“Nature Boy”: Compelling Storytelling at Its Best, A Tragic Tale of the Price of Fame

I have been a non-fan of pro wrestling for nearly 20 years. However, ESPN’s ’30 for 30′ “Nature Boy,” a brilliant and honest portrayal of wrestling megastar Ric Flair, was one of the most compelling documentaries of its kind because of its storytelling.

I first saw Flair in 1974 during my first weekend at the University of Georgia.  I flipped on “Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling” on WFBC in Greenville, S.C.  The veteran Rip Hawk and Flair had just won the Mid-Atlantic tag team championship.  At the time, I didn’t see anything special about the young upper Midwesterner.  During interviews, Hawk—a veteran heel (as villains are termed inside the wrestling industry)—did most of the talking.  Flair was a couple of years away from developing the persona that propelled him to the top of his profession in the early 1980s.

Ric FlairWhen he based his ring character on the flamboyance of earlier star “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers, Flair struck gold.  His work ethic was unsurpassed in his field.  Ed Capral, one of the great announcers of the era between 1955 and 1975, told me Flair was “the greatest showman I’ve ever seen in wrestling.”  Capral had seen the original Gorgeous George, the legendary Haystacks Calhoun and Andre the Giant.  In his field, Capral knew of which he spoke.

In the microcosm world of pro wrestling, Ric Flair was regarded by people who grew up well before the Hulk Hogan transformation of 1984 as the greatest performer in the genre’s history.  However, as the documentary indicated, Flair sacrificed wives, children, his health and relationships to experience the love from entertainment he obviously never found from his adoptive parents.  In the early moments of “Nature Boy,” we learned that the Fleiers were major patrons of the arts.  Their son Richard was far more interested in the theater of sport.  Behavioral conflicts resulted in him being sent away to a boarding school as an older teen.  People who only knew of Ric Flair as a master of a figure-four leglock may not have been aware of the juxtapositions of his childhood.  He had parents; yet, he conveyed his own emotions that he felt they were never “there” for him.

Flair talked of the difficult year of recovery after suffering a broken back in a plane crash on the way to a Sunday afternoon card in Wilmington, N.C., October 4, 1975.  He experienced days rethinking his presentation in the ring if, against the odds, he could physically return to wrestling.

By 1981, he was the consummate star in his profession.  He won the NWA world heavyweight championship from his consistent foe of the eighties, Dusty Rhodes.  As several of his colleagues related in “Nature Boy,” Richard Morgan Fleier began living the character of Ric Flair.  His first wife Leslie detailed how he would come home for a day, say how bored he was, and leave.  A world of women, sex, expensive clothes and alcohol to a degree few could fathom became Flair’s environment.  He detailed a period of nearly three years in which “I was never at home.” At the end of the documentary, he admitted to being anything but a model husband and father.  I was taken back to an interview with one of the late Jack Webb’s associates on “The Stu Shostak Show” a few years back.  Webb became a television legend with two successful incarnations of the police series “Dragnet” and developed a television empire.  With all that success, Webb had multiple marriages and could not escape his true marriage to television.  “Jack was a bad father,” said one of his long-time colleagues to Shostak.

“Nature Boy” revealed the heartbreak of Flair’s son Reid’s death from a drug overdose.  Ric obviously had a relationship with Reid that he never had with his own father or his older son David.  Reid emulated his father’s alter ego, only the issues with alcohol expanded into drugs.  

The documentary portrayed a man who could not leave the stage.  In sports, I remember the sadness of seeing Johnny Unitas in a San Diego Chargers uniform.  One of the all-time greats of the NFL simply did not know when to quit.  In his last year with the New York Yankees, Mickey Mantle could only muster a .236 batting average and took three feeble swings in a final All-Star game in which he should never have been included.  Ric Flair in his 60s is far more of a nostalgic figure that in some respects is sad to watch.

The two key lines I took away from “Nature Boy” were from one of his younger colleagues and his son David.  Said Michaels:  “Ric doesn’t know Richard Fleier. I don’t think he’s ever taken the time to get to know who he is.”  From David Fleier,  his son from his first marriage: “I don’t want my children to have the kind of life I had.”  David was referring to his perpetually absentee father.

Many of Flair’s long-time fans are probably dissecting the documentary for its omissions of some of pro wrestling history they hoped would be included. Those who are miss the point of “Nature Boy” or any other documentary.

I teach a news documentary class at Union University every spring.  For five years, students are assigned a semester-long project to develop a half-hour examination of an issue of significant community interest.  Some of them have difficulty grasping that documentaries that hit the spot are not just facts and figures, nor are they solely historical.  They are stories.  Storytelling at its most compelling is what sells a documentary to viewers.

The production of “Nature Boy” was a deep and penetrating character study that showed adulation, fame and so-called perks that go with stardom and the contradiction of the selfishness of a man who never should have married or had children. The emotional pain we saw from his first wife Leslie in her interview and from Ric’s oldest son were clearly evident.

While watching, I was reminded how we all are guilty of putting entertainment stars on pedestals because we love or obsess over how they entertain us.  Yet, life away from the stage is often a dichotomy.  Many of us paid to watch Ric Flair deliver a textbook performance in sports entertainment on multiple occasions. He always gave us our money’s worth.  His life away from the ring and the bright lights was another story. 

Ric Flair almost died three months ago.  Years of alcohol to the excess finally took a toll doctors and friends had warned him of for years.  In an interview on SiriusXM radio three weeks ago, Flair said, “It’s a miracle that I’m even here talking to you.  I’m never going to have a drop of alcohol again.”  I hope he sticks to that.  He may not have another comeback remaining.

“Nature Boy” held my interest because of its depth in a fashion that a puff piece on Flair’s career would not have.   Many of those who have showered him with adulation through the decades probably do not see the story through the same glasses as did I.  As the tale unfolded, I was reminded of the closing days of Mickey Mantle when he learned cancer was about to take him after years of alcohol abuse.  The Mick was one of my childhood heroes.  Yet, in the last interview he gave before he died, he said, “Don’t be like me.” Flair did not have to say that in “Nature Boy.” The 90-minute story did.

Monty Hall: Indeed a Big Deal

stevemontyjacktom           Saturday afternoon, I was watching the 41-0 thrashing of Tennessee by Georgia on CBS and waiting for the barrage of callers to talk shows who want to fire the Vol coaches.

            Just before the game ended, I received a message that I knew would be coming at any time.  Monty Hall, the legendary co-creator and original host of Let’s Make a Deal, had died at 96.

            Eighteen months ago, Monty’s agent Fred Wostbrock told me the game show icon’s health was declining.  “He’s on dialysis three times a week and he’s lost about 60 pounds,” Fred said.  Little did we know that Monty would outlive his agent, who died late last year of cancer.

 Monty Village 1      Like many of you, I grew up watching Monty preside over the world’s biggest daily costume party on the show he co-created with his partner Steve Hatos, Let’s Make a Deal.  I went even further back with him to the living board game he hosted from 1960 to 1962, Video Village on CBS.  To this day, baby boomers my age remember fondly Village but can’t remember the show’s title.

            As a kid from South Georgia who looked on Monty and several of the other classic game show hosts as TV icons, I never dreamed I would meet the man, much less emcee a testimonial event at which he was honored.   More on that later.

            I was privileged to know the man for 17 years.  Another game show legend, Tom Kennedy, put me together with Monty in 2000 at the height of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire craze.

            He was straightforward with me to every question about his career and the game show business.  He was totally candid about why he moved Let’s Make a Deal  from NBC to ABC after five successful years in 1968 (an NBC executive refused to give Deal a nighttime slot; ABC was glad to offer it).

            Before that interview ended, Monty said:  “I could talk to you for two hours.  You know a lot about our business.  This is one of the few interviews I’ve ever given where someone hasn’t used the word ‘mindless’ several times.”  I figured that would probably be my one-and-done session with TV’s Big Dealer.

 Monty Deal 63a           Over the next couple of years as game shows came and went in prime time in the wake of the huge success of Millionaire, I would periodically hear the voice of Carol Andrews, Monty’s administrative assistant, on the other end of my phone.  “Monty wants to talk to you about something,” she would say.

            Monty was a daily reader of my TVgameshows.net online page.  The something he would want to discuss was usually either a new game show or what I thought about a new emcee.

            “Other than having a personality that people like, what do you think is the most important characteristic of a game show host?” he asked me one day.  My response was:  “He needs to be a good listener.  If he doesn’t listen to what the contestant says, he’ll never be engaged with the contestant and miss some choice moments.”

  Monty Deal 63          Monty answered right back, “That is exactly right.”  The new emcee he was asking about was one he was considering for a revival of Let’s Make a Deal in 2005.  “I thought he had all the right tools we were looking for,” Monty said, “but I watched him three days in a row.  He doesn’t listen to a thing anybody says.”

            He and Hatos came up with Let’s Make a Deal in 1962 but the networks weren’t interested.  Monty took the concept to civic clubs.  Instead of boxes and doors to hide prizes which couldn’t be brought into a hotel ballroom, Monty used envelopes that either contained a card with a nice prize or a “zonk,” one of the gag prizes.        

“We knew we had the right concept because these businessmen were having a blast playing the game,” he told me.  “It was all based on gambling, taking a risk on a sure thing or going all or nothing.”

            The production partners finally convinced an NBC executive to go along to one of their Rotary extravaganzas.  That was enough to earn them development money to flesh out the concept in a large rehearsal hall.

            “The ratings weren’t terribly good in the first nine months,” Monty said.  “We were on opposite Password, which was the biggest hit game show on daytime TV at the time.  So, NBC moved us to 1:30.  We started gaining audience and eventually became the first show to pass As the World Turns in the ratings.”

Monty Audience             He had to cope with some unexpected occurrences during the first 18 months of the show.  Let’s Make a Deal was television’s first show in which winning female contestants grabbed the host for what, at times, were physically-threatening hugs.  One woman accidentally pushed Monty down the stairs of the NBC Burbank studio.  He suffered torn cartilage from the joy and merriment.

He missed three weeks of the show because of injuries suffered in an auto accident.  Bill Leyden, who hosted Hall’s Your First Impression, subbed.

Monty did not like one insertion NBC placed in the show near the end of the first 39 weeks.  With early ratings stagnant, the network opted to do a week of shows with celebrities playing for studio audience members and home viewers.  The segments fell flat.  “Let’s Make a Deal is not a show about celebrities.  It’s a show about average people from all over the country,” he said.

Until Let’s Make a Deal, NBC had not aired a 1:30 p.m. show since the Chicago-based Club 60 in the mid-1950s.  The ratings gradually climbed and Monty as America’s top trader presided over the linchpin show in the NBC daytime lineup.

 A nighttime version of Let’s Make a Deal in the spring and summer of 1967 rose to number four in the ratings, beating both The FBI and The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights.  Monty thought it was a sure thing to return in January as a midseason replacement at night.

            “You know what I was told?  I was told by an NBC executive, ‘Oh, we don’t schedule a show like yours during the regular season.  You may have done well in the summer but we think a show like that is beneath us to put on in the fall and winter.’  That was the first shot that led to us going to ABC,” Monty said.

            In 1968, the show switched networks.  The time slot was the same.  One of the few changes was a reduction in the number of traders on the floor from 42 to 31.  Otherwise, everything stayed the same.  

NBC clearly miscalculated the power of Deal.  Within six months, the entire ABC daytime lineup—especially afternoons—enjoyed ratings increases while NBC’s schedule declined.  Opposite Deal on ABC, NBC tried everything from soap opera Hidden FacesWords and Music, Joe Garagiola’s Memory Game, Life with Linkletter, and Leyden’s final game show before his death, You’re Putting Me On.  Nothing worked.

Monty CBS         Let’s Make a Deal received the coveted nighttime slot, which continued for three years.  Its most successful slot was during two years on Saturdays at 7:30, where it formed a one-hour block with The Newlywed Game leading into The Lawrence Welk Show.  When ABC dropped the evening version in 1971, Monty went into nighttime syndication with a twice weekly Deal.

            After 14 years of big deals and boxes of Creamettes, the original Let’s Make a Deal finally came to an end.  The show returned in syndicated versions in 1980-81 and 1984-86.  Remakes in 1990 and 2002 on NBC failed in no small part because Monty felt he was too old to host the show.  Younger emcees bombed.

In the process, the Hatos-Hall company became a game show factory.   As packagers, their most successful entry was one of television’s fastest-moving quiz shows, Split Second, which ran from 1972 to 1975 on ABC and should have lasted much longer.  Cancellation was a huge disappointment for Monty.

“It broke my heart when ABC canceled that show,” Monty said.  “Our lead-in show had been doing poorly for more than a year.  We always picked up audience and stations wanted Split Second for a nighttime version.  ABC wouldn’t give us the right to do it and then they let us go.  I always felt like they threw the baby out with the bath water because they had a new executive who came in and wanted to remake daytime.”

Monty Wayne            Monty could erupt over what he felt was unfair reporting.  When Cleveland Amory reviewed the nighttime version of Let’s Make a Deal in TV Guide in 1970, Amory largely lampooned and trashed the show.  Monty saw Amory at a Los Angeles Kings hockey game and went through the review point by point.

The first time I interviewed Monty, he told me the story of his beef with the debut issue of People magazine.  A writer profiled him and the long success of Let’s Make a Deal.  Two words in the story ruined the piece for Monty.

“The writer was detailing how I was picked to substitute for Jack Barry on Twenty-One in 1958, just a few months before the quiz scandals broke,” Monty said.  “He wrote this:  ‘Hall had no knowledge of the rigging of the show, he claims.’  When I saw those words ‘he claims,’ I saw red.  I called my lawyer and I wanted to sue them.  He told me to forget it.  He said, ‘All of your fans know you didn’t have anything to do with it.  Besides, you’d spend more money taking them to court than you’d get out of them.’  So, I let it go….but it still irritated me for months.”

One subject he never wanted to revisit was the 2003 NBC revival of Let’s Make a Deal in prime time.   He licensed the format to the network on which the game originally aired.  A decision was made to periodically bring Monty back to do a classic deal with contestants from the ’60s and ’70s version of the show.  

The first 10 minutes of the show convinced Monty he had made a big mistake.  Billy Bush, who was an up and coming NBC personality, was given the keys to the car as host but appeared to be hopelessly miscast.  The producers from the syndicated show Blind Date were brought in to run the show.  Obviously, they had a mindset to turn Let’s Make a Deal into the same kind of vulgarity they dished out on late night syndication.  The opening deal—which was an outright copy of a segment from a cable game Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush—was as close to an X-rated segment as possible on network television.  People who gathered with their children to watch the show at 7:00 in the Central and Mountain time zones were horrified.  Nielsen bore out that reaction.  Between the first 15 minutes and the final quarter hour, the audience tuned out by more than half.  This was not the Let’s Make a Deal they were expecting, nor the one Monty thought he had licensed.  As one reviewer wrote, “You could hear the sounds all over the country of people saying, ‘There’s another one gone bad.'”

Monty Talk 2                I called Monty the day after the premiere.  He did not want to talk about it.  Finally, a couple of years later, he told me:  “I hope we can bring back Let’s Make a Deal eventually—-but I’m never going to let anyone else do to my baby what those guys did at NBC.”

After the original Deal ran its course, Monty emceed a few unsuccessful shows:  It’s Anybody’s Guess, The All-New Beat the Clock and a revival of one of the best quizzes ever, Split Second.  Yet, he was one of the best businessmen in television and he knew how to close a deal with a network, not to coin a pun.

One of Monty’s favorite stories came unexpectedly in 1972.  “I’m in the office and the phone rings.  The voice said, ‘Please hold the line for Jack Benny.'” Monty said.  “I nearly fell off my chair.  I’m thinking Jack Benny!  He was one of my idols.  Why would he be calling me?  I’d never met Jack Benny.”

Benny told Monty he was a regular watcher of Let’s Make a Deal and an admirer of the emcee’s work.  “Of course, that made me feel great,” he said.   Jack then told Monty of something he detected during Deal episodes. 

“Monty, I notice you never take a closeup, unless you’re pitching to a commercial,” Benny said.  “The closeups are always on the contestants.  If you’re on camera, it’s a two-shot.  That’s the same way we’ve always done my show.  Except during the monologue, we save the closeups for the guests or the other characters because they’re the ones who need to be spotlighted.”

Said Monty:  “I can’t believe Jack Benny was actually noticing something that technical about our show.  We always put the closeups on the contestants because they’re the stars of the show and it also milks the drama when they’re trying to decide whether to risk everything.”

Jack invited Monty to lunch the following week.  Monty said, as would be the case for any of us, the day was one he would never forget.

               In 2005, I had the joy of emceeing the Game Show Congress Legends Luncheon in Glendale, Cal., at which Monty, Jack Narz and Tom Kennedy were honored.  That remains one of the greatest thrills and most surreal experiences ever for a South Georgia boy.  You never see yourself standing alongside a TV hero.  

            When CBS called in 2009 to seek a replacement for the aging Guiding Light, Stefan Hatos had long since passed away.  Monty told the network the key was finding the right emcee who understood the contestants were the stars of the show.

            After several hopefuls were auditioned and ruled out, Wayne Brady came into the picture.  Monty had seen him on Whose Line Is It Anyway?  Before the debut, Monty called me in my Union University office.

            “I had Wayne come out to my house,” Monty said.  “I told him we have three important questions to answer.  First is:  do you want to do Let’s Make a Deal?  The second is:  do you think you can do Let’s Make a Deal?  The last question is:  do I think you can do Let’s Make a Deal?”

Monty CBS 2            Brady was hired.  Eight years later, the show is still having a healthy afternoon run.  Until her death, Monty split every royalty check from CBS right down the middle with Stefan Hatos’ widow.

            Monty lost his wife Marilyn in June.  Most people who knew him did not think he would last much longer.

            I talked to him a couple of years ago and he was a bit wistful.  “Steve, the bad thing about getting old is that all my friends are dying,” he said.  I had never pondered that until I began to lose some of my long-time friends.

            He was proud of the success of his children.  Daughter Joanna is a Tony-winner for the play Into the Woods.  His other daughter Sharon was executive producer of The Good Wife on CBS and now has her own production company.  Son Richard is a long-time co-producer of The Amazing Race.

            Monty did two hour-long telephone sessions with my media students at Union.  I will never forget his key words of wisdom to them:  “Whatever you do in television, radio, or any media, always give back to your community.  Whatever success you have will be partially from your talent but also because people watch you.  Always give back.”

            He told them why giving back was important. 

“I couldn’t afford to go to college,” he said.  “One day, one of my father’s customers came into his store.  He told me, ‘Young man, you need to go to college.  I’m going to pay for your education.  I just want you to do three things in return:  one, to pay me back when you can afford to; two, keep up your grades; three, whatever you do, always remember to give back to others in your community.’  I never forgot those words.”

Monty Obit            The son of a Canadian butcher gave back to us over and over again.  He left us with a television classic that has appeared in six consecutive decades.  He gave millions of dollars to charities and raised millions more for children’s hospitals across the world.

            I had a chance to know Monty Hall, the man, and not just the game show host.  He was one of the nicest people I ever met and you would have liked him.  That is the simplest and highest tribute I can pay.  I think I’ll go see what’s behind Door Number 3.

And So It Is Done: An Exhausting, Emotional Murder Trial Ends

Zach Adams SentencingA young man walked out of a West Tennessee courtroom on the morning of September 23, 2017.  In a matter of three minutes, Zach Adams learned that, barring a legal reprieve, he will never again walk a step as a free man.

For a family, friends and community acquaintances, six and a half years of waiting are over.  Twelve days of draining testimony, deliberation and sentencing are at an end.

For reporters, videographers, digital still photographers, producers and assorted support personnel, the job was not altogether over but—-after two weeks of grueling and exhausting activity—-the finish line was near.

Many of the journalists reporting for television stations across Tennessee were under the age of 30.  For some, this was their first experience covering a high-profile murder trial with regional and even some national interest.  In that group were some who had never reported on a case in which a defendant’s life was on the line.

The abduction of Holly Bobo, a 20-year-old nursing student at University of Holly BoboTennessee-Martin, in April 2011 did not suggest a good ending.  Within days, more than a thousand people gathered in the small Decatur County, Tn., town of Parsons as an impromptu search party.  They combed woods, garages, back roads and even church yards in the hopes of finding her alive.  Their hopes were not realized.

Reporters in Memphis, Nashville, Jackson and even hosts of some of the national cable crime shows did their own investigations.  Most of the stories were speculations, what-ifs, or maybes.  For nearly three and a half years, the Holly Bobo case appeared to be a mystery that may never be solved.

Mark Guin

I was in my Union University Jackson 24-7 control room on a Monday night in September 2014 awaiting the appearance of Tennessee Bureau of Investigation director Mark Guin.  Three minutes after he assumed the podium, Guin delivered the news everyone feared.  The remains of Holly Bobo had been found.  A distinctively audible gasp was heard in the media room.

Zach Adams 3Eventually, six men were arrested in connection with the Bobo tragedy.  Four—-Zach Adams, his brother Dylan, Shayne Austin and Jason Autry—were all charged with multiple counts of kidnapping, rape and/or murder.  Austin took his own life in a hotel room in Florida before facing a jury.

For the Bobo family, the discovery of remains was only the first step toward closure.  Three and a half years of grief and hoping against hope for a miracle were over.  The next step would be to endure the testimony of a painful and emotional trial.  

I knew that for reporters and videographers and their associates, that trial may well be the biggest story of their young careers.  Those days in court would not be the biggest in the respect of career-altering stories, but in the demands to be right and maintain balance—-because more people would probably be watching their reports with intense interest than any they had previously delivered.

Some viewers who have a lemon juice view of journalists frequently go to the attack during a trial.  I know.  I covered 16 murder or violent crime trials during my years in the newsroom.  Sensational, melodramatic, or biased are among the kindest words I heard from critics.  One newspaper columnist in a city where I was a broadcast reporter chose to rip me about my use of the word “landmark” in stories on a 1977 that was the first of its kind in our state.  He perceived my use of the word as part of my “trademark sensationalism.”  

Part of the reason I used the word “landmark” was simple.  The case was the first in which cameras were allowed in the courtroom in Georgia.  Judge John Land, once profiled in a national magazine as “The Hanging Judge,” also enjoyed the limelight.  He was more than pleased to receive the publicity for being a pioneer in allowing broadcast journalists to use the tools of their trade.  Shortly before the final day of that trial, the judge stepped back to ask reporters how everything was going.  Said Judge Land:  “I guess I better get ready to go into the studio.”

Fast forward 40 years.  Reporters from throughout the state of Tennessee and some from neighboring areas watched and told stories over 12 days of testimony that was often nauseating to hear.  Virtually every station and Law Newz Network were streaming the trial live.  None of those reporters had a frame of reference to the transformation of 1977 when a Sony TK-76 camera manned by Lee Davis provided pool coverage to a group of reporters taking VTR meter times outside a courtroom for the first time.  Their tools of today are commonplace.

Chirs ConteI watched outstanding work from some brilliant young journalists who faced the pressures of delivering Facebook and Twitter updates as well as their own live or streaming reports.  Chris Conte of WTVF in Nashville offered an easy-to-understand description of what the options were for sentencing after Adams’ conviction.  The day after the sentencing, Conte was right back in the air reporting on the tragic mass shooting at a Church of Christ in Antioch, Tn.  Bridget ChapmanBridget Chapman of WREG in Memphis provided straightforward reports without unnecessarily charged or melodramatic words.  Our own crime reporter from The Jackson Sun, Maranda FarisMaranda Faris, and her colleague Kenny Cummings were on their A-game.  Maranda was clicking Twitter snippets seemingly every 40 seconds.  Kenny’s still photography captured the essence of emotion in the exhausting dozen days.

In every trial, you have selected moments of testimony that provide choice soundbites.  None measured up to sentencing day when Karen Bobo, mother of the young victim, looked Adams squarely in the eye and said, “I know my daughter begged for her life, because she loved and enjoyed life….but you took it from her….and you have shown absolutely no remorse for anything you’ve done.”  Without a doubt, I knew that would be the signature moment that would stand out from 12 days in a small Mid-South county.  Indeed, those words were repeated over and over Saturday evening and Sunday on the state’s television newscasts.

An intangible to covering trials is they are often physically and mentally draining.  Hour after hour of testimony, some technical in nature and others emotional, can wear down even the most youthful reporter’s stamina.  In the Adams trial, listening to repeated graphic descriptions of individual perceptions of what happened the day of her death can take a toll of absorption.  Without doubt, some of the media needed a second and third wind to revive their concentration skills.

In my days as a news director, I recognized three types of stories that would make me vulnerable to losing personnel.  One is a major weather disaster.  In 1984, I lost five reporters in four months to bigger outlets than Wilmington, N.C., because their work was seen during Hurricane Diana.  Another is a man-made disaster.  I lost two more top-level journalists in 1986 after their coverage of a 78,000-acre fire over a period of 10 days.  The third type of story is a high-profile trial.  The skill required to summarize hours of testimony into digestible reports and communicate that information in non-legalese to viewers is not everyone’s talent.  I saw several examples of quality work during the Adams case that would be attractive to news directors in larger markets.

My students and I followed this case for its entirety for our Jackson 24-7 daily cable newscast.  At times, millennials can be indifferent to complex stories.  In the case of the Adams trial, I watched as my student reporters and anchors were captivated by specific moments of testimony.  Equally, I was heartened by the numbers of questions they asked to better understand the legal process.  They even learned a lesson that is not in a textbook.  When Thursday’s closing arguments, which we were carrying live, ran over into our regular noon news time, we did not go on but stayed with the trial.  We even had to cancel two second-half interview segments.  As I told them, “When you are following a live continuing story that you know will irritate viewers if you step away from it, you stay with that story.”

One of the other lessons I tried to impart in my role as The Old TV News Coach was one of heart and restraint.  I told more than one of my students that in a trial, a defendant may be more obviously guilty than knowing algae is in pond water turned green.  Yet, one has to keep emotions or language from in any way becoming a reporter-determined verdict rather than a jury-determined decision.  Likewise, I told them you always need to remember that the family of a victim is likely having hearts broken again over hearing painful stories dredged up of what caused their loved one’s death.  I added this:  if they are kind enough to consent to an interview after a trial, be sensitive with how you ask questions.  If they do not want to talk because to do so would be too difficult, respect that.

The Adams trial took me back in more ways than one to those four days in Muscogee County Superior Court 40 years ago.  In that case, a lovely and much-beloved church choir director who had what was describe as perfect pitch, was senselessly kidnapped from her home while doing laundry in her parents’ utility room.  She was in her twenties.  She was engaged.  The future of life was promising.  Jeannine Galloway was raped and murdered.  The community who knew her reacted in much the same way as the disbelief over Holly Bobo’s fate.  A young man named William Anthony Brooks was convicted and sentenced to die.

Nine years later, the judicial landscape changed in West Georgia.  In a new trial, Brooks was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole.  One of my closest friends in journalism, columnist Richard Hyatt, has written multiple times of the dissatisfaction with the new verdict, particularly when details emerged of what happened in the original trial:

It came at a time the innocence of a community was being destroyed.

Brooks was sentenced to die and no one winced. He was not a good person. Like the members of that jury, most people believed he deserved execution.

Brooks, a man in his sixties, is still in jail in North Georgia.  He comes up for parole every few years but so far has been denied.  

Zach Adams could have faced the death penalty last weekend.  Saturday morning, Judge Creed McGinley announced an agreement between the prosecution and defense, the Bobo family and Adams.  He would be sentenced to life without parole plus 50 years for the rape and kidnapping charges.  

When that decision was made, my mind drifted back to Jeannine Galloway and her parents Earl and Hettie, both of whom I personally knew and who have passed away.  I wondered if some legal technicality will someday lead to a new trial for Adams and all of the old testimony will be smoked out yet again.

Zach Adams 4Just as we did 40 years ago, reporters covering the Zach Adams trial were blazing new ground.  They were using technological tools we never even dreamed of in 1977.  They can report instantaneously as testimony merits.  They can let the audience into the courtroom because of a little development called streaming.  

They covered a murder trial that was in many ways larger than life.  I just hope they all recognize this:  that trial and any other they cover in the future will never be larger than death.



A So-Called Viewer of WALB Who Should Be Shamed and Ashamed, Whether He Realizes It

My long-time friend Al Fleming, a multiple Emmy-winner, won one of his statuettes with a commentary which began:  “In the news business, it’s been said to never, ever, ever answer your critics.”

Al explained he was inclined to let the issue pass but that he was about to take on the United States Army.  He did.  In one of the most powerful perspective pieces in any city in America, Al took off the gloves as if he were in a rematch with Ali vs. Frazier.

I am about to take on a single television viewer.  However, this one individual is a reflection of one of the sickest elements in social media since its invention.  Trust me, plenty more are out there like him.

Emileigh 5Emileigh Forrester is a young weekend anchor and reporter at WALB in Albany, Ga.  I have a fondness for that station.  WALB is located about halfway between the two hometowns in which I grew up in the fifties through the seventies.  At one point, before all of the nutsy battles over compensation from cable companies, WALB was seen in almost every city in deep South Georgia.

WALB is one of those markets that for more than 60 years has been the lifeblood of local news for many rural areas of lower Georgia.  People in cities such as Sylvester, Tifton, Hahira, Valdosta, Ashburn, Nashville, Enigma, Fitzgerald and Hazlehurst have looked to Channel 10, the long-time NBC affiliate, for news and information.  No doubt, that has been exceptionally true during the past weekend with the threat of Hurricane Irma to WALB’s coverage area.

Emileigh is like hundreds of young men and women in television newsrooms across America.  Except during a couple of weeks of vacation during the year, her weekends are spent in a place that is far quieter than it is during an average weekday.  She has to fill two half-hours of news on Saturday and Sunday.  Emileigh has what has historically been known as a “skeleton staff” to help find enough local, regional and national news to deliver those newscasts to viewers who expect it, even if the content is largely softer than the Monday-through-Friday output.

If she is like many weekend anchors in small markets, she is reporter, videographer, producer, and editor.  Emileigh is in that professional period in which jobs like hers are part of the pay your dues years.  One with a solid work ethic agrees to such a role in the hope one can vault someday to a better-paying and more prestigious role either in the same station or one in another city.

Since my purchase of two Roku smart TVs more than a year ago, the NewsON app—one of the greatest inventions for a former news director—has allowed me to reacquaint myself with WALB, as well as a number of other stations across the country.  I watch the station’s newscasts a few times each month in order to reconnect with what is happening in the region of my roots.  Jim Wallace, an old college classmate from the unofficially labeled Bill Martin School of Broadcast Journalism at the University of Georgia, is WALB’s senior news anchor.

Emileigh 9Occasionally on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon after football season ends, I click NewsOn over to WALB to catch one of Emileigh’s weekend newscasts.  I have always found her pleasant, engaging, personable and authoritative in her presentation.  One afternoon, I sent her a thumbs up message on Twitter as I periodically do with a number of young reporters and anchors across the country.  As a former professional in the field, I feel a calling to offer encouragement to the next generation of reporters and anchors.  I did so several times Sunday afternoon with reporters from WINK in Fort Myers, Fla., who were exemplary during their coverage of Irma.

The weekend just past was a rare one for the WALB newsroom and staff members such as Emileigh.  Hurricanes, or threats of them, rarely reach as far as Southwest Georgia.  Remnants, tropical depressions, maybe even the leftover tropical storm may show up.  This time, the path of a powerful storm had people who live in those many rural communities surrounding Albany on pins and needles and depending on the long-reliable news staff of WALB to provide accurate, frequent and consistent weather and safety information.

As I write this, I am watching WALB News 10‘s late Sunday evening newscast after the Cowboys-Giants NFL game on NBC.  In the first 12 minutes, I counted crucial emergency information for 11 different counties in the WALB coverage area.  That is exactly what viewers expect and deserve in a weather crisis.  Emileigh, as usual, carried the ball solo until she handed off to weekend meteorologist Andrew Gorton.

Emileigh 2So, you ask, why all of this about one young woman among many in newsrooms in hundreds of cities toiling with a limited number of colleagues in order to keep people informed on Saturday and Sunday evenings?  A few times a week one of the jackal pack of dunderheads (I borrowed that term from Al Fleming’s award-winning commentary in 1979) demonstrates utter ignorance as well as abuse of the privilege of social media use.  Just read what was posted on Twitter by someone calling himself @Tblake762:

Emileigh Tweet 2

Well, well, well, Mr. @TBlake762, your brilliance and articulation are overwhelming.  If we had a Mount Rushmore for insolence and cruelty, you would be carved on it.

People like this have been out there well before social media was created.  They used to use an item called a landline telephone.  Just as on Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr, they would either often lie about their names or refuse to reveal their identity.

This guy, who claims to be a Marine, has exhibited enough mental skills to make Gomer Pyle appear to be a Rhodes Scholar.  What he did only energized the troops.  Look at some of the responses:

Emileigh Tweet 4

I am equally heartened by the WALB web producer.  Most of the time, difficult as it is, colleagues will just turn the other cheek.  In most instances, that is the right thing to do.  However, in this situation, I appreciated the retaliation:

Emileigh Tweet 3

As for Emileigh, she took the high road.  Trust me, even if you have been raised with the Biblical principle of turning the other cheek—as have I, the toughest thing to do when you are hit with a cruel slap in the face is to respond with salt and light.  Here is how Emileigh handled it—-and her web producer chimed in with another appropriate salvo:

Emileigh Tweet 1

I have never forgotten what happened shortly after I hired a young woman named Natasha as a reporter in 1991.  This was her first job out of college.  She had a great education and interviewed well.  I was glad to get her.

Admittedly, Natasha struggled in her first few weeks.  She had difficulty with speed and with editing skills.  I saw huge potential in her, so even though her early work was not up to snuff, I decided patience was the appropriate posture.

At the end of the third week, a call came after the 6:00 newscast from a viewer.  He called himself Charlie, though I doubt seriously if that was his name.  Twenty-six years later, I am paraphrasing this conversation but Charlie said something to the effect of:  “How come you can’t do any better than that new girl you have on there?”  In the next five minutes, Charlie proceeded to provide every generic reason why he did not like Natasha.  Then came the payoff.  Charlie had to throw in the firebomb that he didn’t understand why we had to have so many people who had the color of skin as Natasha.

I paused for a moment to collect my thoughts before I responded.  Again, paraphrasing, I said:  “That, sir, is something to which you and I could never agree.  You have just demonstrated the fallacy and insolence of your entire argument.  Since this is the direction you have taken it, this conversation is now over.”

I wonder what he thought over the next year when Natasha blossomed into an outstanding reporter with more and more confidence.  She overcame the speed issues and the editing deficiencies.  She broke some significant political stories, some of which had statewide impact.  She went on to a larger market and stayed in touch with me for several years.

Emileigh 7I equally ponder what the @TBlake762s of the world will think when Emileigh’s career blossoms even more than the way it already is at WALB.  Then, again, he had his one evening in the Twitter moonlight.  That is probably all he cared about at the time.  Next time you look in the dictionary, see if he isn’t listed as one of the definitions of the word “cruel.”

What this guy does not realize—probably among many things—is that a large fraternity and sorority of journalists, both active and retired, will not sit back and allow a colleague be unfairly and unreasonably assailed.  The troops are on the warpath and we have Emileigh’s back.  

I retired from being an active news director 25 years ago and went into broadcast journalism education.  Yet, for the last nine years I have been a quasi-news director because I supervise a daily cable newscast on local television produced, reported and anchored by my students.  I will unequivocally say that I would have been proud to have had Emileigh Forrester as a student or on any of my news staffs when I was still in the daily TV news profession.  Further, I will at any time be equally pleased to useEmleigh 3 Emileigh’s work as a role model for my graduates who want to follow her into the field.

Emileigh, hold your head high, just as high as the road you took with @TBlake762.  What is gross?  Anyone who would take to Twitter to invoke such a despicable post fits the description.

As for people like him, remember the famous words of my good friend and homespun humorist Don Hudlow, who said:  “There are a lot of naysayers in this world…..and they’ve all been vaccinated with lemon juice.”


A Story in Courage and Perseverance: Dave Jordan Returns to Work at WITN

Only two weeks earlier on Tuesday, August 22, Dave’s boss suddenly died.  She was not only his boss, she was his wife.  Stephanie Shoop, at the tender age of 46, was news director of WITN where Dave Jordan is the prime time co-anchor.  One day, she was wife, mother of two, and a respected leader of a television newsroom.  The next day, with no warning, Stephanie slipped away.


Dave’s co-anchor Lynnette Taylor told viewers of the loss in an emotional moment at the end of the August 22 early evening newscast.

In a previous blogpost, I wrote of how sadness can pervade a newsroom in a fashion that critics of journalism can never believe. It happens in moments when the unthinkable happens. The constant buzz that is usually the hallmark of a television news operation suddenly becomes as quiet as a public library.  What brings on the uncommon calm typically is in that rare instance when someone whose face and personality are as familiar as a member of one’s family is suddenly gone.  The stark reality strikes that the someone in question will never return.

My father was a minister for 65 of his 87 years.  Often, he told me that the most difficult times were when he had to reach out to a family who just experienced a sudden and unexpected loss.  

Stephanie Ann Shoop was a native Pennsylvanian.  In 1995, she married a man named David Giordano who grew up in the small Pennsylvania town of Sheffield.  Dave made his way to Eastern North Carolina 20 years ago after a brief stop in a small West Virginia market.  In 1998, Stephanie joined WITN as a newscast producer—a job that is frequently rewarding because the producer shapes a half-hour of news much as a sculptor does a bust.  Three years later, she became news director; in reality, her promotion made Stephanie her husband’s professional superior.

Husband-wife pairs can be an emotional boon or a periodic headache for management.  Some corporations have specific policies against spouses working for the same television station, or at least in the same department with the same boss.

In the mid-1980’s in Wilmington, N.C., I had two couples who worked for me at WWAY.  They could not have been more pleasant or more professional.  One husband was my chief photographer.  His wife was in production.  The other couple were my 11 o’clock anchors.  Richard and Jill Rogers were an immediate hit when I hired them away from WSAV in Savannah, Ga.  Richard also did the 6:00 news.  They were equally gracious off the air.  Jill did not stay in news over the long haul.  Richard is still active as the lead anchor at WRDW in Augusta, Ga.

On the other hand, I had another spouse combo in another city which I will not name.  They were not difficult people.  Yet, I often came away with a stomach ache in dealing with them.  They never grasped that their performance evaluations were as individuals, not as a couple.  One of the twosome was a reasonably good journalist.  The other spouse should have either been on PM Magazine or in an allied field.  I will leave my comments at that.  Regardless, had I cause to call the weaker performer of the two in for a conference, I knew the other would be appearing at my office door shortly after.  At least a half-dozen times, I had to issue the reminder, “I can’t talk to you about this at all.  You are two individuals on the corporate payroll.  I like you both personally, but I cannot discuss anything about a conversation with an employee with another employee even if you are married.”

ShoopsFrom all accounts, that was never a problem with the Jordans.  In her obituary, this was one description of Stephanie:  “She treated each and every employee and co-worker like her own and made them family.”

To stay in a city such as Washington, N.C., for nearly 20 years, one has to love it.  Dave and Stephanie apparently made a real home there.  Here’s what you may not realize:  Washington is part of Greenville-Washington-New Bern, one of those challenging animals of television known as the hyphenated market.  Each city’s viewers are typically jealous of their own local news and are not crazy about seeing many stories about the other two cities on their station’s newscast.  Here is something else you may not know:  the estimated population of Washington, N.C., as of 2016, was 9,801.  That may be the smallest city in America to have its own television station.  

What may not be an understatement is to say Washington may be the Mayberry of television cities.  In a town of fewer than 10,000 people, everybody tends to know everybody—or at least that is the way it seems.  If I lived there, I would probably see people who would light up if they saw their anchorman in a local restaurant.  “There’s Dave,” I’m sure they would say.  When you are in a viewer’s living room or den every night, you become a member of the family, especially in a small town.

Stephanie was not a household name in the community except to her close friends.  News directors, unless you are like this old guy was when I held that job and did commentaries three nights a week, are typically unseen and unfamiliar to the general public.  Yet, she found her fulfillment as the guiding hand of WITN News.  Over the years, she no doubt saw dozens of young journalists come and go.  At 46, her news staff was likely like an extension of her own two children.  Sometimes, a news director has to make unpopular decisions.  At times, you have to hand out discipline.  On occasion, you have to let people go—-truly never a pleasant decision even if the person being axed was not one who would be missed.  When you are in a leadership position for 16 years, you no doubt will have some people who decide they don’t like you.  However, my perception is those were few and far between in Stephanie Shoop’s world.

Even if you have occasional dysfunction—and every newsroom does at some point—a TV news operation becomes a family.  The morning of August 22, the head of the family at WITN News was snatched away in the twinkling of an eye.

I found a couple of tributes on Stephanie’s Facebook page that are worth sharing.  Here is one from a retired colleague, Steve Crabtree:

Prayers from here that our Heavenly Father wraps family, friends, news staff and other co-workers in His warm embrace giving each His comfort, peace and understanding. Stephanie was the consummate news professional and a gracious, compassionate, passionate and empathetic human being. She was dedicated to excellence in all she did and loved her family as well as her TV family with all of her heart. I respected few news directors in the U.S. more than her and feel blessed God allowed our paths to cross. My heart goes out to each of you! With love, Steve Crabtree; WVLT-TV VP/News, Retired; Knoxville TN

This one from Bill DiNicola tugged at me because I had the same emotions about a couple of the people for whom I have worked over the years:

It’s really hard to find the words… and fight back the tears long enough to write this. She was an amazing news director — but an even better mom, we all knew her as both. I am where I am now and more importantly I am who I am because of Stephanie Shoop — She was my News Mom, she was our News mom – she raised us right, she took in kids often for their first job, and turned us into well-rounded compassionate hardworking journalists, and she did it with love. You were the best possible example of a leader I could have hoped for. You let me get on the anchor desk when I weighed 500 lbs — who does that!?!? Like everyone in the WITN family, we were not ready for this. But because you were in our lives we will find the strength together. Dave, David and Grace — we’re here for you.

I can think of no finer tribute than for Stephanie to be called one’s News Mom.  That says to me—and should to many others—that she was much more than a news director.  One is not handed a label as Bill presented to Stephanie without being one who truly cares about people.

Shoop JordanWithout question, I hope Bill’s words were among many to help sustain Dave and the Jordans’ two children David and Grace.  A family, whether in television news or in any aspect of life, is a rallying center in times of sadness and deep tragedy.

Labor Day morning, I scanned TV Spy and saw that Dave Jordan—a man I have never met—was returning to work Tuesday.  He told reporter Stephanie Siegel:  “I’ve gone back to the station to visit as part of the healing process.”

In the same e-mail, here is how he reflected on his wife of 22 years:

“Stephanie was simply the most amazing person I have ever known and is deeply missed. Stephanie was also a very strong and determined person, and we are all drawing our strength from that. We all plan to do our best to pickup and carry on, as we know she would be telling us to do just that.”

Emotions are not one size fits all.  A sudden loss can send some people into an extended tailspin that requires a longer period of adjustment and grief before returning into the workplace.  Another family I knew lost their son on a Sunday afternoon in a skiing accident at a lake in South Georgia.  The next Sunday, three days after the teen’s funeral, the family was back at the lake.  “If we didn’t do this now, it would take us a lot longer to get on with life,” Bewick Murray, the father, said.  Everyone is emotionally different.

When I read that Dave was returning to the air Tuesday night, I had to log on to WITN.com.  I was not watching out of a viewer’s curiosity but as a member of the broadcast journalism fraternity.  I have not experienced the specific type of loss as has Dave Jordan, his children and the WITN family; yet, on the same day as Stephanie’s death, I received a call informing me of the death of my last living uncle, only six days after the passing of my oldest uncle.

Lynnette and DaveDave did his job with the same professionalism as he has for more than two decades in Eastern North Carolina.  At a designated moment in the six o’clock newscast, co-anchor Lynnette Taylor turned to Dave to share what was on his heart.  Here is an excerpt:


“I’m not going to pretend this is easy.  But I’ve reached a new reality in my life and it’s going to be that way for me and for our two children.

Family, friends, all of the viewers that have reached out with comments and cards….it’s amazing at a time like this how comments can lift you up.  I am grateful to all of you who have reached out to us. I want you to know that I’ll continue to need those because it’s going to be a journey.”
Dignity in a time of deep difficulty—that was the personification of Dave Jordan Tuesday night.
No doubt, many of those comments of encouragement and condolences have come from people Dave has never met.  I will add one of my own:  Dave, I’ve done the job you do and the job Stephanie did.  You don’t know me…..but if you need me, The Old TV News Coach is here.  May God continue to bless and comfort you and your family.

The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour Story

On occasion, I detour away from the pure broadcast journalism focus of The Old TV News Coach when we lose someone who touched our lives, especially those of us who are baby boomers.  This blogpost is taken from my years as a television historian.  I reflect on the rise of a young singer into a popular weekly television performer, as well as the slow beginning of the end of the genre of which he was a significant part from 1968 to 1972.

The death of Glen Campbell August 8 after a six-year battle with Alzheimer’s Disease was not unexpected.  We simply did not know when he would leave us.

The tributes and plaudits have come in from all over the music industry.  As for me, I want to journey back to a special four-year span of Glen’s life that cemented his name in the entertainment world.

Glen 2In 1967, he scored with major musical hits “Gentle on My Mind” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.”  He was in demand for guest appearances on television variety shows, particularly with The Smothers Brothers and on Joey Bishop’s late night ABC talk show.  The segment on Bishop’s program was instrumental in Campbell winning the summer slot.

The Smotherses’ contract gave them the right of first refusal to produce their own summer replacement.  CBS was none too crazy about allowing the Smotherses that opportunity in 1968.  During the second half of the 1967-68 season, Tom Smothers began injecting political satire and protest songs into the Sunday at 9 hour that gave the network serious headaches and even pressure from the Johnson Administration.  A glance at one of the old Smothers tapes today, nearly 50 years later, reveals a brand of protest humor and music that was milquetoast compared to the relentlessly blistering and often vitriolic attack humor of Stephen Colbert and the roster of late-night comedians targeting President Trump.

CBS had a dilemma.  To go forward with a Smothers-produced summer series would risk the same type of anti-war content as their regular season hour.  To pass on that replacement would force the network into an expensive, contractually-bound buyout.

In an interview with Deadline, Ken Fritz—a co-executive producer of the Smothers show—recalled how CBS came to accept Glen Campbell.  Fritz was one of the major creative people suggesting to go after Chevrolet as a sponsor and pitched the idea of Campbell as a modern-day version of Dinah Shore for the automaker:

Network executives and Chevrolet’s advertising agency brass were shown a tape of Campbell’s relaxed appearance with Joey Bishop on ABC.  Chevrolet agreed with the Dinah Shore analogy (ironically, Dinah’s popular NBC variety hour aired in the same Sunday night slot from 1957-61) and came on board as Campbell’s primary sponsor.

A lot was on the line.  The previous summer, a rushed up fill-in called Our Place with the comedy team of Jack Burns and Avery Schreiber and The New Doodletown Pipers (who were indistinguishably different from The Old Doodletown Pipers) drew hardly a whiff of attention from viewers.  If Glen Campbell was a success, a big advertising contract from Chevrolet could be waiting for a midseason replacement series.

The Summer Brothers Smothers Show:  1968

With the unorthodox title, The Summer Brothers Smothers Show, the premiere was promoted almost as heavily as a regular season series.  Glen listed his cast in the first promo and ended with:  “….and my special guest stars, The Summer Brothers.  Sunday night here on CBS.”

The supporting cast after the premiere edition in June 1968 resembled a typical Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour without Tommy and Dick.  Leigh French, Mason Williams and Pat Paulsen worked the summer show with some of the same routines they performed on the regular Smothers hour.  In some instances, French’s flower child sketches and Paulsen’s satire seemed in conflict with Campbell’s All-American boy image.  Yet, the music always overcame any dissonance with the comedy.

Summer replacement shows that failed filled five dumpsters in television’s first 20 years.  Vic Damone had five shots at variety hours.  John Davidson took four swings.  Jimmie Rodgers tried twice.  Tony Bennett gave two cracks at them.

Here is an additional scroll of performers who tried to vault to a more lucrative regular season slot from a summer:  Julius LaRosa, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Steve and Eydie, Spike Jones, Keefe Brasselle, John Gary, Frank Sinatra Jr., The Golddiggers, Liberace, Buddy Greco, Al Hirt, Dom DeLuise, Rick Nelson, Bert Convy, The Starland Vocal Band, Joey Heatherton, Ken Berry, Jerry Reed, Burns and Schreiber, Bobbie Gentry, Helen Reddy, Jaye P. Morgan, Snooky Lanson, Des O’Connor, Val Doonican, Rich Little, Jim Stafford and the singing couple Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr.

Until 1968, the only summer variety series—other than a couple of CBS talent scout hours—to ascend to a fall berth was The Lawrence Welk Show.  In 1955, the Champagne Music Makers were the second biggest hit of the summer (next to a small juggernaut called The $64,000 Question).  With a serious absence of hits on the network, Welk became a permanent Saturday night fixture for the next 16 years on ABC.

Glen 4The Summer Brothers Smothers Show had something different.  For one thing, the writers were smart enough not to make Glen Campbell into a comedy performer which he was not.  While he appeared in sketches, he was usually a straight man to help get over the humor of the supporting cast and comic guests.  Second, Glen had the ability to look into the camera and be himself.  While he had stage presence from earlier TV appearances, he demonstrated a rare ability to make the viewers feel he was communicating one-on-one with them.

The opening of the hour, which was eventually parodied by comedians, was typical.  After a few banjo notes and the first few bars of “Gentle on My Mind,” the line would become familiar as the host stood in the audience and said, “Good evenin’ ladies and gentlemen, I’m Glen Campbell.”  A few more notes passed and that Arkansas twang continued with, “The people we have with us tonight are…..Leigh French, Pat Paulsen, Mason Williams, Nelson Riddle and his orchestra….and my special guest star Mr. Ray Charles.”

The obligatory comedy which networks required in a variety hour was far overshadowed on The Summer Brothers Smothers Show by the music.  By 1968, Glen only had three genuine hits—“Hey, Little One” and the blockbusters “Gentle” and “Phoenix.”  A trio of chart-toppers could hardly carry the average singer beyond a few weeks of a summer series without repeating material.

What worked to Campbell’s advantage was timing.  His style of music would eventually be branded as “country pop.”  His ability to gain a crossover following for both genres made him far more than a traditional rural performer.  The country in his music was performed without steel guitars and fiddles.  Yet, his early hits gained air play on a slowly burgeoning transition in radio—the all-country station.  Afternoons, “Phoenix” and “Gentle on My Mind” were favorites of the teen set on Top 40 frequencies.

Glen perfected what became “the concert spot” on television variety.  After the half-hour station break, he was joined in the round amid the studio audience with John Hartford, the composer of “Gentle on My Mind,” and Riddle’s orchestra offering middle-of-the-road accompaniment.  Campbell had the rare ability to cover other singers’ hits and not draw the ire of the original artist’s fans.  He could easily segue from Jerry Reed’s mellow “Today Is Mine” to The Beatles’ “Yesterday” to Andy Williams’ “Moon River.”  We, as a home audience, were willing to wait a full thirty minutes to be part of a free mini-concert.

The producers of Glen’s summer show were shrewd enough to surround him largely with musical guests.  Bobbie Gentry, Charles, Nancy Sinatra, Judy Collins and the country music comic Geezinslaw Brothers were solid compliments to Campbell’s easygoing demeanor.

In the era, church youth groups frequently had fellowship hours in private homes after a Sunday evening worship service, especially in the South.  In the small town where I lived in South Georgia, our post-church gathering was called Destination: Unknown.  We all made certain the unknown became known quickly after the benediction so we could gather around a set to watch Glen Campbell from 9 to 10 while we had our Cokes and junk food.

By the end of the summer, The Summer Brothers Smothers Show not only passed Bonanza—usually a toughie even in summer repeats—but became the number one show on television.  CBS even opted to repeat the Bobbie Gentry episode in early September before the fall season officially started.  Ten weeks of prime time exposure for Glen Campbell was making the 32-year-old Arkansan water cooler conversation at offices on Monday mornings.

Virtually no one doubted Campbell would return in either December or January of the 1968-69 season.  The only question was in what time slot.  Chevrolet was already on board to return as a sponsor for a regular season Campbell show.  CBS valued another strong variety hour on its lineup.  While a successful star could command a hefty salary, overall production costs were less than for the typical filmed hour-long drama.

The problem would be to find a weak spot on the CBS lineup.  The Smothers Brothers were locked into that Sunday at 9 slot where they had neutralized Bonanza for the previous year and a half.  Jonathan Winters was a shaky entry on Wednesdays at 10, the old Danny Kaye slot.  However, CBS was committed to sticking with Winters because of an expensive contract.  A decision was made to swap the comedian’s hour with Hawaii Five-O, which was not thriving as a rookie 8 o’clock show on Thursday nights.

The one hole CBS needed to fill turned up earlier Wednesday nights.  The fourth season of the family adventure hour Daktari was sinking fast in its 7:30 slot, a move from its more successful Tuesdays.  Yet, canceling Daktari and inserting Glen Campbell was not without its risks.

Since the premiere of NBC’s The Virginian, a lavishly-produced 90-minute western, in 1962, CBS had a litter bin full of failures in its attempt to challenge James Drury and company.  CBS Reports (the network’s prestige news documentary series), Glynis (Desilu’s attempt to bring Glynis Johns to an American sitcom), the veteran Dobie Gillis, gimmick comedy My Living Doll, and an attempt to revive radio classic Suspense all failed.  Even the blockbuster Beverly Hillbillies fell from number one to 12th place when CBS opted to schedule the Clampetts against the final half-hour of The Virginian.  Comic science fiction series Lost in Space lasted three years in the 7:30-8:30 hour but was never more than a cult favorite.

For Campbell to succeed, he would have to shave off some of the Southern rural and older audience and cultivate urban viewers who migrated to his middle of the road sound.  CBS programming chief Mike Dann was also suspect of Tommy Smothers and several of his key staffers overseeing production of Campbell’s show.  He could not afford a second political stomach ache.  Campbell’s All-American image was expected to neutralize attempts to include edgier material but the singing star did not have creative control.  The Smothers production company did.

Glen 1TV Guide reported in November 1968 that Campbell would return under the title The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.  The title had a ring that complimented Campbell’s easygoing on camera demeanor.

The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour:  January 1969

The premiere date was set for January 29, 1969.  Chevrolet signed as primary sponsor.  CBS came through with a big boost in budget, allowing for an increase in bigger-name guest stars and livelier sets.  The most significant requirement for success was to allow Glen to be Glen, not a pawn of network executives or the Smothers production team.

The return was pushed by CBS as if it were an opening night on Broadway.  In every daypart, Glen popped up to tout his guest stars.  Over the credits of virtually every prime time show, CBS announcers interrupted to tell viewers Bobbie Gentry and The Smothers Brothers would appear on “the premiere of The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour Wednesday night at 7:30……on CBS.”  One booth announcer committed a spoonerism when he said “on The Clen Gambell Goodtime Hour.”

That opener had to grab the nation with a tighter grip than did the summer series.  Campbell launched the new series with the lively Stevie Wonder arrangement of “For Once in My Life,” a genuine audience pleaser.  He and Gentry teamed for O.C. Smith’s “Little Green Apples.”  In the concert spot, Glen did his newest hit, “Wichita Lineman,” “Homeward Bound” and a duet with John Hartford on the classic bluegrass favorite “Salty Dog Blues.”

Primary sponsor Chevrolet received a boost with an original song during the show’s final commercial break.  Campbell sang, “Hang On Baby, I’m Comin’ Home,” a slower ballad that told the story of a man who was “clickin’ miles in my Chevrolet” to return home to his love.  One score of the lyrics, augmented by Campbell’s exaggerated accent, continued:  “People see me in my Chivvvvy know I’m comin’ home.”  Ironically, the minute-long spot was never repeated nor converted into a conventional song for Campbell.

Pat PaulsenThe humor was up and down.  Pat Paulsen was fair on a finale series of blackouts on the history of folk music.  The Smotherses tried hard but could not get over a sketch in which Glen and Dick on horseback attempt to talk Tommy into riding a hippo.  Somehow, the skit came off high schoolish.  A number of reviewers suggested the uneven comedy was the effort to inject Smothers Brothers style comedy into a show that did not need it.  Still, Campbell was the hired help.  With Tom Smothers as co-executive producer and much of the Smothers writing staff as well as creative consultant Mason Williams on board, compromises had to be made.

Music was what would carry The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour if it were to succeed in the rough and tumble world of a television regular season.  Based on the premiere, the viewers voted yes.  Goodtime ranked ninth for its first rating period (in that era, Nielsen reported a two-week average for network shows).  The critics were largely favorable.  Yet, many series over the years began with a blockbuster debut, then tailed off if content could not be sustained.

In the next five weeks, Campbell was surrounded by performers who were strong on the Billboard charts with plenty of youth appeal in the pop and country music world.  The Monkees, Jeannie C. Riley (of “Harper Valley PTA” fame), Jose Feliciano, The Clinger Sisters, Roger Miller, Stevie Wonder, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, Bobby Goldsboro and Joe (“Games People Play”) South gave Glen strong support in the crucial February rating sweep for local stations across the country.

The March 5, 1969, episode was an example of where the Campbell-Smothers philosophy reached a point of crosshairs, as detailed later that summer in TV Guide.  Glen introduced his newest hit, “Galveston,” that climbed to number four on the Billboard charts.  Williams, who gained fame when he introduced his legendary “Classical Gas” on The Summer Brothers Smothers Show to a kaleidoscopic music video, had his own idea of how “Galveston” should be accompanied.  The lyrics, “I am so afraid of dyin’….before I dry the tears she’s cryin’…..before I watch your seabirds flyin’ in the sun….at Galveston,” struck Williams as ideal to overlay film of American soldiers in Vietnam.

The prospect troubled Campbell, who viewed the proposal as an attempt to inject Smothers-style protest material into what was designed as an apolitical music-variety hour.  “Mason is an artist, you know,” Campbell said in the TV Guide story.  “I told him, ‘You’re going to upset a portion of the audience if you push that on them.’  I wanted to show seabirds over the ocean.  I told Mason it may seem hokey, but they’ll get it.”  The segment was done with seabirds.

That first season survived the scrap over “Galveston” with top-flight solos and duets.  Glen offered outstanding Marty Paich arrangements of Rod McKuen’s “The World I Used to Know,” Stevie Wonder’s “A Place in the Sun,” his popular medley of “More” and “Somewhere,” and his hits “Dreams of the Everyday Housewife” and “Turn Around, Look at Me.”  Campbell teamed with Feliciano for “Less of Me,” Miller for the hit “King of the Road,” Leslie Uggams for Judy Collins’ “Both Sides Now” and Jim Nabors for Buck Owens’ favorite “Act Naturally.”

Two standout episodes of the first season were on March 19 and April 23.  The mid-March edition featured Nabors and Gentry on a small town set.  Glen dubbed the hour his “front porch” show.  The relaxed format offered Gentry singing Helen Reddy’s “Peaceful” and Nabors bouncing from Paliacci’s “Vesta la Guibba” to “There’s a Kind of Hush” from his “Kiss Me Goodbye” album.  When Campbell capped the evening with “A Place in the Sun” that was closer to a Frankie Laine arrangement than Stevie Wonder, the viewer came away with a feeling of having spent an hour on the Mayberry of variety shows.

The April 23 show brought together a mixture of country and classic variety hour singers and comedy.  Johnny and June Carter Cash, Vikki Carr and Bob Newhart were the guests.  Cash did his megahit “Folsom Prison Blues” and teamed with his wife for their country blockbuster “Jackson.”  Carr offered her tearjerker “With Pen in Hand.”  Newhart served up one of his hilarious telephone routines.  Campbell and his entire cast wound up the hour with the lively “This Train.”

The season finale was a shade off from the quality of previous episodes.  Bill Medley, the former Righteous Brother, had a voice that simply did not blend well with Campbell.  Merilee Rush, whose hit “Angel of the Morning” failed to propel her into major stardom, combined with Campbell for “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” which came across as an obligatory commitment for the star to duet with a singing guest.  George “Goober” Lindsey, brought aboard for comedy, actually offered the strongest guest number of the night with the unfamiliar “96 Miles to Bakersfield.”  This was an episode that Glen carried himself with Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual” as the show opener, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” in the concert spot and a stirring solo on “The Lord’s Prayer” to conclude the hour.

The season Nielsen verdict was a good one.  The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour averaged a 22.5 rating, enough for 15th place overall for the season.  Goodtime edged The Virginian 22.5 to 21.8, the first CBS series to eclipse the veteran western.  Aside from Mayberry R.F.D., which was basically a sequel to The Andy Griffith Show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour was the top new show on CBS for 1968-69.  Renewal was an easy decision for a second year in the same Wednesday at 7:30 slot.

Still, Campbell was restless with what he felt should be the overall texture of the show.  “It should just be a good time,” he told TV Guide, “but we’ve had a darned hard time making it one.”  Glen and his manager Nick Sevano made a critical decision.  Glenco Productions bought out the Smothers Brothers’ interest in the show for $1 million.  The investment was expensive for the era but Campbell would be far more in control of his own destiny and the content of his show.  The Smotherses had just been canceled by CBS after their ratings fell to 53rd place, heightened by a battle with CBS chief programmer Mike Dann over delivering advance tapes of their show for screening.  Tom Smothers had developed an ulcer as a result of the constant war with CBS.

The buyout also meant significant cast changes.  Gone were Pat Paulsen, John Hartford and Mason Williams (as a creative guru).  In came young banjo prodigy Larry McNeeley to replace Hartford.  Paulsen was not replaced as a rotation of comedy guest stars became the policy.  Hartford’s “Natural to Be Gone” was dropped as the series’ closing song in favor of McNeeley’s inspirational “Pave Your Way into Tomorrow” (which, sung in the same key as “Natural,” sounded amazingly similar to the Hartford tune).

Season 2:  1969-70

Year two opened on the same solid note as midseason 1969.  Singers Barbara McNair and John Stewart joined Tom and Dick Smothers as the opening show guests.  In a routine where Glen played straight man, Tommy parodied the fact that their post-cancellation summer replacement show had become TV’s most popular hour, an unexpected number called Hee Haw.  Glen launched the season with his new hit “Try a Little Kindness,” written as a tribute to Joey Bishop’s closing line on his talk show.  In the concert spot was Oliver’s “Jean” and the country classic “White Lightning.”  The finale was a royal court spoof that ended with Glen singing an upbeat version of “Scarborough Fair.”

At midseason, CBS faced yet another scheduling dilemma.  Network executives ran through a cornucopia of choices to fill the Sunday at 9 slot in the fall of 1969 after the cancellation of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.  Variety hours starring Robert Goulet, Wayne Newton and Jim Nabors (who ended up on Thursday nights) were considered.  The new hospital drama Medical Center was given a passing glance (before launching on Wednesdays).  Moving Mission: Impossible an hour earlier as a lead-in to a new 10 o’clock drama had some support.

Instead, CBS went with a younger performer who had extensive exposure as a supporting cast member on variety shows and on Broadway.  With television under pressure to diversify its casts, the network cast its lot with Leslie Uggams as Ed Sullivan’s lead-out.  Ms. Uggams connected with viewers first as a teenage contestant on the CBS version of the game show Name That Tune.  From 1961-65, she was a regular member of the musical cast of NBC’s Sing Along with Mitch.  She earned high marks in her role as Georgina in the 1967 Broadway musical Hallelujah, Baby!

Ms. Uggams appeared to have all the tools in her corner.  Her producers, Saul Ilson and Ernest Chambers handled the Smothers show before the political turmoil erupted.  Her writers included David Davis and Lorenzo Music, who went on to success with Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart.  She was surrounded with an ensemble cast of comedy performers including newcomer Johnny Brown, Lillian Hayman, Lincoln Kilpatrick and Dennis Allen.  Nelson Riddle, her orchestra leader, was one of the music industry’s top arrangers.

The guest stars on The Leslie Uggams Show were of the traditional and unconventional variety pack.  Dick Van Dyke, Don Knotts, Nabors, Ken Berry, Kaye Ballard, Ruth Buzzi, Raymond Burr, Bobby Goldsboro, Bob Denver, Sammy Davis Jr., Sly and the Family Stone, Mike Connors, Stevie Wonder and even her former mentor Mitch Miller took turns at giving a boost to the young star.  One bizarre episode even featured Leslie with Bob Crane, Werner Klemperer, John Banner and Larry Hovis spend half the show in a parody of their own series Hogan’s Heroes, itself already a parody of a World War II POW camp.  Nothing seemed to work.

Ratings sank to pre-1967 levels in the Sunday at 9 slot.  The critics’ theories as to why ran the gamut.  Variety suggested CBS should never have stuck Uggams opposite the rebounding Bonanza, though the network gave the Smotherses that slot only four months after the brothers’ sitcom failed miserably.  Another analysis was that Uggams was a talented guest star on variety shows but not strong enough to be the headliner (though NBC succeeded handsomely the following year with Flip Wilson, who may have been less well-known than Uggams at the time).  A third opinion was that the pressure was too heavy on Uggams’ shoulders to be the first African American woman to host a weekly variety hour.  Nat King Cole had the first crack at prime time musical variety in 1957 but did not succeed at opening the gates for minorities.

Seven weeks in, CBS pulled the plug on The Leslie Uggams Show.  The final episode would air December 14, 1969.  CBS virtually conceded the lucrative time slot opposite Bonanza and ABC’s movies for the critical November rating sweeps.  The next question:  what would replace her?

This was not a conventional programming decision.  The first, almost no-brainer, consideration was to replace Uggams immediately with Hee Haw, which drew blockbuster numbers in the same slot opposite Bonanza during the summer.  Had the canceled hour been a run-of-the mill variety show not topped by a groundbreaking minority, Hee Haw would have quickly been the choice.  However, CBS programming chief Mike Dann was sensitive to potential backlash of replacing a black performer in less than three months with a show that was exclusively Southern cornpone humor with no African American in the cast.

Dann had an ace in the hole.  The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour originally took the measure of Bonanza as a summer show.  His crossover musical ability made him the strongest of the new breed of variety shows of the late 1960s.  The decision:  Campbell would return to Sundays at 9 on December 21.  Hee Haw would take Campbell’s Wednesday at 7:30 slot on December 17.

Glen 6The opening episode back on Sundays was Glen’s first Christmas show.  TV favorite Andy Griffith was the special guest star.  Cher, Paul Lynde and Glen’s wife and three children appeared.  The new time slot was instituted with the feel of a Christmas special.  Campbell opened with his lively arrangement of “Gotta Travel On.”  Cher did O.C. Smith’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.”  The finale was a Christmas medley with the entire cast.  The concert spot, nonetheless, was saved for three of Glen’s biggest:  “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston” and his version of Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas.”

Viewers followed Glen back to Sunday nights.  The 24.1 rating was good enough for number seven for the week in the Nielsens and topped both Bonanza and the ABC movie.

Over the next few weeks, name guests continued to populate The Goodtime Hour.  Walter Brennan, Ray Charles, George Gobel, Bobbie Gentry, Neil Diamond and Ella Fitzgerald were big favorites.  An early February hour offered two rare variety show guests, Gunsmoke’s Milburn Stone and Ken Curtis.  The venerable Doc and Festus joined Glen in a medley of old western movie classics, including “Tumblin’ Tumbleweed” and “Cool Water,” hits of the Sons of the Pioneers (with whom Curtis once sang).

A signature hour on February 22, 1970, had major significance for the network.  CBS had won the yearly ratings race for 13 consecutive years.  With a weaker lineup of movie titles and some dying sitcoms (Get Smart, brought over from NBC for a final season, The Good Guys, The Tim Conway Show and Petticoat Junction), CBS was losing the 1969-70 seasonal race by nearly three points per week.  Dann, whose undefeated streak was an obsession, could not bear losing to his brash NBC opponent Paul Klein.

An imperative titled Operation 100 was originated by Dann.  The plan was to tear up the entire CBS lineup if necessary.  Pre-emptions of weak shows for better-performing specials were one part of the blueprint.  Buying movie titles not currently in CBS’s library (Peyton Place, Born Free, The African Queen) that had heavy promotional potential was a second step.  Third, Dann wanted his variety show hosts and producers to beef up their guest lineups in February to make their episodes appear more along the lines of network spectaculars.  Operation 100 may have smacked of desperation but Dann felt CBS could bring home the bacon for a 14th straight year.

A key to the programming blitz was The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.  In the hour before, The Ed Sullivan Show was suffering from an aging and declining audience.  CBS was not as reluctant to pre-empt Sullivan’s vaudeville showcase as it would have in past years.  Dann managed to get the film Born Free (which had already aired on NBC) at a bargain price.  He scheduled the family movie from 7 to 9 on Sunday, February 22.  Dick Van Dyke agreed to host wraparounds during Born Free in the same fashion as he had once done previously for a CBS airing of The Wizard of Oz.

West Coast programming executive Perry Lafferty called Campbell and asked if he could schedule a blockbuster show.  CBS was willing to foot the bill for added talent costs.  As detailed in Les Brown’s book Television: the Business Behind the Box, Lafferty telegraphed a memo to New York which read:  “Campbell promises to book a huge show coming out of Born Free, big acts.  This could get him the highest rating he’s ever had.”  Van Dyke consented to plug Campbell’s hour and talent lineup at the end of Born Free.

The February 22 episode went down as one of the most memorable of The Goodtime Hour efforts.  John Byner and Laugh-In’s Ruth Buzzi came aboard for comedy.  The cement was booking Dionne Warwick and The Fifth Dimension, two of the hottest musical acts in the recording industry.  A decision was made for orchestra leader Marty Paich to arrange a medley of 13 of the biggest hits for Campbell, Warwick and The Fifth Dimension.  The songfest would comprise the final 11 minutes of The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.  Warwick’s “Alfie” and “Didn’t We?” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” were among the classics.  The Dimension offered “Up, Up and Away,” “Sweet Blindness” and “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” (on which the entire cast joined).  Glen served up “Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Hey, Little One” and “Where’s the Playground, Susie?”  Paich’s creative arrangement allowed the artists to sing bits of the others’ hits as a virtual echo sound.

Glen DionneOne could sense a shared desire at the end of the medley for the entire home audience to rise as one in a standing ovation in an era before such a reaction became a cliché.  When Glen left his guests to perform his closing “Pave Your Way into Tomorrow,” his facial expression indicated, “We nailed it!”  Even the Paich orchestra’s closing credits theme of “Gentle on My Mind” seemed livelier.

The Operation 100 ploy was working.  The February 22 episode scored a 26.0 rating, the top number ever for a Campbell hour (as Lafferty predicted).  CBS went on, with the chaotic programming strategy, to win the season for the 14th year in a row by two-tenths of a point over NBC.  The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour ended its second year with a 21.0 rating, good enough for 20th place for the season.  Bonanza ranked third with a 24.8.  However, much of the Ponderosa rating was built during its head-to-head matchup with Uggams.  With Campbell back in as the opponent, the race was neck-and-neck on Sunday at 9 with each show inching ahead of the other an equal number of times, often depending on the strength of Glen’s guest roster.

Campbell’s summer replacement was a completely different format called Comedy Tonight with Robert Klein as the headliner among a group of young comics.  The ratings were indifferent.  Comedy Tonight did not continue in the tradition of the previous two summers of launching hits for the regular season in The Summer Brothers Smothers Show and Hee Haw.

At the same time The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour established its star as a major television name, his records began to cool on the Billboard charts—both in rank and weeks on the list.  This followed a pattern for many singers who found TV success with variety shows dating back to Perry Como.  “Where’s the Playground, Susie?,” another Jim Webb composition, stalled at number 26.  The tune simply did not have the same singalong melody as Glen’s previous hits.  Campbell himself acknowledged as much.  “I’d had a string of monster hits,” he said on The Merv Griffin Show on CBS, “but ‘Where’s the Playground, Susie?’ was just nothing.”  His recording of the theme from the film True Grit, in which he played a supporting role to John Wayne (in The Duke’s only Oscar-winning performance), topped out at number 35.

The 1970-71 season began with major changes on the horizon in the entire television industry.  First, a Justice Department inquiry into domination of television networks over their affiliates, led to an FCC rulemaking limiting CBS, ABC and NBC to three hours per night of prime time programming effective October 1, 1971.  Most evenings, the 7:30-8 p.m. half-hour would go back to the affiliates.  Second, the key advertising agencies in New York quietly began emphasizing demographic ratings over total numbers of eyeballs watching network programs.  For the 1970 fall season, CBS shocked many observers by canceling veteran mainstays Jackie Gleason and Red Skelton.  In the aftermath, Skelton was so angry (his variety series was still the number 8 show in the Nielsens) that he vowed never to release tapes of his eight years of one-hour CBS shows for syndication.  Petticoat Junction, one of the triumvirate of hit rural-based comedies developed by Paul Henning, was canceled after seven years.  The venerable Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres were moved to unfamiliar Tuesday night slots opposite ABC’s breakout younger-skewing hit The Mod Squad.

Season 3:  1970-71

CBS kept The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour as its anchor on Sundays at 9 but the shows surrounding Campbell were potential problems.  The Ed Sullivan Show, which began as Toast of the Town in 1948, had a median viewer age of 61.  The network made a puzzling decision to move Mission: Impossible back to Saturday nights and inserted The Tim Conway Comedy Hour Sundays at 10.  Conway, a popular supporting actor in the sixties on McHale’s Navy and a favorite guest star on variety shows, was a question mark as a show topliner.  His one try at a starring comedy role in the ABC western spoof Rango was a ratings disaster.  In the spring of 1970, Conway was given a CBS one-hour special opposite television’s new number one hit, ABC’s Marcus Welby, M.D.  The ratings for the Conway special were terrible (72nd place) but CBS programmers rejected a new medical drama starring Carl Betz and went with Conway.

The third season opener for The Goodtime Hour featured variety show favorites and an unconventional guest.  Ruth Buzzi and Norm Crosby returned for comedy bits.  The Fifth Dimension, who scored hugely with their February appearance, returned to do “Spinning Wheel” and the Oscar-winning “Windmills of Your Mind.”  The group joined Glen and Jerry Reed for a medley of “In the Summertime,” “Save the Country” and “Everything Is Beautiful.”  The surprise addition, billed as special guest star, was Brian Keith of CBS’ Family Affair.  Keith had never appeared on a variety hour and some of his sketches were a bit stiff, though he connected with a segment in which he “narrated” the lyrics to current pop songs.  Yet, CBS wanted added exposure for Keith because Family Affair faced formidable Thursday night competition this season with NBC’s new Flip Wilson Show.  Glen ended the evening with his version of The Beatles’ Let It Be.  Musically, the hour was solid.  The comedy was the typical variety show sketch fare.

Two other changes to format for 1970-71 were tweaks.  Instead of Glen opening the show with “Gentle on My Mind” and disclosing his guest list, Larry McNeeley and the musicians struck up with “Gentle” but a different guest star each week would rise from the audience and mock the host’s traditional, “Good evening ladies and gentlemen, I’m Glen Campbell.”  The closing theme after Glen singing “Pave Your Way into Tomorrow” was an upbeat Marty Paich arrangement of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.”

The first two-week reporting period for Nielsen brought some disappointing but not insurmountable results.  The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour was in 29th place for the period (his second show was headlined by singers Nancy Wilson and Buck Owens and comedian Shecky Greene), its weakest start to a season.  Part of the explanation came in the performance of Campbell’s lead-in and lead-out.  The Ed Sullivan Show, which barely survived cancellation the previous year, opened in 51st place.  The Tim Conway Comedy Hour (which featured an opening theme of comedian Art Metrano doing “Fine and Dandy” without orchestral accompaniment) was a quick disaster in 72nd place.

Glen 5Between October and Christmas week, Glen’s guest list reflected a balance between standard variety show singers and newcomers to the charts.  Veterans The Osmond Brothers, The Supremes, Dionne Warwick, Johnny Cash, Jackie DeShannon, Anne Murray (who became a semi-regular), Thelma Houston, Sunday’s Child, Karen Wyman and Kenny Rogers and the First Edition.  For comedy, familiar faces Wally Cox, George Gobel, Walter Brennan, Norm Crosby, Ruth Buzzi and Paul Lynde carried the load.  For some unexplained reason, Shecky Greene made four appearances between October and December.  Three times he was billed as “special guest star” above other performers who appeared more deserving of that designation.

Highlights of the fall were the November 8 and 15 shows.  Tom Jones, in Hollywood to tape eight episodes of his ABC variety hour This Is Tom Jones, headlined the November 8 Goodtime Hour.  Dean Martin, Campbell’s golfing buddy, was special guest star November 15.  Both weeks, the shows ended with Glen joining with his guests in medleys of their hits.  Jones and Campbell opened their medley with the old standard “Let the Good Times Roll” before seguing into Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual,” “Help Yourself,” “Green, Green Grass of Home” and “I’m Never Gonna Fall in Love Again.”  The two ended the show over the credits with Jones’ closing TV theme “I Thank You.”  Martin did little except for a quick sketch appearance until the end.  The entire hour was worth waiting for Campbell and Dino to team for six of his country/western favorites, including “Let the Good Times In,” “Things” and “Old Yellow Line.”  Both shows bumped the ratings upward back into the top 25.

Glen Dean 2The Christmas show on December 20 was another family experience, along with George Gobel, Anne Murray and—for the fourth time in 11 weeks—Shecky Greene.  Glen’s parents, Wes and Carrie Campbell, returned for their annual appearance.  This time, Glen’s sisters joined the party, singing “Till There Was You” while their brother offered Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” and “There’s No Place Like Home” from “The Glen Campbell Christmas Album.”

In the new year, music again drove the train.  January 10, Glen, Linda Ronstadt and Neil Diamond presented a show-ending medley of Diamond’s hits.  Tennessee Ernie Ford, Sonny and Cher, Liberace, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Sunday’s Child and Jimmy Dean rounded out the month.  On January 31, Glen’s finale was “Cold December in Your Heart,” an encore from the first season.

In the all-important February rating sweeps for local stations, The Goodtime Hour aired only three of the four weeks, pre-empted on Valentine’s night.  Musical stars included a return of Dionne Warwick, Anne Murray and The Osmonds, Mac Davis (who would later have a major falling out with Campbell), country singer Susan Raye and Bobby Vinton.  Andy Griffith returned and Shecky Greene made his fifth appearance of the season.  The best of the lot was February 28 when Glen and Vinton teamed for a medley of Bobby’s hits.

Interestingly, the final four episodes of the 26-show season ended on April 4.  Repeats began the following week and aired through the May rating sweeps.  Today’s network schedulers often slot reruns in the mid-March to April period and save May for new episodes.  The final month included Joey Bishop—-who gave Glen a big boost toward the variety show by booking Campbell frequently on the comedian’s ABC talk show, Bobby Goldsboro, Seals and Crofts, Vikki Carr, Don Rickles, two more appearances by Anne Murray and Shecky Greene for the sixth time.  The highlight episode was March 21 when Burl Ives showed up to do a powerful solo with “Time” and teamed with Glen for a medley of Ives’ folk hits, including “The Blue Tail Fly.”

The third season did not end on what any viewer would call a high note.  Campbell made no mention of the April 4 show as the final one, probably in no small part because episodes sometimes aired out of the order of their taping.  The final four appeared to be routine hours with guests who turned up on most of the other network variety shows.

Of more significant note were the season-long Nielsen results.  The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour fell to 35th place for the 1970-71 campaign.  The good news was the show’s performance compared to its lead-in and lead-out.  Ed Sullivan’s 23rd season dropped his tradition of singers, dancers, comedians and plate spinners to 56th place.  Most weeks, Sullivan ran third in the time slot behind ABC’s The FBI and NBC’s combination of The Wonderful World of Disney and The Bill Cosby Show.  Tim Conway’s misplayed comedy hour was gone by December and replaced by repeats of Jackie Gleason’s musical editions of The Honeymooners.

Additionally, word began filtering of major shifts in all the networks’ programming philosophies, especially CBS.  With the ad agencies pushing series that would attract younger urban audiences, focusing on the 18-to-49 age bracket, many of the veteran CBS programs—including some still drawing Top 30 ratings—could be vulnerable.  With The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour featuring a Southern star, Variety listed the three-year-old series as “on the bubble” for 1971-72.  In fact, concerns were that the entire variety show genre was in deep trouble.

The verdict came the first week in May.  The network lineups for fall revealed the variety hour was headed in the same direction as the western.  Of 16 music/comedy hours on ABC, CBS and NBC, all but five were gone.  ABC parted company with Lawrence Welk after 16 years.  Johnny Cash’s much-anticipated Nashville-based hour was dead after two seasons.  Pearl Bailey’s first shot at a variety show ended after half a season.  ABC stripped its entire schedule of variety in favor of younger-skewing comedies and dramas.  NBC disposed of longtime Peacock mainstay Andy Williams, Don Knotts and Red Skelton’s renovated half-hour.  Only Dean Martin and Flip Wilson, its new big hit, survived.  CBS, as expected, ended the Ed Sullivan era and gave pink slips to the Honeymooners reruns and—-to the shock of many—-The Jim Nabors Hour.  Nabors, arguably the most ascending star on the network through the 1960s, gambled on doing a variety hour in 1969 when CBS wanted him to go two more years with his invincible Gomer Pyle, USMC.  The Nabors show was still in the top 30 after finishing 11th in its first season.  The Alabamian’s music/comedy effort was significantly increasing the audience from the fading Family Affair.

Glen 3

Still up in the air was the fate of The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, a decision that came down to the last two scheduling moves.  New CBS President Bob Wood and young programming chief Fred Silverman were both intent on remaking the network for a new decade.  Their anchor was a controversial new comedy introduced in February 1971 that challenged television taboos in language and topical content.  All in the Family, based on a British series Till Death Us Do Part, premiered in 56th place but the new CBS executive team was intent on patience with what they felt would be a groundbreaking show for American television.

The boldness of Wood and Silverman was evident in more than their surprise move to drop Jim Nabors.  Missing for 1971-72 was Lassie (17 years), Hogan’s Heroes (6 years), The Beverly Hillbillies (9 years), Green Acres (6 years), The CBS News Hour (11 years), Family Affair (6 years), and To Rome with Love (2 years).  However, that was not all.  Andy Griffith’s new sitcom bit the dust after a half-season.  Newcomers Storefront Lawyers and The Interns, both designed with an edgier tone for young adults, failed.  The big shock came when CBS sliced two top 20 shows, much as it had the year before with the cancellation of Red Skelton.  Mayberry R.F.D., the sequel to the original Andy Griffith Show, which finished 15th for its third season despite formidable competition in the fall from ABC’s new Monday Night Football, was gone.  Hee Haw, the surprise megahit of the summer of 1969, was 16th for the year in the old Red Skelton slot—the highest-rated CBS Tuesday night hour.  When Silverman scanned the low ratings in New York, Philadelphia and other urban markets, Hee Haw was considered expendable (though its producers quickly syndicated the hayseed hour for the next 23 years).

With CBS shedding itself of any semblance of rural-appeal entertainment, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour appeared to be a sure bet to go.  Plus, CBS opted to go with a third night of movies in the Sunday 7:30-9:30 slot.  The Goodtime Hour could have gone 9:30 to 10:30 but CBS was high on a new crime drama, Cade’s County, featuring Glenn Ford—one of a corps of film stars making the transition to television series in 1971.

Ultimately, The Goodtime Hour would survive but in the toughest time slot for the fall season.  Campbell would move to Tuesday at 7:30, head-on against ABC’s powerhouse and 11th-ranked The Mod Squad and NBC’s fourth-ranked Ironside—a risky move out of its solid Thursday night slot of the previous four years.  One shining light was a feature in Look magazine, in which Silverman was quoted as saying a key reason Campbell continued for a fourth year was because “he actually draws more urban viewers than Carol Burnett.”  That could not have been a note of optimism for Burnett, who was moving out of her traditional Monday night slot (to Wednesdays) for the first time since her 1967 premiere.

For Campbell to succeed in the new time period, he would need to focus on the 35-54 age demographic.  The Mod Squad was strong in the 18-34 crowd.  Ironside’s core audience was over 40 but was predominantly male.  Glen would need to keep a grasp on the middle age bracket that solidified The Goodtime Hour in its first three seasons.

Season 4:  1971-72

Four subtle changes marked season four.  Rather than the “good evening, I’m Glen Campbell” parody, each week began with a cold open of Glen singing.  The Mike Curb Congregation, a kid-and-teen skewing choral group, was added as regulars.  The closing theme of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” was played without audience applause over clips of the following week’s episode.  Finally, as if this move would make any difference with the audience, the series title was quietly altered to The Glen Campbell Show.  Some network executive—-probably Fred Silverman—-likely decided The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour sounded too rural.

The decision was made, probably in no small part by CBS, to frontload the hour with bigger name show business veterans which often served to make The Glen Campbell Show appear the same as all the traditional variety series.

Opening night on September 14 featured John Wayne, Carol Burnett, Tim Conway and Three Dog Night.  Glen opened with the pop hit “Sooner or Later” and closed with “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.”  He joined Three Dog Night for their million-seller “Joy to the World.”  The hour had plenty of pizazz.  The ratings did not.  Campbell was a distant third to the crime show opposition.

CBS continued to beef up the guest list with heavyweights.  Bob Hope, Debbie Reynolds, Shirley Jones, Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Jack Lord and Andy Griffith were among the name stars to appear in the next seven weeks.  The November rating sweeps were highlighted with musical guests Petula Clark, Sonny and Cher (who would return in their own midseason replacement variety hour in January), Lynn Anderson, Paul Anka and Jerry Lee Lewis.  One entire episode was devoted to the Photoplay Awards, a popularity contest in the fast-fading fan magazine.  The highlight of the hour was Shirley Jones and Glen doing a medley of tunes from Oklahoma! and Glen winding up with “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Shirley’s film Carousel.

As Christmas approached, The Glen Campbell Show was clearly in trouble.  United Press International’s Rick DuBrow quoted an unnamed source as saying “CBS would like to cancel but paying off the contract with Campbell would be too expensive, especially with the networks struggling to replace lost revenue from the ban on cigarette advertising.”  Despite the lavish production values, The Campbell Show fell to 63rd place in its monster three-way confrontation. 

The annual Campbell Christmas show aired three days late because of a pre-emption December 21.  Glen’s family made its annual appearance, joined by Pat Boone and his family and Dom DeLuise—who had replaced Shecky Greene as a semiregular—-and his family.  In addition to holiday tunes, a highlight was a spoof of classic singing groups from the Mills Brothers to the Beach Boys.

The January 4 show held the distinction of being the shortest episode of the Glen Campbell series.  DeLuise, Totie Fields and The Osmonds were guests for a 50-minute edition.  At 8:20 p.m., Senator Edmund Muskie announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for President in a paid announcement.

Glen Spectacular 2With the entertainment media circling the wagons of impending cancellation, Glen was determined to go out with at least one show of his choosing.  Quarter-page ads were bought by Chevrolet in key newspapers promoting The Glen Campbell Country Music Spectacular.  In the opening moments after singing “I Was Born a Country Boy,” Campbell told the audience:  “This is my dream show.”  Johnny and June Carter Cash, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Mel Tillis, newcomer Freddie Hart, Jerry Reed and Minnie Pearl put on a tour de force of the genre CBS tried desperately to rid itself of in the previous season.  A closer look at the episode, available now on ShoutFactoryTV.com, demonstrates how Campbell threw the episode to his guests.  His only solos were “Born to Lose” and, in the finale, “For the Good Times.”  The highlight was a nine-minute medley in the penultimate segment featuring everything from “A Boy Named Sue,” Haggard’s “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am,” Owens’ “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail,” Tillis with “Detroit City” and Reed’s “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot.”  The closer brought the whole cast together for Don Gibson’s classic “Oh, Lonesome Me.”

The Country Music Spectacular may have been the best-produced network hour ever of television showcasing country music performers.   The gig may have been up for Campbell’s variety show but the blockbuster hour bumped The Glen Campbell Show to 39th place, its final appearance in the Nielsen top 40.  Had the episode been the last show of the series, Campbell would have finished with an exclamation point.

Nine episodes remained but no one could accuse Campbell of coasting.  Shirley Jones (in a second guest shot), Robert Goulet, Freda Payne, Jim Nabors, Helen Reddy and Barbara Eden gave him strong musical support.  Even Milton Berle headlined a salute to the Golden Age of Television on the March 7 episode.

The series finale on March 21 was not one that shot any fireworks but was the way Glen wanted to finish.  Anne Murray, Jerry Reed, Larry McNeeley, Dom DeLuise and his parents surrounded him.  CBS would not make the cancellation official for another four weeks but Campbell knew this was it.  He opened with an up tempo version of the Broadway favorite “Hello, Young Lovers” and offered “Help Me Make It Through the Night” in his concert spot.  He joined Wes and Carrie Campbell for “In the Shadow of the Pines.”  Reflecting the climax of many of his live concerts, Glen brought down the curtain on four years of goodtime television with “The Lord’s Prayer.”

After nine weeks of repeats, The Glen Campbell Show was history.  His production company supervised the two four-week summer replacement shows, The Jerry Reed When You’re Hot, You’re Hot Hour and The John Byner Comedy Hour.  Neither hour could build any momentum for consideration as a midseason replacement.  Including the nine weeks of The Summer Brothers Smothers Show in the summer of 1968, the series ran for 100 episodes.

The Goodtime Hour:  Epilog

Glen took a year off from television except as an occasional guest star.  In 1973, he signed a two-year contract with NBC and Chevrolet to do two specials a year.  The big-budget shows performed respectably in the ratings, though never at the levels of his first two seasons with The Goodtime Hour.

In 1981, Campbell returned to weekly television in syndication.  The Glen Campbell Music Show, a half-hour targeted for weekend slots on local stations, was a joint venture of his Glenco Productions and producer Pierre Cossette, who had overseen a number of Andy Williams specials.  In fact, The Glen Campbell Music Show was structured similarly to Williams’ attempt at half-hour syndication in 1976-77 that only lasted one season.  Williams taped all 26 shows in Canada in 19 days.

The Glen Campbell Music Show was purely as the name implied.  No comedians or sketches were included.  No lavish sets or designer costumes were in the budget.  Most weeks, the show had only one guest who typically sang one song and did a single duet with Glen.  The rest of the half-hour was Glen and his music.  The show did not even have a permanent theme song.  Glen opened with a different one of his hits every week.

Unfortunately, the syndicated series did not click.  Part of the problem was its scheduling.  Many stations across the country scheduled The Glen Campbell Music Show in late night on Saturdays or Sundays.  In the cities where he aired early Saturday evenings, Glen was usually directly opposite two syndication toughies—Hee Haw and The Lawrence Welk Show—or Merv Griffin Productions’ younger-skewing Dance Fever.  Glen’s half-hour also had a cookie-cutter look to each episode that resembled assembly line production.

Glen 8Television historians have long debated what brought an end to the variety show era.  Sonny and Cher, along with Donny and Marie, were the last gasps of music/comedy success in prime time.  All the other attempts, mostly in summer replacements, bit the dust.  Carol Burnett ended an 11-year run in 1978.  Dean Martin faded away on NBC in 1973-74 in a final season as The Dean Martin Comedy Hour.  The Bonos were a top 10 show when their variety hour ended in 1974 because of their divorce.  Each one tried a solo series that failed.   Their attempt to reunite in January 1976 only lasted a year and a half.  Donny and Marie managed four years on ABC, though they limped along in a final half-season in 1979 as The Osmond Family Hour.

An objective examination centers on four keys to the end of successful television variety series.  One, younger people in the early-to-mid 1970s were raised on concerts and edgier pop music that did not play well on television except on weekend shows such as The Midnight Special or Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.  Two, oversaturation was a huge problem.  When the networks had a peak of 16 variety hours in 1971, the shows began to look alike.  The hosts began to swap appearances on each other’s shows, the guest lists seemed to be carbon copies and the formats were too similar.  Three, many of the singers or comedians hired to front the hours by the mid-‘70s were reasonably good guest performers but did not have the comfort zone or talent to be an emcee who wore well with a weekly audience.  Finally, the shift toward demographic focus in television ratings pushed the variety show out the door.  Just as westerns virtually died after the cancellation of Gunsmoke in 1975, variety hours skewed older—an audience ad agency executives believed was set in its ways, consisting of people who would not buy new products.  In other words, if you were over 50, advertising executives considered you as much as dead.

In his autobiography, Glen Campbell detailed honestly the wear and tear his career took on his personal life:  multiple marriages, addictions to pills, bouts with depression and strained relationships.  He faced a perpetual challenge living up to the image of an All-American boy who became every mother’s son when The Summer Brothers Smothers Show launched his television career in 1968.  An intense concert schedule and a four-year struggle to find a new hit song until “Rhinestone Cowboy” clicked in 1975 took its toll.

Yet, for that four year-period between 1968 and 1972, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour was appointment television for viewers—-especially the loyalists who hung with him in the low-rated final season.  When CBS allowed Glen to be Glen, the hour was as enjoyable as any of the Golden Age music-comedyfests.  He had an ability to connect with his audience by being himself.  He gave the network its first successful young male emcee in the genre in more than a decade.  Likewise, he was one of the last of a dying television breed.  Pauline Kael wrote, “We may be reaching the end of an era in which individual movies meant something to people.  In the new era, movies may mean just a barrage of images.” So too is the end of the television variety show.  For those viewers who gathered mostly on Sundays at 9 for The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, the memories still mean something.


Combating Cliches in Television News

As one who teaches young people to enter the profession of broadcast journalism, I find interesting and often puzzling the things I have to do differently than I did 25 years ago.

For one, I struggle more and more to slow the pace of my students’ speech. I have no idea what happened a decade ago but, year by year, they talk faster and faster and faster.

They don’t just do it on the air. That’s the pace they address each other in conversation. I call it machine gun speech because they rattle out their words just about as fast.

I try to explain it this way: the viewer has one shot at hearing your delivery. They typically do not DVR newscasts. If you are delivering your copy as if you are in a hurry to get home, they will never grasp your information.

In years past, I often cringed or turned the channel when Jen Carfagno started at The Weather Channel. The young woman is popular enough now to be part of the early morning “AMHQ” team. I am sure she is a delightful person. When she began, she discussed cold fronts and high pressure systems as if she were racing a contender at the Kentucky Derby. How many times did I yell at the screen: “SLOW DOWN!” Someone must have worked with Carfagno. I can actually comprehend her detail now because her rate of speech has seriously declined from seven words per second.

A couple of weekends ago, I was watching the same network’s Saturday remote from an outdoor festival. Reagan Medgie, a correspondent for TWC, is engaging and pleasant. I am certain I would like her if I met her. However, she has a case of the Carfagnos from past years. When she tossed the segment back to Maria LaRosa and Paul Goodloe, so help me, I had no idea what she said, where she was or who she was because she was speaking at the speed of a hurricane.

Interestingly, some of my students give me pushback. “Well, that’s the way I normally talk,” I have heard more than one complain. That is when we go into the control room and look at their tape. Occasionally, I will bring in a colleague who will verify my assessment. Most pay attention, though begrudgingly at times. A few are just insistent that their high school flash-and-dash conversational rate of speech is acceptable.

The other challenge we face is to eliminate terrible use of the language, some of which the TV news industry has sadly adopted. Twitter has two identities, @tiredtvterms and @producerprobs. Both are dedicated to people like me who gripe about worn out clichés and bad phrases, even if we sound like old men in a rocking chair in front of a senior citizens’ center.

My biggest pet peeve is one I have been harping on for five years. When, oh when, are anchors and reporters going to stop using the ridiculous and incorrect phrase “went missing?”

Somehow, around the start of this decade, broadcast news adopted that phrase. Here’s how it typically is presented: “Thirty-two-year-old Brenda Kaddidlehopper went missing three days ago. Law enforcement authorities are asking for your help in finding her.”

To say one “went missing” or “has gone missing” is to suggest an active or planned intent by an individual to be missing. A person can be “reported missing” to authorities. You can say that same person “is missing.” Went missing or gone missing? Don’t ever say that in my presence. Yet, I will wager you will hear it on your local newscast in a matter of days.

On a similar note, I heard a new one last week. On the local news in the city where I live, an anchor received a press release from an area police department. I was emailed the same release. The anchor reported, “Police are searching for the whereabouts of 14-year-old ____________.”

Were police not searching for the girl? That is absolutely the first time I have ever heard a reporter state that officers were “searching for the whereabouts.”

I continue to cringe when I hear a reporter say, “Some 30,000 people marched in protest today.” I scream at my TV screen: “Which 30,000 people?”

More than 40 years ago, my major professor at the University of Georgia, the late Bill Martin, confronted “60 Minutes” commentator James J. Kilpatrick at a seminar about the inexplicable use of the word “some.” I’m paraphrasing but Kilpatrick said, in effect, “I don’t really know why we do it. I think we think it sounds good, so we do it.”

Here’s another irritant. I nearly come unglued if I watch morning television and the anchors switch to a reporter for a live segment on a murder, shooting or some other tragedy. The reporter in the field will, without fail, say: “Good morning, Jan and Richard.” Good morning?? When you are about to report on death or violence? Could we all agree to drop the happy greeting on the scene of disaster?

As for clichés, sportscasters are the absolute worst and I was one for 25 years. Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic, whose “Mike and Mike in the Morning” will soon end on ESPN2 after 18 years, are arguably the worst practitioners.

I wish I had $10 for every time either one has said “throw him under the bus” when a coach blames a player for a loss. I perhaps could retire before 2021.

As for another, I am convinced Golic invented the term “it is what it is,” an absolutely meaningless phrase he uses to describe something otherwise inexplicable.

When a team attempts to rebound after an off year, count on Mike or Mike to say, “They’re coming in with a chip on their shoulders.”

Once Greenberg or Golic establish a phrase enough times, count on the rest of the sports talk fraternity to adopt the same clichés ad nauseum.

News is not off the hook. During my first year in television news, I cannot count the number of times reporters would lead off stories depicting commemorative dates or events with, “It’s that time of year again.” I vowed never to use those six words in a news story. I never have.

I tell my student reporters if any of them send me a script that ends with “only time will tell,” that script will be sent right back until they come up with something original. That happened to me in the tenth grade when my English teacher Hazel Mancil returned a paper to me which ended with that very phrase.

I am also a curmudgeon about sentences that begin with the word “there,” such as “There are new tax proposals on the table from City Council.” I go back to one of the great English professors in history, Dr. Marvin Evans. He would toss back any paper that had sentences beginning with the word “there,” except in a direct quote. “There” is an existential. “There” is never a subject of a sentence, but always requires a verb.

Recently, I was watching a midday newscast on NewsON from the Southwest. A reporter actually said, “Police used firearms to shoot the suspect.” I had no idea an alternative form of ballistics had been developed.

Next time a hurricane begins making its way up the Florida coast, count how many times meteorologists or anchors will say, “Hurricane Otto is really packing a punch.” I never knew punches were packed. They are usually thrown in boxing matches or pier six brawls. I’d like to ask such people, “Did Otto pack his punch in American Tourister luggage (does that still exist?).

Thank goodness most news producers sent emails to their reporters last week after the O.J. Simpson parole hearing. The journalists were told not to say, “The Juice is loose.” Note that I said “most” news producers. Before the hearing, I saw this graphic on a local newscast: “Will the Juice get loose?”

In a few other choice examples of tired TV terms (and these are offered by interviewees as well as reporters), try these:

  • At the end of the day
  • It has a lot of moving parts
  • There, you see it (a favorite of sportscasters when a graphic appears)
  • Gave chase (to whom was the chase presented?)
  • Using -gate at the end of a term to depict every major scandal. Forty-five years ago, Watergate sent us on this long path. Most producers or young reporters have no idea that Watergate is an apartment complex.

Here is one more for your consideration. I would like to send a year’s supply of sour milk to the person who decided the proper way to begin a response to a question is with the word “so.” I see this happening largely when younger people are interviewed on midday newscasts. I am also seeing this creep into reporters’ answers to anchor questions during a remote. So help me, in scanning newscasts last week, I saw an anchor ask, “When do you expect the next briefing from the police?” Said the reporter: “Soooooo, we think that will probably happen in the next hour and a half to two hours.”

Every once in a while, though, phrases can be a bit original and creative. The one depicted in the accompanying picture was developed for a story involving a robbery in Jackson, Tn.  Police ultimately discovered the culprit hiding in an abandoned home.  The official police report indicated that the man charged showed officers where he had hidden the $432 taken from a convenience store—-in a toilet.

A rather inventive graphic headline writer offered the phrase:  Johnny Cash? Robbery Money Found in Toilet.

When I saw that, I was reminded of the year Tennessee Ernie Ford hosted the Country Music Association Awards. He said, “When I was young, I dated a girl who was so dumb she thought Johnny Cash was money you found in the commode.”

Television news and sports often rely far too much on worn out clichés. Despite this cry from the wildnerness, those stale phrases will continue.

During the 40-plus years since I joined the television news fraternity, I have read many interviews with news directors who are newly-hired. At least six of them included the quote, “We’re going to tighten up on the writing.” Did that mean the writing was loose?  Was a rope to be used to make the writing improve?

Sooooooo, such is life in the TV newsroom.  Time for me to retire to my rocking chair in front of the Ralston Hotel in Columbus, Ga.  I will take one “Johnny Cash?” graphic for 100 “only time will tell” endings—-any time.

Douglas Edwards: The First and Forgotten Anchor

            I was a shade more than three years old when I first heard the words that gripped the nation every night:  “Good evening everyone from coast to coast……this is Douglas Edwards with the news.”

            Often, I am critical of network television for being too callous about its history.  Much of that comes from focus group research that tells network executives younger audiences don’t know much about broadcast history and—-worse—doesn’t care.

            Last week, CBS News—in the midst of arguably the biggest firestorm over journalism in history—remembered a forgotten legend.  The tribute was way, way overdue.

Edwards            Friday, July 14, CBS observed Douglas Edwards Day.  Thursday night at the end of the CBS Evening News, a 90-second montage of Edwards’ historic pioneering work was shown.  No doubt, a significant number of viewers had no idea who he was or what his role was in network television news.  I did.

            Edwards was called “the inventor of television news anchoring” by no less than one of his successors, Dan Rather.  In 1948, with a limited number of television sets in homes, the network launched CBS TV News with Douglas Edwards at 7:45 p.m. in six Eastern cities.  Edwards had 15 minutes to tell the fledgling video audience what happened in America and the world.

 For the next 14 years, his was the familiar face that informed us of Presidential inaugurations, the Korean War, the development of the Salk polio vaccine, the arrest of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Ala., and our first suborbital manned space flights.

Edwards 2            His trademark opening “good evening everyone from coast to coast” started in 1951 when the coaxial cable linked the entire country.  The line stuck until his final evening news broadcast in 1962.

           Because of the limited technical resources of the era and the restriction of a 15-minute format (network news did not expand to a half-hour until September 1963), Edwards did not frequently go out on stories himself.  However, he was first to the scene in a helicopter as the SS Andrea Doria sank off the coast of Nantucket in July 1956.  In its day, the coverage was both innovative and dramatic.

 Edwards AndreaEdwards Chopper           For the first 10 years, Edwards was the definitive face of network news.  He constantly outdrew the foppish John Cameron Swayze and his Camel News Caravan on NBC.

           Particularly in the flyover states, Edwards was unbeatable.  A glance back at the local ratings for Douglas Edwards with the News on WRBL in Columbus, Ga., in 1958 showed the CBS quarter-hour in the top ten in the Chattahoochee Valley.

Edwards 1

            I saw Edwards and briefly met him 33 years ago when he gave the keynote address at the Radio-Television News Directors Association convention in San Antonio.  A portion of his speech was a foreshadowing.

            “With the advent of Cable News Network, CBS and the other broadcast networks are no longer alone as voices in broadcast journalism,” he said.  “As technology advances and the capability of live coverage expands, the field is open for other voices to enter the field.” 

            At the time, we had no idea what online technology would mean but Edwards’ words had a touch of a crystal ball ring.

            Broadcast news historians, such as I am, were shocked when the announcement was made in the spring of 1962 that Edwards would be replaced on the CBS Evening News by Walter Cronkite.

Edwards Cronkite Rather            Many books on CBS News have suggested that Edwards lost the anchor slot because he failed to aggressively become as much of a journalist as he was a news reader.  That is as much baloney as what’s in the packaged meat counter at Publix.

Still other accounts knocked him because of his moonlighting into entertainment formats.  In the summer of 1952, Edwards presided over the panel game show Masquerade Party.  For five years, he was the host and narrator of CBS’ Armstrong Circle Theater, an alternate week series of live and taped dramas.

He was not alone in reaching across the aisle from the newsroom.  The erudite commentator Eric Sevareid served as a substitute host on a panel game.  Cronkite, unbeknownst to many viewers, was host of the Mark Goodson-Bill Todman game show It’s News to Me in the summer of 1955.  Before he became the central figure of 60 Minutes, Mike Wallace had a career as the host of three game shows—including the big-money $100,000 Big Surprise.  Wallace also did the pilot for To Tell the Truth under a different title.  The father of broadcast news Edward R. Murrow spent six years as host of a popular Friday night CBS celebrity interview show, Person to Person.  In an era where network news salaries were suppressed, news personalities took crossover roles because the pay was better.  The public perception that news and entertainment were rigid, uncrossable tentpoles did not solidify until the decade when Cronkite assumed the reins of the Evening News.

As for Armstrong Circle Theater, which aired every other Wednesday at 10 on CBS, I submit the series did not compromise Edwards’ credibility.  Every play on Circle Theater was a docudrama based on current issues in the news, such as corruption in the coin-operated jukebox industry, emotional difficulties created by a divided Germany, the effects of compulsive gambling and the influx of heroin into large American cities.  At the end of many of the dramas, Edwards conducted a news-themed interview with an expert analyst on the subject matter.  Though scripted drama, one can argue that Edwards gave Circle Theater added credibility and delved into serious issues in a perspective that a 15-minute news format of the era could not.

Edwards with the News              As for pure journalism, Edwards had plenty of experience.  Exhibit A:  from 1942 to 1948, he was a correspondent for CBS Radio.  He reported on a number of fronts during World War II.

             Exhibit B:  in 1948, Edwards anchored the first television coverage of all three conventions.  He was there with the Democrats (who re-nominated Harry Truman), GOP (which went with Tom Dewey) and the Progressives (who chose Henry Wallace).

             Edwards, for reasons only CBS News executives of the era knew, was not included in the network’s convention coverage in future quadrenniums.  Cronkite was always at the helm for the Presidential selection weeks from 1952 to 1980.  At the 1956 conventions, Cronkite was anointed as “anchorman” for the first time.  We needed another decade before the term “anchor” became a verb in the industry.

              The truth is:  in 1960, a turn occurred in something that drives all of television—-ratings.  The climb for Edwards’ evening opponents was a gradual one.

Huntley Brinkley              In 1956, NBC chose to pair two correspondents who had never previously worked together—-Chet Huntley and David Brinkley.  Huntley’s looser style and Brinkley’s dry wit struck a chord with viewers.  Anxious to move on from Swayze, The Huntley-Brinkley Report was born in late 1956.

 The NBC pair were not an immediate hit.  Gradually, their conversational style and tag line of “Goodnight, Chet.  Goodnight, David” began to attach to viewers.  They began to inch up on Edwards’ ratings.  By the end of 1959, Huntley-Brinkley slid ahead of Douglas Edwards with the News.

            In Gary Paul Gates’ 1982 book “Air Time:  The Inside Story of CBS News,” the author suggested Edwards began to feel the strain as Huntley-Brinkley week by week took an even larger lead that culminated in his departure in 1962.  Gates outlined that instead of working harder professionally to improve his broadcast, Edwards succumbed to drinking more.  Most of the sources for the that assertion were unnamed.

            Gates wrote that on the day the switch to Cronkite was announced, Edwards came out of his office and extended his hand to Cronkite and offered him congratulations.  “That was the classiest move I’ve ever seen from anyone,” Cronkite said.

Edwards 1960             Douglas Edwards did not suddenly deteriorate into a poor news commentator because he began losing the Nielsens to Huntley and Brinkley.   If anything, viewer tastes began to change from the straightforward style and presentation of Edwards and CBS News to the looser, faster-moving performance of NBC’s dual anchor format.  Further, NBC gave both Huntley and Brinkley separate prime time, though low-rated, half-hours that expanded their reach with news viewers.

Arguably, Edwards may have suffered from CBS News’ decision to make Cronkite the face and voice of big news events:  election night, conventions, and manned space shots.  I used that example when ABC News made the decision to anoint David Muir as the anchor for World News but declared George Stephanopoulos would be the lead for all major breaking coverage.  We can only guess whether Edwards would have developed the same reputation as the most trusted man in America had he been assigned the major coverage Cronkite assumed.

Edwards may have been professionally humiliated by his demotion but he did not take his toys or his talents to another network.  He never complained in the media.  Not once did he express any bitterness toward CBS or Cronkite.  He displayed some of the finest character ever shown by a television journalist who had been demoted from one of the most influential assignments in television news.

I have no recriminations,” Edwards told The Christian Science Monitor. “I leave with no pique, no sadness.”

 Edwards Newsbreak           Only 45, Edwards was relegated to a five-minute newsbreak, The CBS Afternoon News with Douglas Edwards, immediately after daytime To Tell the Truth.  He held that spot he held onto until his retirement in 1988, though the interstitial eventually retracted to two minutes and then one and moved to late mornings after Love of Life.  At the outset of his Evening News exit, he anchored local early and late evening news on New York’s WCBS.  Eventually, he took over The World Tonight, the CBS Radio flagship evening newscast.

            Cronkite did not forget his predecessor on the day he passed the baton to Dan Rather in 1981.  “For 14 years before I was in this chair, it was manned by Doug Edwards—-a great broadcaster,” Cronkite told his audience.  

            During his 1984 speech in San Antonio, Edwards displayed a sense of humor rarely shown on the air.  He told a story of a week in 1960 when Harry Reasoner substituted for Edwards on the evening news.

            “Harry was getting close to the end of the first segment when the floor director started giving him a signal that meant stretch (extend) because of a problem that had developed,” Edwards said.

            Reasoner kept reading.  “Harry didn’t know but the problem was in the control room,” Edwards said.  “The producer was told the commercials had to be switched for the first break.  That’s because the first scheduled commercial opened with two women.  One of them said to the other:  ‘Harry needs a laxative.’”  The usually staid, starched-collar group of news directors roared.

            CNN made a big pitch to steal away Edwards as the lead anchor when the network launched in 1980.  Broadcasting reported he seriously considered it until then-CBS News president Bill Leonard said, “Doug, I can’t let you go,”  His pay was significantly increased to remain for the duration of his career at CBS.

I often wondered what CNN’s image would have been at the outset if the man who invented television news anchoring was the central face of cable’s first 24-hour news network.  I submit he would have been brilliant and re-energized his career.

Edwards FOT             For my money, one of Edwards’ finest assignments was toward the end of his career on a broadcast few people saw.  For more than 20 years, Sunday morning television on CBS was headlined by Lamp Unto My Feet and Look Up and Live, both of which viewed religion—-television news’ worst-covered and most misunderstood element of American life—-through drama, music and discussions from elitist theologians and college professors.

In the ’80s, Edwards assumed the helm of For Our Times, a contemporary look at religion in America.  The format took on a newsmagazine style and explored serious issues affecting Protestant, Catholic and Jewish congregations.  The broadcast was well-produced.  Edwards did a solid job of weaving together the threads and interviewing key analysts with expertise on the stories.  The entire package was remarkably similar to public television’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.

Unfortunately, the audience was miniscule watching For Our Times.  Offered largely as a public service filler to stations, the Edwards half-hour aired all over the local Sunday schedules across the country.  The CBS affiliate at which I worked in 1982-83, WSPA in Spartanburg, S.C., scheduled For Our Times at 12:45 a.m. Monday mornings.  Some CBS affiliates chose not to carry the broadcast at all.

 Edwards Desk           July 14, Douglas Edwards would have been 100 years old.  He died in 1990 at the age of 73.  He did not live to see the impact of the internet and social media on television news.  He never saw cable news turn into prime time verbal versions of pro wrestling.  He missed the screaming charges of “fake news.”

             What he did was leave a legacy by writing the rules for television news broadcasting at a time when no rules existed.  For the entire 1950s, a domestically calmer but internationally turbulent era, he told us what happened in the world and who was affected in that slither of 15 minutes. 

             Sadly, he is somewhat the forgotten anchor of television news.  Yet, for those of us who were viewers when he was in that chair surrounded by that primitive set, we remember.  

            When Douglas Edwards was there just after sunset, we all felt a little better about the world.  When he said, “Good evening everyone from coast to coast,” we had the idea that he was talking just to us.  He was.

             Someone had to be first in that chair so others could be next.  I hope another 100 years don’t elapse before CBS News offers him another tip of the cap. 

Edwards’ last broadcast for CBS can be viewed at https://youtu.be/LZWVUXA1qbg.

            The CBS News tribute to Edwards is online at https://youtu.be/XC38imRgo_k

Should Pounds Matter When Hiring Broadcast Journalists?

Tell the truth:  if you are a member of LinkedIn, why are you there?  Do you participate just so people can say you have more than 1,000 connections?  

I actually read intelligent LinkedIn posts from quality professionals who help me learn something in a given day.  Holly MacTaggart is a human resources executive. I was glued to one of her recent offerings because she made me introspective about the hiring process in broadcast journalism.20160730_205819-1

Here is an excerpt from Holly’s post:

Today, I was disappointed in my profession. I received a call from an HR professional whom I mentor….She told me that she had been pursued for a new role. She had several phone interviews and was asked if she could set up a very short Skype for a few “tactical” questions before going in for onsite interviews with the client. She rearranged her schedule, took the call from her home office and when the screen went live she saw the two recruiters look at each other, and slightly shake their head. Within 10 minutes, they said they had enough information. A few days later, they wrote and told her the position was on hold and thanked her. She said, “I think they didn’t like how I looked.”  Now, I don’t know what happened. I do know, she isn’t model thin … but what is in this woman’s head is amazing and she would be a tremendous benefit to any company. I explained that she needed to focus on the role she had, realize she “got off lucky” and continue to work her craft. Then I wondered … did the company even know what happened? Are we a culture of “how good you look” vs what knowledge and skills you bring to the table?

Holly’s last rhetorical question made me pause to think:  if we are truly honest, how would the television news industry as a whole answer?  

Before you start throwing brickbats and saying, “You, of all people, who used to supervise newsrooms should know appearance is one of the necessities of our business,” I simply want you to think.  How many people have news directors turned away over the years because they were overweight?  I will strike a little more terror into your hearts:  are most of those who were eliminated because of their weight female?

Let’s consider several givens:  I recognize viewers can be more incisive about the appearance of on-air journalists than a surgeon’s knife.  Without the benefit of empirical research, my experience during my news director years was that women viewers are far more critical of the look of women anchors and reporters than are men on men.  My first day in the news director’s chair in 1983 brought me this call from a woman who had no idea who I was:  “When are y’all gonna do somethin’ about them big swingin’ earrings that Catherine _________ wears?  I get dizzy just watchin’ them things swing.”  That’s no joke.  I suppose I could have told her, “If her earrings bother you that much, you can always change the channel,” but as a newcomer to town who wanted to encourage viewers to turn to us, I eschewed my initial inclination to respond with a smart aleck answer.

I am acutely aware that weight clauses exist in some anchor and reporter contracts, particularly in larger markets.  That is no different from the entertainment industry.  However, I ponder whether those continue because of the tradition of television news or because of the perceived expectation of viewers.

Further, news executives find no joy in their days having to field a call such as I did on my initial day on the job.  Add to that, they find even less joy taking a call from the general manager who says, “I’m getting more and more calls about ______________’s weight.”  Unspoken (or sometimes spoken) is the question:  “What are you going to do about it?”

An additional given is what should be a primary concern for anyone, regardless of their profession.  Excessive weight makes one vulnerable to health issues.  

Let me give you an example from my quarter century as a broadcast media professor.  For our purposes, I will refer to the young woman in question as “Janet.”  She entered our university as an enthusiastic, energetic 18-year-old with a goal.  Her heart and soul were focused on a career in TV news.  

When she arrived, she was—by society’s and the culture’s conventional standards—the picture of a future on-air personality in appearance.  She demonstrated maturity well beyond her years in her curiosity and performance.  However, in her first year, she tacked on the stereotypical “freshman 15” pounds.  By the end of the following year, that had become the “sophomore 60.”  One day, when I happened by the cafeteria, I passed by Janet and some of her friends.  I stopped to speak but privately was stunned.  Janet’s plate resembled the size of “The $100,000 Pyramid.”  A second casual visit revealed the same result.

Toward the end of Janet’s sophomore year, her mother called me.  Unlike typical helicopter parents of today, this was a very nice, concerned woman with a serious concern about her daughter.  “She has never been like this before in her life.  We are concerned, because she can’t push away from the table,” her mother said.  “What I want to know is this:  is she eating her way out of a chance to work in television?”

My first thought was:  how do I sensitively handle this with Janet’s mother and yet be honest.  In the next few minutes, I confided that Janet is still every bit the excellent potential journalist she was when she first entered college.  I explained to her mother that while as a college professor I can counsel with her and straightforwardly give Janet the facts of life about the profession, the industry is going to look the other way if she doesn’t begin to melt down some pounds.

Janet’s family and I both had sensitively-handled but direct conversations with her about the expectations of appearance in television news.  She received our advice affirmatively and constructively.  Sadly, she could not manage a way to drop even half of those extra 60 pounds.  Ultimately, she opted to switch her major to social work and has enjoyed a successful career in reaching out to people who are sometimes in difficult situations.

In the months after Janet graduated, I had one of those paradoxical moments of reflection.  Janet’s abilities and potential as a journalist did not deteriorate because of her weight.  I remember saying to a colleague, “I wonder what a TV news department is missing by not having her on staff, because she definitely had the tools.”  At the same time, I am confident Janet would have experienced the same as the woman in Holly MacTaggart’s example once a news director or station management would have seen that she was not model-thin.  I also asked rhetorically, “Is this really right?  What does it say about our industry?”

In the last year, I have become a huge fan of NewsON and frequently sample newscasts from around the country.  I have begun to see a miniscule increase in on-air anchors or reporters who, by the culture’s standards, would be considered overweight.  Each one of them had a pristine delivery and I could tell no difference in their communication skills than those who weighed 20 to 50 pounds less.  Likewise, each one was well-dressed and neatly groomed.  The only contrast to others on their staffs was the sizes of their clothes were larger.  In no way was I compelled to turn to another city’s newscast because of the sizes of these young men and women.

This is one of these “just asking” propositions:  does the local television news industry maintain a double standard when it comes to size?  In the last four years, we have seen lemon juice-vaccinated gripeboxes on Facebook and Twitter throwing cruel darts at pregnant women meteorologists who continue to work after their soon-to-become loved ones become significantly evident onscreen.  Some of these women have had the guts to strike back online.  In at least three instances in the last year, news directors have been quick to come to their defense and rightfully so.  I have personally emailed those three and, in so many words, let them know, “We’ve got your back.”

So here’s the opposite side of that question:  if we justifiably stand up for an expectant on-air employee who is increasing in size because she is about to experience one of the happy additions of life, are we being ambiguous if we close the door to a well-dressed, well-groomed, well-spoken reporter applicant because he or she happens to be overweight?  I imagine a number of people in hiring or decision-making capacities either don’t want to face the answer to that question or will dismiss it altogether with “TVnewsexecspeak.”

Holly MacTaggart’s true scenario that rekindled my thinking on this subject was of a woman who sensed immediately that she was being rejected for a job because of her weight.  No matter her ability or talents, which Holly could verify, those executives on Skype just shook their heads.

If lawsuits or job discrimination assertions are filed by people in taxpayer-paid, public positions because of weight issues, local TV news departments would be likely to pounce on that as a story.  Proving that someone is rejected for on-air employment because of weight is relative and on the burden of the prospect.  Yet, people who make such a decision know exactly if they are making that call because of pounds.  They really do.

I am convinced that “Janet” could have worked with competence and creativity as a journalist in any television news department.  She just happened to be 50 to 60 pounds over society’s (and television’s) expectation of appropriate weight.  

Given that she had talent, ability and may have broken stories that would have gained attention for your news team, just consider one question.  Would you have hired Janet?  Just asking.



When Sadness Strikes a Television Station

At WREG in Memphis, the newsroom on the Fourth of July is like many across the nation—-skeleton crews, stories that depict Independence Day celebrations, and a challenge to fill one, two or three hours of news time.

However, this Fourth is unlike most in the past at the CBS station.  Friday, the people who work there lost a colleague in a horrendous tragedy.

I never met Nancy Allen, though I have other friends who work at WREG.  I dare say, other than co-workers and personal friends, virtually no one knew that Nancy was employed there.

In a scenario in which all of us have probably had nightmares about experiencing, Nancy’s home erupted in fire.  Authorities say she was probably trying to escape but was not successful.  She was found dead in the aftermath.

Nancy Allen was a graphics operator at WREG.  You never see people such as her on camera.  With the virtual elimination of credits at the ends of newscasts, we rarely see the names of those unseen workers who sustain the production end of local news and commercials.

Graphics operators are the most vulnerable to carpal-tunnel syndrome of anyone in television.  If they were paid by the numbers of words they type or logos they squeeze into a screen, they would all be half-billionaires.  They are the people who type every name of people who appear in a newscast, every logo identification in a commercial, and emergency messages and school and business closings during severe or winter weather.  You want to keep the good ones.

Nancy worked at WREG for 30 years.  People with that kind of longevity in television stations are few and will become fewer with every passing year.  If Nancy was like others I have known of that ilk—Carlos Williams at WRBL in Columbus GA, the late Cy Willis at WTVM in Columbus or Maxie Ruth (who worked under 17 different news directors at WSPA in Spartanburg before he retired), she was as familiar in her station as the location of the coffee pot in the employees’ lounge or the entrance to the newsroom.  Again, I didn’t know her—-but with that many years of service, the word institution is probably not an exaggeration.

I cannot write an obituary tribute to Nancy Allen.  However, I can offer some insight into the emotions of people in local television when they lose one of their own.

Plain and simple, the mood is no different than in any family, a church congregation, or any other business.  If one has worked with a veteran employee for an extended period, the instant emotion is like a blow to the chest.  You realize this friend and colleague whom you saw often as much as you did members of your own family will never again walk through the door, sit at her desk, or be busy at her keyboard.  Someone else will ultimately be hired for the job but the newcomer will need time and the patience of the staff to develop the personal identity that his or her predecessor possessed.

I well remember 37 years ago when a young radio news director John Patterson was seated next to me at a Columbus City Council meeting on a Tuesday morning.  The next day, a police call sent officers to an apartment building.  A couple of hours later, the body of John Patterson was rolled out of the unit.  John had taken his own life.  My colleague Richard Hyatt of The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer wrote eloquently of how we in media are no different from anyone else.  When we lose a member of our fraternity, especially in the way John died, we have regret that we did not see the signs or know him well enough to reach out to him more.  I talked with his colleague from WRCG a week later.  “We’re still in shock,” he told me.  “None of us knew.  We still don’t know how to deal with it.”

I had been gone from Wilmington, N.C., for 13 years when I received the news that my weathercaster during the years I was news director at WWAY, Shirley Gilbert, had succumbed to cancer.  Shirley had one of the sunniest dispositions of anyone I ever encountered in the congested, often tense environment of a newsroom.  She was always prepared and professional.  Her battle with cancer was an extremely difficult one.  She had not been able to work in her final nine months.  Regardless, I spoke to a couple of the half-dozen employees who remained at WWAY after learning of her death.  “You kept saying to yourself that Shirley was going to beat this,” her successor as weathercaster told me.  “Even though we had all been prepared for the inevitable, there’s a big hole in the station right now.”

The toughest moment of any I ever had in broadcasting was in 1999.  In addition to our regular telecasts of Union University basketball, we were doing the first season of a weekly coaches show.  We taped on Sunday afternoon for airing on Tuesday night.  On a cold, dreary Saturday at around 4 o’clock, I received the devastating news that the co-head coach of our women’s team, Lisa Hutchens, had been found dead in her apartment.  Lisa was 38.  She was to have taken over the team in full the following season.  I cannot tell you the emotions that swarmed over me.  Further, I realized I was facing having to do a half-hour show that dealt with Lisa’s death.  We could have opted to suspend the show for a week and our two stations would likely have understood.  However, we all agreed that the longer we postponed acknowledging Lisa’s passing, the more difficult it would be for all of us to deal with the grief of her loss.  Only the providence of God helped me through that broadcast.  We had a little more than a month remaining in the season.  We had to get on with life but not a single game telecast came and went that we on the broadcast team would not look over at the bench and glaringly realize that Lisa was not there and never again would be.

When you’re with a television station for 30 years, you survive a lot.  Nancy Allen endured more than one station sale that is always unsettling to a staff, saw anchor retirements, learned new graphics programs and experienced the nuances of this rapidly changing profession.

Nancy AllenMy good friend Tim Simpson, WREG’s chief meteorologist, and veteran anchor Alex Coleman tweeted some of the first tributes to Nancy.  That was followed by several other veteran members of the News Channel 3 staff.  I could tell instantly that the 140-character limit could not come close to reflecting the sadness and emptiness Nancy’s colleagues felt.

The easy thing for co-workers to say is “she will be missed” or “her passing will leave an empty void in our company.”  The truth is:  any condolence or tribute you offer seems so inadequate, especially when a tragedy takes the life of one you have known for years.

If you are reading this and work for another station in any city in America, tweet a note of condolence and encouragement to @3onyourside.  The staff has had to go on with business.  Television news does not stop even in a time of internal or personal tragedy.  Nancy Allen’s memorial service will be Saturday at Calvary Church of the Nazarene in Cordova, TN.   Many memories will be shared of what she meant to her family and to her professional family.  Those memories will never be far from those with whom she worked at WREG.




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