which saw the return of Ellen Corby following a stroke (the cast of The Waltons were the hosts of the Thursday installment) [22].

Five of the six specials were among the Top 26 programs for the week; the Saturday installment ranked 44th [23].

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 [24].

Like other network anniversary celebrations, “CBS: On the Air” has never been 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).

Other Network Celebrations

In the decades that followed the initial spate of anniversary specials in the 1970s, the networks have all broadcast several additional specials. NBC aired a 60th anniversary special in 1986, a 75th anniversary special in 2002, and a 90th anniversary special in 2017. ABC offered a 40th anniversary special in 1994 and a 50th anniversary special in 2003.

As for CBS, it 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 got into the anniversary game in April 2012 with “FOX’s 25th Anniversary Special.”

The DuMont Television Network never had an anniversary special, nor did UPN or The WB. 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. Immediately 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.

Works Cited:
1 Pannone, Olga R. “NBC’s ‘First Fifty Years’ Tonight.” Hartford Courant. 21 Nov. 1976: 5Q.
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.
7 Ibid.
8 Brown, Les. “CBS Radio to Scan 50 Years.” New York Times. 25 Aug. 1977: 65.
9 Ibid.
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.
14 Ibid.
15 Thomas, Bob. “Walter Cronkite Takes On A New Role (Temporarily).” Associated Press. Toledo Blade TV Tab. 25 Mar. 1978: 1.
16 Ibid.
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.”

Image Credits:
1 From TV Guide, March 20th, 1978 (?), Page Unknown
2 From TV Guide, March 27th, 1978 (?), Page Unknown

Originally Published May 20th, 2007
Last Updated April 29th, 2018

20 Replies to “CBS: On The Air – A Celebration of 50 Years”

  1. I missed seeing the entire week of the CBS retrospective because my grandfather, Max Thaler, died on the morning of March 26, 1978. Our family was in mourning for a week- and, as is the custom among bereaved families, our TV set stayed OFF. It wasn’t until recently that I was finally able to see segments of the various “nights” on YouTube…and I’m thankful somebody posted them so I could finally see them. I still miss my grandfather at times…and I also miss what CBS USED to be as well.

  2. I came across your website by looking for more information about CBS on the Air.
    I am copying my old VHS tapes on to DVD and wanted more description of the program. I imagine I have some TV specials on tape that would be of interest to other Audiovideoholics, but I don’t know how to share them. I don’t know what I can legally put on you-tube. Can you help? John

    1. John, I suspect any programs you might have on VHS would be copyrighted and should not be uploaded to YouTube.

      (Of course, that has not stopped hundreds of people from uploading thousands of hours of copyrighted material to YouTube.)

      If you are concerned about the legality of uploading anything, I would suggest erring on the side of caution.

      1. Thank you, Robert.
        Can you tell me how to check if copyright has expired and some material might be in Public Domain?

    2. Jackie Gleason didn’t appear on the special because he wanted to be paid. And “The Lineup” is missing among the series featured on the special, and Warner Anderson and Tom Tully didn’t appear.

      1. They should have honored the soap operas too and for the Saturday segment they should have welcomed the cast of the upcoming new series of the time Dallas

  3. Although the Dumont Network never had an anniversary special, its later flagship station in New York did air a 2 hour anniversary special in early September, 1984 (then WNEW, now WNYW) entitled, “Forty Years of Fine Tuning” which presented some of their programs when the station was the Dumont Network’s New York station WABD, channel 5. The entire special has been uploaded on You Tube in 8 parts. I believe its sister station WTTG in Washington, DC also had an anniversary special but only a short clip of this exists on You Tube.

  4. NBC Is Celebrating Its 90th Anniversary Sometime In 2016. NBC Went On The Air On November 10,1926

  5. I remember that whole week of specials on CBS (I was twelve in 1978) and me and my family watched every night. I also remember that March 26 was Easter Sunday and that the lead in for that night was the annual telecast of “The Wizard of Oz”. And not a month later, the CBS family (and America) lost Will Geer, aka Grandpa Zeb Walton, just after the season finale return of Ellen Corby as Grandma. Like Barry Grauman, I miss the “old” CBS as well as the older folks I enjoyed it with.

  6. On Episode # 1146 of Match Game 7x (which was an episode of Match Game 78), host Gene Rayburn is wearing a tuxedo. In the beginning of the episode, GR explains that CBS Television City is crawling with 120 CBS stars (an oddly specific amount) for the CBS fiftieth anniversary special, which was being taped the same day. Since MG78 tapes five episodes in a day, episodes 1146-1150 were all taped on that same day as the CBS 50th anniversary special.

    Richard Dawson joked that he expected to be called to the appear on the special to commemorate his 6 years on CBS as part of the cast of Hogan’s Heroes.

    1. Mr. Orosz – Thanks for sharing this detail. These cross-connections between television programs are fun. I don’t think that Gene Rayburn was among the “CBS stars” featured in the “roll call of stars” at the very end of the series of 50th anniversary specials because he would have appeared between Dan Rather and Rob Reiner. But Mr. Rayburn probably was featured elsewhere in the 50th anniversary special broadcasts.

  7. I discovered a POSTER (movie poster size) showing 113 celebrities advertising the 1978 CNS: On The Air special. Amazing treasures wait for those who look through their old stuff! Wow! It actually has no YEAR date on it, but shows the March 26 – April1 dates with times to be televised. This poster is probably valuable, since it is 40 years old itself! I framed it today to preserve it. That show was televised EXACTLY 90 years ago this coming week! Incredible find!

  8. Oops! Correction: The TV show was televised 40 years ago. The celebration was for 50 years on the air, so CBS is celebrating 90 years on the air this week.

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