Did 60 Minutes Gain Its Famous Time Slot Due to an FCC Regulation?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.

TV URBAN LEGEND: 60 Minutes gained its famous time slot due to an FCC regulation.

The world of television today is so vastly different from the world of television forty years ago that it is practically like comparing Gone With the Wind to a picture at a nickelodeon.

In any event, one thing that really worried the government during the late 1960s was that the three major networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, basically dominated the production of new television programs, because they controlled most of the time in which new programs would be aired.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was worried that this consolidation of power over the creation of programs would curtail the development of new and diverse programming, as the fear was that if just these three networks were developing new shows, they would soon become homogenized. And their specific hope was that the affiliates would develop new shows designed to discuss news and politics on a local level.

So in 1970 (with it coming into effect for the 1971-72 TV season), the FCC introduced the Prime Time Access Rule, where the networks had to give back a half hour Monday through Saturday and an hour on Sunday during “prime time” to the Top 50 affiliates (which was basically every affiliate at the time) for their own use.

At the time, “Prime Time” was defined as 7:30 PM to 11:00 PM Eastern Monday through Friday and 7:00 PM to 11:00 PM on Sunday. The Brady Bunch, for instance, aired at 7:30 PM in 1970.

So the FCC steps in and says, “Okay, affiliates, you can now have the full 7:00 PM hour to develop your own programming, and hopefully you’ll make it intelligent stuff!”

That was all well and good but, well, you see most affiliates really did not WANT to develop their own programming. Making high brow television every day of the week cost a lot (well, more than what they wanted to spend) and the ratings were not very good. So instead, the affiliates turned to syndication. Hee Haw and Lawrence Welk had recently been canceled by the networks, and both shows went into first-run syndication, so a number of networks aired them, most of them on the very same nights and times that they originally aired! So with a mixture of syndicated programming and occasionally their own local news, the affiliates began to be quite happy with their newly found hour.

The networks HATED it, though, and fought it legally for years. Eventually they got an answer, although it was not one they liked. In 1975, it was decreed that the Monday through Saturday “loss” was permanent, but that the networks could have the 7pm hour back on Sundays, but only for family programming or news programming. Both ABC and NBC quickly moved established family programming to that time slot (NBC’s The Wonderful World of Disney and ABC’s Swiss Family Robinson). CBS, though, ended up going a different direction.

You see, in the late 1960s, the belief was that there was no place for news programming on prime time. In the 1970/71 season, in the seven days of prime time programming on the three networks, there was precisely ONE hour of regular news programming, a 10pm time slot on Tuesday nights where CBS would air news specials. You see, the other networks would occasionally air news specials, but the only reason they ever did would be to work as sort of ads for their Evening News. CBS was basically the same. Only in 1968, they had another news program to work with, producer Don Hewitt’s brainchild, 60 Minutes.

60 Minutes was designed by Hewitt around two hosts/commentators, Mike Wallace and Harry Reasoner, doing short pieces on various topics – with the idea that if you focused on the individual in a news story, you could get a better grasp of the situation, and that’s what they did. Their approach got a lot of critical acclaim, but like every other news program in prime time, it got terrible ratings as it aired bi-weekly in the Tuesday time slot at 10 PM.

It basically bummed around the schedule for the next three years, never getting a regular time slot, until the Prime Time Access Rule happened. With CBS now missing out on the 7 PM hour, it decided to take the un-regulated 6 PM hour on Sunday night (an hour that was only available to networks if they would use it for news programming) and air 60 Minutes there. The ratings weren’t good, but at least it was cheap. The problem for 60 Minutes was that CBS’ Sunday football games would always go past 6 PM, so 60 Minutes was actually pulled from the air during football season! Occasionally, during football season, CBS would find a spot for 60 Minutes at various days, to fill in for a re-run show, etc. But for a number of years, that’s what CBS did.

That is, until the aforementioned 1975 change to the rule. You see, there were two things going on for CBS that affected their approach to the newly “acquired” 7 PM hour on Sunday. First off, the affiliates were irritated that, unlike ABC and NBC, they could not just shift the programming that the affiliates had at 7 PM on Sunday before the change just down an hour to 6 PM on CBS, because CBS was airing 60 Minutes there. Secondly, CBS did not have a ready made family program to put into the 7 PM time slot like ABC and NBC did.

Instead, CBS actually introduced a new show, a family drama called Three for the Road, starring Alex Rocco. 40 of the top 50 affiliates turned CBS down, choosing to keep the 7 PM hour for theirselves.

In November of 1975, Three for the Road was cancelled.

It was at that point that a CBS executive named Oscar Katz came up with one of the biggest decisions in TV history. Why not, he suggested, just move 60 Minutes up an hour into the 7 PM time slot? It would make the affiliates happy to get the 6 PM time slot and it would take 60 Minutes (for the most part) out of the football schedule so it could air year round. Yes, the ratings would not be good, but with the only other option being OTHER news programming (or family programming CBS did not have), what else could they do?

They agreed with Katz, and 60 Minutes took over the 7 PM hour on Sunday nights. This past September, 60 Minutes returned for its THIRTY-SEVENTH season in that time slot, so I think it is safe to say that the decision worked.

And they never would have gotten the chance had it not been for the Prime Time Access Rule.

The Access Rule, by the way, was finally abolished in 1996, but that time, affiliates would rather die than to give up the 7 PM hour on weekdays.

The legend is…

STATUS: True

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

8 Responses to “Did 60 Minutes Gain Its Famous Time Slot Due to an FCC Regulation?”

  1. Brian: I think that you’ll find that, in the seventies, “The Wonderful World of Disney” aired on NBC and that “Swiss Family Robinson” aired on ABC, and not the other way around.

  2. Thanks, Donald, you’re right, I forgot that the show switched from ABC to NBC during the late 1960s and 1970s. I fixed it!

  3. It may not be grammatically incorrect but I find two sentences in one 4-sentence paragraph starting with “You see,” irksome.

  4. Sorry, 5 sentences. Point remains. I continue to be irkified.

  5. @random surfer

    Write your own column then and stop being “that guy” nobody likes to be around.

  6. The networks were probably glad to give up the time, since they lost a major national advertising group that year – cigarette companies.

  7. I dunno, Ted, they fought the regulation for so many years that I think it suggests that they were not happy with it.

  8. While it didn’t hurt “Disney”, The raitings for “60 Minutes” hurt “Swiss Family Robinson” (Produced by Irwin Allen) which was doing well BEFORE “60 Minutes” was moved into thr 7pm Slot. It has a greater loss than Disney did and droped to 3rd place.

    ABC Cancled “Swiss Family Robinson” at the end of the season, and plans for a companion series “The Time Travelers” (A revival of “The Time Tunnel”) didn’t go beyond the pilot TV Movie.

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