Omnibus was the most successful cultural magazine series in the history of U.S. commercial television and a prototype for the development of programming on educational television. Developed by the Television-Radio Workshop of the Ford Foundation, Omnibus generated both corporate sponsorship and a loyal, but limited, network audience for intellectual programming over nine years (1952 to 1961) on all three networks.
Omnibus was the vision of Robert Saudek, a former ABC vice-president of public affairs who became director of the Workshop in 1951. Commissioned to devise an innovative series for network television, Saudek created a variety show for the intellect, a compendium of the arts, literature, science, history, and even some pure entertainment. Saudek hired journalist Alistair Cooke to serve as master of ceremonies. Cooke was known for his literate commentary on Letter from America, a BBC radio series heard throughout Great Britain. With initial underwriting from the Ford Foundation, which TV Guide called "risk capital" for the untried, Saudek also secured financing from advertisers to produce a weekly, ninety-minute series, first airing 4:30-6:00 P.M. on Sunday afternoons. Omnibus premiered on 9 November 1952 over CBS. The first installment featured Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer as Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn; William Saroyan narrating an adaptation of his short story "The Bad Men"; and the first images of X-ray movies, an inside look at the working human digestive system .
Saudek and his producers, among them Fred Rickey, William Spier, and Mary V. Ahern, deftly interwove the high and popular arts into a cultural smorgasbord. Their definition of "culture" was flexible enough to encompass Orson Welles's triumphant return form Europe to star in Peter Brook's adaptation of King Lear; a production of William Inge's "Glory in the Flower" with Jessica Tandy, Hume Croyn, and a still very green James Dean; S. J. Perelman's paean to burlesque with Bert Lahr; several appearances by Agnes DeMille, including the performance of her ballet "Three Virgins and the Devil ("Virgins" becoming "Maidens" because of network censors); Jack Benny recreating his notorious role as an avenging angel in "The Horn Blows at Midnight"; and Peter Ustinov in his American television debut as Dr. Samuel Johnson. Omnibus also gave air time to artists new to the mass media: William Faulkner gave a tour of Oxford, Mississippi; James Agee contributed a five-part docudrama on the life of Abraham Lincoln, now considered one of the first miniseries; Frank Lloyd Wright discussed architectural forms with Cooke; and painter Thomas Hart Benton gave a tour of his studio. In addition, individuals who would later become fixtures in prime time received a career boost on Omnibus, including Mike Nichols and Elaine May, who brought their sardonic humor to an edition entitled "Suburban Revue"; Les Ford and Mary Ford, who demonstrated multi-track recording with a madrigal-singing Cooke; and Jacques Cousteau, who screened his first undersea adventure on American television.
Beginning with Leopold Stokowski and Benjamin Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra," Saudek linked pedagogy with showmanship to produce a series of visual lectures that became a model for educational television. The most stimulating and original of the electronic teachers was Leonard Bernstein, who single-handedly enlarged the possibilities of musical analysis and performance on television. Commencing with his dissection of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in 1954, Bernstein brought an intellectual passion of excitement and discovery to his subject and later explored musical comedy, jazz, grand opera, and modern music with the same vigor. Gene Kelly in his video lecture compared the art and choreography of ballet dancers to the movements of professional athletes, exemplified by his tap dance with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.
For most of its run, Omnibus, nearly always broadcast live, graced the "ghetto" of weekend programming, Sunday afternoon. As that daypart became more valuable, beginning on CBS with the success of professional football, Omnibus shifted to other networks. The series was seen on CBS from 1952 to 1956; on ABC 1956 to 1957; and NBC 1957 to 1961. During the final season Omnibus appeared as a series of irregular specials, concluding with a look at the future of the western hemisphere. In all, Saudek and his team assembled 166 volumes totaling more than 230 hours of entertaining enlightenment. The series was revived by producer Martin Starger as a series of special on ABC in 1981.
The artistic concerns and approaches to production of Omnibus provided a road map for public television. The Ford Foundation, citing Omnibus's struggle for ratings, questioned whether commercial broadcasters were dedicated to "the development of mature, wise and responsible citizens," and began to fund educational television projects. Without the Foundation's support, Saudek in 1955 formed his own production company to create and gain network sponsorship for the series. The Omnibus sensibility has been felt throughout the history of public television. During the National Educational Television years, NET Playhouse (1966-72) and NET Festival (1967-70) were direct descendants. Since the formation of the Public Broadcasting Service, Great Performances (1974-present) partakes of the Omnibus ethos to share a cultural melange with a discriminating audience. And, of course, the ringmaster of Omnibus, Alistair Cooke became a PBS icon for over twenty years as host of Masterpiece Theater.
Robert Saudek, Fred Rickey, William Spier, Mary V. Ahern
October 1953-April 1956 Sunday 5:00-6:00 ABC
October 1956-March 1957 Sunday 9:00-10:30 NBC
April 1957-April 1961 Sunday Irregular Schedule
Beck, Kirstin. Cultivating the Wasteland. New York: American Council for the Arts, 1983.
Bernstein, Leonard. The Joy of Music. New York: Fireside, 1963.
Henderson, Amy. On the Air Pioneers of American Broadcasting. Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988.
Leonard Bernstein: The Television Work. New York: Museum of Broadcasting, 1985.