Friday, September 16, 2016

Bing Crosby and the Business of Transcriptions

For collectors of old-time radio, the common complaint is that many radio broadcasts were never recorded and therefore cannot be heard and enjoyed today. For historians who know better, we can thanks Bing Crosby for giving us so much to listen to. Radio broadcasts of the 1930s and 1940s aired live and was at that time considered a "throw away medium" -- broadcast today, scripts were tossed into a box and hours later the script writer was hard at work on the next episode. No one thought about preserving the radio broadcasts via recording and since someone had to foot the bill, unless their was a practical reason the network and sponsor never took time to pay a company to record them. During the 1940s, as a result of a rising trend in technology, many of the top-rated radio personalities wanted to pre-record their radio broadcasts for convenience of a busy schedule. By 1945 there was high pressure and stormy implications brewing for the major networks and of all radio personalities, Bing Crosby was the big barometric push… the preamble of a condition long plaguing the big chains – that of playing a transcription disc across the nation through network feed. 

In 1945, executives at the Mutual Broadcasting System publicly stated they were welcome to the proposal and insisted that within two years taping radio programs in advance would become the standard. ABC granted permission dependent on certain time slots. NBC and CBS, however, had strict policies avoiding the use of transcriptions. Top-rated radio performers longed to record their programs in advance, at a convenient time, rather than perform “live” to the masses… strongly campaigning for the privilege. And it was this fallacy that NBC was short-sighted… costing them a number of their top-rated comedians… including Jack Benny.

It was in the summer of 1945 that relations between Bing Crosby and Kraft Foods was in a state of flux, with the strong possibility that the crooner would not return to the radio mike for the next season. Crosby’s contract with the J. Walter Thompson agency ran through 1946; his contract with Kraft had another five years to realize. When Crosby and his attorney met in Chicago with Willard F. Lochridge, vice president of Thompson, in August of 1945, the singer explained he received flattering offers from potential sponsors and Lochridge was instructed to inform executives at Kraft that he would remain with the cheese outfit only under the terms of a re-negotiated contract -- which included recording the programs in advance. General Motors made a firm offer to sponsor Crosby, broadcast over the Mutual network, via wire recorder. That meant Crosby could make as many as eight or ten radio broadcasts in a single week, thereby allowing him the freedom he wanted for many weeks following. Crosby liked the idea so well he approached NBC with the option of recording the broadcasts in advance on platters. NBC gave a firm no.

The Kraft contract was unusual because it contained a “happiness” clause, which meant Crosby could not be forced to broadcast if he was unhappy about the terms of the contract. His financial advisors assured crooner that if he dropped off radio entirely, he would be losing only $1.50 a week, taxes being what they were. Crosby made his fortune through investments nevertheless his star status and draw appeal was an influence on his business ventures and staying in the radio spotlight was essential to long-term security.

In September, there was an attempt to arrive at an amicable agreement on disputed points in Crosby’s contract. Lawyers in Chicago grappled with the contract problem for a couple of weeks but long discussions ended in the decision to submit Kraft’s latest proposal to Crosby through the offices of the top two executives. Upon learning of the possibility that Crosby might drop Kraft, top radio bankrollers were ordering executives at New York ad agencies to “get Crosby or else.” Everett Crosby, Bing’s brother and agent, handled most of the negotiations, assuring Lochridge that other offers were on the table and some were appealing. Lochridge, when grilled by reporters, claimed “Bing is just tired and wants to take a long rest. There is no contract dispute and he is apparently contented with other phases of his association with Kraft and Thompson.” With five years on the contract, Kraft was unwilling to release Crosby for another sponsor.

“They know Bing’s weakness is canned broadcast so that he isn’t tied down every week and it’s on that promise from which the big pitch is being made,” Jack Hellman reported in Variety. “If it’s open season on Crosby, what’s to prevent Bob Hope, Jim and Marian Jordan, Jack Benny and a few other top-holers from becoming fair game?”

Everett Crosby, meanwhile, asserted that the Kraft contract expired last July, under California law, which placed a seven-year limit on the term of any employment contract. The Thompson agency would not recognize the California law, insisting Crosby was tied to Kraft until 1950.

The stalemate lingered for months, with Kraft in early December making the following public statement, through the J. Walter Thompson Agency, which could be interpreted as a legal threat against any company seeking Crosby as a new client: “Bing Crosby’s sponsor is not trying to force [him] to return to the air, but is rumored to wonder how any other firm could contemplate having Bing for radio in view of his present long-term contract. Legal action is entirely possible under the contract which runs until 1950.”

On January 3, 1946, the Kraft Food Co. filed a suit for declaratory judgment and injunction. On January 2, Crosby was asked to resume with Kraft Music Hall on January 3, the start of a new cycle, and when Crosby flatly refused, court action was initiated.

In a statement issued by Kraft: “The contract originated in 1937 provided for Bing’s radio services during that year with options to Kraft to renew the contract each year into 1950. We have exercised these options to date and have notified Bing of our exercise of the option for 1946. However, Bing claims that there is no longer any agreement enforceable against him, and Kraft has filed this suit in order that the court can determine whether these contracts are still binding and enforceable.”

On January 22, Bing Crosby and Kraft kissed and made up. Crosby would complete the season at the request of the sponsor. Kraft would then give him his release, satisfied with a moral victory.

In March, Procter & Gamble offered Crosby a transcription deal at $22,500 a week if he whipped out his fountain pen. The Mutual Broadcasting System had the firm offer typed on paper, ready and waiting. In May, ABC offered Crosby a stock deal, making him a partner in the network… also offering him a transcription deal.

Transcription business and recording studios were looking forward to halcyon days – and by many account they all depended on Bing Crosby. Where the crooner goes, thus goes the trade, was the belief. Crosby definitely wanted a platter program and he got it. On Thursday, August 15, 1946, Philco and Crosby signed a contract, closing the deal, which would send his voice over 600 stations weekly. The package price for the series was $30,000 a week, with the stipulation that in the event the Hooper rating fell below 12, the series would revert to live broadcasting. (Crosby would snare 24 on his premiere broadcast.) Philco originally wanted five seasons; Everett Crosby negotiated the compromise to a three-year contract. Crosby would get an additional $40,000 per week from 400 independent radio stations for the rights to broadcast the 30-minute show, which was sent to them on three 15-inch lacquer/aluminum discs that played ten minutes per side at 33 and 1/3 rpm.

In mid-October, network fears of the threat of transcribed shows were stressed when several gags about Bing Crosby’s transcribed show, which were to have been used on Rudy Vallee’s live layout for NBC on the evening of October 22, were blue-penciled by NBC brass shortly before the show went on the air. The network’s action brought cracks to the effect that “it’s about time” from trade columnists, who wondered what happened to NBC’s ban on cross references following jokes on the Jack Benny, Bob Hope and Ed Gardner programs also about Crosby being transcribed.

Despite the ban on Crosby jokes on Rudy Vallee’s program, Bob Hope came through for his sidekick via ad-libs on his New York-originated show the same evening, also on NBC, in which he plugged Crosby in an exchange with guest Clifton Fadiman – to give further credence to the fact that the names were hot to follow Crosby’s lead in going plattered. Crosby, meanwhile, tucked six disc shows under his belt and went off on a hunting trip at his ranch in Elko, Nevada, with Jimmy Demaret and Ben Hogan, pro golfers. Crosby would not have had to make additional transcriptions for more than a month. Legend has it that Crosby wanted to record productions in advance so he could devote more time to golf. In reality, he visited a hospital twice during his strike with Kraft Foods as a result of exhaustion. Network executives couldn’t understand how it was so fatiguing to work seven days a week with writers conferences, rehearsals, agency executives and radio studios. Meanwhile, Benny, Hope and Gardner had to continue working week after week, live at the studios.

Two years after Crosby began transcribing his programs in advance, the June 9, 1948, issue of Variety reported that Bing Crosby “has disproved network arguments that transcriptions aren’t as good as live shows. Tape has in the past year completely altered not only the operation on top ABC shows, but has changed the thinking of the entire industry regarding recorded programs.”

Flash forward to 1948. Jack Benny and Amos and Andy made the switch to CBS. This was the start of what has become the notorious talent raids. Sure, CBS threw big money at the comedians and literally owned the actors who were forbidden henceforth to appear on NBC or ABC without permission -- they practically became CBS property. But the deal breaker in those negotiations was not the cash aspect... it was permission to record the programs in advance in the same manner as Bing Crosby. According to one source, Jack Benny shook hands with William S. Paley and told him, "You have me."

It wouldn’t be until February 3, 1949, that NBC made it official that taped or pre-recorded programs would be permitted on the network. By then, however, it was too late and NBC lost a dozen of their top rated radio personalities. The network’s long-standing policy against recorded programs was revived “as a further step towards promoting program flexibility and improving service to listeners,” quoted Ken Dyke, administrative vice president in charge of programs. The procedure would be followed only where talent, advertiser, agency and network agreed that the show would be improved by use of the transcriptions. Ampex tape machines were installed at NBC and it was theorized by many in the industry that most of the network programs would be transcribed before the season ended.* CBS would soon announce a similar policy on recordings since the acquisition of Bing Crosby, whose shows had been taped in advance on ABC, but this was a "public trade release" and CBS was already transcribing their programs for the benefit of their top-rated clients.

* Al Jolson got the first crack at tape-recording an NBC show, the first to get the Ampex treatment, for his March 10 broadcast of The Kraft Music Hall.

Crosby fulfilled this three-year commitment to Philco and ABC, accepting a lucrative offer with CBS under sponsorship with Chesterfield, beginning in September of 1949. Seeking better quality through recording, including being able to eliminate mistakes and control the timing of his show performances, the singer used the latest and best sound equipment and arranged the microphones his way; the logistics of microphone placement had been a debated issue in every recording studio since the beginning of the electrical era. Using his own Bing Crosby Enterprises to produce the show, the investment allowed Crosby to make even more money by finding a loophole whereby the IRS couldn’t tax him at a 77 percent rate.

The latest in technology, taping the broadcasts instead of transcribing them, allowed Crosby to do a 35 or 40-minute show, then edit it down to the 26 or 27 minutes required. Taking out jokes, gags or situations that didn’t play well, what remained was only the prime mat of the show; the solid stuff that played big. The second season of the Philco shows were taped with the new Ampex Model 200 tape recorder, using the new Scotch 111 tape from the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (3M) company. Crosby’s investment was more prominent than critics could anticipate when the networks began adapting similar technology, becoming customers of an industry standard set by the singer.

On March 1, 1949, NBC executives at the “affiliate crisis meeting” in Chicago spotlighted attention on the just-released annual statement of the parent Radio Corp. of America, with its net annual earnings of $24,000,000, as evidence that it would take more than the loss of a few shows and personalities to put the network out of business. In effect, NBC’s argument was that “with $24,000,000 you can buy 12 Jack Bennys and 24 Bing Crosbys” (at the CBS rate of exchange).

In another effort to counter the talent raids, NBC developed moderately-budgeted programs. Hoping to avoid losses, the network retained either full or part control of the packages, avoiding advertising agencies, and sought commercial sponsorship themselves. Among the projected was the signing of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis to a weekly series, James Mason and his wife for a whodunit series (titled Illusion, a.k.a. The James and Pamela Mason Show), and a revival of Rogue’s Gallery with Dick Powell. (Powell would star in a detective program, Richard Diamond, Private Detective, after Rogue’s Gallery failed to be revived.) Proposals that never met fruition was a Kenny Delmar series based on the fictional character of Senator Claghorn, and radio serialization of The Man Who Came to Dinner. (The latter of which was revised as a weekly program with Monty Woolley titled The Magnificent Montague.

Less than nine months from Benny’s debut on CBS, Paley managed to lure other comedians from NBC to CBS: George Burns and Gracie Allen, Bing Crosby (both premiered on CBS on the evening of September 21, 1949), Edgar Bergen, Red Skelton (both October 2), and Horace Heidt (September 4). Bergen was a television enthusiast for years, understanding that his act worked best visually, and devoted considerable time during his temporary “retirement” to filming two television pilots, which he bankrolled himself. His television debut was on Thanksgiving 1950, weeks after he made his CBS radio debut. The pilot was produced by Bergen himself, of which 30,000 feet of film was shot – 27,000 feet ended up on the cutting room floor. Bergen understood the risks involved, having to compete against Paul Winchell who beat Bergen to the punch on television, and was willing to take a financial loss on the pilot in an effort to make a big impression with the network. (Footage that remained from the cutting room floor was later edited into a second proposed pilot. Coca Cola bankrolled part of the budget.)

During the summer of 1949, Paley was reported making overtures to Al Jolson into the Columbia fold. Paley was hot after the singer after the theatrical release of The Jolson Story (1946) but the singer was grabbed by Kraft and NBC. With a client interested, stemming from the anticipated success of Jolson’s new pic, Jolson Sings Again (1949), it was Paley’s hope to succeed where he lost two years prior. “Already raising its arm as the Champ of the Year in gross time sales, CBS has demonstrated how money and shrewd business acumen can parlay a network into No. 1 position,” wrote George Rosen in Variety. “NBC’s loss of major accounts and top stars to CBS is already reflected in the comparative billings – this year vs. last year – and in the amount of good time available and client who’s interested.” NBC continued to create in-house programs, co-owned by the network, including Dangerous Assignment, Dimension X and The Big Show -- the latter of which (don't let anyone tell you otherwise) was created solely to kill Jack Benny's career for switching networks.

Historians have been quick to point out the financials involved, but historical perspective verifies the true lure to CBS was the promise of transcribing broadcasts in advance – and NBC was temporarily shortsighted and stubborn to change their policy regarding pre-recorded radio broadcasts. NBC, however, was a fighting network and still determined to inch back into grandeur and stature, evident by lavish excursions into promotion and public relations, the earmarking of millions of dollars for new programs, proving that there would always be an NBC to reckon with. But that is another story for another time.

1 comment:

Steve D said...

In case there is any interest....

The Bing Crosby CBS Radio Recordings (1954-56) (#245) Mosaic Records 7-CD Limited Edition Box Set

The Bing Crosby CBS Radio Recordings (1954-56) (#245)
"Like buried treasure reclaimed from the past, this remarkable set is like no other Bing Crosby collection ever released. Here is the great crooner and a quartet led by his longtime accompanist Buddy Cole, occasionally augmented by a few wind instruments, in a thesaurus of 160 songs recorded in the most informal of circumstances at 16 sessions, during a period (1954-56) when Bing was in exceptionally good voice." - Gary Giddins, liner notes
Limited Edition: 20,000 copies

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