Edward the Seventh the Second will be born into the world tonight, but the three commercial TV networks may be the ones kicking and screaming. Edward is the subject of a 13-part imported British series to be shown on 53 stations gathered by the sponsoring Mobil Oil Corp. into what Mobil spokesmen call a "non-network network."
This effort represents yet another challenge to network domination of prime time and program sources in a year that has seen increasing numbers of viewers tuning to public TV, and higher mortality rates than ever for network shows, which are dumped when they fail to catch on overnight.
Of the 53 stations carrying Mobil's "Edward the King," more than half are network affiliates -- 20 from CBS, seven from NBC and just one from ABC. That means those stations will be rejecting network programming at 8 p.m. Wednesdays for the next 13 weeks -- Mobil specified the time slot -- and the networks, especially heavily defected CBS, won't be able to charge as much for commercial time during that period.
One industry source estimates that the asking price for 30 seconds on the CBS Wednesday night show "The Incredible Hulk" will plummet from a high of $60,000 to a low of $35,000 because of lost stations (in Washington, the program airs on Channel 5, not a network affiliate).
"The concept is working extraordinarily well," trumpets Stan Moger, president of SFM Media Services, which sold the program to stations for Mobil. "The networks are petrified."
Ironically, CBS once owned, and paid Londoner Lew Grade $2.5 million for, the rights to show "Edward the King" in this country. In England, where it was called "Edward the Seventh," the series played in 1974 on the commercial ATV network. But CBS sat on Eddie for four years, frightened by its ratings failure with the "Upstairs-Downstairs" imitation, "Beacon Hill," and finally the rights reverted to Grade.
Mobil stepped in with $1.8 million to buy the show, committed another $1 million to advertising and promotion, and is paying an estimated $3 million to buy time on those 53 stations to show it. The stations include not only 24 in the top 25 markets, but also three so-called "superstations" -- in Atlanta, Chicago and San Francisco -- whose programming is bounced by satellite to hundreds of cable systems, and thus millions more households, throughout the country.
If Edward the King" is a smash hit, or even a nice medium-sized hit, the networks are going to look awfully silly.
It's no wonder, then, that Robert A. Daly, president of CBS Entertainment, urged affiliates at a network confab not to carry the show, telling them that although it was "splendid" and "fine," it would probably get poor ratings. This could perhaps be translated as, "'Edward the King' is too good for commercial television and too intelligent to attract commercial TV audiences." Such thinking can give stout hearts the flutters.
Daly may not have been a very persuasive pitchman to his affiliates -- more of them signed up than from the other two networks -- but he was fairly astute as a critic. "Edward the King" is splendid; it is rich with plot, ripe with character, skillful in design and strikingly opulent in execution. We may have had more British history on the American telly than we need, but the story of poor Albert Edward, Prince of Wales and son of the domineering and impossibly tenacious Queen Victoria, is a jim-dandy, and it has been, to judge from the first episode and excerpts from all 12, jimdandily done.
The series, written mostly by David Butler and directed by John Gorrie, exhibits the british knack for putting eyes and ears to keyholes with unimpeachable civility and theatrical intuition, and, like other mini-series from British television, it manages with zest and style to turn personages into people and make them alive.
Edward's entire life, from his birth in 1841 -- an event prefaced by his mother Queen Victoria's tender declaration, "All babies are ugly" -- to his death in 1910. It would be nearly 60 years before he sat on the throne and it will be 11 weeks before his coronation on the air, but despite a short reign of nine years, Edward left his marks during a youth and princeship of affairs, imbroglios and one or two genuine calamities.
There is more than an engrossing narrative and a refreshing brush-up on history here. In "The Boy," the opening chapter tonight, the way offspring of the mighty can enter life with odds against them is sensitively and touchingly portrayed. Even the child's name becomes a matter of court intrigues and stratagems. In the next episode, his authoritarian and Prussian-born father, Prince Albert, divests the infant of his toy horsie and replaces it with an abacus, the Victorian pocket calculator.
As might be expected, the quality of acting ranges from competent to magnificent. Annette Crosbie, whose Victoria will age through decades as the series contrnues, has inventive and subtle ways of conveying a personality afflicted with monomania, stereomania, neurosis, sexual confusion and a will of Wilkinson steel. Patience Collier, as her aide and confidante Baroness Lehzen, looks for all the world like Judith Anderson in "Rebecca" and imparts the same kind of ominous authority.
In later episodes, the company will be supplemented by stalwarts like John Gielgud as Disraeli and Michael Hordern as Gladstone. And starting with the fifth episode, Edward will be played by Timothy West. Storm clouds will gather, scandal loom and industrial revolution do its best and worst. "There is trouble brewing, gentlemen," notes an old man at court early in the first episode. "Quite so," replies the Duke of Wellington.
This prediction promises to come true in engrossing and glittering hours ahead.
Most of "Edward the King" was produced on tape, but ertain scenes were filmed on or near the locations where they actually took place (including Windsor Castle). Generally, the taped scenes have more intimacy and were better shot; during a filmed sequence outdoors in Scotland, director Gorrie cuts from Victoria to Albert in such a way that one half expects them to break into the Merry Widow waltz. Occasionally wordiness or pomp will engulf the production, but it usually returns to its central story and themes just in time.
Without question, this is rich and superior television entertainment. Whether it will draw vast audiences is naturally another issue. Are the networks indeed shivering in their boots? Those boots were made for shiverin'. Competition of this sort can only be healthful; for once the contest is not to out-flash but to out-class the other guys.
There has been considerable pressure at NBC as well as CBS against affiliates signing up for "Edward the King." In Baltimore, NBC affiliate Channel 11 (WBAL) made a deal for the sries and then, just two weeks before telecast, mysteriously withdrew. A station spokesman says he is unaware of the reasons. A few other stations canceled at the last minute, but then a few others signed up at the last minute. "Edward" may enjoy a reign that will have the networks on the edges of their seats.