Back in the Day: The Wizard of Oz on TV

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The Movie Premiered Before Our Time, but Television Sparked a Childhood Endearment

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Editor’s Note: “Back in the Day” is the first of an occasional column designed to summon childhood memories and cultural milestones of all stripes. People of a certain age are encouraged to contribute. Please consult the “ABOUT” tab.



What started out as a routine business deal between two entertainment companies turned into an much-anticipated family event that was cherished by millions.

Memories of  my annual viewing of The Wizard of Oz still give me a warm feeling. It never got old for me. I still love the color, the songs and the characters. The movie event often occurred between Thanksgiving and Christmas…adding to the magic of the holiday.

People don’t realize that it took The Wizard of Oz-creators MGM over 20 years to earn its money back. Throughout its theatrical release starting in August 1939, the movie lost about $1 million. In the book The Making of the Wizard of Oz, author Aljean Harmetz  parsed the deal:

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This was the result of more of a series of accidents than any grand design. In 1956, CBS tried to lease Gone With the Wind from MGM for $1 million. MGM refused. As an afterthought, CBS made a $225,000 offer for The Wizard of Oz [per year, as it turned out]. MGM agreed and gave CBS an option to broadcast the film annually. Without the once-a-year repetition on television as a special, the film would not have been seen enough times for a new generation to become aware of it. Nor would it have become an event than just another movie.

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The TV Premier of ‘Oz

The first telecast of The Wizard of Oz took place on November 3, 1956, as a feature of the Ford Star Jubilee. The usually 90-minute Jubilee was expanded to two hours to accommodate the entire movie: the first Hollywood film to be shown uncut on a television network. But even with commercial breaks, the network came up short of time. And so the 1956 telecast had hosting segments that featured Bert Lahr, who played the cowardly lion; and 10-year-old Liza Minnelli.

The film skipped two years. But beginning in 1959, The Wizard of Oz became an annual television tradition, with yearly broadcasts until 1991. For some reason, it was not shown in 1963.

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Of course you remember that the movie was shot in both black-and-white (the Kansas sequences) and what passed for Technicolor in those days. CBS chose to telecast The Wizard of Oz in color (paid for by its sponsors) even though very few people owned color TV sets in 1956.

Aside from its brand-enhancement sway for the Tiffany Network, The Wizard of Oz was a ratings powerhouse for CBS. In its 1956 television premier, the movie earned a 33.9 rating and a 52.7 audience share.  Between 1960 and 1968, The Wizard of Oz beat out various Disney specials that ran opposite it. In 1966 it ranked number one in the ratings for the week it was shown. In 1983, on the 25th anniversary of its prime-time network showing, The Wizard of Oz was still strong enough to gain a 49 percent audience share. Those are Super Bowl numbers.

The Wizard of Oz was the Super Bowl of its time.

 

 

 

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Andrew Goutman

Andrew Goutman is the editor of Enter, Stage Left.

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1 Response

  1. victoid says:

    My family was spellbound by the live staged broadcasts of Peter Pan, starring Mary Martin as Peter and the incomparable Cyril Ritchard as Capn Hook. Also broadcast in color, it beat Oz to the punch, its first broadcast in 1955. According to Wikipedia:
    ..as the first full-length Broadway production on color TV, the show attracted a then-record audience of 65-million viewers, the highest ever up to that time for a single television program..
    NBC restaged it again in 1956 and yet again in 1960. That production was the one we watched and again in ’63 and ’66. I thought it was the best thing I had ever seen on TV.
    Ugga wugga wigwam!

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