October 27, 2018

This week in TV Guide: October 27, 1956

Don't you like how the TV Guide logo was turned into a Halloween treat, complete with the stem? Anyway, on with the rest of the festivities. If you're not careful, you're always going to find something interesting in one of these issues, and we'll lead off this week with a couple of them, one more significant than the other but both worthy of attention.

On Monday, October 29, at 6:45 p.m. CT we have this description under NBC's News Caravan

NBC introduces two personalities new to the field of daily newscasting—Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. The two became familiar to viewers as anchor men during NBC's National Convention coverage. For this five-times-a-week show Huntley will be stationed in New York, Brinkley at his customary post in Washington, and they will share the newscasting duties.

That's right—it's day one of what would come to be known as The Huntley-Brinkley Report, and for most of the next 14 years it would be the definitive network news program. The show became such a ratings giant that during the 1963 coverage of JFK's assassination, NBC would pull in more viewers than CBS and ABC combined. It was such a ratings giant that in 1964 CBS would drop Walter Cronkite from the anchor booth for the Democratic Convention, replacing him with Robert Trout and Eric Sevareid in an attempt to improve the numbers. (It didn't work.) It was such a ratings giant that in 1965 Time magazine reported it brought in more advertising revenue than any other on television.

After a decade or so, that dominance began to fade; some said it was because of the space program, coverage of which Cronkite excelled at (Frank McGee and Bill Ryan were the main voices at NBC), while others thought the chemistry between Huntley and Brinkley diminished after the AFTRA strike of 1967 (Huntley crossed the picket lines, Brinkley refused to do so). Perhaps it was simply a case of all good things coming to an eventual end. In 1970 Chet Huntley retired and eventually was replaced by John Chancellor, a fine newsman who never matched the success of Chet and David; in 1981 Brinkley would move to ABC, where he would stay for another 15 years, in the process redefining the format of the Sunday morning interview show.

I doubt that anyone could have imagined all of this back on October 29, 1956 when NBC introduced those two new personalities. It's the little treasures like this that make writing about these TV Guides worth it.

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It's the week before the the 1956 elections, and not surprisingly the listings are filled with various political talks by various parties and candidates. President Eisenhower speaks for a half-hour on Thursday night, for example, preempting Ernie Ford's show. And then there's Adlai Stevenson's talk, advertised at left. (Doesn't he look as if he's in the middle of doing a twirl, like Mary Tyler Moore before she tosses her hat in the air? Maybe that's where she got the idea.) Of course, these talks are a big deal, predicated on the notion that the voters get a last chance to listen to the candidates before they make up their minds on Election Day.

Which brings us to Friday, November 2, and the second of the week's hidden items of interest. At 8:00 p.m. WTCN presents a half-hour talk by Joe Robbie, the Democratic nominee for Congress from Minnesota's Fifth District. On election day, Robbie loses to incumbent Republican Walter Judd, and that's the end of the story. Right?

If you're a Minnesotan or a political buff, Joe Robbie's name might not ring a bell because of that election. No, you might recognize the name from "Joe Robbie Stadium" in Miami, and if so you'd be right—it is the same Joe Robbie. Robbie had been in politics since living in South Dakota, even running for governor. In Minnesota, he was a confidant of U.S. Senator Hubert Humphrey. However, he was also a friend of Joe Foss, a fellow South Dakotan (the two men had served in the Navy together), and currently the commissioner of the American Football League. The league was looking to expand to Florida, and Robbie entered into a partnership with Danny Thomas and became the first owner of the Miami Dolphins. While he owned the Dolphins he hired the legendary coach Don Shula from the Baltimore Colts, which led to two Super Bowl victories. In the 1980s, he privately funded construction of the Dolphins' new stadium, including putting the team up as collateral. That stadium, in its 30 years, has had ten different names, most of them corporate, but at its opening it bore the name of the man who had paid for it, the man who owned the team who played in it: Joe Robbie. The same Joe Robbie whose name appears in small print in this week's TV Guide, as a candidate for Congress. And there's the rest of this story.

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College Football Saturday features a game between two old but occasional rivals, Oklahoma and Notre Dame (12:45 p.m. CT, NBC), and but for a year, this would have been a huge game. Oklahoma is the unquestioned power in college football in 1956; they'd won the national championship in 1953 and 1955, and will go on to win again in 1956. Throughout this entire time—dating back to October 10, 1953, in fact—Oklahoma has gone undefeated and untied. Their victory against Notre Dame this week in South Bend, 40-0, is their 35th consecutive victory, and that winning streak will eventually reach 47 games, until November 16, 1957, just a little over a year from the date of this issue, when Notre Dame upsets Oklahoma in the return match, 7-0. Now that would have been an issue to have. (It was on NBC.) To this day, Oklahoma's 47-game winning streak remains the longest in college football history; no modern-day school has come close.

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The cover story this week, quite appropriate for the season, is on Alfred Hitchcock and the secrets behind his success, one of which being: "How do you relate humor to horror?" "Watch our TV show," Hitch replies dryly. "Or ask yourself whether an undertaker laughs. In our shows, the undertaker laughs. Of course, we've never happened to have an undertaker in one of our shows, but I'm sure you get the point."

The point that Hitchcock makes is how his witty appearances, particularly at the conclusions of his often grim stories, serve a necessary purpose given the prevailing rules under which TV operates. "If you're going to tell a murder story, why be namby-pamby about it? But under existing television formats, you are almost forced to water things down. So we do it with the epilog That is where we really relate humor to horror." The jokes serve to "take the curse off the unhappy ending," which may see an innocent person meet a sorry fate or a villain literally get away with murder. The humor, or "detachment," as Hitchcock writer James Allardice says, "keeps things from getting too sticky. You watch a love scene of his. The couple will be all but strangling one another, but they'll be talking about what's for dinner."

Hitchcock also talks about one of his most celebrated devices, the "McGuffin." "In any chase or spy story, you have to have an object that is being chased or spied on or sought after." The Hitchcock signature is that this item often turns out to be of no importance. In his hit Notorious, with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, "which I understand is now being shown on television at practically no cost to the viewer, the McGuffin they were all chasing was a bottle of uranium."

That one producer rejected Notorious because he couldn't understand why people would chase after uranium illustrates the challenge that Hitchcock often encounters. "The public has a moronic logic," he says sadly. "I don't mean to say people are morons. Not at all. The public today is highly intelligent. But they ask too many questions. They will not accept things at face value." The problem, he concludes, is that "People today spend entirely too much time questioning the McGuffin."

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This issue, 62 years old, is one of the furthest separated from our own time. What are some of the shows we might recognize, and some that might seem entirely foreign to us?

The weekend gives us a couple of works that were once far better known than they are today. It begins on Saturday with Gordon Jenkins' musical comedy "Manhattan Tower" (NBC, 7:00 p.m.), featuring a wonderful cast: Cesar Romero, Edward Everett Horton, Ethel Waters, Hans Conreid, Phil Harris, and in the lead: Helen O'Connell, and a very young, "relative newcomer to TV," Peter Marshall. Yes, that Peter Marshall; he's done quite a lot of singing in his career. His current comedy partner Tommy Farrell appears in the show as well.

Sunday NBC's Hallmark Hall of Fame (6:30 p.m.) is "Born Yesterday," an adaptation of the Broadway play by Garson Kanin, with Mary Martin, Paul Douglas, and Arthur Hill. You'll probably be more familiar with the 1950 movie version, which featured Judy Holliday's Oscar-winning performance in the Martin role, along with Broderick Crawford and William Holden in the Douglas and Hill roles.

Monday gives us a couple of familiar faces, George Burns and Gracie Allen, in the seventh season of their network run (CBS, 7:00 p.m.), and at the same time on ABC it's The Danny Thomas Show, recently renamed from Make Room for Daddy. I Love Lucy is on CBS at 8:00 p.m., countered on ABC by Bishop Fulton Sheen's Life is Worth Living. One of early television's long-running prestige anthologies, Robert Montgomery Presents, is colorcast on NBC at 8:30 p.m., and at 9:00 Lloyd Bridges stars in "American Primitive" on CBS's Studio One.

Jonathan Winters has to be one of the funniest men ever on television, but he's better known for his guest appearances with Jack Paar, Dean Martin, Johnny Carson, and others, than he is for The Jonathan Winters Show, a 15-minute variety show airing Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. on NBC, right before Chet and David. Phil Silvers is Bilko at 7:00 p.m. on NBC, and Red Skelton—only a half-hour at this point—is on CBS at 8:30. But there's plenty more: Westerns like The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, the first "adult" western, with Hugh O'Brian (7:30 p.m, NBC) and Broken Arrow with John Lupton and Michael Ansara (8:00 p.m., ABC); anthologies sponsored by Armstrong (8:30 p.m., NBC) and DuPont (8:30 p.m, ABC); and shows hosted by Herb Shriner (8:00 p.m., CBS) and Jane Wyman (8:00 p.m., NBC). They're not unknown shows, but more like deep cuts.

We're used to seeing What's My Line? Sunday nights at 9:30 p.m. on CBS, and why not: it aired on that day at that time for 17 years. However, in 1956, it was being shown on Wednesday night at 10:00 p.m. on WCCO, Channel 4. Back then, WCCO, which has been the Twin Cities news powerhouse for as long as I can remember, didn't have a 10:00 p.m. newscast; they had movies or local programs or, as in this case, shows which ordinarily were broadcast on other nights. (In case you were worried, the local news came on at 10:30 p.m.)

Groucho Marx's You Bet Your Life is still going strong, and on Thursday (7:00 p.m., NBC) one of his guests is C.S. Forester, best known as the author of the Horatio Hornblower books, but the author also of a book that is probably better known for its movie adaptation: The African Queen. We'll have more of the night's programs in our Monday "What's on TV?" feature.

On Friday, between political talks, there's room for The Chevy Show with Dinah Shore, in color (8:00 p.m., NBC) with guests Betty Grable, cabaret singer Hildegarde, Jaye P. Morgan, and Hal March. A couple of unranked lightweights, Paolo Rosi and Henry "Toothpick" Brown, face off in the main event on Cavalcade of Sports (9:00 p.m., NBC), and Mr. This is Your Life himself, Ralph Edwards, is one of the guests on Person to Person with Edward R. Murrow. (9:30 p.m., CBS)

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Finally, let's return to David Brinkley for this footnote (H/T), which explains a great deal about the morass into which television news has fallen. I don't know when he said it, but it's as good an argument against the 24/7 cable news cycle as any I've ever read. "People have the illusion that all over the world, all the time, all kinds of fantastic things are happening," he said. "When in fact, over most of the world, most of the time, nothing is happening."

Which explains why it all has to be created, doesn't it? TV  

3 comments:

  1. The Jonathan Winters Show that you mentioned above just made history the week before this TV Guide was published. On October 23, 1956, NBC engineers experimented with a new thing called videotape by inserting a song by Dorothy Collins into Johnathan Winters program. The engineers wanted to see in anybody would notice if the public could tell the difference that the segment wasn't live. When no one notice that the clip wasn't live, this opened up a new way broadcasters had in showing programs. Thus, this started the age of video tape.

    http://eyesofageneration.com/october-23-1956-videotape-makes-its-network-debut-on-nbc-58-years-ago-today/

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Jonathan_Winters_Show

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    1. Now that is something! Thanks for bringing that up, Sean - I always love that kind of history! Video tape has been a great way of preserving our television heritage - I only wish that it hadn't come to be used as a substitute for live performances. As I've written before, live television is its own kind of genre, with an intimacy and immediacy that can't be replicated on tape.

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  2. Robert Trout's co-anchor for CBS at the 1964 Democratic Convention was Roger Mudd, not Eric Severeid.

    Mudd "made a name for himself" with his coverage from Washington of the Kennedy assassination and his reporting on the Congressional debating that led to the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!