May 31, 2012

Mike Wallace, R.I.P.

About Mike Wallace, three memories:

First: in our household, Mike Wallace’s very name is something of a code word. It means, I don’t know, something very much like, “you’ll get yours.” An example: there was a movie of the week, one of those lachrymose efforts that networks like Lifetime and We do so well (or so awfully, depending on your point of view), about a man who comes home to find his wife and children gone, spirited away by the government as part of the witness protection program. It only took a bit of imagination to create a commercial that was the perfect antidote.

[Ticking sound in background. Male narrator’s authoritative voice.]

“Imagine you’ve come home from work to find your entire family has disappeared without a trace. Now imagine the police know all about it - and they won't tell you a thing. That’s what happened to this man: see what happens when they try it with Mike Wallace – this week on 60 Minutes.”

See how well this works?

A related joke: when I was running for the state legislature and harboring dreams of the presidency, I used to imagine another teaser involving my friend and campaign manager, Gary, who would be pictured on screen walking through the Rose Garden while the omnipresent voice intoned, “Do you recognize this man? Most people have never heard of him, but he just might be the second-most powerful man in America. And while you may not know him, Mike Wallace does. Meet him tonight on 60 Minutes.”

Finally, a Frank & Ernest cartoon many years ago, during the Watergate era, that ran on Washington’s Birthday. President Washington is sitting behind the desk in his office, his pen frozen in midair and a startled expression on his face, as an aide says to him, “Mr. President, there’s a Mr. Woodward and a Mr. Bernstein to see you. Something about a cherry tree.” And while that's funny, it would have worked better if it had been Mike Wallace.

Now, I’m not sharing these anecdotes to make fun of Mike Wallace, but as something of a tribute to him, and his style. For there was something about Mike Wallace. He may not have been the prototypical blow-dried television reporter, but there was still a certain charisma about him. Richard Nixon had had a soft spot for him since Wallace had showed a kindness to Pat Nixon, and offered him the job as his press secretary. (Would history be different today if he had accepted?).He counted the Reagans as friends dating back to their Hollywood years. He was often accused of bias of one kind or another, but through it all there was that something about Mike Wallace: the idea that here was one newsman the guilty couldn’t escape from, one who would get the story no matter what.

He'd been an actor and a game show host (including doing the pilot for To Tell the Truth), a radio announcer and a commercial pitchman, and he’d hosted one of the milestone programs in early television news (The Mike Wallace Interview), but it was 60 Minutes that really cemented his reputation, with his ambush interviews of hapless white-collar crooks, his unrelenting grilling of sweating interviewees (even though Mike often wasn’t the one asking the actual questions), and the feeling (thanks in part, no doubt, to skillful editing) that he just wouldn’t let you get away with it, whatever it was. Indeed, nobody ever enjoyed hearing that he was sitting in your waiting room. If Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America, then Mike Wallace may well have been the most feared.

He was far from the perfect journalist. There were controversies about supposed racial slurs he’d once uttered, a libel suit brought by General William Westmoreland over a Vietnam story he’d done, and a controversy about killing a story on the tobacco industry after receiving pressure from sponsors. His private life had its downs as well: the death of his oldest son in an accident, and a years-long battle with depression.

But through it all, Wallace persevered, and when he retired from 60 Minutes in 2006, it was the end of an era. I liked Mike Wallace, and most of the time I enjoyed watching his work. It was hard then to imagine who would take his place, and even harder now. TV  

May 30, 2012

A kick in the ball

The rebranding earlier this year of Versus as the NBC Sports Network, and the increasing speculation that Fox may convert one of their special interest networks (e.g. Fuel) into a general all-sports network, has suggested to many media observers that ESPN might finally be given a run for its money. And indeed, the Worldwide Leader is likely in for some stiff competition, but from a most unlikely source.

Al Jazeera.

As reported by Awful Announcing last week (via EPL Talk), the Arab news network has major plans to move into the world of sports, with the start of its beIN sports network. And what better way to get a toehold into the world of sports broadcasting than thru the world's most popular sport?

AA points out that the next property in the network's crosshairs is the English Premier League. EPL rights are up for bid this summer, and it may well be a three-way battle between ESPN, Fox, and beIN to see who emerges with the prized American television rights. For Fox, victory would mean a consolidation of their soccer empire, which in 2018 will include the World Cup. For ESPN, a win gives them a leg up through 2014, their last (for now) World Cup.

Recently Al Jazeera has announced the launch of a beIn Sports network here in the U.S. and it's already begun obtaining rights to international soccer leagues. The Italian league (Serie A) and Ligue 1 [France] that used to find their home on Fox Soccer Channel and Fox Soccer Plus will be on the new beIN Sports station starting this fall. Copa America and South American World Cup Qualifying will find their home there and beIn Sports has also won rights to La Liga in Spain, the home to teams like Real Madrid and Barcelona and stars Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. The move from GolTV to beIn Sports cripples GolTV who previously made La Liga the centerpiece of their network's soccer coverage. In fact, the dominoes have already started falling as talented GolTV play-by-play man Phil Schoen has left GolTV for the new startup. One wonders if his partner Ray Hudson, one of AA's favorites, can't be far behind.

What if beIN emerges triumphant, however? It’s hard, as Ryan Yoder notes, to believe that Al Jazeera will allow themselves to be outbid if they really, really want the EPL. And in time, beIN might grow a large and loyal following in the U.S. But until then,

[T]here are just too many questions left unanswered. How quickly would the channel be available? What kind of distribution would it get? The NFL Network isn't even available yet on Time Warner Cable, and it's been in existence since 2003. At the moment, beIn Sports has hinted at "two major deals" for distribution, but details aren't yet available. Would beIn Sports be a premium network that required the extra fees of a "sports tier" from satellite and cable providers? What would the production quality be of a brand new network? How about the broadcast talent? What would happen to the visibility and accessibility of the Premier League in the states?

In short, a move of the EPL to a brand new network that few have access to would severely reverse much of the momentum that soccer in this country has been building since the 2010 World Cup.

The thrilling conclusion to the Premier League season, along with Chelsea's exciting Champions League final, illustrate the growing audience in America for high-quality European soccer. (For those of you who notice, compare the number of Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea shirts you see worn in the neighborhood to, say, the Chicago Fire or LA Galaxy.) What happens to that momentum if the Premier League goes to a niche network seen in few American homes? From a television point of view, what happens to the outstanding announcing crew – Martin Tyler, Ian Darke and company – we’ve become accustomed to hearing?

I hesitate to make this analogy, because it’s an inexact one, but it reminds me of the controversy surrounding the creation of the Washington Times by the Unification Church many years ago. DC was badly in need of a conservative alternative to the Washington Post (the city’s second newspaper, the Star, had folded the year before the Times was launched), and the paper has done some excellent reporting over the years. Still, despite a distinguished list of editors and writers, and and the Church’s initial insistence that it would exercise no editorial control over the newspaper, many people had – and continue to have - great qualms over supporting the paper.

I see something similar here, at least in the sense that we have a media conglomerate, with a definite global/political identification, becoming involved in an enterprise which they could probably claim has no ideological significance. We merely seek, they could plausibly say, to bring the best sports entertainment available to a worldwide audience. And this could be the case. But will there be that hesitation to become involved too closely with the network, either as a viewer or employee? Do announcers and technicians look beyond any apprehensions they might have and follow the league they love? Do dedicated fans bite the bullet and subscribe to a premium channel, even though they may be concerned about where those subscription fees go, simply to enjoy their favorite sport?

My hope is that we won’t have to answer it, at least this time around.  We should know the answers, at least in part, in a few weeks. TV  

May 29, 2012

We now return control to your computer keyboard

"As I was saying…”

- Jack Paar’s first words after returning to The Tonight Show following his month-long walkout over a joke NBC had censored as being in bad taste.


The story is that during a climactic moment late in the 1958 NFL Championship Game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, as the Colts were driving for the winning touchdown in the first title game ever to go to sudden-death overtime, the jumping up and down of the excited fans in ankee Stadium jarred loose an NBC television cable, which in turn caused TV sets across the country to abruptly go dark.

The network was frantic:  they had no idea how long it might take to rectify the problem – and how much of the game they might miss.  In these days before television controlled sports, they could hardly ask the referee to stop the game while the technicians worked to restore the coverage.

Marshalling all of his resourcefulness, an employee from NBC did the only thing he could think of: he ran out on the field. The officials promptly stopped play, while police took off in hot pursuit of this apparently drunk fan who had suddenly staggered out of the stands. The delay worked: while the game was held up, NBC resolved the problem, and the picture returned just as the Colts came out of the huddle following the delay (although this may be slightly romanticized; various reports suggest NBC missed the first play after the delay), allowing all of America (or at least everyone watching the game, an audience that had grown as the game had gone on) got to see Alan Ameche bull his way over the goal line for the touchdown that would win the championship for the Colts and cement the game’s legendary status as the greatest ever played.


And so, having discussed a brief history of famous television delays, we come to the recent, checkered past of this blog.

As you may recall, sometime in early April, regular pieces on the blog ceased to appear. Oh, there was a long story on the Titanic, and a couple other short bits, but nothing substantial save a brief notice describing technical difficulties.

It was nothing quite as simple as a disconnected cable; it was, rather, a virus (educated guess) that, somehow, rendered access to Blogger impossible – or at least incredibly difficult.

Putting up the piece on the Titanic was, in its way, as challenging as it must have been for that ship’s radiomen to send out the distress signal using the rapidly dwindling power supply.

It was an incredibly frustrating situation, compounded by a concurrent (and perhaps related) loss of wireless capability. The solution was slow in coming, which meant that the drunk would have to run on the field for awhile longer.

Happily, if expensively, this problem has now been rectified. The field has been cleared, the host is back in the studio, and as this post demonstrates, It’s About TV (and its parent site, Our Word) is back on the air.

You might think that in the interim I’d stockpiled dozens of fascinating bits that I could share with you (and I know you’re out there) as soon as coverage had returned. Alas, such is not the case. I do have, as you will see shortly, an obituary of Mike Wallace that has been long delayed but not forgotten, and as I write this I’m looking at a pile of TV Guides that are begging to be explored.

So I would expect that in the next week or two we’ll get ramped back up to regular speed. And in the meantime, for those of you who noticed our absence, thanks for sticking with us. TV  

May 4, 2012

This is a "Titanic" post...

I was six years old the first time I ever heard of the Titanic.  We were watching a movie on TV called, appropriately enough, Titanic, starring Clifton Webb, Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Wagner.   It was a fairly standard soap opera involving family drama aboard a luxury ocean liner*, and I was following along about as well as a six-year-old can, far more interested in the ship (which seemed to be getting a lot of attention) than the suds, when someone mentioned that there soon would be an accident involving the ship.  I became frightened, being a timid kid at the time, envisioning something dark and disastrous, with explosions or crashes or things equally terrifying, and so I fled the movie and the living room, staying in a bedroom until the terror was over.  This was, frankly, an embarrassing thing to do – I’m embarrassed right now, over 40 years later, just recalling it – and I must have been at least abashed about it at the time, because from that point on I sought to make up for it by learning as much as I could about the Titanic.

*Webb and Stanwick played an unhappily married couple, with Wagner as their son.  In real life, during the course of the filming Stanwyck and the much younger Wagner began a torrid affair, creating an off-screen soap opera much juicier than that on the big screen.

This interest started with the conclusion of the movie, to which I’d returned once my mother told me it was safe to come back out. Once again, I was caught up in the drama of the event – the Titanic going down at the head, the terrified passengers and their inability to find a way off the ship, the crew struggling to do their duty in the midst of the chaos, and over all of this a stunned sense that none of this could, or should, have been happening. I must have wanted to know more right away, because my mother pulled out a volume of an old encyclopedia that had an article about the Titanic, including a drawing showing (inaccurately, we now know, with the benefit of much technology) how the iceberg had caused a ragged gash in the side of the ship. I learned that the Titanic was the biggest ship ever built, that it was thought to be unsinkable, and that it had sunk on its maiden voyage, killing most of its passengers because there weren’t enough lifeboats to save them all.

Well, this was heady stuff – the stuff of high adventure, which I was just learning to embrace through my timidity, and of Greek-like tragedy, which I must have instinctively understood even though I wouldn’t have intellectually appreciated it at the time. There was the nobility of the father and son (Webb and Wagner), reconciled at last*, standing together at the rail of the ship with the other men onboard, facing imminent death while singing “Nearer My God to Thee” as the great ship prepared for its final plunge. It was all so odd, so – well, tragic - that I was immediately hooked.

*Webb was exceedingly proud of his son until, during a particularly nasty argument, Stanwyck revealed that Wagner was not Webb’s son, which caused Webb to shun the boy until the end. By choosing to remain on ship, rather than climbing into a lifeboat with the women and children, Wagner showed not only that he’d become a man, but that regardless of the bloodlines he was his father’s son after all. Probably better that as a six-year-old I didn’t get that part of the story.

I started by going to the neighborhood library to see if they had any books on the Titanic. They did – it was called A Night to Remember, written by Walter Lord, and that book ensured I’d always be fascinated by the Titanic. It was brilliantly written, accessible to even a six-year-old, with great pictures of the ship itself and her crew (although, disappointingly, none of the ship actually sinking), all told in a way that made that cold and dark night come alive for me. There were other books that mentioned the Titanic, books about famous ships and famous shipwrecks, but nothing else even came close. That year, for my birthday, my grandmother gave me a paperback copy of the book, with an inscription promising that one day she’d get a copy of the hardcover, which had all the pictures. (Interestingly, to this day, of all the Titanic books I’ve since bought and read I’ve never bought the hardcover version of A Night to Remember, although I’ve probably got most all of those pictures in my other books.)  I became interested in other ship disasters, the Lusitania and the Morro Castle and the Andrea Doria, but they were all a distant second behind the Titanic.*

*Overcoming my six-year-old squeamishness about such things, I also read all I could about other disasters – the Chicago Fire, airplane crashes, spectacular accidents at auto races. The Hindenburg was a particular favorite of mine. Even today, though, when I’m watching a movie or documentary involving some kind of accident I still get a little unsettled if I know what’s coming.

There was always more. At the public library in downtown Minneapolis I spent hours going over microfilm of the New York Times, reading their accounts of the sinking; it was particularly interesting even after the sinking to see ads running for the Titanic, it being too late to pull them. In the forward to A Night to Remember Lord references a novel written a few years prior to the Titanic, written by Morgan Robertson and called Futility, about an unsinkable ocean liner, the largest ever built, which hits an iceberg and sinks on her maiden voyage.  It was a stunning coincidence, made all the more so because Robertson had named his ship the Titan.  This book was so obscure that the library had to order it, but they did. And it was a terrible book – Robertson was no stylist – but I read it, and that book did wind up in my bookcase.

In 1968 CBS broadcast the movie adaptation of A Night to Remember, a faithful, almost documentary-like version of the book, and it was a terrific movie.* It seems, from my long-ago memory, as if it aired either the same night or a week or so after the initial episode of the sci-fi series The Time Tunnel, in which our two time travelling heroes found themselves onboard the Titanic trying to convince the captain of what was to happen. Guess what – nobody believed them.   (I can't imagine the passengers of a ship billed as unsinkable wouldn't believe some crazy-eyed stranger, shouting that he's from the future and that the ship is going to sink and almost everyone's going to die.  I mean, that happens to me all the time - except for that guy who told me the Cubs were going to win the World Series in 2035.  C'mon, do I look stupid?)  It wasn’t nearly as good as the movie, even to an eight-year-old’s low standards, but I enjoyed it just the same.

*I watched this movie again a few years ago – it’s still terrific, but horrifying in a way that has nothing to do with the actual accident. It mostly has to do with families being separated as wives are forced by their husbands or crew members to board lifeboats, or choosing to remain onboard and face death together. The scenes are harrowing, and overwhelmingly sad – it reminds me of Erik Fosnes Hansen’s fictional account of the ship’s band, Psalm at Journey’s End, a profoundly sad book. I suppose it has something to do with being older and married myself, and the thought of finding myself in that position. My wife, to this day, refuses to watch it.

And over the years more books came out about the disaster, and documentaries, and Cameron’s Titanic, which I wouldn’t see because of the stupid storyline, although I understand the part about the sinking itself is sensational. Even before the 100th anniversary, it wasn’t hard to go into a bookstore and find a new book on the Titanic, which makes it all the more surprising to find out that interest in the ship had waned considerably prior to the publication of Lord’s book in 1954, which revived the public’s fascination to a level that remains to this day.

The story of the Titanic is an epic one, and its role in my life has been equally epic. I don’t know if I can say that it caused my subsequent interest in history, or my fascination with singular historical events such as the Kennedy assassination, although it undoubtedly caused my interest in disasters. I do know that what little interest I’ve ever had in ships stems from the Titanic, and that it’s why I always tried to sink my ships in the bathtub. It’s why nearly an entire bookshelf in our library is filled with Titanic books, and it’s why I spent a couple of years building a model of the Titanic, and why I’m probably going to spend a couple of hundred dollars buying a better, prebuilt version of it. Walter Lord was right: the night of April 14 and the early morning of April 15, 1912, was a night to remember, and it’s a story that I’ll never forget.

Which is a long way of leading up to today’s topic. Lost amidst all that we know about the Titanic is the very first adaption of A Night to Remember which was broadcast live, if you can believe it, on Kraft Television Theater in 1956.  Stephen Bowie covers the fascinating story of this massive broadcast far better and in much more detail than I can, so I simply defer to him.  But if you’re intrigued, as I am, you can see that broadcast starting right here.


And who knows – perhaps this will set some other youngster off on a world of discovery and history, learning about a real-life epic that outdoes any fictional story that Hollywood could ever dream up. TV