Solid Reporting Under Stress: Three Stations Excel in Active Shooter Situations

Periodically, The Old TV News Coach tackles weaknesses in television news presentation.  The object is not merely to be critical or to sound like the old geezer in a rocking chair in front of The New Southern Hotel in Jackson, Tn.

The idea is to see our industry of broadcast journalism improve and become far better than it is.

Likewise, I take genuine joy in pointing out quality practices that serve the viewer well and reflect credit on the profession.

Active ShooterIn the last week, I have witnessed three first-class efforts in the midst of the two most frightening words of the current day:  active shooter.

This is not to minimize the efforts of competing stations in these cities but I take my hat off to reporters and anchors at KHOU in Houston, WMBB in Panama City FL and WTHR in Indianapolis.

The mass shooting at Santa Fe High School in Texas had many of us uttering what is now an angry cliche:  “Here we go again.”  The loss of eight students and two teachers stirred up the national debate on gun possession, mental illness and overall security measures at American schools.

KHOU was the most accessible Houston-area station for me on Roku.  Shortly after 12 noon last Friday, I saw one of the most impressive pieces of work to sort out truth from fiction and rumors.

https://media.khou.com/embeds/video/8133320/iframe

Tiffany CraigReporter Tiffany Craig, using the equivalent of an electronic chalkboard, set up three columns:  one for verified information, one for false reports and a middle section for possible but unsubstantiated data.

Craig’s work reminded me of the stories of Walter Cronkite explaining complex stories on WTOP in Washington (prior to his joining CBS News) in the early days of television by employing “chalk talks,” using a blackboard and chalk to detail specific facts in understandable fashion.

Several times during the afternoon Craig performed solid work, especially in diffusing wildfire rumors that erupted on social media.  Typically in today’s cyberculture, false information spreads from online users who claim to know people who know people who know people who have so-called specifics that they are sure the media are not reporting.

Craig did not do her work in a lecturing fashion but was almost like watching the best schoolteachers as she turned to her electronic board, illustrated the key points and turned to the camera to talk to viewers in a calm, non-threatening fashion.

The video of Craig’s work we have embedded should be a textbook for every newsroom in America on how to sort truth from baloney for viewers during crisis situations.

Jerry Amy 2

Three days later, my old friend and colleague Jerry Brown and his co-anchor and assistant news director Amy Hoyt demonstrated how small market journalists are just as professional during a crisis.

Before Brown and Hoyt took over, morning and noon anchors Chris Marchand and Kelsey Peck did a first-rate job of guiding viewers through an active shooter at an apartment complex.

Megan MyersWhile Marchand and Peck were at the anchor desk, reporter Megan Myers—who has only been with WMBB a few months—was in the midst of interviewing a neighbor in the area where 49-year-old Kevin Holroyd erupted.  As police were attempting to bring an end to the violence, shots rang out behind Myers and her interviewee.

http://www.mypanhandle.com/news/shots-fired-while-reporter-is-on-air/1192587128

Despite the fact that the sequence went viral on social media, WMBB did a professional job of following the story with marathon coverage while not employing alarming language or sensational tactics.

Jerry Brown was my prime time male anchor when I was news director at WWAY in Wilmington, N.C.  Jerry had the vocal delivery and straightforward approach that viewers need in nervous moments.  When Hurricane Dora was pounding the Atlantic coast for hours, including downtown Wilmington, in September 1984, Jerry and his colleague Stella Shelton were stalwarts all night and into the early hours of the next day.

 

PC School Board Shooting 2010When I received an alert of the Panama City eruption, I would have been surprised if Jerry had been anything but what he was—-the calming voice to a city which eight years earlier watched as an unstable man fired shots at Bay County school board members.  The shooter missed all of his targets but was shot by a security officer multiple times before finishing the job himself.

Jerry’s co-anchor Amy Hoyt was solid at delivering point-by-point retrospectives and summaries of what had transpired for latecomers to the story.

WMBB did not employ a video chalkboard but Hoyt was adept at outlining the day and the unanswered questions in one-two-three sequences.  If you were a viewer in Panama City Monday, Jerry and Amy brought you up to date within a matter of a few minutes.

This blogpost is being written approximately 15 hours after violence exploded at Noblesville West Middle School in Indiana near Indianapolis.  At this hour, a teacher who was shot and who is emerging as a hero of the day, Jason Seaman, is apparently out of danger.  A vigil continues for a 13-year-old girl who was shot, apparently by a classmate who asked to be excused from the class and returned with two revolvers.

I stayed with WTHR for better than three hours Friday afternoon.  In any marathon coverage of a crisis, television news has to draw a fine line between being invasive with parents and, in the case of Noblesville, with students of middle school age.  The wrong reporter can quickly turn off viewers either with insensitive questions or giving the impression of not respecting frayed emotions after an active shooter.

One reporter who impressed me specifically was Steve Jefferson.  He was sent to Noblesville High School, where at least temporary reports were of that school receiving threats.  Emergency personnel made the decision to send the middle school students via a large motorcade of buses to the high school to decompress and reunite with their parents.

Noblesville Parent

Jefferson was especially sensitive with the mother of a 14-year-old for one key reason—-he listened.  Jefferson did not bombard her with questions after every two sentences of her responses.  He allowed her to talk and go through the myriad of emotions she was experiencing.

A key moment in that interview was when the mom expressed what virtually every parent had to be feeling in Noblesville:  “I don’t want to sound insensitive to say that I’m glad my daughter wasn’t hurt…..but I’m glad my daughter wasn’t hurt.”

One of the keys to good interviews in any situation, crisis or feature, is for reporters to be good listeners.  Jefferson listened.  His followup questions connected with what the woman previously said and advanced the story without heightening hysteria.

A couple of low moments during the three crises:  one station made use of the phrase “bring closure.”  In the case of the Holroyd story, one reporter said, “Kevin Holroyd is now dead and this will no doubt bring closure to many people who have been on edge during this long day.”  I wrote in an earlier blogpost (and was backed up by several working producers) that the word “closure” is the most misused other than “went missing” in television news today.  Victims or people who have been in harm’s way from an active shooter often need weeks, months, or even years, if ever, to experience closure to violent moments.  Families of victims who lose their lives do not suddenly find closure if a perpetrator is killed by law enforcement officers or if the shooter takes his (or her) own life.

Three times during the Noblesville coverage, I saw WTHR reporters respond to anchor tosses with “good morning” or “good afternoon.”  When one is covering murder or potential murder, the morning or afternoon is not good.  That becomes an anachronism of habit and often conveys insensitivity.  Producers and news directors—-drop the “good morning” or “good afternoon” response from live field reporters.  Teach the reporters to just go into their narrative, especially at a crime scene.

Still, I was impressed by KHOU, WMBB and WTHR with no intent to minimize the work of their competitors that I did not witness.  In Houston, Panama City and Indianapolis, that trio comprise Allstate stations.  You’re in good hands if you watch them for news.

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Carlton Gary: After 41 Years….The End….But No Real Closure

Carlton Gary 4Serial killers were supposed to do their evil in Boston, Los Angeles or Chicago.  Columbus, Ga., was Colonel Chick, Katie the Cow, Miss Patsy, Wednesday night wrestling, Rozell Fabiani, Wells Dairies, Weracoba Park and the Water Wiz.

During a phone conversation with a long-time friend Thursday night, the light bulb went off in my mind.  “Do you realize I was 23 when Carlton Gary started his reign of terror?” I rhetorically asked.

Carlton Gary (a/k/a The Stocking Strangler) was executed by lethal injection Thursday night in Jackson, Ga.  Thus ends one of the longest stays on death row in the history of the Peach State.  Gary’s demise may mean the final chapter of a grievous story.   Yet, for those of us who lived through his months as a domestic terrorist, the story will never depart our minds.

Forty-one years ago, I was in my sophomore year as a Columbus anchor and reporter.  Only three weeks earlier, I moved from WRBL to WTVM.

As a little boy who lived between 1956 and 1961 in the parsonage of Sherwood Methodist Church on 35th Street, the idea of one man striking terror into our city was unthinkable.  People kept their doors unlocked in the daytime.  Men left toolboxes in their yards without fear of theft.  Kids walked or rode bikes to school.

When a police monitor blared out a suspicious call on a Friday afternoon in September 1977, none of us on the Action 9 News team had a clue we were about to experience the first chapter of a real life murder mystery.

Because most of us were editing other stories for the 7 o’clock newscast, Mitzi Oxford—who had just moved into the role as WTVM’s lead weathercaster—went to the scene.

Ferne Jackson, sister-in-law of the former state senator and future Columbus mayor Harry Jackson, was found dead—-strangled to death with a nylon stocking.  Ms. Jackson was 60.  A debate ensued in our newsroom and with other media in town as to whether the word “elderly” should be used as a descriptive adverb for Ms. Jackson.

At the time, we did not have a weekend newscast on WTVM but general manager Lynn Avery was concerned enough that he made a rare appearance onto our set during a commercial break.

Carlton Gary 5Addressing my co-anchor and news director Kathy Pepino, Avery asked:  “Are you going to commission people to be on call in case something else happens?”  Kathy assured him she had things under control.  Avery was oblivious to the fact that he was still talking to us on live television, back turned to the camera, when the break ended.

I checked in Saturday morning. Kathy gave me the okay to go on to Auburn with my buddy John Hamilton.  We saw the Tigers take one on the chin against Southern Mississippi 24-13.  We talked a bit about Ferne Jackson’s murder on the drive back to Columbus.  Mostly, John griped about Auburn coach Doug Barfield’s playcalling.

Eight days later, I was called early on Sunday morning.  The fear was a second woman had been strangled to death.  A production videographer met me near Cross Country Plaza in front of the home of 71-year-old Jean Dimenstein.  Neighbors nervously walked around their yards amidst a plethora of police cars.

Realtor Charlie Morgan’s wife agreed to talk on camera.  She said, “What’s going on in our town?  We’re all scared to death.”  As much as I was glad to have the comment for my story, I questioned Ms. Morgan’s wisdom in offering it.

I talked to a couple of police officers.  They were reluctant to say anything.  One, however, told me Ms. Dimenstein’s murder fit the same pattern as did Ms. Jackson’s.

Eventually, I was sent to four of the crime scenes.  With each passing one, I became more emotionally nauseous.  Every time we heard certain codes on that police monitor, we questioned if this would be another murder.  Five more times, it was.

Over the next several months, I saw the best and worst of journalism in Columbus.  I also saw and heard the best and worst in our community.

The strong suit in Columbus media during those horrific months was relentlessness.  Police Chief Curtis McClung, a man I genuinely respected, was old school when it came to answering reporters’ questions about the murders.  He favored saying nothing.

Ultimately, the leadership of the Columbus Press Club—-which was headed by Ledger-Enquirer reporter David Everett at the time—-forced the hand of Chief McClung.  David Hopkins, a former WRBL reporter with law enforcement experience, was hired as public information officer for the Columbus Police Department.

Prayer vigils for the community and Sunday sermons addressing the rampant fear were on the rise.  As one who was a pastor’s son and understood the devout religious life in Columbus, I convinced Kathy that we needed to do a series of reports on the role of the church in helping the community through the crisis.  One of the first of the citywide services of unity was at nearby Wynnton United Methodist Church.  Little did those in attendance realize one of that church’s own would eventually be a victim.

Carlton Gary 3Religion reporting is one of the most glaring deficits in local television newsrooms across the nation.  In 1978, the first of my 13 Associated Press awards for reporting was for that series on the church as a solace in a time of community crisis.

At times, we were sent on assignments that made us uncomfortable.  My videographer Lee Davis and I were sent to cover the burial service of one of the victims.  While we stayed at a considerable distance from the tent to shoot our footage, we could not escape the wrath of mourners who were aghast at our presence.

One woman, intent on giving me a piece of her mind, railed.  “You news people have no heart, no concern, no compassion for these people,” she said.  “The very idea of you showing up with a camera when this family is grieving.  I want you to know how I feel.”

As we drove away, Lee and I both expressed our misgivings.  “You know, a funeral service and a burial are a private thing,” Lee said.  “Aren’t you supposed to ask for permission to shoot video at something like that?”  I agreed.

“I didn’t like the way that lady chewed us out,” I said, “but I don’t blame her for being upset.  We just showed up.”

When we returned to the newsroom, we made the request not to be sent to any more funeral services or internments unless the victim’s family had given us permission.  I made that a policy several years later when I became a news director, even if every one of my colleagues disagreed with that decision.

At one point after the fourth strangling, I encountered my friend and former WRBL colleague David Eisen at a pizza restaurant.  We discussed having been mutually warned by police to examine the inside of our cars at night before entering them.

“I don’t unlock my door until I check the back seat and the passenger’s side up front,” David told me.

I followed the same procedure.  Concerns had been shared with us by some authorities that this serial killer might try to go after a journalist.  Reason existed to believe that he fit the profile of one who would watch news coverage of his exploits.  If he became angered at the reports, he could take his ire out on a newscaster.

Carlton Gary 1Another debate ensued in the community and within newsrooms after the third murder over use of the label “The Stocking Strangler.”  Many callers were upset at the reference.  One scoured me about it on the phone.

“We don’t need to be compared with The Boston Strangler in Columbus, Georgia,” he said.  “All you’re doing is giving him more spotlight.  Don’t you have anything better to do than that?”  That was one of the nicer calls.

For a while, we compromised on a reference to “The Columbus Strangler,” but national media outlets, especially ABC News, solidified the name “Stocking Strangler” to our unknown villain.

The worst of our community erupted after retired teacher Martha Thurmond’s murder.  To a degree, the people who participated in a semi-witch hunt might have been forgiven because the entire city was desperate for an arrest.

One evening, between our 7 and 11 o’clock newscasts, we fielded approximately 600 calls in the WTVM newsroom.  A rumor spread like wildfire that led to people fingering a young man as the strangler and accusations toward journalists that we were protecting him.  The scuttlebutt followed a predictable pattern.  People knew somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody who knew the young man was the killer because he once was treated for emotional illness.

One of many calls I took went something like this:  “Y’all all know who did it.  Every last one of y’all know who did it but y’all are just covering up for him because his Daddy was a big name.”  Daddy, in this case, was a recently deceased Columbus television executive.

Many amateur armchair detectives put two and two together.  Their equation added up to an answer of eight but for about a month, a significantly vocal element in Columbus were certain the man’s son was the killer.  No rational or reasoned argument would convince them otherwise.  Even a man in my church insisted we were covering up the strangler’s identity.

Thank goodness social media did not exist 41 years ago.  The new generation of conspiracy theorists have raised the same name again online in recent weeks.

One of our women reporters, whom I considered to be a tough cookie and still do, took a call one night from a most irrational viewer who accused her and our entire news team of creating unnecessary hysteria.  The caller, a woman, called our reporter an unprintable name and engaged in a personal attack.  I never saw my colleague emotionally break down before or after that night but she exploded in tears.

Carlton Gary 2We were all accused of attempting to use the story of the Stocking Strangler to further our personal careers.  One man let me know in no uncertain terms at a school Halloween carnival where I was judging costumes.

“You’re just sensationalizing everything so you can go to New York,” the man, who never introduced himself, said.  “I don’t know how I could live with myself the way you go on and on about these murders every night.”

I offered an edited number of those reactions for a column in 2004 in Electronic Media magazine titled, “The Viewers Don’t Always Get It Right.”

Not only were we not looking to go to New York, more than one of us pondered whether we might consider an alternate career.  The emotional toll was enormous on all but the most emotionless of journalists.  I often entered the newsroom at WTVM at 2:30 in the afternoon dreading the prospect of having to inform viewers of yet another murder.  In that day, no one considered the novel idea of employing mental health counselors to help reporters decompress.  We could have hugely benefited from their therapy in 1978.

On a weekend trip home to Kingsland, Ga., I discussed the prospect of getting out of TV news with my father.  He gave me his usual wise advice.  “If you want to do that, just be sure it’s not because you’re running from it,” he said.  “But you’re going to find it’s not easy in any other job you do, even in the church.”

My father, Rev. F.J. Beverly Jr., knew of which he spoke.  He dealt with at least a couple of troublesome congregations in his years as a pastor.

We had one brief moment of celebration during those eight exasperating months.  On a Saturday morning in February 1978, I was called to a home in the same radius where six of the seven murders occurred.  Ruth Schwob was a prominent resident of Columbus.  In her late seventies, Ms. Schwob did not even stand five feet tall.  Physically, she was as fit as any woman her age.  That fact saved her life.

At approximately 3 a.m., Ms. Schwob heard a noise outside her bedroom.  In the darkness, she sensed a figure approaching.  At the moment the intruder would likely have wrapped a nylon stocking around her throat, she took a desperation swing and popped her invader in the jaw.  That gave her a split second to hit a bedside button that triggered a loud burglar alarm.  Carlton Gary ran.

One sensed the 200,000 residents of Columbus collectively standing as one to applaud Ruth Schwob.  At 2 o’clock that afternoon, Ms. Schwob spoke with me briefly.  She managed a smile and thankfulness that she escaped a fatal attack.

WTVM still did not have a weekend newscast.  Television in markets such as Columbus was still a few years away from live remote units.  Lynn Avery opted to open up three minutes at 7 p.m. for a special report on Ruth Schwob’s survival.  I taped an open and close and narrated video of the police presence and gathering of people around Ms. Schwob’s home, inserting her brief comments.  I have no idea how Lynn arrived at a decision on adjusting commercial content in “Gunsmoke,” which we aired from 7 to 8 p.m.

Our sudden joy was about to turn sour.  The next afternoon, we were startled to learn that yet another victim had been claimed by The Stocking Strangler.  Only two blocks down the street from Ruth Schwob’s home, another woman in her late seventies—Mildred Borom—was found dead.  Police were certain the strangler went to Ms. Borom’s home immediately after he was scared away from Ms. Schwob’s.  The coroner placed time of death at approximately 3:45 a.m. the previous morning.

One visitor we saw frequently in Columbus was Bob Sirkin, the Atlanta correspondent for ABC News.  At one point, he was almost adopted as a member of Action 9 News when he came to town to file reports on the strangler.  One day, Bob showed us his technique of doing standups in his reports.  He recorded his transition on a small cassette recorder, attached an earphone inside his right ear and repeated what he heard himself saying on tape when he reported on camera.  I tried it twice and gave it up.  Saying what I was just saying on a recording created a distracting echo effect for me.  Nonetheless, Bob was a generous guy and once told us, “I can’t imagine what it’s like for you people to be doing this night after night with the whole city up in arms.”

At one point in 1978, I faced an encounter with my general manager which grew testy.  An old friend from college, Nadine Stewart—who later went on to work for NBC News and CNN—called me from Jacksonville.  Calling on behalf of her news director, Nadine asked if it were possible for me to do a story for WJXT on the effect of the stranglings on the city of Columbus.  My new boss Dave Richardson okayed it with the caveat that I not neglect my work for our newscasts.  I used a lot of file tape and soundbites from interviews which I had saved.  I shot one fresh standup closer.  I edited the piece in about an hour one evening after my workday was over.

The story aired on the Saturday night edition of Eyewitness News on WJXT, which Nadine anchored.  A little more than a week later, I was blindsided by Lynn Avery when I came into the building at WTVM for work.

“Do you have any explanation for this?” Lynn asked.

He immediately presented me with an envelope addressed to me on a WJXT mailing label.  “How many more of these am I going to expect to see?  How many more stations are you applying to?  Do you dislike it so much here that you’re trying to get out?” he questioned.

I was utterly stunned.  To be candid, WJXT was a station I grew up watching from the third grade through college.  Had I ever been offered an opportunity to work there, I would have seriously considered it.  I had no offer.  I had sought no job.  I loved WTVM and Columbus because the city was one of my two hometowns.  The envelope contained the tape on which I had done the story on the Stocking Strangler as a favor to Nadine.

“Why don’t we go in Dave’s office and I think you’ll have proof that this was not an audition tape?” I told Lynn with a combination of irritation and trepidation.  Our boss had largely treated me well but he also had a reputation for a quick trigger on employees.  Lynn was also paranoid about the job section in Broadcasting magazine.  For a period, he ripped out the employment pages before he released the publication for station consumption.

Dave Richardson confirmed that he had cleared me to do the story for WJXT and that, to his knowledge, I was not looking for another job.  Lynn left but exited with a mild warning that he never wanted to see another tape with another station’s mailing label addressed to me.

When Janet (Cindy) Cofer became the final victim of The Stocking Strangler in the spring of 1978, we had no way of knowing she was the last.  For months, we continued to work as if we had a perpetual police radio going off in our ears.

Reporters came and went over the next three years at WTVM.  Gradually, our attention drifted to other community issues.  In 1980, my colleague Andy Still and I collaborated on a documentary on political interference in public safety in Columbus.  A fire captain named Jeff Amerson became the central figure in the controversy.  Fire department whistleblower Frankie Fussell dramatically revealed in sworn testimony the demands of a mysterious orthopedic surgeon who ordered that the fire chief and several senior fire supervisors “have got to go.”  Andy and I were nominated for a DuPont-Columbia Award for that 90-minute documentary.

Eventually, I made a difficult decision to leave Columbus in late 1981.  Over the next two years, I made stops in Mississippi, in Spartanburg, S.C. (as assistant news director at WSPA) and Savannah, Ga.

In May 1984, I was in my first week as news director of WWAY in Wilmington, N.C.  My phone rang shortly before noon.

“Are you sitting down?” the voice asked.  I knew immediately the caller was Andy Still, who was now anchor at WSAV in Savannah.

“They’re having a police convention here and I went out to have coffee with (then Columbus police chief) Jim Wetherington,” Andy said.  “He was called to the phone.  When he came back, he said, ‘Looks like I’m going to have to leave early.  That call was about an arrest in Albany.  They think this may be the strangler.’ ”

For once, a name could be attached to the most infamous individual crime wave in Columbus history.  Carlton Gary would be extradited to Columbus.  Two years later, he stood trial and was convicted of the murders of three of the women he was suspected of killing.

I finally left daily television news in 1992 to become a college professor of broadcast journalism.  My parents retired to their native city of Waycross, Ga.

As the years rolled on, the conversation during visits to Columbus or Waycross would periodically revert to Carlton Gary.  At times, adjectives such as “despicable” and “vile” would be among the kinder ones to refer to the convicted Stocking Strangler.

As the years evolved into decades, residents in Columbus who had lived through the nightmare became weary with the legal system.  Appeal after appeal, motion after motion for a new trial, and attempts to challenge evidence from the original trial dragged on five, 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30 years after his convictions.  Twice over those years, I was asked to be a contributor to local news retrospectives on the stranglings and Gary.

Sure, people with adamant views against capital punishment held to their stand that even the most heinous of murders should not be punished with death.  Yet, when I returned for visits to Columbus to see family, friends or old colleagues, the prevailing view was of frustration that Carlton Gary was still alive.

Today, I supervise a daily newscast produced and anchored by my students at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.  Many times, when the situation is appropriate, I have woven stories for them about the odyssey of The Stocking Strangler.  Usually, those tales are in answer to the question of what was the most difficult story I ever reported.

Many people in the television audience have the misguided perception that journalists thrive on violence and death.  In their minds, a serial killer is fodder for a career to skyrocket and for ratings to soar.  Success at the hands of murder is the perception of some segments of the audience to journalists and television news.

My answer to that is for anyone to try measuring the many, many nights we left WTVM after the 11 o’clock news, arrived at our individual homes or apartments and could not sleep well.  Our worries were the same as the community’s as a whole.  I was a member of a church that had a number of senior-aged women who could easily have been targets.

Thursday night, as I watched the live reports from Jackson on both WTVM and WRBL on my Roku television set, I was struck by a stark notion.  None of the reporters assigned to cover the execution of Carlton Gary were even born when his rampage began.  They know what they have researched or been told about his dark mark on Columbus history.  Yet, they didn’t live it.  Emotionally, they have no idea what those months were like.

Carlton Gary VictimsThe word “closure” is almost becoming a reporting cliche.  I may add it to Twitter’s @TiredTVTerms.  I counted at least twelve times on Columbus stations Thursday night that reporters used sentences to the effect, “The execution of Carlton Gary will finally bring closure for the families and close friends of the victims.”  At one point, I said, “Will it?”  The popular perception today is that a conviction or an execution brings an end to the story.  Contemporary media perpetuates that idea.  With something as despicable as Carlton Gary’s mindless acts, the story may end for those writing the book.  Emotionally, closure never comes for people who lived through the fear and torment.

Two generations have passed since Carlton Gary first struck terror on a Friday afternoon in 1977.  All of the victims would now be more than 100 years old were they still alive.  A number of the seven women’s children have left us.  The grandchildren and great grandchildren no longer have to live with the worry of whether their ancestor’s killer will live or die.  Many of those who were the absolute closest to the victims left this earth without having any closure.

For those of us who lived, worked, reported, and feared those eight horrific months in 1977 and 1978, we can never truly close the door.  No, closure is not an accurate word.  Too many of us still want to ask the one question that will forever stump us about Carlton Gary:  why?  That answer now goes with him to his grave.

Keaton Jones: Well After the Buzz

Keaton Jones 1I saw the first story break about 13-year-old Keaton Jones online December 11.  National mainstream media outlets and local stations scrambled faster than the rush for the latest President Trump tweet to paint the picture of a middle school student as a symbol of bullying.

As I watched the hoopla unfold on all the major networks, I told a couple of my students and a former colleague that the story had a life of about three to four days.  My old friend agreed.  The students asked why.

My response, paraphrasing, went something along these lines:  “It’s another opportunity to chase what we used to call a ‘water cooler story.’  You have the perfect setup:  a kid who has just become a teen in one of the most awkward ages of life, he says he’s being ganged up on by peers and he’s elected to tell his story via social media.”  I went on to explain that television and online journalists are attracted to any story that “goes viral.”  In today’s move-on-to-the-next story culture, and with schools about to adjourn for Christmas break, I had no faith that we would see serious, probing reporting on a critical issue that confronts children and teens daily.

However, I added that something did not feel right about this story.  Had Keaton Jones taken a phone camera and posted what was on his heart as a bullying victim with no assistance, that would be one thing.  In this case, his mother was offscreen acting in the role of a quasi-interviewer and, at times, asking what an attorney would call leading questions in a courtroom.

Yet, virtually every media outlet and online presence in America chased after this video.  Regardless of what journalists say, they collectively made Keaton Jones an instant media star and just as quickly abandoned him.  This was a class example of what Rick Neuheisel describes as “playing the hits,” the practice of cable sports networks zeroing in on stars almost to excess because focus group research indicates such standouts “move the needle.”  Keaton definitely moved the needle.

Bullying 2On my Roku set, I skimmed newscasts from 11 different local stations during the three-day period after Keaton’s video went viral.  Every single one prominently featured a story on his being bullied in either the first or second block of an early or late evening newscast.  Only in two I viewed was a remote effort made to localize the story and probe further the extent of bullying in that station’s market and whether anti-bullying policies are genuinely being enforced.

Instead, as a whole, journalism was more concerned with the instant celebrity symbol of anti-bullying attached to Keaton Jones.  Little consideration was given to the potential emotional aftermath for the teen or whether this entire confession online was his idea.  I had one colleague suggest to me, “He and his mother put him in that position, so the consequences aren’t our responsibility.”  Really?

Producers and editors became far more enthralled with Hollywood celebrities, college and pro athletes and even politicians from Tennessee offering emotional support and showering attention on Keaton.  Even a GoFundMe.com account was established to create a college fund for the youngster.

Only in a matter of days were questions raised about the legitimacy of Keaton’s video, past online posts by his parents that suggested racism, and whether the mother was egging on the entire hoopla as an attempted money grab.  Within five days, Keaton Jones was dropped as a central media figure.  The GoFundMe effort was canned.  Whatever serious focus journalism could have placed on the issue of bullying fizzled quicker than Alka-Seltzer in a glass of water.

Four years ago, my university hosted a Saturday seminar for young teens.  The focus was on an essay contest that provided the eventual winner a trip to Washington, D.C.  A local attorney and city councilman sponsors the event.  An entire session, including a documentary film, stressed the consequences of bullying for victims.  The attorney and I had a private conversation after one of the sessions.  We shared that both of us had been bullied in either junior high or high school.

Bullying 5I remember my own experience as horrendously as if it were yesterday.  In an afternoon junior high physical education class, we were doing the 600-yard run-walk, one of six elements of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness challenge.  I did not come from an athletic family.  I never struggled in the classroom but I was a hopeless mess on a playing field.  I usually finished in the final four or five in any running test in the class of 36 guys.  On a particular afternoon, I reached the 400-yard mark—huffing as usual—when I was cornered by two in the class who had already finished.  One was a noted bully.  The other stunned me because I always had a reasonable relationship with him.  He was a full head taller than I was.  The bully-by-reputation was a half-head taller.  The bigger guy grabbed me behind the back.  The other one had his fist clenched.  The one I thought was a friend said, “Look up.”  Certainly that must have been one of the courageous acts of his life to hold someone six inches smaller for another boy to cold cock in the chin.  Call it an act of God or whatever you wish but I did not obey his command to look up.  As I braced myself to be smacked in the teeth, two things happened.  Coach Joe Mercer, who was near the 600-yard finish line, miraculously spotted what was about to happen.  He sped toward my attackers and said something to the effect, “What’s going on here?”  At the same time, a white dog who was in a yard across the street from the junior high athletic field, came running to investigate (and I was privately hoping he would take a bite out of the bully).

Coach Mercer pursued his question.  The two guys, who had all of the grace of pro wrestling villains, suggested, “We were just kidding around.”  Oh yeah?  They both knew they were lying.  I was such an emotional wreck at the close call that I erupted in tears, a no-no in front of a peer group of 13-year-old and 14-year-old boys.  So what?  I could not hold back.  The coach, who was not born the day before, immediately accompanied me inside and asked me to go with him to the principal’s office.  I was questioned about what happened.  Naturally, the experience left me in a quandary.  To unload the entire story would brand me as a tattletale, which was emotional suicide.  To not speak would potentially allow the behavior to continue, either against me or someone else (the bully had popped a friend in the jaw in the locker room three weeks earlier).

What shocked me was the principal’s overall approach.  I was quizzed thoroughly about anything I might have done to provoke the attack.  At one point in frustration, I said to the principal, “Do you actually think I would be responsible for being ganged up on two-on-one?”  He acknowledged such, but said, “We have to be thorough to get to the bottom of these things.”  I have some emotional sympathy with recent victims of sexual assaults who feel they are put on trial when reporting their attacks.  That is exactly what I felt in the principal’s office.

Rather than reassure me that the two guys who were ready to take a chunk out of my face would be disciplined (I never knew if they were), the principal left me even more confused.  He presented me with a final thought that I needed to build myself physically so I could defend myself against a bully.  As I later learned, that was the general consensus among fathers of athletes or accused bullies of the day:  if a kid is bullied, it’s mostly his fault because he isn’t skilled enough to fight back.

Scarred for life?  That probably is a stretch.  However, I went through an entire summer looking over my shoulder every time I walked alone or rode my bicycle, concerned if I would encounter one or both of the bullies.  Even as an older adult, I had periodic pockets where the memory of that May afternoon would flash through my mind.  The pain never eased, nor did the disgust of the lack of decisiveness on the part of the principal.

Bullying 1I go into that kind of detail about my own experience because 50 years ago, this was not an issue journalism ever explored.  Episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show” or “Leave It to Beaver” touched on bullying more than television news.  Even then, bullying was depicted as a routine rite of passage of a young male’s life.

In 2002, I was in the class of Faculty Fellows from what was then called the Radio-Television News Directors Association.  The group of 24 fellows were past TV news professionals who returned to newsrooms across the nation for a full month as an educational refresher for our students.  We were all provided a DVD with a collection of first-class stories from markets across America that all posed ethical questions.  That became a great teaching tool for me.

One of the best pieces of investigative journalism in the entire set was from a station in Baltimore.  A reporter and videographer stationed themselves in a van with a hidden camera and captured multiple random and calculated acts of bullying on an elementary school playground.  The physical attacks included kicks to the head of one helpless child.  In several instances, teachers or playground monitors had their backs turned to the melees.  None of them came to the aid of a child suffering from incessant brutality.  When shown to a school district administrator, his first response was, “On the surface, this makes us look bad.”

Since that time, most states—including Tennessee where I teach broadcast journalism—have enacted anti-bullying laws for school districts or have directed school boards to develop specific anti-bullying policies.  However, much of the action has now moved online.  Despite Hawaii becoming one of the last states in the country to enact anti-bullying legislation, KGMB reported that cyberbullying affects one out of every two teens in the Hawaiian islands.

Bullying 3

The National Crime Prevention Council reports similar totals nationwide:

  • Over half of adolescents and teens have been bullied online, and about the same number have engaged in cyberbullying.
  • Well over half of those who have been victims of cyberbullying do not tell their parents.
  • Girls are “somewhat” more likely than boys to be involved in cyberbullying.

My key question:  when was the last time television news departments seriously explored the issue of bullying with in-depth reporting?  If you are one of those who is constantly under the gun to “generate content,” as is the popular contemporary term, I am handing you a freebie.  Here are several pertinent questions I suggest should be explored by reporters in every city in America:

—-What are the specific anti-bullying policies for each school district?

—-What are the enforcement procedures for discipline?  Who administers punishment and what are the specific penalties?  What happens on first offense, second offense and beyond?

—-What kind of anti-bullying education programs are conducted within your local school district and at what age?  If it occurs at the middle school level, what kind of followup education is offered at the high school level?

—–What type of mental health counseling or referrals are available for victims of any type of bullying?  Going further, what kind of mental health counseling is directed for those who commit acts of bullying?  Those who are serial bullies may well need therapy as much or more as the victims, because no well-adjusted human being engages in this kind of mental as well as physical intimidation to another.

—–At what point does law enforcement step in to intervene with those who commit repeated acts of bullying, or engage in cyberbullying?

—–What do local psychologists or psychology professors suggest are the reasons people become bullies?  To what degree do we still have male parents who take a passive view of bullying by suggesting victims are at fault for not building themselves physically to defend themselves?  What do psychologists say are potential answers from a mental health perspective?

—–How safe are smaller children on a crowded school playground during recess periods?  How adequately are they supervised?

—–To what degree does emotional scarring carry over for bullying victims into adult life?  How much long-term or short-term depression or anxiety results?

—–How can bullying extend into adult life in a workplace situation?

—–What are the numbers in each state for suicide attempts or actual suicides that occur from acts of bullying?

We have to move past this obsession in journalism that just because something or an individual “goes viral” online is a reason for everyone to chase that post or person with top-of-the-broadcast furor.  When the subject is a juvenile, exceeding caution should be exhibited to thoroughly investigate the circumstances.

In the case of Keaton Jones, British journalist Hannah Jane Parkinson offers some salient perspective.  “The fact that the mother uploaded the video should have perhaps raised some flags,” she wrote two days after the Keaton Jones story broke.  “But more so, reporting that she had made racist comments on an Instagram account, which has since been proved fake, should have been checked. It was also reported that Keaton made an apology on behalf of his mother – except that Instagram account was fake too.”

This should serve as an insBullying 6tructional lesson in the fallacies of rushing to publish social media events.  Keaton Jones was made a poster boy for anti-bullying in one day.  Four days later, he was dropped faster than Brad Keselowski drives around Daytona International Speedway.  Media all over the nation and the world share in the responsibility, as badly as we hate to admit mistakes.

In the process, we missed a huge opportunity to explore one of the most emotionally-threatening issues for children and adolescents in the entire nation.  Bullying exists in every single city, large and small, in America.  Reporters need to be asking serious questions in their local communities about how to combat bullies without finding a social media star to serve as the catalyst.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sgt. Carter: Gomer’s Rejoining You; Remembering Jim Nabors

Jim Obit 2Ask me to rank my top 10 favorite characters in TV history.  Gomer Pyle will be in the Final Four playoff, along with Andy Taylor, Barney Fife and Beaver Cleaver.

Ask me who delivered the definitive version of “The Impossible Dream” with a voice as powerful as a riptide and I will not hesitate to answer Jim Nabors.

I was spending a recent Thursday morning doing as I was told in helping to set up and decorate our church for our daughter’s Saturday wedding.  The news came over Twitter and Facebook that Jim had left us at the age of 87.

This one was like a punch in the gut.  The news was another reminder that while characters that strike a chord in our lives through television are immortal, the people who play them are not.

I actually saw Jim Nabors perform for the first time in 1961.  My family had just moved to Waycross, Ga., then the home of what one national magazine described as one of the 15 worst cities in America for television reception.  Unless one had a prohibitively expensive high-gain antenna, the choice was WJXT in Jacksonville or nothing.  Jacksonville had two affiliates but one of those spring thin air nights to pick up the NBC station, WFGA.  Both channels cherrypicked ABC programs.

WJXT opted on Wednesday nights to snag The New Steve Allen Show, a comeback bid for The Tonight Show originator.  Steve’s show was up against television’s number one show, Wagon Train, and failed to last.  However, a young singer named Jim Nabors appeared on several shows.  He could belt out a tune with a powerful baritone.  My parents enjoyed him.  However, with the short life of Steve’s variety hour, Jim faded into the woodwork as did scores of other performers who tried to break into early sixties television.

A little more than a year later, the Christmas Eve episode of The Andy Griffith Show was entitled “The Bank Job.”  Barney Fife set out to prove that The Mayberry Bank was a crime pushover.  A local mechanic who had never been introduced, Gomer Pyle, appeared.  Gomer had a voice that sounded as if he had done a dozen lube jobs in a Jim Gomer 1day.  Bit characters came and went in Mayberry, most never again to be seen.  Somehow, Gomer grabbed our attention.  I remember my father laughing uproariously at the few lines Gomer delivered.  We thought little more about it the next day—but Andy Griffith and his producers did.

Jim had no idea the 23 episodes in which he appeared on The Andy Griffith Show would propel him into major stardom.  This is a guy who just 10 years earlier had been a camera operator, film editor and morning show host at WJBF in Augusta.

The episode of December 16, 1963, was arguably the major turning point in the 33-year-old Nabors’ career.  Directed by actor Richard Crenna, “Citizen’s Arrest” became a signature episode of The Griffith Show‘s middle years.  Frustrated after Barney wrote him a ticket for making a U-turn in the middle of the town square, Gomer catches Barney doing the same thing.  The Mayberry mechanic begins yelling, “Citizen’s array-ust!  Citizen’s array-ust!”  The next three minutes of confrontation between Gomer and Barney were sheer comic genius.  Crenna never received the full credit he deserved for staging that scene.

I knew that episode hit home.  For the next two weeks during my school’s Christmas holidays, I encountered people everywhere—-including myself—-shouting “citizen’s array-ust!”  Along with “nip it in the bud,” Floyd’s “oooooh, Annnnndy” and Barney’s classic “Juanita?  Barn….cock-a-doodle-doooooo,” Gomer’s revenge became one of the ten charismatic catchphrases in the history of the series.

Spinoffs were still fledgling elements of television in the mid-sixties.  Harry Morgan’s character of Pete Porter was spun off into Pete and Gladys, a CBS sitcom derived from fifties favorite December Bride.  The characters of Bronco Layne and Sugarfoot were introduced on ABC’s Cheyenne but not expanded into their own rotating series until Clint Walker engaged in a contract dispute with Warner Brothers over merchandising and salary from Cheyenne.  In 1956, The $64,000 Challenge was a spinoff from the megahit The $64,000 Question to exploit the popularity of winners on Question.  Andy Griffith’s own series was introduced as a one-shot pilot on The Danny Thomas Show but the ensemble characterizations had not been developed.

The evening of May 18, 1964, was the moment of truth for the character of Gomer Pyle.  Gomer enters the sheriff’s office and does a choreographed version of The Marine’s Hymn.Jim Marine  Andy watches and says, “That’s real good, Gomer.”  Quickly, Gomer tells his friend, “Andy….I’m in.”  “In” was his enlistment papers in the United States Marine Corps.

In the following 27 minutes, we had a preview of what would take over sitcom television the following season.  Gomer as a bumbling Marine only embellished his personality as the bumbling mechanic from Mayberry.  We also saw how the chemistry would build between Nabors and one of the most underrated supporting actors in sitcom history, Frank Sutton.  Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. could not have been possible without Jim’s talent but the series would also not have worked without the counterpoint of Sutton as the beleaguered Sergeant Vince Carter.  When the two stood nose-to-nose after Gomer’s initial faux pas, you knew a winner was on the way.

Contrary to information in some of Nabors’ obituary tributes, CBS had already decided to pick up Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. as a series well before the pilot aired.  In those days, the network fall lineups were locked in as early as Washington’s birthday.  Network executives screened producer-writer Aaron Ruben’s pilot and immediately gave it the green light.  CBS intentionally saved its airing until the final Griffith episode of the 1963-64 season.

Ironically, TV Guide—in its fall forecasts—did not see great hope for Pyle.  The prediction was for a middle-of-the-pack rating.  Indeed, the time slot would be a challenge.  CBS had not experienced exceptional success with sitcoms on Friday nights through the years.  Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. would go in Fridays at 9:30.  The lead-in was a new but highly-touted ensemble variety hour The Entertainers starring Carol Burnett, Bob Newhart and a cast of up and coming singers and comics.  The lead-out, Slattery’s People, was a high-concept drama starring Richard Crenna in his first serious role as a state legislator.

The biggest battle for Gomer would be the series’ competition.  After CBS network president Jim Aubrey abruptly canceled The Jack Benny Program after 14 years (the book CBS:  Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye quotes sources as saying Aubrey cruelly told the legend, “You’re through.”), NBC picked up Benny for the Friday at 9:30 half-hour.  Benny promised to feature younger guests (The Smothers Brothers, The Lettermen, Peter, Paul and Mary, Jack Jones) as well as TV heavyweights Lucille Ball, Bob Hope and George Burns.  ABC countered with 12 O’Clock High, an hour-long war drama based on the movie of the same title.  The betting line was the Benny would be tough sledding for Gomer if his audience followed him to NBC.

Until the 1975-76 season, Nielsen ratings were based on two-week averages.  The first Gomer Pyle episode featured a solid premiere as Gomer was inept trying to navigate the obstacle course but worked extra time at night until he succeeded.  Week two fleshed out some of Gomer’s fellow recruits as a platoon member’s girlfriend managed to sneak into the barracks.  The verdict was a stunner for the handicappers.  Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. was immediately CBS’s number one show, finishing third for the two-week period behind NBC’s Bonanza and ABC’s Bewitched.  Twelve O’Clock High was 59th but the shocker was the result for The Jack Benny Program.  Out of 100 network series, the legend from Waukegan was in 97th place.  CBS indeed appeared to be right in canceling him.

Jim Nabors TTTTin case the early ratings were a fluke, CBS sent Nabors on a promotional swing as he appeared on Art Linkletter’s House Party and the prime time version of To Tell the Truth.  Regular panelist Orson Bean was given the week off from Truth in order to bring Nabors to the popular game show’s panel October 26, 1964.  For a week in a blitz of heavy daytime promos, voiceover announcers touted the star of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. as joining the panel of stars (Tom Poston, Peggy Cass and Kitty Carlisle).  Jim was a bit nervous.  He never before had played on a game show.  Onstage with heavyweight veterans Poston, Cass and Carlisle, the Alabama native struggled to ask pertinent questions of the contestants.  Only two games were played rather than the usual three because the episode was cut to 25 minutes to accommodate a five-minute political talk for the upcoming Presidential election.

Jim Nabors TTTT3As a testament to CBS’ promotional machine and Nabors’ increasing popularity resulted in the highest rating of the 11 years of nighttime To Tell the Truth.  The episode scored a 26.4 rating and 42 percent share of audience, crushing the NBC and ABC competition.

The numbers for Gomer Pyle were no fluke.  They not only held up but increased week-to-week.  For the full 1964-65 campaign, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. averaged a 30.7 rating, finishing in a virtual tie with Bewitched (at 31.0).  For the final 14 weeks of the season, Gomer overtook Bewitched  to become number two overall.

Jim Nabors was no longer a solid supporting actor.  He was morphing into a major network television star.  His musical talents were incorporated into two episodes of the first season.  He recorded his first album for Columbia Records, Shazam!, based on the Captain America yell he comedically incorporated in Mayberry and on the Marine base.  The first recording was in Gomer’s country voice.  That was followed up with By Request, which featured Nabors doing a number of Broadway and movie standards in his operatic style.  A third LP, Jim Nabors Sings:  Cuando Calienta el Sol, went gold.

During the five years of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., more elements of Gomer’s family were expanded.  He frequently quoted from Grandma Pyle (“Sergeant Carter, Grandma Pyle says you should chew your food 12 times before you swaller it.”).  We met his cousin Bridey and his grandfather.  He dated a colonel’s daughter and two Hollywood stars (one of them Ruta Lee).  He gained a steady girlfriend in off key nightclub singer Lou Ann Poovie (played by the incomparable Elizabeth MacRae).  He gave Vince constant nightmares, including one literally in a hilarious episode during which a meal of Welsh rarebit made Gomer and Vince both dream they had switched personalities.

A favorite Gomer Pyle episode was one in which Gomer was entrusted with Vince’s car while the sergeant was dispatched to collect an AWOL Marine.  The vehicle was stolen.  Eventually, it lands on a construction site where the car is destroyed.  The outstanding character actor Ken Lynch, whose TV career went back to the days of DuMont as The Plainclothesman, played the police sergeant who felt a sense of empathy for Private Pyle.  My daughter, watching the episode in rerun as a small child, went around the house for days chanting Gomer’s lament, “Sergeant Carter’s goin’ to kill me.  He’s gonna kill me dead!”  The construction company owner agrees to replace Carter’s car.  A classic line toward the end comes when Gomer explains to Vince:  “This big ball fell on it and smashed your car to Smithereens!”  Every time I saw a similar device when my university’s library was built three years ago, I kept thinking, “This big ball’s going to fall down and smash somebody’s car to Smithereens!”

The writers looked for more openings to incorporate Jim’s vocal talents into the series.  The most memorable musical moment came in episode nine of the fourth season.  During the November rating sweeps, Gomer won a singing contest.  The prize:  a trip to sing before an elite audience at a Washington, D.C., concert.  Nabors had already sung “The Impossible Dream” from “Man of LaMancha” on The Danny Kaye Show and the premiere episode of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967.  The arrangement in which Jim was accompanied by the U.S. Marine Corps Band was unmatched.  People have been tweeting and spreading that version on Facebook in the hours after we learned of Nabors’ death.  I don’t care how many times I hear it, Jim’s powerful delivery still gives me chills.

During its five seasons, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., never finished lower than tenth in the Nielsens (and that was in year three when CBS moved the show to Wednesday nights).  The series was invincible.  Back on Friday nights at 8:30, Gomer finished the first month of the 1968-69 season as the number two show in the Nielsens, runner-up only to NBC’s juggernaut Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.  At that point, TV Guide reported that Jim was thinking out loud about doing a weekly variety hour in 1969-70.  CBS was still non-committal.  With the numbers Gomer was still pulling, the network was willing to offer a Brinks truck for Nabors to do two more years of the sitcom.

Jim had other numbers on his side.  In November 1965, The Andy Griffith Don Knotts Jim Nabors Show, a variety special, went through the roof in the Nielsens.  In 1967, American Motors sponsored Friends and Nabors, Jim’s first solo special, with guests Griffith, Tennessee Ernie Ford, opera star Marilyn Horne and Shirley Jones.  The following year in what would be a fortuitous Thursday at 8 slot, Jim hosted Girl Friends and Nabors.  As a finale, Nabors sang an old Ernest Tubb song rearranged with a big band sound, “Tomorrow Never Comes,” which drew a huge audience reaction.

Gomer Pyle, USMC, had been a far bigger success than even the best of network prophets could have forecast.  Yet, Jim was tired.  Because of the interaction required, he was in virtually every scene.  Back home at night, he had to learn an additional 14 pages of dialogue.  Five years of the grind was taking a toll.

With his nightclub and recording career taking off, Nabors conferred with his manager Dick Linke.  As reported in TV Guide, Linke advised:  “Jim, with your talents, better to gamble now.”

Jim Nabors Hour 1When the fall 1969 CBS lineup was released in April, Gomer Pyle was not on the schedule.  The Jim Nabors Hour was.  The original plan was to go Fridays from 8 to 9 on the same night that Gomer had been such a huge success.  The popular Hogan’s Heroes would return for a fifth season by moving to 7:30.  However, CBS opted late in the scheduling game to go pick up the declining Get Smart from NBC for a sixth season and give a reluctant pickup to The Good Guys, a Bob Denver-Herb Edelman comedy that limped in the Nielsens in its first season.  Those comedies were penciled in at 7:30 and 8.  Hogan remained at 8:30.

CBS looked at the success of two Nabors specials on Thursdays at 8.  Further, after two CBS affiliates experienced success with Family Affair on a delayed broadcast Thursdays at 7:30 in 1968-69, the network opted to move the Brian Keith-Sebastian Cabot hit into that time slot as a lead-in for The Jim Nabors Hour.  The decision was inspired.

In a future blogpost, we will explore the detailed two-year history of Jim’s variety hour.  With a premiere episode that featured Andy Griffith and up-and-coming singer Julie Budd (along with a cameo by Don Knotts), the first week results were impressive.  The Sept. 25, 1969, debut scored a 26.0 rating and finished fourth for the week.  Family Affair drew higher ratings than its traditional Monday night slot.Jim Nabors 3

Some guests were better draws than others.  However, The Jim Nabors Hour finished 11th for the season in the 1969-70 Nielsens.  The following season, tougher competition from NBC’s new The Flip Wilson Show weakened the ratings.  Nonetheless, the Nabors show was still 28th in 1970-71 and was primed for a third season renewal.

What has unofficially been labeled The Great Rural Purge led to what many observers believed was a premature end for The Jim Nabors Hour.  Madison Avenue advertising agencies were pressuring the networks to end a decade of rural appeal shows launched by The Beverly Hillbillies in 1962.  Ad executives wanted more dramas, more shows with urban appeal in the large population centers and more programs appealing to the 18-49 age bracket that was viewing song-and-dance hours in fewer numbers.  The Nabors show was one of the final casualties on the CBS lineup for 1971-72.

Ironically, Jim was still in demand as a guest star on the remaining CBS variety shows during the seventies.  He continued his “good luck charm” appearances on every season premiere of The Carol Burnett Show until its end in 1977-78.  He showed up on Tony Orlando and Dawn, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour and the final season of The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.  A syndicated Nashville-based Music Hall America welcomed Jim as a host.

In 1977, Jim subbed for Dinah Shore on her daytime 90-minute talk/variety series.  So impressed were Dinah’s producers that they developed a similar one-hour format for Nabors.  In January 1978, The Jim Nabors Show premiered on 140 stations, including WCBS in New York.  Many of those stations slotted Nabors opposite the fast-rising Phil Donahue in an early morning time period.  After a strong first two weeks, Jim’s ratings began to sag.  By the end of the 14th week, his distributor announced The Jim Nabors Show would end after 26 weeks.

Jim never did another series.  In 1981, he frontlined a Christmas Jim Nabors 2special, Jim Nabors’ Christmas in Hawaii, which included him singing Silent Night at Pearl Harbor.  His most frequent annual appearances, which started in 1969, were at the Indianapolis 500 where he offered the emotional state song “Back Home in Indiana” for 36 years until a farewell in 2014.

The fact that a native of middle Alabama could be propelled into near-overnight success as a small town mechanic-turned-Marine private is one of the genuine folklore tales of television.  The day of his death, Jim Nabors’ version of “Impossible Dream” from Gomer Pyle, USMC, went viral online.  More than one person reacted in the sixties with the phrase, “That voice just doesn’t go with that face.”  Indeed, it did.

I enjoyed Gomer because I knew people like him in my hometown.  I was an unabashed fan of Jim’s music because our vocal range was similar and his versions of Broadway showstoppers and contemporary middle-of-the-road favorites of the era connected with me.  His variety hour was a weekly appointment for me because Jim was himself, not a craft of handlers or managers who wanted him to fit into a pattern.

Most of us never met him but never heard a cross word about him from those who did.  For most of the sixties when Jim Nabors appeared either in character of singing a powerful showcloser, we watched—and we wanted more.

 

 

 

 

 

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.