Freed was a leading practitioner of prime-time documentary during
the genre's heyday of the 1960s. Working on the network flagship
series, NBC White Paper, he produced close to forty major
documentaries, which earned him seven Emmy and three Peabody awards.
Describing himself as an "old-fashioned liberal," Freed believed
that documentary could stimulate change by providing audiences with
detailed information about pressing social issues. Yet Freed was
also a prominent member of a generation of documentary producers
who courted mass audiences with narrative techniques that would
later spread to network news reporting and television magazine programs.
began his media career after a stint in the Navy during World War
II. Starting out as a magazine editor, he moved to radio and ultimately
to network television in 1956. One year later, he joined CBS as
a documentary producer working under Irving Gitlin, the head of
creative projects in the news and public affairs division. During
the late 1950s, CBS News was well endowed with talented personnel
and the competition for network airtime was extremely fierce. The
CBS evening schedule almost exclusively featured entertainment fare
with the exception of irregularly scheduled broadcasts of, produced
by Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly. The cancellation of this
series in 1958 generated intense dissatisfaction among the news
and public affairs staff, many of them frustrated with the marginal
time periods devoted to information See It Now fare. Partly
in response to internal dissension, CBS management in 1959 announced
the inauguration of a new primetime documentary series, CBS Reports.
Gitlin and his colleagues were disappointed to learn, however, that
Friendly had been tapped for the slot of executive producer. Shortly
thereafter Gitlin, Freed, and producer Albert Wasserman were wooed
away by NBC president Robert Kintner who promised them a prestigious
primetime series of their own.
in 1960, NBC White Paper was a central component of the peacock
network's efforts to dislodge CBS from its top billing in broadcast
news. A former journalist, Kintner was a vigorous supporter of the
news division, believing it both good citizenship and good business.
Over the next several years, NBC News grew rapidly and its documentary
efforts earned widespread acclaim from critics and opinion leaders.
Under Gitlin's leadership, Freed and Wasserman produced numerous
programs focusing on significant foreign policy issues, then a key
concern of the Kennedy administration and FCC chair Newton Minow.
Programs on the U-2 debacle, the Berlin crisis, and political unrest
in Latin America received prominent attention. Yet all three documentarists
were also determined to use narrative techniques in an effort to
make such issues accessible to a broad audience. At the time, Freed
commented, "In a world so interesting we always manage to find ways
of making things dull. This business of blaming audiences for not
watching our documentaries is ridiculous."
this credo in mind, Freed produced documentaries about "The Death
of Stalin" and "The Rise of Khrushchev" that featured tightly structured
storylines with well-developed characters. Similarly, his analyses
of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis were built
around dramatic moments in which historical figures struggled against
Promethean odds. Freed's increasingly creative use of audio and
visual elements is conveyed in a tightly edited opening sequence
of the latter documentary as a nuclear missile ominously emerges
from its silo accompanied by the piercing sound of a military alarm
claxon. Much like a feature film, the editing of the visual imagery
dramatically sets the terms for the story that followed.
and his documentary colleagues also experimented during the early
1960s with camera framing techniques that would later become standard
conventions of television news. For example, Freed would have his
camera operator zoom in for tight close-ups during particularly
emotional moments of an interview. This was a significant break
from the standard head-and-shoulders portrait shots then used on
nightly news and Sunday talk shows. It was intended to engage viewers
on both an affective and intellectual level.
Despite these dramatic techniques, network documentaries only occasionally
generated ratings that were comparable with entertainment fare.
By the middle of the decade, all three networks trimmed back their
commitment to the genre for a variety of reasons and producers Wasserman
and Gitlin moved on to other opportunities. Yet Freed remained with
White Paper and continued to play a leading role with the
series into the 1970s. He made major documentaries about the urban
crisis, gun control, and environmental issues. He also produced
numerous instant specials on breaking news events as well as three
super-documentaries, which featured an entire evening of primetime
devoted to a single issue. This concept, which was distinctive to
NBC, originated in 1963 with a program on civil rights. It was followed
in 1965 by Freed's twenty-year survey of American foreign policy
and in 1966 by his program on organized crime. In 1973 he produced
NBC's last super-documentary, a evening devoted to "The Energy Crisis."
One year later, in the midst of a busy schedule of documentary production,
Freed succumbed to a heart attack at the age of 53. His passing
also marked the demise of NBC White Paper, for the network
mounted only three more installments before the end of the decade.
Although White Paper very occasionally returns to primetime, it
lacks the autonomy, prestige, and resources that were characteristic
of the series during the Freed era.
FREED. Born 25 August 1920. Began career as magazine editor
and writer; in broadcasting from 1949; managing editor at NBC-TV,
for the daytime program Home, 1955; documentary producer
for CBS-TV, late 1950s; producer of NBC's Today Show, 1961;
exclusively in documentary production later. Recipient: three Peabody
Awards; two duPont-Columbia Awards; seven Emmy Awards. Died in March
1961 NBC White Paper: Krushchev and Berlin
1962 NBC White Paper: Red China
1962 The Chosen Child: A Study In Adoption
1962 Dupont Show of the Week: Fire Rescue
1963 Dupont Show of the Week: Comedian Backstage 1963 Dupont
Show of the Week: Miss America: Behind the
1963 NBC White Paper: The Death of Stalin: Profile On Communism
1963 NBC White Paper: The Rise of Krushchev: Profile On
1964 Dupont Show of the Week: The Patient in Room 601
1964 NBC White Paper: Cuba: Bay of Pigs 1964 NBC White
Paper: Cuba: The Missile Crisis
1965 NBC White Paper: Decision to Drop the Bomb 1965 American
White Paper: United States Foreign Policy
1965 NBC White Paper: Oswald and the Law: A Study of
1966 NBC White Paper: Countdown to Zero
1966 American White Paper: Organized Crime In America
1967 The JFK Conspiracy: The Case of Jim Garrison 1968 NBC
White Paper: The Ordeal of the American City:
Cities Have No Limits
1968 NBC White Paper: The Ordeal of the American City:
The People are the City
1969 NBC White Paper: The Ordeal of the American City:
1969 Who Killed Lake Eerie?
1969 Pueblo: A Question of Intelligence
1970 NBC White Paper: Pollution Is a Matter of Choice 1971
NBC White Paper: Vietnam Hindsight: How It Began
1971 NBC White Paper: Vietnam Hindsight: The Death of
1973 NBC Reports: And Now the War is Over...The American
Military in the 1970s
1973 NBC Reports: Murder in America 1973 NBC Reports:
But is this Progress?
1974 NBC White Paper: The Energy Crisis: American Solutions
Bluem, A. William. Documentary in American Television. New
York: Hastings House, 1965.
Michael. Redeeming the Wasteland. New Brunswick, New Jersey:
Rutgers University Press, 1995.
Daniel. Special Edition: A Guide to Network Television Documentary
Series and Special News Reports, 1955-1979. Metuchen, New Jersey:
Charles M. The Image Decade. New York: Hastings House, 1981.
David. Special; Fred Freed and the Television Documentary.
New York: Macmillan, 1973.