December 14 in Twilight Zone History: Remembering CBS programming chief James Aubrey on the anniversary of his birth

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Dec 14, 2017

Today, December 14th, This Day in Twilight Zone History remembers controversial CBS programming executive James T. Aubrey on the anniversary of his birth.

Dubbed 'The Smiling Cobra' by actor John Houseman, Aubrey (1918-1994) was a television programming wunderkind in his day. He was appointed programming chief at CBS in 1959, the same year that The Twilight Zone debuted. However, Aubrey did not pick the Zone, and he had no power over it, considering the fact that Rod Serling had an unprecedented contract that gave him total control of the show.

Like a Brandon Tartikoff of an earlier era, CBS executive James T. Aubrey prided himself on knowing what the American public wanted to watch on TV. However, he didn't like anthology, and he was never much of a fan of The Twilight Zone.

However, Aubrey did not hide the fact that he didn't like anthology shows. One of his first acts was to cancel the multi award-winning Playhouse 90 series. Aubrey's theory was that audiences wanted to follow continuing characters each week – a philosophy that has been proven successful over the years as anthology series have all but disappeared; the recent success of the British series Black Mirror, which is very TZ-like, is the exception.

It was Aubrey who ran roughshod over Serling's series budget, ordering the filming of six episodes on tape in the second season. And it was Aubrey who canceled the show after the third season – although he had to eat crow and invite Serling back when the replacement series, Fair Exchange, bombed. However, eventually, due to lukewarm ratings, Aubrey canceled The Twilight Zone after its fifth season.

Like many top television executives, Aubrey became a victim of his own success. He orchestrated a failed coup to oust CBS chief William Paley, and that, combined with low ratings for his final crop of shows, forced Aubrey into the unemployment lines. 

Although Aubrey had a hugely successful run with powerhouse series like The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres,The Andy Griffith Show and Gilligan's Island, he was eventually fired from CBS after low network ratings and an abortive power play to oust CBS chief William Paley. Kirk Kerkorian rescued him from executive 'jail,' hiring him to be the President of MGM, where he personally saw to the demolition of the fabled MGM backlots. He was married to actress and TZ veteran Phyllis Thaxter ("Young Man's Fancy").