All the cats watched "American Bandstand," Dick Clark's rock 'n' roll television show, back when Chuck Berry released "Sweet Little Sixteen" in 1958.
But 31 years later, the stars rock around the clock for video junkies on MTV and other music video channels. That's bad news for "Bandstand," which disappeared from TV after Oct. 7, when it had its last USA cable network airing. The show ultimately will be replaced in the same time slot by a look-alike music program, "Dance Party U.S.A.," and a teen-oriented magazine show called "Youthquake."
It's the first time since Clark took over "Bandstand" in 1956 that the show has been out of production. But though it's an American cultural icon, the show's cable cancellation came with a whimper and not a bang.
For one thing, Clark--"Bandstand's" host for 33 years--said the show's not dead. He'll try to bring "Bandstand" back on prime-time network TV. Moreover, America's oldest teen-ager had already quit hosting the show, which was aired only on cable since April and hadn't been seen on ABC-TV, its home for three decades, for several years.
Still, the cancellation was symbolic of the times for Dick Clark Productions, the Burbank company that produced it. The company badly needs a sitcom or game show in regular production to smooth out its history of bumpy earnings caused by a reliance on revenues from the periodic musical and comedy specials it produces.
When Dick Clark Productions went public early in 1987 and raised $8.2 million, the company planned to expand into game shows, sitcoms and dramatic TV. (Clark and his wife, Karen, own about 76% of the company.) Then, as now, the plan was to keep generating new program ideas until one took off.
"One successful game show, one successful series, and everybody will be happy," said Clark in a recent interview. "One will beget another, which will beget another."
But since the public offering, revenues have tailed off and profits have gyrated. The company's stock still trades at about $6.50 a share--its original offering price. Part of the problem has been a competitive market for new TV shows, exacerbated by the continued success of many shows already on the air.
Clark's company has failed to produce a successful series and continues to rely largely on specials.
"You can't make it on specials alone," said industry analyst Harold Vogel of Merrill Lynch & Co.
Specials, however, make up most of Dick Clark Productions' schedule--although the company declined to break down its earnings by show.
Of the four 1989-90 season series listed in the company's most recent annual report, "American Bandstand" is already off the air, and "Trial by Jury"--a courtroom drama--may soon follow, said Francis C. La Maina, the company's president and chief operating officer. One show, "Dick Clark Presents," aired only six times in 1988.
What's left, for the most part, are specials. Some are successful perennials: Dick Clark has produced "New Year's Rockin' Eve" for 18 years, the "American Music Awards" for 17 years and the "Academy of Country Music Awards" for 12 years.
But some, like "Farm Aid IV" and "The Ice Stars' Hollywood Revue," have appeared only once and have an uncertain future.
That means the company's creative staff has to reinvent the wheel each year just to keep rolling at the same pace.
Worse, it also means that revenues come in fits and spurts, not a steady stream--creating stark quarter-to-quarter contrasts. After a fairly strong fiscal year that ended June 30, in which Dick Clark earned $2.6 million on revenue of $25.6 million, the company's earnings for the first quarter that ended Sept. 30 plunged 97% to $14,000 from $435,000 a year earlier, despite a 47% jump in revenue to $6.9 million from $4.7 million.
The reason for the volatility: in the first quarter last year, the television company was producing a couple of series--including "Bandstand"--that generated respectable profit margins. This year, most of Dick Clark Productions' first-quarter revenues came from an expensive made-for-TV movie that exceeded its budget, cutting into profits.
One of Dick Clark's bids for a regular series is a game show pilot called "The Challengers"--a quiz show Clark would host. The program would focus on up-to-date news and entertainment topics. Buena Vista Television, the syndication arm of Walt Disney Co., already has sold the show to at least 10 TV stations around the country, according to Buena Vista representative Andi Sporkin.
Moreover, NBC has commissioned Dick Clark and another production company to produce a pilot for a revived version of "Let's Make a Deal."
But what's behind Door No. 1 for Dick Clark in game shows could be disappointing.
For one, there's plenty of competition. "It'll be pretty hard, I think, because there are many doing the same thing," said Merrill Lynch's Vogel. In fact, about 45 game shows are now in development and vying for air time, said Sporkin.
Among those, one heavyweight contender will be "Monopoly," a TV version of the classic board game, produced by Merv Griffin Enterprises, the company that created "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune."
So Dick Clark is also working on pilot scripts for sitcoms. One would star the Motown recording group, The Boys. "The script has gone and it's . . . been received well. It looks very good for a pilot," Clark said.
Another pilot script the company is working on is based on the Judy Blume book "Just as Long as We're Together."
Counting on a sitcom or series success has its pitfalls too. For the most part, such series are so expensive to write and film that their producers don't profit from them until they're sold for rerun syndication. But to make it as a rerun, a show has to last three or four years as a first-run series. Meanwhile, production costs are up front.
It takes considerable resources to bankroll that kind of gamble. And La Maina admits that Dick Clark's bigger rivals are better prepared for the risk.
"I don't think we can compete on the same level," said La Maina. "We can't have 15 or 20 writers under contract."
Despite the company's need for a breakthrough, Clark said he had no plans to try to match his bigger competitors' spending on a single project to create a success. "If anybody wants to criticize us they'd say we've been too conservative," said Clark. "But we're not in the business of spending the money in a dangerous way. With one or two modest successes, everybody will be very happy."
Clark still has a few other businesses besides Dick Clark Productions. Clark and La Maina own Olive Enterprises, which essentially leases to Dick Clark both the building that houses the company and the right to use the name "American Bandstand."
That right could become important soon. A subsidiary of the production company has entered into a deal with an East Coast real estate company to develop an American Bandstand Grill restaurant in Miami, and La Maina said he hopes the restaurant will become the first of a chain.
"We're trying to make the asset work in different ways," La Maina said of the "Bandstand" trademark. Being off the air "may add value to the company because it now has legendary status," he said.
A former Utica, N.Y., newsman, Clark started in television production in 1956 when he took over "Bandstand," a local music program on television in Philadelphia. Within a year, ABC brought the show to national television, dubbing it "American Bandstand" and giving Clark the boost he needed to start a series of businesses, one of which eventually became Dick Clark Productions.
Clark, approaching 60, said he's eager to show that his company can do more than specials and musical variety shows. "Absolutely, that's the only reason this whole world of entertainment is so fascinating," he said. "It's always new challenges. It's a great boon for your head. You never get bored."
Clark said he is looking forward to results, too--to the day when observers might look at the company's strategy and say "Gee, aren't they smart."
But, he added: "Right now you can't say that."