saturday night live barely survived cancellation -- 7/06/18

Today's selection -- from Saturday Night by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad. In the early episodes of its first season, Saturday Night Live's ratings and reviews were poor and the show barely survived cancellation:

"Harriet Van Home of the New York Post ... cit[ed] Saturday Night as a prime example of the moral decay of Western Civilization. 'We live, of course, in an age of anti-prudery,' she wrote. 'That's fine, that's mature, tolerant and at the moment, de rigueur .... But has this new candor produced better entertain­ment, more brilliant performers or a glorious revolution in art? No, it has given us a decade of thoroughly nasty, violent, corrupting movies. It has debased sex, put massage parlors on every Main Street and made the boob tube the lewd tube on Saturday night. ... In our mad rush to liberation, we have meekly accepted the motto of the young and foolish: "Don't make rules." . . . Let us cry "Enough" to the vulgarity that spits in our faces.'' ...

"The [poor] ratings [for the first episodes of Saturday Night Live] were no secret within NBC, and a significant body of opinion at the network held that Saturday Night was turning out to be one of those shows that was a darling of the press and a few fanatical fans, but little more. ...

"One of the skeptics was NBC Research chief Bill Rubens, who com­plained openly that Saturday Night wasn't, as he'd predicted all along, deliver­ing enough viewers to justify its budget. Nor did it seem to have much potential for improvement. In December, Rubens's department finished a re­port on the results of an opinion survey it had conducted on Saturday Night's first few shows. The report found several 'areas of concern' with the program. Viewers, the survey said, found Saturday Night 'terribly disjointed.' It left them feeling 'bombarded by a constant stream of short segments.' Another 'disturbing impression' was that viewers expected more spontaneity from a live show than they were getting from Saturday Night: 'The production should allow for or include the unexpected or ad-lib.' There was 'a rather large nega­tive response' to the [television] commercial parodies. Weekend Update, according to the survey, 'has potential, though not outstanding strength.' The report concluded that 'viewers found the comedy inconsistent, often too slapstick and sometimes in poor taste (mostly to older adults). It is also obvious that some people are having problems adapting to the show and that much of the humor was simply over their heads.' ...

"Another of the NBC skeptics was Don Carswell, who continued to fight in vain against Saturday Night's outlandish spending. Every time Carswell ran into Dick Ebersol in the hallway, he'd complain about the budget. Most of the season was gone and Saturday Night's overages were still averaging $100,000 a show. Carswell would always add a comment about the ratings too. 'Geez, Dick,' he'd say, 'I don't know. Those numbers aren't very impressive.' Cars­well said roughly the same thing to Paul Klein, the man who in March had taken charge of NBC's programming. In a meeting with Carswell soon after he came in, Klein was shown the budget figures for Saturday Night. Carswell strongly suggested, Klein says, that the show be canceled.

"Saturday Night had more than its share of detractors among NBC's affili­ates as well. Standards chief Herminia Traviesas and other executives regularly fielded complaints from station managers around the country who deplored the show's humor. One important affiliate general manager called Travie to say he was taking Saturday Night off his station because too many people were confronting him on the steps of his church each Sunday morning, wanting to know how he could justify putting such filth on the air. The affiliate protest was not of an intensity that by itself threatened the show, mainly because the affiliates were far more concerned that season with NBC's problems in prime time. Nonetheless, part of the reason Saturday Night's ratings were so poor was that only 148 of the network's 219 affiliates carried the show in the beginning, a fairly low 'clearance' rate for a network program. And some stations that had been carrying it dropped it, so that by March, Saturday Night's station lineup had fallen to 144 stations.

"The affiliates' concerns about Saturday Night were shared by many within the upper echelons of NBC's executive hierarchy in New York. Bob Howard, who was the president of the NBC television network at the time, remembers NBC board members asking, repeatedly, 'Are you sure we're not offending too many people with that show?' Howard and others say that Anthony Conrad, the president and chief operating officer of NBC's parent company, RCA, commented on more than one occasion that he did not want Saturday Night to 'mess up my damn network.' Conrad's reservations stemmed in part from his wife, who hated the show and complained to her husband about it regularly.

"NBC chairman Julian Goodman was hearing the same sorts of comments at the elegant parties he attended when the guests gathered around the set to watch Saturday Night.

" 'How can you let this stuff on?' his friends would ask.

" 'Because,' Goodman answered, 'people like you are generally home in bed at this hour.'

"Nor did Saturday Night enjoy any affection from the rank and file at NBC. Most of the middle- and lower-management executives and the studio crews who dealt with the show on a daily basis would have been happy to see it canceled -- they were tired of putting up with the arrogant freaks from 17 and all the headaches they caused."



Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad


Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live


Belch Tree Books, William Morrow


Copyright 2015 by William V. Madison


188, 194-195
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