Sitting in the theater of what used to be called The Museum of Broadcasting in 1985 (it’s now the Paley Center), I was transfixed by the interview I was watching. The 1961 television program on screen was an episode of “The Lively Arts”, a program on the CBC. The guest interviewee was Ernie Kovacs. I’d never heard him speak about his work before, and it floored me.
I’d revered, worshipped the TV shows I’d see on PBS in 1977, the 10-episode compilation series The Best of Ernie Kovacs. Read David Walley’s book Nothing in Moderation. And now I was most of the way through the MB’s Ernie Kovacs retrospective, and this was on.
The episode, filmed in the summer of 1961, found host Bill Bellman at Kovacs’ home, sitting opposite Ernie, outdoors. The subject was mainly the production and creation of Ernie’s half-hour specials for Dutch Masters and aired on ABC. The first three had aired, but Ernie had already taped six of them.
I’ll get back to Ernie’s talking about his process in this interview another time. What has pulled the CBC interview back into my consciousness recently is a quote from the very end of the show. I keep thinking of it every time another contest or competition show is announced, for cable or streaming services or on network. As many times as you think “Oh, they’ve clearly run out of ideas for these” and that this will be the end – remember the short-lived game show version of Musical Chairs called “Oh, Sit!” (2012)? – more of them keep coming.
And once again, I think of Ernie Kovacs’ comments about the state of television as he saw it in 1961, in the midst of working on what could be considered the greatest television shows of his career.
Bellman: Ernie, as one of the more creative people involved in the entertainment side of television, I’m sure you have some pretty strong feelings on its developments at this time. What do you think is its biggest lack, and what would you like to see happen to it?
Kovacs: I’m mulling over and relishing the word “creative”; that’s always a misnomer, but it’s always great to hear.
I – I don’t know if there is a lack of any specific…There is possibly an abundance in the wrong direction, rather than a specific lack, I think. This is nothing that is coming as earth-shattering news or a bulletin that will interrupt any of your regularly scheduled programs, but we are catering to anything which will grab a large audience. And we will put on – I don’t mean to knock them, but I certainly don’t mean to praise them – a “give-away” show. Which I don’t really feel is enlightening us or taking advantage of possibly one of the greatest inventions of all times, the television tube.
One will put this on, and its main value is in seeing a couple being interviewed, a woman or a man whom we will never see again as long as we live, and her contribution to our day’s enlightenment is the fact that “No, I’ve never bowled” or “My husband, John, plays badminton”. And this you take home and kind of mull it over for the evening and this you’ve assimilated. And for this little thing you watch her win a washer, which is mentioned by product name, which pays for the washer to the program.
I don’t feel that these great minds who conceived this most fantastic form of communication, that anyone dreamed, that this is what they were sitting in a hot cellar or a hot lab for for hours.“The Lively Arts”; CBC-TV (Canada); airdate 10-31-61