That Old Feeling: Sunday Morning Going Strong

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I believe it was the TV comedy writer Marilyn Suzanne Miller, in a New York Times Op-Ed piece a few years ago, who witheringly described advertisers’ target audience as “the all-important 18-19 demographic.” To gauge from Super Bowl commercials (I fart in your general direction), Hollywood movies (stuff blowin’ up, guys crackin’ wise) and most newspaper and magazine coverage of the arts (INSERT HERE name of latest youthcult fad), you’d think American comprised nothing but teenage boys with billions to burn.

Wrong, acne-face! There’s something called Grey Power. And according to recent reports, even Madison Avenue is starting to appreciate the money muscle of the 74 million Americans over 50. We’re the fastest-growing segment of the population. We’ve put our kids through school and now have more disposable income than our grandchildren. Pop culture has made us vain enough to think we’re still young; medical science has convinced us we’re never going to die. We rent loads of movies, know how to operate a computer and (as Harry Shearer pointed out in an excellent New York Times article) are more likely to pay for our CDs than download them. So we’re not about to retire to our front-porch rockers...

...which reminds me — if you’ll allow an aging mind to meander toward today’s subject — of a feature that aired on “CBS Sunday Morning” last July 6. Correspondent Martha Teichner, who bought a home on Seabrook Island, S.C., because of its porch, interviewed Michael Dolan, author of “The American Porch: An Informal History of an Informal Place,” and accompanied him on visits to a number of Southern homes. The gentry still have front porches (some skirting three sides of the house), still sit out there and gas, keeping alive the oral-communal tradition. We learn that the porch is making a comeback, gradually replacing its humbler rival the deck, which the traditionalist Dolan refers to as “the platform shoe or leisure suit of American architecture.”

Who knew there was an uncivil war between the porch people and the deck people? Or that it could make for engrossing “news”? In its broadest definition, news is what you didn’t know you didn’t know until someone told you. And news — of high and medium culture, of people who have achieved and survived, of all things great and silly — is what you’ll find on “CBS Sunday Morning.”


A PAPER IN A TUBE

Late last month, to a modest amount of media applause, “CBS SM” turned 25. Host Charles Osgood and his crew threw themselves a nostalgic little party, opening the video scrapbook on the January 25 broadcast and whisking the dust from some venerable stories to air them again. Twenty-five in TV years is ancient; only a liver-spotted handful of weekly shows have lasted that long. But “CBS SM” is, by nature, older than that — forever looking back, finding resonance in an anniversary or obituary, as if it were the memory bank for the Alzheimer’s generation.

It is also antique in its fidelity to the original CBS news creed: smart, crisp and hold the bullshit. Nowhere else on the network, and few places on any other, are the verities of Golden Age TV journalism upheld with such light poise, perhaps because nowhere else do the staffers so frequently consult, and replay, that glorious past. On the anniversary episode last month, a clip was shown of Edward R. Murrow, in 1951, instructing his director (Don Hewitt! — everyone was young once) to hook up the first “live” coast-to-coast broadcast link, between WCBS in New York and KPIX in San Francisco. (Alas, that station now carries “CBS SM” in less-than-prime 6 a.m. slot. But that’s OK. Old people can time-shift too.)

The show was old at birth, when Charles Kuralt, the first host, began the inaugural program by declaring, “Here starts something new... a Sunday newspaper that comes in a tube.” Something new for television, not for newspapers and magazines. “CBS SM” has its closest equivalent, and direct inspiration in the Sunday New York Times — specifically in its magazine and its Arts and Leisure section, with essayish reports on social trends and features on and criticism of music, film and art. But the Times, like most journalistic enterprises these days, is avid to get younger; “CBS SM” is content to be late middle-age (though it keeps in excellent shape). I don’t mean to shove this notion in the show’s face, but “CBS SM” is a newsmagazine show for alter-kockers.

In this sense, it mimics the network’s newsmagazine flagship, “60 Minutes,” which also pushes, or licks, or gums, the geriatric envelope. Mike Wallace and Andy Rooney are both 85; Morley Safer is a grandpaternal 73; Don Hewitt, the show’s founding and continuing boss, is 81 and reluctant to quit. But “60 Minutes” has a ticking urgency: it’s a time bomb ever threatening to go boom. The show has a need to hector, and a suspicion, in most of its stories, that powerful people often have something to hide, and that it is the mission of Hewitt and his honchos to expose greed, chicanery and general weaseliness. (Recall the superb “Saturday Night Live” sketch, in November 1984, when Shearer as Wallace quizzed the slimy-squirmy manufacturer of defective Whoopee cushions Nathan Thurm, played by Martin Short.)

Temperamentally, the two shows are bookends. “60 Minutes” says all’s wrong with the world; “CBS Sunday Morning” says darn it if there isn’t a lot right with it. One show is curmudgeonly, the other celebratory. One rakes muck, the other finds a pony there.


CHARLES AND CHARLES

The show was created by Robert “Shad” Northshield, a CBS producer who brought Kuralt into the studio on West 57th Street. The reporter had been “on the road” for a dozen years, filing stories on “those gentler subjects” (rural eccentrics, unicyclists, small-town sages, long-time friends, a high-school team with a record number of consecutive losses). What Joseph Mitchell achieved in his New Yorker profiles of Bowery ticket-takers, Staten Island oystermen and Mohawk skyscraper steelworkers, Kuralt approached, more fondly, in his reportorial visits.

Hefty and balding, looking nothing like the generically adorable Kens and Barbies of today’s news shows, Kuralt was a throwback to such early TV hosts and humorists as Dave Garroway, Will Shriner, Jimmy Dean and the young monologist Andy Griffith — but with a touch of the Hallmark poet and a zeal to bring to broadcast life an America most people didn’t know (or care) still existed. As TV zoomed into the electronic age, Kuralt stayed unplugged, logging 50,000 miles a year in his mobile home-office. TIME called his reports for the CBS Evening News “two-minute cease fires” from urban riots, the Vietnam War and the Watergate brouhaha.

Beginning on January 28, 1979, the forthrightly folksy Kuralt carved a 90-min. cease fire each Sunday morning. His first story was on a fellow who played “Dream” on a saw. Jogging with a centarian in better shape than he was, the hefty Kuralt fell out of step and muttered, “Humiliated by a 104-year-old man.” The show itself moved at Kuralt’s pace and with his interests, searching out the underappreciated overachievers, the local good-deed-doers. On other news-and-entertainment shows, an editor might dump a story on a worthy anonymity; “CBS SM” would say that attention must be paid. At the end of his last show, in 1994, Kuralt recited this childlike quatrain: “‘Remember, please, when I am gone, / ’Twas aspiration led me on. / Tiddly-widdly, toodle-oo, / All I want is to stay with you.’ But here I go.” He died three years later.

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