Texaco Star Theater And The Rise Of TV Show Sponsors


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When Nielsen started measuring TV ratings in 1950-51, shows were much cheaper to make (even adjusted for inflation), and production costs were often covered by a sponsor. Most of these sponsors kept a lower profile, keeping their advertising to the short commercial breaks. Others got their names into show titles and may have included not-so-subtle product placement. In 1950-51, shows with sponsors in the titles overwhelmingly ruled the Nielsen ratings.

As reported in our Ratings History Library, in third place was Philco Television Playhouse at a 45.3 rating, a drama anthology sponsored by Philco. Not far behind in fifth place was The Colgate Comedy Hour at a 42.0 rating, sponsored by the consumer product company Philco. In sixth place was Gillette Cavalcade of Sports at a 41.3 rating, sponsored by the razor company Gillette. All of these programs aired on NBC, and did extremely well with the sponsor name attached to the title. Of the other two shows in the top six, one (Fireside Theater) had the benefit of airing directly after Texaco Star Theater, proving early on that time slots mattered. 

Of course, why wouldn’t these sponsored shows do well? With the likes of Philco, Colgate, and Gillette attaching their names to the titles of these shows, they are going to want to make every effort for these shows to be successes. Nobody wants to sponsor a flop; it doesn’t increase brand awareness, nor does it help sell products. This is true for the respective shows these companies sponsored, but is best shown through the example of Texaco Star Theater.

Texaco Star Theater was the top series in the 1950-51 TV season on average, which notched a 61.6 rating. The program was sponsored by the oil company Texaco. Texaco Star Theater in particular was destined to be a hit, as it was a television adaptation of the popular radio program of the same name. The show’s popularity was largely credited for the increase in television sales; people wanted to watch the show all their friends were talking about. 

However, the 1950-51 season turned out to be the highest-rated of the Nielsen era, with ratings declining in each subsequent season. This eventually resulted in Texaco revoking its sponsorship in 1953. The program was still in the top 5, but its ratings were down almost 25% from the 1950-51 season. Texaco likely saw the writing on the wall and did not want to continue to be associated with a series in decline.

Buick took over as a sponsor for the 1953-54 season, leaving what was long known as Texaco Star Theater to be renamed The Buick-Berle Show (Berle being the last name of the show’s host). It kept its fifth place ranking that season, but declined over 6 ratings points to a 40.2 rating. After falling out of the top 10 the following season, Buick revoked their sponsorship. The show would go on to be renamed The Milton Berle Show, falling out of the top 30 highest-rated shows. This prompted NBC to cancel the series, just five seasons after it was a phenomenon. 

In its heyday, Texaco Star Theater certainly didn’t hurt Texaco as a company. The radio show began in 1938, right when the gas company was beginning to expand their product. It was a ratings success, and parts of the show were essentially just brand awareness for Texaco. One thing is for sure: the variety show benefitted from the Texaco sponsorship. It is one of the earliest examples of a show benefitting from having an established name attached to it. It is also one of the earliest examples of a TV series being culturally relevant. 

It’s impossible to say how successful Texaco Star Theater, Philco Television Playhouse, The Colgate Comedy Hour, or Gillette Cavalcade of Sports would have been without their respective sponsors. It’s almost certain that they would not have done as well had those companies sponsored other shows instead, with the aforementioned series not having sponsors in their titles. That’s not to say they cruised solely off their sponsors’ names, but rather to demonstrate the benefits of having a sponsor in the name. In the early 1950s, television was still in its beginning stages. These sponsors took shows that could have been lost in the shuffle and made them instantly familiar; thus, making television itself an easy sell to the public.

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