SEE IT NOW

U.S. Documentary Series

See It Now (1951-57), one of television's earliest documentary series, remains the standard by which broadcast journalism is judged for its courage and commitment. The series brought radio's premier reporter, Edward R. Murrow, to television, and his worldly expertise and media savvy helped to define television's role in covering and, more importantly, analyzing the news.

The genesis of See It Now was a series of record albums that Murrow created during the late 1940s with Fred W. Friendly, a former radio producer at a Rhode Island station. The I Can Hear It Now records, which interwove historical events and speeches with Murrow narration, became such a commercial success that the partnership developed a radio series for CBS that also creatively used taped actualities. The weekly Hear It Now was modeled on a magazine format, with a variety of "sounds" of current events, such as artillery fire from Korea and an atom smasher at work, illuminated by Murrow and other expert columnists.

After his World War II experience, Murrow had assiduously avoided television, having been overheard stating "I wish goddamned television had never been invented." Friendly was eager to test the new technology and in 1951 the team agreed to transfer the Now concept yet again, this time emphasizing the visual essence of the medium, calling their effort See It Now. Murrow never desired to anchor the evening newscast, and he did not want See It Now to be a passive recitation of current events, but a active engagement with the issues of the day. To implement this vision, Murrow and Friendly radically transformed the fundamental nature of news gathering on television.

Unlike other news programs that used newsreel companies to record events, See It Now maintained its own camera crews to coordinate filming on location, using 35mm- cameras to record the most striking images. Murrow and Friendly also deviated from standard practice by mandating that all interviews would not be rehearsed and there would be no background music to accompany the visuals. Although See It Now relied on CBS correspondents abound the world, Murrow, serving as editor-in-chief, and Friendly, as managing editor, organized the first autonomous news unit, whose ranks included reporter/producers Joe Wershba and Ed Scott; director Don Hewitt; production manager Palmer Williams; and former newsreel cameramen Charlie Mack and Leo Rossi.

"This is an old team trying to learn a new trade," intoned Murrow to inaugurate See It Now on 18 November 1951. Murrow, as in all the programs that followed, was ensconced in Studio 41, exposing all the tricks of the electronic trade--the monitors, the microphones, the technicians all in view. To underscore this new technological undertaking, Murrow summoned up a split screen of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the first live coast-to-coast transmission.

See It Now was the first news magazine series on television, alternating live studio commentary with reports from such seasoned correspondents as Howard K. Smith and Eric Sevareid. The series was initially scheduled in the intellectual ghetto of Sunday afternoon. By its third outing, See It Now gained a commercial sponsor, Alcoa (the Aluminum Company of America), which sought prestige among opinion makers to offset anti-trust troubles. As the half-hour series became the most influential news program on television, it moved into prime time, first on Sunday evenings, and then for three years on Tuesday evenings at 10:30 P.M.

See It Now established its voice by covering the campaign rituals throughout the 1952 Presidential year. Two early pieces were also emblematic of what Murrow/Friendly wanted to accomplish for the new venture: simulated coverage of a mock bomb attack on New York City, a segment that addressed the tensions of the nuclear age, and a one-hour report on the realities from the ground of the Korean War during the 1952 Christmas season. The later special evoked the frustrations and confusions of everyday soldiers and was described by one critic as "the most graphic and yet sensitive picture of war we have ever seen."

Despite the laudatory reviews and the respectability that See It Now brought to television news, a question plagued the partnership: how to cover the anti-Communist hysteria that was enveloping the nation. The team first searched for what Friendly called "the little picture," an individual story that symbolized a national issue. In October 1953 Murrow and reporter Wershba produced "The Case of Milo Radulovich," a study of an Air Force lieutenant who was deemed a security risk because his father, an elderly Serbian immigrant, and sister supposedly read subversive newspapers. Because of the report, for which Murrow and Friendly used their own money to advertise, the Secretary of the Air Force reviewed the case and retained Radulovich in the service. In "Argument in Indianapolis," broadcast one month later, See It Now investigated an American Legion chapter that refused to book its meeting hall to the American Civil Liberties Union. Again, Murrow and staff succeeded in documenting how the McCarthyism, so-called because of the demagogic tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy, penetrated the heartland.

Having reported discrete episodes in the Cold War, Murrow and Friendly decided to expose the architect of the paranoia, McCarthy himself. On 9 March 1954 See It Now employed audiotapes and newsreels, to refute the outrageous half-truths and misstatements of the junior senator of Wisconsin. In his tailpiece before the signature "Good Night and Good Luck," Murrow explicitly challenged his viewers to confront the nation's palpable fears. A month later, McCarthy accepted an invitation to respond and his bombastic rhetoric, calling Murrow "the leader and cleverest of the jackal pack," coupled with the later failure of his televised investigation into Army, left his career in a shambles. The McCarthy program also produced fissures in the relationship between Murrow and the network. Again, CBS did not assist in promoting the broadcast; but this time CBS executives suggested that Murrow had overstep the boundaries of editorial objectivity. In the process, Murrow had become controversial and, therefore, a possible liability to the company's business opportunities.

Provocative programs, targeting the most pressing problems of the day, continued during the 1954-55 season. Murrow conducted an interview with J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who was removed as advisor to the Atomic Energy Commission because he was accused of being a soviet agent. See It Now documented the effects of the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision on two southern towns. Murrow, a heavy smoker, examined the link between cigarettes and lung cancer. By the end of the season, Alcoa, stung by See It Now 's investigation into a Texas land scandal where it was expanding operations, ended its sponsorship. Because of the profitability of other entertainment shows, most notably the bonanza in game shows, CBS also decided that See It Now should yield its regular timeslot and become a series of specials. Many insiders thought the series should be retitled See It Now and Then.

During the final three seasons of specials, the tone of See It Now became softer. Despite exclusive interviews with Chinese Premier Chou En-lai and Yugoslavian strongman Marshal Tito, the most memorable programs were almost hagiographic profiles of American artists, including Louis Armstrong, Marian Anderson, and Danny Kaye. Controversy for Murrow was now reserved for outside the studio; his 1958 speech to radio and news directors was an indictment of the degrading commercialism pervading network television. The final broadcast, "Watch on the Ruhr" on 7 July 1958, surveyed the mood of postwar Germany. After See It Now's demise, CBS News made sure to split the Murrow/Friendly team: Murrow hosted specials, the most significant Harvest of Shame, and left the network in 1961 and Friendly was named executive producer of Now's public affair's successor, CBS Reports.

Murrow and Friendly invented the magazine news format, which became the dominant documentary form on network television. The most esteemed inheritor of its legacy, 60 Minutes, was conceived by integral See It Now alumni: Don Hewitt (as 60 Minutes's executive producer), Palmer Williams (as managing editor), and Joe Wershba (as producer). See It Now was also a seminal force in how most television documentaries conveyed a national issue: to illuminate the individual story, immediate and direct, that resonates with deeper implications. If Murrow and Friendly established the model for the documentary for both form and content, they also tested the limits of editorial advocacy. Although the series of McCarthy programs have been lionized as one of television's defining moments, Murrow and Friendly exposed as well the inherent tension between the news and the network/sponsor. How to deal with controversy in a commercial medium has remained controversial ever since.

-Ron Simon

 


See It Now
Photo courtesy of Washington State University Libraries

HOST Edward R. Murrow

PRODUCERS Fred W. Friendly, Edward R. Murrow

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

CBS
November 1951-June 1953                    Sunday 6:30-7:00
September 1953-July 1955               Tuesday 10:30-11:00
September 1955-July 1958                   Irregular Schedule

FURTHER READING

Barnouw, Erik. Tube of Plenty The Evolution of American Television. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975; revised edition 1990.

Bliss, Edward J. Now the News: The History of Broadcast Journalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Bliss, Edward Jr, editor. In Search of Light The Broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow, 1938-1964. New York: Knopf, 1967.

Boyer, Peter J. Who Killed CBS? The Undoing of America's Number One News Network. New York: Random House, 1988.

Cloud, Stanley, and Lynne Olson. The Murrow Boys. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

Friendly, Fred W. Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control. . . New York: Vintage, 1967.

Gates Gary Paul. Air Time: The Inside Story of CBS News. New York: Harper & Row, 1978.

Halberstam, David. The Powers That Be. New York: Knopf, 1979.

Kendrick, Alexander. Prime Time: The Life of Edward R. Murrow. Boston: Little, Brown, 1969.

Matusow, Barbara. The Evening Stars. New York: Ballantine, 1983.

Murrow, Edward R., and Fred W. Friendly, editors. See It Now. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1955.

O, Connor, John E., editor. American History/American Television: Interpreting the Video Past. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1983

Persico, Joseph E. Edward R. Murrow An American Original. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988.

Paley, William S. As It Happened. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1979.

Reeves, Thomas C. The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy. New York: Stein and Day, 1982.

Smith, Sally Bedell. In All His Glory. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.

Sperber A. M. Murrow: His Life and Times. New York: Freundlich, 1986.

 

See also Censorship; Columbia Broadcasting System; Documentary; Friendly, Fred W.; Hewitt, Don; Murrow, Edward R.; Paley, William S.; Stanton, Frank