Why I'm out of TV
DR. LESLIE BELL
Television's giving the jitters to the viewers, as well as the performers, says this famous choir leader. It's also robbing us of fine musical programs. Why can't we all just relax?
A YEAR AGO I walked out of a TV studio in Toronto after a performance by the group of girl singers that I conduct. Up until that time I had appeared regularly on Canadian TV every week for almost two years. Except for two or three brief visits, I haven’t been back since.
Whether I’ll ever return to regular TV work will depend, I suppose, on whether I’m asked to. But it will also depend, as far as I’m concerned, on what the future of television is likely to be.
Up to the end of 1948 I held a professorship in music education at the Ontario College of Education. It was one of the best positions of its kind in Ontario and carried with it a substantial retirement pension. I left it for commercial music because by that time my choral group, the Leslie Bell Singers, had developed a great popularity in both Canada and the U. S. and was receiving attractive bids from radio sponsors and recording firms.
In many ways it was a good move. For six years the Bell Singers’ radio show, sponsored by Canadian General Electric, enjoyed a top listener rating. Recording contracts came in and the demands for public appearances far exceeded our ability to fill them. The Bell Singers, we were told, had become a Canadian institution.
We were also told that these triumphs were nothing compared with what lay ahead in television. Naturally we looked forward eagerly to October 1952 when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, with the blessings of our same sponsor, first turned its cameras on us. For the next two years we were associated with Showtime, a variety program that is one of the biggest productions on Canadian networks. It worked on a weekly budget, I believe, of more than seven thousand dollars. Up until the time I left it, this TV show had a reasonable viewers’ rating. I don’t suppose
this rating has been impaired by my going. Indeed, I understand the program is now doing well. I certainly hope so.
Why should I leave TV when practically every other artist is trying to get into it? The story is a bit complicated but I think it’s worth telling.
I don’t say that TV is inherently bad. I believe that, with a proper approach, it could become a great boon to all of us. But TV as I knew it was not for me. I left it partly because I was not doing anything for it and partly because it was not doing anything for me. I left it because I saw how rapidly it burns up talent and how little security it oilers. I left it because it was giving me the same jitters that plague everyone connected with it, from the sponsor who has to foot fantastic bills to the nervous performer in the studio and the tensed-up viewer at home. I left it because I am a musician and because the only part a musician can play in TV is second fiddle.
I might as well begin with this question of security, which looms in importance as you grow older.
Security is rare in any kind of showbusiness but in television it’s practically nonexistent. TV performers, for the most part, fall into two groups —those who have been dropped and those who are going to be dropped soon. During the last year, for instance, CBC has abandoned or revamped almost twenty of its shows and is at present contemplating many changes for 1955-56. This may be good for programs but it leaves the performer wondering what game of chance he has got into.
The situation is by no means peculiar to Canada. Let’s look at some of the big U. S. stars. Lucy Arnaz, whose escapades were more talked about last year than the cold war, is now hardly talked about at all. Arthur Godfrey draws more yawns every week. The great Milton Berle at one point
recently was reduced to joking about the fact that he had lost his sponsor.
Johnny Wayne, Canada’s top funny man, is anything but funny when he talks about TV. “It looks as though Frank Shuster and I will be trading our weekly radio show next season for two TV appearances a month. It might appear to be easier but it isn’t. I wish we could get by with one show a month. Anything more than that spells imminent death in this business.” Wayne and Shuster are smart enough to follow the examples of Cantor, Durante and other American comics who are moving cautiously. But the trouble with moving cautiously and appearing once a month is that one is likely to starve to death unless he commands a Cantor or Durante salary. Unfortunately, Canadians are not paid that kind of money.
Why is the mortality rate of TV performers so much greater than that of radio stars? Why was Edgar Bergen able to sit comfortably behind a microphone for almost twenty years, whereas Eddie MayhofF, the “go-go-go” man of That’s My Boy, lasted less than two seasons? MayhofF was far funnier than Bergen, to my way of thinking.
The other night I sat watching my favorite TV show, What’s My Line? My wife turned to me and remarked, “You know, this show isn’t as good as it used to be.”
“It’s just as good as it ever was,” I said. “You just can’t stand looking at that same panel even once a week.”
One Tuesday evening on a variety show, a guest artist appeared who gave an impersonation of a small-town businessman. I thought it the funniest thing I had ever seen. For two days I rushed about trying to find out the man’s name. On Friday, he showed up on another show in the same act. His name didn’t matter any more. I turned ofF the set.
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Why I’m Out of TV
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The willingness of men like Jackie Gleason and Ed Sullivan to sign longterm contracts indicates that they’re also keen on this matter of security. Both these artists and their sponsors are gambling on formats that they hope will keep them going. Gleason has built up a whole gallery of character impersonations and recently announced that he is experimenting with additional ones. Sullivan surrounds himself each Sunday night with the best talent he can buy, changing his guests every week and taking care not to invite them back again too often.
Other U. S. showmen just can’t be bothered wrestling with TV and have simply turned their backs on it. “I’m damned if I’m going to stand under those hot lights any more,” the great folk balladeer, Burl Ives, told me just before he left for his triumphant British tour. After several years in TV, Fred Waring, famous band leader and choral conductor, has bundled up his Pennsylvanians and taken them on the road. When I visited him last summer he remarked, “I’m frying to capture some of the old magic of the vaudeville days. I don’t expect to make as much money but at last I’m enjoying myself.”
Everybody’s Got the Jitters
If TV is eating up American talent at such a rate, what is it doing in Canada where there is much less talent? If some of our big names are to be dropped next season (there are all kinds of rumors) who will take their places? The program, Pick the Stars, while sponsored by Canada Packers, was originated by the CBC and is obviously an attempt to find new faces and talent. But so far it does not appear to have unearthed anyone exciting.
The merry-go-round can only spin so long before it breaks down. If a complete impasse is to be avoided those connected with TV should sit back and do some relaxed thinking. Unfortunately, relaxation is a foreign word in TV, and that brings me around to another reason why I left that studio last April—the jitters.
First of all there are the sponsor’s jitters. Since a TV show costs three or four times as much as a radio show the average sponsor has the uneasy feeling he’s living beyond his means. His jitters spread to the planners of his show who, in their anxiety to please the client, frequently jump from one idea to another without giving any one of them a chance. The thing that bothered me in commercial television was that if an idea were tried out once and failed, owing to someone’s inexperience or to a technical slip-up, it was immediately assumed the idea was worthless and should never be tried again. Thus there arose that endless quest for a new gimmick, that pursuit of novelty for its own sake which helped spread the jitters to everyone in the studio—directors, musicians and performers.
Singers were required to dance and dancers were required to sing. As for me, I became a character actor, which I played with such effect that one cynic remarked, “With such a ham, this show should be sponsored by Canada Packers.”
Many of such programs also lack planning. Half the ulcers developed in TV are the result of frantic efforts to create in a few hours the kind of show that in vaudeville days would have been given weeks of rehearsal. Unfortunately rehearsals cost money.
In spite of what its critics say, the CBC hasn’t money to burn. Last year it spent about six and a half million dollars on TV. This is less than the Ford Motor Company spends on one U. S. show, Sullivan’s Toast of the Town.
Granting the difference in population between the U. S. and Canada, the fact remains that the CBC is working on a shoestring. It needs a much bigger TV budget to turn out the kind of programs that viewers demand. Nor are the performers’ unions demanding too much for their members when you consider the amount of work, the lack of security and the strain involved. A performer preparing for a TV show spends three or four times as many hours as he did for radio, but certainly doesn’t receive three or four times as much money. He also works a lot harder because of the reduction in ensembles.
For budget reasons, orchestras and choirs have been whittled practically to chamber groups. The present orchestra on Showtime is half the size it was in radio and its original chorus of twenty-five now consists of eight voices. Mr. Showbusiness also uses only an octet and On Stage employs a vocal unit of six. We generally think of a chorus in terms of at least sixteen singers.
If more money is not available, one solution would seem to be less lavish shows involving lower production costs —in other words, simpler programs. Would the public accept simpler programs? Personally, I think they’d stand up and cheer. If there is one thing the Canadian public wants it is a simpler, more direct approach to television programing.
If you ask me to prove this by statistics, I can’t. I don’t know too much about popularity polls and rating charts, but I think I know something about the Canadian people. I have performed before them in hundreds of towns from one end of Canada to the other. I’ve given concerts in kindergarten classes, high schools and old folks’ homes. I have faced audiences of farmers in the west and the Maritimes, new Canadians in northern Ontario, Canadiens in the Laurentians and businessmen in Toronto and Montreal. They do not all like the same things,
of course, but on one matter they seem to be in reasonable agreement. One viewer in Windsor summed it up this way:
“Why does so much have to be happening all the time?” he asked. “Why all this eternal choreography for everything and all this running around? Why all these jumping cameras? Can’t anything or anyone stay still? I think television is trying too hard to be subtle and clever. I can’t go to the kitchen for a drink without losing the show. Sometimes I just want to relax and I wish TV would help me to do it the way radio used to.”
As things are now the viewer must be ever on the edge of his seat for fear of missing the comedian’s fast gag, the answer to the jack-pot question or the trick ending to the whodunit. This required concentration is killing many TV shows as soon as they are born.
Is Fine Scenery Too Corny?
Relaxed shows have a way of carrying on long after the tense programs have died. In radio, the Album of Familiar Music, an unpretentious selection of pleasant songs performed in a straightforward way, lasted for more than eighteen years. Will any TV show equal that record? The most relaxed variety program to come out of Canadian television so far is Cliff McKay’s Holiday Ranch, which uses only one set and features western music done in a free-and-easy ma er. It has the highest rating of any Canadian TV musicale. Maybe the public does know what it wants.
One American TV station received a letter from a set owner who said: “1 like your programs pretty well, although some of them are a bit fast for me. My favorite one is where you put on the test pattern and play music behind it.”
If radio has been able to provide relaxation, surely TV can do the same. Some of the men in the business tell me this is impossible. How do they know it is? Have they ever tried to find out? Is it too corny to suggest, for instance, a program of fine Canadian scenery backed simply by good music well played? I am thinking of a program that could either be watched or just listened to, a program that could
“Sometimes I just want to relax and I wish TV would help me as radio did”
still be enjoyed by the housewife busy in the kitchen or by her husband behind his newspaper.
What’s more important, it would bring music into TV on a respectable basis. So far, TV hasn’t done much for music. There have been a few notable exceptions. CBC’s televised operatic productions of Don Giovanni, Die Fledermaus and The Consul were all superlatively good and reflected that same talent for doing things well that made the Wednesday Night radio series the envy of cultured listeners below the border. But such musical thrills are rare.
Opera and ballet are naturals for the screen but when television runs up against other forms of music it doesn’t seem to know what to do. Generally speaking, it assumes there are two approaches. One is to photograph the artist from as many different camera angles as possible. Thus a pianist never appears without letting us see a close-up of his hands, plus a reflection of them in the piano lid. When a symphony program is presented we are taken on a Cook’s tour of the orchestra, during which we peer down the bell of the tuba, climb over the violinist’s lap and watch the details of the conductor’s face writhing in ecstasy or agony. All this distracts us to the point where we forget that music is being played. Nor is our enjoyment enhanced when we discover that the exquisite love song of the princess in Ravel’s Ma Mère L’Oye is really being performed by a bald-headed clarinetist of seventy-one.
The other method of televising music is to interpret what is being played by means of dancers, actors, painted scenery or bits of movie film. This disregards music’s whole purpose and fundamental appeal. After all, music is not picture but sound. Its greatest fascination lies in the fact that it means different things to different people and that each one of us as he listens to it can make up his own pictures. Music lovers hate having interpretations forced on them by TV or by anything else. That is why so many were irritated by Walt Disney’s film Fantasia which tried to do exactly that. The trouble is that many socalled musical programs are not music at all. A couple of years ago when Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra were televised it was advertised as a great musical event. It was not a musical event. It was a close-up study of a famous public figure at work with some Brahms going on behind.
What bothers the musician in the TV studio is the feeling that his work is always subordinate to something else. Instead of performing interesting arrangements for someone to listen to, the instrumentalist is reduced to pumping out routine accompaniments for a dance line or a vocal soloist. The arranger is equally frustrated. Harold Simeone, the brilliant orchestrator for the former Fred Waring Show, complains that TV has killed any opportunity for creative work.
But it is the choristers who really suffer. The instrumentalist can at least sit down and play his music, but because of the mania for movement the singer must mill all over the lot, trying to dance, trying to act, trying to remember his music and trying to follow a conductor whose beat he often can’t even see. Added to this confusion is the fact that a microphone operator has difficulty picking up the voice of a moving singer and a lot more difficulty when several singers are heading in different directions at once. Obviously, such things as tone, diction and choral blend become impossible, no matter how much care has gone into the preparation of the music. At least,
Does Hopalong keep children too busy to develop an interest in good music?
that was TV as I knew it. Other people doing choral work tell me they have similar problems.
When I first entered TV I was told and I believed that it would be a perfect vehicle for my choir. Two years taught me differently. I eventually came to feel that I was not earning my money, because under such working conditions it was impossible for me or anyone else to deliver the type of performance expected of the Bell Singers. I had plans for a show that would have presented the girls to the public as the public had come to know them in live performance. I was told these plans wouldn’t work in TV. Maybe they wouldn’t have. I can’t say. All I know is that the prestige of the Bell Singers which had been built up by fifteen years of hard work was beginning to collapse. If I had any doubts on that score, I only needed to open the letters that piled up on my desk every day. My path seemed pretty clear. It led right out of the studio door.
Jackie Rae, newly appointed director of variety shows for CBC, tells me that he intends to do something about musical sound on TV. This is certainly good news. When television first arrived, someone came out with the report that the average viewer directs only forty percent of his attention to what he hears and sixty percent to what he sees. This may be true, but even if it is, it offers no justification for ignoring sound altogether.
One of the reasons for this indifference to sound on TV is the assumption by many studios that the true musiclover is sticking with his radio and his records anyway. This seems a satisfactory arrangement for the present, but what about the future? What about the next generation? Children today are too busy with Hopalong Cassidy and Space Cadet to be bothered turning on the radio. As a result, they are not likely to hear good music or become acquainted with it and, as they grow up, will not demand it or even want it. The effect of this situation on our musical culture is worth thinking about.
There is no point in saying, as some wishful thinkers are saying, that TV is a passing fancy. Television is here to stay and with new developments in the offing—color and possibly even 3-D —it is likely to become more a part of our lives than ever. But if television is here to stay it must assume the responsibility that radio did in raising the level of Canadian taste. I am convinced the public wants this to happen, in spite of all the Gallup Poll findings and Hooper ratings waved in front of me. The trouble with these statistical findings is that, at best, all they do is analyze the public’s reaction to what it is getting. They don’t tell us how the public feels about what it is not getting and about what it wants.
Entertainment is a splendid thing, but when it becomes a complete substitute for culture it is a prelude to catastrophe. Today the piano has disappeared from the living room and even the ping-pong table downstairs is gathering dust. We are doing little to entertain ourselves because we don’t have to. We are fast becoming a new sort of race—half man and half chesterfield—that sits watching the world’s best talent beating its brains out to please us. All we have to do is raise or lower our thumbs as the Roman mob once did at the gladiatorial arena. And,
incidentally, most of us know what happened to Rome. The parallel is a little too close for comfort.
In certain fields of art—drama, for instance—TV has proved that it can, when it wants to, make an important contribution. Just how it should best present music can only be determined after considerable thought and experiment. There are various ideas worth trying. For one thing, TV could help break up the aura of mystery that makes many people shy away from “good music.” This idea was outlined to me some time ago by Sigmund Spaeth of New York. Spaeth first came into prominence on the radio as The Tune Detective and is now a well-known member of the Metropolitan Opera Quizz panel.
“Television has failed serious music,” said Spaeth. “More people would enjoy music if they were not so frightened of it. We surround Bach and Beethoven with an aura of mystery and we build the artist who interprets them into a superior being who stands aloof on a platform. TV can break down this silly attitude and help the artist and the public to become friends. Instead of Artur Rubinstein appearing stiffly in a dress suit against a formal backdrop, why should he not he sitting at ease in a living room—your living room or mine?”
What Spaeth is asking for is a Liberace style applied to serious music. Something like this was tried on CBC in a program called At Home With John Newmark, in which Newmark presented chamber music in an informal way. I understand many viewers liked the program. But it didn’t last. I wonder why not?
Let’s Forget the Gimmicks
I don’t pretend to know the answers to many of the problems in TV programs, but I do think these; answers can be found as TV grows up. In spite of all the bilge that clutters up American screens, there is some evidence of growing maturity. A production as fine as the recent Peter Pan, for instance, would not have been possible two years ago, either in the studio or in the producer’s mind. Here in Canada we still have too many variety shows that are too much alike, but there is some excellent drama and the experimental program, Scope, with all its frequent artiness, does rate applause.
Since my exit from the studio a year ago I have returned twice to do single telecasts. I enjoyed them immensely because on each occasion my singers were allowed to perform good musicin their own way and under proper conditions. It was gratifying, too, to discover how producers and production methods are changing. The old slaphappy high-school follies approach to a show seems to be giving way to clearer thinking and the realization that you can’t build a program simply on fancy sets, trick camera shots and gimmicks.
TV has changed many things in our lives. It has cut down the reading habit. It has added new words to our speech and at the same time gagged conversation. It has made our children authorities on all sorts of subjects from interplanetary navigation to cattle rustling but has left them no time to do their homework. It has taken so much away. The all-important question for the future is, “What is it going to give us in return?” if