October 31, 2012

Election night flashbacks

It's Halloween, and it's also less than a week until Election Day, so why not combine these twin horrors by taking a quick look at TV's election night coverage.

The first election night on television was 1948, the "Dewey defeats Truman" election, and in this clip from our friend David Von Pein, NBC TV, with John Cameron Swayze, projects Harry S Truman as the winner:

1960's election night was one of the most exciting in history, with the outcome in doubt until Wednesday morning.  Here's Chet Huntley and David Brinkley from NBC,  as John F. Kennedy goes over the top.  Note the early use of computers!


Not a whole lot has changed by 1968, except for color.  As was the case in 1960, Richard Nixon was the Republican nominee; and as with 1960, election night becomes election morning.  Nixon's battle with Hubert Humphrey was exacerbated by the third-party candidacy of George Wallace, who (unlike most third-party candidates) won enough states that he could have prevented either Nixon or Humphrey from winning a majority in the Electoral College.  And long before Tim Russert and his whiteboard, John Chancellor uses a legal pad to explain the results.


I loved those election night studios, looking like something out of Dr. Strangelove, their walls filled with tote-boards displaying vote totals from around the country.  That would begin to change in the 1970s.  The tote boards are replaced with computer-generated chyron graphics, often in groovy colors:


We're also beginning to see the giant electoral map that's become a standard part of election night coverage: 


ABC in 1976; blue for Democrats, yellow for Republicans
Interestingly, in 1980 both NBC and CBS used blue to designate states won by the Republican candidate. This makes sense; blue has traditionally been used for conservative parties worldwide, and one would think that the United States would be no different.  ABC, on the other hand, had switched from yellow to red for the Republicans (see below), while retaining blue for the Democrats.  You'd think that two would outnumber one, but since ABC had become the industry leader in news, red it would be for the Republicans. - and so it has remained, becoming such a part of the nomenclature that I doubt you'll ever see it change now.
 
ABC in 1980; three candidates, three colors.  They were the only
ones who used red for the Republicans, but since ABC led in the
ratings, theirs was the one that counted.
1980 was the first presidential election I voted in, so it's always been a special year for me.  It was controversial as well, with networks releasing exit poll information throughout the day, even though the polls were still open.  This wasn't going to be a close election, no sir. And thus we have the stunned John Chancellor, at 8:15pm ET - just 15 minutes after many polls in the East had closed -projecting Ronald Reagan as the next President of the United States.  As if that weren't bad enough, Jimmy Carter conceded defeat before the polls had closed in the West, enraging Democrats who felt they lost their own elections because voters heard the results and didn't bother to come out.  Somehow I don't think it will be that early this year.


By 2000, network coverage had reached heights of sophistication that the anchors of the 50s and 60s couldn't have imagined.  And yet it took Russert and his whiteboard to explain how the vote might turn out.


A week from today, we should know how the 2012 election has turned out, and whether or not TV's coverage has created new memories for future historians.  But if you're in the mood for something completely different, here's one idea as to how election night should be:

October 27, 2012

This week in TV Guide: October 23, 1965

The picture at the left is that of Chuck Connors, former major league baseball player and pro basketball player, best known for his 1958-63 ABC western series The Rifleman, later co-star of ABC's 90-minute crime series Arrest and Trial, and currently star of NBC's Branded.

Later on you'll see a picture of Chuck Conners in 1973, with General Secretary of the Soviet Union Leonid Brezhnev.

The story behind that picture, as well as the rest of the week of October 23, 1965, is next.

***

We're in the thick of the football season, and NBC, in their final year of covering Saturday afternoon college games (the contract would return to ABC in 1966), had one of the most storied of all rivalries, as the #4 USC Trojans travelled to South Bend to take on the #7 Notre Dame Fighting Irish.  USC running back Mike Garrett would win the Heisman the next month, but this would not be his day, as the Irish routed the Trojans 28-7. 

The next day, pro football took center stage, and because this is the Minnesota State Edition of TV Guide, we've got an interesting assortment of games to look at from the two leagues.  The NFL's coverage began at 11:45 with Dallas vs. Green Bay at Milwaukee (Packers winning 13-3), in a game seen on the CBS affiliates in Mankato, MN and Mason City, IA, and for some reason the NBC affiliate in Alexandria.*  This game would be joined in progress at 12:45 on the CBS stations in Duluth, MN and La Crosse, WI (who had been showing Stoney Burke and Know the Truth, respectively. 

*The infamous Channel 7; see here for more details.

At 1:00, the AFL on NBC's station in Eau Claire, WI had Denver at Buffalo (the Bills, who would go on to win the AFL title that year, bested the Broncos 31-13), while at 1:30 the Channel 5 in Minneapolis and Channel 10 in Rochester, MN brought us Kansas City at Houston (the Oilers won, 38-36; must have been a pretty good game.  I undoubtedly watched it.), a game that would be joined in progress by Channel 6 in Duluth at 2:30 (they had a "Film Feature" at 1:30) and the aforementioned Channel 7 at 3:15 (following the end of the Cowboys-Packers contest).

The final game of the day was Channel 4's coverage of the home team, as the Vikings played the 49ers in Kezar Stadium in San Francisco, a thriller won by the Vikings 42-41.*  When I visited San Francisco a few years ago, I took the opportunity to travel to Golden Gate Park to visit the ruins of old Kezar.  It was in the heart of the park (imagine a football stadium in the middle of Central Park), and one of the reasons the Niners vacated it in favor of Candlestick Park was that the parking there was atrocious.  Kezar was featured in the first Dirty Harry movie; it was where Harry shot the Scorpio Killer in the knee and got in trouble for it.

*And only Channel 4.  Interesting the rest of the region's channels took the Packers game.  Or maybe not so interesting - after all, the Vikings were still a pretty mediocre team, while the Packers were headed for their third championship in five years.  The Packers were the team in the area back then, and still have a lot of fans in Minnesota today.

So let's recap the weekend: on Saturday, one college football game.  On Sunday, one NFL and one AFL game (in most markets).  Total number of games the average viewer could see: three.

Total number of games (college and pro) on TV last weekend: 36, from where we live.  Like I keep saying, times have changed.

But I find the relationship between television and sports to be fascinating.  I really need to write more about it.

***

During the 60s, the Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace were the premiere variety shows on television. Whenever they appear in TV Guide together, we'll match them up and see who has the best lineup..

Ed Sullivan: Ed's in Hollywood again, with scheduled guests Helen Hayes; Duke Ellington and his band; comic Myron Cohen; Herman's Hermits, rock 'n' rollers; singer-pianist Ginny Tiu; comedian Richard Pryor; and the Manuela Vargas Ballet Troupe.

Hollywood Palace: host Milton Berle introduces Jose Jiminez (Bill Dana), who discusses his book on jujitsu; Los Angeles Dodger captain Maury Wills, who sings and plays the banjo; singer Abbe Lane; folk rock 'n' rollers Sonny and Cher; quick-change actor Mike McGivney, who offers an abbreviated version of "Oliver Twist"; and the Rudas, Australian dancers.

A strong week for both programs.  Bill Dana's Jose Jiminez character, which he created in 1959, was often hilarious, his most famous routine being an astronaut.  Abbe Lane, who preceded Charo as Xavier Cugat's wife, was - very nice.  As a banjo player, Maury Wills was a fantastic base-stealer.  And Sonny and Cher didn't do too badly for themselves, did they?

But though this would win many weeks, the Palace didn't really stand a chance.  Helen Hayes was already a living legend in 1965, as was the great Duke Ellington; Richard Pryor was on his way to becoming one; Myron Cohen was one of the funniest of the ethnic comedians (he was a favorite of Carson's); and Herman's Hermits, with Peter Noone*, was one of the biggest of the 60s Brit-Pop groups.  The verdict: Sullivan, decisively.

*I was always impressed with Peter Noone, who never succumbed to the drugs & booze scene (he was only 15 when he became Herman).  When he hosted My Generation on VH-1 in the late 80s, he talked of the 60s with a kind of detached bemusement; like Tom Wolfe, he was more of an observer than participant.

***

Before we take complete leave of The Hollywood Palace for this week, one footnote.  As I've mentioned, one of the benefits of a statewide TV Guide edition is that you get to see what the stations outside your own market were showing.  Much of the time it's the same thing you were watching, but when it comes to split-affiliation stations - stations (like Channel 7) that were primary affiliates of one network but also showed programming from another - there's almost always something interesting.  And so it was with WKBT, Channel 8 in LaCrosse, which on Tuesday night showed the Hollywood Palace episode from the previous week, October 16.  Would that it had been the one to go up against Sullivan: Host Frank Sinatra introduces Count Basie and his band; comic Jack E. Leonard; dancer Peter Gennaro; West German singer-dancers Alice and Ellen Kessler; and Colombian high-wire acrobat Murillo.

Sinatra and Basie - a man and his music.  Now that was a show.

***

There are several notations throughout this issue concerning the planned launch of Gemini VI (with future CBS space analyst Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford), which was scheduled to go up on Monday morning, a little over 90 minutes after the launch of the Atlas-Agena target vehicle with which it was going to maneuver and dock.  It would then return to Earth on Wednesday, in what was planned to be the first live televised coverage of a splashdown and recovery. 

But six minutes after launch, the Agena exploded, postponing the Gemini VI mission until December, when it would rendezvous with Gemini VII.

***

I love the little dichotomies like the two programs we have competing on Friday night.  At 9:00pm, ABC has a David Wolper documentary entitled "Teenage Revolution," while CBS counters with the Miss Teenage America pageant.  The big production number in the pageant was called "Teenage America, Here We Come!" - which, I think, was the point of the ABC documentary in the first place.

Interesting article about the prospect of television networks running out of movies to show.  The studios are producing fewer top-grade movies that are suitable for TV.  Many of the movies are too long, too sexy, too violent, too campy, too black & white, or just too bad.  The networks are well on the way to having movies seven nights a week (although not yet at the stage of having movies compete against movies), and they need more material.  The obvious solution - which is, in fact, what happened - is the made-for-TV movie, of which NBC had made three.  The first, The Killers (with Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, and Ronald Reagan) famously turned out to be too violent for TV and was released to the theaters instead.  The other two, The Hanged Man and See How They Run,  were over budget, over schedule, and under expectations (a deadly trio).  Fear not, movie fans - things will get better.

And then there was the Letter to the Editor complaining about the extensive network coverage of Pope Paul VI's trip to America (the first ever by a pontiff).  Sez the lady, "I wonder if the networks realize that all of their viewers are not Catholic?"  She meant, of course, that not all of the viewers were Catholic, which is true* - but then, all of TV Guide's readers are not literate.

*Although, sadly, in the post-Vatican II era it's probably accurate to say that not all of the Catholics are Catholic.

***

And now the story of Chuck Connors and Leonid Brezhnev.

The photograph above, of Connors and Brezhnev, was taken in June 1973. Connors, a staunch supporter of President Nixon, was Nixon’s guest at a reception for Brezhnev in San Clemente.

As it happened, Brezhnev was a big fan of The Rifleman, one of the few American series to be shown in the Soviet Union. Upon being introduced to the General Secretary, Connors presented him with a pair of matching Colt .45 revolvers that he’d used in Branded, and later showed him how to twirl them. Brezhnev was thrilled with the gift, and the two became fast friends.

Later, as Brezhnev prepared to leave California, he saw Connors standing on the tarmac, “went over to him and vigorously shook his hand, and then jumped off the ground into the startled arms of his western hero.” Connors would visit the Soviet Union later that year as Brezhnev’s guest, filming a documentary called Peace and Friendship and making friends all the while. When Brezhnev died in 1982, Connors asked the State Department to be included in the American delegation to Brezhnev’s funeral, but was turned down.

Connors died exactly ten years after Brezhnev, on November 10, 1992.

And now, as Paul Harvey would say, you know the rest of the story.

October 24, 2012

12 for 2012: the top political movies

OK, so this isn't strictly about television today, but for those of you who've just about had enough of this year's political campaigns, I present my choices of the ten best political movies, guaranteed to take your mind off the nightly news. Some of them are theater movies, others are made-for-TV movies or episodes of regular series.  Many of them may be familiar to you, while I think there are a couple you might be hearing about for the first time. In any event, check them out - on Netflix, Amazon, Turner Classic Movies, or just read about them at IMDB - and prepare yourself for November 6.  After seeing them, you might even ask yourself whether we really have it so bad after all?

By the way, they're in no particular order except for that in which I came up with them, which may or may not be a clue as to which are my favorites.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Dir. John Frankenheimer
Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury

There’s not much to add to the classic thriller about an assassin brainwashed to infiltrate the American political scene. It was a movie ahead of its time, boasting terrific performances by Sinatra and Lansbury, who makes you forget all about Jessica Fletcher. If you haven’t seen it, get it. And, yes, this happens to be the number one film on my list.  Frankenheimer was a veteran of Golden Age anthologies such as Playhouse 90 (directing well over 100 in total), and won four Emmys in his return to TV movies in the 90s.  You can see his experience with live TV in the way he used a TV camera and monitor during a scene where James Gregory's bumptious Joe McCarthy-knock-off confronts a general.  It's a small touch, but light-years ahead of how it would have been done by other directors of the time.
What to watch for: Most people would choose the hallucinatory brainwashing/tea party scene, which is memorable – but look for the scene late in the movie when Sinatra scans Madison Square Garden in search of Harvey's agonized Raymond. Even during the National Anthem, when protocol demands that Sinatra’s Colonel Marco stand at attention, his eyes are everywhere, darting back and forth in search of any kind of a clue.

Seven Days in May (1964) 
Dir. John Frankenheimer
Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Fredric March, Ava Gardner

Another Frankenheimer political potboiler, this time concerning a plot by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to overthrow the U.S. government and replace a weak president (March) whom they fear is unable to stand up to the Communists in Russia and China. While not as good as the best-seller that inspired it, Rod Serling’s screenplay takes extraordinary chunks of the book’s dialogue and presents it whole in the movie. The heavyweight matchup is between Lancaster, as the strong-willed JCS Chairman, and Douglas, not only trying to save the American system of government but also to preserve the integrity of the armed forces and the American tradition of civilian control of the military.  The plot has been borrowed for various mediocre TV movies, but the original still packs a wallop.
What to watch for: For techno-geeks, look for Frankenheimer’s use of closed-circuit cameras throughout the JCS offices.  As a TV veteran, it must have been old hat for him.

Fail-Safe (1964)  
Dir. Sidney Lumet
Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Dan O’Herlihy, Larry Hagman

A computer malfunction results in an American bomber group being given an accidental attack order against the Soviet Union. Fonda’s president – almost too virtuous, as is often the case with Fonda roles – is stuck in a no-win situation: unable to recall the group, forced to help the Soviets try to shoot them down in order to convince them of his sincerity (and avoid a retaliatory strike), and having to deal with an Ivy League professor (Matthau, channeling Henry Kissinger) trying to convince him that an all-out strike against the Russians is the only way to go. Since this is a TV site, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention George Clooney's surprisingly good 2000 live version, shot in black-and-white and introduced by Walter Cronkite.  No, Richard Dreyfuss is no Henry Fonda, and you can ask yourself whether or not the plot should have been updated - but why quibble with success?
What to watch for: No music. O’Herlihy’s affecting performance as a world-weary general. Hagman’s underrated turn as Fonda’s interpreter during the hotline talks with the Soviet premier (vastly superior to Noah Wyle's performance in the TV remake).

Suddenly (1954) 
Dir. Lewis Allen
Frank Sinatra, Sterling Hayden, James Gleason

The idea behind this sinister little movie must have been very disturbing for 1954 – a plot to assassinate the president (obviously Eisenhower, although his name is never mentioned in the movie) in the small town of Suddenly, a "town where nothing much ever happens." The hit is financed by an unseen group (whose motive is never explained, which makes it even more sinister) and to be carried out by mercenary gangsters. Sinatra, so good in The Manchurian Candidate, is equally evil here as the psychotic hired gun, holding a family hostage in order while using their house as staging ground for the assassination attempt.
What to watch for: There is a certain nobility about Sinatra’s fellow gang members. There isn’t much they wouldn’t do for cold, hard cash – but assassinating the president? Instinctively it makes them uneasy: what they’re doing is not only illegal, it’s unpatriotic, and that crosses the criminal code.

The Best Man (1964)  
Dir. Franklin J. Schaffner
Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson, Lee Tracy

A showdown between two candidates for a party’s presidential nomination: Fonda, once again the noble candidate you’re meant to identify with, and Robertson, the ruthless, win-at-all-costs bad guy. Gore Vidal’s darkly comic play becomes a bit more serious on the big screen, and poses a thought-provoking question: is it more important to be virtuous and weak, or cunning and strong? At the time the candidates appeared to be thinly disguised versions of Adlai Stevenson (Fonda) and Richard Nixon (Robertson), but ask yourself if you don’t see more than a bit of JFK (or at least RFK) in Robertson’s heavy-handed tactics. (Vidal, in 1960, was a first-hand witness to the kind of campaign the Kennedy boys ran.)  Schaffner (Patton), like Frankenheimer, cut his teeth in the Golden Age, winning three Emmys for directing such classics as the Studio One version of Twelve Angry Men.
What to watch for: Tracy, as the former president, is courted for his endorsement by both Fonda and Robertson. Watch him quiz each man about their belief in God, and see if you can figure out what Tracy himself believes. Is he telling either man the truth about how he feels, or merely manipulating them to see what their own answer is? Also according to Wikipedia, Ronald Reagan (still then an actor) was considered for a role but rejected because he didn't look presidential enough.

The Great McGinty (1940)  
Dir. Preston Sturges
Brian Donlevy, Muriel Angelus, Akim Tamiroff, William Demarest

This very sharp satire by the brilliant Sturges tells the story of a bum (Donlevy) who in hilarious circumstances rises through the crooked party ranks to become governor, before gaining a conscience and having everything collapse around him. Would that more corrupt politicians reacted the way he does – by fleeing the country.  This can be caught on TCM often around election time.
What to watch for: Besides Demarest’s very funny performance, McGinty and his cronies bring a Three Stooges-like element to politics; appropriate since, again according to Wikipedia, Tamiroff's malaprop-laced performance was the inspiration for Boris Badenov.

A Face in the Crowd (1957)  
Dir. Elia Kazan
Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau

The only movie in the list that doesn’t deal directly with a political candidate. I’ve written about it before, but couldn’t pass up the chance to talk about it once again. Sheriff Andy Taylor was never like this!  This also runs frequently on TCM.
What to watch for: This is Matthau’s second appearance in this list, and watching his performances in these two movies reminds you of what an underrated dramatic actor he was. If you know Matthau only from The Odd Couple and Grumpy Old Men, don’t miss him here.

All the King’s Men (1949)
Dir. Robert Rossen
Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Joanne Dru, Mercedes McCambridge

Another repeat appearance. I discussed the Pulitzer-winning novel here, but while the movie lacks much of the book’s depth and subtlety, it makes up with dominant (and Oscar-winning) performances by Crawford as Willie Stark, who truly was an honest man at one time; and McCambridge as Sadie Burke, Stark’s right-hand woman.
What to watch for: You know you’ll end up hating Crawford by the end of the movie, which makes the actions of the honest Stark at the movie’s beginning even more painful to watch. Jack Burden (Ireland), about whom the book really revolves, is much less prominent here.


The Missiles of October (1974)
Dir. Anthony Page 
William Devane, Martin Sheen, Howard Da Silva, Ralph Bellamy
Sheen, who would later play JFK in a TV-movie, here plays RFK in this riveting drama about the Cuban Missile Crisis, originally shown only a dozen years after the showdown that cast everyone in the shadow of nuclear war.. Terry Teachout’s excellent look back in last week’s Wall Street Journal explains much about why this docudrama is so good, from its dedication to historical accuracy to the minimalist sets that give the production a Golden Age immediacy. This was “event” television when it was shown in a three-hour timeslot on ABC Theatre, and it’s just as powerful today.
What to watch for: When the generals apprise JFK of the possible damage a Soviet attack on American bases might inflict, I’ve always thought Devane (wonderful performance) gave him just a hint of creeping hysteria as he talks about wanting to make sure American planes aren’t lined up wingtip to wingtip – as they were at Pearl Harbor.

Wag the Dog (1997)  Dir. Barry Levinson 
Dustin Hoffman, Robert DeNiro, Anne Heche 
Politics can be played for comedy, tragedy or satire; this one manages to incorporate all three, in this viciously delightful story of a movie producer (Hoffman, who might well be doing an impression of Levinson) hired to invent a fake war in order to save a corrupt President’s sorry ass. It’s a very smart, funny and well-acted movie (Willie Nelson’s star-studded “We Are the World”-type song is worth the price alone) , but its real impact comes from what we all know but are afraid to admit, and that’s one reason why we laugh – because it’s too painful to cry.
What to watch for: I’d never been a big Hoffman fan prior to this movie, but I thought he was just terrific (and well-deserving of his Oscar nomination) with his sardonic portrayal of the movie producer for whom each potential disaster simply reminds him of a past movie-making experience. His answer is the same every time: “This is nothing!” I've used that line many times myself, with about equal success.

Columbo: "Candidate for Crime" (1973)
Dir. Boris Sagal
Peter Falk, Jackie Cooper, Joanne Linville, Tisha Sterling

What would any "best-of" list be without an episode of Columbo?  Cooper plays a U.S. Senate candidate carrying on an affair with a member of his staff. When his campaign manager finds out and orders him to end the affair, Cooper murders him and tries to make it look as if he, Cooper, was actually the intended target. He may fool his wife, his lover, the press, and even the voters – but not Lieutenant Columbo.
What to watch for: Cooper, like most of Columbo’s adversaries, takes the Lieutenant far too lightly. Watch him trying to film a sound bite for television, all the while being distracted by Columbo’s poking around his house. By the time he realizes that Columbo’s no fool, it’s too late.

Winter Kills (1979)  
Dir. William Richert
Jeff Bridges, John Huston, and an all-star cast

Like The Manchurian Candidate, Winter Kills was based on a novel by Richard Condon, but unlike Candidate, it’s far less well known. Condon’s dark comedy tells the story of a man (Bridges) trying to discover the truth behind the conspiracy that took the life of his half-brother, an American president who was supposedly killed by a lone gunman. Any similarities to JFK, including gangsters, nightclub owners, and a domineering father (Huston), are purely intentional.
What to watch for: I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say that it involves a surreal scene with Bridges, Huston and an enormous American flag.

Feel free to add your favorites to this list - but be sure to check these out!


Portions of this article originally appeared in altered form at Our Word and Welcome to It

October 20, 2012

This week in TV Guide: October 19, 1968

That blonde-haired Adondis on the cover is Jim Nabors. More about him later.

My first thought in leafing through this issue was that there were a lot of specials being shown.  Sunday CBS started it off with a comedy special featuring "Presidential candidate" Pat Paulson.  Monday night ABC has a documentary on "Hemingway's Spain" (complete with the running of the bulls), and on   Wedneday CBS had the first of four "National Geographic" specials, this one on America's National Parks.  It had to compete with ABC's profile of Sophia Loren (who had a few natural wonders of her own) and a Babar the Elephant cartoon, and NBC's Kraft Music Hall with the Friar's Club roast of Johnny Carson, followed by a Bing Crosby special, with guests Bob Hope, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Jose Feliciano, and Stella Stevens.  Thursday featured the third showing of It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown on CBS, and through the entire week ABC had the Olympics.

The NET station, Channel 2, has a program on Tuesday nights called Books and Ideas, which this week features my old professor and adviser from Hamline University, Dr. Scott Johnston (chair of the Political Science department), providing historical perspective on the presidential campaign.

Speaking of politics, scattered throughout the programming schedule are notes like this one, on the Saturday night Jackie Gleason show: "After the program: a five-minute Republican political message."  Well, it is less than a month until election day, after all.  These five minute spots were not uncommon back in the day, when people had a longer attention span and fewer broadcasting choices (and no remote control to speak of).  George Wallace, the American Independent party candidate, had a five-minute talk following Lawrence Welk later that Saturday night, and the Republicans were back on Monday night after Carol Burnett, Thursday night following the Elvis movie Harum Scarum, and Friday night after the movie Shock Treatment.  The Democrats, short of money, had a sole spot on Tuesday night after Red Skelton.*

*I was going to make a joke here about how it was appropriate for the Democrats to be on a show with the word "Red" in it.  You know - Reds, Commies. But most people wouldn't get it.  The color red is now associated with the Republicans.  The ideological red, on the other hand, still ties in to the Dems.  

***

I mentioned that the Summer Olympics are in full swing, and ABC has complete coverage.

A couple of obvious points to note: first the timing.  The opening date of October 12 (due, I assume, to the summer heat in Mexico City) made these Olympics the second-latest to be held, behind only the 1956 Melbourne Summer Olympics, which began in November.  I find it hard to think the American TV networks would encourage this nowadays, since an October date would conflict with both the MLB playoffs and the NFL.

Second, take a look at the amount of coverage ABC is offering:
  • Saturday: two hours (to avoid conflicting with college football)
  • Sunday: three hours
  • Monday: two hours
  • Tuesday: two hours
  • Wednesday: two hours
  • Thursday: 90 minutes
  • Friday: two hours
  • Total for the week: 14 hours, 30 minutes.
I particularly like the one hour coverage that ABC offers from noon to 1pm (CT) - after all, it would have been the housewives watching TV back then, and many of them were probably miffed that their stories had been pre-empted.  I think, although I'm not sure, that NBC offered more coverage in one day of this year's Olympics than ABC did that entire week (not to mention the secondary networks on which NBC also had the Olympics).  Is more better?  Well, I'm not at all sure.  Watching the Olympics as I did back in the day, I always had the feeling I saw everything I needed to see.  I wanted to see who won the gold medal in the 100 meters - I didn't care about the preliminary heats.  I didn't care about gymnastics at all, but if I had I would have been satisfied with the final round.  In other words, I didn't need to see every single thing that happened at the games.  And while ABC pioneered the "Up Close and Personal" concept (which NBC has taken to a nausiating level), I don't imagine there was room for two much of it in a one hour timeslot.  Personally, I think two to three hours of coverage per night, with expanded coverage on the weekends, is more than enough.

And that brings up a related note: the amount of sports coverage on TV period.  In addition to the Olympics, let's see what other sporting events were on that weekend.
  • On Saturday, ABC had college football (Northwestern vs. Ohio State) and Wide World of Sports (auto crash championships, national air races).  CBS had Championship Bowling (not to be confused with ABC's Pro Bowlers Tour, which didn't start until January). NBC, with the World Series complete, turned the time to their affiliates.
  • On Sunday, NBC had an AFL doubleheader: Buffalo vs. Boston at 12:30, followed by Oakland at Kansas City at 3:00 (two pretty good matchups).  CBS's NFL game was Cleveland vs. Baltimore at 1:00.  The independent station, Channel 11, had Notre Dame highlights (vs. Illinois) at noon.
And that was it. 

Oh yeah, there was a hockey game on later in the week - North Stars vs. Flyers on Thursday.

I consider myself as much of a sports fan as the average guy, and I suspect I watched almost everything that was on that week.*  But it's kind of refreshing to see that the networks didn't try and shoehorn sports into every single hour of the weekend.  Looking at a typical weekend schedule today, there's a lot of stuff that seems to be on simply for the sake of having something on.  Extreme sports.  Beach volleyball.  Bike racing.  Maybe that kind of thing turns you on, but in the immortal words of Captain Kirk, "too much of anything, even love, isn't necessarily a good thing."  As with the Olympics, sometimes less is more.

*I used to bring my small TV out of the bedroom and put it on top of our console TV in the living room, so I could see both the NFL and AFL games at the same time.  My family was very patient.

***

During the 60s, the Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace were the premiere variety shows on television. Whenever they appear in TV Guide together, we'll match them up and see who has the best lineup..

Ed Sullivan: The 5th Dimension, singers Tony Sandler and Ralph Young, a filmed interview with Steve McQueen, and comics Joan Rivers and David Frye.

Hollywood Palace: Diahann Carroll welcomes actor-singer Richard Harris, satirist Mort Sahl (on Presidential candidates), singer-composer Jim Webb, and her "Julia" co-stars Marc Copage and Michael Link.  Also spotlighted: Palace choreographer Buddy Schwab.

Well, I don't think either show is fielding its best lineup this week.  Ed's interview with McQueen (I would guess promoting either Bullett or The Thomas Crown Affair) is probably the highlight of the show.  David Frye was an impressionist, and he's probably doing political schtick, at which he could be pretty good.

On the other hand, the Palace (which KMSP unaccountably ran on Sunday afternoon, putting a movie into the Palace's regular Saturday-night slot) doesn't have much to recommend it.  I never liked Julia and I wasn't a particular fan of Diahann Carroll either, so neither she nor her co-stars do anything for me.  The most curious aspect of this show is the apperance of Richard Harris and Jimmy Webb.  Harris, who was far better known as an actor than singer, nonetheless had an enormous hit with Webb's composition "MacArthur Park," and yet the TV Guide listing makes no mention of it being done on the show.  In fact, though both Harris and Webb are identified as singers, neither of them are listed as performing anything, while everyone else's performances are dutifully noted.  I wonder if this was is a mistake, that the listing somehow was abbreviated and "MacArthur Park" was left out.*  On the other hand, it does run for seven minutes, and that's a long time for TV - but then I've seen some pretty painful comedy skits run that long.  So who knows?

*But not "left out in the rain."  You have to know the lyrics to get it.

Advantage: Sullivan.

***

And now the Jim Nabors special.  In 1968 Nabors was stilll the star of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., although that would soon be a distant memory.  Nabors had already become famous as Carol Burnett's season-opening good luck charm, and the next season he would check out of the Marines and begin his own variety show.  For now, Nabors was making is first tentative steps in that direction by hosting an hour-long special on Thursday night.  His guests were Carol Burnett (naturally), Debbie Reynolds, Vicki Carr and Mary Costa.  That picture on the cover is from a sketch in which "Operatic arias by Rossini, Strauss and Wagner provide the music vehicle as Jim, Carol, Vicki and Mary satirize excessively dramatic TV commercials."  My guess is that Jim is performing the aria "Valkyrie of the Dolls."

***

Back to that Hollywood Palace thing for a minute.  I've been trowling the Google News Archives, and came across the TV listings from the Sumter (SC) Daily Item for October 19, 1968.  Their "Best Bet" for that night is, interestingly enough, the Palace, so they provide a pretty extensive preview of the show.  And in fact we find out that "the suave actor-singer Richard Harris" does sing - a song called "The Yard Went on Forever."*  And "composer Jim Webb" is on hard with "some of his originals." 

*Not to be confused with "MacArthur Park," even though many people thought it went on forever.

This gets curiouser and curiouser.  Sure, Webb could have sung one of his own compositions* - someone had to.  But seeing as how Harris had such a hit with MacArthur Park, I can't believe that he wouldn't have been the one to sing it.  What are the odds that the singer and the composer of one of the year's biggest hits (#2 on the Billboard charts) would appear on the same show, and yet neither one of them would perform it?  I continue to be skeptical.

*Which were numerous.  He wrote "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "Wichita Lineman" and "Galveston," which were big hits for Glen Campbell, and "Up, Up and Away," which was a big hit for The 5th Dimension.  I wonder if they sang it on Sullivan's show that night?  He also wrote "The Yard Went on Forever," so maybe that's the Harris/Webb link.

Incidentally, the producer of The 5th Dimension's album was Johnny Rivers.  I didn't know he was a record producer as well as a singer.  He had a pretty big hit himself - "Secret Agent Man," the theme (in the U.S.) for Patrick McGoohan's series Secret Agent.  But as far as I know, McGoohan never recorded a song by Jimmy Webb, nor appeared on The Hollywood Palace.  Or Ed Sullivan, for that matter.  But Secret Agent did run on CBS, the same network that aired Glen Campbell's series, if that counts for anything.

***

The Hollywood TV Teletype often reports on projected series, possible pilots, and other projects that never come to fruition.  Here are three that did.

20th Century Fox is working on a "black drama" starring Lloyd Haynes and Denise Nicholas called Two Twenty Two, which you probably know as Room 222While it was in fact a fully integrated show, its two Emmy winners were white: Michael Constantine and Karen Valentine.  Fox also has a project called Nanny, "featuring an English nursemaid."  The show went through another name change to Nanny Will Do, before winding up, of course, as Nanny and the Professor, with Juliet Mills as the nanny every kid wanted.  Finally, MGM has a project for a medical series, called U.M.C., which stands for "University Medical Center."  Drop the "University" and you wind up with Chad Everett's big hit, Medical Center.

***

So we never did answer the question about "MacArthur Park."  But, rather than leave you completely hanging (as the audience on Palace apparently was), you deserve to see Richard Harris singing his biggest hit.  But since there doesn't seem to be any live footage of Harris from that era, I'm afraid you're going to have to make due with this "version" from SCTV.

October 17, 2012

How television influenced the Cold War

In last week's piece on TV campaign commercials, I mentioned Erik Barnouw’s book The Image Empire. I want to return to that book today, to look at something that we don’t think much about: the role that the regular television series played in the Cold War.

Understand, we’re not talking about news coverage. No, we’re talking about the average TV series – comedy, drama, western, movie – and how it may, consciously or subconsciously, have influenced viewers.

We can cut to the chase fairly quickly here. It is true that in the wake of the James Bond movies, there was something of a “spy mania” in entertainment circles. You had serious spy shows, slyly humorous spy shows, spy shows masquerading as westerns, spy spoofs. Not only were spy shows such as Mission: Impossible, I Spy, Get Smart and The Man (and later Girl) from U.N.C.L.E. sprouting up, but, as Barnouw points out, the trend was apparent even in established, non-spy programs.  "Even comedy series like I Dream of Jeannie, Mr. Ed, and The Lucy Show took up spy themes."

This was mostly because, as more than one person has pointed out, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – and profit-making. Just as television had ridden through waves of westerns, police dramas and ethnic comedies, Hollywood was now in the throes of international espionage. Of course, the conflict between good and evil isn’t anything new – it dates back to the Bible, and had been a staple of television since the beginning. However, Barnouw sees a difference in this new wave of programming.
Like earlier action telefilms, the new cycle concerned struggles against evil men who had to be wiped out. Bosomy girls fitted easily into the picture. But in one respect the new wave departed from precedent. Older action heroes, especially the cowboy, had maintained a code of honor and fought fairly. This tradition was rapidly vanishing. When the U.S. Navy in a 77 Sunset Strip episode (“The Navy Caper”) hired a private eye to try to steal one of its top-secret gadgets – to test its own security arrangements against enemy powers pursuing the same objective – the hero’s instructions were: “You can lie, steal, cheat – whatever the enemy might do.” What followed was an epic adventure in deception and counterdeception.

After citing other examples, including Mission: Impossible’s “the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions” warning, Barnouw concludes that “The official lie was thus enshrined.”

Now, I’m not sure I go along with Barnouw’s thinking here.  TV's police officers were always going undercover, passing themselves off as people they were not. The private detective, especially of the Mike Hammer type, was forever operating outside the law, under a private code of ethics that could be seen as promoting the public welfare even as it might endanger the detective’s mortal soul.

At the same time, Barnouw does have a point. The policeman, like the cowboy, always had the potential of becoming a tragic hero, and Dragnet’s Joe Friday tracked down more than one dishonest cop brought down by his failure to follow procedure in his honest pursuit of justice. And it was always a given that the private eye was a different type of character, the dark side of society, performing a public service that the public (in the guise of the official organs of law enforcement) accepted only reluctantly. They may have secretly envied the P.I.’s freedom from official rules, but those rules were nonetheless respected.

Now, however, things were different.

In reality, life had never been as simple as it had been depicted in television.* An event such as the botched Bay of Pigs operation revealed the extent – the need, if you will – for the United States to take action in foreign countries in order to protect its own interests. Barnouw thinks this required an adjustment in the way we thought:

*Just as it was never as corrupt as it is often portrayed today.
To many Americans, accustomed to a national image of clean uprightness – the cowboy – the revelations were disturbing and called for some adjusting. They seemed to require either indignation or rationalization. For most people, rationalization was the easier solution. If our government had really developed a “department of dirty tricks” to organize putsches, unseat rulers, and murder when necessary, all masked by elaborate fictions, it must have been brought on by dire necessities.
Barnouw quotes an article by Robert Lewis Shayon in Saturday Review as to what was wrong with all this:
The heroes of Mission: Impossible, for pay and at government instigation, interfere directly in the affairs of foreign nations with whom we are at peace and from whom no direct threat to our safety emanates.
They break the laws of these nations.  It pretends that individual Americans are morally impeccable when they break the laws of a foreign nation under the shield of our ideology. . . in emergent nations the viewer may say: “The Americans are telling us, in these programs, that this is the way to run a society.”

The end result of such programming was that the viewer was subconsciously taught to "accept the government’s assertions without exception."

Here, I think Barnouw (and Shayon) is much too willing to attach a sort of moral equivalence between the United States and the Soviet Union. In the struggle between good and evil, one must be careful to use whatever resources are at hand while at the same time resisting the temptation to use the tools of evil against evil. That’s not an easy balance to maintain, but one must be willing to grant best intentions to those who, in their efforts to act in America’s best interests, may have crossed that line. In this sense Barnouw too often cynically dismisses the sincerity of those in the government who truly believed in the rightness of the American cause and were determined to act in its best interests.

These spy shows, Barnouw contends, work hand-in-hand with another facet of 60s programming.  For as the conflict in Vietnam grew, the administration "constantly tried to recapture the consensus of World War II by depicting the Vietnam expedition as a continuation of older struggles against tyranny." As such, it played into the growth of series set in World War II - shows popular not only because of their action, but because of their appeal to the many veterans in the viewing audience. Not coincidentally, they also portrayed a war from which America emerged victorious.

Dramas such as Combat, The Rat Patrol, The Gallent Men, Garrison's Gorrillas and Twelve O'Clock High and comedies like McHale's Navy and Hogan's Heroes were common in the 60s, as were toys like G.I. Joe, Mattel's Fighting Men, remote-controlled Tiger Tanks, and mock M-16 rifles.  The practical effect of all this, Barnouw suggests, was important.  While "[i]t was not the conscious intention of producers to buttress administration arguments linking Vietnam with World War II," nonetheless it was true that
[a] visitor from another planet watching United States television for a week during the Vietnam escalation period might have concluded that viewers were being brainwashed by a cunning conspiracy determined to harness the nation – with special attention to its young – for war. Of course there was no conspiracy. Manufacturers were making things for which they saw a market, promoting them through advertising agents, producers, and broadcasters who believed in serving the client. In so doing, all avoided anything that might seem to undermine current government policy – and thereby gravitated toward its support.

Though these shows didn't intend to produce such a result, "the rash of heroic and amusing World War II series, in conjunction with the flood of enemy-conspiracy drama, probably did just that."

Ultimately, I suppose the validity of Barnouw's contention rests on how influential you feel television is.  If you think sex and violence can have an objectivizing and dehumanizing effect on people, then it might well be true that the spy and war dramas of the 60s had, at least for a time, the effect of conditioning the viewer to be more inclined to accept the administration's pronouncements on the Cold War, and its persecution of the very hot war in Vietnam - not to mention a  trust of government in general and its ability to take on other efforts such as the War on Poverty.

But if television was indirectly responsible for creating this climate of acceptance, as Barnouw suggests, then it must also accept the responsibility for what came next. As the 60s turned to the 70s, and public opinion turned violently against the war, a new breed of television show would appear, with a far more outward anti-war slant.  Whereas the programs of the 60s encouraged trust in the government, the programs of the 70s would consciously, intentionally, tear down that trust and replace it with a cynicism that pervades modern culture to this day.  Maybe - likely - it would have happened even without television.  How long it would have taken, and how widespread it would have been, are questions that we can't answer.

October 13, 2012

This week in TV Guide: October 10, 1981

I never really warmed to TV Guide of the 1980s, just as I never warmed to the shows of that era.  Take, for example, the top ten shows of the 1981-82 season:  Dallas, 60 Minutes, The Jeffersons, Three's Company, Alice, The Dukes of Hazzard, Too Close for Comfort, ABC Monday Night Movie, M*A*S*H and One Day at a Time.  I rest my case.  (No offense to anyone out there who thinks that the 80s were the Golden Age of Television.  You're wrong, but don't take it personally.)

But beggars can't be choosers, and sometimes you have to play with the cards you're dealt.  And so it's back to the 80s.

***

Actually, there's quite a lot to like in this issue.  Take, for example, this ad for the latest in cutting-edge technology: the Sears Video Disc Player.


At the competitive price of $449.95 (not including tax), it's hard to imagine anyone passing this one up.  Still, in 1981 it was anyone's guess as to whether the video disc or the VCR (which Sears also thoughtfully sells) would emerge on top.  (Of course, they're both in the tech graveyard now, and the DVD, successor to them both, seems increasingly aged.)

The really interesting thing about this ad?  The movie being advertised on the 50-inch projection TV, 2001, only 20 years in the future.  You remember the scene in the movie where Dr. Floyd flies to the orbiting space station on a Pan Am space plane?  Pan Am folded in 1991, exactly halfway between this ad and the year of the movie; it must have been unthinkable to Stanley Kubrick that Pan Am wouldn't make it to 2001.  And it seems entirely appropriate that Sears chose a movie featuring a soon-to-be-obsolete airline to advertise a soon-to-be-obsolete technology.

***

But dig this Apple computer, available at Twin Cities Audio King stores!  You can do bookkeeping, inventory, and even play games!  But can you surf the Internet?  Oh, that's right, Al Gore hasn't invented it yet.  Still, look at that Apple - a far cry from the iPad and iPhone, isn't it?  About the only thing that's the same is the logo.*

*I'll tell you though, there are mornings when I feel like that guy's head looks.

Audio King itself had an interesting history.  The Minneapolis-based company always had to battle larger companies, such as Best Buy and Circuit City, but created a niche for itself with higher-end consumer electronics, and actually did quite well when CDs and DVDs came along.  It eventually merged with Ultimate Electronics, and went out of business a few years ago.  I'll bet you probably could have purchased a video disc player there in 1981. 

Later in the issue there's a great ad for the Mitsubshi VCR, which has a really cool feature: a wireless remote control!  You can run it from bed, and even freeze-frame the interesting scenes.  That's not suggestive, is it?  No.  Not at all.

***

Back in the day, TV Guide had a feature called "The Doan Report" that covered the latest news in the industry.  By 1981 it's long gone, replaced by "TV Update," but the headlines are still relevant: 
  • Tom Brokaw's leaving Today at the end of the year to co-anchor NBC Nightly News with Roger Mudd.  (We know how well that worked, don't we?)  His replacements: Bryant Gumbel and Chris Wallace.  As we know, Wallace didn't last long in the three-headed monster (along with Jane Pauley), but he seems to be doing pretty well at Fox News.  Gumbel, making the transition from sports to news, becomes a fixture at Today - but unable to duplicate his magic when he tries to rescue the CBS Morning Show.
  • ABC's going to try yet another assault on 60 Minutes, with a 90-minute news magazine show scheduled to debut in 1982 or 83.  As a sign of their determination to take on the news giant, ABC plans to begin the show on Sunday nights 30 minutes before the start of 60 Minutes.  As far as I know, the plan never comes to pass.
  • One plan that does, however, is Ted Turner's CNN 2, designed to "offer a digest of reports from the original Cable News Network.  CBS and NBC are said to be trying to buy in to the service, but when the station does debut on January 1, 1982, it will be Turner's alone, and one year will be renamed "Headline News."  It now styles itself HLN, and the real purpose of this story is an excuse to show a picture of Robin Meade.
  • The FCC abolishes the "Fairness Doctrine," which required stations to provide equal time to opposing viewpoints.  I expect this to be back in the news in the event of a second Obama term.
***

The yellow TV Teletype tells us that Mickey Rooney will be starring in an upcoming movie - one of his biggest hits, Bill.  Jo Anne Pflug (you know her from Laugh-In having been married to Chuck Woolery) has been signed to appear with Lee Majors in his upcoming series, The Fall Guy. The hit movie Nine to Five is coming to TV (as 9 to 5), with Dolly Parton's sister Rachel Dennison and Rita Moreno.  Kenneth Turan has a very interesting article about the making of the TV-movie Skokie, which will air in November on CBS. The movie told the story of group of Nazis and their plan to march through the predominantly Jewish suburb of Skokie, Illinois. It was the TV-movie debut for Danny Kaye, who portrayed the leader of the Holocaust survivors group opposed to the march, and for those used to seeing him in light comedies and musicals, it is quite a revelation. Turan's article gives us the background on the controversy, which pitted many of the town's residents against the ACLU, which supported the free speech rights of the Nazis to march.  The movie's producers, Golden Age giant Herb Brodkin and his partner Robert Berger, fresh off the triumph of Holocaust, strove to be fair to both sides, but as someone notes, it's clear that the heart of the story comes from the point of view of the Jewish survivors.  As evidence of the high emotions the story generates, actor John Rubinstein, playing the Jewish ACLU lawyer defending the free-speech rights of the Nazis (who represented them despite great personal anguish), recounts how he received appeals from members of the Jewish community to not play "that monster."

***

Well, I guess I really can't put off talking about the programs any longer, can I?  Very well.

The lovely Jaclyn Smith plays Jackie Kennedy in what was likely a fawning three-hour movie about her life, airing on Wednesday night on ABC.  I don't know; personally, I've never found Jacqueline Kennedy to be a particularly interesting character.  It's not that I dislike her, but my fascination with her husband's career and assassination doesn't extend to her.  It probably would have been worth turning in just to see Jaclyn Smith, though, whom I think is much more attractive than Mrs. Kennedy.  It's a moot point, though.  I'm pretty sure I was watching the North Stars play the Maple Leafs on Channel 9.*

*Another sign of how things have changed; the NHL actually played hockey back in those days.

The baseball playoffs were in full swing; a strike midway through the season had cancelled almost 40 percent of the games*, and the season was split into two parts, with the division winners from each half making the playoffs.  The Cincinnati Reds, who didn't finish in first place in either half of the season but had the best overall record for the year, stayed at home while the Yankees and Dodgers made their way to yet another World Series.  I probably watched these games but, like the regular season itself, they were unmemorable.

*Ah. I knew I'd find a sports work stoppage if I looked hard enough.

Oklahoma and Texas were the feature attraction on ABC's college football game of the week, facing off at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas as they do every year on the second Saturday in October, during the Texas State Fair. Texas won that year, 34-14.  As to who wins this year?  Well, as you're reading this you probably know, but as I write this, I can only guess.  I'm sure I was watching it, as I would have watched the Vikings at the Chargers and the Rams at the Falcons on Sunday afternoon.  I might even have watched the Dolphins play the Bills on Monday Night Football, or at least the first half; the second half would have been past my bedtime.  Or maybe not, as I think of it - depends on what my class schedule was on Tuesday.

OK, so aside from studying for my poli-sci classes, I probably didn't watch anything else on TV that week.  Which means I missed the marriage of social director Julie on The Love Boat on Saturday night, and Thursday night's main event, the marriage of Mork and Mindy.  Can you say "Jump the Shark"?  Other than bringing Jonathan Winters into the series, were there any redeeming qualities to this plot twist? 

At least Mork didn't conflict with the made-for-TV Mike Hammer movie, Margin for Murder, starring Kevin Dobson.  You probably don't remember Kevin Dobson playing Mike Hammer.  You remember Kevin Dobson from Knots LandingBut he doesn't join the cast of that show for another year, so you don't remember him for that, not yet.  So perhaps you remember Kevin Dobson from Kojak.  He was on that show for five seasons.  No, when you think of Mike Hammer on TV, you think of Stacy Keach or Darren McGavin.  You don't think of Kevin Dobson.  And if you're lucky, you don't think of Mork & Mindy at all.

WCCO, the Twin Cities' CBS affiliate, shows part one of Roots on Saturday afternoon, right after Harum Scarum with Elvis - remember when there was more than sports on Saturday afternoons?    And when local stations actually used to show things like, you know, movies?  Speaking of which, what's up with 'CCO showing Going My Way on Friday night?  In October?  This is one of the few times I've seen that movie show up outside of the Christmas season - but then, the first time I ever saw It's a Wonderful Life on TV, it was in the middle of summer.

Finally, there's the second-season premiere of SCTV on NBC Friday night.  Best bit: Dave Thomas as Benny Hill in Benny Hill Street Blues.  It's like the rest of the shows in this week's issue: you have to see it to believe it.  But, at least this is something you might want to see.

October 10, 2012

The negative campaign

There is a section in The Image Empire, volume three of Erik Barnouw’s History of Broadcasting in the United States, that should be of interest to anyone with an opinion on negative advertising in politics.

The negative ad, of course, is nothing new. During the election of 1884, to give just one example, Grover Cleveland was rumored to have been the father an illegitimate child. Hence the campaign chant, “Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?” (See left)  Multiply this by a thousand, and you get the idea of an American political scene that has always been rough and tumble.

Early campaign commercials were, I think, little more than an extension of product advertising, i.e. selling a candidate instead of a new brand of detergent.  The commercials themselves were fairly straightforward: candidates presenting themselves and their positions to the voters.

The televised debates of 1960 would demonstrate the power of TV to shape the campaign, as would JFK's accessibility to the camera through TV appearances and documentaries.  His assassination in 1963 further showed television as the new backyard fence, the gathering spot for American conversation.  It was inevitable that political advertising would evolve from the simple candidate-facing-the-camera commercials of the past.

The 1964 campaign, according to Barnouw, represented the turning point in that development. Whereas these prior television commercials
had been built around the candidate[, t]he principal Doyle Dane Bernbach [the ad agency for the Democratic Party] spots were not. This may have been partly a matter of necessity; the nomination of Johnson, though a foregone conclusion, did not take place until the end of August, more than a month after the Goldwater nomination. Meanwhile the Doyle Dane Bernbach spots dealt – without mentioning him – with Goldwater.

Barnouw mentions two LBJ commercials in particular. The best known – perhaps the most famous ever made – was the “Daisy” commercial that showed a little girl picking the petals off a daisy, which morphed into a countdown to a nuclear blast.


The implication was obvious: that Goldwater was a mad bomber intent on nuking North Vietnam, China, Russia – any Communist country that happened to get in the way – accompanied, doubtlessly, by the deaths of millions of small children like the little girl with her daisy.

There was a second LBJ commercial, however, which I hadn’t previously heard of, which also packed a punch:
In another spot a girl was seen eating an ice-cream cone. There was the ticking of a Geiger counter. A motherly voice was meanwhile explaining about Strontium 90, a radioactive fallout product found to concentrate itself in milk. Again a viewer was reminded of Goldwater’s apparently casual attitude toward nuclear “devices” and perhaps his opposition to the test-ban treaty. 

Each of these commercials aired only once – the “Daisy” commercial, in particular, received so much free publicity through the news media that there seemed no reason to pay to have them shown again. They had made their point.*

*A third commercial, which was never shown, “subtly” connects Goldwater with the KKK. I think the Democrats were right to not air this one; it might even be considered over the top today.



It’s perhaps an indication of how na├»ve we were then, or how cynical we are now, that these commercials were considered unusual, even dirty play, by many. Goldwater himself protested that “[t]he homes of America are horrified and the intelligence of Americans is insulted by weird television advertising by which this administration threatens the end of the world unless all-wise Lyndon is given the nation for his very own.” In retrospect we might suggest that Goldwater, who as a candidate was often his worst enemy, was horrified primarily by the effectiveness of the spots.

There were other examples, less dramatic but no less effective: after a negative Goldwater reference to Social Security during the New Hampshire primary, Doyle Dane produced “a spot in which two hands were seen tearing up a Social Security card.” One can surely see the genesis of the Paul Ryan-pushing-granny’s-wheelchair-off-the-cliff commercial in this kind of advertising.

I don’t want to suggest that this kind of campaigning was limited to the Democrats. The Republicans countered with a long-form spot that attempted to suggest that Democrats, and LBJ in particular, were responsible for a “moral decay” enveloping the country. “The decay was depicted through glimpses of topless dancers, pornographic magazines, marquees of nudist films – and rioting.” The film, Barnouw claimed, “associated sexual emancipation and the rise of nudism with Negro protest movements; all were considered aspects of the breakdown of ‘law and order.’” Barnouw’s suggestion that this phrase, “law and order,’ was intended as a coded appeal to segregationists, is one that I don’t particularly agree with. Nevertheless, there could be no question that the Republicans were responding to the Democrats in kind. The chairman of the Democratic Party, John Bailey, called it “the ‘sickest’ program in the history of television campaigning,” which I find a bit dubious,*but there’s no doubt that a new form of tele-campaigning was born.

*Pot calling kettle…

I’m not taking sides here on the issue of negative campaigning. Certainly there are a lot of people who are sick to death of it; by the same token, most polls clearly show its effectiveness. When people stop responding positively to them, presumably, candidates will stop showing them.

What I’m really after here is a bit of historical perspective. What we see and hear today in the last days of this election campaign is nothing new and should hardly be surprising, for it represents a most natural evolution, for better or worse, of a political discourse that has been around since the beginning of the Republic, oftentimes in a form that was particularly nasty and personal. There is no question that negative ads have come to dominate the airwaves in a way which might have been unthinkable back in 1964 – and yet anyone looking at the effectiveness of the LBJ ads would have said that such a trend was inevitable. In fact, if we define the television era for campaign purposes as having starting in 1948, one could suggest that TV advertising had a relatively long period (12 years, to 1964) in which negative ads were not the dominant forms.

We may not much like it, but then we don’t much like poverty either – and yet, as Jesus reminds us, “the poor you will always have.” Negative campaigning would appear to be the same.

October 6, 2012

This week in TV Guide: October 9, 1965

Before we go any further, let us pause for a moment in silent appreciation of that fine figure of a woman, Anne Francis.  Or, as she's referred to on this week's cover, "Slinky Sleuth."

[Sigh.]

Truth in advertising.  More on her later.


***

And now for something completely different: local news ads.  Of course there's no local content in TV Guide anymore, but even when there was, the last few years, these kinds of ads were a dying breed. Local newscasters all seem to come from the same blow-dry school, with the same accents (or lack thereof), the same earnest expression, the same ability to carry on a chucklefest with the rest of the on-camera news crew.  It's one reason why I enjoy looking at these old ads.


 Take this ad for KCMT, Channel 7, operating out of Alexandria, Minnesota. 

Back in the 70s, when I was a misbegotten youth in high school in the most God-forsaken place on earth, Channel 7 was the only TV station we received (except for Channel 10, which was the PBS affiliate).  Channel 7 was, at the time, an NBC affiliate that would shoehorn several ABC series into some of their off-network timeslots.  This meant that you might see Marcus Welby, M.D., for example, a week after everyone else, and you could only see it at 10:30 on Saturday night.

My point here is that Channel 7 was a fully local station.*  It had a local variety show in the afternoon, and it had local news, weather and sports.  They were terribly amateur; I don't doubt that you could see a more professional news program come from the A/V department of your local school.  Nevertheless, it was local.

*So local, in fact, that on election eve of 1976, KCMT pre-empted all NBC programming to air old movies, simply so they could use 100% of the commerical time for candidates for local races rather than sharing commercial time with the network.

In 1988 KCMT was purchased by WCCO, the CBS O&O in Minneapolis, and renamed KCCO.  By 1990 the local news content had been reduced to a five-minute segment during WCCO's newscast; everything else was direct from WCCO.  (You can read more about KCMT here and here.  Sadly, I remember most of the people these articles mention.)  Eventually, in 2004, the station went away altogether; since WCCO was available in the area via cable systems, why bother to have a local station that's just broadcasting the same stuff?

I wonder how often this happens to the small stations whose listings we see in old TV Guides?  KMMT, the ABC affiliate in Austin, Minnesota, is now called KAAL and is owned by Hubbard Broadcasting, the owners of ABC's KSTP in Minneapolis (and all ABC affiliates in Minnesota, for that matter).  KAAL retains its local news and identity, though.

Alexandra did wind up with another station, KSAX, also owned by Hubbard.  For 25 years it maintained a local presence, until June of this year, when the local newscast was discontinued, ending the only local news station in Greater Minnesota.  All its programming, including the news, now comes from KSTP.

***

Speaking of local channels, it's interesting to see what stations broadcast after the late local news.  NBC had The Tonight Show, of course* and ABC had Nightlife, although many affiliates chose either not to clear it at all or to delay it until the wee hours.  Everyone else was pretty much on their own.  WCCO, Channel 4, put on movies.  KMSP, Channel 9 (ABC) had old syndicated shows (Maverick, The Gallent Men) and WTCN, Channel 11, the independent station in the Twin Cities, had - Amos 'n' Andy.  As I've often said, times have changed.

*Interestingly enough, the aforementioned KCMT, although an NBC affiliate, chose not to show Tonight, instead broadcasting a mixture of ABC series (The Fugitive, Amos Burke) and local movies. KCMT didn't pick up Carson until later in the 60s.

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This is a sidenote that I wouldn't have paid much attention to six months ago, but it's worth something now: on Saturday NBC has the fourth game of the World Series, pitting the Minnesota Twins and the Dodgers from Los Angeles (won by the Dodgers, 4-0).  Preceeding the Series, at the ungodly hour of 10:30 am (CT) is NBC's college football game of the week featuring Pittsburgh vs. Duke from Durham, NC.  (Duke, 21-13.)  I lived in Minneapolis when that World Series was played, and now I'm living in North Carolina, working at Duke.  Who could have imagined?

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During the 60s, the Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace were the premiere variety shows on television.  Whenever they appear in TV Guide together, we'll match them up and see who has the best lineup.
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Ed Sullivan: In Hollywood*, Ed's scheduled guests are Kate Smith; satirist Woody Allen; the rock 'n' rolling Supremes; singers Petula Clark and Wayne Newton; puppet Topo Gigio; comics Davis and Reese; and the Four Little Step Brothers, a rock 'n' roll group.

*Ed's show was normally broadcast from New York.

Hollywood Palace:  Hostess Joan Crawford, making a rare television appearance,* reads "A Prayer for Little Children."  Guests: singers Jack Jones and Joanie Summers; comedians Godfrey Cambridge, and Allen and Rossi; Japanese bicyclist Lily Yokoi; Stebbings' Boxers, an English comic dog act; and the Rodos, West German acrobats.

*The phrase "rare television appearance" is commonplace on dramatic and variety shows even in the mid-60s.  John Wayne makes one elsewhere in ths issue.

Best of the Rest:  Dean Martin's guest is Pearl Bailey, while Johnny Cash appears on Steve Lawrence's series.  I'll vote for NBC's Bell Telephone Hour - if you like this kind of music, you'll appreciate a guest lineup that includes hosts Gordon MacRae and Florence Henderson, with Richard Tucker, Robert Merrill, Grant Johannesen, Pete Fountain, and special guest Lena Horne.  Not bad.

But this is between Ed and the Palace, so on the basis of Joan Crawford's appearance, I'm going to give them the nod.  Advantage:  Holllywood Palace.

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Oh yes, Anne Francis.  Well, Honey West is often considered the first action show on American television to have a female lead.  The Honey West character itself was featured in a dozen or so detective novels from 1957 to 1971.   Anne Francis introduced Honey in a 1965 episode of Burke's Law, and starred in the series in the 1965-66 season.  It was obviously modeled in part on the British show The Avengers, and in fact producer Aaron Spelling was said to have originally offered the role of Honey to Avengers star Honor Blackman. 

Honey West has something of a cult following nowadays, through DVD and MeTV.  It's nothing special; fun enough to watch, but in truth it's easy to see why it only ran the one season.  (ABC apparently decided it would just be cheaper to import The Avengers; as I've always said, why go with a cheap imitation when you can have the original?)  The pleasure of watching Honey West is really derived from the pleasure of watching Anne Francis, who cuts quite the figure (see left) in her black cat-suit (which actually reminds me more of Diana Rigg, who replaced Blackman on The Avengers), being both very tough and very sexy, able to handle a gun but still occasionally needing to be saved by a man (her sidekick Sam Bolt, played by John Ericson).  In other words, it's the perfect symbol for the schizo 60s. 

Meanwhile, Anne Francis is the perfect symbol for - well, for watching television.

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Finally, here's something you don't see often: an episode of Bonanza presented without commercial interruption.  But, as you can tell, there's a catch: a 5½ minute commercial for Chevrolet, "uninterrupted by Bonanza.  At least they had their priorities right.