That Old Feeling: Sunday Morning Going Strong

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Lest you think it’s all “tiddly-widdly” and nostalgia, a way to feel you’re in church while you watch TV between your feet, stick around for John Leonard, who reviews movies, TV and other ephemera. I remember Leonard from his stint 30 years ago as a Times book critic. It was he (I think) who wrote, about the counterculture then in fulsome flourish, “Co-opt is baby talk for corrupt,’ and who (I think) reviewed a Marshall McLuhan book by starting each paragraph with a drop letter that, in sequence, formed the word “NONSENSE.” Leonard is just as refreshing and unregenerate on “CBS SM.” A regular for 14 years, he hasn’t yet learned to pretend the camera is a friend or confessor; the way he squints through his specs at the TelePrompter makes me think the print is way too small, and possibly in Urdu. His stiff demeanor is the storm warning for a lecture.

And what edifying jeremiads he sings. For his 25th-anniversary screed, he bemoaned modern culture as if it were something found in a petri dish, the better to praise his employers. “‘Sunday Morning’,’’ he said, “keeps writing compound sentences” — and launched one of his own. “Nowadays, privileged at the computer and the plasma screen, looking down as if from elephants or zeppelins on a discourse of jingles and insults, slogans and clichés, brand names and bumper stickers, with multiple views of Paris Hilton in intimate focus or broad scan and an IV feed of lewd data, who wants a worrywart making distinctions, a spoilsport making connections, or a storyteller making magic? We might just as well grunt and ogle.” I enviously ogle a writer who can give me a headache and a contact high trying to keep up with his Mensa motormouthing, and I grunt my gratitude to the TV copy editor who bit his tongue before asking, “John, does that sentence have to be 66 words long?”

If “CBS SM” is indeed a Sunday paper in a tube, Leonard’s work reminds us that newspapers have not performers but writers. The correspondents take pride in their wordsmanship and don’t mind twirling it. Here’s Safer, who has contributed stories to the morning show (are they reports that have been squeezed out of the “60 Minutes” lineup?), describing an installation of Alexander Calder’s mobiles: “Like so much celestial laundry, they twirl and play and dance to the music of the slightest breeze.” Check out the “CBS SM” website, where many of the stories are archived, and you’ll find that some pieces read even better than they play. I love to curl up with a good show.


OLD NEWS

“CBS SM” has spent whole programs on big breaking stories, like the explosion at Three Mile Island, the Columbia space crash, the deaths of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy Jr. Sometimes the show cedes its time slot to Dan Rather and his more bustling newshawks. (An Osgood poem on the discovery of a fugitive Iraqi leader might be piquant — “The U.S. Army smoked out Saddam / And triumphantly announced, ‘We got ’im” — but not, on the morning of the capture, appropriate.) But constant viewers don’t care to have their routine upset; it’s like getting to the breakfast table and finding not waffles but truffles. “Please give the home country a break,” one letter-writer petitioned in April after the show had gone all-Iraq-all-the-time for a few weeks, “and go back to your usual format.” Translation: we know the news; give us the features.

What’s both bracing and reassuring about “CBS SM” is its belief that art plus a little social relevance equals news. One entire show was devoted to the return of pianist Vladimir Horowitz to Moscow after 61 years. The morning show wasn’t alone in lavishing attention on the Horowitz recital; it also made the cover of TIME. But for “CBS SM,” high art is lively art, and a cause worth promoting.

Settle in for an aural essay on the church organ. Take a tour of MoMA’s Matisse-Picasso showdown. Replay the history of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Discover architect Louis Kahn’s secret life — he juggled three families — through the sleuthing eyes of his son. (“CBS SM” aired this segment long before Nathaniel Kahn’s documentary “My Architect” was released.) Follow Tony Bennett into a second career as a painter. Watch Rudolf Nureyev’s chin tilt up defiantly as he says, “I don’t think anybody can hold a candle to me.”

In pop music, “CBS SM” loves the New Age softies, like Enya, and the golden oldies: Don McLean of “American Pie,” Michael McDonald going Motown, polka prince Jimmy Sturr. (The show has a pop, or grandpop, specialist in VH1’s Bill Flanagan. If some female singer from the 80s has a new album, he’ll be the first to let you know how terrific it is.) “CBS SM” also enjoys finding young people who take lessons from the old craftsmen: the pop singer John Mayer, jazz pianist-vocalist Peter Cincotti. And leave it to “CBS SM” to unearth a college fad with whiskers, like the a cappella craze. The Whiffenpoofs rule! Harmony makes a comeback! Film at 11.

Even on “Sunday Morning,” things change; contracts expire; not everyone can stay on TV past 85. A few old familiars — Eugenia Zuckerman on classical music, Billy Taylor on jazz — are infrequent visitors. The “postcards” from Tim Sample (Maine) and Roger Welsch (Nebraska) have lately got lost in the junk mail. Nancy Giles, actress and Oberlin graduate, has a commentary slot now. For a while I resisted Giles because of her age (a callow 43) and energy level (she has one). But now that I notice we agree politically, I’m warming to her. I may set her a place at the table.


A CHEERY HOME COMPANION

For an old-shoe show, “CBS SM” is doing OK. “With 4.5 million viewers, it handily beats NBC’s ‘Sunday Today,’ its competition in the genre, by about 500,000 viewers, even though the weekday version of Today vanquishes the competition, especially CBS’ ‘The Early Show,’” reported USA Today’s Peter Johnson. “‘Morning’ gets virtually no promotion, but it has added a whopping 400,000 viewers this season and is up among ages 18 to 49, a key advertiser demographic.” This may explain why the show’s commercial time is filled with generic ads from large corporations — the sort of sponsors who line up for “60 Minutes” — and not so many of the Polident and Preparation H spots that glut the nightly news shows.

The NBC “Sunday Today” show may be its time-slot rival, but where is the competition for “CBS SM”? Fitfully (mostly during pledge drives) on PBS. And on Trio and Ovation — for the content, at least, though they don’t touch the quality of the CBS show’s visual and oral reporting. But where, on what used to be called the major networks, is the coverage of what used to be called culture? If “CBS SM” had a godparent, it would be “Omnibus,” a 90-min. potpourri of jazz and classical music, dance and theater, short films and the occasional feature, all smartly basted by the show’s urbane host, Alistair Cooke. But that show went off the air 42 years ago.

I guess the closest equivalent today is some of the programming on public radio. NPR’s “Morning Edition,” though its brow easily furrows, is as intelligent and unobtrusive a wake-up call as “CBS SM”; and the host, Bob Edwards, has a vocal tone even more soothing than Osgood’s. (Lie back and meditate for a few more minutes, his voice implies; you don’t need to be frightened out of bed.) “CBS SM” has similarities to another public-radio standard. Elegiac and hopeful, underscoring Heartland wit with a broad range of good music, “CBS SM” is the non-fiction, picture version of “A Prairie Home Companion” (which also has a weekly audience of more than 4 million). Its calm and curiosity are tonic. As a reader wrote to Kuralt, “This is the only boring show I like.”

I miss network coverage of the arts — the real arts — not because I’m knowledgeable about them and want my expertise confirmed by a mass medium but, precisely, because I’m a pretty ignorant fellow. Ignorant but curious, and eager for a primer in sound and pictures, with a guide who knows my tastes and limitations. That’s “CBS Sunday Morning”: a docile docent who can inject the past (and a little bit of the present) with wit and humanity. Let the rest of TV shout and fart; Osgood will smile and rhyme. Let other shows gallop; this one will mosey — as I have ambled, a few weeks late, to pay my silver respects to the most civilized and sensibly optimistic program on television.

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