CBS is dusting off a fascinating bit of TV history Wednesday night with "Person to Person" (CBS/2 at 8), anchored by Charlie Rose and Lara Logan. But long ago, this was the exclusive sandbox of one Edward R. Murrow, then broadcast journalism's most renowned figure.
Tonight's revival is pretty much in name only, given the vast spread of time separating both. Murrow's "Person to Person," which launched Oct. 2, 1953, was a marvel of technology, with novel split screens and the anchor needing to travel no further than his sanctum on Ninth Avenue to conduct live interviews with celebrities in their homes. Murrow began with Brooklyn Dodgers great Roy Campanella and conductor Leopold Stokowski. (Tonight George Clooney and Jon Bon Jovi are interviewed at home while Warren Buffett will be interviewed from his Omaha office; no preview disc was made available to screen.) The Friday series was to become a hit.
MURROW'S SHOW A mighty figure within CBS News after his reporting triumphs in Europe, Murrow owned the show outright -- unprecedented for a newsman and company employee -- and it immediately raised eyebrows. Why was a hard- news reporter conducting celebrity interviews, and why did the subjects sometimes get their questions in advance? Easy answers to both. Murrow had planned to interview average citizens, but CBS executives wanted celebrities. And the second, cables had to be laid throughout an apartment or house, while the subject -- such as Liberace or Marilyn Monroe -- would reasonably have to know why Murrow needed a line into (say) the living room.
Murrow lashed out at the industry in a famous 1958 speech after the quiz-show scandals embroiled CBS' "The $64,000 Question." TV's greed, he said, had turned the medium into a swamp of "decadence." CBS chief William Paley hit the roof.
CONTROVERSY ERUPTS Murrow took a year's leave in 1959, but during that time, CBS president Frank Stanton -- charged with cleaning up the mess in the wake of the quiz scandal -- said "P to P" should not have given interview subjects questions in advance. This time, Murrow was the one who hit the roof. Feeling Stanton had sandbagged him by tangentially linking him to quiz-show fraud, he wrote to The New York Times: "Surely Stanton must know that cameras ... do not just wander around a home. The alternative to a degree of rehearsal would be chaos. ... My conscience is clear; (Stanton's) seems to be bothering him."
Paley demanded an apology. Murrow refused to give one. Early in 1961, Murrow left CBS for good. "Person to Person" -- then anchored by Charles Collingwood and with a disclaimer that some questions were given to subjects -- was canceled in early fall of that year.