Like the soap opera, American Bandstand represents the transference of a successful radio format to burgeoning arena of American television. Unlike the soap opera however, the radio broadcast format of playing recorded music developed as popular entertainers from radio migrated to the newer medium of television. Initially located in the margins of broadcast schedules, the format of a live disk jockey spinning records targeted toward and embraced by teenagers soon evolved into the economic salvation of many radio stations. For one thing, the programs were relatively inexpensive to produce. In addition, the increased spending power of American teenagers in the 1950s attracted advertisers and companies marketing products specifically targeting that social group. Not the least of these were the recording companies who supplied the records without cost to stations, often including economic incentives to disk jockeys to play their products. In effect, the recorded music was a commercial for itself. Given the convergence of these factors, the teen record party became entrenched as a radio format during the 1950s and throughout the 1960s, eventually developing into Top Forty Radio.
For these same reasons, this format became highly lucrative for local television stations to produce as well. While the three networks provided the majority of prime-time programming and some early afternoon soap operas, local television stations had to fill marginal broadcast periods themselves. Since the primary audience for television viewing in the late afternoons included teenagers just out of school for the day, the teen record party apparently made sense to station managers as a way to generate advertising revenue during that broadcast period. As a result, a number of teen dance party programs found their way into television schedules during the early 1950s.
Bandstand, one of these, appeared on WFIL-TV in Philadelphia during September 1952. Hosted by Bob Horn, a popular local disk jockey, the show was presented "live" and included teenagers dancing to the records that were played. As the success of the televised Bandstand grew, Dick Clark took over the disk jockey duties of the radio program while Bob Horn was broadcasting in front of the cameras. In 1956, Horn was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol, in the middle of an anti-drunk driving campaign by WFIL. Soon thereafter, Dick Clark replaced him as the host of the televised program. Clark's clean-cut boy-next-door image seemed to offset any unsavory fallout from Horn's arrest, because the show increased in its popularity. By the fall of 1957, Clark, who had been shepherding kinescopes of the show to New York, convinced the programmers at ABC to include the show in its network lineup.
Adapting the name of the program to its new stature (and the network identity), American Bandstand first aired on the ABC network on Monday, 5 August 1957, becoming one of a handful of local origination programs to broadcast nationally. Initially, the program ran Monday through Friday from 3:00 to 4:30 P.M., EST. Almost immediately, the show became a hit for the struggling network. In retrospect, American Bandstand fit in nicely with the programming strategy that evolved at ABC during the 1950s. As the third television network, ABC could not afford the high-priced radio celebrity talent or live dramatic programming that generated the predominantly adult viewership of NBC and CBS. Therefore, ABC counterprogrammed its scheduled with shows that appealed to a younger audience. Along with programs such as The Mickey Mouse Club, ABC used American Bandstand to build a loyal audience base in the 1950s that would catapult the network to the top of the prime-time ratings in the mid-1970s.
From a cultural and social standpoint, the impact of American Bandstand should not be underrated. Even if the show diffused some of the more raucous elements of rock 'n' roll music, it helped to solidify the growing youth culture which centered around this phenomenon. But the show was important in another way as well. Once Clark took over the helm of Bandstand in 1956, he insisted on racially integrating the show, since much of the music was performed by black recording artists. When the show moved to the network schedule, it maintained its racially mixed image, thus providing American television broadcasting with its most visible ongoing image of ethnic diversity until the 1970s.
In 1964, Clark moved the production of American Bandstand to California, cutting broadcasts to once a week. In part, the move was made to facilitate Clark's expansion into other program production. Additionally, it became easier to tap into the American recording industry, the center of which had shifted to Los Angeles by that time. The show's popularity with teenagers continued until the late 1960s.
At that point, white, middle-class American youth culture moved away from the rock 'n' roll dance music that had become the staple of American Bandstand, opting instead for the drug-influenced psychedelia of the Vietnam War era. As a response to the specialized tastes of perceived diverse target audiences, radio formats began to fragment at this time, segregating popular music into distinct categories. While American Bandstand attempted to integrate many of these styles into its format throughout the 1970s, the show relied heavily on disco, the emerging alternative to psychedelic art rock. Though often denigrated at the time because of disco's emergence in working class and ethnic communities, the musical style was the logical focus for the show, given its historic reliance on presenting teenagers dancing. Consequently, American Bandstand became even more ethnically mixed at a time when the predominant face of the aging youth culture in the United States acquired a social pallor.
The foundation of American Bandstand's success rested with its ability to adapt to shifting musical trends while maintaining the basic format developed in the 1950s. As a result, Dick Clark helmed the longest running broadcast program aimed at mainstream youth to air on American network broadcast television. After thirty years of broadcasting, ABC finally dropped the show from its network schedule in 1987. In its later years, American Bandstand was often preempted by various sporting events. Given the commercial profits generated from sports presentations, apparently it was only a matter of time before the network replaced the dance party entirely. Additionally, the rise of MTV and other music video channels in the 1980s also helped to seal American Bandstand's fate. The show began to look like an anachronism when compared to the slick production values of expensively produced music videos. Nevertheless, the music video channels owe a debt of gratitude to American Bandstand, the network prototype that shaped the format which they have exploited so well.
Dick Clark (1956-1989)
David Hirsch (1989)
5 August-5 September 1957
1957-1963 Daily, Various Local Non-Prime Time Hours
1963-1969 Saturday, Various Local Non-Prime Time Hours
8 April-7 October 1989 Saturday, Non-Prime Time
Clark, Dick, and Richard Robinson. Rock, Roll and Remember. New York: Popular Library, 1976.
Shore, Michael, with Dick Clark. The History of American Bandstand. New York: Ballantine, 1985.