The McCann Time Capsule: The Twilight Zone
Jordan Peele’s much-anticipated reboot of the famous 1959-1964 TV series “The Twilight Zone” brings to mind McCann’s strange role in the history of that series—on the one hand, helping launch the career of the show’s creator, Rod Serling, while on the other almost killing the series before it went on the air. To borrow from Serling’s on-air intro delivered in each episode, McCann seemed to occupy that “middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition” when it came to that series.
The role McCann played in helping Serling occurred in 1949. “Dr. Christian,” which ran for 789 episodes between 1937 and 1954, was one of McCann’s successful long-running radio serials. The McCann-side driver was Dorothy Barstow, who was already a well-known copywriter when she had joined McCann NY in 1921 and then became a prominent radio producer at the agency during the rest of her career. Barstow (who became Dorothy Barstow McCann when she married the co-founder in 1939) had launched “Dr. Christian” when she was looking for a sponsorship property for the agency’s Vaseline client.
She then initiated the program’s announcement on Jan. 28, 1942, that it was launching the “Dr. Christian Scriptwriting Competition,” in which the public was invited to write scripts and win cash if theirs was among those chosen to be performed.“The only show in radio where the audience writes the scripts!” became its tagline, according to Jim Ramsburg’s GOld Time Radio blog.
Seven years later, the announced scriptwriting winners on May 18, 1949, included Antioch College junior Rod Serling. As noted on the Audio Classics Archives website:
“The producers of the radio show even paid him $76.56 to reimburse his expenses in getting to CBS in New York City to appear on the Dr. Christian program. His submission, titled “To Live a Dream,” had won approval of the judges and been accepted by producer Dorothy McCann. Serling’s script helped him place in the radio contest that netted him a $500 award.”
But a decade later, it would be McCann, on behalf of its Westinghouse client, that would try to stand in the way of bringing this new approach to TV programming to reality, as told by Bert Granet, the producer of “The Twilight Zone.”
When Granet died in 2002, his obituary in The Los Angeles Times told of his struggles to get McCann to approvea script that would become the launching pad for the series. At the time, he was an executive at Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s Desilu Studios, where he was producer of the "Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse."
Granet has asked Rod Serling for a script for the Westinghouse-sponsored program, and the writer had suggested "The Time Element" about a bartender returning to Pearl Harbor the day before the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack. He bought the script for what was a lot of money at the time, $10,000.
As written in the obit:
“He ran into another major roadblock from Westinghouse's ad agency, McCann-Erickson, which had script approval. The advertiser, they said, would never accept a show with the ambiguous sort of ending that became a hallmark of ‘Twilight Zone.’
“But Arnaz backed Granet, and the show was produced starring William Bendix, Darryl Hickman and Jesse White and aired Nov. 24, 1958. To appease the sponsor, Arnaz appeared at the end of the show to provide his personal answer to what happened, explaining away time travel by saying it was a character's dream.
“When the show garnered more audience reaction than any other episode of ‘Desilu Playhouse’ that year, CBS finally decided to take a chance on Serling's series, ‘The Twilight Zone.’”
Said Granat: “I fought very hard because it was difficult to get it on the air. It's questionable whether 'Twilight Zone' would have ever existed if I hadn't beat down McCann-Erickson . . . because they did not want that show nohow. At any rate, the rest of it just became history."