In the 1970s, author and social commentator Tom Wolfe joked that the first letter in PBS stood for petroleum, because oil money underwrote so much public broadcast programming. Wolfe had a point. One of the network’s most acclaimed shows, Masterpiece (originally Masterpiece Theatre), got its start in 1971 thanks to a $490,000 grant from Mobil Oil.
That largess was the doing of Mobil chairman Rawleigh Warner Jr., who died on June 26 at age 92 in Hobe Sound, Fla. The public probably associated Warner’s industry more with Jett Rink, the rough-hewn wildcatter portrayed by James Dean in the 1956 movie Giant, than with the elegant, refined Brits who often appear in Masterpiece’s dramas.
That didn’t deter Warner. He apparently decided that highbrow entertainment would not only buff Mobil’s image but elevate American tastes as well. As he explained in 1971: “The aim is to offer American audiences quality television programming that provides both social and artistic value.”
Here are some facts about Warner and the intellectually uplifting program that he helped make possible:
- Warner, who became the chairman and CEO of Mobil in 1969, sought to improve the company’s image, in part by redesigning Mobil stations to look more modern. He also changed the company’s logo, jettisoning its trademark Pegasus sign with a streamlined blue typeface with a red “o” in it.
- Mobil’s decision to underwrite the importation of previously aired, British-made dramas — for which BBC was paid $10,000 per hour episode — aroused the ire of Hollywood tradespeople, many of whom were having a tough time getting work. One union local started a campaign to get members to cancel their Mobil credit cards, according to a 1970 New York Times article.
- The first season of Masterpiece Theatre included the dramas The First Churchills, Pere Goriot, The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Jude the Obscure.
- The classic Masterpiece theme music was written by a Frenchman, 18th-century Baroque composer Jean-Joseph Mouret.
- Alistair Cooke, who was host of Masterpiece Theatre from its inception until 1992, originally turned down the job because he was making the TV series America and was concerned that he would become overexposed.
- The show’s original producer, Christopher Sarson, was against buying rights to air the British drama Upstairs, Downstairs. But PBS ultimately did at Warner’s request, according to a 1980 New York Times article. Upstairs, Downstairs became one of Masterpiece’s most popular programs.
- Warner argued that sponsoring Masterpiece made money for Mobil, according to TV historian Jeffrey S. Miller. Warner pointed to a 1982 poll in which 31 percent of “upscale” respondents — many of whom presumably were Masterpiece viewers — identified Mobil as the gasoline brand they most often purchased.
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