CBS Playhouse

CBS hoped to recapture the glory of the Golden Age of Television with this dramatic anthology series. Scheduled intermittently, with a handful of installments airing each year, it earned decent ratings throughout the late 1960s.

CBS Playhouse wasn’t a regularly scheduled weekly television program but rather a series of irregularly scheduled dramas — or “plays for television” — broadcast between January 1967 and February 1970. CBS announced the CBS Playhouse in June 1966. The New York Times reported that the network planned to spend up to $500,000 to “encourage authors to write original and significant dramas for television,” with up to $25,000 paid for commissioned scripts [1]. John T. Reynolds, CBS president, explained that “once a writer’s work is commissioned by the program department, he will receive payment without restriction on the length of his drama, and without any time limitation on the completion of the final script. We will fit our schedule to the writer’s schedule” [2].

Michael H. Dann, CBS vice president of programming, stated that the network was actively seeking both new scriptwriters as well as those who had left the medium. Fred Coe, Herbert Brodkin, George Schaefer and Worthington Minor had been approached to producer while Barbara Schultz would serve as executive story editor [3]. Scriptwriters responded positively to the announcement. Said Paddy Chayefsky, “I couldn’t be more delighted by the C.B.S. announcement. I’ve got about nine ideas and I’d like to try them if I can avoid all the nonsense of ratings and pressures by networks, sponsors and packagers” [4].

CBS wasn’t the only network planning to revive the original television drama. ABC had earlier announced a regularly scheduled series for the 1966-1967 season called Stage ’67 while NBC had a variety of dramas in the works. In August, Michael Dann revealed that Herbert Brodkin, Fred Coe, Martin Manulis and George Schaefer had signed on as producers for CBS Playhouse, with each contracted for a single episode [5]. Reginald Rose was the first scriptwriter attached to the project, receiving $25,000 for a script titled “Dear Friends.” Said Rose, “It’s like old times. And I’m told by C.B.S. that I will have absolute freedom in writing what I want and also in the playing time. Mike Dann said it could be an hour, an hour and a half, an hour and 42 minutes or two hours” [6].

Aaron Copland was commissioned by compose a one-minute theme for CBS Playhouse, his first work for television [7]. In October 1966, Val Adams wrote an article in The New York Times questioning when CBS Playhouse would debut on television, reporting that the series would likely premiere in early 1967 and that 13 scripts had been commissioned, including works from Peter Shaffer, Luther Whitsitt and Ronald Ribman. Adams also provided a list of other writers “official at work” on the series: Reginald Rose, Ernest Kinoy, Ellen Violett, Adrian Spies, Loring Mandel, Robert Crean, Roger O. Hirson, Jan Hartman, Mario Fartti, Anthony Terpiloff [8].

In November, CBS officially announced that CBS Playhouse would premiere in February 1967, with Ronald Ribman’s “The Final War of Olly Winters,” about “a Negro Army sergeant serving as a United States military adviser in South Vietnam in 1963 before this country committed troops to combat” [9]. It ultimately aired on January 29th, 1967. Critical response was ecstatic. CBS took out a full page advertisement in The New York Times that included quotes from ten newspapers, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Cleveland Press, The New York Post and The Baltimore Sun; the advertisement noted that 30 million viewers watched the play [10].

In early February, the General Telephone & Electronics Corporation agreed to spend $2 million to sponsor four additional installments of CBS Playhouse during the 1967-1968 season, the first of which, Loring Mandel’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Night,” would star Fredric March and his wife Florence Eldridge. Commercials would probably be limited to just two breaks per hour; “The Final War of Olly Winter” had featured several minute-long commercials from a variety of advertisers [11].

March and Eldridge were forced to pull out of the play due to March’s health; they were replaced by Melvyn Douglas and Shirley Booth [12]. In August, The New York Times reported that the October 17th premiere of CBS Playhouse would run without commercial breaks, featuring a 5-6 minute commercial at the start of the program and, depending on running time, an additional 3-minute commercial at the end [13]. The broadcast garnered a 17.3 Nielsen rating, placing it outside the Top 25 for the week, but not by that much (two programs tied for 25th with 19.9 Nielsen ratings) [14].

Three other episodes of CBS Playhouse were broadcast during the 1967-1968 season: “Dear Friends” (Reginald Rose; December 6th, 1967), “My Father and Mother” (Robert Crean; February 13th, 1968) and “Secrets” (Tad Mosel; May 5th, 1968). General Telephone renewed its sponsorship of the series in March [15].

The first broadcast of the 1968-1969 season, J.P. Miller’s “The People Next Door” on October 15th, 1968, ranked 20th for the week with a 20.8 Nielsen rating [16]. The other three episodes broadcast during the 1968-1969 season included “Saturday Adoption” (Ron Cowen; December 4th, 1968), “The Experiment” (Ellen Violett; February 25th, 1969) and “Shadow Game” (Loring Mandel; May 7th, 1969). General Telephone once again renewed its sponsorship of the series in June 1969 [17].

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During the 1969-1970 season only three episodes were produced: “Appalachian Autumn” (Earl Hamner Jr.; October 7th, 1969), “Sadbird” (George Bellak; December 1st, 1969) and “The Day Before Sunday” (Robert Crean; February 10th, 1970). In May of 1970, The New York Times reported that CBS Playhouse had lost General Telephone as sponsor and would have fewer productions during the 1970-1971 season [18].

In June 1970, Michael Dann resigned as senior vice president of programming for CBS (taking a 75% pay cut, he went to work for the Children’s Television Workshop, responsible for Sesame Street) [19]. His departure may have played a part in the decision not to continue CBS Playhouse. In February 1972, a new irregularly scheduled dramatic series had its debut on the network: CBS Playhouse 90. The title combined CBS Playhouse with the venerable Playhouse 90 that had run on CBS from from 1956 to 1960.

Works Cited:
1 Gent, George. “C.B.S. Seeks Out Original Dramas.” New York Times. 22 Jun. 1996: 95.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Adams, Val. “Writers Laud C.B.S. Plan for Serious TV Plays.” New York Times. 23 Jun. 1966: 58.
5 Gent, George. “4 Top Producers Signed by C.B.S. For Drama Series.” New York Times. 3 Aug. 1966: 75.
6 Adams, Val. “C.B.S. To Get Play By Reginald Rose.” New York Times. 9 Aug. 1966: 75.
7 Adams, Val. “Copland Composing for TV.” New York Times. 28 Aug. 1966: 115.
8 Adams, Val. “Where’s ‘CBS Playhouse?’.” New York Times. 23 Oct. 1966: X19.
9 Adams, Val. “‘C.B.S. Playhouse’ Due in February.” New York Times. 4 Nov. 1966: 79.
10 [Advertisement]. New York Times. 1 Feb. 1967: 78.
11 Adams, Val. “$2-Million to Buy 4 Plays on C.B.S.” New York Times. 6 Feb. 1967: 47.
12 “Frederic March Out of Hospital.” New York Times. Associated Press. 29 Apr. 1967: 25.
13 Dallos, Robert E. “C.B.S. To Do Play Unbroken By Ads.” New York Times. 15 Aug. 1967: 79.
14 “Network axes sharpen.” Broadcasting. 6 Nov. 1967: 41-42.
15 Gent, George. “Outlook Is Bright For Plays On TV.” New York Times. 15 Mar. 1968: 79.
16 “NBC-TV rated No. 1 again by Nielsen.” Broadcasting. 4 Nov. 1968: 63-64.
17 “‘C.B.S. Playhouse’ Wins Back Sponsor.” New York Times. 27 Jul. 1969: 75.
18 Gent, George. “TV Drama Faces Cutback in Fall.” New York Times. 22 May 1970: 61.
19 Gould, Jack. “Dann Quits C.B.S. for Public TV.” New York Times. 22 Jun. 1970: 63.

Originally Published June 24th, 2010
Last Updated May 17th, 2018

10 Replies to “CBS Playhouse”

  1. ‘CBS Playhouse’ seemed to rate pretty well for an anthology drama series, and I’m surprised that CBS let it slip beneath the waves. It must have been the expense was too great. They broadcast some extraordinary dramas over those few seasons, and it is so sad that ‘Theatre’-type drama specials like these have completely disappeared from broadcast television.

    There was another one from the same era monikered ‘Prudential on Stage’ that aired on the NBC network that also produced some outstanding dramas that garnered a few Emmys. I cannot why that one ended either, though I suppose Prudential might have withdrawn their sponsorship of the series for cost or other reasons.

    I found some ‘CBS Playhouse’ have ratings for the second season (still trying to locate where I filed the first and third season numbers):

    “The People Next Door” (OAD: October 15th, 1968) -> 20.8HH/36%

    “The Experiment” (OAD: February 25th, 1969) -> 17.9HH/31% (encored May 25, 1968: 17.9HH/31%)

    “Saturday Adoption” (OAD: December 4th, 1968) -> 15.3HH/27%

    “Shadow Game” (OAD: May 7th, 1969) -> 18.4HH/36%

  2. The original weekly “PLAYHOUSE 90”, the last of the notable live anthology series, ended after four seasons (as a “floating series” of specials) in May 1960 because James T. Aubrey, “The Smiling Cobra” of CBS [as well as its president and chief programmer], decided his network could do without such “prestigious” dramas, insisting viewers wanted the same thing every week: half-hour comedies and half-hour and hour-long Westerns, cop shows, and “action-adventure” series. The ratings and revenue he brought to the network between 1959 and ’64 for those kind of shows proved him correct- but producers like David Susskind cursed him for his attitude. Fortunately, Aubrey couldn’t touch ‘THE UNITED STATES STEEL HOUR” and “ARMSTRONG CIRCLE THEATER”, which aired alternately on Wednesday nights, because they were still popular, and their sponsors were willing to pay for their live {and taped} anthologies. However, even they knew when it was time to end them, mostly due to skyrocketing costs for advertising and air time charges- which they finally did in 1963. “THE DANNY KAYE SHOW” (in which Danny conducted a more sophisticated version of Sid Caesar’s variety hour of the ’50s) replaced them.

    After Aubrey was fired from the network in early 1965, John T. Reynolds, his successor, had a different attutude: a meaningful dramatic anthology COULD have a place on CBS’schedule…only not every week, as there were no “big ticket” advertisers willing to sustain a weekly anthology. What he did was basically revive the “PLAYHOUSE 90” franchise under a new title, and favored videotape to make it more “cost-effective” to advertisers (including GTE, who knew “prestiege” when they saw it). Mike Dann shared Reynolds’ attitude, but when he left CBS in 1970, Fred Silverman, as chief programmer, leaned more towards Aubrey’s position: weekly “bread and butter” shows were what more viewers wanted to see. And after the unfortunate incident involving Joseph Papp’s production of “Sticks and Bones” in 1973 {which caused him to tear up his contract with the network over their failure to schedule it because of military personnel returning from Vietnam- apparently, the network didn’t want to offend the Nixon administration by airing David Rabe’s drama about a Vietnam vet who’s rejected by his family and dies at their hands by the end of the story}, there were hardly any dramas along the lines of “CBS PLAYHOUSE” at all. A revival of the format, using filmed dramas, briefly aired in the ’90s, along with two live presentaions- “On Golden Pond” with Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer and “Fail-Safe” with George Clooney- around the turn of the millenium…unfortunately, current programmer Les Moonves shares James Aubrey’s dictum: weekly programs are what the network makes the most money and ratings from [especially when they own and distribute most of them]. And except for the occasional “HALLMARK HALL OF FAME” special (now mostly filmed offerings with “sentimental values” up front), the network has no room for even an occasional “prestiege” drama these days.

  3. CBS did a one-off with William Shatner in the winter of 78-where he replicated BF Skinner’s Harvard experiment about people following orders. I can’t remember the name of it, but I remember watching it as part of a psychology class my junior year in high school (83-84)-I was never so scared or mad in my life after seeing that. Does anyone have a title or info on this…

    1. The telefilm was called The Tenth Level and was broadcast on August 26th, 1976. CBS initially had it scheduled for a December 1975 airdate but pulled it, then rescheduled it again for April 1976 only to pull it again.

      1. RGJ,

        Thanks for the title-I do remember that now. But, are you positive that it wasn’t repeated in the winter of 78-because I remember seeing the tail end of a “Hot Ones” promo (the CBS campaign for 77-78), plus a commercial for Gillette Cricket lighters-where Marilyn Michaels did a dead-on Marilyn Monroe impersonation

      2. Troy, I am not 100% positive that it was not repeated but could not find any mention of it in television listings for 1978.

  4. THE TENTH LEVEL broadcast on Aug.26/1978 garnered a 13.2HH/25% rating and it was not repeated in primetime nor on ‘The CBS Late Movie’.

  5. The Tenth Level was not based on an experiment by B.F. Skinner but on one conducted by a psychologist named Daniel Milgram. It was described in detail in a once very famous book called Obedience To Authority.

    The Private War of Ollie Winters was one of the best things ever put on television, as was The People Next Door. Not Surprisingly, like other fine TV Dramas from he late nineteen sixties, (The Andersonville Trial, The Crucible, several superb Hallmarks, it is absolutely impossible to find on DVD..

  6. For some reason I recall promos of “Do Not Go Gentle into That Night” airing during the late summer/early fall of 1967, but I had no memory of who was in it. Good work.

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