SECONDARI, JOHN H.

U.S. Documentary Producer

John Secondari played a major role in the early growth of television news at ABC during the 1960s. As executive in charge of the network's first regular documentary series, Secondari forged a coherent house style that featured a heavy emphasis on visualization and dramatic voice-over narration. He later carried these qualities over to a series of occasional historical documentaries that earned him wide recognition and numerous national broadcasting awards.

Born in Rome in 1920, Secondari was educated in the United States and served in the Army during World War II. Afterward, he worked in Europe first for CBS and then as the chief of information for the Marshall Plan in Italy. He quit in 1951 to devote himself fiction writing on a full-time basis. Over the next six years he authored four books, one of which was turned into the popular Hollywood feature film, Three Coins in the Fountain. During this period he also wrote scripts for television anthology dramas such as The Alcoa Hour and Playhouse 90. Both his background as a fiction writer and his fondness for Italy would figure prominently in his documentary career at ABC.

Secondari joined the network's Washington news bureau in 1957 and started producing documentaries toward the end of the decade. At the time, ABC's news operation was tiny by comparison to its rivals and its output was therefore quite limited. In the early 1960s, as television news expanded rapidly and as network news competition escalated, the smallest of the three major networks relied heavily on its documentary unit in order to sustain its stature as a bona fide news organization. ABC's major contribution to primetime information fare during this period was the weekly Bell and Howell Close-Up! series, which Secondari took charge of shortly after its launch in 1960.

Underfunded by comparison to his network rivals and lacking a seasoned staff of broadcast newsworkers, Secondari nevertheless mounted a creditable series and even made some significant contributions during documentary's television heyday. He accomplished this in part by tapping freelance contributors such as producers Robert Drew and Nicholas Webster. Drew's cinema verite style offered dramatic glimpses of Castro's Cuba, the JFK White House, and the cockpit of an X-15. Similarly, Webster provided first-person accounts of racism in New York City, the school system in Moscow, and the revolving door in America's penal system. In these and many other Close-Up! documentaries, the camera escorted the protagonist through the routines and challenges of everyday life. The style emphasized intimacy and visual dynamism, qualities explicitly requested by the series sponsor Bell and Howell, a major manufacturer of amateur motion picture equipment. The same qualities could be seen in the output of regular staff members in the ABC documentary unit. A critic for Variety once commented on the house style of each network's flagship series by noting that CBS Reports could be described as the Harper's of television documentary, NBC White Paper as the Atlantic, and Bell and Howell Close-Up! as the Redbook. Indeed, the emphasis on dramatic visualization at ABC was accompanied by a commitment to florid voice-over narration that sometimes seemed excessive. Several critics noted that at the end of "Comrade Student" (a profile of Soviet schools), Secondari's commentary turned self-consciously propagandistic. Similarly, a documentary about the Italian Communist Party--on which he collaborated with his wife, Helen Jean Rogers--closes with a paean to the spirit of republican Rome that reputedly dwells in the souls of all Italians and serves as the last bulwark against leftist revolution.

This penchant for the dramatic continued to mark Secondari's work as he moved to historical topics with a series entitled the Saga of Western Man. Co-produced with Helen Jean Rogers, it began in 1963 with each episode focusing on a particular year, person, or incident that Secondari believed had significantly influenced the progress of Western civilization. Using the camera "as if it were the eyes of someone who had been present in the past," Secondari transported the viewer to historical locations while voice-over narrators read authentic journal entries or letters from the period. For example, Secondari outfitted historical ships in Spain and put to sea with his camera crew in order to capture the sensations of Columbus' transoceanic voyage. These historical reenactments were then edited together with close-up shots scanning the canvases of period paintings. Meanwhile, the audio track featured music and dramatic readings from the navigation logs of Columbus done by actor Frederic March. These techniques--which were also being developed by NBC producers Lou Hazam and George Vicas--generated widespread critical acclaim and numerous awards for the series, thereby encouraging ABC to sign on for a second season. By year's end, however, some critics began to complain that the method was wearing thin. The Saga of Western Man was scaled back and continued on an occasional basis until the end of the 1960s when Secondari and Rogers left ABC to form their own production company.

Secondari died in 1975 at the age of 55. In all, he garnered some twenty Emmy and three Peabody awards. Perhaps most important, however, was his contribution to the development of the historical television documentary. Secondari's style not only anticipated the later efforts of such producers as Ken Burns, but also laid the groundwork for the emergence of the television docudrama in the 1970s.

-Michael Curtin

 


John H. Secondari
Photo courtesy of Broadcasting and Cable

JOHN H. SECONDARI. Born in Rome, Italy, 1 November 1919. Fordham University, New York, U.S.A., B.A. 1939; Columbia University, M.S. in Journalism 1940. Married: 1) Rita Hume, 1948 (died); 2) Helen Jean Rogers, 1961. Enlisted in U.S. Army, 1941; appointed to staff of Cavalry School; commanded a reconnaissance unit and a tank company in combat in France, Germany, and Austria; served on staff of General Mark Clark in Vienna; left the Army with rank of Captain, 1946. Worked as a newspaper reporter for the Rome Daily American, 1946; foreign corespondent for CBS, 1948; deputy chief of information division of the Economic Cooperation Administration's Special Mission to Italy, 1948-51; freelance writer, 1951-56; chief, ABC's Washington news bureau, 1956; executive producer, ABC's special projects division, 1960-68; formed own production company, 1968. Recipient: Radio Television Daily's Television Writer of the Year, 1963; Italy's Guglielmo Marconi World Television Award, 1964; 20 Emmy Awards; three Peabody Awards. Died 8 February 1979.

TELEVISION SERIES

1957-58 Open Hearing (moderator)
1960-63 Bell and Howell Close-Up!
1963-66 The Saga of the Western Man

TELEVISION SPECIALS (selection)

1958 Highlights of the Coronation of Pope John XXIII
1960 Japan: Anchor in the East
1960 Korea: No Parallel
1963 Soviet Women
1963 The Vatican
1970 The Golden Age of the Automobile
1970 The Ballad of the Iron Horse
1972 Champions

PUBLICATIONS (selection)

Coins in the Fountain (novel). Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Lippincott, 1952.

Temptation for a King (novel). Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Lippincott, 1954.

Spinner of the Dream (novel). Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown, 1955.

FURTHER READING

Bluem, A. William. Documentary in American Television. New York: Hastings House, 1965.

Curtin, Michael. Redeeming the Wasteland: Television Documentary and Cold War Politics. 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: Television Documentary: 1965-1975. New York: Hastings House, 1981.

 

See also Documentary; Drew, Robert; Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy