For Showbiz, Big War Worry Was Money

It’s an “era of noguts journalism,” thundered VARIETY just over 25 years ago, blasting the networks’ passive coverage of the Vietnam War.

It is only during and since Vietnam that the media and entertainment industry has reported on itself during times of war.

In the four previous conflicts the U.S. has become involved in during this century, the business’ (and VARIETY’S) major concern during wartime was losing money.

When WWI broke out in August 1914, the burgeoning American film industry appeared more concerned about the loss of imported raw material for film stock than the loss of foreign markets. Some observers even thought the war was beneficial because it eliminated foreign competition.

Fraught with dangers

As now, traveling abroad was fraught with dangers. Broadway producer Charles Frohman told a VARIETY reporter before setting off for London that “death is life’s greatest adventure.” He was lost with the liner Lusitania in 1915.

When WWII began in September 1939 and again when France fell to Germany in May 1940, VARIETY reported on the major studios’ need to cut budgets to compensate for the loss of foreign markets.

Even before the war began in Europe there was concern about the damage to markets and diplomacy by films critical of totalitarian regimes. The 1939 “Confessions Of A Nazi Spy” took a marked turn away from neutrality and so inflamed Nazi Germany that, according to an April 1940 VARIETY story, the Nazis executed many Polish exhibitors who had shown the film. American censors banned an Australian radio docu series that detailed the smashing of a German spy ring.

After Pearl Harbor, a new set of worries began for showbiz. Fears of air attack brought initial concern that Broadway lights might have to be turned off, but this soon dissipated. In fact, VARIETY declared just two weeks after the Japanese attack:”LOSE THE BLACKOUT BLUES: Air Raid Precautions Needlessly Distress Communities At a Time When Amusement Is Most Important.” (“Lose The Blackout Blues” soon became the title of a song.)

The power of broadcasting also emerged during WWII, boosting the infant medium of radio but sending theatrical b.o. plunging. President Roosevelt’s speech to the nation on the night of Dec. 9 set a new high for listening with an 83% rating reported by the Co-operative Analysis of Broadcasting.

As the nets lose $2 million a day in ad revenues covering the war with Iraq, radio faced similar problems in the early ’40s as advertisers demanded deductions for time taken out of their sponsored shows by war bulletins.

After the last great global conflict, modern warfare turned to smaller, more localized campaigns, particularly in Asia. Showbiz’ major concern during the Korean War was that lawmakers were paying no attention to their demands for tax breaks.

The then veep of the Motion Picture Export Assn. of America noted that the inevitable subjugation of North Korea would produce yet another foreign market for Hollywood pictures.

As tv gained acceptance, the first Korean War casualty was not truth but a half-hour dramatic series called “Writers Theater.” The tv deal had been firmed with “a major oil company,” but after a board meeting on the day war broke out in 1950, “the oil-men decreed this was not time for an entry into television.”

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