The Virtual Ed Sullivan Show (found UPN variety special; 1998)

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The special's opening titles.

Status: Found

Date found: 30 Apr 2024

Found by: Kev the Ripper

The Virtual Ed Sullivan Show was a UPN variety television special broadcast on 18th May 1998. Intended both to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Ed Sullivan Show, and inspire a new weekly television show, the special's catch was that because the real Ed Sullivan had been dead for 24 years, a CGI version of him portrayed and voiced by John Byner presented the special. Alas, The Virtual Ed Sullivan Show drew an exceptionally low rating, causing UPN's regular series plans to be scrapped and the special to fall into obscurity. It was not until April 2024 that the special became fully available to the public again.


The Ed Sullivan Show, originally known as Toast of the Town,[1] was a weekly Sunday night CBS show broadcast from 20th June 1948 to 28th March 1971.[2][3] Hosted by Sullivan, who had previously been a columnist for several high-profile newspapers and host of fellow CBS show Harvest Moon Ball, The Ed Sullivan Show became one of America's longest-lasting and most popular variety programmes.[4] Its success had surprisingly less to do with Sullivan's on-screen appearances (which nevertheless still made him a popular figure), but more so his ability to book engaging performance acts that greatly appealed to children, teenagers and adults alike.[2][3] Even in its early days, The Ed Sullivan Show was able to attract the top and up-and-coming acts to perform.[5][2][3] The musical South Pacific received nationwide promotion on the show's inaugural episode, with the score performed by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.[5] Yet, this was overshadowed by two broadcasts in particular: 9th September 1956 saw Elvis Presley make his first of three show appearances, attracting over 60 million viewers.[6] But the show's record rating came on 9th February 1964, when Sullivan booked The Beatles in the midst of Beatlemania and subsequently prompted over 73 million to tune in.[7][2][3]

Ultimately, an aging viewer base combined with younger viewers tuning into alternatives like Disney, resulted in The Ed Sullivan Show coming to a close on 6th June 1971.[8][5][3] Despite pleas from former performers to ensure that a viable platform for up-and-coming talent remained on the air, The Ed Sullivan Show became one of many CBS shows cancelled in the early 1970s as a result of the "rural purge".[8] Sullivan passed away on 13th October 1974 from esophageal cancer at the age of 73.[9] The show nevertheless remained revered in the United States, being ranked 15th by TV Guide in its Top 50 greatest television shows.[10]

The Virtual Ed Sullivan Show

As The Ed Sullivan Show reached its 50th anniversary in 1998, three channels aimed to celebrate the occasion with special programming.[11][12] The approach from CBS was perhaps the conventional route; A Really Big Show: Ed Sullivan's 50th Anniversary provided a retrospective look at The Ed Sullivan Show hosted by the Smothers Brothers, including providing rare clips.[13] Meanwhile, VH1 planned to air 20 episodes of Ed Sullivan's Rock 'N' Roll Classics featuring the most remembered appearances of musicians like the aforementioned Presley and the Beatles.[11][12] In contrast, UPN's plans were considerably more ambitious, as not only did they want to pay tribute to Sullivan but aimed to revive his show too.[11][13] The project was spearheaded by Dean Valentine,[12] who contacted Ed Sullivan Library owners Andrew Solt Productions to arrange a pilot production.[14]

Solt, who also produced the CBS special and the VH1 show,[11] identified that although Sullivan had been dead for 24 years, it was actually possible to re-create him through CGI.[12] Therefore, The Virtual Ed Sullivan Show featured a 3D rendition of the revered TV host, as performed and voiced by comedian and impressionist John Byner.[15][16][12][13] Byner, who appeared in seventeen episodes of The Ed Sullivan Show and planned to portray Sullivan in further specials,[15] donned a motion-capture sensor suit and was tasked to replicate the host's mannerisms and voice backstage.[14][12] On-stage, Byner would be converted into a 3D simulation of Sullivan.[14][12][16] Considering the limitations of CGI back then, newspaper previews noted "Sullivan" seemed stiff and looked somewhat creepy.[13][12] It also naturally raised ethical concerns, particularly over the usage of technology to "bring back" dead celebrities.[16] The practice itself is legal under legislation like the Californian Civil Code 990, since the recreation of imagery via technology for media purposes bypasses copyright restrictions.[17][18]

The Virtual Ed Sullivan Show also came during a period where Sullivan's likeness was regularly utilised.[12][16] A similar example came in September 1997 when Mercedes used a CGI Sullivan to promote its M-Class.[19][20][12] However, it should be noted that both the M-Class commercial and The Virtual Ed Sullivan Show received the blessing from Sullivan's estate.[19][12] Solt cited this to defend the ethical concerns some critics held, having also insisted that "It's fun to be able to go back with Ed every now and again."[12] Among names advertised for the show included comedians Jeff Dunham, Steve Altman, and The Bert Fershners; violinist Sarah Chang; the dance group Tap Dogs; stage magician Ricky Jay; and various vaudeville acts from the likes of The Flying Karamazov Brothers, The Alexis Brothers, The Red Pandas, and Malenga.[13][14] Another CGI character was also conceptualised for the special, the rat and show hopeful Max Rodente.[14] According to Billboard, UPN considered making The Virtual Ed Sullivan Show on a weekly basis should the special prove successful.[11]

The special aired on 18th May 1998 from 8 to 9 pm.[11][13] Interestingly, CBS' A Really Big Show: Ed Sullivan's 50th Anniversary was broadcast an hour later,[11][13] though Solt insisted it was merely a coincidence rather than a ploy to maximise ratings from Sullivan enthusiasts.[12] Alas, The Virtual Ed Sullivan Show received poor critical reception, with Eric Deggans of the Tampa Bay Times giving it a D+. In comparison, he gave the CBS special a B grade.[12] The viewership was a complete disaster, with the special ranking joint-100th out of 102 shows.[21] It had very little to do with Sullivan burnout since the CBS special tied for 24th.[21] Consequently, plans for a regular show were scrapped. Aside from being an obscure relic of Sullivan media, The Virtual Ed Sullivan Show serves as a case study regarding the legal and ethical concerns of using technology to "revive" dead stars, as detailed in John T. Aquino's book Truth and Lives on Film.[17]


Because of the special's objective ratings failure, The Virtual Ed Sullivan Show fell into obscurity.[22] Prior to 2024, the only clip that resurfaced was of the Tap Dogs segment, which was uploaded to YouTube by Darin Chumbley on 25th June 2015.[23] Aside from this, the special provoked occasional discussions on the Steve Hoffman Music Forums and subreddits r/ForgottenTV and r/ObscureMedia.[24][25][26] Then, on 30th April 2024, Kev the Ripper announced he had obtained a full copy of the special, having purchased the tape on eBay.[22] He subsequently digitised it and uploaded the special onto YouTube and MySpleen.[27][22]



The Virtual Ed Sullivan Show.

The Mercedes M-Class commercial also featuring a digital Sullivan.


  1. The Ed Sullivan Show summarising the very first episode back when it was Toast of the Town. Retrieved 30th May '24
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Parade documenting The Ed Sullivan Show as part of its 75th anniversary. Retrieved 30th May '24
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 The Ed Sullivan Show summarising the show's history. Retrieved 30th May '24
  4. Biography page on Sullivan. Retrieved 30th May '24
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 History summarising the final episode of The Ed Sullivan Show. Retrieved 30th May '24
  6. Graceland: The Home of Elvis Presley summarising Presley's three appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. Retrieved 30th May '24
  7. The Internet Beatles Album detailing the Beatles' appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Retrieved 30th May '24
  8. 8.0 8.1 West Tennesse Today detailing the rural purge that resulted in the cancellation of numerous CBS shows, including The Ed Sullivan Show. Retrieved 30th May '24
  9. 14th October 1974 issue of The New York Times reporting on the death of Sullivan (p.g. 36). Retrieved 30th May '24
  10. CBS News reporting on The Ed Sullivan Show being ranked 15th in TV Guide's Top 50 Greatest TV Shows. Retrieved 30th May '24
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 11.5 11.6 9th May 1998 issue of Billboard previewing The Virtual Ed Sullivan Show among other Sullivan specials (p.g. 80). Retrieved 30th May '24
  12. 12.00 12.01 12.02 12.03 12.04 12.05 12.06 12.07 12.08 12.09 12.10 12.11 12.12 12.13 17th May 1998 issue of Tampa Bay Times previewing several 50th anniversary Sullivan specials. Retrieved 30th May '24
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 13.5 13.6 18th May 1998 issue of The Tuscaloosa News previewing The Virtual Ed Sullivan Show and A Really Big Show: Ed Sullivan's 50th Anniversary (p.g. 10). Retrieved 30th May '24
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 14.4 The Washington Post previewing The Virtual Ed Sullivan Show and how Byner produced the movements of digital Sullivan. Retrieved 30th May '24
  15. 15.0 15.1 The Los Angeles Times noting Byner portrayed the 3D rendition of Sullivan in The Virtual Ed Sullivan Show, with plans to star as him in future specials. Retrieved 30th May '24
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 16.3 14th May 1998 issue of The New York Times evaluating the merits and ethical concerns surrounding having dead celebrities appear in new programmes, including for The Virtual Ed Sullivan Show. Retrieved 30th May '24
  17. 17.0 17.1 Truth and Lives on Film: The Legal Problems of Depicting Real Persons and Events in a Fictional Medium summarising how The Virtual Ed Sullivan Show was legally able to feature a CGI version of the host (p.g. 215-216). Retrieved 30th May '24
  18. FindLaw documenting Californian Civil Code 990. Retrieved 30th May '24
  19. 19.0 19.1 8th September 1997 issue of The Los Angeles Times reporting on a digital Sullivan being used to promote the Mercedes M-Class. Retrieved 30th May '24
  20. The Mercedes M-Class advertisement featuring a CGI Sullivan. Retrieved 30th May '24
  21. 21.0 21.1 29th May 1998 issue of Portsmouth Daily Times reporting on the rating for The Virtual Ed Sullivan Show (p.g. 4). Retrieved 30th May '24
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 r/lostmedia where Kev the Ripper announced he had obtained a full copy of The Virtual Ed Sullivan Show. Retrieved 30th May '24
  23. The Tap Dogs segment. Retrieved 30th May '24
  24. Steve Hoffman Music Forums discussing The Virtual Ed Sullivan Show. Retrieved 30th May '24
  25. r/ForgottenTV discussing The Virtual Ed Sullivan Show. Retrieved 30th May '24
  26. r/ObscureMedia discussing The Virtual Ed Sullivan Show. Retrieved 30th May '24
  27. The full version of The Virtual Ed Sullivan Show. Retrieved 30th May '24