The discussion begins with a topic that’s been at the forefront of conversation – the influence of what we now refer to as the “mainstream media,” particularly television, about their ability to shape and advance the political agenda, and how the election of Donald Trump spells a diminution, if not complete end, to said influence. In comments that are either candid, defensive, or prophetic, all three presidents deny that their medium is that influential. Salant, for example, sees television news as “instruments of reinforcement rather than conversation,” and Crystal points out that “there are a whole lot of forces in this country” that shape and influence public opinion.” He adds, however, that “[o]ur primary emphasis should be, has to be, on what people ought to know, rather than what people want to hear.” I know what he means, but it’s that “eat your vegetables” attitude, I think, the idea that the networks know best, that gets under people’s skin so much. All three agree, however, that whether or not they actually have such power, it’s important for them to proceed on the assumption that they do. Says Arledge, “we spend more time, and I am sure they do too, checking, double-checking, assuring accuracy, because of this responsibility.”
What about the fact that 64% of Americans get the majority of their news from television? Again, Crystal challenges the premise, warning that “[w]e shouldn’t make assumptions” about the influence of television news. “I think people are still influenced more by the world in which they directly live – the community they live in, the neighborhood they live in, where they work – than any other single factor.” It was, of course, a much different world back then, one that suggests an actual, rather than virtual, community. In pointing out how multiple communities, however they’re constructed, inevitably diminishes the influence of television news, however, Crystal again seems to foresee today’s world. Substitute “social media” for neighborhoods and workplaces, and television does indeed become less important.
Arledge makes an interesting observation in suggesting that more people get their news from local television than national, and that a viewer who “depends upon a local television station as his sole source of news is probably in trouble to start with.” In fact, depending on any single source, or cluster of like-minded sources, as their sole outlet for information could be said to be in the same sort of trouble. Shrewdly, Arledge points out that television’s power doesn’t really come from the judgments these three men and their news departments make – it comes from the power of the medium itself, its ability to reach into every home, and, says Arledge, “there is no question that it’s there.”
There’s some discussion around the role of the anchor, with TV Guide questioning whether or not it’s wise to spend $500,000 on someone who reads the news; Crystal says the anchor does more than just read headlines, and the real question is whether or not the large salary interferes with the job he does. Of course, we can all see the problem NBC faced dealing with Brian Williams’ fabrications; in this case it was the anchor himself who was the distraction, but would he have done what he did had he not been paid his fabulous salary? Did it in some way pressure him to exaggerate things, to inflate his importance, in order to justify himself? Would have been a good question.
Then, there’s the matter of ratings, and here all agree that news programs have no business being slaves to ratings. Salant doesn’t think they affect news judgments, although he concedes that if news documentaries got higher ratings, they’d be seen in prime time more often. On the other hand, he acknowledges that in the modern world, it’s impossible to ask the network to be oblivious to ratings – “[t]hey must look at the fact that they’re in a business. And that has to color their decisions.” Not on the content of the news, but on its availability, or frequency.
In all, it’s an interesting discussion, although a bit of a slog to make it all the way through. There’s a little too much self-congratulatory sentiment, a bit too much bipartisanship among all three. It does, however, indicate that the networks are aware of the challenges they face, and if they didn’t predict the future with precision, at least they were aware of the shadows being cast. Personally, I don’t miss the days when anchors were much more forthcoming with their commentary and much less forthcoming admitting that’s what it was, when LBJ complained that losing Cronkite meant losing the War, when Dan Rather picked fights with President Nixon at press conferences.
That is, until I compare it to the news today. In that case, I miss it very much indeed.
It's that time of the year, as I mentioned a week or two ago, the time for television's second season: when the hopes and prayers behind so many new series come crashing down like the Hindenburg, their places to be taken by a new set of shows, with their own hopes and prayers.
*There were constant disputes between the producers, one of which was Ivan Reitman, and the network; obviously, the ratings weren't good enough for ABC to consider it worth the price.
Wednesday brings us the first episode of the much-loved Edward the King, the epic,13-episode story of Britain's King Edward VII, the kind of series which Americans are only accustomed to seeing on Masterpiece Theatre. Edward the King, a syndicated series sponsored by Mobil. presents an interesting challenge for the networks; while many of the stations picking it up are independents, the series also makes its way to a number of affiliates who are only too willing to pre-empt their own low-rated network programs in favor of a miniseries that's both classy and popular.
On Thursday, it's the final episode of David Cassidy - Man Undercover, on at 9:00 on NBC. In was Cassidy's first starring series since The Partridge Family, and his attempt to distance himself from those memories and be taken seriously as a dramatic actor. You might be surprised, considering the title, to find out that in the series Cassidy plays an undercover cop - who knew? Cassidy Undercover was itself a replacement for W.E.B., a Network takeoff; this was its tenth and final episode, to be replaced by, in order, Mrs. Columbo, Presenting Susan Anton, and NBC Novels for Television. The timeslot, ruled by Barnaby Jones on CBS, is a tough one for NBC.
Friday brings us notice of an impending change for NBC, as they're about to take one of their few successful series - The Rockford Files - and move it to Saturday nights. Rockford is replaced by a couple of series, one of which is Turnabout, a seven-episode sitcom about a husband and wife who suddenly find themselves inhabiting each other's bodies. The other series is one of those that has since become a byword for television disaster, in the same way that Scrooge has become a descriptor for a miser. It's Hello, Larry, one of McLean Stevenson's many failed series, which actually made it through two seasons and 35 episodes. Either way, Hello, Larry is soon replaced in this timeslot by the aforementioned Brothers and Sisters, and before long they're all out, and Rockford is back where it belongs.
Then again, the outrageous program of the week could bethe world premiere on the ABC Sunday Night Movie of “The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders,” starring Jane Seymour as a reporter going undercover to find out what goes on behind closed doors, or something like that.* It’s difficult to know how to react to something like this – I know how much the cheerleaders have done to burnish the reputation of America’s Team, not to mention the entire city of Dallas, over the years, and there’s no doubting the glamour that surrounds them even to this day. But a movie? Whether or not you like it, the football team is, after all, still the centerpiece of the organization. Making a movie about the cheerleaders is a bit like, I don’t know, doing a Washington DC insider movie that ignores the politicians altogether and focuses solely on what would have been called the secretarial pool. And they’d have done it too, I suppose, if the secretaries dressed like Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. It still sounds like a two-hour commercial for the team, I think.
*It has to be something like that – after all, it’s billed as “An Explosive New Movie!”
Not much on the sports front this week; ABC's Pro Bowlers Tour visits Las Vegas on Saturday for one of its stalwart tournaments, the Showboat Invitational - with a total purse of $125,000! The pro golfers have it a bet better this weekend, as NBC travels to Palm Springs for the final two rounds of the year's first tournament, the Bob Hope Desert Classic, with a first prize of $54,000. In case you're curious, Emmett Shutes wins the Showboat, while John Mahaffey comes out on top in the golf.
The NBA tips off its TV schedule on CBS Sunday afternoon, with the New York Knicks taking on the Kansas City Kings, who've since moved to Sacramento. The Harlem Globetrotters make their annual appearance on ABC's Wide World of Sports Sunday as well, and just before that Wilfred Benitez retains his world welterweight boxing championship with a split-decision victory over Carlos Palomino on International Boxing Champions. Madison Square Garden, which has hosted a title fight or two over the years, is the scene for the season-ending Colgate-Palmolive Masters tennis championship, with the execrable John McEnroe taking the crown. Oh, and there's plenty of college basketball on both Saturday and Sunday.
Diana Canova is in the spotlight this week; the daughter of comedienne Judy Canova is proving her acting chops as one of the stars of ABC’s outrageous Soap. She’s too established to call her a starlet, though.
ABC’s getting ready for its highly-anticipated Roots II sequel next month, but don’t look for any favors from the competition – while the unheralded original went up against mostly regular programming, the sequel’s going to encounter everything from Bob Hope to the two-part telecast of “Gone with the Wind” to various other movies and miniseries. I think Roots II won the day(s) anyway, though I could be mistaken.
NBC tries to get a jump on CBS’s “Gone with the Wind” broadcast by debuting “Charlestown” on Sunday night. Judith Crist compares the movie to “Carol Burnett skits or Saturday Night Life takeoffs,” and notes that Delta Burke, one of the cast’s “unknowns,” “thinks she’s Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett. No way.” She also doesn’t think much of the network’s Tuesday night offering, in which Sonny Bono solves a “Murder in Music City,” calling it a “second-rate whodunit,” although Bono’s easy charm makes it an easy movie to relax to.
Dean Martin roasts Joe Namath on Friday night (9:00 p.m., NBC). As much as I like Deano, it’s hard to get worked up over the roasts, which really are kind of a poor substitute for his old variety show. How many times can you cut away to Orson Welles laughing at the funniest thing he’s ever heard, especially when it probably comes from an entirely different context?
Rob Brown plays Captain America in a CBS movie on Friday as well. Wasn’t he in that Superhero Challenge already? Or did he just feel left out?
Sports Illustrated did a retrospective on Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes and the ignominious end to his career after slugging a Clemson player on the sidelines during the waning seconds of the Gator Bowl. This week, ABC is forced to defend announcers Keith Jackson and Ara Parseghian after the duo failed to mention the incident during TV coverage of the game. The network acknowledges they mishandled the coverage, not providing the announcers (who didn’t see it live) with the proper replays, and failing to follow it up until the next day. I remember watching the game live, seeing Hayes throw the punch and being stunned by what had just happened – or had it happened? The announcers didn’t mention it, after all, and if TV doesn’t pick up on it, does it really matter? Talk about the influence of television – now that’s a question the network news presidents would be hard-pressed to answer.