American Television and the Wider World

Star Trek - American Television and the Wider World

Actually, the very first made-for-TV movie, “See How They Run,” premiered on October 17, 1964, a few months sooner than expected. This Universal production is a mediocre crime melodrama that was quickly followed six weeks later by the broadcast of Don Siegel’s next excursion into the telefilm genre, “The Hanged Man.” Like “The Killers” before it, Siegel’s second assignment for NBC-MCA is another remake of a classic film noir, “Ride the Pink Horse.”

Without a doubt, this movie along with the only telefeature to appear during the 1965-66 season, a Western pilot for Dale Robertson entitled, “Scalplock,” both point to the fact that the early TV movie was more derivative of Hollywood for source material than any other dramatic avenue. In fact, the telefilm had not yet produced its own crop of production talent. In the late 1960s, this genre harkened most to Hollywood’s least “respectable” genres for story ideas and themes: the Western, the melodrama, the spy thriller, and the horror / supernatural tale.

Therefore, in retrospect, it is obviously no surprise that the trade publications and movie critics alike were immediately inclined to christen this new form–the rebirth of Hollywood’s B-movie; indeed, it would take the made-for-TV film genre a dozen more years to outgrow this benign, though ultimately disparaging label.

In the early 1970s there was a renaissance of comedy on American television, much of it coming from Americanized versions of British programs. All in the Family (1970-77) took its formula and characters from the BBC’s Till Death Do Us Part, first screened in 1964. The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the first sitcom to feature an independent woman as its main character, also began in 1970.

In 1969 the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) was established as a network of mainly educational stations funded partially by the federal government and partially by subscription. PBS imported much British television: the BBC’s adaptation of The Forsyte Saga was a major ratings success in 1970, outstripped in 1974 by the surreal comedy of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

The main flow of television business went the other way. Before 1960, as part of an aggressive marketing strategy, American television was dumping entertainment product in Europe, Australia and the Third World at rock-bottom prices. In 1970 the BBC could buy American drama at less than one-tenth the cost per viewer-hour of producing it themselves.

To some extent, European television protected itself from transatlantic pollution by quota systems, which limited the amount of American programming that could be screened. German broadcasting had been strongly influenced by the BBC model after World War II, and a national television had begun service in 1953. From the early 1960s German television supported filmmakers in producing plays and films which ventured outside the American -dominated conventions of the international film and television industries. While they produced an impressive body of work, they failed to raise the technical level of production and limited their foreign sales, which kept their cultural production marginalized.

President de Gaulle saw state domination of French television as a necessary counter-measure to the opposition expressed towards him in the French provincial press. Despite reorganization in the wake of the demonstrations of May 1968, the Office de la Radio et Television Française (ORTF) remained firmly and openly in support of the conservative political status quo. Television in France and in Italy, where Radio Televisione Italiano (RAI) had a programming monopoly similar to that of ORTF, transmitted more informational and cultural programming than Germany or Britain.

Britain preserved its reputation for the “least worst television in the world” by actively promoting minority programming and quality television”. The BBC established its second channel in 1964 to maintain the ethos of public service broadcasting while allowing BBCI to move downmarket into more direct competition with the commercial ITV. The adaptations, documentaries and one-off television plays that gave British television its envied reputation for quality all upheld the tradition of things English and literary, Documentaries sponsored the dissemination of knowledge, while literary adaptations of the classics and semi-classics of English literature reproduced the “worthiest” remnants of British culture. One consequence was that, as in Germany, television absorbed writing and directorial talent that might have contributed to a cinematic renaissance. The vapid British cinema of the later 1960s was evidence of the effectiveness of this.

Next Page: Sports Behind the Iron Curtain

Radio Luxembourg and 60’s “Pirate Stations”

Radio Luxembourg and 60's Pirate Stations

Through this apparent decline was due in part to a moral and/or cultural backlash, it had much to do with ingrained aspects of national life and character. One of these was a readiness to live with maiden “Auntie” BBC’s paternalism. British record companies were content – if not enthusiastic – to sell rock `n’ roll, but BBC resistance severely restricted airplay.

The only alternative – the commercial radio station Radio Luxembourg, broadcast from mainland Europe – was very popular with teenagers (especially at 11 pm on a Sunday night for the Top 20), but that popularity did not translate itself into wholesale dissatisfaction with the BBC’s music policy until 1964, when a rash of “ pirate stations” broke out, broadcasting unlicensed from ships moored just outside territorial waters. The pirates introduced an American style of disk jockey to an enthusiastic British audience.

Beneath the surface there was an unprecedented amount of popular musical activity. The steadily increasing popularity of the dance-hall as a venue for “sweet Saturday night” created a demand for bands at a local level. The existence of such bands was in large measure the product of a short-lived skiffle bom. This hybrid of American blues and folk music and British music hall was an offshoot of the fashion for traditional jazz (“trad”) of the mid-and late fifties. It had three important consequences: it gave a considerable push to the evolving process of musical “democratization”; it raised the guitar to preeminence; and it introduced a direct link to the roots of black American music.

Next Page: American Television and the Wider World

Vietnam: Bringing the War Home

Vietnam: Bringing the War Home

As the Vietnam War shook the country’s faith in their government, it also influenced writers, philosophers and theologians to question the metaphysical implications of these events. Vietnam, the first rock’n’ roll war, was also the first television war, with combat footage on the nightly news.

Johnson tried assiduously to manage television coverage of the war, pundits debated endlessly about whether television had “brought the war home” or had trivialized it as just another interruption in the stream of commercials, and whether the scenes of carnage and the reports of American atrocities had numbed its audience or had increased anti-war sentiment or street violence.

Television reporting was brutally attracted to scenes of violence and dissent – they made good pictures. By the end of the 1960s political groups denied conventional access to the media had recognized the staged act of violence as an effective means of gaining attention. Terrorism happened for the television camera. Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, sax the media as his enemy.

Although his1968 campaign was an object – lesson in the packaging of a candidate’s image, his attitude had been indelibly marked by his failure in the televised debates with Kennedy in 1960. Even before the Watergate Senate hearings topped the ratings in 1974, Nixon and his staff regularly denounced television’s “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

In common with most Western television systems, the Federal Communications Commissions Fairness Doctrine enforced the provision of equal time for the expression of opposing views on any given issue. Its effect was to secure the middle ground for television itself, and to make its presenters the arbiters of political dispute. Television’s credibility relied on its apparent neutrality, something that marked it out from the partisan allegiances of newspapers.

By the late 1960s television news was expected to be profitable as well as prestigious. CBS Evening News cost $7 million to produce in 1969, and made a profit of $13 million. The need for pictorial content meant that television took to “managing” the production of news in ways reminiscent of the “yellow press” at the beginning of the century. Needing to deliver stories with both drama and immediacy, journalists passed from gathering news to creating it, in the form of predictable and manageable events such as press conferences and publicity stunts.

American youth, on one hand, are brought up in the knowledge of American history, which includes many well-known and glorified examples of “rugged individualism,” and are encouraged to emulate this “truly American” trait. On the other hand, however, American youth are constantly challenged to conform to national and patriotic standards requiring high degrees of conformity to majority opinion.

Although these conflicting values have of course been a natural part of any era, they appear to have been unusually intense during the late 1960’s when dissent and counterdissent concerning the war in South Vietnam ran high. Some of the basic questions that emerged for the sociological observer concerned the surprisingly widespread public opinion which perceived dissent not as an expression of independent individual thinking and believing but as subversive and “un-American” conduct.

The music took shape amid the creative ferment and changing dynamics of the mid-60s, as popular music became more overtly political; opposition to the Vietnam War mounted; and the civil rights movement grew to encompass different minorities who began organizing and demanding changes to the status quo.

Television news stimulated an ever-growing cynicism and disaffection with politics by its emphasis on dissent and disagreement. At the same time the medium itself became the vehicle for the normal. It existed to sell viewers to advertisers, and advertisers were little interested in showing their wares to black ghetto-dwellers, for example, who might want the proffered consumer goods but lacked the wherewithal to purchase them. Television’s largest advertisers – the manufacturers of automobiles, cosmetics, food, drugs, household goods and, until 1971, tobacco – wanted the networks to supply them with a middle-class audience for their sales pitch.

In the late 1960s the American networks discovered that a detailed study of the audience provided them with a way of selling advertising time at higher prices by selecting programs aimed at a wealthier, educated audience. Fewer shows were aimed at middle-aged, middle-class viewers in large towns and rural areas. More programming was directed at a younger, urban audience with more money to spend. The controlled irreverence of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, launched in 1967, was one gesture toward this audience.

In October 1982, film audiences around the country cheered as they watched a Vietnam vet named John Rambo single-handedly take down a posse of blood-hungry policemen and National Guardsmen in the Oregon wilderness. A rousing populist fable that reflected the public’s growing discontent with the political establishment, Rambo: First Blood became a world-wide box office hit, spawning two sequels and transforming Sylvester Stallone, fresh off the success of Rocky, into one of the biggest stars of his generation.

Most notable, however, was John Rambo’s ascension to the ranks of global icon, a position which, two-and-a-half decades later, is undiminished. One can still find Rambo mudflaps and shopping bags in the Far East, Rambo T-shirts in Africa and Rambo action figures in Central America.

Next Page: Radio Luxembourg and 60’s “Pirate Stations

Television in the Sixties

Television in the Sixties

On September 23, 1961, NBC introduced its new series, “Saturday Night at the Movies,” featuring Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable in “How to Marry a Millionaire.” This broadcast was an astounding success and pointed to Hollywood’s growing inclination to release its post-1948 movies to television. Seven more series representing all three networks and every night of the week appeared over the next five years.

television in the sixties, abc sunday telecast, nbc network, abc network, john f kennedy, communication commision, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, Andy Griffith Show, Star Trek, Bonanza

The culmination of this trend was an ABC Sunday telecast of “The Bridge on the River Kwai” in September 1966.” It would be some time before anyone tried to make the same case for American television, which had changed little from the way Newton Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, had described it to its producers in 1961, as “a vast wasteland”. Minow had just been appointed to his post by John F. Kennedy, and many in his audience might have expected gentler treatment from a president who had been elected, they believed, on the strenght of his appeal on television.

The precise birth date of the telefilm is arguable, although only a handful of contenders exist prior to 1961. Claims range from Ron Amateau’s 60-minute Western, “The Bushwackers, ” which appeared on CBS in 1951, to Disney’s “Davey Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier,” which was broadcast as three separate segments during the 1954-55 debut season of “The Wonderful World of Disney.”

Also, it was not uncommon during the late 1950s for TV’s dramatic anthologies to present some of their teleplays on either film or videotape. Three shows especially, “Desilu Playhouse,” “Kraft Theatre,” and “The Bob Hope Show,” filmed a number of their one-hour offerings, while a few of these presentations were even expanded into a second hour airing the following week as a finale of a two-parter. Still, these haphazard examples have really more to do with trivia than historical precedent, as the man primarily responsible for pioneering the formal properties of the telefeature is Jennings Lang, a New York lawyer who became programming chief for MCA’s Revue in the late 1950s.

Television obliged politicians to become performers in a way radio never had. Kennedy, youthful, authoritative and almost handsome enough to play the lead in a TV doctor series, seemed perfectly cast. Pursuing a policy of accessibility to the camera, he held live press conferences, delivered an ultimatum to Khrushchev via television during the Cuban missile crisis, and encouraged his wife to take the nation on a Tour of the White House. The impact of his assassination was intensified by the fact that he was not just the President, but a television celebrity whom the viewing public had been encouraged to feel they knew through the intimacy of the medium. For the four days between the assassination and the funeral all three networks suspended their regular schedules and carried no advertising.

By 1960 half the population of the United States depended on television as its prime source of news. Network prime time had settled into a mixture of half-hour comedy shows and hour-long action/drama series. Drama, like comedy, was constructed around a repeatable situation, usually provided by a professional activity. Lawyer- and doctor -shows provided an ideal format for hourlong stories featuring guest stars as clients or patients, but the same formula was used for series on teachers and social workers.

The formula had its limitations. The central characters had to remain unchanged by the episode’s events, in order to be in their proper places by the following week’s episode. The serial form provided the programming stability necessary to deliver viewers to advertisers on a regular basis. Networks tried to carry their audiences from one show to the next, employing the principle of Least Objectionable Programming. This meant that the majority of viewers who simply watched television, rather than selecting specific programs, would wacth whichever show they disliked least.

As mentioned earlier, the fall of 1966 was when ABC first decided to begin telecasting a number of Hollywood “blockbuster” films, including “The Bridgeon the River Kwai” and later “The Robe.” CBS, on the other hand, strove for prestige programming to counterbalance its lineup of popular, though pedestrian situation comedies, such as “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Green Acres,” “Petticoat Junction,” the “Andy Griffith Show,” and “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.”

These specials were composed mostly of important American plays, like “Death of a Salesman” and “The Glass Menagerie,” which actually pulled moderate, though respectable ratings for a time. Most important, however, Lang was first able to interest NBC in financially promoting the made-for-TV form in the spring of 1964. By 1966, it was apparent to both Universal TV and NBC that they had gambled themselves into developing a television genre of enormous potential, as economic dividends were realized almost immediately from this feature-length hybrid. In contrast, however, much of the aesthetic and socio-cultural possibilities inherent in the telefilm would lie dormant for another five years.

The unit of television viewing was not the individual program but the daytime or evening schedule as a whole. As a result, television placed little emphasis on the distinction between fact and fiction. In sports and game shows it offered its audience an engagement with an endless dramatic experience, in which consequences and conclusions mattered less than the exuberance of competition, choice and performance. Television had a peculiar capacity to dissolve distinctions between comedy, drama, news and commercials.

Television’s other typical form, the talk show, perfected its formula in the early 1960s with The Tonight Show, hosted by Johnny Carson. Talk shows packaged personality as a commodity, but all television employed it; even newsreaders became celebrities.

NBC and MCA, Inc., inaugurated 1964 by creating “Project 120,” a never fully actualized weekly film anthology whose very name echoed the live dramatic series of the 1950s. NBC allotted $250,000 for the first telefeature, as MCAUniversal hired Hollywood journeyman Don Siegel to direct “‘Johnny North,’ an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s short story, ‘The Killers,’ starring John Cassavetes, Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, and Ronald Reagan in his last role. The movie that resulted eventually cost over $900,000 and was deemed by the network “too spicy, expensive, and violent for TV screens.”

Clearly, it was evident to both NBC and MCA from the outset that the budgetary constraints and the dictates of content would be different for the telefilm from what was previously expected for the usual theatrical picture. As a result, “Johnny North” was retitled “The Killers,” and the film was subsequently released to movie theaters nationwide. Mort Werner, NBC-TV vice president in charge of programming at the time, reflected upon this experience: “We’ve learned to control the budget. Two new ‘movies’ will get started soon, and the series probably will show up on television in 1965.”

Next Page: Vietnam: Bringing the War Home

Art Cinema and the New Wave

Amarcord Movie by Federico Fellini - 1973

As the major Hollywood studios began to lose their domination of the American movie industry and turn their attention to television production, the leadership was taken up by independent producers and directors, making their own films and then distributing them through the networks originally established by the Hollywood companies.

In France, a New Wave of filmmakers, many of them former critics, emerged in 1959 when François Truffaut’s 400 Blows won the Best Direction prize at the Cannes Film Festival. As critics on the magazine Cahiers du Cinema, Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and Jean-Luc Godard had attacked the dominant tradition in French film of respectful adaptations of “quality” novels, and asserted that the true creators of cinema were its directors. As directors, they experimented with subject matter and technique, producing films dealing with more complex and daring themes than the conventional sentimentalities of Hollywood.

This experimentation would not have been possible without an audience prepared to regard cinema as an art form comparable in esthetic merit to the theater. This new audience -young, middle-class, educated and internationally minded- welcomed a cinema that provided the stylistic innovation and thematic substance of literary modernism, for evening entertainment.

Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Peter Bogdanovich, and Francis Ford Coppola have provided America with a new group of filmmakers, men who have demonstrated a certain independence of subject and method. Part of the void left by the diminishing importance of Hollywood has been filled by foreign filmmakers whose films have been greeted with enthusiasm by American audiences. Ingmar Bergman, François Truffaut, and Federico Fellini have dominated, but for the first time countries outside of Europe have begun to leave their mark. Japan has been especially productive.

Critics in the press and specialized film journals now championed the director as author, and this individualization of creativity made “cinema” critically respectable, something the bourgeois audience could care about. After 1960, enough people cared about cinema to constitute a market sufficiently large to support a personalized cinema that delighted in idiosyncratic stylistic touches, particularly if they were used to embellish sexual or psychological content.

The development of a general market for the cinematic form of self-conscious modernism established by Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and the French New Wave gave room to further experimentation. In such films as Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime (1968), orthodox chronology was abandoned in favor of stylized meditations on the uncertainties of time.

It also opened up a Western market for East European films for the first time since the 1920s. The Hungarian director Miklos Jancso and the filmmakers of Czechoslovak New Wave formed part of the European art film movement, until the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia brought the “Prague Spring” to an end in 1968.

Perhaps, however, the most important change in movies in recent years has been in the audience. By no means the number of people who went to the movies in the late 1930s still do, but those who do go are younger and more knowledgeable about film. They read the books, subscribe to film journals, watch filmed interviews with movie people on television, and read daily reviews. Many in today’s audience are college-educated and have taken film courses while in school; they can talk intelligently about montage, jump cuts, and fade outs. It is for this audience that Scenes from a Marriage is imported from Europe and Star Wars is made.

Next Page: Television in the Sixties