Made-for-tv History

When networks present their own stories, there's more than meets the eye.

Cover Story

April 28, 2002|By David Zurawik | By David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

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.

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