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A television special (often TV special, or rarely "television spectacular") is a stand-alone television show which temporarily interrupts episodic programming normally scheduled for a given time slot. Specials have been produced which provide a full range of entertainment and informational value available via the television medium (news, drama, comedy, variety, cultural), in various formats (live television, documentary, studio production, animation, film), and in any viewing lengths (short films, theatrical films, miniseries, telethons).
The types of shows described as television specials include:
- One-time comedy shows
- Adaptations of operas, Broadway plays, and other musicals
- Celebrity profiles, interviews, or tribute specials
- Seasonal programs or parades: Christmas television specials, Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, New Year's Eve
- Theatrical films and "made-for-TV" movies
- Animated cartoons (shorts)
- Irregular sports events: Olympic Games, Super Bowl
- Beauty pageants: Miss America
- Award shows: Academy Awards
- Fundraising campaigns (telethons)
- On-going breaking news or event coverage
The production of early televisions shows was very expensive, with few guarantees of public success, and on-going (weekly) shows typically required a single, major sponsor to operate. As such, a good deal of programming was one-off shows, accommodating smaller sponsors and not requiring a loyal audience following. As the industry matured, this trend reversed; by the 1950s, most networks aimed to provide stable, routine, and proven content to their audiences. Television executives, such as CBS president James Aubrey, sought avoid any disruption in viewing habits which might cause viewers to move to another network. These weekly series, though, typically became too expensive for any single sponsor, so stand-alone shows offered a way to continue accommodating the single-sponsor practice, leading to shows like Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951, sponsored by Hallmark Cards as part of the Hallmark Television Playhouse) and the Ford 50th Anniversary Show (1953, a two-hour variety show simulcast on both CBS and NBC).
In 1954, NBC president Sylvester Weaver pioneered an innovative style of programming which he called "spectaculars". These stand-alone broadcasts, usually 90 minutes in length, were designed to attract large, new audiences and bring prestige to the network. The spectaculars aired on three nights every fourth week - a major gamble because it controversially broke up viewer routines and risked stable weekly sponsorship deals. To address this, Weaver used his "magazine" style which involved selling segments of each show to a different sponsor - a practice which would evolve into the modern "commercial". The three initial spectacular blocks were Hallmark Hall of Fame (Sundays, produced by Albert McCleery), Producer's Showcase (Mondays, produced by Fred Coe), Max Liebman Presents (Saturdays, produced by Max Liebman). In time, the term "spectacular" was seen as hyperbolic, and so led to the more modern and modest term, "special".
In the 1960s, multi-part specials, over several days in a week, or on the same day for several weeks, evolved from this format, though these were more commonly called miniseries. The term "TV special" formerly applied more to dramas or musicals presented live or on videotape (such as Peter Pan) than to filmed presentations especially made for television, which were (and still are) designated as made-for-TV movies.
In pre-cable and pre-home video days, television audiences often had to wait an entire year or more to see a special program or film that had a great impact on first viewing. Online streaming makes it possible for viewers to watch a television show again almost immediately after it is aired, and home video, digital downloads as well as internet television and video on demand, make it possible for the general public to own copies of television shows and films.
- Brown, Lester L. (1992). "Specials". Les Brown's Encyclopedia of Television (3rd ed.). Gale Research, Inc. pp. 525–526. ISBN 0-8103-8871-5.
- Terrace, Vincent (2013). "Preface". Television Specials (2nd ed.). McFarland & Company. ISBN 978-0-7864-7444-8. Retrieved 20 April 2018 – via Google Books.
- Brown, Lester L. (1992). "Spectaculars". Les Brown's Encyclopedia of Television (3rd ed.). Gale Research, Inc. p. 526. ISBN 0-8103-8871-5.
- O'Dell, Cary. "Encyclopedia of Television - "Special/Spectacular"". Museum of Broadcast Communications. Retrieved 1 May 2018.