History of the Fall Preview Special
In the early 1960s, CBS began airing fall preview specials to promote its new and returning shows. Within a few years, all three networks were producing fall preview specials nearly every year. Some were offered to affiliates for local use. Others were shown to station managers and sales staff. Fall preview specials still exist today but aren’t as important as they once were.
Selling The New Fall Season
In the late 1940s, when network TV began to really get going, television in many ways sold itself, initially more as a novelty than anything else. Getting viewers to watch particular shows wasn’t a high priority. Just about everything was still experimental to some degree in those days and for most people television was so new that it didn’t always matter what was actually on the air. Still, some shows were more popular than others.
During the 1950s, however, as television became more common and the networks spread across the country, programming become increasingly important. More than half of all households in the United States had a television set by 1955 and the most watched TV shows regularly drew 10-15 million households each week.
As the 1960s began, the vast majority of households in the United States had at least one television set. The Big Three networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) were firmly established and battling each other both annually and on a nightly basis for the attention of viewers and the advertising dollars that came with them. The most popular shows could draw massive audiences and command the highest advertising rates. So it became increasingly important to develop new hit shows. One important factor in creating a hit show was often the amount of promotion involved.
The fall-spring television season dates back to the early days of network radio, when manufacturers spent the summer months designing and testing new radio sets to be offered for sale in the fall. It is also tied to the similar production cycle of the automobile industry, which heavily invested in radio and later television to promote its new models each fall. Just as new radio sets and new car models debuted in the fall, so too did new television sets. And so did new television shows.
To prepare for the premiere of new and returning programs, during the summer and especially during the weeks leading up to the start of the new television season, the networks would unleash elaborate promotional campaigns aimed at convincing viewers to sample their new programs. On air promotion, both network and local, was the most significant factor in the scramble for viewers each fall. Each week, network affiliates would bombarded viewers with hundreds of promotional spots for new as well as returning shows. There were also newspaper and magazine advertisements, merchandising tie-ins, billboards, radio spots, flyers and even promotional tours featuring big name stars.
For decades, print was one of the most widely used methods of advertising by the networks. Newspapers and magazines would be full of advertisements and articles about new shows. Critics were sent press kits and invited to preview screenings of new shows in the hopes they would write glowing reviews and entice viewers to tune in. TV Guide published its first fall preview issue in September 1953, giving readers a look at shows like Make Room for Daddy, Marge and Jeff, Where’s Raymond? and My Favorite Husband. It wasn’t long before viewers were eagerly anticipating the start of a new television season each fall.
The 1950s: Before The Fall Preview Special
The networks weren’t just selling their new shows to viewers, however. They also had to convince affiliates that their fare was better than the competition. The networks needed as many affiliates as possible to agree to air new shows (rather than pre-empt them for local or syndicated programming) in order to reach the highest number of viewers possible. Special preview presentations were fed via closed-circuit to affiliated stations across the country so station personnel could get a look at the new fall schedule. Top network executives were involved, personally pitching plans for upcoming season.
For example, CBS gave primary affiliates a preview of its 1955-1956 season on Thursday, August 25th, 1955 with an hour-long closed-circuit show that included footage from It’s Always Jan, Gunsmoke, You’ll Never Get Rich and Joe & Mabel. Appearances from some stars were planned and Hubbell Robinson, Jr., vice president in charge of programs, would outline the network’s 1955-1956 vision and programming .
Likewise, NBC fed a 90-minute color preview special via closed-circuit television to stations in some 140 cities on Thursday, September 11th, 1958, reaching over 10,000 people . More than 50 network stars appeared, reportedly the largest number ever to perform on a single NBC program . Less than a week later, on Wednesday, September 17th, ABC presented its own hour-long preview via closed-circuit to more than 80 cities .
Fed live to affiliated stations, it is unlikely any of these closed-circuit programs were recorded. These early fall preview programs set the stage for later specials that were aired nationally and aimed at the viewing public.
(Although not a standalone special, NBC used the Sunday, September 22nd, 1957 installment of The Steve Allen Show to introduce the stars of its 1957-1958 season. Broadcast from Hollywood (the show usually originated in New York City), it featured Dennis O’Keefe, Dinah Shore, George Gobel, Peter Lawford, Gisele Mackenzie, John Payne and others. It is unknown whether or not footage from any of NBC’s new shows was included. The hour-long show also featured Allen’s regular comedy routines and sketches.)
The 1960s: The Birth Of The Fall Preview Special
As the competition for viewers grew, the networks began expanding their fall promotional pushes to include standalone fall preview specials that introduced their new programming each fall. Some were aired nationally, like any other network program, occasionally pre-empted by stations but generally available for the entire country to watch. These network specials were also often offered to affiliated stations to repeat locally.
Other specials were offered to affiliated stations by the networks to air locally whenever they saw fit, either in prime time, late at night, or even on the weekends. Because not every affiliated station aired these specials, viewers in some markets may not have had the opportunity to see them. These affiliate specials were also sometimes repeated.
For the 1960-1961 season, NBC created an hour-long set of promotional trailers or previews for both new and returning programs. These may have been intended for affiliate use only and may never have been broadcast. Or they may have been edited by stations and used as promotional spots in the weeks leading up to the start of the new season. Among the shows featured in the trailers were National Velvet, Dan Raven, Bonanza, Thriller, Klondike and The Tab Hunter Show.
The very first true fall preview special may have been a CBS special titled “Seven Wonderful Nights” that promoted the network’s new shows for the 1961-1962 season, including Window on Main Street, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mrs. G. Goes to College and The Bob Cummings Show. It did not have a single host. Instead, seven CBS stars — Andy Griffith, Garry Moore, Sebastian Cabot, Bob Cummings, Rod Serling, Raymond Burr and Ed Sullivan — introduced viewers to the new CBS programming while wandering around an elaborate CBS Fair set complete with rides, sideshow attractions and plenty of balloons.
There is evidence suggesting that CBS broadcast “Seven Wonderful Nights” nationally on Friday, September 15th, 1961 from 9:30-10PM. It may have also been offered only as an affiliate special, aired at different times on CBS stations across the country in mid-September.
For the 1962-1963 season, CBS reused its “Seven Wonderful Nights” theme for a half-hour affiliate special hosted by Jack Webb. In it, he previewed new shows like The Lucy Show, The Beverly Hillbillies , Fair Exchange, and The Nurses. Some stations aired it as many as three times between late August and early September 1962.
CBS offered “The Stars Address,” another half-hour affiliate special previewing the 1963-1964 season, with Lucille Ball, Vivian Vance, Alfred Hitchcock, Walter Cronkite, and others. It wasn’t until the 1964-1965 season that the network aired another network special, this one hosted by Buddy Ebson and again titled “Seven Wonderful Nights.”
The first ABC fall preview special known to have been aired either nationally or offered as an affiliate special was its 1964-1965 special called “The Year of the Week,” hosted by Bing Crosby. An installment of ABC’s Wide World of Entertainment, the network special aired on Sunday, September 13th, 1964 from 9-10PM. Some of the new shows previewed included The Bing Crosby Show, Broadside, Mickey, Bewitched, The Addams Family, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
Among the stars featured were John Astin, Ernest Borgnine, Patty Duke, Tony Franciosa, David Janssen, Elizabeth Montgomery, Mickey Rooney and Inger Stevens. In addition to clips from various new and returning shows, the special also included at least six songs, including one featuring Crosby, Rooney and Janssen (“Style”) and another featuring Crosby, Rooney, Francisoa, Sammy Jackson, Richard Basehart and David Hedison (“Play a Simple Melody”).
Copyright © TV Guide, 1964 
NBC was a relative latecomer to the fall preview special, not airing its first until the 1965-1966 schedule. Hosted by Don Adams in character as Maxwell Smart, the half-hour network special was titled “A Secret Agent’s Dilemma, or a Clear Case of Mind Over Mata Hari” and aired from 7-7:30PM on Monday, September 6th, 1965. Smart spent the entire half-hour stuck in a closet, introducing viewers to the network’s 15 new fall shows. Included, of course, was Get Smart as well as shows like My Mother the Car, The Wackiest Ship in the Army, I Spy, Camp Runamuck, and Mona McCluskey.
For Affiliates’ Eyes Only
Even as the networks were venturing into producing fall preview specials intended for the public, they were also still preparing fall preview specials to be shown only to their affiliated stations. All of the networks held annual affiliate meetings, typically prior to the start of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention each year in late March or early April. In addition to affiliated station personnel, advertisers and advertising agencies would also be in attendance as network brass officially unveiled the new fall schedule.
At some of these meetings, the networks screened promotional films produced by their respective promotion departments. Others may have been shown to promotional managers from affiliated stations at meetings held later in the summer. Because these specials were put together relatively early, they sometimes featured footage from pilot episodes that were heavily revised prior to being or were never broadcast at all.
For example, ABC produced a promotional film for the 1963-1964 season called “What’s New?” with music performed by Edie Adams. The following year, the network screened a promotional film called “The Year of the Week” to promote its 1964-1965 season. That was the same year that the network broadcast an installment of ABC’s Wide World of Entertainment previewing its new season, meaning ABC produced one special to show affiliates and another for viewers.
Perhaps the most famous promotional film was ABC’s “7 Nights to Remember” promoting its 1966-1967 schedule. Hosted by Adam West and Burt Ward in character as Batman and Robin, the promotional film saw the Dynamic Duo attempting to track down a missing show from ABC’s new season. Shows previewed included The Rat Patrol, That Girl, Love on a Rooftop, and The Tammy Grimes Show.
“7 Nights to Remember” previewed two new ABC shows that would change names before September. Wild Country (Wednesdays at 8PM) was renamed The Monroes. Likewise, Men Against Evil was renamed Felony Squad. No actual footage from the latter series was included in the promotional film due to the fact that the series was undergoing drastic retooling.
Saturday Morning Fall Preview Specials
In the late 1960s, the networks also began airing fall preview specials focusing solely on their Saturday morning programming. One of the first was an hour-long NBC special called “The Banana Splits and Friends” that previewed the network’s 1969-1970 Saturday morning line-up. It aired on Saturday, August 30th, 1969 from 10:30-11:30AM in the time slot usually held by The Banana Splits Adventure Hour. Included were sneak peeks of new shows like H.R. Pufnstuf, Here Comes the Grump, and The Pink Panther Show.
Not to be outdone, CBS aired “The Funtastic Show,” a half-hour preview of its Saturday morning line-up for the 1969-1970 in prime time. Hosted by Sebastian Cabot, Johnnie Whitaker, and Anissa Jones from Family Affair, it aired from 7:30-8PM on Sunday, September 7th. New shows being previewed included Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! and The Perils of Penelope Pitstop.
The first ABC Satuday morning preview special may have been “The Brady Bunch Visits ABC,” which previewed the network’s 1971-1972 fare. It aired in prime time on Friday, September 10th, 1971 from 7:30-8PM. The new shows that year were Jackson 5ive and The Funky Phantom.
The DuMont Television Network, in operation from 1946 to 1956, is not known to have broadcast any fall preview specials. None of the newer networks – FOX, UPN, The WB, The CW — embraced fall preview specials the way the Big Three had, likely because most of them debuted with limited schedules, making fall preview special unnecessary.
When FOX launched in prime time in April 1987, it was programming just one night a week. Its first preview special is believed to have aired on Wednesday, July 18th, 1990 from 9:52-10PM following FOX’s Wednesday night movie Revenge of the Nerds. Whether the special previewed the network’s new fall programming for the 1990-1991 season (including Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, Good Grief, and Beverly Hills, 90210) or its short-lived Wednesday summer line-up (Molloy, Busted Pilot, and Glory Days) is unknown.
The WB and UPN, both now defunct, debuted within a week of one another in January 1995. The WB, which launched first, wouldn’t air its first fall preview special until September 2001. “The WB Sneak Peek Special” was hosted by Reagan Dale Neis, Kat Dennings and JoAnna Garcia and aired on Friday, September 21st from 8:30-9PM. It previewed the network’s new 2001-2002 shows, including Smallville, Maybe It’s Me, Reba, and Off Centre.
UPN’s first fall preview special came much earlier than The WB’s. “It’s Hot in Here: UPN’s Fall Preview Special” aired Tuesday, August 20th, 1996 from 8:30-PM. Hosts Brandy and Malcolm-Jamal Warner previewed the network’s new and returning shows, including Malcolm & Eddie, Homeboys in Outer Space, and Goode Behavior.
In 2006, The WB and UPN folded and merged into The CW, which offered affiliated stations a half-hour “CW Premiere Special” to air in late August and early September 2006. Hosted by Tracee Ellis Ross and Jared Padalecki, the special previewed the new network’s first schedule, which included just one new show, a drama called Runaway. The network also broadcast a pair of hour-long specials sponsored by Entertainment Weekly. The first, “ET Presents the CW: Launch of a New Network,” aired from 9-10PM on Monday, September 28th while the second, “ET Presents the CW Launch Party,” was broadcast on Tuesdday, Spetember 29th from 9-10PM.
Former affiliates of The WB and UPN that didn’t affiliate with The CW joined to form another new network, MyNetworkTV, that would offer two telanovelas in 13-week cycles, with new episodes airing Monday through Friday. The network aired half-hour previews of the first two telanovelas — Desire and Fashion House — as well as an hour-long “MyNetworkTV Premiere Special” from 8-10PM on Monday, September 4th, 2006.
Fall Preview Specials Today
The Big Three continued to air fall preview special — both network and affiliate version — more or less continuously since they were introduced in the early 1960s. Not every network aired a special every season, however.
Since the early 2000s, CBS has been the only network to regularly offer a network fall preview special. Affiliate specials are far more common.
2 “NBC-TV Closed-Circuit Showscases Fall Season.” Broadcasting. 15 Sep. 1958: 40.
3 “NBC-TV Closed-Circuit Showscases Fall Season.” 43.
4 “ABC-TV Previews Expanded Bill.” Broadcasting. 22 Sep. 1958: 43.
5 “A.B.C. Filling TV Fall Schedule; ‘Playhouse 90’ Casts Kim Hunter.” New York Times. 30 Aug. 1957: 37.
Some of the information on fall preview specials in this article was contributed by Barry I. Grauman, “Dumont,” and “writerpatrick.”
Originally March 21st, 2004
Last Updated April 22nd, 2018