Famed Art Critic Robert Hughes Hosts the Premiere of 20/20, Where Tabloid TV News Began (1978)

A few years ago we fea­tured The Shock of the New, respect­ed crit­ic Robert Hugh­es’ eight-part doc­u­men­tary series on mod­ern art, which since its first broad­cast in 1980 has stood as a sig­nal achieve­ment in intel­li­gent tele­vi­sion. But Hugh­es also had a hand in the devel­op­ment of, shall we say, unin­tel­li­gent tele­vi­sion, hav­ing two years ear­li­er co-host­ed the pre­mier of ABC’s still-run­ning news­magazine show 20/20. His new­ly (and posthu­mous­ly) pub­lished vol­ume of essays and auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal writ­ings The Spec­ta­cle of Skill devotes an entire chap­ter to the sto­ry of this tele­vi­su­al event, much bal­ly­hooed in pro­mos like the one just above.

“I was hired in some fit of aber­ra­tion,” Hugh­es wrote in a 1995 New York Review of Books piece that would become the chap­ter’s basis. “My fel­low anchor was the now, alas, late Harold Hayes, who had been a bril­liant edi­tor of Esquire but, like me, proved to have lit­tle tal­ent for sit­ting in front of a TV cam­era with make­up all over his face and recit­ing lines that had been writ­ten for him by oth­er peo­ple.” Their pro­duc­er made it clear that “nei­ther Hayes nor I was to have any say in what we would say,” that “the sto­ries had to have an ‘inter­est­ing’ angle; mere news val­ue would not do,” and that “the audi­ence out there could be assumed to have the atten­tion span of cad­dis flies.”

View­ers who tuned in to the very first 20/20 on the evening of June 6th, 1978 were treat­ed to cul­tur­al announce­ments such as that of Sat­ur­day Night Fever’s posi­tion at the top of the record charts; an inter­view with Flip Wil­son offer­ing “a long stretch of pushy bathos” about the come­di­an’s fam­i­ly trou­bles; jokes about Pet Rocks; a young Ger­al­do Rivera, “fired up with sym­pa­thy,” expos­ing the use of live rab­bits to train rac­ing grey­hounds (the unmoved Hugh­es remem­bers his child­hood in Aus­tralia, where “the rab­bit is just an agri­cul­tur­al pest, a lit­tle high­er on the lad­der of exis­tence than a cane toad or a cock­roach”); a vocab­u­lary-build­ing “absur­di­ty” after each com­mer­cial break; and, bizarrely, a clay-ani­ma­tion Jim­my Carter singing “Geor­gia on My Mind.”

“All across Amer­i­ca the next morn­ing there was a col­lec­tive exha­la­tion of rage from TV crit­ics about the triv­i­al­iza­tion of news,” recalls Hugh­es. “In addi­tion to being point­less, the new ABC news mag­a­zine is dizzy­ing­ly absurd,” wrote the New York Times’ John J. O’Con­nor. The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Tom Shales likened it to “being trapped for an hour at the super­mar­ket check­out counter and hav­ing to read the front pages of blab­by tabloids over and over again,” though he did praise its “slight­ly more respectable” exam­i­na­tion of the then- and cur­rent Cal­i­for­nia gov­er­nor Jer­ry Brown’s bid for the White House. Carl Sagan, who in 1980 would make his own mon­u­men­tal con­tri­bu­tion to intel­li­gent tele­vi­sion with Cos­mos, also showed up as a promis­ing pres­ence on the cor­re­spon­dent ros­ter.

Any­one watch­ing today will, at least, appre­ci­ate the rel­a­tive brevi­ty and infre­quen­cy of the adver­tise­ments. They, along with much else seen and every­thing derid­ed in 20/20’s pre­miere, would grow enor­mous­ly more both­er­some as the decades wore on, a fact that ulti­mate­ly made Hugh­es real­ize that he had, “how­ev­er briefly and inept­ly, been part of the avant-garde of net­work tele­vi­sion. The first issue of 20/20 was unques­tion­ably one of the worst turkeys ever seen on an Amer­i­can net­work, and yet it was curi­ous­ly prophet­ic, and crit­ics like Tom Shales who saw in it an omen of the future of the TV news-mag­a­zine pro­gram were not wrong.”

Soon all of Amer­i­ca, and much of the rest of the world, would find itself set­tling for the cal­iber of view­ing mate­r­i­al set by the first 20/20, with “its sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty, its far­ci­cal chum­mi­ness, its dis­mal fix­a­tion on celebri­ty, its kitschy mock human­ism, its voyeurism, and above all its belief that real­i­ty must always take the back­seat to enter­tain­ment.” Hugh­es, in the NYRB essay and in the new book, sums up this regret­table de-evo­lu­tion with the words of Ovid. Video melio­ra proboque: dete­ri­o­ra sequor: “I see bet­ter things and approve them: I go for the worse.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Art Crit­ic Robert Hugh­es Demys­ti­fies Mod­ern Art in The Shock of the New

Remem­ber­ing Robert Hugh­es, the Art Crit­ic Who Took No Pris­on­ers

1978 News Report on the Rocky Hor­ror Craze Cap­tures a Teenage Michael Stipe in Drag

How ABC Tele­vi­sion Intro­duced Rap Music to Amer­i­ca in 1981: It’s Painful­ly Awk­ward

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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