The program ran on CBS every Sunday night from 8–9 p.m. ET (originally from 9–10 p.m. ET, until March 1949), and is one of the few entertainment shows to have been run in the same weekly time slot on the same network for more than two decades. Virtually every type of entertainment appeared on the show; opera singers, popular artists, songwriters, comedians, ballet dancers, dramatic actors performing monologues from plays, and circus acts were regularly featured. The format was essentially the same as vaudeville, and although vaudeville had died a generation earlier, Sullivan presented many ex-vaudevillians on his show.
Originally co-created and produced by Marlo Lewis, the show was first titled Toast of the Town, but was widely referred to as the Ed Sullivan Show for years before September 25, 1955, when that became its official name. In the show's June 20, 1948 debut, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis performed along with singer Monica Lewis and Broadway composers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II previewing the score to their then-new show South Pacific, which opened on Broadway in 1949.
The Ed Sullivan Show was originally broadcast via live television from the Maxine Elliott Theatre at Broadway and 39th St. before moving to its permanent home at CBS-TV Studio 50 in New York City, which was renamed the Ed Sullivan Theater on the occasion of the program's 20th anniversary in June 1968. The last Sullivan show telecast (#1068) was on March 28, 1971 with guests Melanie, Joanna Simon, Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass, and Sandler and Young.
Along with the new talent Sullivan booked each week, he also had recurring characters appear many times a season, such as his "Little Italian Mouse" puppet sidekick Topo Gigio, who debuted April 14, 1963, and ventriloquist Señor Wences. While most of the episodes aired live from New York City, the show also aired live on occasion from other nations, such as the United Kingdom, Australia, and Japan. For many years, Ed Sullivan was a national event each Sunday evening, and was the first exposure for foreign performers to the American public. On the occasion of the show's tenth anniversary telecast, Sullivan commented on how the show had changed during a June 1958 interview syndicated by the Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA):
The show enjoyed phenomenal popularity in the 1950s and early 1960s. As had occurred with Amos 'n Andy on the radio in the early 1930s, the family ritual of gathering around the television set to watch Ed Sullivan became almost a U.S. cultural universal. He was regarded as a kingmaker, and performers considered an appearance on his program as a guarantee of stardom. The show's iconic status is illustrated by a song from the 1960 musical Bye Bye Birdie. In the song "Hymn for a Sunday Evening", a family of viewers expresses their regard for the program in worshipful tones.
In September 1965, CBS started televising the program in compatible color, as all three major networks began to switch to 100 percent color prime time schedules. CBS had once backed its own color system, developed by Peter Goldmark, and resisted using RCA's compatible process until that year.
In the late 1960s, Sullivan remarked that his program was waning as the decade went on. He realized that to keep viewers, the best and brightest in entertainment had to be seen, or else the viewers were going to keep on changing the channel. Along with declining viewership, Ed Sullivan attracted a higher median age for the average viewer (which most sponsors found undesirable) as the seasons went on. These two factors were the reason the show was canceled by CBS after the end of the 1970-1971 season. Because there was no notice of cancellation, Sullivan's landmark program ended without a series finale. Sullivan would produce one-off specials for CBS until his death in 1974.
Many kinescopes and tapes still exist; the earliest "kinnie" in the Sullivan archive is the November 28, 1948 telecast. In the 1990s, performances were repackaged as The Best of the Ed Sullivan Show and Ed Sullivan—Rock & Roll Classics in syndication and on the VH1 and TV Land cable channels. From 2001 through 2004, PBS stations across the U.S. aired edited versions of The Ed Sullivan Show (usually airing two 30-minute programs back-to-back). These were produced by WQED Multimedia in Pittsburgh. Since then, CBS has reacquired the rights to the show and makes episodes available on its Web site.
The Ed Sullivan Show is especially known to the WWII and baby boom generations for airing breakthrough performances by Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, [The Supremes]], The Beach Boys, The Jackson 5, African-American artists (namely, those of Motown), The Rolling Stones, The Doors, The Animals, and performances from Broadway shows by their original cast members.