The first telethon, broadcast by NBC in April 1949, was a fundraiser for the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation. (In fact, NBC executive Sylvester Weaver coined the word "telethon" — a portmanteau of "television" and "marathon" — to describe the program, which was a radically different event that he hoped would entice people to buy TV sets.) The Foundation's first big fund-raiser, the telethon ran a then-unprecedented 16 hours with Milton Berle as its host, and raised $100,000. In all ways it was more or less indistinguishable from "modern" telethons, from the stars and celebrities who performed and urged donations, to the big on-screen bank of telephone operators taking calls.
Real life examples of Telethons:
- The most famous would be Jerry Lewis's Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, which ran on American television annually for 49 years, 1966-2014 (a true telethon aired in syndication from 1966 to 2012, then as a short-form telecast on ABC for its last two years).
- The most infamous might be pledge week on PBS and its Radio equivalent on local NPR stations.
- Televangelism networks like TBN, Daystar, and TCT Network have semi-annual telethons.
- Britain has Comic Relief and Children in Need. One example of the latter had half of The BBC's news team dress up as Duran Duran and sing "Wild Boys". Another example involved a James Bond spoof with the entire team (and Roger Moore).
- Every October, Perth hosts the Australian Telethon (simply known as 'Telethon') to raise money for sick kids. And for the last 10 years it has exceeded the 1 million dollar mark, with the current record being 6.5mil last year.
- In Norway, this is done by the NRK, the Norwegian State Broadcaster, every October. The money goes to different good purposes each year, which is promoted weeks in advance. In addition to being a telethon, volunteers go door-to-door and ask for donations on the same day the telethon is held.
- Ever since The '70s, Chilean public TV channels host the Chilean Telethon almost every December to donate for the "Sociedad de Ayuda al Niño Lisiado" (roughly translated as "Crippled Children Aid Society"), raising money for crippled kids. This is said to be the inspiration for Jerry Lewis's Muscular Dystrophy Telethon; whether it was the case of not, it did doubtlessly inspire many other telethons across Latin America.
- Freeform is required to air a CBN telethon every year the last Sunday in January; this was one of the sale conditions CBN owner Pat Robertson put in his contract to sell the network to Fox and Disney in the late 1990's and early 2000's, along with keeping three hours of Freeform airtime per day.
- Once a Season the Non-Profit The Funday Pawpet Show holds a telethon/auction to raise money for creator Yappy's operating expenses and music licensing costs.
- New Zealand's South Pacific Television and its successor TVNZ hosted eleven 24-hour telethons between 1975 and 1991, raising money for various charities, with the record being $6 million in 1985note . TV3 also hosted telethons in 1993 and 2009.
- Not technically a telethon, as it's not aired on television, but LoadingReadyRun holds "Desert Bus for Hope" every year to raise money for Child's Play.
- Project for Awesome, started by the VlogBrothers which includes a 48-hour livestream on YouTube.
- France has the yearly Téléthon (broadcasted on a couple of public television channels), which exists since 1987, takes places on the first week-end of December, and serves to collect funds for medical research on neuromuscular diseases.
- The Zeldathon Team hosts a week-long charity stream, twice a year, called, well, Zeldathon, where all the members play every game in The Legend of Zelda series. The most they've raised was over $375,000 during the Zeldathon Cures marathon, for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
- Games Done Quick is a Twitch channel that streams speedruns of videogames, typically twice a year, for Awesome Games Done Quick in the winter, and Summer Games Done Quick in the, well, summer. Since 2014, they started making over $1 million per marathon, and since 2018, they have started to rake in over $2 million for charity per marathon.
Fictional examples of Telethons:
- Americathon: In a future America, the country holds a 30-day telethon to repay its debts or risk foreclosure by Native Americans.
- The Muppets: The climax involves the Muppets hosting a telethon to save their studio. Thanks to the villain knocking a telephone pole down with his car, the telethon ends with them mere cents away from their goal.
- The basis of GWAR's second film, Skulhedface, has the alien barbarian band hosting a "Maggothon" on their own Slavepit TV channel to gather enough souls of killed people for the World Maggot, a giant worm that's supposed to take them out of our "miserable planet" when it is satiated.
- UHF: Near the end, George holds a telethon to raise funds to buy the station.
- Carter Country: In one episode, he staff at the police department puts on a telethon to raise money for a former chief who has become quite ill. During the telethon - but unbeknownst to them - local news breaks into the telethon feed to announce that the former chief had died. One staffer, who had refused to participate because of the former chief's racist views, sneaks onto the show to surreptitiously inform the current chief while he's in the middle of a musical tribute.
- Cheers: In "Take My Shirt...Please", Sam donates his old baseball jersey to a PBS pledge drive, and is humiliated when the jersey doesn't sell.
- Family Ties:
- Steven was working a PBS Telethon when his snowbound wife goes into labor.
- And again when Uncle Arthur tried it on with Malory. That guy had no luck with telethons.
- The Frasier episode "Look Before You Leap" has Frasier on a PBS telethon, where he usually sings "Buttons and Bows" but, taking his own advice to "take a leap" for leap year, he's going to sing an aria from Rigoletto. When everyone else's "leaps" go wrong, he chickens out, but unfortunately he hasn't rehearsed "Buttons and Bows" this year, so he makes a mess of it anyway.
Roz: But you promised all your listeners!Frasier: Oh, who watches PBS anyway? [notices on-air light is on] I'll tell you who; discerning, cultured viewers like yourselves.
- Full House: One episode has Danny hosting a telethon at the TV station he works at. When what he plans to be a 2-minute rest ends up with him out like a light, his family has to keep the show going.
- In an episode of Friends, Joey is asked to assist with a telethon. He thinks he has been invited to host and arrives in a tuxedo, but discovers that he is actually one of the volunteers assisting with answering the phones. During the broadcast he tries to draw attention by waving to the camera, only for the person sitting next to him to smack his hand away. He eventually takes a donation from Phoebe that gets them over the target amount and leads to the actual host coming over to thank him (and compliment him for dressing up).
- The focus of one episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel — Midge books a slot on a telethon, her friends and family react in various ways, and the entertainment industry's forces that be keep pushing her to more and more undesirable timeslots. She makes it work.
- Mystery Science Theater 3000: During the show's presentation of Overdrawn at the Memory Bank, Pearl held a PBS-style telethon, in reference to the film's origin on public television.
- Newhart: In one episode, Michael convinces Dick to host a 72-hour telethon for the TV station they work for — despite that it's a commercial station and not PBS.
- On Becoming a God in Central Florida: The last two episodes of Season 1 are set against the backdrop of a telethon for the FAM multi-level marketing company.
- The President Show had a "Make America Great-A-Thon" hour-long special in early April 2018, drive to fund the Mexico border wall...and infrastructure...and whatever else Trump wanted when he got bored with the current focus.
- SCTV: There were four episodes involving telethons and pledge weeks.
- Seinfeld: In "The Pledge Drive", Jerry hosts a pledge drive at WNET Channel 13, and then has Kramer take over while he searches for his missing Nana.
- One of the games on Whose Line Is It Anyway? involves Colin and Ryan hosting a telethon to raise money for ridiculous causes, like helping thumb-suckers break the habit or getting NBA star Dennis Rodman more tattoos.
- Not for Broadcast has a level called "The Telethon" using "archive footage" as a test of their capabilities. It starts with the majority of the talent, the audience, and most of the crew stuck in traffic and goes downhill from there.
- American Dad!: In "The Phantom of the Telethon", Stan steals Roger's idea for a telethon to raise finds for the CIA's torture program, leading Roger to try to sabotage it. Roger claims that he actually invented the telethon in the first place, but Jerry Lewis stole the idea from him then too.
- Codename: Kids Next Door: The end credits for "Operation: R.E.C.E.S.S. / Operation: H.A.M.S.T.E.R." shows a telethon being held by Sector V and several hamsters to save recess. Numbuh One's discussion of the telethon eventually turns into a rant about what he believes schools are doing to kids, until it is cut off by a We Are Experiencing Technical Difficulties screen.
Numbuh Five: Numbuh Five here, Numbuh One's doing it again...
- G.I. Joe: One rather silly episode involves Cobra holding a telethon to fund their next evil plan. They raked in almost a billion on it, though, so at least it was successful.
- KaBlam!: In "Hurts So Good!", Henry and June host a "Staplethon" to raise money for more staples for the comic book they turn. The episode ends with "The Staples Song", a parody of charity motivation songs, featuring appearances by Loopy from Life with Loopy, Prometheus from Prometheus and Bob, the cast of Action League NOW!, and the titular characters of Sniz and Fondue.
- Phineas and Ferb: In one episode, Dr. Doofenshmirtz hosts a "Telethon of Evil," which hilariously gets mistaken for satire by Lawrence Fletcher.
Doofenshmirtz: I want your money, I'm strapped for cash! I need your money, too lazy to get a job.
- Robot Chicken: In the Season 3 finale, creators Seth Green and Matthew Senreich host a telethon for the show, and Matt ends up killing everyone to attract donors.
- The Bullwinkle Show: A "Bullwinkle & Rocky Fan Club" sketch involves Bullwinkle hosting a telethon for the club. They end up with minus ten cents, because Rocky gave Boris a dime for the parking meter.
Bullwinkle: The number to call with your donations is "SUCKER 9-2222", or if that's busy, call "SHAKEDOWN 5-6565". That's the Chinese restaurant downstairs, they'll take a message.
- The Simpsons:
- In "Missionary: Impossible", Homer flees the country after welching on a $10,000 donation he made to get PBS to end their telethon. At the end, it turns out the entire episode was part of a FOX telethon, which Bart tries to end with a $10,000 donation.
- An earlier episode, "Marge on the Lam", also starts with a Public Television telethon. Donations are coming in so slowly, that Troy McClure doesn't recognize the phone ringing when Marge calls in to pledge for ballet tickets.
- Taz-Mania had an episode where the cast made a telethon to keep the show on the air, which raised only ten cents. It turned out that Digeri Dingo had switched the telethon's donation number so the pledgers would call his house, and he stole all of the money.
- Tiny Toon Adventures: The episode "Pledge Week" has the Tiny Toons hosting a telethon. However, nobody seems to be pledging any money, or even calling, aside from a prank caller. In the third wraparound, after telling the viewers the wonderful stuff they could get if they pledged (including the actual Plucky), they manage to raise $0.07.
- Total Drama: The second Aftermath episode of World Tour is dedicated to holding one of these in order to raise funds for the rest of the season.