Book Review: "The Cool Fire" (1976) by Bob Shanks

The MediaLog has an affinity for books that when they were originally written and published were meant to be up-to-date overviews of their respective media industries (i.e. TV or film), but when read now are woefully and sometimes comically out of date. Of course, the reason why such books are interesting now is because they provide an excellent historical "snapshot" of the industry as of the time they were written. I've been a fan for a long time of books like Levinson and Link's "Stay Tuned" (1981) and Mayer's "About Television" (1972), both of which fit into this category. "The Cool Fire" (subtitled "How to Make It in Television") by Bob Shanks, from 1976, also fits firmly within this tradition.

Shanks was at the time an executive at ABC, in charge of, among other things, the network's late-night "Wide World of Entertainment" series. He'd had a lengthy career dating back to the 1950s, starting as a bit part actor (he jestingly recounts having been killed on several different shows) and progressing through stints as a talent booker on the Jack Paar "Tonight Show," a producer on the "Merv Griffin Show," and an independent television producer. His take on the television industry circa the mid-seventies is informed by this varied experience and the book (indicated by the subtitle) takes the shape of an advisory tome for those interested in television careers.

Whether or not the book serves (or more accurately, served) as an adequate such advisory I cannot say, but it is fascinating to read now to see the nature of the advice Shanks gives and more so in the different areas of television industry operations he covers. Remember, this was a time when the three broadcast networks (CBS, NBC, ABC) were at the peak of their power and influence and reigned nearly unchallenged in their purchase on the attention of American audiences. Fox and the other smaller broadcast networks were still a pipe dream. Television syndication was fledgling compared to what it is today. This was a pre-home video, pre-cable, pre-internet and pre-video gaming era. The expectations were vastly different than what they are now. Shanks mentions several times in the book that for a TV series to survive cancellation it needs to post ratings of at least a 30 share--ratings that even the top programs today would kill for! Interesting too is Shanks' take on how to navigate the network bureaucracies in order to get programs sold, and he offers several examples from his own career, regarding now-quaint shows such as "Great American Homes" (a syndicated effort hosted by E.G. Marshall) and "Great American Dream Machine" (a magazine-format show aired on PBS). (Not all the shows Shanks produced had the word "great" in their titles.)

Equally interesting, because they are the most obsolete, are the chapters on the production process and on technical issues related to TV production. Shanks takes the reader step by step through the TV production process, here incorporating examples mostly from his experience producing the Griffin show. Detailed descriptions of TV equipment in all phases of production are provided, even to the extent of suggesting which models of cameras, etc., are the best. The result, as with the book in general (as, indeed, with most of the books in this category as mentioned above), resembles that of a prehistoric insect trapped in amber: a look at how the TV industry operated at a very specific moment in time, available for us now to examine and utilize in understanding American television history.

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