In more modest days CBS News had rules about screen credits. The front credits could not contain anyone’s name, and the back credits could not be longer than thirty seconds. All credits were to be approved by a vice president; and no administrator, including vice presidents, could take any screen credit, ever.
It was different in the commercial television and film worlds. The opening credits are often mystifying. The directors and writers are union members and their credits were unalterably placed by hard labor-management negotiations. The Writers Guild of America takes the next to the last credit; the Directors Guild of America is last. The producers are not unionized. That’s why there are many, many producers’ credits.
In America today a dollar buys what a nickel bought at the beginning of the 20th Century. The same pressures apply in front screen credits. Inflation.
In mid-20th Century, a producer was the man who put the whole thing together. Producer inflated to Executive Producer, and for some time he was the man who put the whole thing together. But because there were no unions to protect the title, inflation continued. Today Executive Producer denotes any executive who touched the project—the fundraiser, the lawyer, the agent, and almost anyone who executed the deal. In short, anyone who has a telephone can call himself a producer.
What you rarely see today is the only title deflated over time. Associate producer meant the producer’s mistress and it is almost never used.
When I was promoted to executive producer, both the title and the job made me uneasy. Superficially, I was to oversee the producers’ expense accounts and budgets. (I fired only one producer for cheating. He found a restaurant in New York with the same name as a distinguished men’s store. He charged fictionalized dinners and came away with a new suit. His television work was less imaginative.)
What was more difficult was judging the process of an investigative or cultural report. I would drop into the cutting rooms and look at rushes coming in from the field. Or, as the broadcast neared completion, I could be an editor-coach. It required aggressiveness.
The subject of the first broadcast on which I was to take executive producer credit was homosexuality.
In the mid-1960s, public discussions of homosexuality were rare. The Stonewall riots were a few years away. No serious documentary had ever been done on the subject, but for two years, CBS had been filming interviews. The subject was to be covered scientifically and a leading psychiatrist was to guide Mike Wallace through the discussion.
I don’t know if Eugene Spratti caused my distaste for the topic. Before I had reached puberty, and just after he had, Eugene cornered me in a basement coal bin on Cornelia Street in Chicago and tried to put his erect penis in my face. I screamed, and he ran.
During my tenure at the American Museum of Natural History, I had heard behavioral scientists discuss the matter. Same-sex intercourse existed in some primate species. I think the question was whether monkeys who practiced it were the social rejects of the group. But those were distant words, long ago.
The homosexuals interviewed by Mike Wallace were lit with shades around the lights. Their faces were interrupted by shadows shaped like palm fronds. The key interview was between Mike Wallace and Gore Vidal. Wallace reflected the homophobia of the time, but Vidal was hardly defensive. The psychiatrist-expert was earnestly dogmatic. To the greatest degree, homosexuality was the mother’s fault. Mothers-child problems caused homosexuality, and on this broadcast only males were shown and discussed.
It was too much for me. I had not participated in the planning, shooting nor preliminary editing. For every minute on the screen, there were at least thirty minutes of out-takes I had not seen. I would not put my name on the credits.
I tried to explain my decision to Fred Friendly, who said, “There has never been a CBS Reports without an executive producer credit. But take your credit off. We’ll run the show in a time when no one will see it.” Then he added, “I tried to fix it for a year or so. I thought maybe you could do it. We’ll bury it in the schedule.”
I tried to explain my decision to Mike Wallace, who said, “Listen to my closing. Maybe it will change your mind.”
I listened to that brilliant voice at its most persuasive. I was not persuaded. Years later, Wallace asked me why he had been such a damn fool to do the show. Unfortunately, the CBS News Library was well run and had filed the script properly. A gay employee found it and distributed it. Mike has had to live with it ever since.
My experience with “The Homosexuals” reminded me of a promise I had made to myself after writing soapy dramas in Chicago. I wrote the scripts and then someone came in to change the lines and the readings I had heard in my head. He was called the director. Obviously, to insure my writing, I had to become a director. I then found that as the writer-director, there was some fellow on the phone telling me I was either over-budget or over the time limit. He was the producer. I had to become a writer-director- producer to further insure my writing.
The next logical step beyond writer-director-producer was to go into the insurance business—become an executive producer or vice president. In either case the writer, would be lost.
What I wanted to do were broadcasts that I wrote, directed and produced by myself. Non-fictional essays. At first I had to plead for two a year; later I was urged to do more. Still later, when another executive producer was promoted to a vice presidency, a senior vice president, Bill Leonard asked me if I would like to be a junior vice president. It was only fair, he thought.
I refused. All vice presidents are disguised insurance agents.
Bill was much relieved. “I would have had to lower your pay by ten thousand a year. Anyway, I’d lose two great documentaries a year.”
I remained a writer, and what I did lose were the stock options I would have received as an executive. In television and movies writers are enlisted men, at best non-commissioned officers.
March 7, 1969: CBS News Reports Televises “The Homosexuals” hosted by Mike Wallace: https://www.advocate.com/politics/media/2012/04/09/mike-wallace-and-homosexuals