Person to Person
About This Show
from the Museum of Broadcast Communications Encyclopedia of Television
Person to Person developed out of Edward R. Murrow's belief that human beings are innately curious. That curiosity was intense regarding the private lives of public people, or visiting the extraordinary in the most ordinary environment--the home. For his television program, then, Murrow, sitting comfortably in the studio, informally greeted two guests a week, in fifteen minute interviews in their homes, talking about the everyday activities of their lives. The interviews avoided politics, detailed discussion of current events, and a line of questioning that delved deeper into one or two issues. The more general the question, and frequent the change of topic, the more satisfying the process of revealing different facts of the private figure. On Person to Person, people conversed with Murrow, and, starting in the Fall of 1959, with Charles Collingwood, as host. Almost every year, for nine years, informal chats positioned the show in the top ten network programs. But the series increasingly became the battleground, inside and outside CBS, over the function of television news, the ethics of peering into private lives for profit, Murrow's journalistic integrity, and the organizational control of the network's image.
From 1953 through 1956 CBS News aired Person to Person, but it was independently owned and produced by John Aaron, Jesse Zousmer, and Murrow. Tensions inside CBS began when Fred Friendly, Murrow's producer of See it Now, accused Murrow of capitalizing on the remote, in-home, investigative news interviews done with statesman, and pioneered by Friendly, on See it Now. Although the remote, in-home interview was not new, Person to Person's approach differed substantially from other CBS projects. Murrow anticipated criticism of the series' lack of news-directed discussion. But that was not, in fact, its intended purpose.
Murrow wanted the series "in spite of television," to "revive the art of conversation." But the image was as significant as the conversation. Employing two to six cameras, a program opened up different parts of an individual's home. This was an historical step to building the cult of the personality in news programs. The personalities were divided into two camps, with the entertainment and sports figures in one, and the second containing all others, including artists, writers, politicians, lawyers, scientists, and industrialists.
Given the period in which it was produced, the series' success was as much technological as human. Regardless of the series' news-value it took the time and effort to reach people otherwise inaccessible. Murrow's "guests" lived in different locations marked by distinctive terrain. Thus, in a time of pre-satellite technology, a prerequisite to introducing them to America via television was a line of sight transmission from the guest home to a telephone micro-wave transmission tower. The production crew always conquered terrain barriers. Although the crew received notoriety for shearing off part of a hill to achieve line of sight, they most frequently broke records for building tall relay towers for one-time remotes, the first adjacent to the Kutcher's Hotel in Monticello, New York enabling interviews with boxers-in-training Rocky Marciano and Ezzard Charles.
The guests were maintained in constant visual and aural contact through advance placement of large video cameras in different rooms. It was also necessary to obtain FCC approval for a special high frequency wireless microphone which could be attached to the guests. Each program periodically used a split screen image, a new experience for many television viewers.
In order for the live program to proceed smoothly in real time, some "rehearsal" was required. From 1953 it was common knowledge from interviews and statements by Murrow that cue questions were used before the show so that guests could be "talked through" the movements to be made from room to room. The visit to Marlon Brando's home, for example, began outside at night, with a stunning view of Los Angeles. From there it moved to his living room, and finally, to a downstairs area where friends waited to play some music with Brando. While certain questions were prepared but answers were spontaneous. A home's content was part of a guest's personality, so the camera frequently stopped to reveal a picture on the wall, vases, and other objects of interest. Unfortunately, guests liked to foreground possessions of special value, interrupting discussion and sometimes making the series, at its start, into a gallery of art objects. And many times a show's success depended on how comfortable both the guest and the host were with the arrangement. Inevitably, the spontaneous nature of the discussion or awkwardness of a situation generated embarrassing moments, such as Julie Harris folding diapers as she spoke, or Maria Callas throwing Murrow off guard by innocently noting she liked the quality of lingerie in America. Perhaps for these reasons the producers valued those infrequent visits to "homes" that had more news value, such as the warden's home on Alcatraz Island, or an old light house.
The series and Murrow received frequent criticism. Respected television critics, including Harriet Van Horne, Philip Mintoff, Gilbert Seldes, and John Lardner pointed to Murrow's petty, aimless chatter, arguing that television demanded more substance and depth, especially from someone of Murrow's journalistic background. For Murrow's colleagues, the series diverted his valuable time and energy from other projects, and added an unnecessary burden. When Collingwood took over as host, these critics quietly accepted the series for what it purported to be.
But Murrow steadfastly defended the series. When an author, such as Walter White, mentioned a new book, book sales increased. Thousands of viewers requested a one sentence, fifty-seven word Chinese proverb read by Mary Martin, which she had engraved in a rug. If two or three children committed themselves to piano lessons after seeing Van Cliburn, Murrow believed the criticism worth taking. Moreover, the range and variety of people interviewed was unprecedented for network television at the time. One three week period in 1957 included interviews with the political cartoonist Herbert Block, media market researcher, A.C. Nielsen, and Robert F. Kennedy, Chief Council of the Senates Select Committee.
In 1956 CBS Television bought the series from Murrow, at that time sole owner. But because Person to Person with Murrow made a large profit for CBS, it continued to be the center of conflict between Murrow and management. Person to Person elevated its host to celebrity status with the public, and some at the network resented the fact that the series placed Murrow in a powerful position. Frank Stanton accused Person to Person's production practices of deceit and dishonesty, claiming guests were coached in questions. This charge, coming after the quiz scandals and directly attacking Murrow's integrity, resulted in a public airing of personality conflicts that hurt CBS's image and further estranged Murrow from the executive branch at CBS. A public respectful of Murrow as host, however, did not rush to condemn him for taking risks on other shows, such as his methodical criticism of Senator McCarthy. And although Fidel Castro's appearance on Person to Person had the potential to alienate viewers who perceived him as a Communist dictator, and though the program attracted government criticism of CBS, Murrow survived the resulting criticism. Person to Person's rating's success translated to Collingwood as host, continuing to feed the public's appetite for the celebrity interview. When Collingwood began, the series added the attraction of overseas interviews, filmed or taped.
Person to Person first generated many of the arguments still lodged by critics of today's talk shows, arguments questioning the primacy of the individual in news and the role of a voyeuristic camera as a compelling approach to news. But before the series began Murrow insisted on a thorough respect for the home of guests "invaded" by the camera. Unlike the series to follow, Murrow and the camera did not confront guests with questions constituting an inquiry. Both Murrow and Collingwood permitted their guests to direct the conversations, which accounted for a meandering pace. Their respect for the public figure in a private setting, and avoidance of emotional confrontations created a unique ambience in this programming genre, and Person to Person stands as a vital example of television's potential for personal, individualized communication.
Edward R. Murrow
John Aaron, Jesse Zousmer, Charles Hill, Robert Sammon, Edward R. Murrow
October 1953-June 1959 Friday 10:30-11:00
October 1959-September 1960 Friday 10:30-11:00
September 1960-December 1960 Thursday 10:00-10:30
June 1961-September 1961 Friday 10:30-11:00
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Who Talked About This Show
Video clip: Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis on a 1954 telecast of Person to Person