11/03/41 - 1/30/42 Mon - Fri 10:15 - 10:30 pm
11/08/41 - 1/31/42 Sat 10:15 - 10:45 pm
2/02/42 - 5/01/42 Mon - Fri 9:30 - 9:45 p.m.
2/07/42 - 5/02/42 Sat 9:30 - 10:00 p.m.
6/18/45 - 7/08/45 Mon/Wed 9:30 - 10:00 p.m.*
7/13/45 - 11/22/46 Mon/Wed/Fri 9:30 - 10:00 p.m.**

It was a big catch for the growing network- in fact, it's biggest catch yet:

The $1-million deal was made by the D'Arcy Agency, who handled the advertising budget of The Coca-Cola Company. It was a big deal - the order was for the 10:15 p.m. slot, a quarter-hour Monday thru Friday and a half-hour every Saturday on 120 stations. Mutual won out over stiff bidding from the Blue Network and CBS.

Why Mutual?

D'Arcy explained that the decision was influenced by the fact that Mutual could provide a choicer time across the board, and could furnish music from ASCAP, meaning the programs could rely on an unlimited repertoire of material. Having access to the ASCAP library assured that the ambitious program D'Arcy had in mind for Coca-Cola could go forward.

(ASCAP - the American Society of Composers, Arrangers and Publishers - played an important role. The premiere music licensing organization, ASCAP music had been virtually absent from the American airwaves since the beginning of 1939 because of a royalty payment dispute between ASCAP and the networks. But in May, MBS and ASCAP came to agreement on terms - 3% of gross revenues in the first four years, 3-1/2% for the remainder of the nine-year pact - and ASCAP music returned to Mutual on May 13. The agreement also sparked an industry-wide fight, since NBC and CBS wouldn't come to terms with ASCAP until later in the year.)

What D'Arcy had in mind was a program of dance music - with a different band each night, chosen according to their status as makers of phonograph record hits. The bands for the weeknight shows would be those that led in record sales the previous week. But the Saturday slot was reserved for the cream of the crop - the band that was number one in sales of the tune which sold the most records the previous week. The band in the Saturday spotlight would get top dollar, prestige, and a silver platter of the record that earned them the plum Saturday slot. That platter would become a highly coveted - and sought-after - trophy.

But the biggest winner in the series would be MCA - Music Corporation of America. They would book the bands for the series - and help compile the statistics that determined who they'd book.

For Mutual, it was another sign to Broadcast Row that they could compete with the big boys. As a condition of the contract, MBS leased a New York theatre - the Maxine Elliott Theatre on the corner of Broadway and 39th - for the new series, and re-named it "Mutual Playhouse No. 1." (Mutual had to hustle to get the theatre ready - a ballet was using it until the day before the Coca-Cola premiere, and MBS had less than 36 hours to install $50-thousand worth of equipment, including control booths, wiring, and furnishings.)

Also stipulated in Mutual's contract was a request to its affiliates that they schedule no dance bands 30 minutes before or after the Coca-Cola programs. Although MBS conceded it could not enforce the dictum, the actual contract clause read, "It is understood that no dance band programs will be originated by and transmitted to the network within 30 minutes prior to or following the actual time of broadcast of the program. A similar request shall be made of each station in connection with its individual operations."

To celebrate the new account, Mutual installed a 120-bottle Coca-Cola machine in its New York headquarters. General Manager Fred Weber drank the first bottle, then Mutual treated each of its employees to a Coke on the house.

(Note: For the sake of simplicity, this page will henceforth refer to The Coca-Cola Company as "Coke," although the company discouraged usage of the term until later that decade.)

"Spotlight Bands" opened November 3, 1941 with Kay Kyser's orchestra in what Variety called "a zingy, buoyant, flavorsome sample of his wares." Kyser was followed on Tuesday night by Guy Lombardo, Sammy Kaye on Wednesday, Tommy Dorsey on Thursday, and Eddie Duchin on Friday. That Saturday, Freddy Martin took home the first of four silver platters he would win during the series.

"Spotlight Bands" quickly became the most sought-after booking in music, with the band's managers pressing the music publishing firms for first recording privileges of their number one plug material.

But that material had to make the cash registers ring in the record stores, for that's what MCA checked for its weekly survey. That was at the sponsor's request, for Coke realized that jukebox popularity was not a true indicator of popularity, since records were not inserted into machines through popular request. In checking, D'Arcy found that press agents for various orchestras made a practice of keeping jukebox operators supplied with free platters by their accounts, charging the cost off to advertising. That was true particularly in areas where the band was playing.

So the MCA/Coke poll was taken by checking some 580 retail stores in various parts of the country, with only the cash sales tabulated. The results were then multiplied by eight (there were 4,638 retail outlets), and the total cash sales of a particular record made that band the winner.

However, one song (and one band) would tend to dominate the poll for weeks on end. In the first thirteen weeks of the series, only four bandleaders came away with the top prize (see chart). But one of those four - Glenn Miller - was denied the chance of monopolizing the series. Miller won twice before the sponsor of his own series - Chesterfield cigarettes - banned him from appearing on the Coke show again, despite Miller's records topping the sales chart for the duration of the "Spotlight Bands" run on Mutual. Coke and MCA, therefore, had to present the "Silver Platter" to the runner-up in the survey each week thereafter.

Coke said its tabulation method was open to inspection. But behind the scenes, "Spotlight Bands" sparked a feud between the country's top recording companies, due to the effect it had on record sales. It probably led to some choice words among the agencies representing the bands, since MCA was in that business, too. Perhaps it's no surprise that MCA-represented bands won the "Silver Platter" 22 of the 26 weeks of the series, although no charges of unfair practices were made . . . at least, in public.

"Spotlight Bands" Saturday Night Silver Platter Winners
111/08/41Freddy Martin"Piano Concerto"RCA VictorMCA
211/15/41Freddy Martin (2)"Piano Concerto"RCA VictorMCA
311/22/41Glenn Miller"Chattanooga Choo Choo"BluebirdGAC
411/29/41Freddy Martin (3)"Piano Concerto"RCA VictorMCA
512/06/41Glenn Miller (2)"Chattanooga Choo Choo"BluebirdGAC
612/13/41Freddy Martin (4)"Piano Concerto"RCA VictorMCA
712/20/41Tommy Dorsey"This Love of Mine"RCA VictorMCA
812/27/41Tommy Dorsey (2)"This Love of Mine"RCA VictorMCA
901/03/42Tommy Dorsey (3)"This Love of Mine"RCA VictorMCA
1001/10/42Tommy Dorsey (4)"This Love of Mine"RCA VictorMCA
1101/17/42Tommy Dorsey (5)"This Love of Mine"RCA VictorMCA
1201/23/42Sammy Kaye"Remember Pearl Harbor"RCA VictorMCA
1301/30/42Sammy Kaye (2)"Remember Pearl Harbor"RCA VictorMCA
1402/07/42Sammy Kaye (3)"Remember Pearl Harbor"RCA VictorMCA
1502/14/42Sammy Kaye (4)"Remember Pearl Harbor"RCA VictorMCA
1602/21/42Woody Herman"Blues in the Night"DeccaGAC
1702/28/42Alvino Rey"Deep in the Heart of Texas"BluebirdMCA
1803/07/42Harry James"I Don't Want to Walk Without You"ColumbiaMCA
1903/14/42Horace Heidt"Deep in the Heart of Texas"ColumbiaMCA
2003/21/42Harry James (2)"I Don't Want to Walk Without You"ColumbiaMCA
2103/28/42Horace Heidt"Deep in the Heart of Texas"ColumbiaMCA
2204/04/42Harry James (3)"I Don't Want to Walk Without You"ColumbiaMCA
2304/11/42Harry James (4)"I Don't Want to Walk Without You"ColumbiaMCA
2404/18/42Harry James (5)"I Don't Want to Walk Without You"ColumbiaMCA
2504/25/42Harry James (6)"I Don't Want to Walk Without You"ColumbiaMCA
2605/02/42Harry James (7)"Sleepy Lagoon"ColumbiaMCA

The original "Spotlight Bands" series on Mutual only lasted 26 weeks. Just why, though, is open to argument. Certainly it wasn't a matter of popularity; indeed, "Spotlight's" practice of top-name bands each weeknight, along with holding the Saturday winner in suspense, made it the top band show on the air, along with being a primo destination for bands and their labels alike. It even sparked changes in the competition: Lucky Strike's "Your Hit Parade," CBS' Saturday night music poll series, lopped off the string section of its orchestra, added more guest stars and shifted to a swing style of music to meet "Spotlight's" challenge.

But with the U.S. entry into World War II, rationing of brown sugar interfered with the production of Coca-Cola. With production curtailed, the need for promotion and advertising was virtually eliminated (Coke's "Spotlight" ads even mentioned that Coca-Cola output would be drastically cut; Variety called the messages "anti-sales") and advertising budgets were sheared. Although Coke also sponsored not only Andre Kostelanetz and his orchestra Sundays on CBS, but the syndicated "Singin' Sam" series as well, the "Spotlight Bands" show was the baby of the three - and an elaborate, expensive baby at that. So it was first in line to get the axe.

The first inkling that "Spotlight's" days might be numbered came in early March, only a month after the show was moved to an earlier 9:30 p.m. time slot. Coke reportedly wanted to keep some part of the dance band series going, if only to supplement some of the merchandising angle that its bottlers dropped with the announcement of the cut in its beverage output. But there was also the question of stimulating demand for something that could only be bought in limited quantities.

Coke considered three options: 1) to continue status quo, with six shows a week; 2) cutting the schedule to four shows a week: Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; or 3) going off entirely for the summer, but renewing the booking contract with MCA, with the exit regarded as a hiatus.

The decision was made in April 1942 that "Spotlight" would end its run the next month. But Coke cited "general business conditions" as its reason for ending the show, suggesting it wasn't only sugar rationing that was having an effect.

So the show ended its 26-week Mutual run on May 2, 1942. Harry James was the final winner, taking home a gold platter this time for having the most Saturday wins, seven in all.

Apparently, Coke had chosen option number three, for "Spotlight Bands" would return that September, on a different network (the Blue), with a modified format and title ("The Victory Parade of Spotlight Bands"), and traveling fever - this time, Coke sent bands to military bases and war production plants around the country; a survey of servicemen decided who played on Saturday.

In time, Coke would put the "Spotlight" back on Mutual as the war wound down. By then, relations between Coke and the Blue Network had cooled; Coke didn't think Blue was promoting the show enough, while the Blue (and its affiliates) came to think the six-a-week band show (at 9:30 p.m. - in the middle of prime time) got in the way of its programming strategy. So Ed Kobak - who helped snag the Coke account away from Mutual in 1942 - lured Coke and its $2-million dollars in annual billings back to MBS for a three-a-week "Spotlight Bands" series starting June 18, 1945.* Coke said the switch would reach more of its bottling territories, since it would boost the lineup from 199 to 240 stations.

But with the end of the war, the show was retooled. Now with a three-way accent on "sweet, swing and rhumba," three bands were set to each take one of the nights on a regular basis. Starting April 1, 1946, Guy Lombardo took the Monday slot, with Xavier Cugat on Wednesdays and Harry James on Fridays. The peacetime "Spotlight Bands" series, mostly regular studio shows by this time, ran through November 22, 1946, when Coke got out of the big band business.

* For four weeks, "Spotlight Bands" was heard twice a week to accomodate Pharmaco's contract on the Friday night slot for its "Double or Nothing" quiz show, which then moved to Sunday.

** Coke took an eight-week sponsorship hiatus from July 15 to September 6, 1946; during that time, the U.S. Army Recruiting Service sponsored "Spotlight Bands."

Information on this page came from various issues of Variety, Broadcasting, Billboard and The Coca-Cola Bottler magazines.

Text copyright © 2017 Kenneth I. Johannessen.

No challenges to logo, sound or image copyrights are either inferred or implied.

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