From Murrow To Mediocrity…
The Fall From Grace At CBS
Legendary CBS broadcasting giants, including Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Ed Sullivan must be turning over in their graves as a result of their “Tiffany Network”, the Columbia Broadcasting System, having its image tarnished by scandal in recent years. The latest (sex) scandal to hit CBS involves David Letterman, his staff, and a CBS Producer named Robert Halderman.
Executives at CBS must regret the day they lured David Letterman away from NBC. And the venerable Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City, where CBS tapes the Letterman show, has been forever sullied by the scandal that hit the news Thursday. CBS began broadcasting from CBS-TV “Studio 50″ in 1936, and renamed it the Ed Sullivan Theater in 1967. The Ed Sullivan show was broadcast from there during it’s 23-year run, from 1948 thru 1971.
In the 1970’s, about the time that David Letterman was a weatherman on an Indianapolis, Indiana television station, we were working for a company in New York City that sold equipment to broadcasters. They did business with CBS, and on one occasion our work took us to the Ed Sullivan Theater. We entered that building in awe. We felt extremely privileged to be in that space, where some of the most historic broadcasts in the history of television originated from. Today however, we would be embarrassed to be seen entering the studio where the Beatles made their U.S. debut, and where virtually every notable performer or group from that era appeared, many of them multiple times.
Ed Sullivan would cringe if he heard what David Letterman admitted to this past Thursday, while standing on the same stage that Sullivan’s shows were broadcast from. Ed Sullivan was so squeaky clean that it was commonplace for him to ask performers to change objectionable lyrics in the songs they performed on the Ed Sullivan show. Performers that refused to clean up their lyrics would not be broadcast, and those that reneged on their promise to sanitize their lyrics (remember that this was live television), were never invited back to the Ed Sullivan show again.
This past Thursday, in what can only be described as one of the most bizarre broadcasts of the Letterman show (or any television show, for that matter), Letterman delivered his mea culpa, admitting to his sexual indiscretions, to an audience of people who were laughing like hyenas. Apparently, the audience didn’t know what to make of the confession, and assumed it was part of his comedy routine. Here’s an article published by the New York Daily News on Friday, which identifies a woman who worked for David Letterman, who they believe is involved in the scandal. In any case, Letterman’s broadcast confession certainly gives a whole new meaning to the term “Worldwide Pants”. You can probably find the confession on YouTube and elsewhere, but we aren’t going to link to it, since it seems that CBS has been asking YouTube to pull any excerpts people have been posting from the show, due to copyright infringement, and, no doubt, severe embarrassment. Ya know, maybe CBS should have never broadcast it in the first place.
In the 1970’s Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon had his infamous 18- minute gap on the White House tapes. Similarly, in the Letterman scandal, CBS has redacted the ten-minute mea culpa segment of David Letterman’s monologue from the official copy that CBS posted on YouTube (read this NY Times article about the missing Letterman segment).
As an aside, we think it’s worth noting that technology like cellphones, digital cameras, the VCR, DVDs, computers, the Internet and websites like YouTube have a way of changing the status quo, and making existing law moot in many cases. As many individuals and corporations have learned over the last few years, it is largely an exercise in futility to try and have something that has been posted on the Web taken down. The harder you try to quash something, whether a photo, a video, an MP3 file or a point of view, the faster it propagates. Remove it from one website, and it springs up in 100 other places. The battle to protect intellectual property (IP) has been made infinitely more difficult as technology has made it a trivial matter to make high quality copies of materials such as music, movies, photos, etc. Two events in particular stick out in our mind; The introduction of VCRs in the late 1970’s, which had the entertainment industry scared to death about illegal recording of television shows, and the advent of music sharing websites such as Napster. Blogs, personal websites, and the fact that virtually everyone can now have a “printing press” in their home has changed the publishing and newspaper businesses forever. Organizations have learned that a different mindset is necessary to survive. If you can’t beat them, join them. As an example of this consider the fact that every major U.S. daily newspaper that has managed to survive also has a website. Newspapers have even begun scrapping their paper editions, becoming Internet-only news outlets, a la The Huffington Post (see this NYTimes article about The Seattle Post-Intelligencer going Internet-only). But we digress.
If we were running CBS, the Letterman show would be pulled faster than you can say “Top Ten List”, but for financial reasons, we doubt CBS will pull the show. Moral and ethical standards are simply not what they were when William S. Paley was running CBS. Certainly not at CBS, and not anywhere else in broadcasting, or society in general. If Letterman can continue to do well in the ratings, his job is probably secure. But we expect to see CBS getting hit with lawsuits from Letterman staffers, who will say that his conduct created a hostile work environment.
And of course, the “Top Ten” lists have begun to appear on the Web, in response to the Letterman scandal. A fellow WordPress blogger posted “The Top Ten Reasons Why David Letterman Should Be Fired”, while this conservative Christian website posted their own Top Ten list.
- Routing By Rumor
P.S. – According to this article at the Museum of Broadcast Communications, “From Murrow To Mediocrity” was the title of a scathing 1987 New York Times op-ed piece written by CBS newsman Dan Rather.