I didn’t know, that I didn’t know, what I was doing.
There are times when it’s a blessing to not know the magnitude of the job ahead. It’s like a road with lots of curves. You can only see so far and at any given moment you’re simply attempting to navigate skillfully to the next curve. If you saw the true length of the road ahead, with all its trials and pitfalls, you might not proceed with that wonderful assurance allowed by ignorance.
How do you go about creating a large national primetime TV project?
Well, I’d created “The 21” Classroom” and been the founding Executive Director of The Eastern Educational Network. I had the resources and prestige of WGBH behind me, and my recent stint at BBC had given me a special status at The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and a number of highly placed international contacts. I could produce, manage people, raise funds and think of the big picture. I thought I was ready.
There was little theoretical work to do; a ready model was right there before me in the BBC’s series, “Horizon,” and it was a happy and willing potential partner.
Why create a science project?
Science is a part of our heritage, our present culture, and a major force in determining our future. Its absence from television, our most public medium of communication, spoke to the ignorance of many of its gatekeepers who thought mostly in terms of news and the arts, and too narrowly at that. Science, medicine, technology, engineering, architecture all impact our culture by determining how we live our lives! They also made for great story telling.
The “science series” was also meant to be a model for the future of public television. “Masterpiece Theater” had just emerged and I saw it as a threat as well as a joy. “Masterpiece” could buy a wonderful drama from the BBC for a tenth of the cost of making it in the United States. Who then could hope to raise the money for US production? By creating a “strand” of programs, some made, some co-produced and some bought, I hoped to show PBS how to create new series that were truly American at a realistic cost.
Science, medicine, technology, engineering, architecture all impact our culture by determining how we live our lives.
And finally, I hoped the strand approach would help train American producers and directors in the journalistic approach that was so natural to the BBC. By hiring some Brits to produce and filling in the lower positions with bright Americans, in a few years we might have a pool of talented producer-directors for the future.
How to start?
I read books.
I talked to scientists.
First to Phil Morrison, always the best source for anything scientifically worthwhile. Phil promised all the time I needed, as long as I never asked him to waste time in a committee meeting.
I attended scholarly conferences.
The annual session of AAAS, The American Association for the Advancement of Science, had lectures and seminars on a wide array of subjects. I found it an inspiration for topics and a good way to meet, and get the support of, scientists from many disciplines.
AAAS had also just received a large grant from the National Science Foundation to interest more people in science. AAAS is the world’s largest federation of scientific organizations and their Committee on the Public Understanding of Science had long been interested in media. It was chaired by Gerard Piel, then publisher of Scientific American. I met with the committee and laid out my ideas. I remember Piel’s head shaking as he murmured. He thought TV and science would never work. The rest of his committee disagreed and in a few days, Jim Butler and his assistant came to Boston to discuss the future.
Jim proposed that I write a “White Paper” on how science and TV might get together. I told them that the paper already existed as my science project plan. I asked him how much money he had. “Forty thousand dollars”, was his candid reply. I pointed out that many projects failed because few developers could support themselves through the lengthy period of fundraising. I told him he should give me the forty thousand dollars, that I would give him my project plan to publish as their “White Paper,” and that I’d attach the AAAS name to the TV series when it hit the air.
We went to Legal Sea Food to celebrate.
After shrimp cocktails, lobsters and several rounds of beer, Jim whipped out his American Express card in the lofty manner of a Washington bigwig. Anna, a waitress well known to the Ambrosino clan, eyed him coolly and cracked, “What the hell is that? We take cash here!
I ended up paying for lunch.
It was the first charge I made against my new $40,000 fundraising budget!
A call from California was intriguing. Would I come out to La Jolla and meet with some west coast scientists? The invitation came from William McElroy, Chancellor of The University of California, San Diego, who had until recently been the Director of the National Science Foundation. It was clear they thought I was under the influence of MIT and Harvard and wanted me to know that science flourished among the palm trees as well as the ivy.
I was greeted, toured, feted, and fed. I saw labs, campuses, and scientists. I walked the beautiful grounds of The Scripps Institution of Oceanography and The Salk Institute.
And I had dinner.
Several dozen scientists were gathered at La Jolla to give me a taste of the talent and potential stories west of the Charles River. McElroy had made sure that Jonas Salk, the Nobel Prize winner and developer of a Polio vaccine, was seated near me.
The dinner went well. Many guests outlined recent research that might be of interest, suggested topics for programs, reviewed the resources on the West coast and pledged their strong support.
A special moment occurred when we broke up. Jacob Bronowski, the brilliant English mathemetician and author of “The Ascent of Man,” pulled me aside and said, “Ambrosino, I’ve read your proposal. It’s very interesting. But you have all these advisors. Advisors mean nothing. You are an honest man. You will do a good job!”
Jacob Bronowski, the brilliant English mathemetician and author of “The Ascent of Man,” pulled me aside and said, “You are an honest man. You will do a good job!”
Over the next years, working on NOVA, ODYSSEY, DYING, EYES ON THE PRIZE, THE RING OF TRUTH and JOURNEY TO THE OCCUPIED LANDS, I took strength from “Brunowski’s” faith in me. Whenever I was confronted with confusion or conflict or controversy, I reminded myself that, “I was an honest man, I would do a good job.”
An early opportunity to compromise
Two roadblocks appeared. The first was by David Prowitt of WNET in New York City. He announced the creation of the “WNET Science Program Group.” Sound familiar? That was the exact title I had used in my AAAS “White Paper,” calling for the creation of the “WGBH Science Program Group.”
David was issuing a challenge. He had been doing science programs at WNET for years. They were thirty-minute documentaries on subjects for which he could find funding. That meant a skewed agenda and a possible worrisome incursion of the funder in the decision-making. His new plan was a direct assault on my project. It seemed a desire to defeat it, or horn in somehow.
PBS didn’t want its two biggest stations, already in competition, fighting with each other, and asked me to meet with Prowitt. I did. PBS suggested we work together in some way.
My second roadblock came directly from PBS. Not knowing how much money would be in the ‘73 or ‘74 budgets, they suggested that a “pilot” would be the best way for me to start. It would get PBS out of a money bind and might keep me quiet for a year or two.
Well, that sounds pretty obstinate for a fella without a project and much in need of friends, money and collaborators.
The way I saw both cases, compromise would have meant defeat.
Working with Prowitt would have reduced the central focus of the new project, dIvided the resources, dispersed the creative staff, gummed up decision-making, increased overhead costs, and would have had me working with David, whose ideas about science programming was vastly different from mine.
In the second case, making a single pilot would have doomed us to criticism by everybody that the pilot was not what the kind of science “they” thought should be done. One program could never stand for the sweeping breadth of programs that was possible, and would eventually prove to be our hallmark. Instead, I insisted that the entire first season of thirteen programs would be my “pilot,” displaying a wide range of ideas, production techniques and program forms.
Refusing to cooperate, however, is dangerous. It can be done only when you’re ready to give up the dream if you are denied. I was trying not to be an obstinate originator. As “an honest man,” in Bronowski’s words, I was sure that I was right, and that compromising now would destroy our one chance of success.
In the end, seeing how far Boston had progressed, WNET pulled out of the running and PBS never mentioned the idea of a pilot again. It was a tense time. I was pleased that we had come through, although both decisions did rob Bostonians of a new season of “Michael Ambrosino’s Show!”
Fundraising, or how to deal with rejection
Raising money in public television is tricky. It’s a bit like playing chess; you have to plan several moves ahead.
Raising money in public television is tricky. It’s a bit like playing chess; you have to plan several moves ahead.
First you need a positive response from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to convince the rest of the funders that the Washington Public TV power brokers have looked you over and approved.
You then need a letter from PBS expressing interest. PBS isn’t going to promise airtime until they see your programs, so they send a letter with the not-so-subtle text that reads something like this:
“PBS is delighted to know about your new project. We have tentatively penciled it onto our fall list. Since your proposal and planning up to this date have been carried out with such success, we fully expect to schedule your new series where a large and interested audience will find it.”
Gosh. Where do they find people who can write like that?
OK, now you are ready to grapple with the giants of industry and the foundation world. Well, maybe not the giants. The giants are busy running the store. The giants have minions to run their fundraising departments. These minions are flooded with requests such as mine and, having no staff or time to check them all out. They wait and take their cues from CPB and PBS.
The National Science Foundation was an obvious early target and we aimed at them with several big guns. Ford and Rockefeller were active, but were more interested in politics and the arts.
You quickly learn that some foundations like to be first and some last. The Arthur Vining Davis Foundation had a board made up of the relatives of the founder of the Alcoa Aluminum Company; all in their seventies and eighties. What they want to hear is, “I’ve raised all the money except the last quarter of a million. I’m ready to start producing as soon as you decide. Arthur Vining Davis can make this series happen!”
Others, like The Carnegie Corporation, want to be first. In 1972 I got a call from their Vice President, David Robinson, wanting advice on the future of science and television! Imagine my surprise and delight. There I was, having spent a year thinking about the future of science and television, having a proposal in hand, having the imprimatur of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and David Robinson wants to come to Boston to see me!
Now, the end game begins.
My files are filled with letters telling one foundation about a recent meeting expressing the interest of another foundation. Everybody loves a winner, and I kept everybody informed about each meeting, each decision date, each tremor that might shake the money tree.
The companies were another deal altogether. They were in business to make money and only gave it away in rare instances.
That meant you had to find a specific reason for their giving. Surprisingly, many of the “science-based” companies didn’t jump at the chance to fund us. Like everybody else, they liked the arts. You can have fancy cocktail parties when you give to opera and drama. Big stars come to your parties and the bosses loved that.
My most agonizing turndown came from Xerox. Their administrator kept me on a string for months and then said, “You create such wonderful proposals. Your ideas are so refreshing. The next time you’re in Armonk, please drop in for coffee”.
Why would I find myself in Armonk, except to beg money?
The fund-raiser’s best friend is a quick NO. You could then go on to more fruitful places and stop hanging on thinking that “Armonk is interested”.
You may wonder why I did all this. Why not hire a fund-raiser? Well, the resources of the WGBH fundraising department were available, but they were busy raising money for lots of other series and I felt that only the creator could do the real sell. I’d get leads from them, but felt that there was only one person who could get the foundations and corporations excited about the ideas in the project.
And then there was Polaroid.
I’d sent Polaroid a proposal. They were a local company. They’d been generous to WGBH before. They had funded Julia and given hundreds of cameras to every auction. They were run by a small group in Cambridge, and I could easily get a meeting with Ted Voss, their bright, curly-haired Vice President for advertising.
I sat down and nervously started in on my pitch.
Ted interrupted immediately.
“Michael, I’ve read the proposal.” “It’s not a matter of whether. It’s a matter of how much. How much?”
“Michael, I’ve read the proposal.” “It’s not a matter of whether. It’s a matter of how much. How much?”
I mentioned a figure.
“Too much,” said Ted.
We haggled a minute and quickly settled on a new figure.
“How’s Lillian?” he inquired.
You may think that the introduction of Lillian was an extraneous subject, but I understood it totally. “Tell Ted about Lillian and leave. You got your money. Be a good boy and let Ted get back to work!”
That meeting with Ted lasted just about four minutes. They were not all that easy.
Meetings, letters, proposals, negotiations, and trips to Washington ate up much of the next few months. And then there was an extraordinary three days in spring, 1973. It was the kind of week that project creators dream of.
Each day, on May 2, 3, and 4, I received a letter. In order, they notified me that CPB, Carnegie and Polaroid had each agreed to fund the science project. NSF came in shortly after. There was joy, relief, excitement and fear. Now, we had to make good on our promises.
I had to make good on my promises!
The plan of action
I laid out a three-year plan.
We would present thirteen shows the first season, seventeen the second, and twenty on the third. American-produced programs would start at thirty percent and increase to forty and then fifty percent in three years. The first season would begin in March because the commercial television season ended then, and it would be our best chance to get maximum press. We’d deal with science, science’s impact on society and science’s impact on public policy. We would make programs about archaeology, medicine, biology, chemistry, physics and technology. In addition to documentaries, we’d present plays and ethnographic films.
We’d deal with science, science’s impact on society and science’s impact on public policy. We would make programs about archaeology, medicine, biology, chemistry, physics and technology.
I planned to be the Executive Director and run the project. I would hire an experienced Executive Producer and Producers from BBC and bring in Americans to be trained for all the other slots.
I’d taken several trips back to London to interview potential staff and to try to make a mutually beneficial agreement with BBC. I hoped to “borrow” BBC Producers, have them make films with my money and then give those shows free to BBC. The BBC was interested when it was a fledgling project but when I actually had the money, and the series became a reality, they withdrew their cooperation in fear of losing their best people.
Peter Goodchild was running “Horizon” and his cooperation and friendship never flagged but his hands were tied. We could exchange programs and do co-productions, but his best people were out of bounds.
Interviewing people now started in earnest. I was offering experienced Producers the instability of a one year contract in the unknown world of US public television, hoping to lure them away from secure positions in the best broadcasting organization in the world. It was not an easy task.
First things first: Executive Producers. In the end it narrowed to two exceptional candidates; Simon Campbell Jones and Thomas Marquand. They had both made dozens of “Horizons” and each displayed a commanding presence and good sense. They both said no.
The next day, I was to interview and possibly offer jobs to Producers. Only the Executive Producer could do that.
Over a lonely dinner in my hotel room, I realized that I would have to become the Executive Producer. I’d never run a production unit of one-hour science documentaries before. I’d never even made one.
How could I presume to be the Executive Producer?
When you have no options, decision making become easier.
Simon Campbell Jones agreed to come and produce for one year. He was a very senior producer for BBC, had made many films and would be a good mentor. That was one down.
Among the throng I interviewed were Francis Gladstone, a Producer, and John Angier, a Researcher. I hired them both.
Francis was the great-grandson of a former Prime Minister of England. He carried himself with an air of entitlement.
John Angier was bright, organized, thorough, and pugnacious.
It was going to be a bumpy ride.
The staff filled out with Ben Shedd, a fledging filmmaker from California; Cary Lu, a graduate of Cal Tech; Terry Rockefeller, the brightest woman I’d ever met; Elsa Rassbach, an experienced researcher and associate producer; Marian White, an experienced PA who had worked on WGBH news, and Nancy Trolland, a PA who’d been on the WGBH staff for several years.
WGBH staffers Doug Smith and Dudley Palmer joined us as production manager and assistant. I persuaded Graham Chedd, a science journalist, to leave AAAS and join up as my Science Editor helping to research stories and assist in deciding on acquisitions.
We were ready to start.
And so, we began
Everybody started researching program ideas. A memo I wrote on June 14, 1973, listed twenty-eight ideas under consideration for production, thirty films from BBC under consideration for purchase and fourteen possible names for our science series. Michael Rice returned his copy with a generous scrawl of rather negative comments in the margins. I realized that sending out one-paragraph descriptions of incomplete ideas was a mistake.
The next program memo was shorter and was entitled, “Program Ideas Committed for Production.” I decided that if I were to be second-guessed, it would be on finished films and not premature program descriptions.
The title was a ticklish subject. Everybody had a suggestion. Henry Morgenthau always thought producers should come up with a catchy title first and only then design a series to fit. It might have been easier that way.
I circulated a memo of over fifty possible titles and the staff offered more each day, including “The Asymtotic Struggle,” which did not long survive. One day, Michael Rice called me to his office and when I arrived, I found Michael and Sylvia Davis, our Director of Promotion and Publicity, grinning from ear to ear. A bad sign.
“We have your title for you!” Michael chortled.
“You have my title for me?” I replied warily.
“Yes!” he beamed.
“EUREKA,” he shouted.
I waited some more.
“Eureka” is what Archimedes, the Greek philosopher, supposedly shouted in his bath when he came up with a workable idea to test the quality of the gold in his King’s crown. He conceived of a scheme to first place the crown, and then an amount of gold of equal weight into a vat of water full to the brim to see if the water displaced was equal. Had the jeweler replaced some of the gold in the crown with less valuable metal, the greater volume of the “lesser” crown would have displaced more water.
‘Eureka” was the bane of science and scientists because it spawned the myth that science worked by instant enlightenment, in the bath or not. Science doesn’t work that way at all.
Science works in tiny steps, by diligent researchers doing their experiments, writing them up for publication in science journals, having other scientists question those findings by trying to duplicate them, and responding in those same science journals. These steps, within the community of science, are essential to the development of good ideas, tested ideas, ideas in which we can have confidence, become the theories that form the basis of our knowledge about how our world works.
Religion is based on faith. Science is based on facts that are hard won by experimentation that is questioned and tested by peers. Modern science is not, and has never been, “Eureka.”
I asked Michael and Sylvia if they’d read any of my memos about the science project and the way we intended to tell our stories.
I told them I would soon come up with a title and left.
I came up with “NOVA.”
A Nova is a sudden, brilliant star in the firmament; so dazzlingly bright that it’s noticed and admired by all. It delights the eye and turns the mind to a joyful appreciation and questioning about the wonders of the universe.
A Nova, or Supernova, is a sudden, brilliant star in the firmament; so dazzlingly bright that it’s noticed and admired by all. It delights the eye and turns the mind to a joyful appreciation and questioning about the wonders of the universe.
The title, “NOVA” was also my tiny secret joke. It was a comment on the way public television was funded in those days. New series got support for a few years. They burst onto the program schedule where they shined brightly, and were then shunted aside as the funders went on to other, newer, projects. Just like the celestial Nova, many series, after their brilliant introduction and display, floundered because of lack of funds, faded, fizzled, and disappeared from view.
“NOVA” it would be.
What made a Nova, a NOVA?
NOVA told stories of discovery.
We couldn’t make a documentary film about the how The Crab Nebula works. The audience would never understand it. We could, and Alec Nesbitt did, make a documentary about the men and women who sought out the neutron star that powered The Crab Nebula. About a dozen scientists and graduate students in England and America, carried out experiments over a dozen years, sought out answers, shared research, challenged others to create new experiments, shared those answers, and slowly, slowly, came up with the story. It was a human story about the nature of discovery and an excellent example of the way science works.
It was this journalistic approach that set NOVA apart.
NOVA told stories of discovery, human stories about the nature of discovery and the way science works. It was this journalistic approach that set NOVA apart.
It took time and money.
After two weeks of library and telephone research by a team, I would get an “outline” of about two pages explaining the ideas of the film and the participants.
After four additional weeks of on-location interviewing and scouting, the outline would grow to a “treatment”: about a dozen pages of detailed descriptions of each segment in a suggested order. In Boston, there’s a lot of talk among producers about “Act One, Act Two and Act Three,” realizing that even in a documentary, the dramatic sense of story-telling has to invite, excite, explain, challenge, and satisfy the viewer.
After reviewing and revising the treatment, we could now make up a production schedule and a budget for the film.
I usually allowed a team four weeks of filming and eight to ten weeks for editing, a few more for mix, negative cutting and post production.
We were not in the business of making art films. We had been assigned airdates from PBS and had to fill them without fail. It was not a joke when we said of our work, “Our films are never finished, they are only released.”
We “released” a first season examining how nature films were made; how the water of the Colorado river was used; how whales and dolphins communicate; how life began on Earth; and how a primitive tribe, the Cuiva, lived in the Amazon. We produced a drama about the discovery of anesthesia; examined the mysterious explosion that led to the discovery of the Crab Nebula; explored how birds navigate; questioned medical experimentation on patients; delighted in the unique research with Washoe, a chimpanzee who “spoke” with sign language; questioned Paul Kammerer’s research in a famous case of faked experimentation; looked into fusion, a possible energy source for the future; and sought the mystery of the Anasazi people who, after living in the southwest for eight thousand years, suddenly vanished!
That was our first season. That was my “pilot,” a wide-ranging series of delightful and compelling stories.
NOVA’s audience out rated drama, music, opera and dance on PBS. The reviews were positive and the letters poured in. People were actually waiting to see what we would do next!
The reaction was immediate and it was grand. NOVA’s audience out rated the drama, music, opera and dance on PBS. The reviews were positive and the letters poured in. One of my favorites exclaimed, “I never knew what the hell you were coming up with next week!” A sense of appreciation is to be desired, but to engender a sense of expectation, was beyond our wildest dreams. People were actually waiting to see what we would do next!
Another letter praised our programs for their complexity and depth. Attached was a comment that explained that my correspondent was deaf and blind and that she “saw” and “heard” NOVA through the hand signals of her nurse-caretaker playing on her lips! Here, with this agile mind trapped in the prison of her recalcitrant body, was a loyal NOVA supporter.
What did I do?
The conductor of an orchestra plays no instrument. It’s clear, however, that on any given night, the music reflects his wishes and his demands.
The Executive Producer of a major TV series makes no films. But it’s clear that on any given night, the films reflect his vision of what makes a good, clear, exciting science story.
I assigned some topics and accepted others from the producers. I decided which films we would co-produce with BBC and purchase. I set the order of the thirteen-week series, in an orchestrated effort to show us at our best and the range of our talent.
On a day-to-day basis, I tried to keep up with the field; attended scientific meetings; chatted with scientists and took program suggestions from everybody.
Each outline, treatment, schedule and budget was an opportunity to question, revise and help sculpt each film. As much as I might want everything to be made fully to my taste, I had to give each Producer the freedom to do his or her best work. Best work is not done in a stifling atmosphere. I tried to give them the freedom that I would want, within the constraints of time and money that we all shared.
“Rough-cut” screenings were scheduled when enough scenes had been edited to make general sense of the film. A long meeting followed with questions and suggestions coming from the notes all of us had taken. The documentary has few rigid rules. The order of a film is not infinitely malleable, but surprisingly so.
The “fine-cut” screening, about four weeks later, should show a fairly fluid beginning, middle and end, with a rough narration read over scenes by the Producer. This is a recognizable film, with roughness only in animation and narration. It should be only a few minutes over the required length. Another meeting with notes and suggested revisions followed and last minute changes were made.
At a certain point, decided mostly by broadcast schedules and money, we would lock the picture so that the sound work and the negative cutting could begin. This was the last time for suggestions and my input.
It took constant juggling. Once, I remember that we had nine films and revisions going on at one time; all in various stages of filming or editing. I was also going to London three or four times a year to check on the progress of BBC co-productions and look at their recently completed films.
Serendipity takes hold every once in a while too.
On a late Friday afternoon, I received a call from University of Reno Professor, Allen Gardner. He was passing through Boston with his wife and mother-in-law and wanted to know if I would meet him on Saturday to look at a black and white movie that he had made himself. A negative response from an overworked executive producer would have been understandable.
I said I’d be delighted.
Allen Gardner showed me a flawed, badly edited, overly long “documentary” of his work. The technique was flawed but the content was fascinating!
Over ten years, Allen Gardner had documented his attempts to teach American Sign Language to a chimpanzee named Washoe. Because he filmed hundreds of days, and edited out the many hours of unresponsive action, the footage of Washoe’s “conversations” were magical.
Over ten years, he had documented his attempts to teach American Sign Language to a chimpanzee named Washoe. Because he filmed hundreds of days, and edited out the many hours of unresponsive action, the footage of Washoe’s “conversations” were magical. I told Allen that I didn’t want to run his film but I did want to buy twenty minutes of it and make a NOVA around the idea of animal/human communication. I assigned Simon, Ben, and Terry to make the quick and beautiful, “The First Signs of Washoe,” a smash success and a delightful addition to our first season.
Often asked to name my favorite NOVA, I had to mention many we made or presented in our first three years.
In “Where did the Colorado Go?” we showed how the Colorado River flow was measured, and its water distributed, based on a 1933 measurement. Science entered the picture when tree ring corings made in the ’70s showed that the 1933 measurement was made during a thirty year wet cycle, and greatly overestimated the flow: a not so gentle warning about measurement and statistics.
“Why Do Birds Sing?” was a grand examination of something we take for granted until somebody like NOVA comes along and explains, with beauty and grace, what’s really going on when birds communicate. We even showed that birds have accents and those accents can determine whether some birds are “accepted” by others in the area!
“Why Do Birds Sing?” was a grand examination of something we take for granted until somebody like NOVA comes along and explains, with beauty and grace, what’s really going on when birds communicate.
In “The Last of the Cuiva” there is a scene that cries out to redefine the term “primitive.” The Cuiva are hunter-gatherers in the Amazon. Their possessions are few, their homes mere protection from the rain, their clothing non-existent. Their culture, however, is complex, sophisticated and carefully tuned to aid their survival. On a fishing expedition, two men each spear a fish. They cut each fish in half and exchange halves. Neither, now, has more than before, but in the mere act of sharing, the statement is made that, in the future, if only one catches a fish, neither family will go hungry. That’s the way people develop and preserve a culture!
John Angier commissioned the design of an atomic bomb. In “The Plutonium Connection,” we showed how missing or stolen plutonium could be fashioned into a crude weapon that had a good chance of exploding. The design was said to be credible by the Scandinavian experts we sought out. It got tremendous press and excellent ratings.
A brief diversion on the merits of arguing from strength
“The Plutonium Connection” was also noticed by the staff of National Science Foundation, who called me to a meeting at their Washington office. Many of those in the Public Understanding of Science office had previously worked at the Atomic Energy Commission, and they were furious that the program had shown, in considerable detail, just how lax the security in the atomic energy field was at that time.
“That was very controversial,” the NSF staff said.
“Yes, and it was very good,” I responded.
“There were many critics of nuclear energy in that film,” they said.
“Yes, I said. “Did you notice that eight out of the ten critics work in the nuclear energy establishment? The criticism was coming from people inside the industry,” I said.
“Well, we have this long memo criticizing the program,” they said, sliding a slim pack of papers across the table toward me.
“Gee,” I said. “Have you noticed how memos attempting to pressure the media have a tendency to fall into the hands of the media?”
“Well”, they said, sliding the memo back to their side of the table. “We think you need an advisory committee inspecting your programs before they’re broadcast.”
“Gee,” I said. “I already have good advisors and we already check our controversial programs before they are broadcast.”
“Suppose,” they said. “Suppose, your next grant would be dependent upon your creating such a committee?”
“Then,” I said. “Then, I would refuse your grant and I’d remove your name from the best science series ever to be broadcast in the United States of America.”
The meeting ended soon after. There was no committee. Their grant was renewed as usual.
That was the only attempt to pressure us in all the time I was at NOVA.
Back to good programs
Everybody knows that bombing helps win wars, right? In “War From The Air,” using research data from World War I and II, Korea and Vietnam, we showed that bombing stiffened, rather than destroyed, the enemy’s resolve while leveling cities and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians.
I commissioned a film that would document a year in the Sonora Desert. Deserts may be lonely for humans, but they’re full of life as shown in the dry and wet cycles of “A Desert Place.” This was also a film that had troubles in the editing room and, although concerned about the difficulties, it was a joy to be clear about the reasons for the problem and to step in, and, shot by shot, correct it. It is not how you want to spend every fine-cut screening, but it does help the old Executive Producer ego to become directly involved in a film every so often.
And there was the odd film called “Joey,” the story of fifty-four year old Joey Deacon, a spastic who’d been institutionalized as retarded. When he met Ernie Roberts, also an inmate, he found someone who finally understood his tortured speech. Together they wrote a book about Joey’s life, two sentences per day. Brian Gibson dramatized the story using spastic children and teens as actors and ended up with Joey and Ernie playing themselves as grown-ups. It was an unforgettable gamble to put it into NOVA. It was not really “science,” but it was first class story-telling and no one who saw it, came away unaware of what it meant to be a spastic and to ponder their treatment in society.
In “War From The Air,” using research data from World War I and II, Korea and Vietnam, we showed that bombing stiffened, rather than destroyed, the enemy’s resolve while leveling cities and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians.
And then there were the films that never got made.
John Angier had heard that Howard Hughes was designing and building a new kind of ocean-going factory ship, The Glomar Challenger, to mine manganese nodules from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Always interested in new technology, he tried in vain to make contact, hoping to get permission to join them on their first “mining expedition.” We got nowhere. Twenty years later, when classified information was finally released, we learned that Hughes built the ship for the CIA to retrieve a Russian submarine that had sunk in the deep ocean. It would have been an even better story, but it was one that got away.
I wanted to make a film over several years about a “vacant lot” to show that there is no such thing. We would explore the geology of the soil and the possible archaeological remains, the agronomy of the grasses and the biology of the animal life in, and above, the soil.
And then there was “the vacant lot.” If we’d had forward funding, we might have pulled it off. I wanted to make a film over several years about a “vacant lot” to show that there is no such thing. We would explore the geology of the soil and the possible archaeological remains, the agronomy of the grasses and the biology of the animal life in, and above, the soil. The idea was to make it impossible for the viewer to think of any natural space as “vacant” ever again.
Day by day
And so the days went by, filled with meetings, screenings, budgets, schedules, problems of space, salaries, fundraising, promotion, advertising and network scheduling. My homework consisted of poring over outlines, treatments and scripts back at 566 Centre Street late into the night.
While working on Season I, it was necessary to plan Season II and make the contacts for it’s funding. That meant trips to Washington and London, meetings with Polaroid and longish memos to the stations telling them how wonderful we were and what a smash the second season would be.
PBS had created The Station Program Cooperative, and after our first two seasons, we, and all the other continuing series, would bid and compete for the too-few millions the stations had pooled for national programming. We laid out our plans for Season III, and with a flashy videotape in hand, I attended the SPC meeting. PBS gave old shows eight minutes to sell their series. In eight minutes, I showed them video reminders of the highlights of the first two years and tempted them with our ideas for the third.
Season III would be a reality.
We succeeded because NOVA was not a science series. We used science as our tool to tell stories about discovery and the scientific process; human stories about the scientist’s search for knowledge.
I was curious about how the world worked and was fairly certain I could play on the viewer’s curiosity as well.
Curiosity and knowledge are linked, each dependent upon the other and intertwined, not unlike a helix. You cannot be curious about a subject until you know something about it. That knowledge piques your curiosity and your curiosity leads you on to discovery. The more knowledge you have, the more you realize how much you lack, and on you go up the spiral, hopefully enjoying yourself on the ride.
I knew intuitively that curiosity and knowledge were linked, each dependent upon the other and intertwined, not unlike a helix. You cannot be curious about a subject until you know something about it. That knowledge piques your curiosity and your curiosity leads you on to discovery. The more knowledge you have, the more you realize how much you lack, and on you go up the spiral, hopefully enjoying yourself on the ride.
And we were good storytellers. We told stories about how people found out about things in a way that brought the viewer along on the quest. Documentaries, dramas, ethnographic films; all types of techniques were used.
And what about me?
We had introduced NOVA in March of 1974 with thirteen programs. Season II started in November of 1974 with another seventeen programs. It was a gamble. By following up our first season so quickly, I wanted to deeply instill NOVA in the minds of the public and the program managers who would vote on its future. It was exhausting, but it worked!
I remember renting a house for a week in that first summer on Cape Cod. It came without a phone. As the rental agent drove away, I told him that he might get an emergency call or two while we were vacationing. While the family was unpacking, he returned. The emergencies had started.
Playing tennis with John Freedman at the Mount Auburn Club one early winter morning, I quit half-way through the hour because I could not concentrate on the ball, I was too wound up about the nine o’clock meeting I was about to have concerning a bad treatment for an upcoming film.
A final warning came when I was in my office hunkered down over a script, when I saw the face of Ben Shedd in the doorway. Ben did not want to interrupt, and I did not want him to enter! Ben obviously had a problem that he couldn’t solve and I didn’t want to help him solve it!
Something was wrong.
I was running NOVA, supervising DYING, and had stupidly agreed to supervise the presentation of Jacob Bronowski’s BBC series, “The Ascent of Man” on PBS. I was exhausted. I did not have the money to hire a Senior Producer to help administer NOVA, and if I had it, I had no qualified candidates in mind in 1976.
Valium had been prescribed and I was using sleeping pills. The normal anxiety sleep pattern is to fall asleep easily, but to awaken about one o’clock to find your mind racing with the problems of the day. That was my pattern.
At a meeting of Executive Producers and WGBH management, I brought up the idea of burnout. My pitch was that folks who created projects, raised money, hired staff, asserted editorial control of each and every film, would soon find themselves in a state of exhaustion and that some method of refreshment was necessary.
I suggested paid leaves of absence for Executive Producers.
David Ives laughed.
Within twenty-four hours, I decided to leave NOVA.
And now what?
I called Steve Rabin, Director of Media at The National Endowment for the Humanities, and asked if he was interested in a “NOVA” of the humanities that examined the world using archaeology and anthropology.
He said yes.
Would he fund a several year research and development period to make it happen?
He said yes.
I spoke with Michael Rice and David Ives and told them of my decision to leave. I had just raised $500,000 from EXXON for Season IV, which would make it easier for the SPC to vote for our fourth year. I told Michael to hire John Angier as the new Executive Producer and that I would leave on March 1, giving John time to begin planning topics for “his” season. I proposed a half-time consultancy to develop two additional science series while I would work on the development of the humanities project.
Michael said yes.
On March 6, 1976, while I was home with the flu, Lillian hosted a party of the NOVA staff just shy of twenty years since I had arrived at WGBH. Although I would be back in the development grind, the familiar activities of research, reading, meeting with academics, etc., would seem like a vacation compared to the actual day-to-day running of a major documentary series.
I determined to run the next project differently.
I would no longer bring work home, especially anything that took critical evaluation and that could produce anxiety. Outlines, treatments and scripts would be dealt with early in the day, in the office! I would go to work early but leave at five o’clock each day.
I would schedule rough cuts and fine cuts at ten o’clock in the morning, leaving lots of time for the review of notes and suggestions for changes. Short screenings of scenes or revisions were OK for afternoons but major screenings required major attention and rested minds.
I would staff bigger. I needed help in management and editorial matters to ease the burden of every decision coming to me.
I would staff better. Hopefully, by time the next project was ready there would be a bigger pool of talented filmmakers. Since NOVA was a success, we might be able to attract more experienced people to come to Boston.
I would continue to trust my intuition. In the past, when I thought I was right, I was most often right. The times when I agreed to something with which I didn’t fully agree, I got in trouble.
What did NOVA mean?
NOVA proved that the documentary form was not dead. Bad documentaries may have seen their day, but well-researched, well-made documentaries with compelling stories had a place in the medium.
NOVA proved, against all the trendy current critics in public television circles, that the documentary form was not dead. Bad documentaries may have seen their day, but well-researched, well-made documentaries with compelling stories had a place in the medium.
NOVA proved that the strand concept worked and could be replicated. New series like WORLD and FRONTLINE and THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE and NATURE could hope to be funded, produced and accepted, using NOVA at their model.
NOVA proved that ideas worked. Serious subjects, examined with a journalist’s sensitivity rather than an academic’s, could find a wide and appreciate audience. “If you make them, they will come!” (OK, “Field of Dreams” had not yet been made as a feature film, but the idea is valid.) Good shows will attract large audiences. Exceptional shows will do even better.
All those who thought NOVA would be a worthy addition to the PBS schedule, but would never be really popular, got a big surprise. NOVA did, and does, continue to outdraw most of the drama, dance, music and opera presented on PBS. Each season, when the “top ten” list is published, NOVA programs are in the majority.
“We could do it”. With help from the BBC, Americans could come up to their quality, co-produce with them and even sell to them. That was unthinkable only a few years before. NOVA’s survival would now depend on the quality of the staff that had been trained.
Few of us could have predicted that NOVA would have survived for over thirty years nor that it would now be better and stronger and the most viewed science series in the world.
It all began on a hot summer’s day. The two of us waited, standing on the corner, staring hard at the passing cars. We were searching for our ride.
We waited, not quite sure of our new adventure. Not that one, not that one. Tom McGrath and I waited there for what seemed hours, our overstuffed suitcases surrounding us on the hot pavement.
It was 27th street and Oklahoma Avenue in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, just up the street from Leon’s Frozen Custard Stand, an icon of all things dairy in America’s Dairy Land, and right across from Pulaski High School. I had graduated from Pulaski just four years ago. You could tell by its name that this was the South Side, and very Polish. My Aunt Jenny had a sausage shop just a few miles down Oklahoma Avenue; she had all kinds of Polish delights in her white gleaming glass cases. Kiszka, Headcheese, Mettwurst, Kielbasa, and of course, Blood Sausage.
“Hi, guys. Nice to meet you.” As we loaded the suitcases into the car, I wondered if it could actually make it all the way to the East Coast.
A big old black car pulled up and out stepped our fellow traveler, David Nohling. “Hi, guys. Nice to meet you.” As we loaded the suitcases into the car, I wondered if it could actually make it all the way to the East Coast.
Tom sat in front and I in the back, shoved in with everyone’s belongings. We were all to bear the cost of the drive — gas, tolls, etc. — we were all to take turns driving, thus avoiding the cost of having to stop at motels, just drive right on through to Boston. It was going to take 16 plus hours.
And then it hit me. This was a standard shift car! I could only drive automatics! They were kind to me. Don’t worry, we can do all the driving, they reassured me. I felt like a jerk.
On the road
The car lumbered down 27th street toward Chicago. Soon we were on the interstate heading East. Dave had figured out that if we drove at night, the car would be a hell of a lot cooler than it would be driving during the day. His car did not have air conditioning. Dave was a good planner.
Dave had just graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He was a Communication major, very knowledgeable. Tom and I had just graduated from Marquette University, with degrees in Speech. Yup, that was what they called it.
Why us? God works in mysterious ways. I could understand why Tom was chosen. He had already worked part time at a local commercial TV station, he had experience. I had no experience. I mean, Marquette didn’t even have real TV cameras: we used wooden mock up cameras, faking TV shows. But as I huddled in the back seat, I knew the only reason I was here was because of Bill Heitz.
Bill was finishing up being a BU/WGBH scholar that summer. He had graduated from Marquette the year before. He insisted that I try to get into this scholarship program; he said it was absolutely great. You studied for your graduate degree in communication at Boston University and worked three days a week at the Educational Television station. Free tuition and you got $600 to live on for the year in Boston! Bill said this program would change my life. He was right.
I slept a lot during the trip. Darkness came and went, and we drove on and on. Then Dave gave us his real surprise. He had never been to New York City. Neither had we. He was a good planner.
It was late morning when we drove into the heart of NYC, the big enchilada. We drove through the traffic, staring up at the tall buildings. And then Dave pulled over into a no parking zone, got out of the car, opened the hood and peered at the engine as if the car was having trouble. He told Tom and I to go in first. He had stopped outside Grand Central Station. Tom and I moved though the crowd and into the giant train station.
And there he was.
Just sitting in a chair while the rest of the film crew moved around the cameras and lights. Someone came to him and asked a question. He responded, but never left his chair. Tom said “It is Alfred Hitchcock!”
We had stumbled into the filming of “North by Northwest.” There was Gary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. They were walking towards one of the train tracks.
While they were acting inside the station, Dave was doing a wonderful acting job outside. Tom and I came back and now we stared into the engine while Dave rushed into have a look.
We couldn’t believe our luck as the car headed off toward Boston.
Boston at last
I had left behind Milwaukee’s three B’s: Beer, Baseball and Bowling. And now I was in Boston with its three B’s: Brahms, Beethoven and Bach.
Several hours later, tired, sweaty, thirsty, we drove into the Boston area. We had made it, and it took just over 18 hours.
Dave turned on his radio and searched the dial. And there it was… classical music on the AM dial! Can you believe it? The only classical music station in Milwaukee was on FM and wattage so low hardly anyone could hear it. I had left behind Milwaukee’s three B’s: Beer, Baseball and Bowling. And now I was in Boston with its three B’s: Brahms, Beethoven and Bach. This was going to be some kind of year.
Heitz opened his apartment to us. We showered, had some beers, told about our trip, and went to sleep. The next day Bill took us to what he thought would be the perfect place for us to rent. It was just down the block from Massachusetts Ave., right on Marlboro street.
The 3 scholars from Wisconsin rang the doorbell and the landlady opened the door. Mrs. Gautraux. Her hair was frizzed, her elderly eyes had that crazy look after all these years of renting to college kids. She led us to the basement, to a two-room apartment fashioned around steam pipes and the furnace. “$80 bucks a month.” We took it.
She gave us the key and said we should use the backdoor for coming and going. She opened the door, which led directly to the alley. The alley. What can I say? Here among the garbage cans, cars parked in little spaces, lived some of the largest rats in Boston. Bill told us this was known as Rat Alley. Ah, yes and now it was our home.
That night Bill took us to see the latest WGBH remote. There was a huge arts festival happening in a park called the Boston Public Garden. The three of us stood besides a pond in the middle of the Garden and watched as members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra drifted by in a Swan Boat playing Handel’s Water Music. And our little TV station was broadcasting it live! Wow!
That night as bedtime approached, Tom and I acted like freshman who had just moved into a dorm. Both Tom and I had lived at home while going to Marquette. This was real freedom. Alone at last in our own space. We giggled on about Rat Alley, you know, “Snow White and Seven Rats,” that kind of thing. Stupid stuff.
The big day arrived. The 1958/59 scholars were to assemble at WGBH.We walked down Massachusetts Avenue, over the bridge into Cambridge.
Then the big day. The 1958/59 scholars were to assemble at WGBH.We walked down Massachusetts Avenue, over the bridge into Cambridge. On the bridge were strange markings, Smoots, based on a man named Smoot who was placed end to end in the ’40s by his MIT fraternity.
Finally, we arrived at the address. And there it was, right in the middle of the MIT complex of buildings. It was in a low-slung three story building. It appeared to have some non descript businesses, a drug store that served lunch, not much else. In the middle of the building was a plaque on a pillar announcing that this was the home of the WGBH Educational Foundation.
We climbed the wooden stairs leading us up to the reception area. There sat Rose Buresh, receptionist, the one person who really knew what was going on at WGBH. We were ushered into the studio. It was huge. It was once an old roller skating rink. Its wooden floor proved to be problematical when moving the TV cameras. If you went straight forward, going with the floorboards, you got a pretty smooth ride. But going across the grain, led to some very bumpy dollies. We all took notes.
We met our leader, Bob Moscone: from then on to be known as the King. Bob was once an Arthur Murray Dance teacher; a slender attractive Italian man who carried a little note card on which he kept track of what was going on at the studio. And he also controlled when we were to work at WGBH. He was the man in charge. He was the King.
His second in command was Kenny Anderson. Kenny was a young slender guy with a terrific Boston accent, full of energy. I found out later he was a true lover of women, all women. The King asked him to show us on how to hang and focus a light. Kenny climbed the ladder, moved the light and then to show off, slid down the ladder. The scholars gasped. The King smiled. He hoped we should all be able to do the same in a few days.
Our audio man was Wil Morton. He seemed to be very young but with a keen sense of professionalism. He showed us the mikes, the cables, the endless cables. Eventually we met the TV directors and producers. Jean Brady (The Queen) a sweet, lovely woman with a wonderful southern accent; Gene Nichols (the Court Jester) a quiet man with a great smile; Ted Steinke, a big smiley guy from the mid west; Lou Barlow, who seemed to smoke whenever he directed. I don’t remember him smiling much.
And then there was Paul Noble, who had been a BU scholar in Bill Heitz’s group and had just been hired as a producer/director. It is important to note here that Paul and his crew really set the culture of WGBH scholars. It was family, fun, and camaraderie. His team bonded like no other, still meeting yearly, nearly 55 years later. Paul and his team created a WGBH yellow journalism news rag, The Ille Novi. (Latin for “Here’s the News,” which were the words used by Louis Lyons each night when he opened his news program. Copies of it are in the WGBH archives.) This mimeographed tabloid told all the “real news” for the scholars. Paul once told me his greatest talent was reading memos upside down as they sat on the executives desk. Long live yellow journalism.
There was Whit Thompson, who seemed to do all the music shows. His dad was Randall Thompson, composer of symphonies and other pieces, who taught at Harvard; Lenny Bernstein was one of his students. Whit wore glasses and was very erudite. And then there was Cabot Lyford who had a nasty habit of kicking the wall every once in awhile. He was the director of the Museum of Fine Arts show “Invitation to Art,” a big remote production from one of the country’s great museums. (Not many people know that the museum was internally wired with TV cables in expectation that the MFA and WGBH would be doing shows for a long time. I wonder if they are still there.) The host was Brian O’Doherty, a visiting Doctor from Ireland who had come to Boston to study heart related illness at Harvard University.
Brian became a dear friend. Years later, Brian became head of the National Endowment for the Arts Media Panel. His panels awarded many grant dollars to WGBH. Brian was also the fine arts commentator for NBC’s Today show for 9 years and is a celebrated artist painting under the name Patrick Ireland.
Brian would occasionally invite me to have lunch at Ken’s deli restaurant in Copley Square. I mean, we never even did a show together, but he had somehow become interested in what I thought about TV and art. That was really hard to imagine. I was just a kid from the South Side of Milwaukee. It was very unexpected but complimentary. I really enjoyed the talk and the food.
An aside: the culinary arts
Tom and I existed on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, pasta and cheap canned tomato sauce, and every once in awhile, a piece of meat.
Yes, the food. Food was a constant concern at our apartment in Rat Alley. Tom and I existed on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, pasta and cheap canned tomato sauce, and every once in awhile, a piece of meat. Milk, when we felt really rich.
I remember one day, I traded my jelly sandwich with cameraman Don Hallock for his tongue sandwich. Tongue! I wasn’t sure about eating tongue but what the hell, it was meat. After all, I had eaten a lot of weird things in my mother’s Polish kitchen. Czarnina, a black duck blood soup with prunes and raisins; boiled chicken hearts and gizzards over mashed potatoes. I sort of liked the tongue sandwich, even though it was kinda chewy.
Brian, I can still taste those big Reuben sandwiches at Kens. Thanks. It meant a lot. More than you ever knew.
Back to introductions
Russ Morash, who would soon become one the most important producer/directors at WGBH, had just married. He and his wife took an extended honeymoon in France that summer. Russ eventually returned to direct a French Language show for kids called “Parlons Francais.” He had studied acting at BU and his wife had graduated with a degree in set design from BU, fellow theater artists. I ended up using Russ in a number of dramas that I did for PBS. The most memorable is when I cast him as a fellow TV newscaster with actress Lily Tomlin. They were perfect together.
There was also Bob Squier. Talk about energy. He was the quickest, the most animated of our directors. He took more shots in one show than most of us ever thought about. Bob soon moved on to become an independent producer and eventually became the Democrat’s PR spokesman. He appeared often with Roger Ailes, the Republican counterpart (now head of Fox Cable News). Bob passed away a few years ago. Sad.
A reflection: As I now look back at the staff of WGBH in those days, it dawns on me how young we all were. I mean, the average age of the camera people, lighting, audio was 23. Even the engineers were young; Bobby Hall, blond, happy guy; Jerry Adler, FM engineer, the only practicing Jew with a Southern accent I had ever met; Andy Ferguson, the only African American on staff, were all in their late 20’s. And the staff camera people, Don Hallock, a true artist and one of the greatest TV camera operators I have ever known, was not even 20. Bob Valtz, a recent Harvard grad who wore his tie flung over his shoulder while running camera, was 23. Frank Vento, a dark haired, intense camera/lighting person was probably near 30. Even the executives were only in their thirties.
The Executives. The visionaries who helped make WGBH so special. There was Dave Davis,manager of the station. He was a former trumpet player and lover of jazz and good music. In addition to his duties as station manger, he also directed the Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts. His was a tightly run production, which created the most sophisticated music/camera shot list ever.
It was amazing that he could take a bunch of BU Scholars along with this young staff, and make the broadcast seamless and professional. (The BSO and WGBH have paired up to release some of these early TV concerts on DVD, to be released in 2011.)
It is fair to say that Dave was the paternal figure in the organization. He didn’t say much and it was expected of you to present your questions in an exact and quick manner. He would then give a quick answer back.
Dave appreciated hard work and creativity. Once, after a music show that I did, he called and complemented the staff and me. It was really a big moment for us. That didn’t happen too often. We celebrated by going out and having a few beers at the Zebra Lounge.
Aside: The Zebra Lounge
The Zebra Lounge on the corner of Mass Ave. and Beacon Street. The home away from home. (Now, called The Crossroads.) The corner booth covered over with fake Zebra cloth. Our corner booth. A place for the young scholars to relive the day, laugh at what we did and did not do.
Our BU Scholar group broke into three groups. First, there were those who had come back from the war and were going for their master degrees. They were older, married, some with kids. Second, there were the serious scholars who wanted their degree. They studied hard, did their WGBH work and acted like adults. And then there were the rest of us.
We thought all of this was fun and games. A great time to learn, try new things, drink beer, laugh, what me worry? Not many of us finished the degree. We went to class and were responsible students, but spent most of our time at WGBH. I mean, we used to go to the studio after closing hours, crank out the big boom mike into the middle of the studio, and play volleyball. This was fun. The whole thing was fun.
Young ladies came into Tom and my lives. Tom hooked up with a sparkly woman, Peggy. I met Ruth Smith casually at the Zebra lounge. She was from Revere, graduated from Chandlers, and now was a special assistant to some big wig at Bank Boston. After a few dates, we became a number. As a matter of fact I ended up marrying her. As she likes to remind me, we will be married 50 years next March. How time files.
Back to the executives
Three important executives who influenced my life were Mike Ambrosino, Greg Harney, and Bob Larson. Bob was program manager. He had graduated from Harvard and was a practicing Christian Scientist. It was Bob who saw the potential of a TV series for a tall Cambridge woman who had appeared on our weekly book show: her name was Julia Child.
Bob thought I could only be a director since he questioned the kind of education I might have gotten at Marquette. I accepted his opinion then and said, “I will show him that there is more to me than he thinks.” He was my challenge. Years later he accepted me as someone who could become a producer. Bob passed away from stomach cancer, much too young. His religion, which he cherished, did not allow him to see a doctor. His prayers were not answered. Sad.
Mike Ambrosino, though an executive, also produced and directed a number of shows. He was in charge of creating the Eastern Educational Television Network. He also created the 21 Inch Classroom, a coordinated program between WGBH and 35 independent school systems to see if TV could be used in the classroom to enrich the teaching experience. We did a lot of 15 minute shows directed to grade school kids.
Mike did a lot of science shows, especially with Gene Gray, a teacher from Newton. It was during one of Gene’s shows that he poured some acid into a plastic cup only to see it dissolve the cup. (This is still in the archives.)Not much you could do because the show was live. Gene did a great job making the disaster into a teaching moment. Ambrosino later went on to create one of the great staples of PBS: NOVA.
Greg Harney. What can I say? He had arrived from CBS at about the same time as our crew. He was one of the best lighting directors at CBS. However, Greg was ambitious and took the job as production manager at WGBH to expand his choices. He took a hefty pay cut and supplemented his WGBH salary by teaching a grad course at BU,Lighting and Production. This was a class that all of the BU scholars took. His style of directing, lighting and program style was gleaned from his days at CBS and it was soon our style, too.
Greg and I always had an “interesting” relationship. Greg liked to call you into his office after one of your shows and critique your performance. A dear fellow director, Ed Scherer, told me how to handle these sessions. Agree and then go do what you normally do. I did this many times. Many.
Finally, one day Harney confronted me in the hallway, and accused me of not really listening to him. He had me caught. What to do? I blurted out that he was probably right. I should really listen to him. He looked relieved. Of course, I just went back to what I was doing anyway.
Greg was pushing me to be the best I could. Many years later, he said that he had tried to hire me as a director when our scholar year ended. But there wasn’t any money. He kept after me, bringing me back three times to WGBH for short stints as a director.
Then one day, when I was back in Milwaukee doing a silly job working for a Polish Newspaper, he offered me a permanent TV directing job. Somehow, he had found me at this little office where I was doing blind calls for a Polish newspaper, Novini Polski. I would call up people who were trying to rent apartments and suggest that they should rent to good Polish people who were clean and reliable payers of rent. All they had to do is place an ad with the Polish newspaper.
Greg’s offer was exactly what I was needed. I walked up to the office manager and quit. It wasn’t even 10:30.
So, for the next 50 years I did at least one show a year for WGBH. Sometimes, I did as many as 100 TV shows in a year. It became my professional and spiritual home. As I often said to the present executives, this is my station.
I haven’t said much about Hartford Gunn. He was the head of the whole thing. He was the brains behind the operation and soon left to create the whole PBS system. Hartford was there, but we didn’t interact with him on a daily basis. He was gracious to us all as he bustled about his business.
Years later, Hartford and I had an interesting confrontation. In those days, I wore white shirts and ties. Hartford grabbed me by the tie and pushed me up against the wall.
Why? My fellow producer/director Dave Sloss and I had written an internal memo criticizing David Ives for not being adventurous, as we wanted him to be.
The musician’s union had complained about our local folk music show because we didn’t pay anything. David felt we were in danger of being blackballed by the union and we should cancel the show. He said we always get in trouble when we do entertainment. Our memo took Ives to task for this position, in rather brutal language.
Hartford wanted to make a point to me while holding me by tie and up against the wall, that he too wanted the station to venture into entertainment. He warned me that we had to be careful. Go slow. I agreed with him. The folk music show continued. It was my most intimate moment with Hartford.
Fact: Our personal history is not made up by remembering specific days, but by remembering the special moments. There were three special moments during this period.
First, was my birthday party. I turned 22 in October and the gang gathered at our apartment in Rat Alley. Beer flowed, laugher filled the small apartment, there was even food that somebody brought.
And then, Hallock and Vento paraded into the packed place carrying a birthday cake. The crowd sang Happy Birthday. Then they plugged the cake into a wall socket and the whole thing exploded. BOOM! The room filled with smoke. At first, everyone cringed but then, realizing it was a joke, broke into loud laughter. In she came.
In her bathrobe.
She yelled and screamed.
The place cleared out fast.
What a birthday!
Second was Halloween. It had been decided by our crew that Educational Television was dead. It would go nowhere. ETV is dead. It was even chalked on the side of the building in Rat Alley. (I think that was me who did it.)
Anyway, it was decided that WGBH scholars, along with the staff, would join in a Halloween parade that was planned for Boston. Don Hallock, God Bless him, built a wooden coffin. They dressed Nohling up as a cadaver and placed him in the coffin and drove around the city in a convertible. A banner declared that ETV was dead. Probably no one in the crowds ever knew what it meant.
The driver of the convertible had a little too much to drink and I guess it was a pretty harrowing drive. The WGBH crowd ended up at some apartment on the seedy side of Beacon Hill. The next day, Don Hallock and I carried the coffin across town to my apartment. And there the coffin stood, propped up against our wall, open and empty. It stayed that way until I moved out months later.
Picnic in Rat Alley
And finally, the last week in the apartment, we had a picnic in the alley. Everyone brought whatever booze they had and we poured into one of our old pots. We called it a wassel bowl. English phrase I guess. As I sat there thinking about the last days in Boston, I looked over to our open apartment door. A rat quietly walked out of the apartment and into a garbage can next to the building. It was the end. The end of my scholar days. The end of a great year.
Wait! Not yet. I haven’t talked about Henry Morgenthau III.
Henry was a producer at WGBH. He was rumored to be wealthy. I know that he had a man, someone to drive him around, cook his meals. I guess you would call him a butler. But Henry was one of us. He laughed and played just like the rest of us.
But one important fact: Henry knew Eleanor Roosevelt. He convinced her to be part of one of WGBH early important shows, “http://wgbhalumni.org/2007/01/01/prospects-of-mankind-1959%e2%80%9361/Prospect of Mankind.[/intlink]” (This program is also in the archives.) Everyone was on that show; John F. Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson, you name it. And it was all because of Henry.
Henry’s father was Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Treasury, signer of all the nations currency. And here he was, one of our producers. Henry was great. Fun and creative. He and I ended up doing a whole ton of shows together, none more important than “Negro and the American Promise.” (Also is in the archives.)
My Dad was very impressed that I knew a Morgenthau. My Dad was a lifelong Democrat. He was very pleased that I was in good company, especially the son of the man who signed all the nations money.
My Dad always said “follow the money and you’ll find the truth.” All I know is we never had enough of it in those days.
Tom and I had each derived ways of making ends meet. Some of them were not very pretty. Fortunately, Greg Harney and Henry Morgenthau were bringing in big budgeted shows that were shot on weekends. That meant the crew was paid overtime. Tom became one of the regular paid crew members. That money really helped him
However, in some kind of desperation, Tom signed up to be a medical guinea pig. He went to the Mass. General Hospital and was injected with a blood thinner. Then they took out some blood and tested to see how thin it really was. I guess it was pretty thin because of what happened next.
Tom walked home. The Doctor told him not to get hit by a car or he might bleed to death. Ha, ha, I guess this is Doctor humor. Tom told me all about it as he combed his hair in our little bathroom.
In some kind of desperation, Tom signed up to be a medical guinea pig. Tom’s payment … 15 bucks
All of a sudden, the bandage came off and he started squirting blood all over the place. I mean pumping, squirting blood. He held his arm over the tub to catch the blood. I went crazy. I handed him a towel, got the name of the Doctor, raced upstairs to the pay phone in the hallway, dialed MGH and asked for the Tom’s Doctor. As I waited, I wondered if I should have called 911.
The operator came back on and said there was no such Doctor at the hospital. Egads! I rushed downstairs to see if Tom could make it to the street where I could call an ambulance. Fortunately, he had applied enough pressure to the wound that the blood had started to coagulate. Whew! Disaster avoided. Tom’s payment for all this … 15 bucks.
My money problems were solved in other ways. Bill Heitz had told me to try and get the Sunday master control job.
The local CBS station would not carry the networks Sunday morning shows, so WGBH, as a service to its audience, worked out a deal with CBS for Ch. 2 to air the programs from 10:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. The station needed an engineer, a booth announcer and a master control operator.
I got the job. My pay was $10 for each Sunday worked. That took care of the rent.
My buddies during these Sunday stints were (usually) engineer Bobby Hall, booth announcer Bob Jones, and Jerry Adler who was right next door to master control running WGBH-FM from a small control room. We were a quiet group, sometimes fighting off hangovers, planning what we would do with the rest of Sunday.
There were talk shows, and then there was Camera Three. Camera Three had been a cultural godsend to me when living at home in Milwaukee. It did segments on the fine arts, the theater, dance, photography. It was up to speed with the NYC art scene and exposed me to ideas and concepts that were beyond my wildest dreams. It helped determine my style and approach to TV.
An aside: Camera Three and Nam June Paik
Many years later I was asked to be a guest producer for Camera Three. And to show what a small world it really is, one of the executive producers was a former BU Scholar from Bill Heitz’ group. I choose video artist Nam June Paik as the star of my Camera Three.
That meant bringing into the CBS union studio all his broken down TV’s, Charlotte Mormon, who would play her cello while wearing Paiks’ Video Bra, an upright piano which Paik would destroy, and lots of his small non-broadcast electronic gear.
It probably was the first time that this kind of electronic equipment had been brought into a studio of CBS. I think every engineer in CBS found some reason to walk through the studio on their way to wherever. And every last one of them had to stop and gaze at what Paik had created.
The show was called “The Strange Music of Nam June Paik.”
CBS never asked me back to do another show. As a matter of fact, this turned out to be their last season, Camera Three was no more.
Still, it was wonderful to see the cycle completed. From an avid viewer as a college kid to a full-fledged TV producer creating something for a show that meant so much to me. Special.
And then, my money problems were solved.
Late in that first summer, I walked across Mass Ave. heading from WGBH to MIT’s indoor pool. We were going to do some kind of remote. As I crossed the street, I was hit by a car. Not really hit, more like bumped.
The problem was that, in those days, cars had hood ornaments. This was a Pontiac, which carried a shiny Indian-face ornament. This sharp little piece of metal pierced my left side, causing a rather deep wound.
Moscone took charge. Somehow, I was in a car racing to Boston City Hospital. They took me to the emergency room. The King kept telling them it was not a knife wound. I don’t know if they ever really believed him. Anyway, they washed out my wound, stitched it up, bandaged it and told me not to lift anything heavy for six weeks. I went home and rested and healed rather quickly.
Bob Moscone took me to see a lawyer … I went to his office and with great fanfare, he presented me the insurance company’s settlement. A check for $600.
But Bob Moscone, being the King, went a step further. He took me to see a lawyer. The lawyer’s office was situated in a back room of a walkup in a seedy part of Boston. The lawyer listened, got the name of the person who hit me, and said he would get back in touch. I didn’t hear from him for over 4 months.
Then I got a message from Moscone. The lawyer wanted to see me right away. I went to his office and with great fanfare, he presented me the insurance company’s settlement. A check for $600.
This money changed my lifestyle. Since I’d dreamed of making the professional theater my career choice, I spent a lot of the money going to plays, Wednesday matinees, in Boston’s theater district. Yes, in those days, there were still plays up and running in one theater or another. It seemed like there was a new one every couple of weeks.
I became a regular in the balcony section. I shared the spot with a group of ladies who were also weekly attendees. We became great friends. They started bringing me sandwiches. They were great. I saw Carol Burnett, Tom Bosley, Tommy Tune, so many great stars. It was heaven.
I decided to celebrate my new wealth by taking Ruth out on a real date. We went to a little French restaurant, which existed on Mass. Ave. (and is no longer there). We had Duck a l’Orange and a glass of wine.
Then we took a bus to Harvard Square and went to see a New Wave French film at the Brattle Theater. The Brattle, whose theater history I knew and appreciated, was not built in the faux-Oriental style that I was used to in Milwaukee. No, the Brattle was a basic box theater with little international flags on the wall, tight hard seats, and a back screen projection system.
It was clear the audience was young, college kids, most likely, intellectuals. Probably Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Brandeis, BU.
As Ruth and I settled into our seats, it was clear the audience was young, college kids, most likely, intellectuals. Probably Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Brandeis, BU. We were early and so sat back to wait for the beginning of the film.
And that’s when it happened. Like a flash of bright white light, the truth bopped me on the head. This was the Eureka moment!
Somewhere in the theater, somebody had turned on some music to keep the customers entertained until the movie began. It was a scratchy, LP record. The audio was slowly turned up until you could finally hear it. It was a harpsichord. Oh no, it was a Scarlatti Sonata.
And right then, at that very exact moment, I knew I was a hopeless stranger in a wildly exotic land. It was as if I had been plunged into some distant planet, a planet filled with flying things, a planet so different from where I had come from that it left me speechless. Clueless. Sitting, watching, not believing — right there in the Brattle Theater!
The recorded music grew more intense, filling the cavernous room with harpsichord music. The young couple in front of us moved closer together. Tighter and tighter.
She looked up at him, lovingly.
“They are playing our song.”
“I know, I know.”
And then they kissed.
About Fred Barzyk
From IMDB: Fred Barzyk is a longtime producer/director at WGBH, the public television station in Boston, Massachusetts. His credits include: Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss (1988), The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski (1983), The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters (1982), The Lathe of Heaven (1980), and Between Time and Timbuktu (1972).
From “The first 24 years: A somewhat random compendium of milestones along the way”
John Lowell Jr., leaves a bequest creating free “public lectures for the benefit of the citizens of Boston.”
The Lowell Institute forms a cooperative venture with six Boston colleges (spearheaded by Ralph Lowell) to broadcast educational programs on commercial stations. Original offices are housed at 28 Newbury Street.
WGBH Educational Foundation is incorporated. Parker Wheatley is first station manager.
WGBH-FM is on the air with a live concert by the Boston Symphony orchestra under conductor Charles Munch.
WGBH-TV begins regularly scheduled broadcasting on Channel 2, 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Friday. Studio and offices are located at 84 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, with remote cables and lighting at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium (next door) and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
First program: Come and See, “a progra.m. for young children” with Tony Saletan and Mary Lou Adams, from Tufts Nursery Training School. At 6:30 p.m., Louis Lyons, who has been a fixture on WGBH-FM, reads the news before a TV camera for the first time. Transmitter is located (as is FM transmitter) on Great Blue Hill in Milton; thus the call letters.
First BSO simulcast (FM/TV) originates from Kresge Auditorium, MIT, beginning a tradition of musical broadcasts unique in the U.S.
Sunday programming begins, 2:30 to 6:30 p.m.; in May, Sunday hours are extended by moving sign-on to 11:00 am.
Hartford Gunn becomes WGBH station manager.
First “Boston Pops” telecast (from Kresge).
In the Sylvania Television Awards for 1957, WGBH’s Discovery is honored as the outstanding children’s educational series created by a local station. And Louis Lyons wins a Peabody Award for local TV and radio news.
In-school instructional television service commences with eight weekly 6th grade science programs shown “in some 48 separate school systems in and around the Boston area.” In the fall, The 21″ Classroom is formally set in operation.
WGBH acquires its first videotape machine (one of the very first to be sold by Ampex).
Elliot Norton Reviews begins lengthy run.
A high power transmitter (a gift from Westinghouse) doubles Channel 2 signal to 100,000 watts maximum.
WGBH helps set up WENH-TV, Channel 11, in Durham, NH, and the interconnection between the two stations represents the first “network” of educational stations; the Boston-Durham link will become the basis for the Eastern Educational Network.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s Prospects of Mankind, a WGBH monthly series carried on educational and commercial stations around the country, begins with V. K. Krishna Menon of India as first guest.
A Peabody Award goes to WGBH’s Decisions series.
WGBH programs win six Ohio State Awards, more than any other station or network in the U.S.
A fire in the early morning at 84 Massachusetts Avenue completely destroys WGBH facilities. Channel 2 is off the air for all of Sunday, October 15, but, by dint of herculean efforts by staff, and superb cooperation from the community, manages to sign on at the regular time on Monday the 16th. Emergency control room is set up in Catholic Television Center (WIHS), which also lends use of its limited studio space.
For the next seven months WGBH-TV functions as the “diffuse organization” — control rooms at Catholic Center, large-studio facilities provided late at night and on weekends by WHDH-TV on Morrissey Boulevard, films and tapes (some of which have been salvaged from the fire) originated, via network, at Channel 11 in Durham, as well as other Boston stations. Scenic department finds home at Northeastern, arts department at B.U., programming and production offices at Kendall Square, Cambridge. Full schedule of programs maintained.
A film on the poet Robert Frost is begun by WGBH, encouraged by Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall.
In a major consolidation, programming, production and engineering move to the Museum of Science, occupying the “red frame building” that had been used for construction offices when the Museum was built; space for a studio is found in the Museum itself. FM and some offices remain in Kendall Square.
Three programs on French cooking are produced in a special kitchen constructed in the Boston Gas Company’s auditorium; as a result of their instant success, a full series is decided upon, to begin in 1963. Within a year after that, Julia Child is being seen regularly in New York, Washington DC, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and many other cities, as educational TV’s first nation-wide “hit.” She is also the first in the distinctive WGBH series of “how-to” personalities that will in time include Thalassa Cruso, Joyce Chen, Erica Wilson, Maggie Lettvin, Theonie Mark, the Romagnolis, and many, many others. History is made!
By the first anniversary of the fire, over $1,700,000 has been raised to construct new studios for WGBH; a half million dollar matching grant from the Ford Foundation is the key contribution. Construction to begin in spring, 1963.
National Doubles televised from Longwood Cricket Club in Brookline for first time; obscure Boston newspaperman becomes TV star. [Ed.: This reference begs for clarification. Bud Collins? Please help us.]
Symphony Hall is cabled and lit properly. Henceforth, all BSO and Pops telecasts originate there.
Louis Lyons receives Dupont Award “in recognition of the nation’s outstanding news commentator of 1963.”
Louis Lyons retires as Curator of Nieman Fellowships, joins WGBH staff after a dozen years of news on FM and TV.
The Robert Frost film, A Lover’s Quarrel with the World, wins an Oscar for WGBH.
WGBH-TV signs on from new studios at 125 Western Avenue, Allston. Building is only partly finished, but functional. FM to move in by April, 1965.
Saturday programming begins with the support of the Boston Globe and Record American.
In order to film the two-part South African Essay series, a clandestine organization is set up with money laundered through Texas, a dummy corporation, and a specially trained African photographer, who mails exposed film back to the U.S. as “Zulu beads.” Cover never blown. [Ed.: This reference begs for clarification. Please help us.]
Julia Child receives Peabody Award.
On WGBH-TV’s tenth anniversary, the new building, work complete, is formally dedicated as the Ralph Lowell Studios. In the course of a live anniversary broadcast, Louis Lyons tells a story: Lady from Boston meets a new faculty wife, who identifies herself as from Iowa, and tells her, “My dear, we say ‘Ohio.'” [Ed.: This reference begs for clarification. Please help us.]
Hamilton Osgood comes to offer his talents to WGBH, and is instantly pressed into service planning first Channel 2 Auction, scheduled for June 1966.
Julia receives Emmy; South African Essay receives UPI Tom Phillips Award and is one reason for a special Peabody Award to NET.
First Channel 2 Auction begins. It raises more than $130,000, plays to biggest audiences in station’s history.
June 17 – 18
Channel 2 transmitter is moved to Needham.
Vietnam View-In, a four-and-a-half hour special produced in WGBH studios, includes propaganda films, panelists of all persuasions, a studio audience asking questions, and open telephone lines. Well over six thousand phone calls are counted.
What’s Happening Mr. Silver? begins a year’s run.
WGBX, Channel 44, signs on. The first color cameras arrive: four by the end of the year, two more on order.
Public Broadcasting Laboratory (PBL) begins two-year run on Sunday nights, demonstrating potential of national public TV network.
Following Carnegie Commission Report, congress passes the Public Broadcasting Act, establishing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which will lead to the creation of the Public Broadcasting Service (and National Public Radio). Within three years, public TV will have its own coast-to-coast interconnection and simultaneous national programming.
MIT’s Dr. Jerome Lettvin takes on Timothy Leary in debate about drugs and “dropping out.” Filmed by WGBH and broadcast four times in one week, the debate becomes topic number one throughout Greater Boston.
The night after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a concert at Boston Garden starring James Brown is televised live by WGBH on roughly six hours notice. Worried that the concert might provide the critical mass to set off a riot, and certain that cancellation would be even worse, Mayor White gets the WGBH commitment and then urges people (via commercial radio stations) to stay home and enjoy the show for free. WGBH broadcasts the entire show, and then immediately begins showing it again on video tape, staying on the air until 1:45 a.m. It is shown twice more over the weekend. The Mayor writes that this “contributed as much as any other event to the atmosphere of conciliation which prevailed in Boston this past week.”
Premier of Say Brother, the first regular program by, for and about Boston’s black community.
After a controversial play — designed to help students understand black frustration in white America — has all but rips Wellesley High School apart, WGBH re-stages it (with some 11 words “blipped” to stay within the law) and follows it up with a lengthy discussion among parents, teachers and students dealing with its propriety and meaning. It is front-page news for two days running.
In the aftermath of the University Hall bust at Harvard and the subsequent strike that paralyzed the school, WGBH places 16 chairs around a table in studio A and invites any and all members of the Harvard community to come in and speak their piece. And for five solid hours in the evening, students, faculty, neighbors, and other people keep coming in and sitting down and talking to each other … and all of Greater Boston. [Ed.: This reference begs for clarification. Please help us.]
The Forsyte Saga arrives in the United States. Public TV has an unprecedented success: telephone calls go unanswered, social engagements are rescheduled and life is generally disrupted throughout the country. To cushion the shock in Boston, channel 2 runs each weekly episode three times, Channel 44 an additional five times. Thanks to various repeats of the entire series, the final episode will be seen in Boston for the last time in August, 1972 … nearly three years later. If nothing else, the Forsytes give American television viewers a case of galloping Anglophilia (also known as BBC fever) that soon leads to other things.
The Advocates, produced on alternative weeks by WGBH and Los Angeles’ KCET, makes its debut via a national interconnection of public TV stations. Its even-handed debates on pressing national issues ellicit considerable mail (an early show on abortion brings over 11 thousand pieces), and in the first of its five seasons it wins a Peabody Award.
The voice of the Cookie Monster is heard in the land: Sesame Street, easily the most important children’s program in the history of American television, makes its debut. Shortly thereafter, every kid in the neighborhood can identify can identify the letter R.
Hartford Gunn resigns as General Manager of WGBH to assume the presidency of the new Public Broadcasting Service in Washington. Later in the year, David Ives becomes President and Robert Larsen General Manager.
Evening at Pops’ first summer series brings Arthur Fiedler and WGBH’s Symphony Hall savvy to the whole country.
PBS’ first season begins, with a network of 198 public TV stations coast to coast. WGBH contributes The Advocates, The Nader Report, and a brand new French Chef (in color). Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation dazzles the eye.
Locally, more excitement: The Reporters, expanding the definition of “television news” five nights a week; Catch 44, the first public access TV program in the United States; Dr. Sachar’s The Course of Our Times.
John, meet Sarah. The First Churchills inaugurates Masterpiece Theater, and Alistair Cooke becomes a regular Sunday night visitor.
Jean Shepherd’s America shows what the PCP-90 portable TV camera can do.
WGBY, Channel 57, signs on the air from its studios in Springfield, bringing public television to western Massachusetts. The microwave link between WGBH and WGBY establishes the first state-wide TV network, reaching over 90% of Mass. homes.
The Electric Company arrives to take on the task of reaching problem readers. And reaches them.
ZOOM, WGBH’s revolutionary program for and by kids, makes its PBS debut and the first requests for ZOOMcards come in from all over the country. Within ZOOM’s first two years on the air, more than a million ZOOMcards will be mailed out.
The Advocates, now entirely a WGBH production, moves to Faneuil Hall for its Boston shows (and goes on the road for others).
Are you ready for Lance Loud? An American Family startles the nation.
Death of Robert Larsen.
ZOOM and The Advocates are awarded Emmys.
For the first time, the Channel 2 Auction breaks the half-million-dollar barrier.
The mammoth BBC production of War and Peace marches onto American TV screens (introduction by WGBH).
With the cooperation of the American Broadcasting Company and its affiliates, WGBH’s Captioning Center begins nightly broadcasts of ABC Captioned Evening News for the hearing-impaired.
Philip Garvin’s films of Religious America, produced at WGBH, begin on PBS.
On Masterpiece Theater, Upstairs, Downstairs brings back the bad old days and makes them look good.
Science adventures for curious grownups, some from WGBH, some from the BBC, and some joint efforts, give NOVA a breadth previously unknown on American TV.
Upstairs, Downstairs wins an Emmy as the best dramatic series of the season. And ZOOM receives its second Emmy in two years.
Evening At Symphony demonstrates nationally on PBS what Boston has known for years: orchestral music, even without special guests, makes for exciting television. (Also, Seiji Ozawa wears a turtleneck with his tails.)
A former Advocates moderator, Michael Dukakis, is elected governor of Massachusetts.
The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski’s brilliant bequest, is presented to U.S. audiences with introductions and epilogues by WGBH.
After over a year of preparation and six months of production under conditions that verge on impossible, the WGBH series Arabs and Israelis gets under way on public television.
NOVA receives a Peabody award, with special praise going to the programs produced by WGBH.
Michael Rice, head of programming and Vice President of WGBH since 1973 becomes General Manager.
Channel 2 News moves out of early evening for the first time in 21 years, and The Ten O’clock News is born.
Dying, a cinema verite’ visit with terminally ill cancer patients, moves local audiences, and later the nation.
Club 44 brings live TV back to Boston. The two hour show happens in a pub set in studio A, with live audience and scads of local talent and talk.
Say Brother Salutes Webster Lewis With A Night On The Town, to rave reviews.
Channel 44 cuts the apron strings from Channel 2; within the year, 74% of its programming is unique to it — meaning we nearly double the public TV programs available to local viewers.
The WGBH Declaration of Independence — a major capital drive for equipment and programming funds — goes public. PrimeTime becomes a magazine again after a year as a calendar. ‘GBH radio sponsors the first Boston appearance of legendary Soviet pianist, Lazar Berman; Louis Lyons continues a stellar ‘GBH radio career by launching Pantechnicon, a magazine-format show with Elinore Stout and Frank Fitzmaurice.
Kudos: Upstairs, Downstairs wins its third Emmy in a row — and sixth over all. ‘GBH radio’s The Spider’s Web increases the number of NPR stations carrying it to nearly 100, while wining the Action For Children’s Television Award as “the most positive alternative to television.”
The New York Times is moved to ask, in an August feature article, “what makes WGBH Crackle with Creativity?”
Christopher Lydon takes over The Ten O’clock News; the Boston Phoenix says viewers can now “expect to see lengthier and more professionally produced pieces as the Channel 2 news show moves away from heavy coverage of spot news.”
Ben Wattenberg begins his search for The Real America on Channel 2, and we find the ancient Mid-East at the Museum of Fine Arts and bring it home in Thracian Gold.
WGBH presents tennis for the 15th year in a row and World Tennis magazine says, “For the discerning viewer of this sport PBS is the only game in town.”
Crockett’s Victory Garden maven Jim Crockett’s book of the same title hits the best seller list.
‘GBH radio launches Evening Pro Musica, and a Live Performance series in its own studios – and sponsors another live event in Jordan Hall: Daniel Shafran is the visiting artist.
“Stereo television” takes a giant step forward with improved technology: a new kind of video tape is invented which has a stereo audio track right on it, making the vastly superior sound of FM-TV simulcast an affordable luxury, at long last.
Milestones: Upstairs, Downstairs ends May 1 with a Boston cast party which nets PBS stations nearly $2 million in viewer contributions; and, the series gets its seventh Emmy — making the total to date for Masterpiece Theater an even dozen. Emmy also goes to “ballet shoes” from the Piccadilly Circus series, ZOOM (for the third time!), and a Women’s Special: Rape, by ‘GBH’s own Nancy Porter.
Ralph Lowell dies in May at the age of 87. He founded the Lowell Institute Co-operative Broadcasting Council in 1941, the parent organization of WGBH radio in 1951 and WGBH-TV in 1955.
Awards: Upstairs, Downstairs adds the prestigious Peabody Award to its long list of kudos. Ten O’clock News’ Mike Kolowich captures a Local Emmy for “outstanding news reporting” in his Logan Airport pieces — as the program celebrates its 2nd birthday.
People: Michael Rice departs for the Aspen Institute after a 13-year WGBH career. Henry Becton, Program Manager for Cultural Affairs since 1974 and an 8-year WGBH veteran, moves up to the Vice President and General Manager spot.
At CPB, Henry Loomis steps down and Robben Flemming is appointed to the President’s post. Newton Minow is elected Chair Person of PBS.
Milestones: Public television celebrates its 25th year in March, and, in November, becomes the first network in the country to be linked by satellite.
Two old friends return to WGBH studios: Julia Child to make her first new shows in 5 years, titled Julia Child and Company, and The Advocates returns after a 4-year hiatus to continue the debate tradition begun in 1969.
I, Claudius on Masterpiece Theater earns rave revues; James Lardner, in The New Republic, calls it “probably the best historical drama ever mounted on television.”
After a 2-year run on Channel 44, The Club books its exuberant act on Channel 2.
WGBH provides national and local TV audiences with a feast of new productions, among them World, Solzhenitsyn at Harvard, Mr. Speaker – A Portrait of Tip O’Neill, and three lush specials on exhibits at the Museum of Fine Arts: Thracian Gold, Pompeii – Frozen in Fire, and Treasures of Early Irish Art.
Local debuts include Dancing Disco (a Local Emmy winner), The Photo Show, Sports Weekly, At Home, and the fund raising extravaganza, Disco Dazzler.
‘GBH radio adds new local productions: Mostly Musicals, Folk Festival USA, Artists in the Night with Eric Jackson, MusicAmerica, and Poetry in Massachusetts.
Morning Pro Musica extends its reach to the Big Apple itself where it is heard on WNYC radio.
A fiscal-year fundraising gap is narrowed in a month-long on-air “Race To The Finish,” which includes the second biggest pledge night in WGBH history as the regular schedule is scrapped for a marathon effort — viewers call in with contributions totaling $92,000 in just one night.
At this Wednesday’s Annual Meeting of the full WGBH Board of Trustees, David Ives will step down as vice chair of the Board and chairman of the Executive Committee, taking on the new title of vice chairman emeritus.
“David has been a vibrant part of WGBH since 1960, and we welcome his continued involvement,” says WGBH President Henry Becton. “But he’s decided the time has come for his role to shift to a less hands-on one.”
The Trustees will honor David for his years of service on Wed night. Staff will do the same next Mon, 2/12 with a room naming and a toast. On that day, a tribute page will go live on InnerTube for sharing anecdotes and memories from the “DOI era.”
David came to WGBH in 1960 as director of Development. Ten years later, he stepped up to the presidency. For the next 14 years, David led the station to become a major force within the national public television and public radio systems. At the same time, he never lost sight of WGBH’s community roots, assuring a place for strong local programming.
“Succeeding David in 1984,” Henry notes, “I was acutely aware that I had big shoes to fill — or perhaps, a big bow tie. Over the years David, more than anyone, has personified all the good things our audiences believe about WGBH. He has been our greatest champion, a tireless and persuasive fundraiser, and a thoughtful leader.”
David earned public broadcasting’s highest honor, the Ralph Lowell Award, in 1985; in 1988, he received the Governors Award of the New England Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
Call for Memories
As mentioned, the staff at QuickNooz is putting together a tribute page for David on InnerTube (the internal network/web site for employees), which will serve as a place for his colleagues and friends to share “DOI” memories and anecdotes.
The site can only be seen from inside the WGBH network system, but having input from alumni would really enrich the content. If you’d like to participate, or know others that would, please e-mail messages to email@example.com or the QuickNooz account firstname.lastname@example.org.