A television special (often TV special, or rarely "television spectacular") is a stand-alone television show which temporarily interrupts episodic programming normally scheduled for a given time slot. Specials have been produced which provide a full range of entertainment and informational value available via the television medium (news, drama, comedy, variety, cultural), in various formats (live television, documentary, studio production, animation, film), and in any viewing lengths (short films, feature films, miniseries, telethons).
The types of shows described as television specials include:
The production of early television shows was very expensive, with few guarantees of public success, and ongoing (weekly) shows typically required a single, major sponsor to operate. As such, a good deal of programming was one-off shows, accommodating smaller sponsors and not requiring a loyal audience following. As the industry matured, this trend reversed; by the 1950s, most networks aimed to provide stable, routine, and proven content to their audiences. Television executives, such as CBS president James Aubrey, sought to avoid any disruption in viewing habits which might cause viewers to move to another network. These weekly series, though, typically became too expensive for any single sponsor, so stand-alone shows offered a way to continue accommodating the single-sponsor practice, leading to shows like Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951, sponsored by Hallmark Cards as part of the Hallmark Television Playhouse) and the Ford 50th Anniversary Show (1953, a two-hour variety show simulcast on both CBS and NBC).
In 1954, NBC president Sylvester Weaver pioneered an innovative style of programming which he called "spectaculars". These stand-alone broadcasts, usually 90 minutes in length, were designed to attract large, new audiences and bring prestige to the network. The spectaculars aired on three nights every fourth week - a major gamble because it controversially broke up viewer routines and risked stable weekly sponsorship deals.
To address this, Weaver used his "magazine" style which involved selling segments of each show to a different sponsor, a practice which would evolve into the modern "commercial". The three initial spectacular blocks were Hallmark Hall of Fame (Sundays, produced by Albert McCleery), Producer's Showcase (Mondays, produced by Fred Coe), Max Liebman Presents (Saturdays, produced by Max Liebman). In time, the term "spectacular" was seen as hyperbolic, and so led to the more modern and modest term, "special". Weaver's strategy was not as successful as CBS's predictably scheduled and prefilmed programs, and he was fired in 1956.
In the 1960s, multi-part specials, aired over several days in a week or on the same day for several weeks, evolved from this format, though these were more commonly called miniseries. The term "TV special" formerly applied more to dramas or musicals presented live or on videotape (such as Peter Pan) than to filmed presentations especially made for television, which were (and still are) referred to as made-for-TV movies.
In the era before cable and home video, television audiences often had to wait an entire year or more to see a special program or film that had a great impact on first viewing. Today, online streaming often makes it possible for viewers to watch a television show again almost immediately after it is aired, and home video--which has largely given way to digital downloads--makes it possible for the general public to own copies of television shows and films.