to Person developed out of Edward R. Murrow's belief that human
beings are innately curious. That curiosity was intense regarding
the private lives of public people, or visiting the extraordinary
in the most ordinary environment--the home. For his television program,
then, Murrow, sitting comfortably in the studio, informally greeted
two guests a week, in fifteen minute interviews in their homes,
talking about the everyday activities of their lives. The interviews
avoided politics, detailed discussion of current events, and a line
of questioning that delved deeper into one or two issues. The more
general the question, and frequent the change of topic, the more
satisfying the process of revealing different facts of the private
figure. On Person to Person, people conversed with Murrow,
and, starting in the Fall of 1959, with Charles Collingwood, as
host. Almost every year, for nine years, informal chats positioned
the show in the top ten network programs. But the series increasingly
became the battleground, inside and outside CBS, over the function
of television news, the ethics of peering into private lives for
profit, Murrow's journalistic integrity, and the organizational
control of the network's image.
1953 through 1956 CBS News aired Person to Person, but it
was independently owned and produced by John Aaron, Jesse Zousmer,
and Murrow. Tensions inside CBS began when Fred Friendly, Murrow's
producer of See it Now, accused Murrow of capitalizing on the remote,
in-home, investigative news interviews done with statesman, and
pioneered by Friendly, on See it Now. Although the remote,
in-home interview was not new, Person to Person's approach
differed substantially from other CBS projects. Murrow anticipated
criticism of the series' lack of news-directed discussion. But that
was not, in fact, its intended purpose.
wanted the series "in spite of television," to "revive the art of
conversation." But the image was as significant as the conversation.
Employing two to six cameras, a program opened up different parts
of an individual's home. This was an historical step to building
the cult of the personality in news programs. The personalities
were divided into two camps, with the entertainment and sports figures
in one, and the second containing all others, including artists,
writers, politicians, lawyers, scientists, and industrialists.
the period in which it was produced, the series' success was as
much technological as human. Regardless of the series' news-value
it took the time and effort to reach people otherwise inaccessible.
Murrow's "guests" lived in different locations marked by distinctive
terrain. Thus, in a time of pre-satellite technology, a prerequisite
to introducing them to America via television was a line of sight
transmission from the guest home to a telephone micro-wave transmission
tower. The production crew always conquered terrain barriers. Although
the crew received notoriety for shearing off part of a hill to achieve
line of sight, they most frequently broke records for building tall
relay towers for one-time remotes, the first adjacent to the Kutcher's
Hotel in Monticello, New York enabling interviews with boxers-in-training
Rocky Marciano and Ezzard Charles.
guests were maintained in constant visual and aural contact through
advance placement of large video cameras in different rooms. It
was also necessary to obtain FCC approval for a special high frequency
wireless microphone which could be attached to the guests. Each
program periodically used a split screen image, a new experience
for many television viewers.
In order for the live program to proceed smoothly in real time,
some "rehearsal" was required. From 1953 it was common knowledge
from interviews and statements by Murrow that cue questions were
used before the show so that guests could be "talked through" the
movements to be made from room to room. The visit to Marlon Brando's
home, for example, began outside at night, with a stunning view
of Los Angeles. From there it moved to his living room, and finally,
to a downstairs area where friends waited to play some music with
Brando. While certain questions were prepared but answers were spontaneous.
A home's content was part of a guest's personality, so the camera
frequently stopped to reveal a picture on the wall, vases, and other
objects of interest. Unfortunately, guests liked to foreground possessions
of special value, interrupting discussion and sometimes making the
series, at its start, into a gallery of art objects. And many times
a show's success depended on how comfortable both the guest and
the host were with the arrangement. Inevitably, the spontaneous
nature of the discussion or awkwardness of a situation generated
embarrassing moments, such as Julie Harris folding diapers as she
spoke, or Maria Callas throwing Murrow off guard by innocently noting
she liked the quality of lingerie in America. Perhaps for these
reasons the producers valued those infrequent visits to "homes"
that had more news value, such as the warden's home on Alcatraz
Island, or an old light house.
The series and Murrow received frequent criticism. Respected television
critics, including Harriet Van Horne, Philip Mintoff, Gilbert Seldes,
and John Lardner pointed to Murrow's petty, aimless chatter, arguing
that television demanded more substance and depth, especially from
someone of Murrow's journalistic background. For Murrow's colleagues,
the series diverted his valuable time and energy from other projects,
and added an unnecessary burden. When Collingwood took over as host,
these critics quietly accepted the series for what it purported
Murrow steadfastly defended the series. When an author, such as
Walter White, mentioned a new book, book sales increased. Thousands
of viewers requested a one sentence, fifty-seven word Chinese proverb
read by Mary Martin, which she had engraved in a rug. If two or
three children committed themselves to piano lessons after seeing
Van Cliburn, Murrow believed the criticism worth taking. Moreover,
the range and variety of people interviewed was unprecedented for
network television at the time. One three week period in 1957 included
interviews with the political cartoonist Herbert Block, media market
researcher, A.C. Nielsen, and Robert F. Kennedy, Chief Council of
the Senates Select Committee.
1956 CBS Television bought the series from Murrow, at that time
sole owner. But because Person to Person with Murrow made a large
profit for CBS, it continued to be the center of conflict between
Murrow and management. Person to Person elevated its host
to celebrity status with the public, and some at the network resented
the fact that the series placed Murrow in a powerful position. Frank
Stanton accused Person to Person's production practices of
deceit and dishonesty, claiming guests were coached in questions.
This charge, coming after the quiz scandals and directly attacking
Murrow's integrity, resulted in a public airing of personality conflicts
that hurt CBS's image and further estranged Murrow from the executive
branch at CBS. A public respectful of Murrow as host, however, did
not rush to condemn him for taking risks on other shows, such as
his methodical criticism of Senator McCarthy. And although Fidel
Castro's appearance on Person to Person had the potential
to alienate viewers who perceived him as a Communist dictator, and
though the program attracted government criticism of CBS, Murrow
survived the resulting criticism. Person to Person's rating's
success translated to Collingwood as host, continuing to feed the
public's appetite for the celebrity interview. When Collingwood
began, the series added the attraction of overseas interviews, filmed
to Person first generated many of the arguments still lodged
by critics of today's talk shows, arguments questioning the primacy
of the individual in news and the role of a voyeuristic camera as
a compelling approach to news. But before the series began Murrow
insisted on a thorough respect for the home of guests "invaded"
by the camera. Unlike the series to follow, Murrow and the camera
did not confront guests with questions constituting an inquiry.
Both Murrow and Collingwood permitted their guests to direct the
conversations, which accounted for a meandering pace. Their respect
for the public figure in a private setting, and avoidance of emotional
confrontations created a unique ambience in this programming genre,
and Person to Person stands as a vital example of television's
potential for personal, individualized communication.
Edward R. Murrow
John Aaron, Jesse Zousmer, Charles Hill, Robert Sammon, Edward R.
October 1953-June 1959 Friday
10:30-11:00 October 1959-September 1960 Friday
10:30-11:00 September 1960-December 1960 Thursday
10:00-10:30 June 1961-September 1961 Friday
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Fred W.; Murrow,
Edward R.; Talk