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‘Hall of Fame’ blazed trail on TV

DATE OF EVENT: Dec. 24, 1951

DATE OF PUBLISHED: Oct. 30, 1982, in The Kansas City Times

Editor’s note: “The Hallmark Hall of Fame’s” debut presentation, “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” was one of the high-water marks of television’s pioneer days, but little was said of it in The Kansas City Star. Only one line of agate type in that night’s TV listing would mark the beginning of a holiday tradition.

In the more than 50 years that would follow, the “Hall of Fame” would become one of the most honored presentations in broadcasting. It would tackle subjects ranging from Shakespeare (among them “Macbeth,” “Hamlet,” and “Richard III”), social issues (“Promise,” a story dealing with schizophrenia) to children’s stories (“The Secret Garden” and “Sarah, Plain and Tall”). It would win more than 75 Emmy awards and eventually broadcast a Kansas City original to the world.

In this commentary from 1982, Steve Nicely, then the TV columnist for The Kansas City Times, recounted the early days of the “Hall of Fame.”

Joyce C. Hall went against the advice of business associates when he approved full sponsorship of “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” commercial television’s first “Hallmark Hall of Fame” production in 1951.

The decision earned Mr. Hall an important place in the history of the new medium and played a key role in the company’s dominance of the greeting card market by 1954.

Hallmark’s “Hall of Fame” series has continued uninterrupted for 31 years. The company was the first to demonstrate that drama classics and other fine arts productions could be successfully broadcast for mass audiences. The accomplishment was imitated by other sponsors during an era that became known as television’s Golden Years.

Hallmark’s continued commitment to high-quality programming on commercial television through the “Hall of Fame” series represents a pioneering effort of another sort. Except periodic and irregular specials, other commercial sponsors have abandoned the programming approach.

“Amahl,” an original opera commissioned by NBC about a crippled boy and his mother who give shelter to the three wise men, was broadcast on Christmas Eve 1951. The ultimate decision to sponsor the show after others had turned it down was made after normal business considerations, said Bill Johnson, director of special projects for Hallmark.

The company’s advertising agency brought the idea to Mr. Hall, he said, but the show’s Christmas Eve air date was too late to help the card company advertise its Christmas cards.

“But he thought it would be a good idea to air the show and use it as a vehicle to thank all the people who bought Hallmark cards,” Mr. Johnson said. “Mr. J. C. received literally thousands of letters and cards and telegrams, thanking the company for sponsoring that program.”

The opera was repeated twice in 1952. On April 26, 1953, Hallmark made television history again with a “Hall of Fame” production of “Hamlet.” It was TV’s first two-hour drama, the first broadcast of a Shakespeare play and the first colorcast of a sponsored, prime-time show, Mr. Johnson said.

The years of Hallmark’s most dramatic growth closely parallel the early years of the “Hall of Fame,” Mr. Johnson said, adding that average television ratings for 141 “Hall of Fame” productions have been in the top 25 percent of all programs broadcast during the period.

TV ratings for the series in recent years, however, have been less consistent. The fluctuations partly explain why Hallmark does not have more competition in the field of high-quality programming and why the company ended its long relationship with NBC in 1979 after the network refused to clear an acceptable time slot for a “Hall of Fame’ production.

Even when fully sponsored, a show that draws a relatively smaller audience can lower a network’s overall average and reduce its profits. Mr. Hall’s philosophy — stated in his book of memoirs, When You Care Enough — that “he would rather hold the attention of 25 million people than just ‘reach’ 50 million,” was at odds with the goals of a network in ratings trouble. …

Speaking of the 1950s, Mr. Johnson said: “When you’ve got only two shows on and one is ‘Hamlet,’ that’s a pretty dramatic impact. Now, with 34 channels or so, it’s a little harder to stick your neck above the crowd. That doesn’t mean we don’t think it can be done.”

Since its move to CBS, ratings for “Hall of Fame” shows have improved. Among the most successful have been “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “A Tale of Two Cities,” “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “Gideon’s Trumpet,” and “Aunt Mary.”…

The “Hall of Fame” series, its actors and the company have received a total of 44 Emmy awards. …