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Beloved on TV, Andy Griffith was sharp businessman, too
Jul 8, 2012 - By Joe Flint McClatchy-Tribune News Service
LOS ANGELES -- Andy Griffith was famous for playing hayseed characters full of homespun wisdom.
Off camera, though, he was no country bumpkin.
"He had a strong control over his shows and his persona," said television historian Tim Brooks, co-author of "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows." Brooks said Griffith was not the type to get "turned off track by an executive or producer."
The North Carolina native was already a success on record, stage and the big screen before he turned his attention to television. He had appeared on Broadway, playing a clueless recruit in the comedy "No Time for Sergeants," a role he reprised in the movie of the same name, having already turned Hollywood heads with his role as a cracker barrel comic turned political pundit in director Elia Kazan's searing "A Face in the Crowd."
Soon after, he was back on Broadway in a musical version of the film "Destry Rides Again" when he told his agent he was ready for television.
The agent landed him a role as a country sheriff on "The Danny Thomas Show." His guest-starring appearance made such an impression that soon the young star was being spun off into a show of his own.
In time, "The Andy Griffith Show" would prove a spinoff power in its own right. The show brought national prominence to co-stars Don Knotts and Jim Nabors, who went on to sturdy careers. The show fathered both "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C." and "Mayberry RFD," both of which became ratings successes.
Ambitious and a shrewd businessman, Griffith was able to negotiate partial ownership of the project that became "The Andy Griffith Show" before its 1960 debut.
A star having a large stake in his own show would become more common later, but was rare then and would be unheard of today.
Griffith's stake in the show gave the star a lot of say in how it was made, and made him much more than just a hired hand reading lines. It was his decision, for example, to change his own character's persona from a cornpone country boy similar to his famous performance in "No Time for Sergeants" after the first season in order to yield the comic spotlight to co-star Don Knotts, who played Deputy Barney Fife to Griffith's Sheriff Andy Taylor. Many critics say that move solidified the show's reputation not just as a success, but as on of the medium's best shows ever.
Griffith later sold his piece and the show is now 100 percent owned by CBS.
Griffith had enormous popularity with fans, and his show was a ratings winner. From its debut on CBS in October 1960 to its final episode in 1968, "The Andy Griffith Show" was a top 10 show. It was ranked No. 1 in its last season.
"He didn't run it into the ground the way some shows stay past their prime," said Brooks.
Since then, NBC's "Seinfeld" is the only show that has managed to finish its run on top of the ratings.
Not only did "The Andy Griffith Show" help keep CBS on top of the ratings through much of the 1960s, reruns of it also helped build the local TV station business and the nascent cable industry.
In the 1970s, new so-called independent stations not affiliated with broadcast networks ABC, CBS and NBC started popping up across the landscape. They needed content.
Reruns of "The Andy Griffith Show" became popular on local TV stations, which gobbled up episodes to fill their airwaves. It was not uncommon for several episodes of "The Andy Griffith Show" to appear daily on local TV stations.
"The Andy Griffith Show" also helped build Ted Turner's budding cable empire. Turner bought the rights to the show in the late 1970s and used it as the backbone of his network for several years.
"It was able to establish that particular network as a place for families to watch television," said Bill Carroll, a vice president at industry consulting firm Katz Television Group. Indeed, TBS used to schedule the show at five minutes past the hour so it would get its own stand-alone listing in TV Guide and the television listings in newspapers.
It would be "impossible," Carroll said, to put an exact figure on the revenue that "Andy Griffith" has generated over the decades. But the number likely runs at least into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Reruns of the show are still being broadcast on the cable channel TV Land as well as on local TV stations.
"The Andy Griffith Show" even had a hand in the creation of the media giant Viacom Inc.
Although CBS made "The Andy Griffith Show," federal regulations introduced in 1970 prohibited the network from being in the rerun business. "The Andy Griffith Show" and other shows from the CBS library were spun off into a company called Viacom. Through the popularity of the CBS shows, including Andy Griffith's, Viacom grew into a global media giant whose holdings now include Paramount Pictures and the cable channel MTV.
Viacom later acquired CBS (and eventually split it off into its own company), returning "The Andy Griffith Show" to its original owner.
Griffith managed to capture lightning in a bottle again with "Matlock," an hour-long legal drama that ran for nine seasons on NBC and ABC and was particularly popular with older viewers.
Reruns of "Matlock" also continue to run and are currently on both the Hallmark Channel and WGN America.
Editor's note: Joe Flint writes for the Los Angeles Times