May 4, 2024

This week in TV Guide: May 6, 1967

The "minority" mentioned in the headline for Edith Efron's cover story is not a racial minority, or even a sexual minority. And, as Efron points out, it's not all that small, either. The "minority" refers to the audience for "the neglected stepchild of television," the documentary. And, surprise, the worn-out chestnuts about documentaries—that nobody watches them, that they only watch them when they're about movie stars, that only intellectuals watch them—well, they all turn out to be "lies, all lies."

According to the ratings books themselves, "documentaries ‘get ratings that are fully comparable to those of many entertainment shows." And there's no great difference in the demographic information between those who watch documentaries and those who watch entertainment programs. It seems worthwhile, therefore, to talk to some experts on the form and find out what kind of documentaries prove successful with the viewer, and why. 

In talking with news executives, documentary producers and directors, and investigative reporters, one thing is clear: storytelling is all-important. Reuven Frank, executive vice president of NBC News, says, "You cannot interest people unless you tell stories. Usually, in a good story there’s a protagonist, a conflict, and a resolution." That's a sentiment echoed by Thomas Wolf, VP and director of documentaries at ABC, who says, "The most successful documentaries have dramatic qualities—heroic protagonists, conflicts, a triumph of good over evil." Bob Drew, independent documentarian, says that "Nothing can compete with dramatic logic. Reality films must have similar ingredients to those in fiction—a protagonist, a dramatic conflict." 

Don Hyatt, producer of documentaries such as "The Tall American" and "The Road West" (which I've probably mentioned here in the past), says that "The successful documentary must, above all, have hero figures, figures that represent human ideals; it must have an empathetic projection of a certain idealism, a certain poetic, romantic view of this country, of life and of man." Ted Yates, who has produced or directed almost 90 documentaries for NBC, adds that "There is in fact, in reality, a dramatic composition to life. Good and bad, happiness and disaster—this is what makes the world go round. If you flatten it out, demolish the dramatic content of life, turn it into an illustrated lecture on statistics, you get dull life—and a dull documentary."

There's much more to this very long story, including a breakdown of the correlation between the subject matter of documentaries and the ratings they produce (no surprise; Americans are more interested in their own history than that of other countries), and whether or not networks have an obligation to look at subjects that are of relatively little interest, or if that's a judgment that goes beyond the scope of their duties. But the key takeaway I'm looking at comes from this quote by Efron: "The American public responds strongly to reality films to the degree that they resemble the dramatic art."

This points out both the greatest asset of the successful documentary, and the biggest flaw. A well-done documentary, and I've seen more than a few of them, can be gripping, spellbinding, captivating in such a way that it encourages the viewer to read more, to watch more, to learn more about the topic. The music, the narration, the writing and editing—all of it can combine to make a memorable, and, more important, a convincing, case in support of its thesis.

Don't get me wrong; I greatly enjoy well-made documentaries. Drew, Bud Greenspan, David L. Wolper, Errol Morris—I'll watch almost anything that comes from them. However, those same qualities that can make a documentary so compelling can also be used to craft a story that crosses the line between documentary and advocate piece, that seeks to promote an agenda or create a particular interpretation of a historical event. What's that old line about never letting the facts get in the way of a good story? And who says that historical events always have a dramatic story arc in the first place? 

How many times have we heard people complain that sports announces stick to a predetermined storyline and push it, over and over, regardless of what's playing out on the field? It happens a lot, and that's part of the danger I'm talking about—that, in service of creating the drama essential to a successful documentary, too many facts can be manipulated or compromised, too many complex ideas truncated, and decisions can be made based on how well they fit the narrative, rather than how they fit the truth. Once that happens, a program has ceased to be a documentary, and instead has become a docudrama. Just look online at the amount of space devoted to supposedly factual movies—The King's Speech is one egregious example that comes to mind—where changes are made to the historical record in the name of "dramatic license." 

I'm not pointing fingers here—the reason I bring it up, aside from the fact that it's the subject of a substantial piece in TV Guide—is that it demonstrates the power of television, and the danger. In an era when truth has never been more relative and when media is under a closer microscope than ever, it's undeniable that an article like this provides some food for thought. Yes, as Ted Yates points out, history should never be dull or stuffy, because it isn't. At the same time, though, remember the warning from John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." It's something that anyone who promotes drama über alles must keep in mind, especially with a medium like television.

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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: the Supremes; Xavier Cugat and his singing wife Charo; soprano Roberta Peters of the Metropolitan Opera; comedians Richard Pryor, and Claire and McMahon; singer Frank Ifield; and taped highlights from Holiday on Ice.

Palace: Host Gene Barry offers a dramatic reading about a man’s farewell to his soldier son. Guests are folk singer Theodore Bikel; comedians Jack E. Leonard, and Avery Schreiber and Jack Burns; singer Lana Cantrell; political satirist Mort Sahl; and Damorra and her doves.  

Interesting week. Ed leads with music, with the Supremes (always faves of his), plus Roberta Peters (who appeared on the show more than any other singer), and follows up with Richard Pryor. On the other hand, I've always liked Palace host Gene Barry, Mort Sahl certainly has a lot of material to work with right now, and Theo Bikel is always an interesting performer. Barry's reading of "So Long Son" is unexpected and movie, and on that basis, I'll give the nod to Palace this week.

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Throughout the 60s and early 70s, TV Guide's weekly reviews were written by the witty and acerbic Cleveland Amory. Whenever we get the chance, we'll look at Cleve's latest take on the shows of the era. 

We don't get over to National Educational Television very often in this space, which means, as Cleveland Amory points out, "you have been missing many happy happenings." Chief among them is the network's anthology series NET Playhouse, "a truly extraordinary series" which seeks to present, on a weekly basis, major plays and films, including offerings from new writers. 

NET Playhouse is, in Cleve's estimation, responsible for "the two best-produced classics yet seen anywhere on TV," Chekhov’s "Uncle Vanya" and Ibsen’s "An Enemy of the People." Both boasted stellar casts—"Vanya" stars Sir Michael Redgrave, Sir Laurence Olivier, Rosemary Harris, Joan Plowright, and Dame Sybil Thorndike, while "An Enemy of the People" hasJames Daly, Kate Reid, Philip Bosco, Barbara Dana, William Prince and George Voskovee—and present dark, intense, and provocative ideas. There hasn't been anything like them seen on American television since the Golden Age presentations of Playhouse 90, Hallmark Hall of Fame, and Dupont Show of the Month, and they justify the potential that so many had always seen in educational television. That's not to say that every presentation on NET Playhouse is a home run; Shaw’s "Misalliance" and Wilde’s "The Importance of Being Earnest" were both talky and over the top. That's offset, though, by a "superb" documentary on the Battle of Culloden by Peter Watkins, in Amory's opinion, "the world's leading documentarian."
Tempting as it might be for us to assume that NET Playhouse simply morphed into Masterpiece Theatre, it would be a mistake to do so. True, many of the productions do come from the BBC, but others are strictly American in both content and performance, while still others come from Canada and France, among other countries. Additionally, the series offered not just plays and historical documentaries, but operas, concerts, and profiles as well as well; a look at the six-year history of NET Playhouse includes programs as varied as "The Trail of Tears" with Joseph Cotten, Johnny Cash, and Jack Palance; Duke Ellington's "Concert of Sacred Music," and "America, Inc." with Abbie Hoffman. I've mentioned before that one of the early controversies involving NET/PBS was the network's dependence on British imports at the expense of American productions; nowhere is this more apparent than in contrasting Masterpiece Theatre with the variety seen here. It is, I think, another example of public broadcasting's abdication of one of their prime obligations, and by now it's too late to turn around; not only has public broadcasting changed, so has the public.

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We've talked about the United Network in the past, the fourth network wannabe that started life as the Overmyer Network and ended life after one month of programming. The first and only program to be carried on United was The Las Vegas Show, a two-hour talk-variety show hosted by Bill Dana, which premiered on May 1. On Monday, KLOC, the independent station in Modesto, signs on to The Las Vegas Show, carrying it at 8:30 p.m. PT. It was envisioned as a challenger in the late-night sweepstakes, but, as we can see here, scheduling was all over the map, with some stations (such as KLOC) carrying it in primetime, and others even showing it in daytime. (As you can see from the ad at the left, the show was a goodfit for CBS affiliates lacking a late-night show of their own.) The show, and the network, ended abruptly on June 1; Dana would memorably quip later that "I'm the first man in history to sink an entire network." Robert has an excellent overview of the program at Television Obscurities, including a comment by our own Mike Doran. It's another interesting case of what might have been.

Speaking of the late-night wars, The Doan Report notes early troubles for ABC's Joey Bishop Show, which premiered on April 17, with some critics predicting the show "was not long for this TV world." Initial reviews were "kind but mostly unenthusiastic"; the early ratings were not kind, with the only available figures showing that Bishop was outdrawn in New York by the late movie. ABC boss Leonard Goldenson defends the show, saying that the network had "no expectation that Joey was going to come on like gang busters," and noting that Bishop has a 39-week contract and committed sponsors. Ratings do improve over time, though never challenging Johnny Carson except on rare occasions, and when the show leaves the air in December 1969, it's due to a contract dispute between Bishop and the network.

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The sports highlight of the week is the 93rd running of the Kentucky Derby, live from Churchill Downs in Louisville (Saturday, 2:00 p.m., CBS). Proud Clarion is the upset winner, with Derby favorite Damascus finishing third; Damascus, however, will storm back to win the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, and is named three-year-old horse of the year. Later, Wide World of Sports expands to two hours to cover the 37th annual Notre Dame Old-Timers' Football Game, pitting recent alumni against the varsity team (5:00 p.m., ABC). It's the last year for the Old Timers' Game; next season, two squads of varsity players will face each other, a popular format that's now used by virtually every major college as part of their spring practice. No wonder; can you imagine NFL teams allowing their young players to take part in an exhibition game like this today?

On Sunday, Robert Goulet and Mary Grover star in a television adaptation of Rogers and Hammerstein's "Carousel" (9:00 p.m.), part of ABC's revival of Armstrong Circle Theatre as a series of occasional specials. Pernell Roberts and Charlie Ruggles are part of the supporting cast. You can see it at YouTube; don't be intimidated by the running time on the video; the actual program is less than two hours. This was one of three Broadway musical adaptations shown by ABC under the Circle Theatre imprimatur, the other two being "Brigadoon" in 1966 (also starring Goulet, with Sally Ann Howes and Peter Falk), and "Kismet," later in 1967, with Jose Ferrer, Barbara Eden, Anna Maria Alberghetti, and George Chakiris. 

I think we'd all agree that, despite the occasional documentary or educational special, most television programming has at least something to do with the pursuit of pleasure. Coincidentally, that's the title of an NBC News Special on Monday (10:00 p.m.), hosted by Sander Vanocur. In this case, the pleasure that the young generation is pursuing is mostly related to sex and drugs, as evidenced by some of those interviewed: Timothy Leary, advocating LSD; Ralph Ginzburg, convicted of publishing pornography; and Ray Anthony, author of The Housewife's Handbook on Selective Promiscuity. Also included is a debate on the amount of freedom a society can permit without destroying itself, featuring Hugh Hefner, William F. Buckley Jr., and Harvard Divinity School's Dr. Harvey Cox. That last question is something we're finding the answer to which right now, methinks.

An otherwise-lackluster Tuesday is perked-up considerably with an appearance by the comedy team of Bob and Ray on Today (7:00 a.m., NBC). Granted, they're pretty low-key, sly satirists; still, you have to wonder if the early-morning audience is ready for their humor. But then, Ernie Kovacs started out with a morning show in Philadelphia, so perhaps they're just what the doctor ordered for a good start to the day. I know that would have been the case for me.

There is no MST3K alert this week, which is a pity, but there's at lease one movie that should have been on the show: College Confidential (1960), with columnists Walter Winchell, Sheilah Graham, Earl Wilson and Louis Sobol portraying themselves in a story of a college sociology professor studying student sex habits (Wednesday, 6:00 p.m., KGO in San Francisco). It stars Steve Allen, Jayne Meadows, and Mamie Van Doren; among the supporting cast are Rocky Marciano, Conway Twitty, Pamela Mason, Elisha Cook Jr., and Mickey Shaughnessy. Howard Thompson, in The New York Times, wrote of Steve and Jayne that "it is truly painful to find them co-starring in a piece of movie claptrap like College Confidential."

Armstrong Circle Theatre
isn't the only Golden Age show being dusted off this week; on Thursday, the Colgate Comedy Hour makes a return, with a contemporary twist courtesy of producer George Schlatter (10:00 p.m., NBC). Among the acts are Rowan and Martin (a preview of next year's Laugh-In?), Shelley Berman, Bob Newhart, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks (doing the 2000-year-old man bit), Dick Shawn, Phyllis Diller, and more. It's up against ABC Stage 6 and the musical revue "Rodgers and Hart Today" (10:00 p.m.), with Petula Clark, Bobby Darin, the Supremes, the Mamas and the Papas, the Doodletown Pipers, and Count Basie and his orchestra. And don't dismiss F Troop earlier in the evening, with guest star Milton Berle as Wise Owl (8:00 p.m.).

If you've learned anything about me over the years we've been doing this site together, it's that I have a fine eye for irony, and that's in evidence on Friday night with a couple of competing programs. At 9:00 p.m. on the aforementioned NET Playhouse, it's "Acquit or Hang!" a courtroom drama based on the court-martial of ten mutineers from the HMS Bounty. The title comes from a section of the 1792 naval regulations that states "sailors who do not try to prevent a mutiny share equal guilt with active mutineers." The ten defendants in the court-martial claim they took no part in the mutiny, but did they try to prevent it? Only two verdicts are available to the panel: acquit, or hang. Now here's the good part: the movie on opposite it, at the same time, is—you guessed it—Mutiny on the Bounty, the 1935 version with Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, and Franchot Tone. (KXTV, Sacramento)

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Finally, a couple of celebrity profiles. John Banner, who as Sergeant Schultz owns the title of "the most huggable Nazi on TV," has some strong words for those who criticize his character. Banner’s reply: “There is no such thing as a cuddly Nazi. Maybe Goering was cuddly to his wife; he wasn’t cuddly to the city of Rotterdam. I would refuse to play a sympathetic Nazi. Schultz is not a Nazi. I see Schultz as the representative of some kind of goodness in any generation." 

He's enjoyed a long career as a character actor in Hollywood, and he's had the occasion to play numerous Nazis in war stories. "Who can play Nazis better than us Jews?" He rejects the idea that he's "an instrument of Hitlerism," and the fan mail he receives would seem to back up the assertion that critics of the show are overthinking the whole thing. "It amazes me, the response from kids. Beautiful blondes don’t write me. It’s always kids. I go over big with them. I’m not a father figure. I’m more the good uncle. It’s so touching." It's evidence that, contrary to his character, John Banner knows far more than nothing.

On the cover is Harry Morgan, Jack Webb's new partner on the revival of Dragnet. Harry is playing essentially the same character as that played for so many years by Ben Alexander on the radio and TV versions of the show. (In fact, Webb tried to get Alexander for the revival, but he was under contract for the ABC drama Felony Squad.) 

He's a man who's seen a lot in his long years in Hollywood, and not much bothers him anymore. He understands how some actors could be troubled, or at least distracted, by Webb's constant presence on the Dragnet set, how he could micromanage every gesture seen on the screen. Not at this stage in his career, he replies; "Matter of fact, I don't think it ever really did." 

Speaking of his time on Pete and Gladys, in which he co-starred with the temperamental Cara Williams, he admits that "I wasn't sorry to see it end." It probably took "a lot of deep breathing" during the two seasons of the show, says writer Mike Fessier Jr. And he's philosophical about his career; he knows that "maybe he could have done better if he were a different kind of guy," one with "more push." But then, there are plenty of his friends, good actors, who are now "selling shoes at the department store or pumping gas." And the fact is he's done well enough with his real-estate investments that he really doesn't have to work at all if he doesn't want to. 

Like Banner, Harry Morgan is popular with his colleagues and those who've worked with him in the past. Says one, "He’s a very well-rounded citizen. He’s droll, pleasant, philosophical. A fine example of a man." And just think: he hasn't even played his most famous role yet. TV  

1 comment:

  1. The story of John Banner reminded me of another similar immigrant I knew as a child. Mike Baran.
    Mike was a barrel-shaped Ukrainian immigrant barber my dad would take me to when I was a child for a haircut. His last name was Baran (anglicized I am sure) and his barbershop was on Carson Street in the South Side of Pittsburgh. In those days the South Side was filled with immigrants, and it was not uncommon to hear several different languages spoken in daily contact.
    My childhood impressions of Mike are still very clear.
    First, he let me call him Mike. Rare that generation allowed a child to refer to them by their first name. You were always Mr. or Mrs.
    Second, he knew up to six of seven languages and could converse easily in any of them. In those days people didn’t demand you speak English.
    Third, he was always smiling. I don’t think I ever saw him frown once. He was the happiest adult I knew as a child.
    Lastly, he always had treats for the children brought into his shop. He loved to hear their laughter.
    When I was older, my dad told me about his trials before he came to the US after World War 2.
    Mike's father was a barber also. When the Russians came for him, they hung his dead body outside the door of his barbershop and warned his family NOT to take him down. Mike spent time in two concentration camps, one Russian, one German.
    Mike never talked about the war. He had a great love for his people and attended the Ukrainian Catholic Church whose domes can still be seen on the South Side. I can only imagine the scars behind that smile.
    John Banner lost every member of his family, parents and siblings, in concentration camps. He escaped it only by chance (or Providence) because he was on tour with an acting company in Switzerland at the time.
    In yesterday's post I mentioned his last acting role for a Canadian TV show that was filmed in Switzerland. It was a dramatic role that allowed him to speak of how beautiful his homeland was. I could only think watching it if this was one of those rare moments in acting where character and actor merge.
    He died one month later, reunited with his family.
    He may have gone through hell, but like Mike, I will always remember John Banner with smile.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!