News from the Archive

Remembering Della Reese

November 20th, 2017
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We’re sad to learn that performer Della Reese has passed away at the age of 86. Reese began her career at 13, touring with gospel legend Mahalia Jackson. She went on to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show 17 times, as well as on The Merv Griffin Show and The Mike Douglas Show. She also had her own talk/variety series, The Della Reese Show, and appeared on sitcoms including Chico and the Man and Welcome Back, Kotter. In later years, she was perhaps best known for her starring role on Touched by an Angel.

Below are some selections from her 2008 interview:

On singing with Mahalia Jackson at age 13:

On The Della Reese Show:

On audience reaction to Touched by an Angel:

Watch Della Reese's full interview and read her obituary in The New York Times.

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Television Studies 101 With Dr. Horace Newcomb

November 17th, 2017
Horace Newcomb

One of the first things you notice when you crack open Horace Newcomb’s TV: The Most Popular Art is that it’s delightfully readable, which isn’t something one can say about a lot of academic writing. I first read the book as a doctoral student, never imagining that I would one day have the privilege of talking television for three-plus hours with the man who helped establish and legitimize the field of television studies in the United States.

Dr. Horace Newcomb was raised in Mississippi, with television providing a window to the larger world around him – through television news he saw the events of the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, and through The Defenders he saw social justice played out in black and white. He studied English at Mississippi College, and earned both his Masters in General Humanities and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Chicago. He soon began to feel the pull of writing about television, questioning “how television tells stories and what those stories are about.” He started with an examination of soap operas with his essay, “Reflections on the Structure of Soap Opera,” and in 1974 published TV: The Most Popular Art, a genre study of the different formulas commonly seen on television – one of the first works of its kind in the United States. Thanks in no small part to this groundbreaking book, analyzing television from the humanities perspective, rather than the social science view, would become an accepted and even applauded academic discipline.

Horace followed up his first book by editing an anthology of scholarly essays about television, Television: The Critical View. It became THE reader in early television studies courses.

After 23 years of teaching at the University of Texas, Austin, where he helped build the Radio-Television-Film department, Horace took on a new venture, as chair of the prestigious Peabody Awards.

In addition, he served as a television critic for the Baltimore Sun, edited the Museum of Broadcast Communications’ Encyclopedia of Television, and inspired countless budding TV scholars, including me. Today we take for granted that there are semester-long university courses offered on The Sopranos or The Wire, but those classes are only possible because of the pioneering work done by Horace and his peers. I benefitted first-hand from the work that he did in the 1970’s, and as a result, I’m a producer at The Interviews: An Oral History of Television.

Sitting down with Dr. Horace Newcomb for an afternoon is one of my most cherished experiences from my time here at the Television Academy Foundation. So Horace, thank you for motivating generations of scholars to examine the stories the small screen has to tell, and thank you for giving a doctoral student a sense of belonging to a field that matters. To think critically about what we see on television isn’t trivial. It’s crucial. Perhaps now more than ever.

Watch Horace Newcomb’s full interview.

- Adrienne Faillace

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Understanding Ohlmeyer: Requiem for an Executive

November 16th, 2017
Don Ohlmeyer

I’d never been Don Ohlmeyer’s biggest fan. Even the most casual viewer couldn’t escape his name as having been involved with some of the biggest television stories of the ‘90s when he was president of NBC, West Coast. A verbose, larger-than-life figure, he reminded one more of an old-time Hollywood mogul than Grant Tinker or Brandon Tartikoff. 

In 2004 I was asked to do the research and write the questions for his interview. I considered it an excellent opportunity to ask him about a few things he’d been connected with that I’d found questionable. There was his role in the NBC late night wars of the early ‘90s. I was also curious about his role in the firing of Norm MacDonald as Weekend Update news anchor from Saturday Night Live. And finally, there was his well-documented friendship with O.J. Simpson. I was thrilled to be invited to watch the interview being taped.

The interview, conducted expertly by Dan Pasternack at Don Ohlmeyer’s home, turned out to be quite a journey. The saga of the creation and early years of Monday Night Football, and the stories about his mentor Roone Arledge, and about Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford were endlessly fascinating, even to a non-sports fan like me. Ohlmeyer related them in a way that was humble and even soft-spoken, which was not at all what I might have expected.

Things took an emotional turn when he discussed the 1972 Munich Olympics and spoke of the horrific terrorist attack on the Israeli athletes that year. He recalled the roles of Arledge and Jim McKay in reporting the news in a way that was straightforward, but was sensitive and showed restraint. As I watched, it dawned on me that Don Ohlmeyer was a man who’d witnessed his share of history, and seemed to have it all in perspective. When he asked for a moment after remembering those events, we obliged.

Eventually Dan Pasternack broached the topic of Jay Leno versus David Letterman. Ohlmeyer had been a staunch believer in Leno first getting The Tonight Show, and then keeping it when other NBC executives began to doubt the initial decision to hire him. He detailed the qualities he saw in Jay that he suspected would wear better over time, and attributes in Dave that might not. From a business standpoint, it turned out he’d been correct. In the long run, Leno won out in the ratings several years running, and eventually retired from late night on top.

As a huge fan of Norm MacDonald, I was most interested to hear Don’s reasoning for Norm’s dismissal. He explained it as having to do with ratings. He told us that for the first time in the history of Saturday Night Live, viewership was down for the Weekend Update segment. He suggested we go view the tapes of Weekend Update from 1997, saying that joke after joke laid flat. In 2004, seeking out those episodes was easier said than done, but a quick look in 2017 bears out his claim. 

When asked if Norm’s dismissal had to do with the O.J. Simpson jokes Norm had been telling each week, he dismissed the notion out of hand. Of his own friendship with Simpson, he stated, “I was brought up that you don’t desert a person who’s been one of your best friends for 27 years because they’re at the darkest moment of their life… guilty or innocent, you don’t desert a friend.”

Agree with Ohlmeyer or not, that day I came to admire his principles, his brilliance as a television executive, and even his humanity. This interview changed the way I thought about Don Ohlmeyer. I think it demonstrates why our interviews are so essential. It gave me a perspective on the man, and on television in the ‘90s, that I otherwise never would have had. It filled in a big piece of the puzzle of television history. And his first person account of Munich, 1972 is invaluable. 

Toward the end of the interview, Don Ohlmeyer spoke candidly about taking on his own substance abuse problems, and how that process changed his outlook on life. I highly recommended watching his entire interview to hear the story of his wild, tumultuous, and eventually triumphant life. One of our best interviews, it is a uniquely American story. Rest in Peace, Don Ohlmeyer.

- John Dalton

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Veterans Day: Reflection on Service

November 9th, 2017

In honor of Veterans Day, we have once again partnered with the Google Cultural Institute to create the exhibit Veterans Day: Reflections on Service. Check it out below!

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Yes, Yes, Nanette!

October 27th, 2017
Nanette Fabray

The great Nanette Fabray turns 97 today! Her show business roots go deep. She tap danced at age three as “Miss New Years Eve 1923” at the Million Dollar Theater in Downtown Los Angeles. In 1939, she made her feature film debut opposite Bette Davis in “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” (she told us Davis tried to have her fired.) She won a Tony Award in 1949, and appeared in a string of MGM musicals, including the classic “The Band Wagon,” opposite Fred Astaire. 

Her long second act, this time in television, actually began in 1942. She was enlisted to perform in a series of live tests of RCA’s color television system - she was told she had the "perfect" skin tone for testing color. She told us she was basically on call to General David Sarnoff for those tests for ten years. For this, TV Guide dubbed her, “The Original Live-Test Pattern Girl.”

Nanette replaced Imogene Coca as Sid Caesar’s female sidekick for Caesar’s Hour in 1954. But to me her most interesting work came later. She’d overcome a significant hearing impairment problem in her youth, and later became a life-long advocate for the deaf, hard of hearing, and physically challenged. Maybe her finest performance came in 1977 when she portrayed a stroke victim on Maude.

What I really love about our interview with Nanette is that she really tells it like it is. She was quite honest with us about her two most famous roles from the ‘70s. She played the mother of both Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Ann Romano (Bonnie Franklin) on One Day at a Time. True to form, she let us know what worked, and what didn’t quite work as well as she’d hoped.

Nanette’s interview is one you can watch from start to finish and be completely entertained. Her story is like a history of entertainment in America from the ‘20s to the ‘90s. Join us in wishing her a very Happy Birthday.

- John Dalton

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