Chapter 61: Our First Experience With Television
By 1955 television had become the popular craze in the United States.
That year there were some 43 million television sets in the United States. That year the manufacture of television sets hit an all-time peak in the U.S.—7.8 million sets manufactured.
Suddenly we became frightened. Almost in a panic, we decided to make a frantic dash to put The World Tomorrow on television—before radio went completely dead.
Rise of Television
Television has been referred to by the term “one-eyed monster.” Millions of people spend four, six or eight hours a day looking into a television screen.
I first remember radio in about 1920 or 1921. I was still in the advertising business in Chicago, then. But the primitive radio sets of that time that come vaguely, in blurred focus, to my memory were little “wireless” sets heard only through earphones.
My earliest memory of radio, as it is today, however, dates back to 1932. At that time I was advertising manager of a daily newspaper in Astoria, Oregon. It was the very depth of the Great Depression. It had become necessary to trade advertising space for merchandise. Money, as a medium of exchange, was too scarce. I had traded advertising space for a portable radio set. It was rather large in size, for a portable. But it would receive stations from greater distances than any I have ever had since.
When we moved back to Salem, Oregon, in February 1933, and I reentered the ministry, I began, for the first time, to listen to some radio religious broadcasts.
At that time I never even remotely contemplated going on the air myself. But when I heard that time was open on our little local station in Eugene, in October 1933, I seized the opportunity. That led to the broadcasting of The World Tomorrow, starting the first Sunday in 1934.
How suddenly have these inventions sprung up! What a
Even in the year 1930 there were comparatively few radio sets in America. But by 1934, most U.S. homes had radio.
And THAT VERY YEAR that we started on the air—1934—television was invented!
Think of it! Television, so common everywhere today, was not even invented until the very year The World Tomorrow started on radio!
My first memory of television was at radio station knx, the cbs network headquarters in Hollywood, in 1942. The cbs network was giving a rather elementary demonstration of television—still in the experimental stages. It then hoped to be broadcasting television after the end of the war.
We moved into our home in Pasadena in July 1947. There were very few television sets in use then—but television was in operation on the air.
The sets at that time were mostly little 9-inch screens. I bought one because I knew it would be developed and felt I needed to keep abreast of progress. If it became popular like radio, I felt we might need to put the program on television.
At that time there was no network television. There were two local stations in Los Angeles—ktla (still on), and one other, which was then difficult to tune in at our home. The ktla programs were all local programs. There was local wrestling, and other purely local programs.
The big shows, then, were still on radio over the national networks. Actually the image orthicon pickup tube was not developed until 1946 by rca. The first network television, transcontinental, was inaugurated September 4, 1951. By 1952 we were getting several of the so-called big shows, with the top radio talent now on television, coast to coast via the networks.
With the advent of these big-time network shows, television began to sweep the nation. In 1950 there were 74 million television sets in the United States. But the one year of 1955 saw the record production of 7.8 million sets.
We Race to Television
By 1955 the big-name network shows had all left radio for television and were almost monopolizing nighttime entertainment in America. The motion picture business was on the skids. The first of the notorious big-money quiz shows, The $64,000 Question, attracted television audiences above 60 million people.
This, and one other circumstance, conspired to give us the jitters. We had learned that it was the every night, or daily, broadcasting, seven days a week, which proved really effective. We were spending big money, now, on coast-to-coast network radio—Sunday only—one program a week. This once-a-week radio was not producing results commensurate with the daily broadcasting over the superpower stations. At that time we were on superpowerful wls, Chicago, seven times per week. Also on the equally powerful wwva, West Virginia, and we had been for some years broadcasting every night on the superpower Mexican border stations. The mail response from the Sunday ONLY network broadcasting, per dollar spent, was very low by comparison with the daily broadcasting on these superpower stations.
There were two reasons for that. One was the fact of the daily broadcasting—the other the fact that most of the abc stations we were using were comparatively small-powered stations. I had found that a big-powered station, while it may cost two to four times as much, will bring a mail response from 10 to 50 times greater than small stations.
But the main cause of our fears was the fear of television. It seemed that everybody was turning to television. It began to look like radio would soon be a thing of the past.
All these factors caused us to decide to plunge, quickly, into television. I issued advance notice of cancellation of the Sunday network broadcast.
Our advertising agent of that time brought in an associate, who was some kind of production manager at the new Television City plant of cbs, Hollywood. He was engaged as our director-producer.
Today television is using tape for tv recording. But at that time it had to be on film.
Suddenly I found that I was in the movies
So, ‘We’re in the Movies, Now!’
The campus paper, the Portfolio, for April 21, 1955, carried a front-page story about our sudden rush to get on television.
It stated: “The nation is going crazy over television! Millions of viewers are sitting hunched in their tv chairs for many hours each day. They’re forgetting about God’s message—forgetting about the rocking, reeling world they live in—drugging their minds with lethargy.
“And so,” the story continued, “the truth of God will be thundered at them right from their own tv sets!
“Mr. Armstrong announced that the first World Tomorrow program will be seen over channel klor, Portland, Oregon, within a few more weeks.”
Continuing, the campus paper stated: “Planning far in advance, Mr. Armstrong said production will begin within a very few weeks, with other tv stations being added as fast as God provides the way.
“The supreme, all-important turning point has been reached! God’s Work must make a shift from one medium of circulation to another. It will be no easy task.”
And it certainly was no easy task!
The programs would have to be filmed at a Hollywood motion picture studio. There would have to be “sets.” First, under direction of our producers, an artist was engaged to sketch a picture and draw plans for these sets. We decided on two sketches.
First was a sort of stage, with a podium, and a large globe of the world suspended from the ceiling, hanging in the background. This would be emblematic of the World Tomorrow! The second stage setting would be that of a private study with bookcases and an office desk. For this we used the same desk I had used in my office in Eugene, Oregon—and was still using in Pasadena.
For the first set, we transported one of our semi-concert grand Steinway pianos from the college music department.
After receiving and approving the sketches, the sets were constructed in Hollywood. Meanwhile I began work on planning the type of program, and the format.
As we got into production on the first three or four programs, we began to use more and more “film stock”—that is, news events on motion picture film obtained from the nbc film library in New York—to illustrate the speaking message; and after the first few programs, we dropped all singing from the program.
A Lion on the Campus
Our original idea for a format to put the program on the air was to show one or two views of our magnificently landscaped campus, as the announcer’s voice announced “From the beautiful campus of Ambassador College, in Pasadena, California, its president, Herbert W. Armstrong, brings you the real meaning behind today’s world news, with the prophecies of the World Tomorrow!”
Then, as the announcer’s voice moved into the words “with the prophecies of the World Tomorrow,” the scene was to shift to another picture on our grounds, showing a little girl leading a big lion and a little lamb—as a picture of tame animals in tomorrow’s world (Isaiah 11:6-7).
Later we discarded this beginning, too. But we did start out with it.
But how were we going to show an actual motion picture of a big lion, being led by a little girl, and with a lamb alongside? This had to be photographed! And there are no tame lions, today. There will be, tomorrow. But we had no time machine to project ourselves into the future, take motion pictures, and then come back to the year 1955!
Immediately I thought of the famous mgm lion, so often shown in motion pictures. Our producers were able to obtain the use of this lion, for a fee, of course. He was big, powerful looking, kingly. And he was almost tame—almost, but we dared not trust that he was altogether tame!
This lion—a real lion, in the flesh!—was brought by his trainers over to the Ambassador College campus, and allowed to walk out of his cage in his big truck, and onto the grounds in front of Mayfair, one of our girls’ student residences. He surely seemed tame. But his trainer explained that he was neither tired nor altogether tame—he was just lazy!
We had to obtain a permit from the city of Pasadena to have him there.
But, in planning this, we had to decide how we could photograph a helpless lamb beside this big beast, and a little girl leading. We decided not to risk it. Our motion-picture producers said we could do it with trick double-photography.
The producers decided the little girl must be a professional child actress. I think union requirements had something to do with this. They obtained the girl and the lamb. We photographed the lion, coached by his trainer to move slowly toward the camera. Then, after the lion was again safely in his cage, and with the camera securely locked in the same exact position in its tripod, we had the little girl and the lamb walk toward the camera, and a foot or two beside the spot where the lion had walked. Later the film editor blended the two together, so that, when it appeared on the tv screens in broadcast, we had the picture of the little girl leading the ferocious lion and the gentle little lamb.
Yes, we were in the movies, now!
By the time we had the first few telecasts finished, on motion picture film, sound track and all, we managed to obtain time on 12 television stations. So, once again, our organized beginning on television, like so many other beginnings, started out with 12. We didn’t plan it to be 12. It just happened that was the number of stations, coast to coast, in the cities and areas we wanted, which opened to us. Also, by the time we obtained that number, we hit the limit of our budget!
Later we were on 13 stations—adding Hawaii—but we started with 12.
I think I should record, here, something of my personal experience in performing in front of professional motion picture cameras.
Emphatically, I did not take to it as a duck takes to water.
Trying to preach a sermon before a cigarette-smoking Hollywood crew of about 19 people—cameramen, electricians, sound men, script girl, directors, helpers—a full crew, with two television cameras trained on me—well, it proved a nightmare!
Actually, once the bright klieg lights were turned on me, I was almost blinded, and I could see little in front of me except blackness. The powerful lights were shining straight into my face!
On our first day of shooting in the Hollywood studio, we were scheduled to go through three whole programs on the one full day of shooting.
When our announcer, Art Gilmore, announced me, I walked out to the podium. I began to try to talk. I did try! But it was no go! Just before this I had been made nervous and a little irritated by the fact our director brought a makeup man into my dressing room, and announced I had to wear makeup.
“What!” I exclaimed indignantly. “Me wear makeup? Never in a million years!”
“You’ll have to, Mr. Armstrong,” replied the director soothingly. “Everyone does who appears on motion picture film.”
“Let movie actors wear all the false faces and makeup they wish,” I replied defiantly. “But I’m not a movie actor, and I won’t wear makeup.”
“But, Mr. Armstrong,” pursued the director, “this is only to make you look, on the television sets, perfectly natural. Your face won’t look natural, as the cameras show it, unless we do put on makeup. We only do it to make you look as if you did not have anything on your face.”
They simply were not going to start shooting until I gave in. Finally, on promise I could try it later without makeup, I consented to let the makeup man start chalking up my face.
But I was nettled by it. The whole thing was a totally new experience to me. I felt that every one of that television crew in the studio was naturally hostile to what I was going to say. I decided I would talk to them, and challenge them as my skeptics! Finally I did, and found afterward that, far from being hostile, many of them were quite interested in what I had to say. They had never heard anything like it before. But it didn’t happen that day.
A Nerve-Shattering Experience
I made false start after false start. Through the morning I struggled with it. The director tried to help me concentrate and get going. But nothing seemed to help.
During noon hour there was no time to drive back over to Pasadena. The producers had arranged an apartment in a nearby bungalow-hotel for Mrs. Armstrong and me, where she could prepare a lunch that would help quiet my nerves and leave me alert for the afternoon’s work. I had lemon juice, I remember. I also tried to get in a brief nap.
The afternoon was no better. By day’s end, we had shot and wasted a lot of expensive film—out of which the film editor was able afterward to piece together enough usable footage to make the first half-hour telecast. I never did think it was any good—but it brought a huge response from listeners.
I do not now remember details of these events as well as I do those happenings when I was a boy. But it seems to me that we had to engage these movie crews, and the studio, for three straight days at a time.
It was frightfully expensive. We were trying to reduce this production expense by shooting three programs per day. I had to have the first nine programs all ready—in brief notes and other material—before we even started this actual production.
But that first day we salvaged just one program out of a hard and nerve-shattering day’s work. As I remember it, we did a little better the second day—I think we completed two programs, and got to our quota of three on the third day.
High Cost of Television Production
I suppose most of my readers know little or nothing about the cost of producing a half-hour television program. At that time—1955—the average half-hour evening show on any one of the three big networks was costing between $30,000 and $35,000 for production. That means just to put it on film. Then the purchase of station time for broadcasting came extra. That, also, on a major network, averaged about $35,000 for the half hour. Total cost, about $70,000 for each weekly half-hour show. That is what the sponsors of the big shows were spending.
We had estimated that, by shooting three programs per day, we could produce The World Tomorrow for television at around $900 per program. But that was mere wishful thinking. That first program cost over $2,500 to produce. Later we did get production costs down to around $2,000.
Of course the heaviest item of expense on the big entertainment shows is the high fees paid the stars. Many television stars were paid $6,000 for their acting in just one half-hour show. Lesser stars and supporting actors and actresses were paid from $500 to $3,000—depending on how big a name they had. Of course, they go in for very expensive “sets”—with often several sets for a single show.
Perhaps the lowest-cost production of all was a show like The $64,000 Question and similar quiz shows. There were no stars, except the master of ceremonies, and staff members, none of whom drew down the fabulous fees of the big stars.
We had succeeded in obtaining reasonably good times for The World Tomorrow on a number of very fine stations. In New York we were on the abc network station, wabc, Channel 7. The hour was late—11:30 p.m. But that does not seem so late, in New York, as it would be for viewers in Kansas City, where people go to bed earlier. Later we switched to wpix in New York—a station that had a very big viewing audience.
In Chicago we were also on the abc network station, wbkb, Channel 7. Our time there was not so good—9 a.m. Sunday. In Los Angeles we were on ktla, Channel 5, at 10:30 p.m.
It was impossible for our type program to obtain time during the “prime time” hours of 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. But we did obtain the 10:30 p.m. spot on klz, Channel 7, Denver; kovr, Channel 13, San Francisco-Stockton; ktnt, Channel 11, Tacoma-Seattle, Washington; kmbc, Channel 9, Kansas City; kgmb, Honolulu; and kcmc, Channel 6, Texarkana.
We had an even better time, 9:30 p.m., in Portland, Oregon, on klor, Channel 12. Also we were on kprc, Channel 2, Houston, Texas, and on stations in Tyler, Texas, and Hutchinson, Kansas.
Our ratings, as shown by the principal rating agencies, showing approximate size of viewing audiences, were extremely high.
Most religious programs on television were rated, on the regular rating systems, below one point. Ratings were 0.3, 0.7, etc. The best known prime-time big network entertainment shows had ratings averaging in the 20s and 30s. A rating of, say, 32, was excellent and considered well worth $70,000 to the sponsor. It meant approximately 32 million people viewing the program.
Programs like Meet the Press, though probably much more worthwhile, did not have as many listeners as Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Red Skelton and big-time entertainment shows. Even at our late hour, we had a higher rating in some cities than Meet the Press. On stations like Portland, Seattle, and Kansas City, we had ratings of around 10 and 11, indicating 10 to 20 times as many viewers as most religious television programs.
In Kansas City, at the time, the Steve Allen Show, then at the height of its popularity, was shown at 9:30 p.m. and The World Tomorrow at 10:30 p.m.—a much poorer time. Yet we slightly topped it in ratings.
Our mail response was big, considering the number of stations—only 12. It was bigger than from similar radio broadcasts—but television was so much more costly, we felt it had to bring a much heavier mail response to justify its heavier cost. Actually, even with only 12 stations, The World Tomorrow was being viewed by a million or more people—perhaps 2 or 3 million. We were delivering a dynamic message in power to a huge audience, who were not only hearing—but also seeing—for a full half hour.
If I told you the total cost, including the production of the master film (low-cost copies were sent out to each station) and the charge for station time, I suppose some of our readers would think it was excessive extravagance. But it was not!
Stop a moment and figure. If, in 1964 you sent a message to someone on a 4-cent (in the U.S.A.) postal card, you would never have called that extravagance. If you sent a million postal cards to a million people, just figure the cost—$40,000! And that is lowest-cost economy!
As near as I remember, without checking 30-year-old records at our accounting department, we paid about an average of $300 per station for the half-hour broadcast—a total of about $3,600, plus about $2,000 for production cost—total, NOT $40,000, as postal cards would cost, but only $5,600—less than one seventh as much as those small postal cards!