Hour Glass (lost early NBC variety television series; 1946-1947)
Hour Glass was a variety television series that aired on WNBT (which ended up becoming WNBC 4) in New York (though it is reported that the series aired on some Schenectady and Philadelphia stations) beginning on May 9th, 1946, and ending on March 6th, 1947. Its contemporary notability comes from the fact that it was the first variety television series to have been televised. It was also the first series in the field of entertainment to reach an hour-long in program length, along with it being the first series to have its own television star.
The series was produced by the J. Walter Thompson agency, and was sponsored by Standard Brands, who advertised their Chase, Sanford, and Tenderleaf tea brands. Talks between Standard and Thompson on how the series should have been formatted lasted a long time, up to many months. Eventually, the groups decided on a variety series, so there could be a large amount of room for experimentation on different types of segments.
Many famous stars at the time made appearances on Hour Glass. Ventriloquist stars Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy starred in a couple of episodes, comedians Doodles Weaver, Bert Lahr, and Jerry Colonna appeared, and singers Peggy Lee and Dennis Day had roles in the show as well. Television director Ira Skutch claimed the series was so important because it was aired on a network (even though a few series had already aired before this one), it was entirely produced by an agency, and because it had commercials, enabling the crew and the sponsors to earn money.
However, behind the scenes, the series' production was a troubled one; Edward Sobol, one of the series' producers, found it a hassle to fully achieve the "physicality" of the actors' performances due to how limited the studio the crew filmed at was; small stages, cameras that did not capture enough detail, and "severe" lighting plagued the production, with the first few episodes becoming television flops. A critic writing for Variety claimed the crew did not know what to do with the talent they had, and that they were told to stand in front of a camera and "do their stuff". Additionally, the series' comedians were criticized for the pacing of their jokes, prompting Edward to instruct the comedians to increase the pace of their routines, along with shortening their segments down to three minutes.
Around November of 1946 (specifically with the premiere of the episode on the 14th), the series started to find its own footing, with Edgar Bergen becoming the series' host, and newer episodes were much more positively reviewed. However, even with its increase in quality, the series was still too expensive for its own good; Standard Brands reportedly used $200,000 to fund the series, which was described as being too high a budget for television shows at the time. Adding to this, musicians were forbidden from singing their songs on television, due to a rule by the president of the American Federation of Musicians that songs could not be sung live until television networks and the Federation would agree on the matter, thus reducing the crew to lip-syncing and using pre-recorded music. Finally, even with Standard Brands' satisfaction with its products' sales and the quality of the show itself, they were still on the edge about funding a television series that would not be broadcast to a large number of homes across the nation (as aforementioned, the series was reported to have only been broadcast on New York and Philadelphia stations). The series was cancelled in February of 1947 and broadcasted its last episode on March 6th, 1947.
As kinescopes were only invented later in 1947, after the end of Hour Glass, no video elements are known to exist from the series. While 33 out of 44 known audio recordings of the series are known to have been archived in the Library of Congress, they are not publicly available for an individual to easily access.
- The Columbia History of American Television by Gary Edgerton. p. 86-88. Retrieved 26 Feb '20
- Encyclopedia of Television, edited by Horace Newcomb. p. 1141. Retrieved 26 Feb '20
- Hitch Your Antenna to the Stars: Early Television and Broadcast Stardom by Susan Murray. Retrieved 26 Feb '20
- An excerpt of Life magazine that mentions Hour Glass. Retrieved 26 Feb '20
- An article on Hour Glass by Cosmic Observation. Retrieved 26 Feb '20
- An Eyes of a Generation page on Hour Glass. Retrieved 26 Feb '20
- Early Television Foundation page of Kinescope recording. Retrieved 30 Oct '21
- A Television Obscurities page on the series. Retrieved 26 Feb '20