NBC Saturday Night at the Movies

For other uses, see Saturday Night at the Movies.

NBC Saturday Night at the Movies was the first continuing weekly prime time network television series to show relatively recent feature films from major studios in color.[1] The series premiered on September 23, 1961.[2]


Background and early history

Previously, movies on television were usually low-cost B films or older films that the major studios or producers no longer found suitable for theatrical presentation. In the earliest years of television, major studios wouldn't release films to television; by the late 1950s, however, major studios began making movies available to the new medium, but a gentleman's agreement between the top studios kept movies made after 1948 by major studios off of the home screen. Movie audiences had grown to expect films to be shown in widescreen and in color, so older black-and-white Academy ratio films had lost much of their value to the theatres. By the late-1950s, with the exception of some of Walt Disney's films and The Wizard of Oz (1939), these older films had become standard fare for independent stations and the non-prime time schedules of the network affiliates.

Up until the early 1970s, the time span between a film's theatrical release and its appearance on commercial network television was much longer. Whereas today it can take as brief a period as three years before a theatrical film shows up on commercial television, between 1954 and 1972 a theatrical motion picture (even a relatively recent one) usually had to wait as many as twelve years (as in the case of the 1959 Ben-Hur) before it turned up on the home screen.

A short-lived black-and-white ABC-TV series entitled Famous Film Festival had premiered in 1956, but had shown British films made in the 1940s. In 1957, ABC broadcast Hollywood Film Theater, which also featured some pre-1948 films produced by RKO Radio Pictures. RKO decided to sell some of their "better" pre-1948 movies to ABC while other films would be syndicated to local TV stations. Films in both series were shown in a ninety-minute time slot, which meant that some of the films had to either be severely edited or shown in two parts. NBC Saturday Night at the Movies was the first network movie anthology series to run two hours (and occasionally longer), so that almost all of the films could be shown in one evening, and edited (especially in later years) only to remove objectionable content.

For its 1961 television season, NBC obtained the rights to broadcast 31 post-1950 movie titles from 20th Century Fox, although only 30 were actually telecast that season. One film, The Seven Year Itch, was held off by the network until the start of the 1963 season. On September 23, 1961, Saturday Night at the Movies premiered with the 1953 Marilyn Monroe - Lauren Bacall - Betty Grable film How to Marry a Millionaire, presented "In Living Color". Some of the other movies shown were The Day the Earth Stood Still (March 3, 1962) and No Highway in the Sky (March 24, 1962). Many of these films, having been made in Cinemascope, a Fox specialty from 1953 to 1967, had to be severely panned-and-scanned for fullscreen television viewing (which was the only kind of television aspect ratio in existence then). That initial deal with Fox ended up lasting two seasons, with a total of 61 films. And when the studio found greener pastures over at rival ABC, the network found studios such as MGM and Paramount eager to provide content. Because commercial breaks were shorter until the late 1960s, films running less than two hours sometimes ended before the close of the program. The remaining time was filled up with theatrical trailers of upcoming films scheduled to be shown on the series in the future. By about 1968, this was no longer necessary, as films and commercial breaks had become longer.

The three major commercial networks did not show worn-out 16 mm prints of films as was then the usual practice on local TV stations. The films which aired on the network movie anthology series (as well as annually-telecast specials such as The Wizard of Oz) were 35mm prints invariably in excellent condition. With the advent of cable television, VHS, and DVD, the idea of always showing films - even very old ones - in pristine, remastered condition on television has become the norm, but aside from films shown on the three major networks, this was simply not done prior to the 1980s. Up until then, many times, local stations had to settle for inexpensive 16 mm prints of such relatively recent films as Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) or Prince Valiant (1954), rather than good "theater-quality" prints as seen on the networks. Unlike the major networks, nearly all local stations used 16 mm film chains.

The birth of the "made for TV movie"

With the demand for movies increasing during the 1960s, made-for-television films would soon be created by NBC, along with some help from now-sister company Universal. The first, made during the 1963–64 season, was to have been a new version of Ernest Hemingway's The Killers with Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson and future US President Ronald Reagan, but NBC deemed the film too violent for television, so it was released in theaters instead. It was Reagan's last film before he entered politics.

Although there had been filmed feature-length television specials such as The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1957), a 1960 Hallmark Hall of Fame Macbeth filmed in color on location in Scotland, and, as early as 1954, a filmed musical version in color of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol telecast on CBS's Shower of Stars, the film generally regarded as the first made-for-television movie was See How They Run, directed by David Lowell Rich and starring John Forsythe and Senta Berger. It first aired on October 7, 1964 and ushered in a series of other TV-movies over the years, aired on NBC under the title NBC World Premiere Movie. Many of the made-for-television movies on NBC would become TV series in their own right during the late-1960s and early-1970s. One of the more famous examples was Fame Is the Name of the Game (1966), which ultimately served as the pilot episode for the 1968–71 series The Name of the Game.

Influence on other networks

Saturday Night at the Movies attracted sufficient ratings so that NBC and its competitors added more movie series to the prime time schedule. ABC, then a distant third in the ratings, immediately added another movie series, Hollywood Special, as a mid-season replacement; however, the series, under its new title The ABC Sunday Night Movie, did not become a regular television program until 1964. CBS was leading the other networks in the ratings at that time and did not immediately add a prime time movie series. However, over the next few years, each of the three networks added weeknight movies to the schedule and by 1968, there was a prime time network movie for every night of the week:

The popularity of these movie broadcasts also provided a windfall profit to the movie studios, since competitive bidding for popular movies raised the price for broadcast rights. This, in turn, made it cost effective to produce "made for TV" movies.

This trend continued and reached its peak in the mid-1970s, when there were 11 or more movies in the weekly network schedule - though some of the "movies" (like Columbo) were actually just a regular television series with longer episodes.

Fox Network had also begun to air films in prime time, as the network has gained more and more popularity with its all-time longest running hit, The Simpsons, but like the "Big Three" networks, Fox also has since cancelled its movie series.

As opposed to ABC, NBC and CBS, Fox aired its movies primarily on Tuesday nights at 7:00 Eastern, though sometimes due to a news broadcast or game, the day of a broadcast might have been changed.


Announcing of opening credits and bumpers for NBC Saturday Night at the Movies was handled mainly out of NBC's Burbank studios. For years, the main announcer was Don Stanley. In later years, he alternated with Donald Rickles, Peggy Taylor and Victor Bozeman. Near the end of Saturday Night at the Movies' run, opening credits (for the series, not for the films themselves) would be handled by members of the network's New York announcing staff, including Fred Collins and Howard Reig, though the Burbank staff announcers still handled bumpers. At the beginning the announcer would say something like: "NBC Saturday Night at the Movies, a series featuring motion pictures appearing on television for the first time. Tonight..." or "NBC Saturday Night at the Movies, the television series which each week brings you the finest in recent motion pictures. Tonight..." Following this, the film's title and its stars would be identified. The program would then go into a commercial, and then the film would begin. The opening and closing credits for the actual films would be shown exactly as they appeared when the films were shown in theatres, not in a revised format as was done on The ABC Sunday Night Movie.

As with the other movie anthology series of the time, there was no host for the program. Although an announcer's voice was heard at the beginning, the program itself simply consisted of the showing of the film and perhaps a movie trailer afterward.

Decline and later years

NBC broadcast Saturday Night at the Movies until 1978. It ran until at least October 28. Some of the other movie series on television were also cancelled by the end of the decade. However, some continued well into the 1980s and even beyond.[3] Changes in television viewing habits, though, seemed to spell the end for many of these series. Loss of ratings for them has been attributed to increased competition from cable television, especially pay movie channels that were able to show the movies uncut and without commercial interruptions. Other factors that have led to the decline of the TV network movie presentations include the advent of home video and video rental, pay-per-view and video on demand.

The NBC Saturday Night Movie has been periodically broadcast on the namesake American television network on Saturdays 8:00 p.m.11:00 p.m. from 2000 on, and originally had interstitials hosted by Ryan Seacrest.[4] It was replaced by coverage of the XFL in 2001, but returned the next year without host continuity, and by 2006 the network decided to only occasionally air theatrical films during sweeps weeks in various timeslots, so the Saturday movie has been completely discontinued. In 2009 and 2010, Wal-Mart and Procter & Gamble purchased some Friday and Saturday night time on NBC and Fox to broadcast television films they produced such as The Jensen Project, though the ratings for these films were well below regular programming and like strategies pursued by Mattel with Nickelodeon with the Barbie series of films, mainly aired to sell those films on DVD in-store. The P&G/Wal-Mart series of films was eventually discontinued, with Wal-Mart eventually being one of the main sponsors of NBC's live musical event The Sound of Music Live! in December 2013.


Occasionally, any one of the major commercial networks still observes the time-honored custom of showing a recent box office and critical smash as a movie special. This pre-empts regular programming, as CBS did on Sunday, May 20, 2007, with a three-hour commercial network telecast of Million Dollar Baby, and as ABC did on September 14, 2009 with the first commercial television showing of Dreamgirls. Such showings often occur during sweeps, in an effort to boost a network's viewer ratings.

Since the late 2000s, film rights purchased earlier in the decade by broadcast networks have mainly been burned off on Saturday nights or other unusual timeslots such as Sunday afternoon for ABC, with only a few select event films such as The Sound of Music, Titanic and The Ten Commandments remaining annually broadcast by networks, as cable networks such as FX/FXX, USA Network, TBS/TNT and Comedy Central have taken the market for major network film premieres.


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