Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Pat Weaver's Defeat

For a cadet teacher in East Lansing, Michigan in 1952, James L. Baughman’s “Same Time, Same Station: Creating American Television, 1948-1961 (John Hopkins University Press, 2007) is a marvel. To a lower middle class Detroiter, who had never seen a symphony concert or a Broadway play before he got to graduate school, it describes with marvelous completeness (125 pages of footnotes in a 433 page book) the epic battle between the visionary head of NBC, Sylvester L. “Pat” Weaver, and the rest of the emerging networks TV brass.

A Dartmouth preppie from a well-to-do Los Angeles family, he had cut his broadcasting teeth as an adman for network radio. He believed that the new medium of television could generate an era of mass enlightenment. Especially if he could break the old tradition of radio sponsors controlling broadcast content.

Weaver argued with real conviction that every American could become “an Athenian”. ENLIGHTENMENT THROUGH EXPOSURE was his motto. If only he could break that deathly hold of sponsors on broadcasting content. “General” David Sarnoff was equally eager to sell his RCA color TV’s and backed the innovator in the belief his “spectaculars” could sell the masses on his sets.

Sarnoff was an immigrant Russian Jew who hadn’t finished high school, and Pat the preppie rode roughshod over his boss’s status panic. Baughman is especially perceptive in showing the vulnerability of other leaders in the new medium to such personality conflicts.

But Weaver’s rationale for upgrading TV appealed to many young teachers. Assigning Maurice Evans in “Macbeth” or Edward R. Murrow’s “See It Now” documentaries seemed a natural. Especially promising were the original TV plays like Paddy Chayefsky’s “Marty” and “The Catered Affair”. My first national publication was an essay on such classroom use of live TV, “Everyman in Saddle Shoes” (Scholastic Teacher, 1954).

And Michigan State had just opened a UHF TV channel and was eager for local participation. So I got my 12th grade English students to organize a weekly pop culture hour, “Everyman Is a Critic”. We discussed one topic a week--fashion trends, pop music, racing cars, and of course, television. These maneuvers led to a Ford Foundation fellowship in New York (1955-56) to speculate on other forms of collaboration, made especially effective when I was appointed the radio TV editor of Scholastic Teacher magazine. My first ambition was to interview Weaver, but his secretary grew colder and colder the more I tried.

Serendipitously, I read in the New York Times (my new daily ritual riding the subway from our apartment in Flushing to the magazine offices in mid- Manhattan across the street from the Main Public Library) that there was a White House Conference on Education scheduled for the next day. Motivated by the chutzpah of a midwestern Julien Sorel, I showed up at the Washington Hilton, uninvited.

As I entered the foyer I saw Ralph Bunche (he had recently been on a Time cover) in a deep conversation with another man. I butted in, and explained that I was on a fellowship to discover creative ways of using the new medium of television in high school English classrooms.

The unidentified man broke their stunned silence at my interruption by asking,”Well, how is it going, Mr. Hazard?” I exclaimed at my joy of New York’s museums, theaters, and restaurant. But I couldn’t get an interview with Pat Weaver. My interrogator then identified himself as Roy Larson, the publisher of Time magazine, as well as a board member of the Foundation which had given me the fellowship! “How would you like an office in Time to facilitate your research?” I gulped, and agreed to meet him Monday in his office at the Time Life Building.

So there I was looking out over Manhattan from my “office”, wondering what my next move should be. I’ll make one last pass at Weaver. The secretary was so distant you could see frost forming on the telephone wires. “Mr. Hazard, this is the beginning of the fall season, and Mr. Weaver is very, very busy.” I allowed as how it was the beginning of my research fellowship, but that I’d appreciate fifteen minutes with him, and then gave her what turned out to be the magic Time number, Judson 62525.

It was nine a.m. At ten thirty I was invited across Sixth Avenue to Weaver’s office. To my temporary dismay, I found him on a Bongo Board, a kind of one-man see-saw that he claimed helped him think more clearly. Hmmmm. I was becoming enlightened in an unexpected way by this exposure. Nonetheless, when I left an hour later, he had arranged for me to have full access to his network, beginning with the publicity department, which arranged for me to watch teleplays in rehearsal and set up appointments with other network brass.

And Sid in PR made it easy for me to duplicate access to the other networks. It got me fascinating interviews with academics like Columbia’s Richard Hofstadter and Marshall McLuhan as well as broadcasting innovators like Don McGannon at Westinghouse and Richard D. Heffner at WNBC-TV. I had learned the first rule of mass media. It ain’t who you know; it’s how you use the telephone.

Baughman is especially gifted at identifying crucial “little” details, such as Dave Garroway’s “Today” show’ failing until the cheeky chimp J. Fredd Muggs showed up to mesmerize the children at home. Weaver pioneered other formats which accommodated his keep the sponsors from mucking up content rule such as “The Home Show” (which he originally dubbed “Shopping”! And of course “The Tonight Show”.

I wonder how much more Pat could have done had he not alienated “General” Sarnoff (that wartime honorary “degree” always had to be used in addressing him!) The day the General convened his top execs to announce that Weaver was the new chairman, Pat arrived late--to find the General in the chairman’s chair. Weaver made him give it up! He lost “his” Chair in the Fall of 1956.

Especially good is the story of how Walt Disney saved ABC-TV because he had more confidence in the medium than the execs who didn’t know which way to turn to fight the two main networks. “The Mickey Mouse Club” assembled the moppets just as Dick Clark later attracted the teenagers that together made the “third” network viable. South Philly teens didn’t cost anything. And once the TV audience stabilized, the number of Afro-American dancers was kept to a minimum!

I had always wondered why Walter Annenberg built his first TV station at 46th and Market. (It was because it was next to an arena that early programmers thought was to be a programming mainstay: wrestling, boxing, roller derbies.) He later gifted it to WHYY, until the area became a bit too dicey for that staff. Incidentally, when I did a 13 part University of the Air series on architecture in 1960, the crew was the same one that did “American Bandstand.” They used to tease me about my miniscule audience. I urged them to plant a few South Philly fillies in the background—to see my ratings soar.

While Baughman spends some time on the creation of news and public affairs traditions at the various networks, including eventually PBS, he doesn’t give it the same attention he does to entertainment programming. And while the Ronald Reagan ukase that virtually ended the concept of “equal time” comes two decades after the end of his account, it ignores what I think is the gravest weakness of contemporary television, the pollutocratic spending in our electoral cycles. Most European TV networks give electoral contestants equal free time. Nonetheless, his analysis of the new medium’s first 13 years is overall exemplary historiography.

I still believe that the failure of the university humanists to encourage excellence in the emerging medium was a gross trahison des clercs. Their ignoring TV was coeval with their sinking into the swamp of Frenchified mistiphysics as well as their simultaneous overproduction of PhD.’s who wandered in frustration from one part time job to another, with no pension rights, no health insurance, no tenure track. Simultaneously, a lucky few got $100,000 plus sinecures.

I remember one telling incident: I had arranged at a Modern Language Association convention to show Dave Myers’ excellent self-financed film on the poet Theodore Roethke. He had a go ahead from Marianne Moore to do a similar film on her work. I asked the MLA Executive Secretary’s aide Mike Shugrue if we could try to raise that money among the members. “Pat,” he replied, “our members have had a very bad year on the Stock Exchange.” Ms. Moore died before the next annual convention.

If the University humanists ignored the new medium, the New York intellectuals dismissed it with a sneer and a taxonomy of scorn, as in Dwight Macdonald’s cute categories-- lowbrow, middlebrow, and highbrow. In discussing this impasse, Baughman cites one participant in the debate: "Some very respectable critics. . .have argued that the only defensible strategy for the humanist in mass culture to to teach his students to hate it.”

I agreed, and turned to the footnote to see who had said it. I had! In my introduction to a collection of essays, “TV as Art: Some Essays in Criticism” (National Council of Teachers of English, 1966). Roy Danish, head of the Television Information Office, and I had assembled a roster of pro TV critics, ranging from CBS executive George Dessart to Jesus College/ Cambridge blue collar Ph.D. Raymond Williams.

Danish pulled out all the stops, when I was teaching in London 1967-8, to help me organize a TV film series at the Royal College of Art, “Twenty Four Hours of Unseen American TV”, which Robert MacNeil and I kicked off on BBC-2’s “Late Night Lineup,” a marvelous innovation which featured a critical commentary on a particular TV event that evening. Needless to say, both Canada and England displayed more maturity in confronting the new medium than ours, even our PBS stations. I’ll never forget when an American filmmaker had to go to Japan to get financing for a film on Allen Ginsberg, with further backup from “Arte”, the German-French TV collaboration.

The U S Office of Education sent me to Europe to find out why even their commercial stations were doing better than our noncommercial ones on the arts. In Border TV in Carlisle, I encountered the Scots poet, Maurice Lindsay, producing prime time documentaries on Bobby Burns as well as Hugh Macdiarmid, whom I had never even heard of before—so blinkered were the New Critics with their covert Anglicanism.

And in Cardiff, the Welsh poet John Ormond showed me how BBC Wales was producing first class documentaries on their own poets. In Dublin, Telefis Eiran touted their new documentary on William Butler Yeats as if they were promoting a football match. It was no mystery why they were doing better than we were. The people running things knew and loved their own arts.

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