Rod Serling on University Close-Up - April 30, 1970
"My two teenage daughters informed me, and continue to inform me, that my taste in the muse are decidedly anachronistic. 18-year-Jodi makes the point with almost deadening repetition and consistency that only Rod McKuen speaks to the moment and at the moment. She eschews everything written back to the time of the Greeks as irrelevant. Oddly enough, or perhaps not so oddly, these teenage daughters have somewhat pointed the way towards what I ought to talk to you about tonight, and that's the relevance of the arts and the mass media to the times. I find motion pictures currently being judged by college students not necessarily by what they say or how they're said, but rather - 'do they relate to the time?'
Now relevance is indeed a perfectly legitimate criteria by which an reasonably intelligent college student or for that matter anyone else can sit through a film or a television play, but where I part company with the young generation - and this includes my daughters - is when I find relevance is becoming the only criteria by which they come up with a qualitative conclusion. Now I imagine that 'Ode to a Grecian Urn' has no relevance to today's ghettos, and William Shakespeare even with his prescience can hardly be quoted in any debate having to do with 20th Century social disorders.
But because they aren't relevant does not necessarily mean they are unimportant, or that they are not craftsmanlike, or that they do not contain both truth and honesty. Simply that if we are to worship at the shrine of relevance, and assume relevance is scotch-taped to a calender, we consign to ignominy some inspiring literature written over the years that may tell it like it was, and in doing so come very close to telling it like it is. See if you can distinguish between the agony of a young man in uniform in 1942, say, with the agony of his father or older brother twenty years later.
Not too long ago, I was conned into seeing a film called Easy Rider. Once again, that beloved bane of my existence daughter Jodi assured me that not since the Old Testament has anything been written that is so altogether world-shaking, important and so uniquely definitive. So at her behest and at the behest of my own students, I went to see Easy Rider. And as much as said to Peter and Dennis 'do with me as you will, young men. Move me, titillate me, doing something to me.'
Well, they did something to me. They left me with an unalterable feeling that Mr. Hopper and Mr. Fonda should open up a Honda agency in Beverly Hills and get out of acting business."Mr. Fonda, who is an altogether charming and attractive young man, rides back and forth across the screen with all the facial mobility of a cigar-store Indian." Mr. Hopper, conversely, it seems, has a Vocabulary numbering about 16 English words, all of them prefaced by quote 'like, man' unquote.
And through the welter of this pretentious, dull sameness, I did manage to detect a plot, a theme if you will. Young men who ride motorcycles carrying heroin to pedal in southern cities and are put down by Southern bigots in lunch counters have a special, tragic stature. They represent the generation of the deprived and the misunderstood. Well, I'll grant you that beards and the longhairs and the peace beads are indeed misunderstood, and they are short-changed, and they are put down by an older generation that has neither the patience, the understanding or the sensitivity to read the pulse of the young and to understand that their sense of honor is no less real than ours."
But to devote an hour and fifty-odd minutes to a prolonged motorcycle ride through scenic countrysides and idyllic communes while they cart addictive drugs across state lines turns me on not a whit. I can sympathize - and do sympathize with the victims of legitimate prejudice, but to shambling, smarmy repetitive men like Captain America and his sidekick I can't conjure up even a short sob, let alone place them in the hallowed halls of legitimate, tragic personages. But I make a prediction here that ten years from now, Easy Rider's contribution to the cinematic art will be just about as vague as Abbott & Costello or an old March of Time or a vintage newsreel.
Now not all contemporary films that are so-called relevant are Easy Rider. Midnight Cowboy is a classic example of a movie with a point of view. And while I'm not familiar in real life with anyone similar to its leading characters, I felt for them. The Graduate is another such film, Z is another one, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is yet another. Now each one of those films talked of people and often of places that were literally outside of my experience. Their success, their honesty, lay in the fact that they made me care, that I was somehow able to feel and understand.”
Question from the audience – Given its dependence on sponsorship, would do you think TV could speak out against those same advertisers?
"For the same reason that newspapers feel no compunction about putting in an editorial against the US steel company raising its prices. Should television show any comparable timorousness in laying claim to some points of view of their own? We have so historically become wedded to a concept of sponsor and program that we have allowed sponsor to take over the thematic value of any program. It is, of course, part of the strength of a program that they can relate it to a product - The Kraft Music Hall, The Dinah Shore Chevrolet Hour, etc.
But that is incorrect and it's improper. The entertainment portion of a commercial television show should be absolutely unrelated to the advertising portion thereof. And indeed, one of the problems, one of the things that has proven such a desperate drawback to all television is that we are currently sharing the stage with such a foreign entity. You can put out the greatest Arthur Miller play on television, and 12 minutes into it, out come dancing rabbits with toilet paper.
I recollect most vividly, for example when ABC put on The Robe and about 30 seconds after the crucifixion, out come the Dove commercials. Where does taste stop? They are so concerned with offense. They don't want to offend with controversy. But they don't mind a whit offending with a distortion and with a tasteless intrusion of a commercial product with a religious experience."
Question – Why do you feel that movies showing the youth of today in communes, as flower-children, and showing human love and 'doing your own thing' are not relevant?
"I don't say, mind you, young man, that I'm right and you're wrong. You might be right and I might be miserably wrong. All I submit to you is, at this stage, at this conjure in our society, we cannot respond to the evils of Earth by putting ourselves in a shrub-enshrouded commune. Nobody's gonna cure cancer that way. Nobody's gonna bring up world peace that way. Nobody's gonna respond to poverty that way. It's grand, doing your own thing. God love them. Let them do it. But don't go through this pretense of being God's Loved Ones, because that's simply not true. You're copping out, you're retreating from reality, and you're not facing reality (Applause)."
Question – Could you share your thoughts about the television ratings system?
"I think ratings system is some sort of mad house arithmetic that has no bearing on anything. When the ratings service represented by the Neilson services, etc. etc. went in front of the Federal Communications Commission in Washington two years ago with charts that looked like something out of NASA explaining how they can interview ten people and have that statistic reflect the taste of ten thousand. And throughout all this welter of charts and arithmetic and insanity, certain clear-headed members of the commission said 'what do you mean by that?' and they literally could not answer and walked away tails between their legs making an admission that it was balderdash, it was nonsense. And yet, that was on a Friday and on Monday they were still quoting ratings.
Case in point, and altogether interesting of late - look at the two shows that were just canceled by CBS, The Red Skelton Show and Petticoat Junction. Now, I yield to no man in my admiration of Red Skelton, as a comic, as a mimic, etc. But I thought it was getting pretty tired. And Petticoat Junction I refuse to allow to be shown in my home. I have a queasy, aged stomach that responds a little negatively to these kind of thing. Now my kids can go over to the neighbor's and watch, but I don't want them to watch it in my house.
Now, these two shows, apart from their questionable entertainment value - or indeed, say that they're entertaining - had massive ratings, both of them. And it's conceivable that Red Skelton could have gone on ad infinitum. So why did they take them off? Because suddenly the network begins to realize that the arithmetic approach to television is not the key concern. It's who watches, who buys the product.
That's why they're losing shows that appeal to the middle-aged and the older. Who's buying nowadays? It isn't them. You don't buy much on social security. From 25 to 35, that's the group, get them. And they're not watching Red Skelton. Which is suddenly - the ratings suddenly, whether they exist properly not or authentically or validly isn't the question anymore.
Another great case in point, the most singularly, historically, popular show ever done on television, in terms of percentage of people watching , was I Love Lucy. On the night Lucy had her first baby, it had literally the largest audience - larger than the moonshot, larger than the Presidential Election, larger than everything - Lucy having her baby.
On the night they took that rating, it so ran away with competition that historically in terms of percentage of people watching we've never come close to it. And yet, during that period, the sponsorship's sales - Philip Morris, they were the sponsor - their sales dropped. Figure that one out!"