U.S. Documentary Producer

Fred 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.

Freed 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.

Beginning 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."

With 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.

Freed 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.

-Michael Curtin


Fred Freed

FRED 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 1974.


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 Scenes
1963 NBC White Paper: The Death of Stalin: Profile On         Communism
1963 NBC White Paper: The Rise of Krushchev: Profile         On Communism
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 Criminal Justice
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: Confrontation
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 Diem
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.

Curtin, Michael. Redeeming the Wasteland. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Einstein, Daniel. Special Edition: A Guide to Network Television Documentary Series and Special News Reports, 1955-1979. Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1987.

Hammond, Charles M. The Image Decade. New York: Hastings House, 1981.

Yellin, David. Special; Fred Freed and the Television Documentary. New York: Macmillan, 1973.


See also NBC White Paper