When the lavish tedium of this season's regular television schedules began to be apparent, optimists among the critics advised us to count on network specials for most of our “viewing pleasure” during 1965—66. Now that the season is approaching its close, perhaps we can consider whether this was good advice.
There has never been a more arid year for television drama of any kind. Apart from occasional imaginative productions on such first-rate Sunday-morning religious programs as Lamp Unto My Feet (CBS), anthology drama survives only on Bob Hope Theater (NBC), a series in which infantile scripts are given at best routinely competent production. The most ambitious non-musical dramatic specials have been two Hall of Fame productions (NBC): “Inherit the Wind” (18 November) with Ed Begley and Melvyn Douglas, and a re-run of last season's “The Magnificent Yankee” (3 February) with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, both produced by George Shaefer. These expressions of pious Americanism were worthy enough in themselves, but rather pathetic as tokens of commercial television's involvement in the arts. “Death of a Salesman,” scheduled for April, will hardly change the image.
To be fair, the dearth of non-serial drama on television is a worldwide phenomenon, not peculiar to the United States. Perhaps it is naive to expect a medium which offers a service as domestic as a picture window and as continuous as running water (more so than New York water, in fact) to duplicate the conventional forms of theater and cinema, which are based on an audience which chooses freely among alternatives and commits time, energy, and money to the act of participation. The vast, unbuttoned universality of the television audience and the ritualistic repetitiveness of the weekly schedule mean that empathy is achieved, if at all, only after a half-dozen or more instalments of a series have established a cadre of habitual viewers. Why should any dramatist choose to write for such a medium so long as theater and movies are open to him? Almost without exception, the best television dramas have been adaptations of works originally conceived for other media: the tendency of popular TV programs generally to be “spin-offs” of movies, comic books, novels, or musical comedies is more than a matter of mere witless imitation,
Pay or subscription television may some day change this situation by helping to isolate meaningful audiences. In the meantime, we wait without excessive hope to see whether The Plainsman, a two-hour movie made expressly for showing on TV (CBS), will represent any kind of breakthrough.
The approach of Christmas was heralded by a spate of glossily banal special productions. A Charlie Brown Christmas (CBS) was probably the best of the bunch, but Charles Schulz's chaste, economical draftsmanship, the excellent children's voices, and Vince Guraldi's crisp performance of his own score (for piano and rhythm) did not quite compensate for the predictable lapse into sentimentality at the end. The season of goodwill is all very well, but it would take the genius of a popular vulgarian like Dickens to carry off the reformation of Lucy Van Pelt.
At first glance, the year's crop of variety specials may seem to have been a rich one, ranging from frenetic (Sammy Davis on NBC) to lethargic (Perry Como, also on NBC), and from nostalgic (The Wonderful World of Burlesque, with Danny Thomas, NBC) to narcissistic (My Name is Barbra, a rerun of Barbra Streisand's triumphant exercise in self-absorption, CBS). In general, however, these productions suffer from similar defects—too many people perched on stools, too many duets of snatches from ancient hit songs, too many soft-shoe routines, and too many in-group show-biz jokes. (Who is Dean Martin, that his drinking habits should become a great American myth?) Yet after all objections have been made, the miscellaneous, discontinuous strip format of such programs is probably well adapted to both the strengths and limitations of the medium. Vaudeville and not the theater is the true parent of TV entertainment.
When television sets out self-consciously to exploit or examine the myths it lives by, the result is seldom illuminating. A Salute to Stan Laurel (CBS) produced last November under the direction of Seymour Berns was not much of a tribute to the late comedian (who appeared briefly in a number of film clips brutally hacked out of their original context), and did not enhance the reputations of participants such as Dick Van Dyke, Lucille Ball, or Phil Silvers. On the same evening, David Wolper's The Incredible World of James Bond (NBC) turned out to be no more than an anthology of violent bits from the Bond films. Sinatra (CBS), on November 16, produced by Don Hewitt, did not live up (or down) to its advance billing as an improper exposé of the singer's private life. On the contrary, the program spent most of its time on his familiar public personality. Still, there were moments when the facade was breached, as when Sinatra observed that “if the press reports the world the way it reports me, then we are in real trouble.”
Last May, CBS News pioneered a new kind of audience-participation program with the National Driver's Test. By dramatizing common situations in the life of every driver, giving the audience a chance to choose the right course of action from a number of alternatives, allowing viewers to compare their choice with that of groups in TV studios around the country as well as with the results of a national poll, this program succeeded in achieving the almost impossible. It reached a large audience, involved them fairly deeply, controlled their response, and communicated useful information.
The ratings for Driver's Test were so high that CBS decided to offer a number of similar specials during the current season: the National Citizenship Test (November 9; produced by Vern Diamond and Martin Weldon) revealed, among other facts, that 41 per cent of viewers were unable to name either senator from their state; the National Health Test (January 18 and 25), demonstrated that many of us are ignorant of some elementary medical facts; the National Income Tax Test is conveniently scheduled for April. NBC offered CBS the sincerest form of flattery by coming up with Testing: Is Anybody Honest} (January 23, produced by Craig Fisher), a program which shrewdly inveigled us into exposing and recognizing some of our own favorite hypocrisies. (How Quick Is Your Eye?, designed to demonstrate some of the pitfalls in the way of accurate perception, went on in late February.)
ABC got into the act a little late, and characteristically vulgarized a good idea. Garry Moore's People Poll (February 4, produced by Selig Alkon) was a prime specimen of lowbrow narcissism in which a lot of “ordinary” people who looked as though they had been chosen for their roles by Central Casting answered questions such as “Who is the boss in your household?” and “What do you think of boys with long hair?” The audience was invited to compare its own opinions on these vital matters with the national averages reported by the Gallup Poll, but a warm glow rather than enlightenment appeared to be what the producer was aiming at.
Only Driver's Test seems to have attracted a really large audience, and there is an obvious limit to the intellectual and moral sophistication of which such programs are capable. The Television Information Office is boasting about Elmo Roper's figures which indicate that the public now depend on TV for most of their information. Writing in the New York Herald Tribune, John Horn rather cruelly suggests that these shows test people's knowledge of what the networks don't bother to tell them. A good point, but not, one hopes, an argument for abandoning the experiment entirely.
Without a doubt, the most exciting and interesting specials this season have been devoted to the debate over Vietnam. CBS's “continuing coverage of the ‘crisis’ (later amended to ‘war’) in Vietnam” has certainly been as gripping as ABC's “continuing drama of Peyton Place.” Perhaps similarities between the two series don't end with the strong-willed, inscrutable, petulant men whose big houses dominate their respective universes. Lyndon Johnson and Martin Peyton may be equally fated to suffer frustration and partial defeat on issues which they consider vital.
As late as mid-December, the consensus of last summer1, which kept network coverage of Vietnam hewing pretty close to the official line, still held firm. On December 14, CBS ran a special on Where We Stand in Vietnam (Producer-Director: Vern Diamond) in which six staff correspondents were released from the network's normal ban on the expression of personal opinions. Nobody at the front office need have worried. Though they grumbled about the administration's lack of candor and Congress's abdication of responsibility, all six appeared to agree that there was no realistic alternative to the existing policy. The program would have been very dull if it had not been for James Cameron, a British journalist just back from North Vietnam. The vigor of his dissent from the official view of the war appeared to shock and baffle the network men, and there was no real meeting of minds. Nevertheless, Cameron's was the first extended and unmuted voice of opposition I heard in some six or seven months of following the Vietnam “debate” on television.
A similar pattern developed on CBS' Town Meeting of the World the following week. Professor Henry Kissinger and two Harvard students defended a resolution that “the USA should carry out its commitment in Vietnam,” against Michael Foot, M.P., and two Oxford undergraduates. The witty, freewheeling debating style of the British team made the Americans seem painfully square and dangerously naive. It was a victory less of logic and argument than of style and rhetoric. Nevertheless, for the first time, an anti-administration point-of-view was allowed to prevail on a major public-affairs broadcast. No American dissenter had, up to this point, been given the opportunity to expound his views at length.
On December 20, NBC presented Vietnam—December 1965 (produced by Chet Hagan), a curious program which began (rather belligerently for the season of peace and goodwill) with General Westmoreland chatting to GI's about killing VC's, but ended moderately on a note of uncertainty. Chet Huntley made the rather unconvincing suggestion that Vietnik protest marchers were reacting to the shock of Kennedy's death, but in the next breath complained that the State Department had never successfully countered the argument that the conflict is a civil war. Frank McGee pleaded for either more candor or retirement with honor from the conflict.
NBC's Projection '66 (December 26, produced by Chet Hagan) managed to achieve two hours of unrelieved boredom about foreign policy in spite (or because) of the participation of NBC's entire stable of correspondents plus members of the Foreign Policy Association In contrast, CBS's half-hour Christmas in Vietnam (December 28, produced by Bernard Birnbaum) gave viewers a vivid and moving glimpse of ordinary decent men going about the business of war, and did not once strike a false ideological or emotional note. Dean Rusk, on Meet the Press (NBC, January 23), demonstrated that even Telstar and an expensive covey of foreign journalists in five capitals cannot make a press conference rewarding if the man being questioned is determined not to give anything away.
Late in January, the television consensus ceased merely to show cracks: it seemed at least temporarily to disintegrate. The most exciting news special in years was a 90-minute CBS Vietnam Perspective (the first of several) on “The Congress and the War” (January 30, directed by Robert Vitarelli) in which Representative Hale Boggs and Senators Clark, Morse, Mundt, and Stennis engaged in a debate so free-swinging as to seem almost incredible to anyone who had endured the countless long gray hours of muffled and evasive rhetoric over the past few months. Senator Morse even succeeded in ruffling the bland imperturbability of Eric Sevareid: not content with declaring that “we are an international outlaw in Vietnam,” Morse, speaking directly into the camera, made a fervent plea for an end to secrecy. Sevareid abruptly changed the subject.
Whatever their views on Vietnam, everyone ought to be pleased that, belatedly and reluctantly, the networks finally accepted their responsibility to transmit a variety of opinions rather than an almost unwavering official line. None of the subsequent Vietnam Perspective specials matched the excitement of this one, but even the most decorous of them allowed more opportunity to dissent than would have been possible a few weeks earlier. Meanwhile, ABC decided to devote each weekly edition of Scope to the great debate until the crisis subsides. All networks cleared their afternoon schedules (at least some of the time) in order to cover the appearances of George Kennan, Dean Rusk, and Generals Gavin and Maxwell Taylor before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As everyone knows, the result was some of the most exciting political television since the 1960 election campaign. The Kennedy-Nixon debates were tense and dramatic, but because each man was trying to crowd his opponent out of the middle ground, the real issues between them were blurred or ignored. That could not be said about theseconfrontations.
But why did the networks begin so suddenly to display such an enthusiasm for dialectic? Not, certainly, because their news staffs reached a rational decision to broaden the intellectual scope of their Vietnam coverage. I. F. Stone has described the fate of any Washington correspondent who tries to express fundamental disagreement with the government—social isolation, exclusion from off-the-record briefings, and savage whispering campaign attacks. These add up to a price that networks cannot afford to pay.
The explanation for the change is to be found in the deviant activities of two important members of the Washington Establishment, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Majority Leader. If Senators Fulbright and Mansfield had not finally decided to express in public misgivings which they had long held in private, the network news services would never have dared to disturb the consensus. Clearly they interpret their role in the political process to be passive rather than active. As it is, the debate has been opened up at least six months too late to have much influence on foreign policy.
During the past year, CBS News has more than justified its claim to be the most responsible and public-spirited of the network services (a modest enough boast). It is sad that its president, Fred Friendly, should have resigned on a matter of principle, just as his policies were being fully vindicated. He was overruled by CBS Vice-President John Schneider on a decision to suspend regular afternoon programs in order to cover the testimony of George F. Kennan before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (NBC carried the hearings, ironically using a pooled CBS camera crew.)
Commercial television certainly has its anomalies. One of the most extraordinary is its horror of offering the viewer a real choice at any given moment of the weekly schedule—on Saturday afternoon nothing but sports, late Tuesday evening nothing but public affairs, at blast-off time nothing but Cape Kennedy, and so on. And now Friendly has resigned in defense of the inalienable right of even the most apolitical housewife to choose between watching the Senate hearings or switching off her set. Of course there were other important issues at stake, but surely networks who placed the public interest before considerations of prestige and profit would long ago have reached an agreement to coordinate their program planning so as to avoid wasteful and irritating duplication. I wish Mr. Friendly had taken his stand on a matter of greater substance.
Do they order these things better elsewhere? In Television: A World View (Syracuse University Press), Wilson P. Dizard describes a few national television services from which American public-affairs broadcasters could pick up some tips—but he also describes a great many from which they could not. On the other hand, the world's appetite for American light entertainment is apparently insatiable; even the most high-minded or anti-capitalist television systems do not dare to ignore it. Mr. Dizard's lively and lucid survey gives a full account of the social, political, economic, and technical aspects of television broadcasting everywhere from Hong Kong to Hungary, and from West Germany to South Africa (where the most important fact about TV is that there is none). Apart from traces of irritation with the British and a tendency to worry too much about the American image abroad, the author succeeds in maintaining remarkable sanity and detachment.
During the next few years, communications satellites will probably begin to break down the monopolistic control which nations (apart from exceptions like Canada) are able to impose upon their television systems. Americans may then have an opportunity to compare the performance of their own networks with that of the BBC or the First German Television Network. In the meantime, a number of British adventure series are beginning to be scheduled in prime American time. The Saint (NBC), The Baron (ABC), Secret Agent (CBS), The Avengers and Court Martial (both ABC summer replacements) are all heavily indebted to American models—but then so were the Beatles! Are these shows a portent that television is on the road to becoming as international as the movies? Whatever the case, they provide a change of style and pace from the standard Hollywood product: Secret Agent and The Avengers, in particular, are written, acted, and directed with a swinging elegance that almost makes up for the violent triviality of their plots.
1 See “Consensus Television,” COMMENTARY, October 1965.