November 29, 2014

This week in TV Guide: November 29, 1975

The objective of the ‘scandalous revelations’ filling the airwaves and news columns ought to be reform, but ‘thus far have brought little but cynicism and disillusion.’ "

Talking about O’Reilly, perhaps, or maybe CNN or MSNBC? Think again. It’s Pat Buchanan, quoting U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright, in November 1975.  In this week's issue, we have two stories that tell us much about the evolution of the media’s role in news coverage – and that nothing really is new.

The first is Pat Buchanan’s News Watch column, the source of the initial quote. Buchanan is talking about the change in media coverage since Watergate, a change that has brought on an “excessively mistrustful and even hostile” atmosphere.

In pointing this out, we certainly don’t neglect the blame that belongs to Richard Nixon and his crew for creating the problem in the first place. But Buchanan looks at something more, at the natural evolution of such an atmosphere, asking “what will be the ultimate impact upon the democratic system, which itself guarantees freedom of the press?”

The problem, according to Buchanan, is that the media now has a vested interest in scandal – for ratings, for dollars, for prestige. (Little-remembered fact: NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report used to be presented without commercial interruption, in order to eliminate potential conflicts of interest and signify that the news division was not driven by profit margin.) What happens when that self-interest conflicts with a larger interest – the national interest, for example? Granting that the exact nature of the national interest is often a subject up for debate, Buchanan nevertheless points to the “declining confidence in leaders and institutions” and speculates on the ultimate consequence this will have for the nation.

Buchanan again quotes Fulbright (a Democrat, by the way, never a natural ally of Pat’s), who had recently authored the article "Fulbright on the Press" in the Columbia Journalism Review: “That Puritian self-righteousness which is never far below the surface of American life has broken through the frail barriers of civility and restraint, and the press has been in the vanguard of the new aggressiveness.”

What has changed is not the nature nor the inclination of those in the media to go after their subjects with every weapon at their disposal. What is new now is the very definition of media, which in this sense has come to include every blog, every web page, every podcast – in short, everyone with an opinion, which is just about everyone. As new types of media and new modes of communication have come about, this instinct of which Fulbright speaks has become more invasive, more insidious. Indeed, isn’t this what some here have spoken about, the increasing incivility of the blogosphere? Well, looking at this issue is like seeing the seeds of that harvest being planted.

A lot of people fall back on the “freedom of speech” argument, defending their right to say what they want whenever they want. And this is not an argument that should be taken lightly, because it’s a slippery slope at best. But Fulbright contends that the social contract requires “a measure of voluntary restraint, an implicit agreement among the major groups and interests in our society that none will apply their powers to the fullest.” A measure of responsibility, in other words, which is a commodity that can really be in short supply nowadays.

***

Now, I mention this not merely because of Pat Buchanan’s words, but because of the echo which the subject matter receives in another article from this issue, Edwin Newman’s “People are Generally Skeptical of Us…and Indeed They Should Be.”  Newman shares the concern with the increasing intrusiveness of the media. Asked what was wrong with endless investigation and revelation of public figures by the media, Newman replied, “It degrades public life. If purity tests are to become an accepted part of American life before anybody can go into politics, politics is going to be intolerable. It’s very nearly intolerable now.”

Remember, he said this almost 40 years ago.

As for “advocacy journalism,” which was very much in vogue following Watergate (and remains so today – how many young people go to journalism school to “make a difference”?), Newman remains wary: “Advocacy journalism, so-called, cheats the public, which is entitled to make up its own mind.” In other words, as Fox News says, “We report, you decide.” Whether you think they’ve been accurate or not with that promise, one has to appreciate the perceptiveness of the marketing gurus who developed that slogan.

Newman adds, “Anybody in our business should avoid taking on false importance. We should certainly not pretend to be infallible.” Now that’s a novel idea today.

Newman also sounds a cautionary note on something which Buchanan alludes to, the amount of faith (or lack thereof) that people put in their leaders. Buchanan quotes Fulbright: “Bitter disillusionment with our leaders is the other side of the coin of worshiping them.” Such idolatry, says Newman, “leads to all kinds of lunatic expectations about what can be accomplished by politicians and so leads to irrational and disproportionate disappointment…it misleads Presidents about Presidents, so that they are tempted to do foolish things. And I think the press contributes to this for reasons of its own.”

This is a warning we should carefully consider. There’s a pronounced tendency nowadays to put an inordinate amount of faith in human institutions, which always seems to wind up badly. We create institutions, we tear them down, we rebuild them again. It keeps everyone busy, I suppose.

In many ways, the sins of the 60s culture were starting to be felt in the 70s, and would continue to be felt in subsequent decades. So one can see, as far back as 1975, a growing concern with cynicism in society, a disregard for institutions, a press displaying an “anything for a story” attitude. Again, there’s nothing new here, as it was not new then. But as communication expanded beyond the newspaper to radio, beyond radio to television, and beyond broadcast television to cable and satellite; as letters gave way to email and the internet, and as information once taking hours or days to transmit is now given instant analysis and parsing through the blogosphere, so also the consequences of such concerns are magnified, enlarged, and become even more troublesome.

There really isn’t anything new out there, only new ways of expressing it. And, it seems, new ways of ignoring old truths and concerns.

***

And now for something more lighthearted, an article about our longtime favorite, game show standard Kitty Carlisle, written by Peter Funt, son of the legendary TV host Allen Funt. (If you're old enough to remember Candid Camera, you'll know who we mean.) "The only way to see Kitty Carlisle in the same dress twice," the article proclaims, "is to watch reruns of To Tell the Truth. " Funt's story is a charming portrait of an entertainer who takes her job seriously, as well as her responsibility to her fans, and radiates class all the way. "She is one actress who still refuses to appear in public without beautiful clothes, ornate jewelry and a carefully styled coiffure." Particularly humorous is her description of her "pit crew," the wardrobe people responsible for helping her change in the ten minutes between shows (the five-a-week show was taped in a single afternoon). "Every once in a while, I feel like I'm a car in the pits at Indianapolis. Somebody changes the oil, kicks the tires - you know, pats the hair and shoves me back out on the stage."

She was a fun, classy lady, and an intelligent game player.

***

Last month it was announced that after 63 years, the Hallmark Hall of Fame would be going off commercial television, headed instead for cable - the Hallmark Channel, to be precise.  Of course, as I've complained many times in the past, the Hall of Fame ceased to be many years ago - it hasn't even been the Hall of Very Good for a long time, so in the long run this isn't much of a loss.

It's sad, nonetheless.  You remember Hallmark's motto: "When you care enough to send the very best."  And for a long time, that's what it was.  It premiered in 1951 with the historic broadcast of Amahl and the Night Visitors, and for decades it broadcast literate, distinguished adaptations of both historic and contemporary plays, adaptations of movies and novels, and the occasional original story.  Its ratings were never huge, but it was prestige television, winning a ton of Emmys over the years, as well as selling millions of greeting cards.  Today, it's become little more than a lacrymose, diabetes-inducing disease-of-the-week picture, oozing sentimentality for it's Oprahfied audience.

I mention all this because this week, NBC's  Hall of Fame broadcast is an adaptation of Maxwell Anderson's play Valley Forge, starring Richard Basehart as George Washington, leading his troops through the incredibly harsh winter of 1777, trying to hold his struggling new country together.

Can't say the same nowadays, either in their cards or their TV programs.

***

And now, some sports.  Or not, as the case may be.

I didn't even get to see it in B&W!
At 10:30 p.m. Central time on Saturday, November 29, NBC pre-empts Saturday Night Live for a basketball game - but not just any game. It's one of the biggest regular-season college basketball games in many years, defending national champion UCLA playing undefeated, top-ranked Indiana at St. Louis (supposedly a neutral site, but in reality swarming with Hoosier fans cheering their team on). Note the starting time - way out of prime time. Television hadn't quite figured out prime time sports yet, and although everyone realized how big this game was, they still thought it might be a drag on ratings, which is why they stuck it on in such a strange time spot. (The game was telecast live, which means tip-off was at 10:30 local time in St. Louis.)

I have extremely bitter personal memories of this game; not because of the result - I was an Indiana fan, and they crushed UCLA 84-64* - but because KCMT Channel 7, the NBC affiliate (and only commercial station) available in the World's Worst Town™, didn't show the game. They had a movie on instead, Bridge on the River Kwai or something like that, but this had nothing to do with substituting a quality movie for televised sports. It had everything to do with a parochial attitude toward their programming, and a desire to retain as much advertising revenue as possible. When we moved out of that area in 1978, they still had yet to show an episode of Saturday Night Live, never showed the second half of Sunday NFL doubleheaders, and preempted NBC programming with pernicious disdain. The FCC should have yanked their license. KCMT ceased to exist a few years ago, and while I would probably regret the loss of local programming, I can't say it's a big loss.

*That Indiana team was the last college basketball team to go through the regular and post-season undefeated, and last year was voted the greatest college basketball team ever.

***

And, by the way, the cover story of this issue features Tony Curtis, star of a new TV series. Does anyone out there still recall that series, McCoy?  It was part of NBC's Sunday Mystery Movie series, alternating with McCloud, McMillian and Columbo, and people had a lot of fun with three Macs in the series.  I thought it was kind of fun, myself, as Curtis plays a con man/Robin Hood-type, not dissimilar to the early '60s series The Rogues*, but it only lasted for a few episodes before falling away.  NBC never was able to fill that fourth spot; I suppose Richard Boone's Hec Ramsey was the most successful in that spot, as it actually ran two seasons - well, actually Quincy would have been the most successful, because it was spun off into its own weekly series.  But you knew what I meant.

*But with less charm and star power.

***

Of course this issue marks the start of the Christmas programming season (as it was still called back then), with CBS kicking things off Wednesday night with a double feature of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Bing Crosby's annual show, with special guest Fred Astaire*.  That's followed on Friday by an ABC animated doubleheader: Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus, narrated by Jim Backus, and A Very Merry Cricket, written and directed by Chuck Jones.

*Reuniting the stars of Holiday Inn.

Frankly, I'm surprised that there aren't more - Rudolph usually premieres in November.  And with Friday being December 5 and all, time's slipping away!

You can bet they've running the commercials, though - those likely started way before Thanksgiving...


5 comments:

  1. I always bemoan the fact that I felt I was born in the wrong era and missed so much of what I now spend some of my free time looking back to find traces or remnants of.

    As a kid back in the 1970's, I recall often watching he syndicated version of To Tell The Truth with Garry Moore on KMSP. Kitty always looked so grand and elegant that I expected her to be somewhat snooty, but she seemed so very playful and nice on the show. I only knew who she was from that show and had no idea what she did or what else she starred in until I came across a Marx Bros. movie a few years later and saw her name in the credits.

    I used to watch GSN years ago, when they first began as a network as they carried so much good stuff.....I've Got A Secret, the original To Tell The Truth, What's My Line, etc... Now, the network is absolute garbage and I don't bother with it anymore.

    People like Bud Collyer, Garry Moore, Kitty Carlisle, Arlene Francis, John Daly do not exist anymore. I think that Bob Barker was truly the last classy TV personality before he retired.

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    1. I can really identify with your first sentence, Scott! Even though I was born in 1960, so much of that early time is only a vague memory, and things like this blog (and my shopping list at eBay) are the same thing as you mentioned - trying to find the traces to bring those memories back.

      About GSN. I loved that channel back then, enough to make sure that whatever cable or satellite carrier we had carried it. I think you're right about Bob Barker as well; there was a sense of dignity about him that you can hardly find anywhere anymore, let alone game shows.

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  2. The more I read your blog Mitchell the more I discover how universal some themes are, like the ad in your earlier post re Thanksgiving Day.

    And reading your comments about being in a one-station town that would often ignore what the network was doing, it was the same in regional Australia where most well-populated areas had only 2 channels - state-owned broadcaster ABC and one local commercial channel. The local channel, usually owned by the local newspaper and/or radio station, had the ability to 'cherry pick' when buying whatever programs of its choosing from the three major networks. There were no affiliation contracts or obligations. But this didn't mean that the channels would buy the best or most popular programs from their city cousins. Many shows that were huge hits in the cities just never appeared in various country areas, or would appear several years later. That also applied for a lot of sports coverage unless it was something like the Olympics. Meanwhile many of these local channels became profitable but that didn't always translate to more timely access to network programs or even buying the more expensive popular shows.

    It was a situation that was somehow addressed in the late 1980s with the merging of regional markets, therefore leading to regional viewers having three commercial channels instead of one. It essentially brought network programming to regional areas but the downside of that was a loss of local television programs and jobs as the local operators faced steep affiliation contract fees. Some viewers think it was a necessary price to pay in order to get a choice of channels that matched the cities. Others think it is a dreadful loss of local identity for regional television.

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    1. Really interesting to learn that. I'm of two minds myself - on the one hand, being stuck with KCMT as the only (commercial) station for almost six years was endlessly frustrating. And yet, I do think that we've lost something in eliminating the local identity of a station. Aside from the local news, we don't have much in the way of shows that go, as one early 60s local show said, "Around the Town," showing local figures and events. As we seem to lose more and more of our regional identities, I think this counts as a great loss.

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  3. "The Worst Town In The World" NBC station actually sounds like the NBC station in Syracuse, NY in the 1960's. A very conservative family owned the station (the Vadeboncouers) and refused to show the second AFL game (replaced by B-grade 1940's movies) on Sundays in the 1960's, meaning I missed the entire Heidi game! The only way we could watch an AFL game was to turn the antenna toward a metal grain elevator and grab a bounced signal from Rochester, NY (WROC) and get a snowy picture. The Vadeboncouers also preempted the early Monday night lineup on NBC (i.e.The Monkees, I Dream of Jeannie) to show grade B or worse 1940's movies....I also remember them preempting The Man from U.N.C.L.E as well...

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!