Hour Glass was a seminal, if largely forgotten, variety program airing on NBC-TV from May 1946 to February 1947. It is historically important, however, in that it exemplified the issues faced by networks, sponsors, and advertising agencies in television's formative years. The program was produced by the J. Walter Thompson agency on behalf of Standard Brands for their Chase and Sanborn and Tenderleaf Tea lines. It took sponsor and agency several months to decide on the show's format, eventually choosing variety for two reasons: it allowed for experimentation with other forms (comedy sketches, musical numbers, short playlets, and the like), plus Thompson and Standard Brands had previously collaborated on the successful radio show The Chase and Sanborn Hour.
The lines of responsibility were not completely defined in those early years, and the nine-month run of Hour Glass was punctuated by frequent squabbling among the principals. Each show was assembled by seven Thompson employees working in two teams, each putting together a show over two weeks in a frenzy of production. The format was familiar to Chase and Sanborn Hour listeners in that the program accentuated star power as the means of drawing the largest audience. Hour Glass featured different performers every week, including Peggy Lee and--in one of the first examples of a top radio star appearing on network television--Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy in November 1946. The show also showcased filmed segments produced by Thompson's Motion Picture Department; these ranged from short travelogues to advertisements. Every episode also included a ten minute drama, which proved one of the more popular portions of the show.
It must have been the curiosity factor that prompted some stars to appear on the show because they certainly were not paid much money. Hour Glass had a talent budget of only $350 a week, hardly more than scale for a handful of performers. Still, Standard Brands put an estimated $200,000 into the program's nine-month run, by far the largest amount ever devoted to a sponsored show at that time.
Although Thompson and Standard Brands representatives occasionally disagreed over the quality of individual episodes, their association was placid compared to the constant sniping that was the hallmark of the agency's relationship with NBC. It started with unhappiness over studio space, which Thompson regarded as woefully inadequate, and escalated when the network insisted that a NBC director manage the show from live rehearsals through actual broadcast. The network was similarly displeased that Thompson refused to clear their commercials with NBC before air time.
In February 1947 Standard Brands canceled Hour Glass. They were pleased with the show's performance in terms of beverage sales and its overall quality, yet were leery about continuing to pour money into a program that did not reach a large number of households (it is unclear if the show was broadcast anywhere other than NBC's interconnected stations in New York and Philadelphia). The strain between NBC and Thompson played a role as well. Still, Hour Glass did provide Thompson with a valuable blueprint for the agency's celebrated and long-running production, Kraft Television Theatre.
Helen Parrish (1946)
PRODUCER Howard Reilly