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Television: The Season

5 minute read

As the bloodstained 1960-61 season crawled toward its grave last week, it had proved one thing to everybody’s satisfaction: it was the worst in the 13-year history of U.S. network television.

Described by a New York critic as a surrealistic mishmash of “Eliot Ness, Together Ness and Pointless Ness,” the season was one of unhappy comedy and unhealthy violence, of defections, dismissals and dismay. CBS lost its able News Division President Sig Mickelson. and ABC squeezed out veteran Newscaster John Daly. CBS’s Edward R. Murrow took his tobacco habit to Washington as head of the U.S. Information Agency (see PRESS). Writer-Producer (The Sacco-Vanzetti Story) Robert Alan Aurthur quit TV with the parting shot: “Television may be unique in our free-enterprise system in that the harder one fights for a position in the marketplace, the poorer the product becomes—all in the name of ‘satisfying the mass audience.’ “

Drooling Substitutes. One of the massiest satisfiers was ABC’s high-flying The Untouchables, a gore-laden drama based only loosely on the exploits of Eliot Ness, a Prohibition era G-man, and specializing in novel ways to kill pretty women. Fortnight ago, the show’s cigarette company sponsor quitwhen its products were boycotted by sensitive Italian-Americans—but The Untouchables is so hot that ABC had drooling substitute sponsors waiting in line.

The celluloid gut-spillers were a rousing commercial success—about the only dramatic success in a season of frightful failure. Producer David Susskind’s tenuous empire was tottering: his Witness was canceled in midseason, his fatuous debate with Nikita Khrushchev drew critical scorn. As Susskind’s hair began to thin and his pockets bulged, his image as TV’s angry young rebel became less convincing, but his influence still pervaded the industry, and his Open End consistently demonstrated that conversation, if intelligent, can be entertaining. Jackie Gleason was miserably miscast as the M.C. of an ill-fated (one performance) panel show, You’re in the Picture, and Milton Berle was relegated to narrating Jackpot Bowling. The networks—which billed some 400 shows as “specials” in 1959-60—had considerably fewer than that this year, and with a few notable exceptions—such as NBC’s Coming of Christ on Project 20 and the low-key Another Evening with Fred Astaire—most of them were both artistic and commercial flops.

Oaters & Eyes. What about next season? Well, The Untouchables will be back, along with a host of more or less recognizable imitations: ABC’s Roaring 20s and The Corrupters, NBC’s Cain’s 100, CBS’s The Defenders. The next season will be the bloodiest ever: of 73½ hours of prime evening time, the three networks already have tentatively budgeted 30½ to oaters, private eyes and “action-adventure” series (see chart).

Already, some 30 shows in prime time will not return. Many are hapless, no-loss situation comedies—The Tab Hunter Show, Angel, Peter Loves Mary—but Peter Gunn, onetime darling of the martini set, has also succumbed. Brightest attractions of the new season will be the most worthwhile programs of the old: the public service shows. The excellent CBS Reports will again alternate with Face the Nation. NBC plans a series of pre-emptive news and public-affairs specials: a revival of Wisdom, a new double-domed “investigation in depth” called Quest, a continuation of the White Paper reports on government and politics. ABC, under the aegis of former Presidential Press Secretary James Hagerty, plans “more public service documentaries than ever before.” The Great Debates are gone, of course, but all of the networks hope to make heavy use of this season’s top TV star: President John F. Kennedy. Still, specials are by definition a sometime thing, and the three networks together have so far budgeted only two hours a week of regular public-affairs programing in prime time. Says one adman, Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn’s George Polk: “The networks put the public service shows on this year to get the Government off their backs. It worked. Now the networks are sneaking them out as fast as they can. In another two years, they’ll be entirely out of prime time.” NBC’s off-again, on-again Omnibus—which gave this season’s TV viewers a precious peek at the work of Playwrights William Saroyan, Eugene lonesco, Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee—is negotiating with its sponsor over a contract renewal. ABC’s Winston Churchill is being moved from late-evening time to “an earlier Sunday hour”; after four years on the air, CBS’s Twentieth Century series is in need of a sponsor —and its familiar Sunday-night time slot may be filled by Oh, Those Bells, a kind of musical Three Stooges.

Into next season’s open-time slots will slip such uninspiring shows as ABC’s comedy series, The Hathaways, starring Peggy (Thurber Carnival) Cass, Jack (Please Don’t Eat the Daisies) Weston—and the Marquis Chimps. Says an official network release: “Peggy Cass will play Mrs. Hathaway, a housewife, and Jack Weston will play her husband, a real estate agent. They treat the three chimps, who are part of their household, as though they were human children—make them stand in the corner when they are bad, reward them with candy and bananas when they are good.” By next year, perhaps the 1960-61 season, in retrospect, will seem not half bad. At least, it will be over.

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