September 3, 2016

This week in TV Guide: September 5, 1964

You remember Newton Minow. When he was head of the FCC, he looked out at the television landscape and saw only a vast wasteland, and wound up having the marooned ship in Gilligan's Island named after him. Well, he did a lot more than that, actually, before leaving the FCC in June of 1963 to become executive vice president of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Now he's back, and in excerpts from his forthcoming book Equal Time: The Private Broadcaster and the Public Interest, he discusses the problems and potential of television.

One priority for Minow is eliminating interference from advertisers, something far more prevalent then than it is now. The Quiz Show Scandals, for instance, resulted in large part from sponsors exercising creative control over the shows they often developed and sold to television networks. Here's an example of what Minow's talking about:

Automobile sponsors do not like shows involving automobile accidents; or even stories that use "chase" scenes with cars driven at high speed to the sound of squealing brakes. Detective Michael Shayne might be an authority on cognac, but if he discusses this specialty, no beer company wants sponsorship.

Sherlock Holmes' love of the pipe rules out a cigaret company or a cigar maker for sponsorship. A coffee sponsor would not allow the comic scenes in Gunsmoke in which Chester makes such dreadful coffee for Marshal Matt Dillon. A company manufacturing shaving tools would never permit a bearded hero, and a soap company does not want a hero who wears dirty clothes.

Colorfully written, but I think it's essentially accurate. Of course, the Law of Unintended Consequences is bound to rear its ugly head here; an outgrowth of the Quiz Show fiasco was greater control by the networks over their programming. The downside to this, not surprisingly, is that networks become far more anxious over ratings; in order to placate sponsors leery of investing their money in a program over which they've had no control, they've had to make the investment as attractive as possible, and low ratings aren't a particular inducement to a company to spend their money. As we've seen throughout time, the rating system has come under heavy criticism from viewers and legislators concerned that "quality" television falls victim to a fickle public, and ultimately is sacrificed in the name of the financial bottom line.

Minow appears to have anticipated this, taking a long, hard look at the relationship between broadcasters and the FCC. He cites examples of FCC commissioners and their too-cozy relationship with the industry they're supposed to be regulating, and points out that commissioners, as governmental appointees, are likely to be opposed by powerful interest groups if they take too strong of a stand against the networks and/or their affiliates. The only way to counteract this is to open the FCC up more to public input, and as FCC chair he'd urged President Kennedy to streamline and reorganize the Commission. Rather than the regulated controlling the regulator, he feels that such an approach will set up healthy conflict: "the sight and sound of battle [between public and private interests] are the public's best evidence that their rights are being protected."

And there will be battle, for as Minow writes, there is and will be that eternal conflict between public and private interests. One the one hand, he readily recognizes that broadcasters have "a vested and narrow interest in achieving and preserving profits." On the other, however, the FCC exists to guarantee that the public's interest is being served by those who hold the special and precious privilege of owning a broadcasting license. Broadcasters have come to view this not as a privilege but as a right - but, as Minow points out, "a 'right' cannot be regulated. It is part of the power the people refuse to give to a government. Only a privilege can be regulated."

This is an important concept and a huge conflict, one that resonates through our political system today despite the fact that Minow's statement can trace its roots all the way back to the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson's assertion that the "unalienable Rights" which mankind enjoys come not from the government, but from "their Creator," and that government exists not to bestow but to secure those rights. When privileges become rights, when the government seeks to grant obfuscate the difference and then grant something over which it has no natural authority, then the entire concept of the governor and the governed falls under suspicion.

This, invariably, leads to a discussion of politics and political advertising, an emerging point of import for Minow's FCC. Again, he takes the industry to task for thinking that their granting of free time to candidates is a gift from them to the candidate; in fact, Minow contends, the gift is in actuality from the public, which has allowed the broadcaster the right to use the public airwaves. It is, therefore, the obligation of the broadcaster to treat this time with care, and not to look at it as yet another opportunity to make a profit: "Television's soaring costs have created a monumental danger that a dollar wall will be stretched across ready access to the public air waves. This wall can create obstacles to the most able candidates - while helping the election of the most obligated candidates. Such an event would be a catastrophe."

Minow's answer is for broadcasters to be obligated to make "minimal amounts of free political time an explicit responsibility of those privileged to hold a broadcast license." He then makes the prescient observation, true even from the early days of television, that "Some politicians believe that television sells candidates as well as soap. But we cannot stack the deck in favor of the candidate able to buy the most time."

What a kettle of fish this discussion has opened! For the power in Minow's arguments is that they strike at the heart of how our system of government functions. Television and radio broadcasting can't, and shouldn't, be treated as something above and beyond the established system, and if that system can't handle something like this, if an activity as vital as broadcasting cannot fit in or conform to those sensibilities, then the question must be asked: can anything? Minow seems confident at the end of these excerpts, as long as "each of us insists that those involved in broadcasting - in industry and government alike - ceaselessly go to the people." It has become apparent, with over fifty years to reflect on it, that neither industry nor government any longer feels such a need or obligation. We are starting to see the fruits of such behavior ripen; what the future portends is anyone's guess.

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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 guests are the Kim Sisters, Italian recording stars Rita Pavone and Enzo Stuardi, and one of America's favorite clowns, Bert Lahr. The tap-dancing Stepp Brothers perform and the Two Carmenas present their head-to-head balancing act. Other guests are child saxophonist Attila Galamb, and comedians London Lee and Pat Buttram.

Palace: Host Louis Jourdan introduces songstress Anna Maria Alberghetti; the singing King Sisters; comedian Henny Youngman; tap dancer John Bubbles; ventriloquist Russ Lewis; comics Lewis and Christy; juggler Johnny Broadway; and Olympic gymnasts Muriel and Abe Grossfeld, Armando Vega and NCAA champion gymnast Ron Barak.

An interesting comparison this week, as Ed presents a rerun from earlier in 1964, while the Palace is into its new season. Both shows are into the vaudeville look, with jugglers, tap-dancers, singers and comedians. It's not particularly an inspired choice, but dapper French actor and singer Louis Jourdan's (Gigi) picture appears next to "suave" in the dictionary, Anna Maria Alberghetti is lovely to look at and delightful to listen to, and when he's on Henny "Take my wife, please" Youngman* is as funny as anyone. Perhaps Bert Lahr should have been singing "If I only had some help," because the choice is The Palace by a comfortable, if unimpressive, margin.

*Whose first name is spelled "Henry" in the issue. The proof reader must not have been a fan.

There is, by the way, an article in this week's issue on how The Hollywood Palace has made vaudeville work in the same time spot where Jerry Lewis failed so spectacularly.

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You know you're in an election year when the week's TV review is of the networks' convention coverage. And - surprise, surprise - it's not all that different from what we're used to today. "To a large degree," writes Samuel Grafton, "[the networks] have made themselves the show, instead of the meetings they are supposed to be covering." In the process, he asserts, they missed important stories at both conventions.

For example, they were so fired-up to see Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton as a serious challenger to Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater - a challenge that was always hopeless - they missed the bigger story, that of how Goldwater took over the Republican party in the first place. Seems to me it's not unlike their confusion as to how Donald Trump took over the Republicans this year. (Oh well, I guess some things never change.) At least, he notes, ABC kept their cameras trained on the podium, unlike NBC and CBS, who "constantly cut away from Senator Dirksen's nominating speech, to tell us what they thought about what Dirksen was saying, instead of letting him say it." David Brinkley's humor, however, was in good form, part of the reason why NBC thrashed CBS in the ratings (leading the network to sack Walter Cronkite for the Democratic convention in favor of the "team" of Robert Trout and Roger Mudd). ABC's own team of Howard K. Smith and Edward P. Morgan worked hard, but "lost out in the ratings because they did not show enough of the special qualities - the glint, the jokesmithing - that these broadcasters' Olympics now seem to call for."

The Democratic convention wasn't much better for the networks, as they again missed the big story - once again preferring conflict (in this case, delegate challenges in Alabama and Mississippi) to the more significant fact that Southern delegates, by-and-large, stood by their party rather than walking out because of LBJ's civil rights legislation. No matter how hard they tried, the floor reporters were unable to convince delegates that it was in their best interests - the networks' best interests, that is - to make trouble.

In the end, concludes Grafton concludes, viewers were frequently treated to scenes that looked more like a "convention of reporters" rather than delegates. Even when they were forced off the floor during the demonstration for Johnson's nomination, they wound up cutting away to show Johnson's arrival in Atlantic City. It makes one pine for the old days "when television was only a camera reporting the news, and modestly keeping itself off the screen."

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And now a word about this week's issue. For one of the few times, we're going north of the boarder, with the St. Lawrence edition covering Montreal, Ottawa and Sherbrooke, in addition to stations in upper New York, Vermont, and Poland Spring, Maine. Many of the programs are similar (you'll see CBC programming in Monday's piece) - except when it comes to sports, specifically football. Although the NFL, AFL and colleges haven't kicked off yet, the Canadian Football League is in full swing, having started in July.

On Labor Day (or Labour Day, I suppose we should say) CTV carries the matchup between the Montreal Alouettes and Saskatchewan Roughriders from Regina, while a Friday doubleheader pairs the Alouettes and the Edmonton Eskimos, followed by the Ottawa Rough Riders (no relation to the Saskatchewan Roughriders) against the British Columbia Lions (taped Tuesday). If you've not seen the Canadian version of football, you should catch it sometime when it's on one of the ESPN networks; it's similar to our version - just different.

As far as American sports, there's plenty of that as well. The New York stations have the Mets, playing the Dodgers in New York on Sunday, the Houston Colt 45s* on Labor Day, and the Dodgers again on Friday, this time in Los Angeles. And on ABC's final Friday Fight of the Week, former and future Middleweight Champion Dick Tiger takes on Rocky Rivero in Cleveland.

*Known today as the Houston Astros.

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Finally, a quick look at the rest of the news.

The front section of the magazine takes note that on August 27, Gracie Allen died of a heart attack at age 58.* Her widower, George Burns, debuts on Friday night with his new ABC series, Wendy and Me, co-starring Connie Stevens in the dumb blonde role.

*Or 69, as the case may be; her birth records were destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake. Her actual birth year remains a mystery.

Actress Maureen O'Sullivan is leaving her role as the "Today Girl" after four months. She's headed back to acting, having called her role on Today "asinine." She explains, "It's not enough to sit ther and smile every day with nothing to do. . . The show is simply no place for a woman." Her successor is Barbara Walters.

On Wednesday, CBS's Robert Pierpoint interviews Mrs. Barry Goldwater at the family home outside Phoenix. Apropos of the times, the listing never gives us her first name, Margaret. I hardly think the viewers would have confused her with some other Mrs. Goldwater...

Also on Friday, Jack Paar's prime time program has Muhammad Ali and Liberace as guests, and the two team up for a memorable duet.

And finally, the final program of the week also makes for a great exit line. It's the biographical film "I Aim at the Stars," the story of the brilliant rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who designed the Saturn V booster that helped land Americans on the moon. The British, who remembered von Braun as the man who developed the V2 rockets that rained terror on England, had a different name for the movie. According to Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, they called it "I Aim at the Stars - But Sometimes hit London." TV  


  1. Maureen O'Sullivan was on TODAY long enough anyway to get a TV Guide cover appearance earlier this month for the issue of Aug. 1, 1964 with her TODAY show castmates. Her daughter, Mia Farrow, was about to become really well-known after starring in PEYTON PLACE that fall, quickly scoring a solo TV Guide cover appearance on Oct. 3, 1964. I only recall ever seeing Ms. O'Sullivan in for me a very enjoyable movie, PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED, where she played Kathleen Turner's character's grandmother alongside another movie veteran, Leon Ames, who played Turner's character's grandfather.

  2. I thought that was a Mort Sahl joke. Von Braun's autobiography was titled I aim for the stars.

    1. Wouldn't surprise me if Wolfe stole from Sahl, or vice versa. Whoever came up with it first, it's a joke that suits my humor perfectly!

    2. Tom Wolfe wrote The Right Stuff many years after the events of the Mercury space program.
      I don't have the book at hand, but my guess would be that he quoted the joke, properly crediting Mort Sahl.
      No stealing involved at all.

  3. The Cassius Clay/Liberace Jack Paar appearance is the repeat from November 29, 1963 (It's was supported to be aired on November 22, but, you know what they did next!!!) The appearance is to promoted the then-upcoming fight against Sonny Liston!!!

  4. That cutaway to Johnson's arrival provided a huge scoop for NBC News reporter Nancy Dickerson...she was at the airport and asked him if he had selected Hubert Humphrey as his running mate--which he verified.
    (Dickerson had seen Lady Bird Johnson meeting with Humphrey's wife, putting two and two together)

  5. Although the Saturn 5 rocket wouldn't be test-flown until November, 1967 (look up Walter Cronkite's legendary description of the first Saturn 5 launch on You Tube), Werhner VonBraun was already a legendary name in space exploration when "I Aim For The Stars" was made in 1960.

    He led development of the rocket that put America's first satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit. Indeed, the final scene of "I Aim For The Stars" shows Von Brain getting a phone call from a tracking station in California, a little more than 90 minutes after Explorer 1 was launched, telling him that their radar had tracked the satellite and that it was about to complete its first orbit of the Earth (in those early days, before the manned Mercury program, those involved with launching U.S. satellites had to wait until the satellite flew over California just before finishing it's first orbit to find out if the satellite indeed had gone into orbit).

  6. "No matter how hard they tried, the floor reporters were unable to convince delegates that it was in their best interests - the networks' best interests, that is - to make trouble."

    Needless to say, by the 1968 Democratic Convention the networks got their wish


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!