February 17, 2016

From page to TV tube

Today we're going to take a look at books. Not the books that fill the shelves in the television section of my library, although I can't rule out the possibility that some of these books have a home elsewhere on the shelves.

No, this week we're going to take a look at one of the staples of the center section of TV Guide: an ad for The Literary Guild. At the time of this issue, 1977, The Literary Guild has been around for 50 years, and as you can see from the link above, it's still around, selling special editions of bestsellers, emblazoned with the special Literary Guild imprint on the title page. Books sold by The Literary Guild are selected by an editorial board, the first chairman of which was Carl Van Doren, brother of Mark Van Doren, uncle of Charles Van Doren*. I'd say that's enough of a TV connection to continue, wouldn't you?

*And that's not even all the Van Dorens. What an extraordinary family.

There are lots of interesting books here, each one of them telling us something about the likes and dislikes, the hopes and fears, of America in the 1970s; and while that's quite the story in and of itself, I though we'd concentrate today on those books that have some kind of connection to television, tenuous though it might be.  So let's start with the first page, shall we?

General Dwight Eisenhower, commander of the Allied Forces during the pivotal years of World War II and two-time President of the United States, had been dead for about seven years, but was still very much a respected and iconic figure to Americans. And so it was with some degree of surprise that we saw Past Forgetting: My Love Affair with Dwight D. Eisenhower, written by Kay Summersby Morgan, Ike's driver and secretary during the war, and published following her death in 1976. In the book, she claimed that she and Eisenhower had had an affair during the war, a claim that has been the subject of dispute ever since the book came out. While there's no question the two were very close, many Eisenhower biographers doubt the story told in her book, as well as some of the corroborating evidence provided by former President Harry Truman. It's an interesting but sordid story which you can read about in that entry at the always-reliable Wikipedia, but its importance to us is the 1979 miniseries adaption, Ike, starring Robert Duvall as Eisenhower and Lee Remick as Summersby. You don't have to wonder too much about how it chose to portray the relationship.

A couple of books down the line, we see First, You Cry, NBC correspondent Betty Rollin's story of her fight against breast cancer. Mary Tyler Moore played her in the inevitable TV movie. I was never a big fan of Rollin (I always preferred Liz Trotta, for what it's worth, as a superior reporter), and I've liked her less as she's gotten more involved in the assisted suicide movement (which was the subject of another book and TV movie), but there's no question that she fought a courageous, and ultimately successful, fight against the horrible disease.

On the next page, we see a book that isn't new, but certainly had a distinguished television reputation: Alistair Cooke's America, the companion to the landmark 1972 series from which I learned a great deal about history - probably more than I did in high school. It was (and is, actually) a marvelous series, and the fact it was aired on a broadcast network rather than on PBS makes it even more so. Can you imagine anything like this on TV today? Even if it were on NatGeo or History, it likely wouldn't have the dignity of Cooke's presentation.

Continuing on, we run into Rich Man, Poor Man, Irwin Shaw's 1970 blockbuster that became the first great miniseries of any consequence*, running for seven weeks in 1976 (and, back in 1977, being rerun Tuesday nights on KTVI). Catapulting its cast (Peter Strauss, Nick Nolte and Susan Blakely) to stardom, it would have been considered even more of a landmark series had it not been overshadowed so quickly by the adaptation of the book on the bottom row, Alex Haley's Roots. But then, we talked a bit about that last Saturday, didn't we?

*I don't count QBVII simply because it didn't run for night after night after night. 

In fact, as you can see to the left, there's an entire sidebar devoted to "TVs Top Best Sellers," including Captains and the Kings (which we also discussed Saturday), Serpico, Sybil, and perhaps my favorite, How to Make Money in Wall Street by the ubiquitous host of Wall $treet Week, Louis Rukeyser. In addition, there are other books, such as Muhammad Ali's autobiography, that deal with topics and personalities popular on TV at the moment.

I'm sure you can spot many more books with that TV connection, some of them perhaps even stronger than the ones I picked out. But this was a particularly fortuitous edition of TV Guide to have this much to choose from. How many of you joined a book club, or perhaps a record club, because of an ad you saw in the magazine? This was so much fun, I think we'll have to do it again sometime.


  1. A query...why isn't PBS a broadcast network, albeit one prone to a fair amount of local-level scheduling?

  2. Todd Mason:

    You answered your own question.

    When National Educational Television (NET) started out in the '50s, one of the things they stressed was that they weren't going to be a monolithic network, as the commercial nets were.
    Circa 1970, the Public Broadcasting System superseded NET, with the idea of being just a little bit competitive with the big nets.
    But the stations along the line were used to doing things their own way- you know, independently.
    In their minds, their model was Britain's Independent Broadcasting Authority (ITV- don't ask), wherein each regional company operates independently of each other, picking and choosing what it wants to show.
    Here in Chicago, we have three PBS stations, who each carry drastically different schedules (and with the emergence of digital substations, it's even more spread out).
    The point is, if you're going to be a network, you have to be just a wee bit monolithic to make that work, and the PBS guys are just too used to having things their own way.
    (Mind you, the commercial nets are slowly starting to unravel; not exactly "independence", but they don't jump in place as they once did ... but that's another story ...)

  3. Exactly. And increasingly, the most popular PBS stations in each market are trying to run as much in pattern in primetime as possible, and have for some years...and there are definite feeds of the children's programming that appear in pattern across the country as well (if not in every market). The Nixon Administration also wanted to make sure that PBS wouldn't be capable of being a unified opposition to its policies, hence the decentralization (some NET series were seen as particularly oppositional, including PBL, the Public Broadcast Laboratories umbrella series). I'd suggest that given how stations early on, and lately, have indeed been making their own decisions about scheduling increasingly (and there have always been some multiple-network affiliates), to dismiss PBS from the networks, as opposed to setting it aside from the commercial networks by that distinction, makes more sense. Most PBS stations carry a lot of the same PBS programming, though some run more syndicated programming than others.

    1. That is to say, it's more sensible to count it as a network, though not (officially!) a commercial network. And the other public networks, such as World, Create and MHz Worldview, have proliferated with the digital channels...as has the commercially-supported Spanish-language network V-me (a pun on "See me" in Spanish, as "vay-may"].


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!