In theory, Jay Leno’s new 10 p.m. prime-time show next fall should be a welcome blessing to those who want more than to go to bed depressed at the all-too-real stories fictionalized on “Law & Order”, “CSI: (Place Your City Here)” or the next serious medical show to replace “ER.” Network TV has, for several decades, held the 10 p.m. hour as a place where their morose shows get played so the little kids in the family who are presumably in bed asleep won’t be up watching them. Of course, most kids probably are up later than that, so it’s made the idea of placing more violent dramas on at that time of night a moot scheduling strategy.
That means network TV suits should have taken the time to look back and obtain a better look at their past shows at that hour where programming was once just as family-friendly (if considered slightly edgier) as what you saw at 8 p.m.
The most archaic prime-time TV schedules in the immediate post-WWII years were a fairly blank canvas in the later time slots–with the apparent assumption most people would still be listening to radio at that hour of the night. But it didn’t take any more than a couple of years before the 10 p.m. slots were filled with mostly sports programming. Presumably, the networks thought Dad (or, who knows, perhaps also Mom) would be up late after tucking the kids in bed to watch a sports analysis show or an actual game if it was still being aired live at that hour.
Those who suggested then that television would become a fad couldn’t have imagined that some of the shows they were hearing on radio in the 10 p.m. hour would eventually fill not only early prime-time but also late prime-time on television. Yet by the early 50’s, the 10 p.m. slot was beginning to see hints of the later forgotten showcases for that hour: The variety show and the prime-time game show. During the 50’s, you’d be able to see “The Garry Moore Show” or the infamous “$64,000 Question” on the 10 p.m. schedule. Before even that, viewers were already starting to see more of the non-descript type of programming in this slot such as “This is Your Life” with full intention to make people feel good before hitting the sack.
You’d think the 1950’s would have set a bar for the 10 p.m. slot rather than go in such a more dramatic direction. Into the late 50’s, though, some slightly edgier fare was getting green-lighted that look as innocent as a preschool show today in comparison to what you see at 8 p.m. on the commercial networks now. Having Alfred Hitchcock on TV by 1955 was considered quite daring when his storytelling style was perhaps a little too edgy for the 50’s conservative tastes of the time. Then again, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” started on TV before the director brought “Psycho” to the big screen that bluntly changed everybody’s opinion of Hitchcock, for better or worse.
Perhaps that’s why his psychologically edgy show was moved to a 10 p.m. slot by 1962 after being renamed “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” and being on during slightly earlier time slots for its prior seven seasons.
Not that an edgy anthology show wasn’t already dominating in the 10 p.m. slot for several years prior on CBS. “The Twilight Zone” was thought to be a little too much for the younger set and explains why network execs stuck it on at 10 o’clock from the get-go. That’s where it stayed for its first three seasons before things started lightening up in this slot the same year Rod Serling received a pink slip from CBS’s network execs.
With hints of the variety show finding a comfortable place in the 10 p.m. hour starting in the late 50’s, it was in 1965 when it was taken to its highest level, albeit with a slightly ribald style of entertainment just for the adults. Once Dean Martin was offered an NBC variety show in this time slot that year, a little sense of Rat Pack entertainment was finally brought to TV by popular demand after dominating mostly in Vegas casinos for close to a decade. Having Dean Martin on at 10 o’clock was appropriate so the adults could have a little fun by themselves before bedtime. However, in retrospect, this variety show was some of the best comedic entertainment anybody could ask for with a virtual who’s who of every legendary star in existence guesting with Dino.
Because Martin toned down his Vegas act for TV and just went with a loose quasi improvised feel, the show could have logically and easily played at 8 p.m. It nevertheless stayed at 10 p.m. for its entire run right into the early 70’s. The show also paved the way for more variety shows that weren’t afraid to employ more sophisticated skits and comedy bits. After the earlier-mentioned “Garry Moore Show” featured Carol Burnett as a regular in the show’s 10 p.m. slot through into the early 60’s, it wasn’t any surprise to see Burnett’s own variety show starting in the same time slot in the fall of 1967. For those of us who grew up with “The Carol Burnett Show” (or at least in part through the 70’s), some of the show’s classic and racier sketches would explain why it stayed on at 10 p.m. through nine years of its 11-year run.
Despite some of the wild comedy at 10 p.m. through the 60’s and 70’s, the networks started the 10 o’clock cop show around the same time Burnett was off to iconic status. These were edgier, gritty cop dramas that represented the same grit and sophistication of the 1960’s. “Mission Impossible” was one of the first successful cop (or spy) shows on at this hour starting in 1966 followed by “Mannix” and then “Hawaii Five-O.” We all know these ran for years, particularly “Five-O” that ended when the connective bridge to the next generation of 10 p.m. shows started in the early 80’s. And that bridge was what started the trend of legal, medical and police procedural shows taking over this hour for such a long time, it ultimately wiped out all prior 10 p.m. history.
Anybody who grew up in the 70’s & 80’s remembers the last time a show in the 10 p.m. slot would be considered lightweight fluff. Saturday nights on TV used to be a true golden era through the mid 70’s with “Mary Tyler Moore Show”, “Bob Newhart Show” and “Carol Burnett Show” as just three dominating favorites. By the late 70’s and early 80’s, Saturday night was the longstanding lineup of “Love Boat” at 9 p.m. followed by “Fantasy Island” at 10 p.m. The latter existed as a lightweight alternative to the new breed of all those serious 10 p.m. shows starting around the same time when “Hill Street Blues”, “Trapper John M.D.” and “St. Elsewhere” set the bar for what would eventually evolve into the perpetually-running “Law & Order”, “CSI” and “ER.”
One eventual saving grace of removal from 10 p.m. was the nighttime soap opera dominating in this slot during the 80’s. With “Dallas” and “Dynasty” running concurrently with the above shows in this hour, we ended up with campy fun bordering on the morose.
Now at least Jay Leno has a chance to renew the lightweight variety show in the 10 p.m. hour that’s been gone too long for several generations. Whether he can make “The Jay Leno Show” as iconic as Dean Martin or Carol Burnett’s shows will depend on how much of a party-like, adult atmosphere can be established–unless network execs catch on to younger people watching and turn it into the latest 10 p.m. drama…
“The Complete Directory of Prime-Time TV Shows (1946-Present)” by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh