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.”
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.