The show originally aired without a sponsor, but NBC agreed to pay for initial production costs; it was assumed that once the show actually aired and advertisers were able to see its sophistication, a national sponsor would emerge. None did; many national companies did not want to upset their customers in the South, who did not want to see a black man on TV shown in anything other than a subservient position. Although NBC agreed to continue footing the bill for the show until a sponsor could be found, star Nat 'King' Cole pulled the plug on it himself in its second season. In the 1956 season, the show had a 15-minute running time. It was expanded to a 30-minute segment in 1957. Said Cole of the doomed series, "Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark." See more »
I saw some episodes of this show about fifteen years ago on Washington, D.C.'s channel 32, the Howard University channel, and I was enthralled. My liking for the show stemmed not just from the quality of the music and of the performances, both Nat King Cole's and his guests', but from the warmth and charisma exuded by Nat King Cole in his hosting role, and from the elegant simplicity of the presentation. There was a minimum of showbiz flash: rather, what you had was a gracious host, a simple set, and good music. Each episode felt, in a way, more like a nearly-no-frills concert in an intimate setting than like television musical presentation of the kind we've become accustomed to. It was a cliché of the era to say that television brought entertainment "into your living room"; but this show, with its feeling of intimacy and relaxed understatement, achieves that goal perhaps more than any other television show I've seen.
Of course, much of the elegant simplicity I'm praising here was probably the unavoidable result of budgetary limitations. Virtually all fifties television was low-budget by today's standards; and while I've never seen any other fifties musical variety shows to compare it with (my familiarity with musical variety shows begins with the mid sixties), it's possible that The Nat King Cole Show was lower-budget than most. So personally I'd consider this show to be an example of how limitations can work to the artistic advantage of the creators of a production by leaving them no choice but to concentrate all their attentions and energies on the essentials; although perhaps the average showbiz-flash-craving viewer of then, or of now, wouldn't agree. Television musical presentation of this kind may be destined to always be a rarity; but fortunately the kinescopes of this show have survived for our enjoyment, and to help record the artistry of one of the twentieth century's greatest popular-music performers.
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