May 11, 2013

This week in TV Guide: May 13, 1961

The new Chairman of the FCC, Newton Minow, kicks off this week's edition of TV Guide with an Open Letter to the public, asking for their help in improving television.

Minow is responding to a recent Open Letter to him by the editors of TV Guide, in which they had called on the FCC to take action on several fronts, including the amount of violence on TV, the tendency of local stations to pre-empt educational shows being broadcast by the networks, and that programming decisions are being governed almost completely by the ratings.

In his response, Minow quite rightly points out the public's role in keeping TV responsible - after all, each station's license is reviewed by the FCC every three years, during which time they must show how they've served "the public interest."  If the public doesn't feel that its interests are being served, speak up!  He also talks about a study the commission is conducting regarding the influence of the ratings system and the role of talent agencies in casting decisions.

Minow also stresses how little of the TV band is actually being utilized - "85% of available television broadcasting frequencies are hardly used."  With the advent and continued development of UHF, the time will eventually come when "we will be able to provide every community with enough stations to permit all parts of the public to receive programs directed to their particular interests."  That's a very intriguing statement - in one sense it prefigures today's glut of specialized cable stations, especially when he references how some stations "will recognize the need to appeal to more limited markets and to special tastes."

However, Minow also makes the assumption - no, that's not quite right.  He doesn't assume that educational and cultural programming will thrive in this environment.  What he says is that after this model has come of age, "[t]here will be time to prove that television stations can make money by appealing to our highest capacities instead of our lowest."  In fact, it is here that he throws it back in the public's lap, saying that while the FCC can provide leadership in this area, "the best leadership rarely can take people where they do not want to go."

What's interesting about this is that it had only been four days earlier - undoubtedly after this issue had gone gone to press - that Minow had given his famous speech to the National Association of Broadcasters in which he excoriated television as "a vast wasteland."   So while we know Minow well, he was probably far less well-known to the public at the time of this article.  I personally think the timing of the article, coming so closely to the speech, is fascinating.  (I wonder which one was written first?)  It causes you to read the article more closely, to look for signs of it being something of a talisman, a sign of Minow's attitude toward the medium.  In the article he concludes by saying that television "has a responsibility to serve the Nation's needs as well as its whims" and a duty "to assist in preparing a generation for great decisions."  It's no stretch to connect the article to his speech, in which he states that when television is good, "nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse."

Television, Newton Minow concludes, "has a deep obligation to guide our country in fulfilling its future." And I suppose it a way it has.  For better - and for worse.

***

Click to enlarge
The Emmys (or "Television 'Emmy' Awards" if you prefer) are Tuesday night on NBC, hosted by Dick Powell in Hollywood and Joey Bishop in New York.*  As is the case with Oscar telecasts of the time, this year's show is relatively late in the evening (9pm CT), and is scheduled for a compact running time of 90 minutes.  NBC was the broadcaster of record for the first few Emmy shows, but by the end of the 60s it will be rotated among the networks, a situation that exists (with a few exceptions) to this day.  You'll also notice that back then the Emmys were held in May, at the end of the TV season.  It's not until 1977, when they were delayed by a strike, that they moved to their current date at the start of the following season.

*Coincidentally, I'm sure, both Dick Powell and Joey Bishop were at the time starring in series on NBC.

The most noticeable thing about this year's program, viewed from today's perspective, is the list of nominees. For example, in the since-abandoned category "Program of the Year," the nominees include specials by Fred Astaire and Danny Kaye, a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation of "Macbeth," NBC Sunday Showcase's "Sacco-Vanzetti Case," and - NBC's 1960 political convention coverage. Not something you'd be likely to see nowadays. (It didn't win, though - "Macbeth," starring Maurice Evans and Judith Anderson, which was the evening's big winner, took home the award.)

Other categories included "Outstanding Program Achievements" in humor, drama, variety, news, public affairs and education, and children's programming. The acting awards were for acting in a special, series (comedy or drama; there were no individual categories), and variety show. Then there were the usual directing and writing awards.

I think this, as much as anything, shows the evolution of television over the years. The preponderance of variety shows, the inclusion of public affairs (low-rated though they might be), even the number of nominees (five in programming categories, but only three in each acting category) - well, it was just a different time. As for the winners - you can find out about them here.

***

Even without Hollywood Palace, I can't seem to shake the urge to see what Ed Sullivan's got going.  It's such a good way to find out what's hot right now.  And this week Ed has Metropolitan Opera star Richard Tucker, singer Teresa Brewer, Gene Barry, star of Bat Masterson, The Three Stooges, clarinetist Pete Foundain and his jazz group, comedians Larry Griswold and Adam Keefe, and the Idlers, Coast Guard vocal group.  And that would be a hard act for anyone to follow. 

Dinah Shore's got a pretty good lineup on Sunday as well, on NBC.  Her guests include jazzman Red Novaro, the great musical-comedy star Carol Channing, singer Jack Jones (who's still going strong today), and the NORAD Command Band.*  And opposite the Emmys, Garry Moore's CBS show (a repeat) has comedian Alan King, singer Denise Lor and calypso singer Steve DePass.  Of course, he also has a regular who went on to some variety show fame of her own - Carol Burnett.

*With all these military groups on TV, one wonders if this was a recruiting tool?

And an interesting note, apropos of nothing in particular.  Dave Garroway, host of the Today show, is on vacation for the week.  Subbing for Dave is none other than John Daly, host of What's My Line?  Daly was, until the previous year, VP of news for ABC, as well as the evening news anchor.  He did this while hosting What's My Line? for CBS.  And now he's appearing on Today on NBC.  What a guy!

***

I’ve mentioned in the past how popular bowling was on TV of the early 60s, and this week is no exception, as Wide World of Sports devotes 2½ hours to the semifinals and finals of the National Invitational Bowling Championship from Paramus, New Jersey.  The winner takes home a whopping $15,000 first prize - by contrast, Gene Littler, winner of the U.S. Open golf championship the following month, only gets $14,000.  How times have changed.

This was actually replayed on ESPN Classic a few years ago, as you can see here.  You're going to have to watch it to see who wins, though!


The best sports story of the issue is Melvin Durslag's profile of Leo Durocher, who's left his job as color commentator on NBC's Game of the Week to return to baseball as a coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers.  It's widely rumored that Leo the Lip will succeed Walter Alston, but it doesn't happen.  Leo's next job managing will be with the Chicago Cubs, and his tenure will be remembered for the Cubbies' collapse in 1969, as the Amazin' New York Mets storm ahead late in the season on the way to their improbable championship.

Durocher has some interesting ideas on the business of baseball.  "My policy would be no televising of home games," he says.  "It doesn't build fans.  In most major league towns there already are enough fans.  Your problem is getting them to buy tickets."  TV doesn't help, says Durocher, "when you give them the games for nothing.  I would televise only a few road games.  You show home games and it will murder you."

That was the conventional thinking for a long, long time - even as recently as the early 90s.  Today, of course, almost every team televises almost every game, home and road.  It's not quite free, though - the vast majority of these games are on cable sports channels.  But Leo's right about one thing: the revenue streams that come to sports from rights fees, marketing fees, naming fees and the like, mean that nowadays the least important part of the equation is the fan.

***

This week's cover story is on Lorne Greene, star of NBC's hit Bonanza.  I have to admit that Bonanza was not my favorite show growing up; my grandparents liked it, possibly because they'd been farmers once.*  Even despite my ongoing infatuation with classic TV, I've never warmed to it.  Maybe if I made a concerted effort to sit down and watch it - or maybe not.

*Of course, they liked Lawrence Welk, too.

I was never a big Lorne Greene fan back then, either, but I have come to appreciate him.  There was a dignity to his speech and his on-screen manner that we don't see as often today.  And it's not surprising; after all, Greene was the chief radio broadcaster for the CBC, becoming known as the "Voice of Canada," before relocating to the states in the early 50s and turning to acting.  His career on Broadway and was hit and miss - mostly miss - before he went to television and Bonanza.  The rest, as they say, is history.

It's amusing that Greene's three TV sons - Michael Landon, Pernell Roberts and Dan Blocker - "are apt to fall into the son role despite their best intentions," often asking Greene for advise of various kinds.  Greene had other series after leaving the Ponderosa - most infamously, perhaps, as Commander Adama in the original Battlestar Galactica - and was the longtime host of NBC's Macy's Parade coverage.  But it will always be as Pa Cartwright that Lorne Greene will be most remembered.

***

Some histrionics here, wouldn't you say?  What would Newton Minow think?


***

There's another "sign of the times" article, this one a debate between Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice John Dethmers and NBC News Executive VP William McAndrew, on the question "should television be permitted to cover courtroom proceedings?"  Justice Dethmers says no - there are too many potential pitfals.  The witnesses would be too aware of the camera.  Judges up for reelection might gain an unfair advantage from their on-air exposure.  Most of all, Dethmers is concerned that TV's insatiable appetite for ratings (and the revenues they produce) migth cause them to focus on the more "senastional" aspects of trials, rather than the "mundane and prosaic monotony of learned discussion of legal and Constitutional questions." 

On the flip side, McAndrew feels that by televising trials, the broadcaster is fullfilling "part of his obligation to keep the public as fully informed as possible on as many vital matters as possible."  The public, he contends, "has a right to know what goes on in the courtroom" - it's the best guarantee of a fair trial.  He assures us that broadcasters don't "look to the courtroom for a show" but for news "that at times may have an important impact on history."  He also contents that many of the concerns about exposure would exist with or without the presence of the cameras.  Act against them, he urges the Bar Association, rather than blaming TV.

We know how the argument ultimately ends, but one thing's for sure: I doubt that either of these men - nor Newton Minow, for that matter - could possibly have foreseen how television would develop, that one of those dedicated stations of which Minow speaks would wind up broadcasting nothing but courtroom trials, and that the coverage would be both a public service and a sensational circus, and that the very news channels that in 1961 might have been seen as a dream come true would, by 2013, be far closer to the vast wasteland.

7 comments

  1. I have this issue, but it's at home, so detailed comments will have to wait until tomorrow.

    But one matter I have to ask about now:

    You've got the issue right in front of you - and you misspell Newton Minow's name all the way through the post?
    It's 'Minow' with one 'n'; every Chicagoan knows this, and has for years.
    The Minows have been a prominent family in Chicago legal and political circles forever.
    Newton Minow's daughter Nell Minow is well-known on Chicago radio as "the Movie Mom", and also contributes to Roger Ebert's blog on occasion.
    I can see making this mistake once or even twice.
    But not having the copy in hand, I have to assume that TV Guide had the right spelling, which for some obscure reason you "corrected".
    If I were given to amateur psych, I might speculate on just why you did this - but I think I'll refrain.

    Anyhoo, I'll be back on the morrow with the issue in hand; I'll look it over thoroughly overnight to be sure of everything.


    Oh, and that jazzman that Dinah Shore had on?
    Red Norvo.
    You can see him playing the vibes in back of Dean Martin in Ocean's Eleven (the Rat Pack version - you know, the good one).

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    1. As my soon-to-be governor would say, "Oops." It must be from watching too much TV over the years. But give me a break - these have been packed for two weeks. I'm lucky this got up at all!

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  2. The May, 1961 Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) Invitational Tournament telecast on "Wide World Of Sports" became such a huge success that the following year, ABC began covering the weekly tournaments of the PBA Winter Tour, something they would continue to do for over 35 years.

    Although Jim McKay was one of the commentators in this clip, it was Chris Schnekel who became the "Voice Of The PBA Tour". And although he did many other sports events through the decades, Chris Schnekel is today best remembered as a bowling commentator.

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    1. Indeed - I think you could make the case that the PBA started to go downhill after the end of the ABC/Chris Schenkel coverage. That was must-see programming for me for many years.

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  3. About Today and Dave Garroway:

    He wasn't "on vacation" as such.
    A couple of weeks before, Garroway's wife died suddenly of "an overdose of prescription drugs" (that quote is the official announcement; Mrs. Garroway's death has been reported in some sources as a suicide).
    Dave Garroway had been under some stress at home at this time, mainly marital troubles. He'd been missing shows, and NBC was on the lookout for possible replacements, temporary or permanent (John Daly's appearance, just after his departure from ABC News, was a sort of tryout on both sides).
    When Garroway returned to Today, a few weeks after this issue, it was to announce that he would be leaving the show soon thereafter; the formal departure came at the end of June.
    NBC News took over Today formally at that time, and installed John Chancellor as host; he didn't care for the job or the early hours (that's the reason John Daly decided against taking the job himself), and a couple of years later Hugh Downs came in and saved the show (but that's another story ...).

    This ties into the other problem NBC was having back then: Jack Paar was making noises about leaving his late-night show, which he did about a year after this week ( which freed up Hugh Downs for Today).

    Looking over some of the other shows from that week, I note that Red Skelton was doing Freddie the Freeloader. Skelton always used a guest star to play Freddie's sidekick Muggsy: this week it was Sebastian Cabot (then of Checkmate) - That I'd like to have seen.

    Also that week was Whispering Smith, Audie Murphy's long-delayed Western series, presenting a story about Murphy being tracked down by an old woman and her son and daughter, who plan to kill him as revenge for another son. The surviving son is played by a newcomer - Robert Redford (whatever happened to him, anyway?).
    Later that same Monday night, Barbara Stanwyck meets "The Assassin", played by another newbie - Peter Falk.
    And that's just Monday ...

    I'm getting dirty looks from my co-workers, so I'd best let up for now.

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    1. Excellent info, Mike! I knew about much of Garroway's troubled history, including his own suicide, but I hadn't associated the two events. I love hearing these "rest of the story" details. Have you seen any episodes of Whispering Smith? If so, any opinions? And I've got the Stanwyck series on DVD, but I'll have to go back and look at that episode - I didn't recognize the description from the TV Guide.

      If your co-workers give you a hard time on this, tell them they'll have to deal with me...

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    2. Whispering Smith is available on DVD from Timeless Media; I've got the set.
      It's a standard issue Revue/MCA Western, which had the reputation of being snakebitten.
      Smith was supposed to go on in the fall of 1959, but was postponed because of some production delays.
      Pop singer Guy Mitchell, who was Audie Murphy's co-star, suffered a broken shoulder with only seven episodes completed, which knocked Smith off the fall schedule.
      Not long thereafter, character actor Sam Buffington, who played Murphy&Mitchell's boss, died in real life. We're still in '59; when NBC finally decided to run Smith as a summer replacement in '61, the series was long past the point of salvaging.
      Anaother problem, when Smith was finally aired: The Senate, in the person of Sen. John Pastore (D-RI), had started up their latest hearings on violent TV. His main target was the infamous Bus Stop episode with Fabian as a smirking killer. But any kind of violent TV was singled out, and Smith had aired a particularly tough episode close to the hearings, and so caught flak from Pastore.
      Audie Murphy hadn't enjoyed making Smith; when filming ended, he was glad to be rid of the obligation. NBC's decision to put it on a year and a half late was bad enough, but when he was called before Pastore's committee to defend it ... well, Murphy went like a good soldier, but this story was one of the things that soured him on acting and Hollywood altogether (he didn't do many movies after this, and then only for the money).
      That said, the series isn't bad at all; typical MCA assembly-line product, professional and all. If you're an Audie Murphy fan to start with, you're halfway home.

      Good luck with the move; I've had enough of them to know how much can go wornnggg ...

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