July 13, 2013

This week in TV Guide: July 11, 1964

Sometimes you run across a TV Guide that truly feels as if it came from a museum or an antique store*, such is the way in which it describes a world that no longer exists, at least on television. This is one of those issues, and the cover alone describes two features of this lost world: the glamor and status of the network anchorman, and the importance to the political process of the presidential nominating convention.

*Of course, many of my TV Guides, including this one, do come from antique stores.

The cover story is the Republican National Convention in San Francisco, where the GOP meets to choose a candidate to face President Johnson in November. Television is there to provide gavel-to-gavel coverage of the convention, one of the last of the great knock-down, drag-out brawls that not only made conventions so entertaining, but also demonstrates why political parties no longer hold them. Oh, they still call them conventions, but you and I both know they’re really just week-long political infomercials.

The five men on the cover: Walter Cronkite, who within a decade will be the most trusted man in American; Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, whom NBC bills in their convention ads as the “San Francisco Giants,” and ABC’s new team of Howard K. Smith and Edward P. Morgan, trying to bring credibility – and sex appeal – to the network’s news division. And it is interesting to see the esteem with which the news anchors are treated. TV news is still, at this point, in something of its infancy: CBS and NBC only went to half-hour newscasts a few months before, and ABC won’t follow suit until 1967.

Most historians say that television came of age with its coverage of the Kennedy assassination, and the five men here can all testify to that. Huntley and Brinkley dominated that coverage, ratings-wise, with more people watching NBC than CBS and ABC combined,* and NBC comes to the convention as the “network to beat,” so to speak. Cronkite, whose announcement of Kennedy’s death will eventually become the iconic image of the event, is not yet the revered institution he will become; in fact, so thoroughly is CBS trounced in the GOP convention coverage that Uncle Walter will be replaced by Robert Trout and Eric Sevareid for the Democratic convention the following month. Smith and Morgan were the prime anchors for ABC’s JFK coverage, and won enough critical approval that they would team up for the convention even though Ron Cochran would remain anchor of the network’s evening news until 1965.

*Since hardly anyone watched ABC news, the battle between NBC and CBS was actually much closer than this statement might indicate.

The news anchor of the time is seen as serious and authoritative, likely because of the emotional connection they made with viewers during the assassination and its aftermath. There’s also a carryover, I suspect, from the age of the World War II foreign correspondent, which lends a sense of gravitas to television news. And that gravitas is apparent in the coverage each network plans for the convention.

All three networks will be providing start-to-finish coverage, beginning with the opening session at noon (CT) Monday and continuing through Tuesday’s speech by former President Eisenhower, Wednesday’s nominating and balloting for president, and Thursday’s veep nomination and acceptance speeches.* In addition, there’s plenty of pre-convention programming: each network has a preview show Sunday evening, and ABC has several convention-related shows on Saturday and Sunday, including an appearance by Eisenhower on the children’s show Discovery ’64, where he’ll explain the role of the convention in the democratic process.

*Interesting thing here: the convention was originally scheduled to end on Friday, rather than Thursday. The difference was that in the original plan, the nominating speeches and demonstrations would take place on Wednesday, but the balloting itself would be on Thursday. That didn’t happen; it appears the schedule itself had been modified prior to the start of the convention, probably because the chance of multiple ballots had pretty much disappeared by the start of the festivities. Fortunately, TV Guide provides us with an alternate schedule of programming for Friday in case the convention’s already over.

The convention itself was a riotous affair. The eventual nominee, Barry Goldwater, arrived with more than enough delegates to win, although there was always the possibility of vote changes prior to the actual balloting. The platform fight, mostly over the civil rights plank, was particularly nasty; when Nelson Rockefeller took to the podium to support a liberal plank denouncing “extremism,” he was shouted down by the delegates (a grinning Rockefeller taunted them, like a kid prodding a lion with a stick, which produced great theater and proved Rocky’s point about the extremism of the Goldwater delegates). Rockefeller’s surrogate, William Scranton, put himself up as a last-minute candidate, though he had no hope of winning.

This new, more conservative GOP also expresses its distrust of the news media – increasingly personified by television. For many, Huntley and Brinkley, the top dogs in the news game, epitomized the liberal bias of the eastern media establishment. “You know,” one delegate was overheard to say, “these nighttime news shows sound to me like they’re being broadcast from Moscow.” When Eisenhower, in his speech, referred to “sensation-seeking columnists and commentators” seeking to divide the GOP, the delegates roared their approval, shaking their fists at the commentators in their booths.

Goldwater, taking the podium on Thursday night, told the delegates that “extremism moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” He went to a resounding defeat, surely in part by the negative impression left by television coverage of the convention. The grass roots movement he created, however, helped to lay the groundwork for the victory of Ronald Reagan 16 years later.

As both a TV fan and a political junkie, I can only lament the change in conventions from meetings where things actually got done to slick television productions that nobody watches. However, by 1964 the process had already begun; media representatives outnumbered delegates by two to one.

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Here’s something else you’re not likely to see nowadays. NBC news correspondent Nancy Dickerson appears in a feature on the convention – but if you’re looking for her analysis of the party platform or her predictions for the winners, you’re out of luck. Instead, TV Guide “asked her to model some of the clothes she plans to wear on the convention floor.” There’s a pink-and-white checkered number by Gustave Tassell, a navy silk twill suit with white blouse by Yves St. Laurent, and a two-piece green sleeveless top by Geoffrey Beene.



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One thing that hasn’t changed since 1964 is the impact television has on politics. Well, actually to the extent it’s changed, it’s become even more of an impact than it was then. In an article on TV’s influence, political columnist William S. White says “there is no question among old political observers that TV unconsciously worked against Richard Nixon in 1960,” and adds that were it not for the presence of television at the 1960 Democratic Convention, LBJ probably wouldn’t have been chosen by JFK as his running mate.

“The late-night session in Los Angeles that nominated Kennedy showed a succession of urban Democratic bosses . . . at the head of the powerful blocs that put him over. Overnight, there was concern in the Kennedy camp that the country would see this as a heavy-handed urban-boss bulldozer movement flinging all resistance out of its way.” That image had to be softened, and the way to do it was to find someone from the Southwest, a Protestant, with connections to rural and small town America. In other words, Johnson.

White feels that television can do a very good job of covering politics, and that it will be essential for the successful politician to learn how to use TV. But for all the good work that television does, it’s growing influence and efficiency mean the end of an era. “That matchless technical skill which combines the lens and the computer produces the final answers for us – tells us who has in fact won and who has in fact lost – long before the climax really should have been reached and exposed.” That’s about the size of 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: On this rerun, Ed’s guests are Duke Ellington and his orchestra and musical comedy performer Liza Minnelli. The Beatles are seen in a segment taped in London on the set of their fourthcoming movie. Other guests include French singer Jean Paul Vignon, British comics Morcombe and Wise, and mezzo-soprano Shirley Verrett. Also seen: films of Michelangelo’s Pieta, on display at the New York World’s Fair.

Hollywood Palace: Host Dale Robertson introduces singers Vic Damone and Jane Morgan; comedian Red Buttons; the Smothers Brothers, comedy folk singers; the Four Amigos, vocal quartet; ventriloquist Russ Lewis; and the Harris Nelson family, a musical comedy act.

Well, I didn’t have to put too much thought into this week’s entry. When this show originally aired, Ed had teased it the previous week by saying, “Next week – The Beatles and the Pieta!” Add in the Duke and Liza with a Z, and even though it’s a repeat it’s still Sullivan who's number one for the week.

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Finally, I’ve talked before about the dramatic difference in the amount of sports on television in the 1960s as compared to today. A look at the weekend’s schedule really brings this into focus. For starters, there’s no baseball game of the week on Saturday afternoon – the Twins were at home, and broadcasting rules of the day prohibited a game being broadcast into the area at the same time. There is championship bridge, if you’re interested, and Channel 4 carries a big polo match between the clubs of the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. (Live, 90 min.) There’s bowling and wrestling – everybody’s favorite in the early 60s – and, of course, Wide World of Sports, which brings us the Firecracker 400 from Daytona (taped the previous week, and won by A.J. Foyt) and the final round of the British Open golf championship, taped Friday at St. Andrews.

As was the case with the U.S. Open I wrote about last month, the British Open used to be played in three days, starting on Wednesday and concluding with 36 holes on Friday. If there was a tie, the 18-hole playoff would be held on Saturday. Eventually, like the U.S. Open, the British Open went to a four-day schedule, although the final round remained on Saturday well into the 70s. The winner, Champagne Tony Lema, defeats Jack Nicklaus by five shots to claim his only major title; sadly, he will be killed in a plane crash two years later.

6 comments:

  1. Interesting post, especially regarding the Nancy Dickerson "fashion show". Wow, that was a lame sports TV lineup! By the way, the British Open final round remained on Saturday throughout the entire 1970s. The first year with a scheduled Sunday finish was 1980. I have a blog post coming Monday on the British Open. Looking forward to the blogathon.

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  2. At the Republican Convention in 1964, Barry Goldwater said:

    "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

    Two years later, when he ran for Mayor of Gotham City, The Penguin said (sang, really):

    "Extremism in the defense of vice! Moderation in the pursuit of virtue!"

    Probably how you got them mixed up ...

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    Replies
    1. Thanks. Now fixed. I was in a hurry when I wrote it, but there was something about it that didn't seem right...

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  3. The '64 GOP Convention was where NBC floor correspondent John Chancellor got arrested live on-camera.

    As he was being taken off the floor, he said "This is John Chancellor, NBC news, from somewhere in custody".

    The broadcast cut to a shot of Huntley and Brinkley in the anchor booth, laughing hysterically!

    However, this had a happy ending. Once Chancellor was taken to a central security point, the security director of the convention recognized him and told him that he would not be charged. Chancellor was then told to get back on the floor and do his job for NBC.

    It has been claimed that this incident led to Chancellor succeeding the Huntley/Brinkley team as anchorman of NBC's nightly newscast when Huntley retired in the Summer of 1970.

    Indeed, John Chancellor is best remembered for this incident.

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  4. It was Roger Mudd who was Bob Trout's co-anchor in CBS's ill-fated pairing of anchors at the 1964 Democratic Convention.

    Mudd and Trout did even worse in the ratings that Walter Cronkite had done at the GOP Convention a few weeks earlier.

    The change was reportedly made by CBS chairman Bill Paley himself, over the objections of Vice-Chairman Frank Stanton, and then-CBS News division president Fred Friendly.

    To Paley's credit, once he saw how terribly Mudd and Trout had done in the ratings, he summoned Friendly into his office after the Democratic Convention and told him "I made a big mistake. I want Walter back on Election Night!".

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  5. The following month at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, Dickerson broke the story of Lyndon Johnson picking Hubert Humphrey as his running mate. She saw their wives together and connected the dots, then was waiting at the airport when Johnson flew in to confirm it.
    (it should be mentioned that Dickerson and Johnson had a close platonic friendship, going back to his days in the Senate)

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