Michael Dann, the longtime CBS executive who steered the network’s winning primetime strategy in the 1960s with hokey and hip shows ranging from “The Beverly Hillbillies” to “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” has died. He was 94.
Dann died May 27 at his home in Boca Raton, Fla., according to the New York Times.
Dann held the role of CBS programming chief from 1963 until 1970, when he was replaced by his protege, Fred Silverman. Hits delivered on Dann’s watch included “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The Carol Burnett Show,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Hawaii Five-0,” “Mannix” and the venerable “60 Minutes.”
Dann’s long run at CBS was credited in part to his “uncanny ability to gauge (CBS chief) William Paley’s probable reaction to most program ideas,” according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications. Dann brought the Smothers Brothers to CBS, but then battled with the brothers and producers over the show’s liberal political bent. He famously insisted that Pete Seeger’s performance of the anti-war song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” be deleted from a 1967 episode, although Seeger returned to the show in February 1968 to perform the song in full.
Dann was known for establishing warm relations with most CBS talent and for generally preferring escapist fare, particularly sitcoms. He also championed CBS’ acquisition of Republic Pictures in the mid-1960s which came with the spacious lot in Studio City that is now the network’s West Coast headquarters.
Despite his long run at CBS, Dann cited his experience at NBC working for legendary programming exec Pat Weaver as the high point of his career. “Television was at its best then because it was new and (Weaver) was there,” Dann said in a 1998 interview with the Archive of American Television. He added that Weaver taught him about the responsibility that the new medium had to its viewers. “We had to have a report from every producer every week … about what was on their screen that they were proud of,” Dann recalled.
Born in Detroit in 1921, Dann graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in economics. He began his career on the heels of World War II as a comedy writer. In 1948 he joined NBC, first working in publicity, but quickly moving into programming, according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications. He rose to the post of running NBC Entertainment under Peacock founder David Sarnoff before shifting to CBS in 1958.
By 1963, Dann was upped to head of programming. He worked under five CBS presidents during his run. Among his final moves at the Eye were to greenlight “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” although he made creators Allan Burns and James L. Brooks change the title character from a recently divorced woman to one who had just broken off an engagement; and to set a deal with producer Norman Lear to develop the comedy that would define CBS for a generation, “All in the Family.”
Dann left CBS in 1970 after clashing with then-president Robert Wood, who championed Silverman and the shift in tone that came with “All in the Family.”
Dann joined the Children’s Television Workshop during the formative years of “Sesame Street.” He worked as a consultant to Warner Cable on its pioneering QUBE programming effort. He also helped develop concepts for the Walt Disney Co.’s Epcot Center and was an advisor to ABC Video Enterprises. From 1973 to 1978 he was a lecturer in American studies at Yale University.