From the one-hour premiere episode "Churchill, Man of the Century" (20 October 1957) to its last episode The 20th Century unit produced 112 half-hour historical compilation films and 107 half-hour "originally photographed documentaries" or contemporary documentaries. Narrated by Walter Cronkite, the series achieved critical praise, a substantial audience, and a dedicated sponsor, The Prudential Insurance Company of America, primarily with its historical compilation films. The compilation documentaries combined actuality footage from disparate archival sources--national and international, public and private--with testimony from eyewitnesses, to represent history. Programs averaged 13 million viewers a week, but periodically reached 20 million with action-oriented installments. The series' foreshadowed the production and marketing strategies of weekly compilation and documentary series that populate cable television today.
Irving Gitlin, CBS vice president of Public Affairs Programming, originally conceived the series as broad topic compilations based on Mark Sullivan's writings, Our Times. Burton Benjamin, whose career at CBS News began as the series' producer and progressed to executive producer, radically revised the concept. He stressed compilations focused on one man's impact on his times or an event ("Patton and the Third Army," "Woodrow Wilson: The Fight for Piece"). These were to be interspersed with more traditional biographical sketches of individual lives ("Mussolini," "Gandhi," and "Admiral Byrde"). Benjamin also added a mix of "back of the book" stories, or historical episodes receiving scant attention in history texts and unfamiliar to the general public. These "essays" dealt with individuals, such as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk ("The Incredible Turk"), and topics, such as the Kiska campaign ("The Frozen War"), and the Danish resistance movement ("Sabotage"). The series' researchers, both literary and film, were instructed to pursue detailed factual information that would add the unknown to the familiar. Information such as the $8.50 price levied on those who wished to watch Goering's wedding parade or the details of Rommel's visit to his family on D-Day surrounded primary story elements. With the assistance of Associate Producer Isaac Kleinerman, editor and film researcher for Victory at Sea (NBC, 1952-53) and Project XX (NBC, 1954-73), the series established a successful formula by stressing pivotal dramatic incidents in battles, conflicts, political uprisings, and the repercussions of actions by great male leaders. Accounting for the many battle-oriented programs, Benjamin admitted that the series was "as much a show biz show as any dramatic half-hour." But when the availability of dramatic and unusual footage of personalities existed for an historical period or event, such as "Paris in the Twenties" and "The Olympics," the unit produced broad-canvas compilation films. On a weekly basis audiences stayed with the series, expecting the unique and unfamiliar even in recognizable topics.
When the series started to look familiar, Benjamin revised. In the third season the series shifted to the individual in history and more contemporary topics. The biographical form slowly expanded to contemporary men in the arts and sciences, law and politics while giving "eyewitnesses" a more complex role in the compilation films. The successful use of German Captain Willi Bratgi in "The Remagen Bridge," dramatically describing how an American shell changed history's course by accidentally severing a detonation cable led the production team to search out figures with strong emotional and informational ties to the past. From 1961 through the series' end the most innovative compilations used central, compelling personalities to weave a dramatic structure. These included Countess Nina Von Stauffenberg and Captain Axel Von Dem Bussche in "The Plots Against Hitler," and Mine Okubo, author of Citizen 13360 in "The Nisei: The Pride and the Shame." But as the series progressed, contemporary documentaries gradually outnumbered compilation films. Contemporary documentaries depicted the enduring value of democracy's struggle against Communism, the modernization of America, and the pioneering human spirit facing adversity.
Although accepted by the public, 28 contemporary documentaries over the nine years were greeted with criticism. These depicted U.S. military defense systems and hardware, and functioned as publicity releases for the Department of Defense by equating liberty with technology. By filming documentaries such as "Vertijet" and "SAC: Aloft and Below," the producers received extraordinary military assistance declassifying footage in government archives for the compilation films. Still, Benjamin strove for journalistic integrity in a politicized atmosphere, even canceling biographies on General MacArthur and Curtis Le May when the military requested final script approval.
Social and political change overseas dominated the list of contemporary subjects. Although evident in the compilation films, the series' anti-Communist ideology and commitment to democratic modernization was blatant in programs such as "Poland on a Tightrope" and "Sweden: Trouble in Paradise." Periodically, the producers sought new approaches to the contemporary documentary, in response to waning critical reception and audience desire for the dramatic. When Sam Huff was outfitted with a microphone and transmitter, in "The Violent World of Sam Huff" the landscape of television documentary shifted. Other experiments in quasi-cinema-verite documentaries such as "Rhodes Scholar" and "Duke Ellington Swings through Japan" illustrated new approaches for television. But strong diversions from the series' dominant form and content, such as the grim Appalachian conditions depicted in "Depressed Area, U.S.A.," were rare and usually came from freelance film directors such as Willard Van Dyke and Leo Seltzer.
CBS executives admired the series' meticulous production process. The producers allocated 24 weeks for a program's production, with each stage such as literary research, film research, location shooting, editing, script writing, and music allocated a specific time parameter on a flow chart. By the sixth season the series ran itself, allowing Benjamin to work simultaneously on other CBS News projects. Into this production mechanism, Benjamin periodically added the attraction of established journalists and historians, including John Toland, Robert Shaplen, Sidney Hertzberg, and Hanson Baldwin. Although Alfredo Antonini composed music for 50% of the programs, Franz Waxman, Glen Paxton, George Kleinsinger, George Antheil and others contributed original scores, working with Antonini and the CBS Orchestra within strict time limitations. This would be the last time a documentary series turned consistently to talent outside a network.
Prudential supported the series use of these film, literary, and musical figures, but became a restraint on the series' creative potential. The company approved and prioritized each year's topics, submitted by Benjamin and Kleinerman, and admitted not wanting controversial programs on social and religious topics. The sponsor--and the Department of Defense--also expected a conservative and uncritical representation of military activity, past and present. Certain subjects such as gambling, the labor movement, and U.S. relations with Canada were rejected by Prudential. Even though Benjamin was aware of the corporate perspective, he fought several years for the approval to air biographies on "Lenin and Trotsky" and "Norman Thomas." Prudential directly limited the boundaries of subjects and investigation of any issue potentially upsetting to a large audience. Unknown to many, the series, particularly the compilation films, were tools for insurance agents who screened them at conventions and community events. Prudential withdrew sponsorship after the ninth season when sports programming reduced the number of available time slots to 18, and the production unit's value to new directions in news and documentary could not assure Prudential the recognizable and dramatic compilation film and documentary subjects deemed suitable for its audience.
NARRATOR Walter Cronkite
PROGRAMMING HISTORY 107 Episodes
October 1957-May 1958 Sunday 6:30-7:00
September 1958-August 1961 Sunday 6:30-7:00
September 1961-August 1966 Sunday 6:00-6:30
January 1968-October 1968 Sunday 6:00-6:30
January 1969-September 1969 Sunday 6:00-630
January 1970 Sunday 6:00-6:30
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