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RCN-TV is kicking off its “Spring Programming Schedule” this April with the return of popular television shows and other programs making their first ever appearance on our channel. 

Today we look at the RCN-TV spring premiere of The Red Skelton Show. 

One of the most successful–yet often underrated–shows in the first 20 years of television was The Red Skelton Show. 

NBC wanted to turn Skelton’s popular radio show into a TV vehicle, one of the first-ever television shows.  However, the movie industry stopped this from initially occurring.

Unlike radio, which worked in union with movie producers and was frequently used as an advertising tool to promote movies, the film industry was very reluctant to help television studios and executives in any way.  They feared competition from this new visual medium.  To this end, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who held Skelton under contract, did not allow him to start producing his own TV show until his contract with MGM had expired in 1951.

Once on the air, Red had a very successful first two years.  Skelton then moved his show to CBS and eventually forced the network to present his program in color–even to the extent that Red purchased multiple production vehicles, so that the show could be recorded in both black-and-white and color.  In addition to utilizing color to appropriately play jokes off his red hair, Skelton created a brilliantly vibrant stage and colorful background sets in which to perform his equally colorful array of unique characters.

Although Skelton was a visionary and saw the potential of broadcasting in color, America was not ready for color television programs in 1955.  Color TV sets (made primarily by now-rival NBC’s parent company, RCA) were seen as a luxury and less than 10% of families owned them at this time.  Thus, Skelton’s experiment with color was deemed a failure.  He negotiated for CBS to buy back the color broadcast equipment in exchange for a renegotiated contract for himself.

What was not a failure was Skelton’s format and his comedy routines.  While popular variety shows of the early 1950s either fizzled out (Milton Berle, Eddie Cantor) or evolved into what became more traditional situation comedies (Jack Benny, Burns & Allen), Skelton continued to finish in the Nielsen Ratings Top 20.  In fact, he most often finished within the top 11 of the most popular shows on television through the rest of the 1950s and 1960s using virtually the same format on every program.

In addition to Red’s own brand of humor and his continuing creativity in developing zany on-screen characters, he kept his program fresh by having a constant stream of major Hollywood talent from other television shows, popular entertainers and musicians, who would both perform songs as well as interplay with Red’s antics.  Eventually more and more movie stars (one of the most popular and frequent being Mickey Rooney) would stop by and visit, once motion picture stars began realizing that TV and movies could “co-exist.”

Skelton kept the colorful stages and eventually received some semblance of artistic redemption in 1966 as CBS caved to mounting national pressure to incorporate broadcasting in color.

Despite the fact that the show was still ranked 7th in the 1970 Nielsen Ratings, CBS cancelled Red’s program as part of its “Rural Purge.”

NBC picked up the show but dramatically changed the format.  They did away with the colorful sets and backed Skelton in dark, very drab backgrounds.  Furthermore, they eliminated the popular guest stars who would frequently appear with Red.  Instead, he had a recurring cast (filled with much younger and mostly unknown actors) to perform with the comedian and had them play different roles each week.

The changes did not work.  The chemistry between the actors was noticeably absent and the show never cracked Nielsen’s Top 30.  In Skelton’s previous 19 years on-air, his shows had finished no worse than 19th.

There’s many more stories about Skelton’s career and innovative work in the industry, along with a few little-known “skeltons” in his closet that showed a different side of this complex entertainer.  We’ll look at those in a future Showplace entry.

Check out The Red Skelton Show, now a part of RCN TV’s new spring programming lineup.  Tune in or set your DVRs for Sundays at 1:30 pm and Wednesday mornings at 11:30 am on RCN-TV.

To view the complete rundown of classic programming on RCN TV, check out the weekly listings here on our website.