The Wizard of Oz on television

The Wizard of Oz on television

The enormous popularity of the 1939 MGM film "The Wizard of Oz" among Americans is primarily due today to the large number of times it has been shown on U.S. television, [] although it was a famous film even before then. Reissued theatrically in 1949 and 1955, [] , later as part of the MGM Children's Matinee series in 1970, [] , and once again in a re-mastered edition in 1998, the movie was, for the first seventeen years of its existence, simply a well-remembered film that many people loved, but not one of the icons of cinema. [] Between 1959 and 1991, it was an annual television tradition, and through these showings, it has become one of the most famous films ever made. [] During the 1960's, telecasts of the film quickly became a much anticipated family event in the United States, drawing extremely large audiences annually for many years. This was due not only to what many feel is the excellence of the film, but also to the fact that between 1956 and 1980, television was virtually the only means by which families in the U.S. were able to see it. [] Today, the easy availability of the film, first on videocassette and now on DVD, has reduced its television audience.

The film's first telecast, in 1956, took place on November 3. The 1959 to 1962 telecasts occurred later in the year, between Thanksgiving and Christmas. However, beginning in the 1963–64 season the showings would occur in the early months of the year. As a result the movie did not air at all in 1963. But its 1964 showing was only 13 months after the 1962 showing. So even minus 1963 the movie still aired once a year per TV season.

"The Wizard of Oz" has become perhaps the most famous film to be regularly shown on television, and one of the most cherished. [] Because it has been televised regularly since 1959, gaining more than half of the U.S. TV audience for many years, the vast majority of people who have seen the film have seen it this way rather than watching it on the big screen. The film "It's a Wonderful Life" has a similar history of relative neglect and then becoming popular because of frequent showings on television, although "It's a Wonderful Life" was much less successful on its original 1946 theatrical run than "The Wizard of Oz" was in 1939. [] []

The film's television career

Feature films by nearly all of the major Hollywood studios were not broadcast on network television before 1955, due to the studios' reluctance to anger theater owners with a competing venue. ["Hollywood Sale: Disposal of R.K.O. Film Backlog for Video Use Poses Industry Problems," "New York Times", Jan. 1, 1956, p. X5. ] The one exception was Walt Disney, who did not hesitate to begin showing his films on TV, once his television anthology series premiered in late 1954. Before 1955, American television relied instead on features from the minor Hollywood studios, independent U.S. producers, and British films. By 1956, the other major Hollywood studios were in the process of selling their films to local television stations, but not to the networks. "The Wizard of Oz" was chosen as the first major Hollywood film to be shown complete in one evening on an entire television network [,9171,824606,00.html] rather than just a local station. (The Disney films, which at that time were occasionally shown on his weekly television program, had either been edited down to an hour, or shown in two parts over two separate evenings, and British films were being shown as part of the Famous Film Festival program on ABC , but these were also either severely cut or shown in several installments.) Earlier that year, "Richard III", Laurence Olivier's 1955 British film production of Shakespeare's play, had made its simultaneous U.S. theatrical and NBC television network debut as a three-hour special, but that had been a matinée, not a prime time showing, and parts of the film had been edited due to censorship.

First telecast

The first telecast of "The Wizard of Oz" was as part of the anthology series "Ford Star Jubilee" on the CBS television network on November 3, 1956. [Val Adams, "C.B.S. Sets Re-run for 'Wizard Of Oz'; Film First Seen on TV in '56 to Be Repeated Dec. 13," "New York Times". New York, N.Y.: June 17, 1959, p. 71. ISSN 03624331.] The network paid MGM $225,000 to televise the movie that year. [Val Adams, "C.B.S. May Lease 750 M-G-M Movies," "New York Times", August 14, 1956, p. 53.]

For the film's first television broadcast, the normally 90-minute "Ford Star Jubilee" was expanded to a full two hours to accommodate the entire film, which, in addition to having commercial breaks, was hosted. The main reason that CBS arranged for celebrities to host the film was that a 101-minute motion picture was then not considered long enough to run in the allotted 120-minute time slot without some "padding". This was due to the fact that, until about 1968, commercial breaks were much shorter on television than they are now, usually lasting no more than two minutes, [According to a "TV Guide" article published at the time, and the commemorative book "The Wizard of Oz: The Official 50th Anniversary Pictorial History".] and there were fewer commercials during a program — perhaps eight in a two-hour span as opposed to about ten or twelve today. (The new television network Retro TV, with a lineup consisting entirely of old television programs, likewise limits its commercial breaks and the amount of commercials during a given show in this manner, giving the network a 1950's-1960's flavor. While in the 1950s and early 1960s, a two-hour telecast of a film would have had a total of about fifteen minutes of commercials, today twice as much time, and sometimes even more, is spent on advertisements during a telecast of a two-hour film.)

For the first TV showing of "The Wizard of Oz", Bert Lahr, who had played both the Cowardly Lion and farmhand Zeke in the film, the then ten-year-old Liza Minnelli, and young Oz expert Justin G. Schiller appeared as hosts to introduce the movie and make a few entertaining remarks about it. Contrary to some internet information claims, Lorna Luft, Minnelli's half-sister, did not appear on the telecast, as she was only four years old at the time.) [Fricke, John, and Jay Scarfone and William Stillman. "The Wizard of Oz: The Official 50th Anniversary Pictorial History", Warner Books, 1989 Contrary to what the website states, this book does not make the claim that Lorna Luft appeared on the show ] The practice of a show business celebrity regularly "hosting" "The Wizard of Oz" lasted from the film's first television showing until 1968, when the film went to NBC.


For telecasts from 1959 up until 1998, the film was shown as a TV special in its own right instead of as part of an anthology series. Between 1959 and 1968, CBS would choose its hosts from its then-current prime time lineup. In 1959, when the film's second telecast took place, the host was Red Skelton ("The Red Skelton Show"); in 1960 it was Richard Boone ("Have Gun, Will Travel"), in 1961 and 1962 it was Dick Van Dyke ("The Dick Van Dyke Show"), and from 1964 through 1967, it was Danny Kaye ("The Danny Kaye Show"). Skelton, Boone and Van Dyke brought their children along to appear in these hostings; this was CBS's way of emphasizing that the film's showing was a family event.

The hosting sequences for the 1959-1967 telecasts were all done in creative ways, not merely as mechanical introductions. Red Skelton was seen as two characters: before the film began, he was seen in a studio set of an early twentieth-century library, in costume as a Victorian storyteller who introduced L. Frank Baum's original 1900 novel "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" (on which the film is based) to a young girl played by Skelton's real daughter, and at film's end, he appeared in a studio recreation of a modern living room as himself. Richard Boone was taped on the set of his television series "Have Gun, Will Travel", where he was shown in a "living room" with his real son. Dick Van Dyke was shown in what was reportedly a studio recreation of "his" living room, where he was seen with his children, and Danny Kaye appeared against a painted backdrop of the Yellow Brick Road and the Emerald City.

The film did not become an annual television tradition immediately — only after the 1959 showing, when, because of the earlier hour at which it was shown (6:00 P.M., E.S.T.), more children tuned in to the broadcast. The 1959 telecast was especially welcomed by media critic John Crosby, who commented in the New York Herald Tribune, "Television - any television - looks awfully ordinary after "The Wizard of Oz". [Fricke, John, and Jay Scarfone. The Wizard of Oz: The Official 50th Anniversary Pictorial History, Warner Books, 1989]

Pre-emptions during early CBS years

Between 1959 and 1968, telecasts of the film, which at that time always took place on Sunday evenings, invariably pre-empted that week's showings of "The Twentieth Century" and "Lassie". From 1959 through 1962, they also pre-empted the sitcom "Dennis the Menace", and from 1964 through 1966, the sitcom "My Favorite Martian", which premiered when "Dennis the Menace" 's run ended. Only once did they pre-empt, in addition to "The Twentieth Century" and "Lassie", the short-lived 1966 sitcom "It's About Time".

"Wraparound" opening and closing credits

The film as telecast between those years would have "wraparound" opening and closing credits segments devised by CBS, accompanied by their own opening and closing music. For the opening ones, the title "The Wizard of Oz" and the names of its five leading actors, Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, and Jack Haley, would be shown in CBS's own format, while an anonymous announcer read them off and then followed this with an announcement of the film's sponsor(s): "This portion of 'The Wizard of Oz' is brought to you by... [name of sponsor mentioned] ". The first commercial then followed.

This would be followed by the host speaking about the movie for about three minutes or so. His introductory remarks would lead directly into the actual film, complete with all of its original opening credits and title music exactly as MGM created them, including the Leo the Lion logo. The host would reappear at the beginning of the film's second half, to say a few more words about it, before the telecast proceeded with the rest of the film. However, at the end of the movie, the closing credits as seen on the film would not be shown. Instead, immediately after Dorothy spoke her last line ("Oh, Auntie Em, there's no place like home!"), and the camera faded out on her, television viewers again saw CBS's specially made title card "The Wizard of Oz", accompanied by some of the film's end title music, exactly as heard on the soundtrack. After a final commercial, the host would then be seen once again, bid farewell to the TV audience, and CBS would show their own version of the cast of characters list.

Impact on color television

The very first telecast of the film was in color, although very few people owned color television sets at that time. [ Even as late as 1964, only 3.1 percent of television households in the U.S. had color sets.] In fact, all U.S. telecasts of the film have been in color, an effect that seemed much more striking in the early 1960s, when there were still relatively few color programs on television, than it does now, when color TV is taken for granted. [Fricke, John, and Jay Scarfone. "The Wizard of Oz: The Official 50th Anniversary Pictorial History", Warner Books, 1989, p. 214. From 1959 to 1965, the "Wizard of Oz" showings were rare exceptions to the black and white program schedule at CBS, whose competitor NBC was owned by RCA, which by 1960 manufactured 95% of the of color sets sold in the U.S.]

Recent hosts

The idea of regularly having hosts to introduce the film was permanently dropped when the film went to NBC temporarily in 1968, where no "wraparound" sequence was shown. The presentation simply consisted of the film itself, with its original opening and closing credits. (This switch in networks resulted because CBS was unwilling to meet MGM's increased price — fostered by the film's ever increasing popularity — for renewal of the rights to telecast it.) [Fricke, John, and Jay Scarfone and William Stillman. "The Wizard of Oz: The Official 50th Anniversary Pictorial History", Warner Books, 1989.] The host idea was dropped because more commercial time was required, and after its 1976 return to CBS, the film was hosted on that network only once more, by Angela Lansbury ("Murder, She Wrote") in 1990, but the CBS "wraparound" opening and closing credits were not revived. That same year, Lansbury also narrated a documentary about the making of the film, which was shown immediately after the movie's telecast, and is included as a supplement on the DVD.

As of 2007, CBS is still the television network on which the film has most often been shown — thirty-one times, a record number for the telecast of a feature film on one television network, and one broken only recently by ABC's annual TV airings of Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" (1956), which that network has been telecasting since 1973. [ [ The Ten Commandments (1956) ] ]

In recent years, when shown on Turner Classic Movies, the film is usually hosted by Robert Osborne, though, in this case, since TCM is commercial-free, it is obviously not done in order to pad out its running time.

On June 3, 2007, Tom Kenny, the voice of Sponge Bob Square Pants, hosted a telecast of the film on Turner Classic Movies, as part of a special summer series of family movies.

On July 27, 2008, the film was shown twice in a row on Turner Network Television without a host, but with commercials, and with "pop-up" animated ads for other TNT programs at the bottom of the screen just before and after commercial breaks.

Television ratings

The showing in 1983 was the 25th network prime-time showing, a record then for any film or television special. In the first nine showings, "The Wizard of Oz" gained at least 49% of the television audience. [Harmetz, Aljean "'Wizard of Oz': A TV Success Story," "New York Times", March 16, 1983. pg. C21. ISSN: 03624331.] Between 1960 and 1968, the film even beat out the Walt Disney anthology television series, which aired on ABC and then NBC, opposite the film. [ [ Interesting Texts ] ] (When the film moved temporarily from CBS to NBC, it would frequently pre-empt the Disney program altogether. However, on one occasion that the film was telecast on CBS, it pre-empted Disney yet again, after the series moved to that network in the 1980's.) [] []

Changes made in running time

From 1968 to 1984, the film was actually slightly cut to make room for added commercial time and still "clock in" at two hours. On a few occasions beginning in 1985, again because of the increased time spent on commercial breaks, the film was "time-compressed" to fit it into a two-hour running time without cutting it. [Fricke, John, and Jay Scarfone and William Stillman. "The Wizard of Oz: The Official 50th Anniversary Pictorial History", Warner Books, 1989] (In "time compression", the film is run at a slightly faster speed which is supposedly undetectable, but observant viewers can apparently notice a distinct "chipmunk"-like alteration of the voices when this is done.) However, it is now always shown complete and at its regular speed on television, both with and without commercials. When shown with ads, the film now runs about two hours and fifteen minutes, simply because of the increase in commercial time.

Annual television airings

From 1959 to 1991, the film was shown on television only once a year, except, as previously noted, in 1963, when it was not shown at all. From 1968 to 1991, whether telecast on CBS or NBC, the film was always shown during or just before the spring months. [] In 1991, it was shown twice during the year for the first time. The main reason for this was that the film would begin to be run around Thanksgiving rather than late winter/early spring. 1991 also marked the first time since 1956 that the film was shown in November. The film was not shown on television at all in 1992, 1995 and 1997, marking the first time since 1963 that a year was skipped in showings of the film. During those years, negotiations were made between Turner, MGM and CBS so that the Turner-owned stations could now show the film. It is now shown several times a year, sometimes as frequently as five times within two days. [ [ The Wizard of Oz (1939) - TV schedule ] ]

March 1991 showing

The March 1991 showing was the first after the film gained protected status from the Library of Congress and the National Film Preservation Board. As a result, the network could no longer shorten the film by "microcutting" thousands of individual moments throughout the movie as had been done previously to make room for commercials and keep it in a two hour broadcast. This extended the running time of the film from 8 P.M to 10:07 P.M. EST, though it frequently lasts even longer on non-cable TV, depending on the amount of time spent on commercials. It was one of the first 50 films selected for this protection. [Glenn Collins, "A Full-Length 'Oz' for TV." "New York Times". New York, N.Y.: March 19, 1991, p. C16. ISSN 03624331. ]

2000 and 2002 airings

The year 2000 marked the first time that the film was shown on U.S. television during the summer. 2002 marked an unusual frequency of showings when, for the first time, it was shown on TNT three times within one month.

Differences between network and cable showings

Another difference between the network showings on CBS and NBC and those on cable channels is that when the film was shown on regular network television, it was always presented as a "special", no matter what time of year — meaning that it would preempt two hours of regular television programming on the specific network which showed it just for that one night. On Turner Network Television, Turner Classic Movies, and WTBS, it is usually presented as just another film in a time slot reserved for the showing of a movie, not a true television special. Some might argue that the method of presenting "Oz" as a TV special gave it a certain aura which today's showings of the film do not retain, especially since it has been easily available on video in one form or another since the 1980s.

In November 2007, the film was accorded the unusual honor of being shown literally simultaneously on two Turner-owned channels, TBS and TNT.

TNT showed the film in High-Definition in November 2006. It was not cropped to a 16x9 aspect ratio, but its correct Academy ratio dimensions were preserved, pillar boxed within a 16x9 frame.

Outside the United States

The movie has also been shown on television successfully in Great Britain, Canada and is shown every year in Australia, but it has not become the television phenomenon there that it has in the U.S. [The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Website]

Notable airdates

Eastern Time (taken from "TV Guide" and from "The Wizard of Oz: The Official 50th Anniversary Pictorial History").

*1956 - CBS - Saturday, November 3 - 9:00 p.m. ::The film was shown in color although very few people owned color TV sets. [ Fricke, John, and Jay Scarfone and William Stillman. "The Wizard of Oz: The Official 50th Anniversary Pictorial History", Warner Books, 1989, p. 214 ] This marked the only time it was ever aired that late on a non-cable television network (Turner Network Television has been known to schedule two showings in a row on the same night, at 8:00 p.m. and 10:15 p.m.). It was not shown primarily as a family attraction in 1956, simply as a TV special. Future showings would begin earlier in order to allow children to see it. In addition, the prime time hour generally given to affiliates for local programming would be taken back in order to run the movie early. This practice continued until the film was sold to NBC.
*1959 - CBS - Sunday, December 13 - 6:00 p.m.::The first of the film's annual showings. It was the success of this telecast, which gained a wider audience than the first, that persuaded CBS to make the film an annual tradition on television.
*1968 - NBC - Saturday, April 20 - 7:00 p.m.::First showing by NBC, in Spring rather than Winter. The first time that the film was shown at 7:00 P.M instead of 6:00 P.M.
*1972 - NBC - Tuesday, March 7 - 7:00 p.m. ::The first time that the film aired in the middle of the week, rather than on a weekend.
*1974 - NBC - Sunday, March 10 - 7:00 p.m. ::Delayed from February 24 due to a Watergate related breaking news story. NBC immediately announced that rather than start the movie late, that it would be easier to push the showing back a few weeks and run it early in the evening.
*1976 - CBS - Sunday, March 14 - 7 p.m. ::The year that "The Wizard Of Oz" returned to CBS. It remained there for twenty-two more years, a likely record in those years for a film's consecutive showings on one network. Initially the movie aired late winter/early spring, but beginning in 1991 the movie would move back and forth from spring to late fall. Another change was that CBS now would no longer begin the movie before normal prime time. Before 1976, when run on a day other than Sunday, NBC would take back the 7 p.m. Eastern / 6 p.m. Central timeslots from affiliates to run the movie early enough so children can see it before bedtime. Also, prior to 1968, CBS always took the 6 p.m. hour to run the movie early. Logic was that times have changed and children now stay up a little later than they did in the past. From now on, if shown in a Sunday 6 to 8 or 7 to 9 pm time slot on CBS, the film would pre-empt "60 Minutes", so beginning in 1978, CBS executives moved the showings to other days of the week. If the film "was" shown on a Sunday, CBS would now schedule it at 8 pm, so that it would not conflict with "60 Minutes". [] (As of 2008, "60 Minutes" continues to air in the same Sunday 7 p.m. time slot on CBS.)
*1991 - CBS - Tuesday, March 19 - 8 p.m.::Soundtrack remastered in stereo using CBS' StereoSound system.
*1991 - CBS - Wednesday, November 27 - 8 p.m. ::The first time the film aired twice in the same year. This was done to switch it to a November date.
*1996 - CBS - Friday, May 10 - 8 p.m. ::This was the same day that the new film "Twister" was released to theatres. The first time that the film aired close to summertime.


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