I LET THEM ADD THE BRASS
In 1959 I was hosting The Lloyd Thaxton Record Shop on channel 13, Los Angeles. I sat all by myself behind a desk in front of a stage flat painted to look like record shop album shelves. Like a radio disk jockey, I played records. This, however, was TV and the audience had to watch something while the records were playing. So, among a host of others gimmicks, I lip-synced, faked musical instruments and created finger people to perform this task. Even though it was a morning show with a low rating, I did manage to get some great musical artists as guest. It was a fun show to do.
By 1961, just before the debut of The Lloyd Thaxton Show, which added teen-agers to the mix, the Record Shop had built up a sizeable TV audience.
One morning I had country singer Jimmy Dean as a guest. Most people today know Jimmy Dean as the frozen sausage king. But in the late 50’s, Jimmy not only made hit records, he was also the star of a highly rated country music TV show in New York City. That is, until, according to Jimmy; “I let them add the brass.”
Though The Jimmy Dean Show was already a hit in the New York suburbs, no one expected the show to make it in the Big City itself. But, according to the ratings, the show was, in fact, becoming a big city hit. Because of this, the wise men at the New York station came to Jimmy and said he would have to make some major changes in the show. “Why?” asked Jimmy. “The show is a hit.”
According to these wise men, THAT is the very reason for the changes. They told Jimmy the viewers in the city are too sophisticated to watch a country music show. The show now has to be more sophisticated. “But the show is already a hit with the big city slickers. They like it as it is,”
The wise men won out and added all kinds of changes. Out went the country humor and the fiddles. In their place they put a big band with lots of trombones and trumpets (they added the brass). The format was totally changed from “A Little Bit of Country” to “Big Brass City.”
You guessed it. The ratings went in the toilet and the show was canceled. Jimmy was telling me this story as a friendly warning. He said that I should not change anything in my show just because the ratings showed that more and more Los Angeles people were starting to watch it.
When Jimmy left the studio, his parting words were, “Remember, Lloyd, don’t let them add the brass.”
In 1966, I stopped listening to Jimmy Dean.
The Lloyd Thaxton Show was designed from the beginning as a low budget local show. It had one host (me), an average of 30 teens dancing to records in a small TV studio in front of an inexpensive set. There were several innovative elements that separated it from other dance shows at the time. Everyone (myself and the kids) lip-synced records and performed other wild and crazy production numbers in order to make the music visual and more entertaining to watch. Some have referred to these bits as “the beginning of the Music Video.” Even with these added elements, the show held on to its classic local show look.
In just 10 months, The Lloyd Thaxton Show zoomed to the top in Los Angeles. Not only was it a hit with teens, it was number one with 18-39 year-old viewers. This is the audience demographic most coveted by advertisers and in 1964 the show went into national syndication. And, guess what. The wise men showed up.
I was advised that because the show would now be seen in cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco, we had to make changes. Fortunately I remembered Jimmy Dean’s advice and refused to change or “add the brass.” The show continued its rating success in every city it played, big and small.
Reality Fact #1: The only reason the show was in syndication was because it was rated number one in the 18-39 demographics. Advertisers drool over this coveted bracket and the Lloyd Thaxton show was getting the winning numbers.
Reality Fact #2: Very few corporate executives, the ones who make the ad buying decisions, really watch the shows they advertise in on a regular basis, it at all. They make their ad buy decisions based on the rating books.
Then one day it all changed.
One of the Lloyd Thaxton Show’s biggest advertisers was Colgate-Palmolive. Colgate placed a lot of ads in the show. One afternoon the president of Colgate just happened to tune in and watched for about five minutes. What did he see? According to him, he saw nothing but teen-agers DANCING! He immediately called his ad department and asked, “Why are we advertising in that show? It’s a teen show! They don’t buy toothpaste!” The advertising department could not convince the president of the company that the rating books showed adults, 18-39, were watching and Colgate pulled their ads. On some TV stations this represented about 50% of their advertising and they panicked.
In marched the wise men again. “Change the show. Make it look older,” they said. This time I didn’t listen to Jimmy Dean. I could have held on. There were enough other advertisers aboard to get us through this emergency. But, I gave in and agreed to make changes. The show was moved to a larger studio, an expensive set was built, a new theme song was written, and two wonderfully talented young people (over 18) were hired to join me as host. Then I made what I now consider to be my biggest mistake. I changed the age limit for the kids on the show. They now had to be over 18. Instead of using high school groups, I changed to College students. “Ok,” I said, “If any advertising gurus tune in now, they will only see 18 to 23 year olds dancing on the show.
Were all these changes a fantastically shrewd move or not? NOT! I had broken the Jimmy Dean rule. I had “added the brass.”
As anyone could predict, I slowly started to lose my faithful teen audience. This was the show’s core. The overall ratings dropped. I could have still held on (and sometimes I wish I had) but I had been doing the show for five days a week, 52 weeks a year for over nine years and was ready to move on. The final straw was the Vietnam War, the draft, and the drain all this was taking on teen-agers at the time.
I cancelled the show.
I sometimes wonder that if I hadn’t given in the wise men (I think there were three) some version of The Lloyd Thaxton Show would be on today.
We’ve all heard the saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Add this one: “Don’t let them add the brass.”