[24 April 2007]
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)
“The air is now completely filled with cowboys, fertilizers and inanity,” Groucho Marx growled in 1959. “The country is full of jerks, and they’re now getting exactly what they deserve.” Two years later, Newton Minnow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, agreed that television was “a vast wasteland.” Network executives, he claimed, were bottom-line businessmen who reached for the largest—and lowest—common denominator.
In Same Time, Same Station, James L. Baughman, a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explains how it happened. Baughman tells a familiar story—commerce crushes cultural aspiration—but he adds fresh and fascinating details from behind the scenes at the television networks. And he avoids nostalgia for a “golden age” of television that never was.
The “might-have-been” hero of Baughman’s book is Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, an ad man (and father of Sigourney) who became head of NBC-TV in 1949. Convinced that he could attract a mass audience by programming up and not down, Weaver declared his grand design was “the creation of an all-people elite.” He tried to break sponsors’ control over content and admonished producers and directors to include “informational, instructional, cultural and inspirational material” in all telecasts. Weaver commissioned productions of Hamlet, Macbeth and The Magic Flute, fought soap operas with Matinee Theater, launched the Today show and The Tonight Show, introduced dramatic “anthologies,” and, as Mr. Spectacular, was the fairy godfather of Peter Pan.
In 1956, Weaver was forced to resign. Baughman suggests that David Sarnoff, head of RCA, the parent company of NBC, resented the attention Weaver was getting. But budgetary concerns clearly prompted the decision. CBS led NBC in revenues and ratings—and the gap was growing. Intent on attracting well-educated, affluent and selective adults, Weaver had neglected “heavy viewers” who developed the habit of watching a series every week.
While Paley’s comets at CBS lighted the sky with I Love Lucy, December Bride, The Jack Benny Show, The Phil Silvers Show and Private Secretary, Weaver (whose comedy-variety hit Your Show of Shows had left the air) dismissed situation comedy as “a limited field within a limited field.” NBC’s daytime hit was not Matinee Theater, but Queen for a Day, a maudlin audience giveaway show that Weaver had not developed.
Baughman emphasizes that Weaver was not a cultural snob. His show-business hero was comedian Fred Allen, not Laurence Olivier. He accepted television as a commercial medium, wanting NBC to inhabit a space between “a relentlessly high-cultural BBC and the almost as relentlessly mass-cultural CBS.” Acknowledging that Weaver is “the historian’s tempter,” Baughman implies that he was destined to fail. Try as he might—and his efforts are easy to exaggerate—Weaver could not overcome “a century-long imposition of class over culture.”
As Weaver left the scene, ABC was teaching Western Civ to millions of viewers—with Maverick, Cheyenne, Sugarfoot, Wyatt Earp, The Lawman and The Rifleman. The Untouchables was knocking off Playhouse 90. And American Bandstand was reaching younger viewers at “the get age.” Baughman calls ABC the “anti-public-service network.” As late as 1969, one-third of the network’s affiliates did not run its evening news program. The network, critic Martin Mayer wrote, “finds almost no support among its affiliates for `quality’ programming.”
It would stay that way, as long as government did not fund public education and the FCC preserved the networks’ monopoly through its licensing policy for VHF and UHF. Television, insisted Leonard Goldenson, chief executive of United Paramount Theaters, the parent company of ABC, “isn’t a Tiffany business. It’s Woolworth and K mart.”