In 1969, Jim Brooks and Allan Burns, two of Hollywood's most talented young television writers, had an idea for a new sitcom about a single woman working at a television station in Minneapolis.
The writers met with CBS executives in New York to present the concept for what would become The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Central to the series was the fact that Moore would play the young, divorced Mary Richards -- the first divorced female character in television history.
The executives loved the concept until they heard the word "divorced."
"The people from CBS wrung their hands, and said, 'You cannot do this, you cannot do divorce,'" Burns recalled. "We said, 'Yes, we can. Divorce is something that Americans understand, because almost everybody is touched by it one way or another.'"
The CBS executives kept resisting. "Finally, they just turned to this guy from research and he just reeled off this litany, saying CBS had research that showed there were four things American viewers simply would not tolerate. One was divorced people. The others were people from New York, men with mustaches and Jews," Burns said.
"I looked around the room and what you had mostly were divorced Jewish guys from New York. Not too many mustaches, though. But we just sat there stunned."
In the end, Mary Richards was not divorced when The Mary Tyler Moore Show made its debut on Sept. 19, 1970. The funny thing is CBS never had any such research, according to both David Poltrack, the current vice president of research at CBS, and his predecessor, Jay Eliasburg. At least none that they knew about, they said.
There's a larger truth behind this tale of make-believe data. Network programmers for decades used it to discourage writers and producers from featuring Jewish characters in their shows so that they wouldn't have to publicly acknowledge what really lay behind the network's bias: William Paley, the Jewish founder of CBS, was extremely sensitive about his network being seen as too Jewish.
That story is one of many that won't be told in the next few weeks as CBS and NBC, the two oldest networks, feature quasi-historical shows as the centerpiece of their May "sweeps" programming.
Beginning this week NBC will celebrate its 75th anniversary as a network (the actual date occurred last fall), and CBS will serve up some nostalgia of its own. On both networks, the fare is history without bite -- history that, in some cases, ignores unflattering facts.
Corporate gain as god
The weekend's big event is CBS: 50 Years From Television City, featuring Carol Burnett as host and the message that CBS was a pioneer in West Coast programming. (The truth is that the network only came to California after Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz showed it the wisdom of going west.) Other CBS specials in May include The Honeymooners 50th Anniversary Celebration and The Mary Tyler Moore Reunion.
The CBS version of events, however, is nothing compared to what's being presented on NBC, the top-rated prime-time network, where virtually every major series will feature a nugget of NBC's past. There will be a reunion of sorts when Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer), of Frasier, travels to Boston and winds up reuniting with several cast members of Cheers, an NBC sitcom from the 1980s in which Crane was a supporting player. Characters from the landmark cop drama Hill Street Blues will show up on Third Watch, a series about New York's police and emergency workers. The cast of L.A. Law will return in L.A. Law: The Movie. And Bill Cosby will host The Cosby Show Retrospective.
NBC also will present a 10th anniversary special for Jay Leno's Tonight Show, and a show of film clips called 20 Years of Must-See TV that emphasizes NBC's dominance on Thursdays. The crown jewel of all this self-congratulatory, cooked-up "history" programming will be a live, three-hour special produced by Lorne Michaels called "NBC's 75th Anniversary Special" that will air May 5.
If the show's lavish companion book, Brought To You in Living Color: 75 Years of Great Moments in Television & Radio From NBC (John Wiley & Sons), is any indication, the unrelenting message here is that NBC was a pioneering force in broadcasting, that David Sarnoff was a visionary founder, and that NBC's programming has enriched our personal lives tremendously.
And what a big, fat, shining lie much of it is.
The founders built their networks much the way the robber barons built the railroads, steel and oil industries: They did whatever it took to win. NBC's Sarnoff appropriated the latest technology, sometimes not only violating the rights of the true inventor, but also taking credit for the innovation himself. CBS's Paley enforced the blacklist of suspected Communists in the 1950s and '60s, wrecking careers and keeping many of the most creative writers and performers out of television. Far too often, these men put corporate gain above the interests of the society they supposedly served in return for using public airwaves to make their fortunes.
"Let's face it, media history is a dog-eat-dog, nasty and brutish history. It's [the network founders] strong-arming the federal government, strong-arming their affiliates, trying to wrestle power away from local interests to one, huge, national interest -- the television network. And the big plum that they got was the largest, single national audience in the history of planet Earth," said Robert J. Thompson, founder of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University and author of several television history books.
"It's not something where you simply have these three wonderful big men --Paley, Sarnoff and [Leonard] Goldenson [founding executive of ABC] -- altruistically creating this because they were such great humanitarians. It's an ugly story that completely changed the way American life worked. And we never get the full story in part because the museums are founded by the same people who founded the networks, and the big way the history is communicated is over the networks they founded."
Low points erased
Using the public airwaves to tell stories that have more to do with promotion than with truth has enormous impact on how we understand the history of television. Our ability to imagine the future of the medium is as great or small as our knowledge of its past. If all we know of history is a version that celebrates a highly commercialized, entertainment-saturated, superficial model for television, that is all television will ever be in America for our children and us. And that is a tragedy given the medium's tremendous capacity to enlighten.
"Audiences would do well to think of the spate of NBC-sponsored programs and books not as histories, but as eulogies, said Donna Flayhan, associate professor of communications and media studies at Goucher College. "Not that the network has passed on, but because their 'histories' are stories told to celebrate their high marks and completely erase their low points, like eulogies."
Start with CBS: 50 Years From Television City and its core message: how visionary CBS was for pioneering West Coast programming at a time when most network television was broadcast live from New York.
There was nothing visionary about it. Network executives only got serious about Hollywood production after Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball showed them its advantages. They were dead set against filming a series in Los Angeles in 1950 when Ball and Arnaz first pitched the idea for I Love Lucy. And they were convinced no one would believe that the couple was married because Arnaz was Cuban-American.
"CBS was enthusiastic about the concept of the show, but the network nabobs had two major objections -- they were positive nobody would believe Desi was her husband [despite the fact that they were married in real life], and they wanted the show done live from New York like most of the other early television comedies," write Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh in The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows.
To prove the viability of their idea, Ball and Arnaz put up $5,000 of their own money to film the pilot, and barnstormed across the country, staging the show before live radio audiences in theaters and old vaudeville houses. Finally it dawned on CBS that by filming instead of broadcasting live, the two performers had invented something potentially worth billions of dollars: an endlessly recyclable product that would come to be known as the rerun. Only then did the network embrace the notion of West Coast production.
Despite a deplorable history on matters of ethnicity and diversity (just ask the NAACP), NBC and CBS are promoting their track records in this as well.
"NBC's commitment to diversity is a priority that has its roots deeply embedded in the broadcast network's 75-year history," begins a promotional package that accompanies the network's May 5 special and companion book.
Under the headline, "NBC Diversity First," an entry on a timeline reads: "1929--- The Rise of the Goldbergs, written by (and starring) Gertrude Berg, debuts as an "ethnic serial"; the Jewish immigrant experience is poignantly broadcast first on a weekly, and then, in the '30s, on a daily basis."
What NBC doesn't tell us is that its corporate executives urged Berg to change her character's name. In an article for the 1955 Woman's Home Companion magazine, Berg wrote:
"When I first started The Goldbergs back in 1929, we were without a sponsor for two years. The network executives began to think Molly might find a sponsor more readily if I softened the accent and called her Molly Smith or Molly Jones. But I refused. The show would be nothing if I watered it down. I write about middle-class Jewish people because I know them, love them, am one of them."
The executive who wanted to de-ethnicize Molly was Sarnoff, the Jewish founder treated in heroic fashion in the 75th anniversary material and programming. Even more egregious is the way The Goldbergs suffered under the blacklist put into place by Sarnoff and Paley.
The television version of The Goldbergs started on CBS in 1949 and was canceled in 1951 though it was the fourth highest-rated television series. The reason? Philip Loeb, who played Jake Goldberg, the patriarch of the family, was listed in the infamous Red Channels publication (self-described as "the report of Communist influence in radio and television").
NBC put The Goldbergs back on the air a year later, but only after Berg replaced Loeb. Unable to find work, the actor committed suicide in 1955. Both he and Berg maintained his innocence of any Communist ties throughout their lives.
"Blacklisting, in its mature phase, peaked synchronously with the Cold War, [and] spread from the movies eastward. The theater offered the most resolute resistance, radio-TV [the] least. There was also less excuse for the TV tycoons, since they had early warning from Hollywood and could have prepared an effective defense," biographer Carl Dreher writes in his book, Sarnoff: An American Success.
"Sarnoff and NBC were more culpable in the institutionalizing of radio-TV blacklisting than William S. Paley and CBS. Forming a united front, with or without ABC, the two networks could have probably stopped the invasion at the outset. Instead, both collaborated with the invaders."
NBC even tries for a revisionist take on Amos 'n' Andy in its companion book, saying: "As American society changed, Amos 'n' Andy would come under fire for stereotyping African-Americans. Only recently have historians begun to acknowledge the writing and performing genius of [Freeman] Gosden and [Charles] Correll -- and the genuine love and respect they had for the characters."
I hope I never have to meet the historian willing to equate "love" and "respect" with white performers like Gosden and Correll in blackface depicting African-American characters as speaking in minstrel show accents.
'Pioneers' of technology
One of the biggest myths NBC is selling involves the portrayal of Sarnoff and the network as pioneers in media technology. The truth is that from Edwin Armstrong, who developed the FM frequency on which television sound is broadcast, to Philo T. Farnsworth, who discovered the television camera tube, the process was essentially the same: Sarnoff and NBC used their inventions without paying, knowing that NBC's army of lawyers could outlast the inventors' copyright suits.
As Erik Barnouw writes in Tube of Plenty, part of his landmark history of American broadcasting: "Although RCA [the parent company of NBC at the time] was using FM in its TV as well as FM sets ... RCA was not paying a cent of royalty." Both Barnouw and filmmaker Ken Burns in his documentary on the history of broadcasting, Empire of the Air, link Armstrong's suicide to his legal battles with Sarnoff and NBC.
All of that said, television has a marvelous history of creating great cultural and, yes, even artistic moments on screen. I love television and I will savor revisiting The Cosby Show, The Honeymooners, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show in coming days, just as I delighted in the Carol Burnett retrospective that aired last fall.
"I think if they pick the funny clips and they have fun talking about them, and if the audience can see everybody as they are today, it's just about tuning in and having a good old time," Burnett said in a conference call last week.
"What we're calling these programs is 'comfort television.' Everybody likes nostalgia. ... It's just a lot of fun," Jeff Margolis, the executive producer of CBS: 50 Years From Television City, said in the same call.
On one level, they are absolutely right. Enjoy the pictures and be warmed by the memories that they evoke. But on another level, resist the false corporate ideology that NBC in particular is making such a big part of its programming. And understand how much of the real history is not being told, and how much brighter the future of television might be if the past were more honestly understood.