One of the most famous ratings wars in television history began on 24 June 1956. That night NBC debuted The Steve Allen Show opposite the eighth anniversary program of what had become a television institution, The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS. The two hosts were markedly different. Sullivan was a rigorous master of ceremonies, known for enforcing strict conformity for both his guests and the members of his audience. Allen, too, served as host, but he was also innovative, funny and whimsical. Whereas Steve Allen liked to improvise and ad lib on his program, creating material and responding to guests and audience on the spot, The Ed Sullivan Show followed a strict format.
The appearances of Elvis Presley on the two programs serve to illustrate the differences between them. When Presley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, Sullivan instructed the camera operators to shoot the picture from the waist up only. On The Steve Allen Show, Presley appeared in a tuxedo and serenaded a bassett hound with his hit "You Ain't Nothing But a Hound Dog." Both strategies appeased nervous network censors, but each is emblematic of the show it served.
Relations between the two prominent hosts were not cordial and reached a low point in October 1956. Allen scheduled a tribute to the late actor, James Dean, for his 21 October program. When he learned that Sullivan planned his own tribute to Dean for his 14 October program, Allen charged that Sullivan had stolen his idea. Sullivan denied the charges and accused Allen of lying. Allen moved his segment to October 14 when both programs paid tribute to the late actor and showed clips from his last movie, Giant.
Much of Allen's work on The Steve Allen Show resembled previous performances on The Tonight Show, which he had hosted since 1954. He often opened the program casually, seated at the piano. He would chat with the audience, participate in skits, and introduce guests. Television critic Jack Gould considered the new program merely an expanded version of The Tonight Show and characterized it as "mostly routine stuff." Gould did concede that "more imagination could take the program far." The Steve Allen Show offered Allen a natural setting for what Gould termed his "conditioned social gift" of "creating spontaneous comedy in front of an audience in a given situation."
Allen also continued something else he had begun on The Tonight Show, discovering new talent. Andy Williams, Eydie Gorme and Steve Lawrence got their starts on The Tonight Show. And on the new show, Allen's man in the street interview segments launched the careers of comedians Bill Dana, Pat Harrington, Louis Nye, Tom Poston and Don Knotts. Dana played the timid Hispanic Jose' Jiminez, and Harrington the suave Italian golfer Guido Panzino.
Characters created by Nye, Poston and Knotts were the best known of the group. Nye portrayed the effete and cosmopolitan Gordon Hathaway whose cry "Hi Ho Steverino" became a trademark of the program.