When you tune in to the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon on Sept. 4-5, you’ll join nearly 50 million viewers nationwide.
While that number is impressive, there’s another figure that’s also remarkable and just as vital to the success of the Telethon: 189.
That’s the number of television stations that make up MDA’s one-of-a-kind “Love Network” — stations across the country that will broadcast the Telethon.
Thanks in great part to the “Love Network,” the Telethon has become the keystone of MDA’s fundraising efforts. The show also is the best-known and most successful fundraising telecast of its kind.
In addition, it’s generated unmatched public awareness of neuromuscular diseases and MDA’s mission to defeat them.
What follows is a look at how this network came together and remains strong today.
In 1966, the first-ever Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon for MDA was broadcast from a single station, WNEW-TV in New York City.
This broadcast, shown only in the New York area, was the revival of similar, locally broadcast MDA Telethons that had taken place in the late 1950s — for example, the 1957 Jerry Lewis Thanksgiving Party that raised $700,000 for MDA in New York.
In the mid-1960s, Robert Ross, MDA’s longtime President & CEO (then its Executive Director), convinced then-MDA President Paul Cohen that a Telethon was needed to increase MDA’s visibility in the New York area.
Ross also had to get Jerry Lewis to agree to be at the helm. Lewis’ popularity was skyrocketing at the time, and he’d already become well entrenched in the fight against neuromuscular diseases for more than 15 years.
Once Lewis signed on, a bevy of top stars followed to be part of the unique, 19-hour fundraising show.
However, only Labor Day weekend was available for the broadcast. At first, New York City officials balked at issuing the fundraising permit, thinking it would be disastrous for MDA because most folks would be away for the holiday weekend.
But with Ross’ urging, the permit was granted, and the 1966 show did go on. Ultimately it did what was until then unimaginable: It raised $1 million.
The 1967 show was another winner, bringing in $1.4 million. Emboldened by that success, Ross decided to leap another never-before-surmounted hurdle, and take the Telethon to a bigger audience by networking the show to multiple stations.
First, however, Ross had to get permission from the Theater Authority — the organization that represents talent unions whose approval is required before members can contribute their services for free.
Eventually, Ross got the Theater Authority’s approval, and the 1968 show was broadcast from WNEW-TV over a mini-network that included WHEC-TV in Rochester, N.Y., WGR-TV in Buffalo, N.Y., WTEV-TV in Providence, R.I., and WKGB-TV in Boston.
Not only did that Telethon broadcast raise another record of $2 million for MDA, but the networked format made plenty of sense in terms of expense.
"If we could have one Telethon playing on the same days in all these markets, we don’t have to serve them separately, which costs money," said MDA Senior Vice President Jerry Weinberg, then and now the Association’s director of field organization.
Another milestone for the Telethon and the "Love Network" occurred when Ross noticed that WHEC-TV in Rochester had substantially higher proceeds than the other stations. He looked into what happened.
"Well," Station Manager Glover Delaney said, "we cut away from the national broadcast for a few minutes and showed people here volunteering, taking calls…"
Just like that, the local cutaway was born.
The cutaways to local Telethon pledge centers or special events proved to be a crucial ingredient in the "Love Network" recipe.
Along with a talent-packed live show, the cutaways enabled stations to interview local MDA clients about the help they receive from MDA, and to highlight local celebrities, volunteers and sponsors.
Showing how MDA works in the community really made the phones ring and pledges pour in.
"I think the marriage of a national show with a local community is very important," said Olin Morris, a member of MDA’s Board of Directors, who broadcast the Telethon on WREG-TV in Memphis, Tenn., for 25 years.
Morris, who also worked at a "Love Network" station in Fort Smith, Ark., is now retired from his role as vice president of the New York Times Broadcasting Group, which has owned several "Love Network" stations.
"It makes the whole country feel close together, and I think that is highly important," Morris said.
Weinberg recalled a fitting comment made by the late Jack Harris, former MDA Board member and general manager/president of KPRC-TV in Houston.
Harris told him, "On Labor Day a miracle happened. The whole city was unified, working together for MDA.… It’s great for the community, it’s great for the station and it’s great for MDA."
It wasn’t long before the combination of great ratings and the public service aspect of the Telethon began to attract more interest from viewers and the television industry alike.
"The public liked it, because there was nothing on TV like it," Ross said.
TV station managers also liked the opportunity to showcase their anchors and news staff in a different light, and to elicit immeasurable goodwill from their communities. The live format of the show was also an exciting and fun opportunity.
The "Love Network" grew rapidly. Many stations were attracted by the benefits that hosting a localized network Telethon could bring.
In 1969, the network stretched farther in all directions from the Big Apple with the addition of cities like Manchester, N.H., Norfolk, Va., and Detroit.
A year later, the network looked to add the Los Angeles market to its 64-station list. But in order for this to happen, Ross again had to appeal to the Theater Authority. This time, he had to convince the organization to end its long-standing ban on nationwide telethons.
He succeeded, and the MDA Telethon went coast-to-coast in 1970.
By 1972, the network had 140 stations, and added 10 more the next year. An amazing 175 stations joined forces for the 1974 show, and one year later, the total was pushing 200.
Eventually, the "Love Network" had a station in every television market.
The same holds true today, although Telethon stations occasionally change within a market because of new ownership or other considerations, Weinberg said.
Ironically, the traditionally "slow" Labor Day weekend turned out to be an incentive for stations to devote up to 21½ hours to the Telethon.
"It was a good time of year to do that sort of thing from a programming viewpoint," James F. Major, former manager of stations in Milwaukee, Detroit and Tampa, Fla., said. "It was the beginning of the fall season so we got a chance to promote our new programs during the Telethon."
It wasn’t until 1975 that the regular use of the "Love Network" name began in MDA news articles and materials.
Ross recalls that the label was invented for a thank-you ad the Association placed in Daily Variety. Although it was meant for one-time use, the name stuck, the same way the now-famous "Jerry’s kids" slogan did.
The name is ideal, since love is at the heart of the Telethon effort, Morris said.
"It truly is a labor of love," he said. "It is really the bringing together of people of like minds that want to make a difference."
The involvement of key people in the television industry was another vital ingredient in the growth of the "Love Network."
Some were executives who decided to try something new by adding the Telethon; elsewhere, industry leaders used their connections to convince other station managers to get involved.
"Just calling friends and telling them about the benefits of doing the show helped bring in many stations to the network," said MDA Board member Harold Crump. Crump is vice president for corporate affairs of Hubbard Broadcasting, which owns several "Love Network" stations.
A brief rundown of key players in "Love Network" growth looks like a who’s who in television history list:
Robert M. Bennett, current chairman of MDA, was crucial in bringing the Telethon on air in many key markets. He headed WNEW-TV in New York from 1969 to 1971. Bennett is also the former president of Metromedia Broadcasting, a company that owned stations in major cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, and he ultimately brought them into the "Love Network."
The late Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, former president and chairman of NBC, was a pioneer in the medium, and used his influence to bring many NBC affiliate stations on board. Weaver was an MDA Board member for more than 20 years, and MDA established a broadcast journalism awards program in his honor.
Larry Fraiberg, sometimes called the "father of the Telethon" according to Weinberg, was a programming ace in New York who was key in getting the first Labor Day show on the air in 1966.
Ross also cited some prominent women in the entertainment world who helped lay the groundwork and build enthusiasm for the Telethon during the "Love Network"’s formative years: opera diva Maria Callas, Dorothy Collins of TV’s "Your Hit Parade" and "Candid Camera," and actresses Angela Lansbury and Joan Crawford.
Collins and Crawford each served on MDA’s Board.
The interlacing of MDA with the television industry is evident today in the makeup of MDA’s Board of Directors (see "TV Leaders"). The Board also has strong representation from celebrities, VIPs from the Wall Street/financial world, leading physicians and longtime MDA volunteer leaders.
For example, each station that Jim Major managed during his 30-year career in television carried the MDA Telethon.
"I felt that in every place we carried it — Milwaukee, Detroit and Tampa — it was a big thing for the station," said Major, who has retired from his post as general manager of WFTS-TV in Tampa. "The station personnel felt very good about doing it, and felt good about themselves, and it was just a very positive thing."
Ross said that eventually, Storer Communications adopted the Telethon for all stations it owned. In fact, Storer’s president, the late Terry Lee, also became a longtime MDA Board member.
With the stations, volunteers, superstars and enthusiasm comprised by the "Love Network," it would all be for naught if not for one other factor: organization.
Organization is part of what sets the MDA Telethon apart from other charitable shows, most of which have come and gone, Weinberg said.
"We’re so organized for it. Everything is spelled out," Weinberg said, citing the hefty Telethon manual prepared for MDA staff nationwide. "Each person only has one job.
If you have two, then you’re going to forget one." Frequent communication with station managers and pre-Telethon briefings for local emcees are other aspects of MDA’s careful planning.
Running through the organization is also a thick thread of loyalty. The "Love Network" includes dozens of stations that have carried the broadcast for 20 years or more. In fact, many stations choose to air the Telethon despite a multitude of programming pressures and competition that stations now face.
But if the Telethon’s "Love Network" were a wheel, and the people who helped build it were the spokes, it would all be connected at a center hub that’s one person: Jerry Lewis.
"I don’t think we could have done it without Jerry Lewis," Ross said, calling MDA’s National Chairman and Telethon star the glue that holds the whole Telethon together.
Lewis’ prestige always has attracted other top entertainers to appear on the show. That made for big audiences, loyal fans and great ratings, which in turn generated more and more money each year for MDA services and research.
Lewis wrote in his biography Jerry Lewis: In Person that at one time he was reluctant to return to the live television format that was loved by audiences but an easy target for critics.
But since the first Labor Day broadcast, he’s kept his focus on the ultimate goal of fulfilling MDA’s mission.
This year, he’ll star in his 40th consecutive Telethon, and he’s revved up and ready to hit the stage.
"It’s a thrill to look back at the many incredible people who built the ‘Love Network,’ and have done so much for ‘my kids,’" Lewis said. "Although I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished, our work still isn’t done."
MDA’s Board of Directors has historically been made up of experts in fields of importance to the Association: doctors, scientists, finance wizards, celebrities and community leaders.
The television industry also has been heavily represented by experts who’ve supported the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon for MDA in many ways.
Along with Board Chairman Robert M. Bennett, a pioneer in the broadcasting world, three other current Board members have deep roots in the television industry: Harold Crump, James Major and Olin Morris. Together they’ve helped build a solid foundation for MDA’s "Love Network." And each finds his own way to give generously of himself to MDA’s mission.
St. Paul, Minn.
Vice President, Corporate Affairs
Crump’s involvement with MDA began with the personal experience of watching a friend’s son live with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. He’d never heard of the disease, and assumed doctors would simply give the young man, Chris Bonds of Brentwood, Tenn., a pill and he’d get better.
Crump soon learned that was far from the case, and got an up-close look at the difficulties the disease can cause a family. He also realized that, through the MDA Telethon, he could work for a cure for Duchenne and other neuromuscular diseases.
His television career includes seven years as president and general manager of KSTP-TV in St. Paul, Minn., operating his own communications company in Houston, and 25 years at the helm of WTVF-TV in Nashville.
Crump was also general manager of 21st Century Productions, which produced such programs as "Candid Camera" and "Hee Haw."
In Nashville, Crump produced a half-hour film that chronicled Bonds’ life at home and school.
The feature inspired MDA to create its annual Broadcast Journalism Awards, and in 1980, Crump was the first recipient of the award named in honor of the late NBC Chairman Pat Weaver, a former MDA president.
The film also helped encourage and open doors to wheelchair users in mainstream schools, Crump said.
Among Crump’s other notable contributions to MDA: arranging for Jerry Lewis to address the Tennessee legislature, and securing country music legend Johnny Cash to host a segment of a local Telethon broadcast, which led to a huge spike in contributions.
And, in a way, MDA paid him back: His wife, Leigh, was an MDA district director in Nashville when they met. In fact, the couple was convinced by Lewis himself to spend part of their honeymoon in Las Vegas when one of the national MDA Telethons originated there.
Crump said he gets great satisfaction from helping others while doing work he loves.
"It’s been a lot of fun, and it is a really important part of my life."
Former general manager
Jim Major helped the "Love Network" grow by always championing the show as his career took him from Milwaukee to Detroit and finally to Tampa.
He first got involved with the show in the early 1970s. At that time his wife, Barbara, was an on-air personality and was part of the broadcast, too.
Over the years, Major has experienced firsthand the many benefits that broadcasting the Telethon can bring to a station. But, he said, what really endears MDA to him are the people: MDA’s staff, the clients and, of course, Jerry Lewis.
Major first met Lewis at an MDA Emcees Briefing. Major was a featured speaker at several of the annual gatherings of Telethon emcees and producers to share tips and build enthusiasm for the upcoming Telethon.
Major said Lewis’ sincerity helped draw him closer to the Association, and fondly recalls how Lewis would help the Association get sponsors in the early days.
"In those days he’d call on companies and go right to the CEO. It was obvious that his enthusiasm was very real, and you couldn’t help but have a great deal of respect for him," Major said.
Major has been involved in MDA’s volunteer leadership since 1984, both as a corporate member and as a national vice president. He joined the Board of Directors in 1999.
Although he’s retired from television, Jim Major, with his wife, Barbara, raises funds for MDA in another way. They’ve pooled their talents, local connections and experience to start the Hearts of Fire Gala in Tampa.
"It’s worked out quite well," Major said, noting that the first gala netted $125,000 for MDA. Last year’s gala netted $197,000 and was held with more urgency since Hurricane Frances forced cancellation of local Telethon broadcasts.
Looking toward the future, Major takes pride in MDA’s progress in the fight against neuromuscular diseases, but knows the battle isn’t over.
"There’s work to be done, and it’s such important work," he said.
Former Senior Vice President
New York Times Broadcast Group
One could say that Olin Morris has experienced the Telethon from every angle, including the one in front of the camera lens: He hosted local segments at WREG-TV in Memphis for about 25 years.
He began his career as a broadcaster in radio and TV in 1958, but quickly moved to the administrative side of television. Before moving to the New York Times in 1995, he spent seven years as WREG’s president and general manager, and also worked for a year at KFSM-TV in Fort Smith, Ark.
He was an MDA corporate member beginning in the early 1970s and was also a vice president. He joined the Board in 1999.
Morris has volunteered with many organizations and served on many boards, but said MDA is his favorite.
"MDA is my number one charity. It probably began as wanting to give back, and the older I get, the more I look forward to just being with my colleagues on that board," Morris said. "They’re devoted, they’re kind, gentle and caring. They put their money where their mouth is."
Besides being moved by the dedication of his "Love Network" colleagues, Morris said, MDA clients also inspired his efforts.
He’s taken part in several pre-Telethon Emcees Briefings along with Jim Major, and a critique of the show afterward. That kind of planning and organization has been essential to its success, he said.
Morris attributes the Telethon’s longevity to MDA’s ability to stay ahead of technology, with feats such as taking pledges by credit card and broadcasting the show via the Internet.
He also credits the balance between the national show and local cut-ins.
"It makes the whole country feel closer together, and I think that’s highly important," Morris said.