Monday, March 05, 2012

Forgotten TV Shows - Gang Busters

nbc_gangbustersI got a lot of good response from the first of these so I’ve decided to stick with it. Yes I should be reviewing some modern shows, and I think I’ll get around to it, but I have to confess that I’ve been kind of busy the past few weeks. And just maybe I’ve become a bit too set in my viewing habits. Doing these pieces is at least letting me keep my toe in until I get motivated to do more.

Title: Gangbusters
Dates: March 20, 1952 to December 25, 1952 (12 Episodes)
Starring: Philips H. Lord (Narrator) Otherwise it was an anthology show.
Surprising Fact: According to The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows 1946-Present it may be the highest rated TV show ever to be cancelled.
Why Forgotten?: It only ran for 12 episodes. As an anthology show it had no big name stars. It shared – quite literally – the time slot with Dragnet.

The story of Gang Busters might be described as a complicated one. The show debuted on radio in July 1935 on NBC before moving to CBS from January 1936 to June 1940. In October of that year it moved to NBC’s Blue Network until the end of December 1948. In January 1949 it returned CBS and ran until June 1955. It was heard on the Mutual Broadcasting System from October 1955 to November 1957. It was in fact one of the last two half-hour dramatic series on Mutual. In the end it assembled an impressive radio run of 22 years. Few radio shows could claim a run that long. The show also spawned a movie serial in the 1940s and a DC comic book series that ran for 67 issues between 1947 and 1958.

The radio show was controversial in its time and for the usual reason that shows and media are controversial – the supposed impact on children. Parent-Teacher groups placed the responsibility for juvenile delinquency on children and teenagers listening to the exploits of the criminals depicted on Gang Busters. In 1940 Time Magazine was able to find a parole officer in the juvenile justice system who claimed that he learned about techniques that the young criminals of his town were using by listening to the show. He also said that he learned how to respond to the slang being used by the juvenile delinquents he was dealing with. When the show temporarily left the air in June 1940 – the time when it shifted from CBS to the NBC Blue Network – the writer for Time seemed positively triumphant about the end of the show because it couldn’t sell toothpaste: “But last week Gang Busters faced a foe that got them down.Convinced that Gang Busters might be catching crooks but were not selling Cue, the liquid dentifrice, the sponsors decided not to renew their contract. Still shooting, still with their boots on, Gang Busters vacated the airwaves.” Somehow Time didn’t pay much attention to the show’s return to the air later that year, on a different network, with a different sponsor.

The television version of Gang Busters doesn’t seem to have excited that same hatred that the radio version did during the 1930s. Of course by 1952, everyone “knew” that juvenile delinquency was caused by comic books thanks to Dr. Frederic Wertham. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Gang Busters came from radio to television; according to The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows 1946-Present over 200 radio shows made the transition to the new medium. No, it was the circumstances of Gang Busters coming to TV that were a bit different, and it has to do with another radio show transitioning to TV, Dragnet.

Dragnet debuted on TV in January 1952 after two and a half years on radio (where it would continue until 1957). Apparently Webb had a problem delivering a complete half-hour episode to NBC every week so in March 1952 it was decided to alternate another program with Dragnet. That show was Gang Busters. One week would feature an episode of Dragnet and the next week an episode of Gang Busters. Again, while not common this was certainly not unheard of in network TV in this period. For most of his time on TV (the 1954-1960 period) Jack Benny was only on every other week, alternating first with Private Secretary (starring Anne Southern), then with Bachelor Father, and in the final year of the arrangement with The George Gobel Show.

The television version of Gang Busters jettisoned one of the main components of the radio version of the show. The radio show was hosted by a member – or former member – of a law enforcement body: Colonel H. Norman Schwartzkopf (Sr.) who had been in charge of the New Jersey State Police at the time of the Lindbergh Kidnapping in 1932 hosted Gang Busters on radio for a while. This host would interview a police official directly tied to the original case. And you could tell they were the real deal because quite frankly most of them were awful in front of a microphone. In the TV version of the series, the show host was dispensed with and the “cops” who told the story were a lot more professional in front of the microphone…mostly because they were the actors who played the real life cops in the dramatic portion of the episode. But except for this change, and the addition of a bumper at the end of the episode featuring Jack Webb telling about next week’s episode of Dragnet, the format of the series stayed pretty much the same as it had been in radio, right down to alerting viewers as to a different criminal on the loose every episode.

The team of Dragnet and Gang Busters hit television like a storm. In the 1951-52 season ratings which ran from October 1951 to April 1952, Gang Busters aGangctually had a higher rating than Dragnet – 38.7 for Gang Busters to 36.3 for Dragnet. Of course, since Gang Busters only began in March 1952, just a few weeks before the end of the rating period while Dragnet debuted in January 1952, this isn’t an entirely fair comparison. The 1952-53 ratings are more significant. Dragnet finished fourth with a rating of 46.8, which made it the highest rated NBC show for the season. Gang Busters finished in eighth place with a rating of 42.4. What you must remember too is that until 1960 the ratings represented the percentage of all homes that had TV sets that were watching a particular show. In other words, 42.4% of all homes with TVs were watching Gang Busters. The other 57.8% of homes with TVs were either tuned to one of the other three networks – ABC, CBS and Dumont – or they weren’t turned on. The situation was such that Dumont, CBS and ABC aired public affairs programs in the time slot until after the Presidential elections in November and then what must be described as “sacrificial lamb shows” for the rest of the year.

And yet Gang Busters was cancelled in January 1952, and the authors of The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows 1946-Present suggest that the cancellation might all have been according to plan. They write, “The reason for the cancellation appears to be that Gangbusters was never intended to be a full-time TV series , but merely a stopgap provided by the sponsor to fill in the weeks when Dragnet wasn’t on. Jack Webb even appeared at the end of each telecast to plug the next week’s Dragnet episode. Webb could not at first provide a new Dragnet film every week, but when he could, Dragnet (which was even more popular than Gangbusters) went weekly and Gangbusters had to make way.” It is nearly impossible to think of a modern network executive (particularly one at NBC) willingly dropping a show with this degree of popularity. They would find a spot for the show, possibly even have tried to find a way to have it follow Dragnet. In short it would be a property too valuable to waste. Which leads me to wonder what other influences were at play around this decision both at NBC and at whatever advertiser was the direct sponsor of the series.

In the end, Dragnet is highly regarded as one of the landmarks of 1950s television and in some ways as the predecessor of the procedural series that fill the airwaves today. Meanwhile Gang Busters is a little known series with a small cult of fans. The one and only reviewer that the series had at IMDB wrote: “Yet, what worked so well on radio just didn't jell on the small screen. Despite series creator Phillips H. Lord's total involvement in the production, it all looked so disjointed and cheap, judging from the four episodes I have on DVD. NBC obviously knew this as well, for despite very high ratings, they regarded this show as a stop gap filler for the equally successful "Dragnet" during its early years as a bi-weekly show. When Jack Webb filmed enough episodes for a weekly slot, "Gang Busters", one of the highest rated series of the 1952 season, had to go. So, what could have been a potential landmark in television history, as it was on radio, was merely a low-budget bench-hitter during the early days of TV.” I think it may be a rather poor and inaccurate assessment of the show. Based on some early episodes of Dragnet that I’ve seen on DVD it could seem “low-budget” and “disjointed and cheap” itself at times. Moreover, as I’ve said both the network and the advertisers should have jumped at the chance to have a show that drew as high a percentage of homes with TVs as Gang Busters did on the air, selling their products. Some episodes are apparently available on DVD but be aware that the image that they show on the IMDB page for the show is actually of the DVD for the 1942 Gang Busters serial not the TV series. I’ve only seen the first episode of the series in its entirety (I’m including it below) but except for the hokiness of the Hugh Sanders’s speech at the end of the dramatic part of the episode, I can honestly say that I’ve seen worse, and of far more recent vintage. Judge for yourself.


Mike Doran said...

Some years back, some company (I can't recall the name offhand) put out a boxed set of Gang Busters episodes on VHS tapes.
I still have the set, but am no longer able to watch it, because my VHS players no longer work properly, and I cannot find replacements for them.

The ones I had been able to watch were low-budget TV (ex-Poverty Row), with performers from that tier of Hollywood. Among the more intriguing episodes were a three-parter about Willie "The Actor" Sutton, played herein by Jay Novello. Others in the set involved lesser-known robbers and thugs, all introduced by "real-life law enforcers" played by actors (in one episode, Jim Davis was the guest sheriff; I think this was before he caught most of the Wild West's notorious badmen on Stories Of The Century).
Regrettably, the compilers of this VHS set eliminated the closing credits from the episodes, so the lesser-known actors in them remain unidentifiable to me.
Other GangBusters segments have popped up here and there, and I have seen that some of them were directed by W. Lee Wilder (nee Wilhelm Wilder, older brother of Billy (Samuel) Wilder). Most of the others seem to be the work of Bill Karn, of whom little is known; some of his episodes were stitched together into a "feature", the title of which I can't recall, which played Late Late Shows for years (it may be available on a dollar-store DVD somewhere).

... Sorry you brought it all up yet? ...

Todd Mason said...

Well, as late as the early '70s, huge hits that followed ALL IN THE FAMILY were cancelled rather than moved for losing a chunk of its audience. The arrogance of fat and happy might be in play. Also, as you note, unlike DRAGNET, the radio version was on rival CBS at this time...that couldn't make the Sarnoff folks too thrilled about the property...

Roger Owen Green said...

Fascinating stuff, less the show itself, but more the machinations of filling the time slots

Alex Horton said...

I wonder if Marie was actually that remorseful in real life?

Rick said...

That's Anne Sothern on PRIVATE SECRETARY, btw; not Anne Southern. I only learned that myself a few years ago...