"I have never ruled against a producer in my life, ever, on anything. Because I learned very early that for the one time you're right, it will not be permissible. In the long run, you have to protect the freedom of a producer who has a record of doing what's tasteful."
About This Interview
In his three-and-a-half-hour Archive interview, Michael Dann (1921-2016) discusses his start in television as part of the NBC publicity department. He describes his time with NBC News and his move to CBS, where he worked his way up the ranks to become head of CBS programming. Dann details his experiences overseeing The Defenders, Gilligan's Island, 60 Minutes, and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, among others, and shares his thoughts on some of his colleagues at both NBC and CBS. He also touches on his work since leaving CBS - consulting for Children's Television Workshop, Warner Communications, and the BBC. Don West conducted the interview on October 26, 1998 in New York, NY.
Mike Dann was one of the most successful programming executives in U.S. network television during the 1950s and 1960s. He was known as a "master scheduler" and spent his most successful years at CBS working in tandem with CBS President James Aubrey. He began his television career shortly after World War II as a comedy writer and in 1948 joined NBC, where he would stay for the next ten years. Initially hired to work in the publicity, he soon moved to the programming department and eventually served as head of NBC Entertainment under David Sarnoff. In 1958, he moved to CBS as vice president of programs in New York. In 1963 he was promoted to head of programming, and in 1966 he was appointed senior vice president of programs. During most of his tenure, CBS consistently ranked as the number one network in prime time audience ratings.
Dann held the head programming position at CBS longer than anyone else (from 1963 to 1970), serving under five different CBS Presidents. His success was attributable, in part, to an uncanny ability to gauge William Paley's probable reaction to most program ideas. Dann was often referred to as "the weathervane" for changing his opinions to match those of his bosses. In spite of this reputation Dann was not one to avoid controversy. Arthur Godfrey, a long-time audience favorite at CBS, had two prime time programs ranked in the top 10; during the 1950s he did not get along with Dann and left CBS as a result. (The fact that Godfrey disappeared from public view suggests that Dann was probably correct in his assessment that Godfrey was "over the hill".)
Dann was also able to restore and establish good and long-lasting relationships with talent producers and advertisers--an area in which CBS had suffered. He felt that viewers preferred "escapist" television to "realist" television, and thought the half-hour situation comedy was the staple of any prime time schedule. He also believed the network should renew any program with ratings high enough to produce a profit.
Another development during Dann's regime was a significant increase in the number of "specials" aired. While the staple of prime time programming was, and remains, the weekly series, Dann believed that liberal use of special programming at strategic times would only enhance the network's ratings. One could argue that he was the innovator of what has come to be called "event television".
In 1966, he recognized that television (and CBS, in particular) faced a major crisis--the networks were running out of first-run theatrical movies. As a result, CBS bought the old Republic Pictures lot, turned it into the CBS Studio Center, and went into feature film production. ABC and NBC soon followed suit.
Among the many successful programs introduced under Dann's leadership were The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Carol Burnett Show, Mission: Impossible, Mannix, Hawaii Five-0, and 60 Minutes. These program development and programming skills were put to the test in one particular instance. For years CBS had trouble competing in the very important 9:00-10:00 P.M. slot on Sunday evenings, despite a very strong lead-in program (The Ed Sullivan Show). NBC had Bonanza, the highly successful series, in that time period and CBS had failed with its previous counter-programming attempts (Judy Garland, Garry Moore, Perry Mason). Dann chose a new series for this slot, a series he believed would attract a younger audience, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. The move proved quite successful. The Smothers Brothers' show became a hit, though not without more than its share of controversy. The most notable conflict arose over an episode involving folk singer Pete Seeger in 1967, who was scheduled to sing his anti-war song "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy". Dann wanted Seeger to delete one stanza of the song. When Seeger and the Smothers refused, Dann had the song deleted from the telecast. In February 1968, Seeger was again scheduled to appear. This time the song, in its entirety aired.
Dann's conservative attitudes toward social and cultural standards appeared again when CBS decided to air the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Dann had the producers make one change--Mary could not be a divorced woman. He felt that premise too controversial and forced James L. Brooks and Allan Burns to rewrite the character as a woman who had recently broken off a long-term engagement.
Dann's power at CBS began to wane in the late 1960s, as did the ratings of some of the shows he had developed and scheduled. His new boss, Robert Wood, wanted innovation, not sameness. Dann was forced out when he opposed cancellation of hit "rural" series: The Red Skelton Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Hee Haw. These shows were replaced by series such as All in the Family, deemed more socially relevant and, perhaps more importantly, more appealing to a younger age group whose greater spending power attracted advertisers. The public explanation for Dann's departure was the ever-available and undefined "health reasons." His successor was his protégé, Fred Silverman, who would go on to head the programming departments of all three networks.
-Mitchell E. Shapiro
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MICHAEL DANN. Born in Detroit, Michigan, U.S.A., 11 September 1921. Educated at the University of Michigan, B.A. in Economics, 1941. Married: 1) Joanne Himmell, 1949 (divorced, 1973), children: Jonathan, Patricia, and Priscilla; 2) Louise Cohen, 1973. Comedy writer, 1946-47; public relations staff of the New Haven Rail Road, 1947-48; trade editor, NBC for press department, 1948-49; coordinator of program package sales, 1949-50; supervisor, special telecasts, 1950-52; manager, television program department, 1952-54; director, program sales, 1954-56; vice-president, television program sales, 1956-58; vice-president, network programming at CBS, 1958-63; vice-president, programs for CBS, 1963-66; senior vice-president, CBS, 1966-70; vice-president and assistant to president of Children's Television Workshop, 1970s; consultant to Warner Cable, planning programming for QUBE, 1974; developed concepts for Disney's Epcot Center; senior program advisor for ABC Video Enterprises, 1980; visiting lecturer in american studies and guest fellow of Yale University, 1973-78.