Maybe Mcluhan is right and the medium is the massage, subtly working us over and restructuring the personality. Do the vaguely flickering illusions of TV, like a kind of electronic LSD, transform forever the psychic orientation of those who take too many trips in front of the living-room set? How otherwise explain the actions of a man like myself who, after solemnly taking leave of the U.S. television scene and giving unanswerable reasons why he should do so,1 voluntarily returns a year later?
Rationalizations are easy to make, but only half convincing. I might, for instance, argue that since unavoidable circumstances compel me to watch more television than any normally sane and decent man would choose to, I might as well assuage guilt and self-disgust by turning the ambiguous pleasure into work. But casual viewing, the set turned firmly off during the more arid or putrid stretches of the weekly schedule, is one thing; systematic study, in which The Newlywed Game (ABC) and Bell Telephone Hour (NBC) are equally grist for the mill, suggests more dubious motives which one hardly dares to probe. In any case, it is now too late for introspection. A new season compels attention.
The immediate prospect is, as usual, depressing. Quite apart from the apocalyptic nature of reality itself in America these days, there are many signs that U.S. television may be approaching a crisis of confidence. (This very term was used by TRB in the November 4 New Republic after this essay was virtually complete.) A congenital optimist, I should normally now go on to say that out of the ruins of the old system a new and better one may emerge. However, the image of disarray which the U.S.A. presents to an appalled but fascinated outside observer, coupled with the apparent insolubility of problems such as racism, urban decay, and the Vietnam war (with all it implies about the role of the military in the state), tempts one to reach gloomier conclusions. By this time, men like McGeorge Bundy and institutions like the great foundations have the smell of failure about them. Since they have so dramatically miscalculated the odds on larger issues, there is no reason to believe they hold the secret of better television. They can light little lamps like fellowship schemes, research institutes, and two hours a week of decent programs (on UHF channels that most people can’t yet receive) but it will take very much more than that to lighten the darkness visible on NBC, CBS, and ABC.
Even the worst of seasons usually succeeds in mounting one or two productions which merit something more than mere indifference, but 1967-68 will certainly go on record as a year in which not a single memorable new series was introduced. Neither the innovators nor the scissors-and-paste men have succeeded in putting together a convincing show. If we except The Flying Nun (ABC) as beneath contempt (it deals with a Honda-riding sister whose wing-like headgear causes her to take off in a moderately high wind), there is only one program which even pretends to any kind of originality. The Second Hundred Years (ABC) confronts a sixty-seven-year-old father and his son, thirty-three, with the sudden resurrection of their father and grandfather from the Alaskan avalanche in which he was engulfed and deep-frozen in 1900 at the age of (you guessed it) thirty-three. Sophocles and Shakespeare, not to mention Joyce, would have known how to capitalize upon the uncomfortable potentialities of this theme, but the producers of The Second Hundred Years muff their opportunity. Their choice of myth is Rip Van Winkle rather than Oedipus.
Less ambitious practitioners, content to assemble new shows out of the spare parts of old successes, have had equally bad luck this year. The combined talents of Eve Arden, Kaye Ballard, and producer-director Desi Arnaz were not enough to make The Mothers-in-Law (NBC) anything more than the leaden echo of a dozen other family situation comedies. He and She (CBS) seems to have been designed to fill the gap left by the Dick Van Dyke Show. It doesn’t.
The biggest disappointment in a year of which no one had great expectations was N.Y.P.D. (ABC). According to the advance billing, this series was designed not merely to revive the New York style of documentary realism (Naked City, The Defenders, Trials of O’Brien) but also, like cinéma vérité;, to exploit the mobility and flexibility of the hand-held 16 mm. camera. It turned out to be a slightly more humane East-coast Dragnet, fatally limited by poor scripts and a half-hour format that allows no time for development of either plot or character. N.Y.P.D.’s rival, Ironside (NBC), has time for both, but doesn’t know what to do with it all. Raymond Burr was mistaken to cast himself as the wheelchair-ridden Inspector Ironside. Now his entire frame is as wooden and impassive as his face used to be when he played Perry Mason.
The conventional wisdom has it that we are to look to specials for satisfaction this year. In theory, this advice should make sense. Even before the extraordinary popular success of the televised Bridge on the River Kwai and the solid succès d’estime of Death of a Salesman, last year, the networks were putting more and more time and energy into one-shot spectaculars of this kind. The trend has been assisted by a coincident decline in sponsorship: many programs are now produced by or for the networks, who sell commercial breaks on an individual basis to a variety of advertisers. The net effect is to reduce the ability of advertising agencies to impose brand images upon programs as well as products. If this proves to be more than a passing phase, it will be a good thing for television.
Commercial TV may be said to have reached the end of a process comparable with the heroic but brutal era of American industrial expansion which culminated in the production achievements of the early 20th century. The question now is whether the networks can solve the problems of the next phase without embarking upon drastic and inhuman cultural equivalents of the warfare economy that has kept the factories humming since 1939. During the past sixty-odd years, the entertainment industry has had to cope with an expansion of output so spectacular that it makes the achievements of Detroit assembly lines seem almost minor by comparison. As always happens in such circumstances, the explosion took place without much thought for the conservation of resources or the maintenance of quality control.
At the turn of the century, a great music-hall or vaudeville performer (a Grock, George Robey, Charlie Case, or Joe Jackson) could make a life career out of one basic act varied only by occasional new songs or bits of business. Far from craving novelty from their idols, the audiences were apt to resent departures from familiar routines. Slight variations in pace or content were enough to make each performance alive and exciting.
All this changed, of course, as popular culture became mechanized. First, the phonograph recording created a continuous demand for new material. As everyone knows, even a flawless performance can become tedious if it is repeated again and again in exactly the same way; in any case, those who control the new media have a vested interest in novelty. Then the movies not only destroyed the live vaudeville or music-hall audience, but also developed a world market for the infinitely repeatable animated images of popular performers. New and good material became scarcer than talented artists. Even Chaplin’s Tramp who, on the stage, might have lived a long, prosperous, and peaceful life, was forced by the movie medium to undergo a number of metamorphoses (usually up the socio-economic ladder) and ended his career as King of New York.
Meanwhile, the development of commercial network radio created demands for entertainment on a scale never before even dreamed of—about sixteen hours a day, seven days a week on three or four national hook-ups. The almost insatiable market was supplied by entrepreneurs who had about as much regard for the quality of art as the strip-miners of Appalachia have for nature.
The demand was met by standardizing, stereotyping, and prepackaging both performers and their material. The broadcast day was divided into identical and replaceable segments—fifteen, thirty, or sixty minutes in length; soap operas were programmed to make the maximum use of minimum material, with a suspenseful climax every fifteen minutes; the hit-parade rationalized and regulated the rise and fall of popular songs, usually played with machine-like precision by large, well-drilled bands with identical girl singers; popular performers exploited instantly recognizable voices, accents, or stock phrases (“Hi-ho, everybody,” “Wanna buy a duck?,” “I’ll stick to my horse,” etc.) to serve as personal images; once broadcast, programs were discarded like paper cups never to be repeated except as summer replacements; networks conspired to prevent the audience from diversifying itself, by scheduling similar programs to conflict with one another; and the week was rigidly organized to inculcate regular and predictable listening habits.
When television began to take over the great audience from radio, much of all this was simply translated from radio into video terms. Some features are still standard practice on TV. However, even the immense resources of the U.S. are not enough to keep three centralized networks supplied with eighteen hours of new visual material every day. Furthermore, the rigors of TV performance are so great and the dangers of overexposure so real that super-stars, who draw the largest audiences, often refuse to commit themselves to a regular series. (The exceptions are such relaxed and artistically unambitious personalities as Perry Como was and Dean Martin is.) As an almost accidental consequence, the networks are being forced to present an increasingly varied selection of not-so-old movies, rebroadcasts of past TV successes, and special features produced with at least a little more imagination and care than is usually devoted to the episodes of a weekly serial. If, with these alternatives available, the public continues to display its boredom with attempts to exploit some formula situation throughout several dozen permutations and combinations, then television may at last be forced to husband its resources more economically, revive some of the worthwhile programs now stored away on tape or film, and concentrate its vigor and creativity more fruitfully on a less insanely inflated volume of productions. However, the realization of this utopian vision is a long way off, if indeed it is not a mirage.
So far this season, there has not been much to justify hope. Apart from a couple of slick but empty movies produced especially for TV —Stranger on the Run, a Western with Henry Fonda (NBC, October 31) and The Outsider, a detective thriller with Darren McGavin (NBC, November 21)—I have watched only one dramatic special worth even mentioning. Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night (CBS Playhouse, October 17), a ninety-minute play by Loring Mandel directed by George Schaefer, was a study of the aged in the modern family that must have wrung withers all over America. However, this painful exercise in bourgeois realism was raised above the level of popular journalism only by the convincing performance of Melvyn Douglas, who seems to be making a second career typecast as a septuagenarian stoic. An enlightened sponsor bunched the commercial messages at the beginning and end of the play, allowing viewers their longest period of uninterrupted contemplation since President Kennedy’s funeral.
I must confess to having skipped a number of promising programs, including The Wyeth Phenomenon and Gauguin in Tahiti (CBS, October 3 and 21), and several presentations of the Bell Telephone Hour (NBC), on the rather specious grounds that this sort of upper-middlebrow cultural fare is somehow less significant than what is offered to a wider audience. However, I shall devote a subsequent review to programs of this kind. In the meantime, a great deal of dutiful attention to specials with less exalted artistic pretensions produced only one hour of relatively unalloyed pleasure—And All that Brass (NBC, September 13), a witty and imaginative showcase for the Tijuana Brass, a group whose pseudo-marachi style ought in theory to be ersatz and vulgar but in practice is crisp and unhackneyed.
In the field of news and public affairs, several interesting mutations seem to be taking place, some of them representing cautious breaches of the hitherto unbreakable iron law of weekly scheduling. On four consecutive evenings last June, CBS News presented a series of hour-long programs on The Warren Report (June 25-28; produced by Leslie Midgely). This bold plan was presumably adopted to avoid the superficiality and discontinuity that attends an attempt to cope with so complex a subject within the usual limitations. However, it turned out to be a spectacularly missed opportunity. At least one member of the audience who began watching with a reasonably open mind on the subject of the assassination came to the conclusion that CBS News, if not the authors of the Warren Report itself, had some kind of special interest in confirming the official story. The most damning support for this suspicion was not the limited time allowed to dissenters or the evaded discussion of Oswald’s possible links with the FBI or CIA, but the eagerness to bring forward dubious new arguments in general support of the Commission’s findings—particularly an unconvincing reinterpretation of the Zapruder film and a ludicrously inadequate attempt to demonstrate experimentally that a single bullet could have wounded both Kennedy and Connally in the manner claimed by the Report. (It didn’t quite work, but this failure didn’t impair CBS’s faith that it might have worked on November 22, 1963.) No one expected a major television network to reach any other conclusion than that generally approved by the establishment, but it was rather surprising to see a sophisticated news service so clumsy about papering over the cracks in the argument.
A more pleasant and successful departure from regular program routine was ABC’s four-hour documentary spectacular on Africa (September 10; produced by James Fleming). Taking over a tradition which NBC abandoned after its relatively unsuccessful White Paper on foreign policy (1965) and on organized crime (1966), ABC almost made up for its normal indifference to anything but popular entertainment by producing something close to an artistic and educational masterpiece. The program was raised above the level of normal competent documentary by the brilliance of Eliot Elisofon’s direction, the superb score by Alex North, and the intelligent narrative, well spoken by Gregory Peck.
The aim was to destroy the impression of mysterious uniformity implicit in such clichés as “The Dark Continent” by literally irradiating the subject with light and color. Those who lasted the course from 7:00 until 11:00 P.M. emerged with an awareness both painful and delightful of Africa’s awesome diversity. The program was arranged in four roughly self-contained hour-long segments, making it suitable for rebroadcast as part of the regular schedule: a survey of the land, its animals, and its people from the stone-age Gwi Bushmen of the Kalahari to the bizarre sophistication of Lagos, the “comedian’s mask of Nigeria” according to Wolé Soyinka; a study of African politics and the problems of economic, educational, and medical development; some fascinating glimpses of Africans at play and a rather depressing account of attempts to establish multi-racial states; and, finally, a predictably gloomy hour on southern Africa with its various forms of white domination and repression. Everywhere, picture and sound (particularly African music of many varieties) were allowed to carry the maximum burden of meaning: the commentary seldom became obtrusive. Nevertheless, I wish that the program could have been less irritatingly square and American in some of its political judgments. Naturally, Kwame Nkrumah got clobbered, the camera lingering lovingly over evidences of his architectural megalomania and the commentary suggesting that he is responsible for all Ghana’s ills. Likewise, Julius Nyerere was accused of running a Chinese-style Communist government in Tanzania. People who see the world in such simplistic terms are in danger of becoming as pathetic: and irrelevant as poor Sir Harry Oppenheimer, the financier, who was shown making a weak stab at justifying the status quo in South Africa. Fortunately, these were only momentary aberrations in an evening of rare beauty and sanity.
To descend from the sublime to the almost ridiculous, NBC has recently been experimenting with the format of the Huntley-and-Brinkley news show. After local correspondents have made their formal reports, they now sometimes carry on a brief discussion among themselves or with either or both of the anchormen. In theory, this ought to add a much-needed element of dialogue to the usual Olympian monologue of the TV newscaster. In practice, it does not. Dialogue implies some exchange of opinions, and these NBC types play their ideological cards as close to the chest as Eric Sevareid (CBS’s one-man dialectical band). Sad to say, they lack his talent for making careful commonplaces sound elegant and profound. The net result is to reduce the quantity of news without a corresponding improvement in depth or quality of coverage.
All the same, this futile gesture may have been a well-intentioned effort to adjust to new realities. The great consensus that prevailed on U.S. television when I first became a professional viewer2 has melted away amid the welter of urban riots, Vietnam reportage, and anti-war demonstrations. After they have shown Detroit burning, American soldiers cutting ears off Vietcong dead, and Los Angeles police jabbing billy-clubs into the abdomens of demonstrating students, the networks can hardly go on pretending that reality in America is middle class and monolithic like themselves. On the other hand, one can’t expect them to adjust to the new state of affairs with any enthusiasm. Depressing news itself is bad enough for organizations which measure success or failure in millions of satisfied viewers; judged by the same criterion, painful but necessary measures of reform are pure poison. Hence, the large number of programs which do a reasonable job of presenting basic facts, but fail dismally to cope with the task of making sense out of them.
Two recent, rather lugubrious examples were CBS News’s two-part special on Where We Stand in Vietnam (October 24 and November 7) and the Huntley-Brinkley Special Report, Just a Year to Go (NBC, November 10). The CBS shows certainly suggested that the ground “where we stand” is a lot less firm than it was when the network ran a series of programs with the same title in 1966. Charles Collingwood summed up by calling South Vietnam a sick society, suggesting that the war was merely the latest phase of an age-old Asian struggle, and implying that the U.S. had talked and fought her way in by inadvertence. But he still insisted that “commitment is like glue. Once it hardens, you can’t get away from it!”
As its title suggests, the NBC feature was devoted to the forthcoming Presidential campaign. After a few scarifying film clips of urban riots, Vietnam battles, and Washington demonstrations, the program went on to demonstrate by means of public-opinion polls that no candidate, including the President, enjoys either the support of a majority of voters or public confidence that he has any answer to the pressing problems of the nation. Increasing general pessimism about Vietnam was shown to be matched by hardening attitudes on racial issues. Most people apparently don’t think Negroes have a problem. But NBC was content, like CBS, to report the state of opinion and to hint delicately that the remedies proposed will not cure the communal disease. The program seemed to blame the politicians for not offering leadership, but a little self-criticism might have been in order. All that money spent on polls and ratings might be better invested in programs which investigate real possibilities of action rather than forever counting heads in a ritual of democratic narcissism.
1 “A Farewell to TV,” COMMENTARY, January 1967.
2 “Consensus Television,” COMMENTARY, October 1965.