It seems strange in today’s world of media conglomerates and corporate synergy that a program titled General Electric Theater did not air on NBC, but on CBS.
It was a fact that needed pointing out Tuesday night, when The Paley Center for Media celebrated the historic anthology series that ran Sunday evenings from Feb. 1, 1953 to May 27, 1962 (GE did not acquire NBC until 1986).
It was easy to forget though given NBC’s presence – Brian Williams, anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News moderated the event, and MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell was in attendance. Williams even joked about how often he has to acknowledge the relationship when reporting on GE, saying, “If I had a dollar for every time I said ‘the parent company of NBC Universal…’”
Panelists included Jeffrey Immelt, chairman and CEO of GE; Dr. William Bird, curator, division of political history, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History; Ed Meese, Ronald Reagan chair in public policy at The Heritage Foundation; and actors Piper Laurie and Cliff Robertson, who both appeared in the series. Actress Cloris Leachman, another GE Theater alum, shared her memories via video message.
Bird called General Electric Theater, “the pinnacle of this type of entertainment in this moment. It’s really a time capsule of the period.”
“It was the most important show of my career,” Laurie added. “The shows were quite remarkable, they had the courage to do new things.” For example, some of the episodes Laurie appeared in only ran GE commercials at the beginning and end of the half-hour, so as not to interrupt the program.
To which Immelt, the businessman, said with a laugh, “I’m glad it ran on CBS.”
But perhaps the show’s most lasting legacy was its grooming of a future president, Ronald Reagan, who hosted the show for most of its run. Reagan spent 10 weeks each year canvassing the country as GE’s corporate spokesman, visiting the company’s plants and offices. It was here he honed his public speaking skills talking to workers that later brought him to fame as “The Great Communicator.”
It was Reagan’s early training in retail politics, although he would not become governor of California until 1967. “I don’t think he mapped it out as a strategy, it just developed,” said Meese. “He didn’t just preach to employees, he talked to them.”
But it would be hard for GE, or any company for that matter, to have a single brand ambassador in today’s media environment.
“It would be really hard to associate with any one individual, to let them be free to say what they want and still be consistent with our brand and image,” Immelt said. “[Reagan] was unscripted, uncensored, but by and large consistent, and that authenticity worked for us.”