Edward R. Murrow's "Person to Person" and the Birth of Personality TV

Recently I took the opportunity to view for the first time some segments of the 1950s celebrity interview program "Person to Person" with renowned newsman Edward R. Murrow. One of Murrow's several endeavors for CBS in the 1950s, "Person to Person" was on the air from 1953 to 1961 (hosted until 1959 by Murrow, then by Charles Collingwood). Although the show never cracked the season-end top 20, it became a fixture on CBS's Friday night line-up.

"Person to Person" is sometimes dismissed as a lightweight show, portrayed as fluff that Murrow tolerated doing because it allowed him to engage in more substantive journalistic work. Certainly, this was the impression given in George Clooney's film "Good Night, and Good Luck." It also seems to be the conventional wisdom in most TV histories and Murrow biographies. I would like to argue, though, that "Person to Person" represents a terribly important step in the evolution of television culture, one that is probably best called "personality TV."

A typical half-hour episode of "Person to Person" consisted of two quarter-hour segments each of which was a mostly light interview with a popular celebrity. While Murrow sat in a TV studio (smoking one of his signature cigarettes), the interview subject appeared by live remote hook-up in their own home. At the time, this set-up was an important technological breakthrough, and this kind of remote interview (from all variety of locales) has become a staple of news and "infotainment" programming.

Viewers in the fifties, though, probably appreciated "Person to Person" more for the aspect that has become an equally important staple of TV, that of the celebrity allowing TV cameras into their home. Think of all the ways in which this technique has since been put into practice: "in-depth" celebrity interviews by Oprah Winfrey and Barbara Walters; a host of "personality" segments on a host of programs on a host of networks (broadcast and cable); even with presidential candidates (a recent TV interview with John McCain, for instance, featured a location interview at his Sedona, Arizona, ranch). The strategy with these kinds of interviews is usually two-fold, combining seemingly contradictory aims: allowing viewers a look inside a celebrity's supposedly glamourous personal world, while at the same time making the celebrity seem accessible and normal.

Some examples from "Person to Person" illustrate how Murrow and his staff operated and how the celebrities of the fifties interacted with Murrow. In a 1958 interview, Dick Clark, then just reaching his first peak of fame as host of "American Bandstand," talks to Murrow from the modest apartment his family still lived in near Philadelphia. Clark introduces his wife and toddler son and gives a tour of his personal record collection (which is stuffed into a small closet). Perhaps the most fascinating thing in Clark's interview is his engaging defense of teenagers. At a time when the term "teenager" still connoted juvenile delinquency to much of the population, Clark--who certainly had a vested interest in the teenage audience, but who also had a unique claim on understanding them--sincerely and earnestly urges intergenerational understanding.

Equally fascinating is a 1953 interview with then-Senator John F. Kennedy and his then-new wife Jacqueline. Also still living in a modest apartment (in Boston), the Kennedys speak of their recent wedding and the senator talks about and shows mementoes from his service in World War II, then still very fresh in the nation's minds. Senator for less than a year at the time of the interview, this episode of "Person to Person" was probably many viewers' first introduction to the politician who would become president several years later.

These two interviews are somewhat uncharacteristic of "Person to Person" in that the subjects' homes are hardly glitzy or glamourous. More typical of a "behind the scenes" look at celebrity lifestyle is a 1957 interview with Art Linkletter. Linkletter at the time was one of the most popular television personalities in the country. His interview with Murrow is the perfect example of simultaneous domesticity and celebrity glamour, as he and his wife, in eveningwear, show off both their five children (ranging in age from nine to twenty) and the majestic chandelier in their two-story foyer. Murrow oddly compliments Linkletter for remembering the names of his own children (perhaps suggesting that many celebrities of such stature might not be able to), before Linkletter shows off mementoes (including an Emmy statue) from his varied television and business career.

Later practitioners of this kind of "personality TV" altered elements of the technique. "Person to Person" utilized the remote hook-up as a central conceit of the show; once the technological novelty of this method wore off, this kind of segment was just as likely to be taped or filmed for later playback. Murrow, sitting casually in a TV studio, puffing on his cigarette, seemed (and was literally) detached from the interviewees; later masters of the form, such as Winfrey and Walters, joined celebrities in their homes and have been more engaged with their interview subjects.

Although it would almost certainly disappoint him, the kind of "personality TV" Murrow presented in "Person to Person" is probably as significant a legacy for him as his contributions to "hard" news and to broadcast journalism. Look around at the television landscape today--which seems to have greater sway over the TV industry and TV culture? The kind of investigative journalism Murrow practiced? Or the kind of celebrity journalism he also pioneered on "Person to Person"?

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