The future of TV’s most far-out show is not quite as uncertain as many of its plots…
[TV Guide, Summer 1963]
Come September, when the last rerun has run its course, The Twilight Zone as a weekly half-hour series will be no more. [Editor: Hah!] For a while, the famous “fifth dimensional” program, always controversial, appeared finally to have succumbed. But the show that seemed just a step ahead of cancellation has survived again. Indeed, Rod Serling’s weekly exercise in perversity has had remarkable staying powers, leapfrogging over sponsors, surviving catastrophes, adding a phrase to the language and lending new dimension to the medium that gave it birth.
The latest development is Serling’s deal with CBS for 13 one-hour shows. Production will start in July and the programs will be televised either in the 1963-64 season or, perhaps, used next winter if some other program fails to make it.
This latest twist is typical of Twilight, which for three seasons has seemingly flitted in and out of the sunlight of sponsor approval. Indeed, to the sponsor’s way of thinking, it was easily the most bothersome show on the air.
Case of the confused sponsor
Take the case of one agitated sponsor, for instance, who used to get apoplectic at the mere suggestion of another trip into that “boundless realm.” Always remembered affectionately around the Twilight shop simply as “the Old Man,” he took on the program because of the glitter of the Serling name. His idea of a good show wasWanted—Dead or Alive, where a man could tell good guys from bad. And the more he saw of his own program the more it confused him.
“He used to call up the agency on Monday morning and demand to know what Friday’s script had been all about,” recalls Serling with a smile. “Then he’d demand an explanation of the explanation. I guess he figured if he couldn’t understand it, neither could the people who bought his products. The funny part was that although every renewal was right at the wire—one day I got eight phone calls, four telling me we were off the air and four more telling me we were back on—the Old Man stuck for a whole season before he decided he couldn’t stand it any longer.”
Serling’s reputation as one of brightest young playwrights, plus the fact that most critics did nip-ups over the show, placed the now powers-that-be in an uncomfortable position. It was a prestige item. Not liking it—let alone doing anything as crass cancelling—was a little like admitting you didn’t dig Lawrence Durrell. Against such obvious quality, a protest that the show’s cost per thousand viewers was too high had a rather hollow ring.
That was the story right from beginning. Five years ago Serling proposed an hour-long “science fiction kind of show” with a pilot called “The Time Element.” CBS took a gingerly look and said no. The reason given was that Serling was invading “too special a storytelling area,” a polite way of saying that fantasy wouldn’t sell.
Eventually, however, “The Time Element” was shown on Desilu Playhouse—with the highest mail pull of any Playhouse show that season. The network took a second look.
Another pilot was made, this time only a half-hour long, complete with the hard-to-swallow premises that are the essence of The Twilight Zone. Interestingly (and perhaps significantly), “Where Is Everybody?” was one. of the two Twilight Zones that had et completely rational explanation. (The other was a fallout story called “The Shelter.”) The story showed a your man, played by Earl Holliman, at large in a frustrating world of automobiles left running, coffee left perking, and cigarets left burning with absolutely no one around to smoke them. (The hero ryas an astronaut undergoing a severe psychological isolation test which produced the delusion that he was alone in the world.) In February 1959 General Foods bought this little journey into “the middle ground between light and shadow . . . between the pit of [man’s] fears and the sunlight of his knowledge,” and in the fall of 1959 The Twilight Zone went on TV.
It was hardly greeted with huzzas. At least not from viewers, who, like sponsors and network executives, needed time to get used to the idea. At first its ratings were so low that it pains Serling even to think about it. Finally it crept up to about an 18 Nielsen. Serling, a self-styled “hot lip,” began to pop off: “Fifteen million viewers-more than saw ‘Oklahoma!’ during the entire run of the show on Broadway-and they want to cancel!”
But, of course, they didn’t really cancel-or not right away. And it is to the credit of General Foods and Kimberly-Clark, the first sponsors, that when all the arm waving was done they decided to stick with this “quality show” on the theory that it would eventually find its audience. A 24 rating was what they had in mind. Actually, The Twilight Zone climbed to the 19-to-20 Nielsen area, never getting very much above that. Kimberly-Clark was the first to give up at the end of the first year. In October 1960, Colgate-Palmolive stepped in.
From then on sponsorship gyrated crazily, with sponsors nervously watching ratings, figuring costs-per-thousand, and ultimately bowing out. (General Foods said the show “wasn’t doing a job for us”; Colgate said it wanted to shift to “the hard sell.”)
Yet a significant change had been taking place. Where once it had been a cliffhanger to know where the next sponsor was coming from, now there were plenty of would-be Twilight Zone-ers. For all this time the show had been developing a loyal, enthusiastic, hard-core following and most particularly among young people in the 12-to-15 age bracket. Charles Beaumont, who, along with a couple of others, including Richard Matheson, spells Serling on the writing, has suggested a reason: “Maybe it’s because,” he says, “kids are hungry for the full play of the imagination while their elders are inclined to fear it.”
However that may be, The Twilight Zone has produced a phrase that has entered the language. Political cartoonists were forever depicting their world leaders as entering one kind of Twilight Zone or another. In southern Illinois a high school basketball team sported a “Twilight Zone Defense.” Boxer Archie Moore, in recalling a particularly lethal punch from opponent Yvon Durelle, marveled, “Man, I was in the Twilight Zone!”
Serling’s own Twilight Zone
But this spring when the show was tardy, as usual, about lining up sponsors for the fall, a new show, Fair Exchange, sneaked into its time spot and Serling found himself in a Twilight Zone of his own-locked out. Serling admitted to “mixed emotions” about it: “Anybody would rather quit than get the boot-the ego demands that,” he says. “On the other hand I am grateful. We had some great moments of vast excitement, and on occasion achieved some real status. But now it is time to move on.”
Moving on, to Serling, apparently means extending The Twilight Zone to an hour. It will give him a chance to build characterization, something denied him in 30-minute time periods and for which he finds action a poor substitute.
In the half-hour form we depended heavily on the old O. Henry twist,” he says. “So the only question is: Can we retain the Twilight flavor in an hour? We may come up with something totally different.”
Whatever it is-three, four, five or six-dimensional-chances are that audiences will probably be wildly enthusiastic about or dead set against that ‘boundless realm.” Serling smiles when he says: “Apparently there is no middle ground in the Twilight Zone.”