"THE WALTER WINCHELL SHOW"
9/11/55 - 7/08/56 for Trans World Airlines
9/10/56 - 11/04/56 for Seaboard Drug
11/11/56 - 3/03/57 sustaining/co-op
11/16/58 - 7/26/59 for multiple sponsors
9/06/59 - 11/15/59 for Banker's Life and Casualty


For Mutual, Walter Winchell's arrival was a programming coup. For Walter Winchell, it was a last-ditch attempt to stay relevant.

It is hard to overstate Winchell's influence at the height of his career - which lasted for some twenty years. He was, quite simply, the most powerful journalist in America. A Broadway columnist syndicated in some 2,000 newspapers worldwide, a newsman whose flair for showmanship commanded a Sunday night ABC audience of 25-million at its peak in 1949. A mention by him either in print or on air could make or break a career. His influence was unmatched by anyone - before or since.

Mutual actually had a shot at getting Winchell in 1945. Then-MBS President Edgar Kobak had met with his sponsor, Jergens Lotion, armed with an elaborate presentation based on Mutual's ambitious plans for network expansion, particularly on the West Coast. Jergens executives listened with an attentive ear, but ultimately decided not to move their "Jergens Journal." As one exec put it, "While there's no contract committing us to stay with ABC, we consider it sound business to stay where we are at the present."

But by September 1955, Winchell's situation had changed.

His "lifetime contract" with ABC was over; he had asked to be released from it earlier that year, and the ABC board complied, then refused to change its mind when Winchell asked to come back. His home since 1932 (when it was NBC's Blue Network), Winchell had engaged in periodic fights with the network, with sponsors, with censors. The last row centered on who should cover his libel insurance. When ABC balked, Winchell asked for his release.

But Winchell's power and influence were on the wane as well. Once the populist who shared the pecadillos of Broadway, Hollywood and Washington with a rapt audience, Winchell had turned into a snarling, nasty, vindictive muckraker who had aligned himself with Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his red-baiting tactics, and burned virtually every bridge he had built with friends, press agents, and supporters. By the time the Army-McCarthy hearings had ended and McCarthy's censure by the Senate left his career in ruins, Winchell's punishment was equally severe - most of his early supporters had deserted him, as had much of his radio and TV audience.

With his exit from ABC, it was expected that Winchell would land at either NBC or CBS, but neither showed any interest, and the only stop left was "the world's largest network." In a letter to Tom O'Neil, Winchell wrote, "I will never forget, Tom, that when nobody else wanted me, you gave me a microphone."

"The Walter Winchell Show" premiered on Mutual Sunday, September 11, 1955 at 6 p.m. He was sponsored by Trans World Airlines in 35 cities serviced by TWA, and was available for co-op sale by other MBS stations. Within a month, TWA was making plans to up its station order to 65.

TWA bowed out with the July 8, 1956 broadcast, and a new sponsor came aboard with the 1956-57 season. In the spring of 1956, Winchell had plugged Mericin, an arthritis drug manufactured by the Seaboard Drug Company. Sales soared, and in the fall Seaboard signed on as Winchell's new sponsor, effective with the September 10th broadcast. In a letter to Seaboard president Harry Patterson, Winchell wrote, "I feel free again working for Mutual because you told them you wanted me to be the 'old Winchell.' "

But the "old Winchell" he thought Seaboard wanted wasn't the entertaining gossipist of the '30s and '40s, but rather the rabid, vicious Winchell of the McCarthy era. His Red-baiting included warnings on a Broadway dance instructor, on playwright Arthur Miller and the New York Times, which became a favorite target. Nevertheless, Patterson sang Winchell's praises in October, crediting his show with exceeding Mericin's sales goals by 30 percent.

But Winchell's efforts during the 1956 campaign in support of President Eisenhower soon soured the relationship with Seaboard. Accusing Adlai Stevenson of minimizing the Communist threat and surrounding himself with Communist appeasers, he was bringing pressure on Seaboard, whom Democrats were threatening with a boycott. Harry Patterson tried to get Winchell to stop, to no avail.

What Winchell said on election day 1956, though, drove the final nail into his Seaboard sponsorship: during Mutual's coverage, Winchell compared Stevenson to transsexual Christine Jorgenson, and told listeners that Stevenson's election "would mean a woman in the White House." Callers swamped the Seaboard switchboard to complain. The next day, Patterson sent Mutual a wire:

GENTLEMEN, PLEASE BE ADVISED THAT WE HEREBY CANCEL OUR SPONSORSHIP OF
THE WALTER WINCHELL SUNDAY EVENING NEWSCAST FOR CAUSE EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY.

Time magazine reported (in an item cleverly peppered with Winchell-ese) that Seaboard tried to keep the cancellation quiet, to allow Mutual to line up a new bankroller. But when Winchell started blasting Seaboard in his daily column, the ex-sponsor exploded. Harrison was quoted saying of Winchell, "The man has gone mad."

Mutual said it had received interest from several advertisers as a replacement, but Winchell continued first as a sustainer, and then as a co-op sponsored on 33 stations. That ran until March 3, 1957, when he announced he was leaving to devote his attention to a new TV series. He thanked Mutual and "all of you for 28 exciting years."

But Winchell was back 18 months later, a new Sunday-at-6 p.m. show sponsored by Bon-Ami cleanser and Symphonic Electronics. "Sponsored" might be an overstatement: MBS was by then owned by Alexander Guterma's F.L. Jacobs conglomerate, as were both Bon-Ami and Symphonic. They bowed out in early 1959, replaced by Tangee Beauty Products starting January 11, who rode out the rest of the season. Banker's Life and Casualty stepped in when Winchell returned from summer vacation on September 6, but pulled out with the November 15, 1959 broadcast. Mutual, by then going through bankruptcy proceedings, informed Winchell it was "financially not in a position to carry any sustaining programs." A letter in Winchell's FBI file (most likely written by MBS president Robert F. Hurleigh, although the signature is blacked out) said, "You realize . . . that we have had considerable difficulty in keeping the network alive," but added that the network "would like nothing better than to have you back at Mutual's mikes as soon as economics permit."

Although "The Walter Winchell Show" was finished, Winchell would turn up on Mutual sporadically in the 1960s, mostly during the 1964 and 1968 political conventions and election nights. By then, according to longtime Mutual correspondent Dick Rossé, who had worked alongside him, he was barely a shadow of his old self. Rossé shared his recollections in an online column you can read here.


Some information on this page came from various issues of Broadcasting, Variety, Time, and "Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity" by Neal Gabler (1995, Alfred A. Knopf).

Text copyright © 2014 Kenneth I. Johannessen.

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


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