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Friday, 1 July 2016

A day long remembered: Star Wars comes to television

The UK's TV Times heralds the 
arrival of Star Wars on television

Several years after it changed film-going forever, Star Wars came to television. 

George Lucas was angry about it, we were told. But for the young fan, the arrival of Star Wars on the small screen was a huge event. Today, Episode Nothing takes a look at the very different experiences in the US and the UK as Star Wars made its TV premiere on HBO, CBS and ITV.

Star Wars comes to television – and George Lucas is unhappy

In the early 1980s, the prospect of showing a big film was still a big deal for broadcasters. And naturally, they didn’t come any bigger than Star Wars.

In 1982, it was reported that America’s ABC had paid $25million for the rights to show Star Wars three times – although some confusion must have crept into those reports, because it was CBS that became the first network to air the film. Either way, according to Tony Crawley’s column in the UK’s Starburst magazine, George Lucas was not impressed.

“If it were up to Lucasfilm we wouldn’t sell Star Wars to TV,” Lucasfilm’s spokesman Sidney Ganis was quoted as saying in Crawley’s March 1982 column.

Twentieth Century-Fox owned the television rights to the first film, but Lucas had control of the sequels, and felt “there is considerable theatrical life in the film”, according to Ganis. “And that’s why Lucasfilm will not sell the TV rights of The Empire Strikes Back or Revenge of the Jedi,” Ganis added. (Shooting on what was still called Revenge of the Jedi had only begun in January 1982.)  Lucas, it was reported, took the view that if Disney had been so quick to sell films to television rather than reissue them at cinemas, Disneyland would never have been built.

Star Wars on pay-per view and HBO

The entertainment world had already changed a great deal since the release of Star Wars not five years before. Home video, available only to the very well-off back then, was gaining ground fast, and America also had cable and pay-per view showings.

The first showings of Star Wars were not on network television. As this excellent account from TV Obscurities recalls, the film was shown on pay-per-view subscription services from September 1982, although only half a million homes could receive such packages.

In the winter of 1983, HBO (the then-new Home Box Office channel) showed the film. Even though Return of the Jedi had by now completed the trilogy and taken the expected millions at the box office, HBO was reportedly disappointed in the ratings the original film attracted. Pay-per-view and home video had already diminished the impact of TV showings, it seemed.

Star Wars on CBS – watch Mark Hamill introduce the TV premiere

Star Wars did not reach network television in the US until Sunday, February 26, 1984, when CBS finally showed it. It ran from 8pm to 11pm, with the addition of commercials and an introduction.

Thanks to the YouTube clip above, we can see again just how much of a fuss CBS made about the movie, with Mark Hamill hosting a specially filmed segment explaining just how big the film was. And at The Star Wars, we can also see a second clip, shown just as the end credits started to roll, in which Hamill took viewers behind the scenes of the trilogy.

Despite the fuss, the film once again performed less spectacularly than that build-up might have suggested. CBS was reportedly not expecting terrific ratings – and in fact, Star Wars came second in the ratings to LaceABC’s miniseries adaptation of Shirley Conran's raunchy best-seler. This was not a unique phenomenon – several other blockbuster films had been beaten in the ratings by miniseries – but it was reported that CBS issued refunds to some advertisers. It was a rare case of Star Wars being deemed a commercial disappointment, which probably says more about the rapidly changing world of home entertainment in the 1980s than it does about the movie.

Star Wars comes to ITV: the UK TV premiere in 1982

The TV Times listings page for the
night of the Star Wars premiere

British newspapers had reported as far back as January 1982 that ITV’s film buyer Leslie Halliwell had bought Star Wars for around $3 million, or £1.5 million. But in June, Tony Crawley in Starburst reported that Fox was calling this figure “ridiculous”. Crawley said the actual sum was closer to $5 million: “For which tidy sum, ITV can show the movie a very limited number of times … anytime after this autumn… What with Mike Yarwood in their bottomless pocket already, what else do you think ITV’s main Christmas cracker movie will be this year?” (Yarwood was a hugely popular impressionist who had become the latest in a succession of entertainers to desert the BBC for its commercial rivals.)

In fact, ITV showed it pretty much as soon as they could: Sunday October 24. Perhaps Star Wars was bigger than Christmas. Or, more prosaically, they realised that they could draw higher revenues during the pre-Christmas advertising campaigns than during the holidays.

The cover art on the TV Times magazine that week had Darth Vader holding aloft two lightsabers whose blades met above the magazine’s masthead. Beneath him were Luke, Leia and Han, all in their Empire Strikes Back costumes, as well as Artoo, Threepio and Chewie. “The Force comes to ITV – Star Wars Sunday,” read the announcement. The other big television news of the autumn was relegated to a strap at the foot of the page: “Channel Four is coming, too!”

You can get some sense of the excitement about the film’s TV premiere from this off-air recording of a trailer for the movie:

I remember spending that Sunday in agonising suspense. I quite enjoyed watching Alec Guinness in The Swan, alongside Grace Kelly, on BBC1 in the afternoon, but after that, there was nothing to do but count down until 7.15pm. The wait through the lofty religious series Credo, the ITV news and James Galway Presents the Psalms of David was unbearable.

Even though I badly wanted to see Star Wars again, in conversation with friends I had dutifully toed the Lucasfilm line that selling it to TV was a bad thing – that it would kill off future re-releases and that much of the film’s impact would be lost on the small screen. But that evening, I was of course enthralled.

Yes, you were losing nearly half the picture, as well as the stereo soundtrack. And because the scene changes in Star Wars are executed with clever wipes and dissolves, their interruption by commercials was bound to seem particularly clumsy. Yet the film was as compelling as ever. 

Earlier that year, I had seen 2001: A Space Odyssey on TV and had been woefully disappointed. Whatever Kubrick’s film had going for it, it had clearly been lost on the small screen. But Star Wars, with its frenetic pace and consistently high level of invention, did not suffer too badly at all.

Video cassette recorders were growing rapidly in popularity in the UK at that time (in fact, they were more common than in the US, with its multiplicity of TV channels). But the market for buying films on tape rather than renting them had yet to get going. Many people made off-air recordings of Star Wars, and I remember heading to friend’s house to experience it again.

Naturally, we fast-wound through the commercials, but these YouTube videos preserve some of them for posterity:


Most people wiped their recordings of ITV’s transmission of Star Wars when the film became available at an affordable price on home video. Much later, that turned out to have been a mistake – because ITV’s transmission was the one good chance to obtain the mono mix of the film, with its multiple differences from other releases. 

Perhaps where Star Wars is concerned, you should never throw anything away.

Next week, I’ll take a closer look at that special Star Wars-dominated edition of TV Times, which says a lot about the era, It also contained a specially commissioned comic strip explaining how the Rebel Alliance stole the Death Star plans  – in a story that will almost certainly flatly contradict the forthcoming spin-off film Rogue One


Dec Cart said...

Great memories, thankyou.

I was sitting on the floor a few feet away from the telly trying to create the big screen experience. I wasn't aware of widescreen until years later, so I thought it was perfect.

We didn't own a VCR at the time but my pal's folks did. It became ritual to play it whenever I was at their house. There were people who weren't interested in Star Wars but taped it anyway. They'd just paid a small fortune for the machine so would tape big deals like this. I was surprised at the showings of Star Wars I got in some unexpected places.

I hadn't considered that Lucasfilm owning the sequels could explain them taking longer to reach TV. Makes sense.

On the subject of the TV Times covert art, it's adapted from an ESB poster with the ESB-only elements airbrushed out.

Darren Slade said...

Thanks a lot Dec. I didn't realise TV Times had adapted Empire art like that. Inside the magazine, they commissioned a new comic strip of their own, which I'll aim to reproduce next week. At least, I THINK it was original to them!
I love these memories of people's early experiences with off-air recordings. I think I finally got a copy of my own several transmissions later.

Dec Cart said...

My folks got us a VCR at Christmas 1985. My first thought was 'Star Wars is on at New Year', which it was in STV-land.