"The key ingredient is giving the audience what they expected to get. If I'm there to escape, let me escape. If I'm there to be taught, teach me. But, don't suck me in, thinking I'm going to escape and then teach me. You've caught me off guard. You'd say, 'I've been had,' and you'd leave."
About This Interview
Dick Clark (1929-2012) was interviewed for one-and-a-half hours in Burbank, CA. Clark shares how he first got into television hosting, and outlines the rise of American Bandstand from a local Philadelphia show to a national phenomenon. He explains his involvement with the payola scandals of the 1950s, the origins of New Year's Rockin' Eve, and his hosting duties on the game show $10,000 Pyramid. Clark recalls working with Johnny Carson to produce Bloopers and Practical Jokes, discusses forming Dick Clark Productions, and details the role of a producer. He also describes the challenges of producing live awards shows, and speaks of what he believes to be the secret to live TV. James Moll conducted the interview on July 29, 1999.
With a career spanning fifty years, Dick Clark is one of television's most successful entrepreneurs of program production. Often acknowledged more for his youthful appearance than for his business acumen, Clark nevertheless has built an impressive production record since the 1950s with teen dance shows, prime-time programming, television specials, daytime game shows, made-for-television movies, and feature films.
As a teenager, Clark began his career in broadcasting in 1945 in the mailroom of station WRUN in Utica, New York, working his way up to weatherman and then newsman. After graduating from Syracuse University in 1951, Clark moved from radio into television broadcasting at station WKTV in Utica. Here, Clark hosted Cactus Dick and the Santa Fe Riders, a country music program which became the training ground for his later television hosting persona. In 1952, Clark moved to Philadelphia and radio station WFIL as a disc jockey for Dick Clark's Caravan of Music. At that time, WFIL was affiliated with a television station which carried Bandstand, an afternoon teen dance show. Clark often substituted for Bob Horn, the show's regular host. When Horn was jailed for drunken driving in 1956, Clark took over as permanent host, boosting Bandstand into Philadelphia's best-known afternoon show. From that point on, he became a fixture in the American television broadcasting arena.
In 1957, the American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) picked up the program for its daytime schedule, changing the name to American Bandstand. As a cornerstone of the afternoon lineup through 1963, the program was a boon for ABC, an inexpensively produced success for the network's target audience of youthful demographics. From 1963 through 1987, American Bandstand ran on a weekly basis to become one of the longest running shows in broadcast television.
In addition to Clark's hosting and producing duties for American Bandstand, he began to diversify in the 1950s by moving into the music publishing and recording industries. However, by the end of 1959, the federal government began to scrutinize Clark for a possible conflict between his broadcasting interests and his publishing and recording interests. At that time, payola, the practice of music industry companies paying radio personalities to play new records, was widespread throughout radio broadcasting. Clark, with the cultural scope of his network television program, became the prime target of the Congressional investigation into this illegal activity. Pressured by ABC to make a choice between broadcast and music industry interests, Clark opted for the former, divesting himself of his publishing and recording companies. Even though Clark was cleared of any illegal behavior, he had to testify before the Congressional Committee on payola practices in 1960.
Given the present state of cross-corporate links among the recording, broadcasting, cable and film industries, Clark's persecution would be highly unlikely now. Indeed, even at the time of the payola scandals, the networks and film studios, such as ABC and Disney, were already inextricably connected with program production, broadcasting and profits. In retrospect, Clark's problems stemmed as much from his embrace of a somewhat raucous, interracial youth culture and his involvement in the conflict between ASCAP, representing the old guard of the music publishing business, and BMI, representing the new breed of rock and roll songwriters.
A somewhat tarnished reputation did not hinder Clark's further success in the area of broadcast programming and film production with Dick Clark Productions. DCP produced Where the Action Is, another daily teenage music show, during the late 1960s, as well as feature exploitation films such Psych-Out, The Savage Seven and Killers Three. At this time, Clark also moved into the game show arena with Missing Links and The Object Is, culminating in the late 1970s with The $25,000 Pyramid.
In addition, DCP produced Elvis, Murder in Texas, and The Woman Who Willed a Miracle, made-for-television movies which garnered impressive audience ratings. The latter won an Emmy Award. On a more low-brow level, DCP also introduced Bloopers and Practical Jokes, another inexpensive, but extremely popular recurring television special to American audiences. Clark also produces award shows, the American Awards and The Golden Globe Awards.
Often criticized for the lack of quality in DCP programs, Clark points to the networks and the audiences as the index of that quality. He gives them what they want. In an interview in Newsweek magazine in 1986, Clark points out, "If I were given the assignment of doing a classical-music hour for PBS, it would be exquisite and beautifully done." Despite the boyish good looks and charm that are the identifying characteristics of this American icon, it is Clark's economically efficient business savvy and his uncanny ability to measure the American public's cultural mood that have been his most important assets in television broadcasting.