May 20, 2017

This week in TV Guide: May 18, 1968

You're going to have to trust me on this: you would not see an article by someone like Dr. Karl Menninger in today's version of TV Guide. Back in 1968, however, TV Guide was more than open to great intellects engaging in serious discussions about television and its role in popular culture.

Dr. Karl Menninger was one of the most prominent American psychiatrists of the 20th Century, co-founder of the famed Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. His book The Human Mind, written in 1930, did much to introduce psychiatry to the American public, and he sought to educate Americans on the true nature of mental illness and other behavioral disorders. He was a harsh critic of the way the justice system dealt with mental illness; he once famously said that courts wasted their time with questions such as whether or not the accused knew the difference between right and wrong, when instead they should be asking, "What went wrong in this man's life that he is here instead of out on the road? How is it that he is in trouble with his people, his city, and his government? What is different about him from the rest of us? What do we do about his present predicament-and ours?" And yet he wasn't a mere apologist, either, as he pointed out in his book Whatever Became of Sin?, in which he discussed the role of sin when it came to guilt and responsibility. "The word 'sin' has almost disappeared from our vocabulary, but the sense of guilt remains in our hearts and minds," and while it would do no good for someone to try and repent of an illness, it is a different thing altogether to repent of a sin. I think you could probably make a good case that TV series such as Breaking Point and The Eleventh Hour wouldn't have been around were it not for Menninger and his ability to argue that psychiatry was a true science, and mental disorder.  a true illness.

So, you're probably asking yourselves about now, what is Karl Menninger doing writing for TV Guide?

It's the fourth installment of a series entitled "In Defense of Television," the purpose of which is "to analyze the beneficial effects television has had on our world and its citizens." Prominent figures in public and private life have been invited to share such positive aspects, "even though they may also have some negative attitudes about television and its performance." Menninger's essay is entitled "Television - The Comforting Presence," and he begins, as he does so often, with a story, or rather, a couple of anecdotes. The first tells of a man who detested air conditioning, but nevertheless had just had a unit installed in his office "because it helped to drown out the noises of the city." The second involves a young college girl who'd been given "a turtle-shaped electric appliance which had no other function than to make a whirring sound, halfway between the sound of an electric razor and an electric fan. The sound, described as extremely soothing and reassuring, was said to be a great aid to studying in a college dormitory."

From this, Menninger postulates something that I've long felt and, to the eternal frustration of my wife, practiced - "[S]ilence is not only unattainable but not necessarily desired. Sounds - and lots of them - are an inescapable part of life in the city. Peace (for people) seems to lie not in escaping from sound but in making it acceptable, comfortable, reassuring, even noncommunicative. The sound must not have a pronounced, foot-tapping rhythm nor an arresting loudness, but should produce a feeling of intimacy and companionship. No rhythm, no melody, no racket - just a presence." In other words - the sound of a television set.

For Menninger, this was the answer to an observation he had often made, that of "homes where the television was turned on while every member of the family was engaged in some activity - playing cards, reading, sewing, studying, writing, cooking, or even using the vacuum cleaner." When queried about this, people gave him similar answers: "It helps me concentrate," "It gives me a feeling of life around me," "It's sort of scary without it." And think about it - television is, as we have observed time and time again, the most intimate of media, in which we invite total strangers into our homes, to the point that we come to see them not just as invited guests, but friends. And, as my wife as observed while I'm sitting here typing on the laptop, it's not important that we may not be conversing, or engaged in the same project. It's just enough to know that I'm here, in the same room as she is. Is that not similar to what Menninger writes?

In 1967, Richard Schickel, in an article for The Urban Review, had described television "less a means of communication ('the imparting or interchange of thoughts, opinions, and information by speech, writing or signs') than it is a form of communication ('act of sharing, or holding in common; participation, association; fellowship')." Studies that indicate the average household has the TV on for five-and-a-half hours a day fail to take into consideration that the set is not necessarily being watched for all of those five-and-a-half hours. It is a presence, waiting for a time when it is needed - for a show that someone particularly wants to watch, true, but also for a space flight, an assassination, an international crisis. "These are the hours when the television set becomes a tie that unites us with people all over the Nation, even the world. For a time we are experiencing the same scenes and sounds as thousands or millions of other concerned persons."

Beyond this, Menninger takes a look at the effect television has on people, particularly children. "One current research concludes that TV appears to have little effect, either positive or negative, upon school grades; that a child's use of TV depends upon his intelligence and his relationship with his parents; that there may be a connection between viewing violence and enacting aggressive behavior; and, perhaps most important, that TV does tend to teach beliefs about the nature of the world and the motives of people around us, and set up stereotypes and 'heroes' - often of the wrong kind."

This is something I've been increasingly convinced of over the last few years, thanks to those of you who've asked the simple question: does television cause behavior or reflect it? Over this time, I've come to view television as reactive, rather than proactive; anyone who's seen the medium's painful attempts to be "hip" and "with it" in the '60s can understand how TV was far behind the curve, and the same could be said regarding every social issue from crime to abortion to divorce to homosexuality. What television is very adept at, however, is becoming an advocate once it decides on which side of the fence it stands. Recall the issue from a few weeks ago in which Edith Efron took a look at how television portrays the drug crisis. Episodes of Dragnet and Adam-12 are laughable in the way that drugs are portrayed; that's television being reactive. However, once the bit is between the teeth - well, as Efron noted, "'networks [pandered] to the leftist young, who are the primary drug consumers in white middle-class society,' by 'loading the moral decks' in the drug takers' favor." Virtually every television series today presents as normal some type of behavior which not that many years ago would have been considered unacceptable, if not immoral. But when the viewer keeps seeing the same behavior drilled into them as normal, night after night, week after week - well, what is one to think?

Menninger's conclusion as to the quality of current television is less positive; what is needed, he writes, is that "the child (and the adult, too, for that matter) should see the world and its people as clearly as possible; and that there should be less vulgarity, less soap opera and less falsification, as well as less enjoyment of other people's crimes. Television is only one of a host of influences in our society that we encourage in such vulgarization."

The role of television is complex. "For so many of the lonely it glorifies existence; for the inhibited it can enrich the imagination." Television needs to show people what goes on in the world, and how bad some parts of it are, and it can guarantee that "we can never be the same after having seen them." Ultimately, Menninger thinks television can live up to that task. The question is: has it?

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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..

Sullivan: Ed's scheduled guests include Joel Grey, star of Broadway's musical biography of George M. Cohan; the 5th Dimension; singer Jane Morgan; comedians Morey Amsterdam, London Lee and Joan Rivers; and the West Point Glee Club.

Palace: "Comedy Tonight," sung by host Milton Berle, sets the theme for guests Nanette Fabray, singer-pianist Buddy Greco, Jack Burns and Avery Schreiber, and the singing King Family. Also on hand: the Los Angeles Rams' Fearsome Foursome (Roger Brown, Deacon Jones, Lamar Lundy and Merlin Olsen) and their teammate Roosevelt Grier.

The Hollywood Palace is a rerun tonight, and I'm fairly sure I covered it the first time it was on. I don't think I was all that impressed by it back then, and I'm not much impressed by it this time, either, although it is free of the lesser-known vaudevillians that so often populate the show. Problem for The Palace is that Ed's lineup doesn't feature vaudevillians, either. Joel Grey would cop a Best Actor Tony nomination for George M!, the Broadway musical based on Cohen's life, and would recreate the role two years later for an NBC special. Morey Amsterdam, "The Human Joke Machine," is in my opinion the funniest part of The Dick Van Dyke Show. The 5th Dimension and the Glee Club provide the music, and Joan Rivers is, well, Joan Rivers. It's not decisive, but Sullivan wins the clear-cut decision.

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One of the things I enjoy about these TV Guides are the occasional glimpses, intentional or unintentional, they give us into our future. Such is the case this week, beginning on Monday night when WNEW (New York) and WNHC (New Haven) preempt their entire prime-time lineup for a three-hour documentary on America's racial crisis, called "One Nation, Indivisible." It's a product of the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company and airs nationally on many Group W stations, combining national segments with local panel discussions and phone-in segments. The question, according to host Rod MacLeish, is "Whether it's possible to bridge the dreadful chasm between the American races or whether ... our days as one nation indivisible are numbered." Nearly 50 years later, we're stil asking the same question.

Also on Monday night at 10:00 ET, ABC's latest installment in its Saga of Western Man casts an ominous and, frankly, depressing look at what we now recognize as the future of the church. "In the Name of God" investigates modern missionaries, "whose goals are secular as well as spiritual. They are not out to win converts, but to help people create a better standard of living - 'and let the people determine their own lives.'" What could possibly go wrong with that? Judging by the plummeting numbers of Christians throughout the world*, if these "forward-looking" missionaries were looking forward to a future bereft of faith, I'd say they did a damn good job of it.

*Not to mention the pronouncements of a Pope who bears a striking resemblance to a character from a certain book.

On Thursday night at 8:30, WNDT (New York's NET station) portrays the plight of teenagers in the ghetto in "School's Not Enough." Efforts to increase hope for these ghetto youth include job-training programs and educational opportunities. It sounds a lot like the kinds of programs my place of employment works with. Again - what's changed? The problems are still the same, the demographics are still the same, the arguments are still the same. Meanwhile, Friday at 9:00 p.m., independent station WNYC looks at another social issue, asking the question: "Can a Mother and a Housewife Also Be a Career Woman?" The guests - a marriage counselor, a psychiatrist, and a housewife and career woman - look for answers to a question we're still debating today.

Frank McGee hosts Tomorrow's World, on Friday as well (10:00 p.m.) looking at "A New Era in Medicine." Included are studies in genetics to overcome nerve problems and mental retardation; fetal treatment that would enable surgeons to operate on unborn children; mapping individual brain cells to look at various disorders; and exploration of techniques and tools that might enable doctors to treat tumors before they form. It's part Brave New World, part Watch Mr. Wizard - and, today, mostly true.

In political news, the networks look back to the aftermath of the Indiana presidential primary, and wonder if Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy might debate prior to the May 14 Nebraska primary, which would not yet have taken place as this issue went to press. In the end, there is no debate in Nebraska - but there will be one in California prior to the pivotal June 4 primary, a little over two weeks from now. And then?

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And now a brief look at the rest of the week.

On Saturday night, NBC's Tonight Show rerun looks to have been a fascinating one, as Johnny's guests are Florence Henderson, the Temptations, and Ayn Rand. What a combination. The Emmys are Sunday night at 10:00 p.m. on NBC, hosted by Frank Sinatra in New York and Dick Van Dyke in Hollywood; among the big winners are Mission: Impossible for Best Drama, Get Smart for Best Comedy, Laugh-In for Best Variety or Musical Show, and the Hallmark Hall of Fame's "Elizabeth the Queen" for Best Dramatic Special. Wednesday's NET Festival presents highlights from the Monterey Jazz Festival, with Dizzy Gillespie, Earl "Fatha" Hines, B.B. King, Richie Havens, and the Modern Jazz Quartet among the headliners. Oh, and a note at the beginning of the program section warns us that due to the Vietnam peace talks, all shows are subject to preemption.

The sports highlight is the Preakness Stakes, live from Baltimore on Saturday afternoon. (CBS, 5:00 p.m.) Forward Pass, who was handed the Kentucky Derby when Dancer's Image was disqualified for illegal drug use, defeats Out of the Way to take the second jewel of the Triple Crown; in three weeks he'll be defeated at the Belmont by Stage Door Johnny, saving everyone from a slightly tainted Triple Crown champion.

And finally, an explanation of Mike Connors' presence on the cover. The inside story isn't really about him at all - it's just an article by the owner of a large detective agency saying how real-life detective work isn't nearly as exciting as what we see every week on Mannix, how he doesn't meet all the beautiful women and doesn't get beaten up or shot at every week like Mannix does, how when a client fires him he doesn't go on investigating the case anyway, and so on. It reminds me of a story told by the novelist D. Keith Mano, who was teaching a creative writing class and slogging through some dreadful efforts by earnest would-be writers. When one, complaining about his low grade, protested, "But this is how it was," Mano replied, "Yes, and make sure it doesn't happen again." And that's why Joe Mannix's life is more interesting than yours, Mister Private Detective.

2 comments:

  1. For all of the thousands of websites devoted to various aspects of the medium, are there any outside of your blog and a few others that still asks these weighty questions about television? Don't people like to think about things like this anymore? Or do they just want their 'Survivor' recaps?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thought I'd pass this along: The final performance of Ringling Bros. is Tonight.
    8pm CST. Streaming live on YouTube and Facebook.

    ReplyDelete

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