How Howard Hughes Unwittingly Brought Hollywood’s Movies To TV …

How Howard Hughes Unwittingly Brought Hollywood’s Movies To TV

On March 5, 1956, “King Kong” debuted on WOR TV, New York. This was the first time the 1933 RKO classic was shown on television anywhere.

The debut set records for viewing with an estimated 80% of television families in the area watching it on WOR’s “Million Dollar Movie” show, at least once and 33% saw it two or more times.

The original “Million Dollar Movie” format, created by WOR in 1954, was a direct result of an action taken by the one and only Howard Hughes, which we’ll get to in a moment, but first here is what the “Million Dollar Movie” format was…it was a way for independent stations, like WOR, to compete with networks by offering Hollywood films for their first TV run, airing the same film twice a night, every day for a week. KHJ in Los Angeles was WOR’s sister station and had their own version (“The Channel 9 Movie Theater”) which brought “Godzilla” to the small screen for the first time. Included here is a June ’56 ad from KHJ.

Her is a WOR hisorical clip on the start of the “MDM”.

But why is this “special” and where does Howard Hughes fit into all of this?

The “Million Dollar Movie” is special because this marks the end of Hollywood’s stonewalling of television. From the very beginning, movie makers had tried to keep their stars off radio, and actually banned their stars from appearing on television shows. They were very afraid of the new medium. The studios had theater exhibitors to protect, and it seemed to them, that the last thing you would ever want to do is let your movies be shown on television… so people could stay home and watch free? “Not over my dead body” was their attitude.

Even in the face of being frozen out of showing their film libraries, the networks had asked Hollywood to at least produce series shows for them, but that was a big NO too until ABC and Walt Disney teamed up in October of ’54 to present “Disneyland” and soon after, Warner Brothers came along with “Cheyenne” in 1955, also for ABC.

This was the crack in the dam.

To understand how and why the long defiant Hollywood studios finally agreed to rent or sell their vast libraries to television, you have to go back to May of 1948, when Howard Hughes took control of RKO.

When Hughes bought the studio, it was bleeding money but under Huges, RKO added even more debt and he was not able to turn things around. After five years, Hughes agreed to sell RKO to General Tire And Rubber for $25,000,000.

This is when the TV dam broke!

General Tire owned WOR in New York and KHJ in Los Angeles and bought RKO mostly for their library of 740 features and 1100 shorts. The plan was to debut the gems on WOR and KHJ and lease the rest out. This is when and why the “Million Dollar Movie” format was created.

In 1955, ABC followed with their version of “MDM” with “Famous Film Festival” on Sunday nights and “Afternoon Film Festival” weekdays. Their films were from Paramount and J. Arthur Rank.

Columbia, through it’s Screen Gems division sold 195 feature films and pocketed nearly $10,000,000 and, on and on, till everyone was in the pool.

To close the circle, we end on ironic note. Because the WOR debut of “King Kong” in ’56 had been such a success, RKO/General Tire re-released the 1933 classic, which showed mostly in drive in theaters and made them another pot of money. By now, all the smart guys in Hollywood were wondering what took them so long to see the light of the small screen. By taking these dusty films off the shelf, they all had a new pocket full of money. Enjoy and share! -Bobby Ellerbee


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