The Nat King Cole Show was the first show to feature a major black star to headline a variety series.
I was too young to remember it. But my parents told me that every black person they knew watched it.
Until recently, I didn’t realize that it was only 15 minutes long when it debuted on a Monday night in November 1956 on NBC-TV. It filled the remaining time allocated to the nightly news. This was barely enough time to sing a few songs. It wasn’t until July 1957, when his slot moved to Tuesdays at 10 that he was allocated a full half hour, which changed to Tuesday at 7:30 in the fall.
The IMBD refers to the Nat King Cole Show as “highly rated.” If by this, it means well-regarded, that would be true. But if it meant big ratings, that is contradicted by most other accounts. The Brooks and Marsh TV book, e.g. said it had only a 19 share when there were only three networks.
No national sponsors
The show originally aired without a sponsor, “but NBC agreed to pay for initial production costs; it was assumed that once the show actually aired and advertisers were able to see its sophistication, a national sponsor would emerge. None did; many national companies did not want to upset their customers in the South, who did not want to see a black man on TV shown in anything other than a subservient position.”
Jim Davidson’s Classic TV Info confirms this. “Had the ratings been higher, national sponsors might have been willing to support the show. But the combination of a relatively small audience and skittishness about viewer reaction kept them away. While crediting NBC with keeping the show on the air, Cole felt advertisers should have had more guts.” Said Cole of the doomed series, “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”
“While NBC was willing to keep the show going, Cole decided to call it quits… He didn’t feel comfortable asking his guest stars to work for practically nothing. ‘You can wear out your welcome,” he commented. “People get tired if you never stop begging.'”
And they were quality guests such as Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., Peggy Lee, The Mills Brothers, Pearl Bailey, Count Basie, Harry Belafonte, Billy Eckstine, Mahalia Jackson, Eartha Kitt, Frankie Laine, Tony Martin, Oscar Peterson, Mel Tormé, and a very young Billy Preston.
Still, Nat said in a 1958 Ebony article, “For 13 months, I was the Jackie Robinson of television.” Nat King Cole would have been 101 years old on March 17.