1968 was the media’s moment

Instant news, pop culture rose in stormy year

The whole world is watching — and revisiting the era when the real-time media diaspora as we know it today began to take shape.

Television loves a good anniversary story — there’s no cheaper programming to produce than clip shows — but of late TV and other media outlets have been obsessed with revisiting the events of 1968. Newsweek declared 1968 to be nothing less than “the year that made us who we are” in a cover story in November.

Indeed, even in comparison with these turbulent times, 1968 stands out as a 12-month span of seismic activity, from the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, to the flowering of the antiwar movement and Black Power, to the melee between police and protesters outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Beyond U.S. borders, the Prague spring and the Soviet invasion of the former Czechoslovakia captured the world’s attention, as did uprisings and protests on a mass scale in Paris, Rome, Berlin and Mexico City, among other cities. Even the Cannes Film Festival felt the pressure of clenched fists that year when helmers including Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Louis Malle and Roman Polanski shut down the fest by demanding that their pics be withdrawn from screenings as a show of solidarity with France’s striking workers and students (and in protest of the government’s firing of Henri Langlois, the head of the Cinematheque Francaise).

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear 1968 was as much a watershed year for media and entertainment as it was for world history, all of it colored by the emergence of a countercultural movement eager to thumb its nose at authority and social convention. This was a youth brigade that didn’t look, think or act much like their older siblings, let alone their mothers and fathers.

“The whole world is watching” was a popular protest-march chant of the time, and it was no idealistic exaggeration. The accessibility of commercial communications satellites to the major TV networks made it possible for TV cameras to deliver the world into America’s living rooms like never before.

Historian Mark Kurlansky details the first stirrings of our all-consuming, instantaneous media culture, of which the Internet is the apex, in his 2004 book “1968: The Year That Rocked the World.”

“In history it is always imprecise to attribute fundamental shifts to one exact moment. There was 1967 and 1969 and all the earlier years that made 1968 what it was,” Kurlansky writes. “But 1968 was the epicenter of a shift, of a fundamental change, the birth of our postmodern media-driven world.”

Then as now, the gap between the generations — between hirsute, freewheeling hippies and their Greatest Generation parents — was inescapable, and that chasm fueled changes in arts, culture, politics and broader societal attitudes and mores. The notion that the moaning guitar feedback of the Jimi Hendrix Experience could be hailed as musical genius was as alien to most people over the age of 40 in 1968 as is the sight of a Facebook page and all its digital extensions to most over-40 industry executives today.

Gen-’68 were the first Americans to grow up with television as a household appliance, and they came of age at a time when the smallscreen was just beginning to fulfill its promise of creating a global village. The ability to bounce footage or a live signal from Saigon or Paris or Detroit or Atlanta back to the New York control rooms of the CBS, NBC and ABC newsrooms made it possible to cover news events around the world virtually in real time.

“When I did the Korean war with (CBS News anchor) Douglas Edwards, I waited anywhere from five days to more than a week for the footage to get back from Korea. There was no satellite. No video that came in the express mail,” recalls Don Hewitt, CBS News alum and creator of “60 Minutes.” “Now you’re watching the battles as they fight them.”

The immediacy of the coverage that emerged around the time the U.S. escalated its forces in Vietnam — only to be embarrassingly outmaneuvered in early 1968 by the Viet Cong’s guerrilla tactics in the Tet offensive — had a huge impact not only on the audience, but on the correspondents who covered the war, Hewitt observed. The facts gathered by those on the ground were so often in conflict with the reports coming out of the Pentagon that it could not help but increase public opposition to the war, and to the onerous draft that fueled the protest marches.

No less an institution than CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite weighed in on the intractability of the Vietnam war on the heels of the Tet debacle. Cronkite was at first reluctant to offer his opinion to viewers, but he was persuaded by CBS News prexy Richard Salant that viewers needed a perspective from someone they could trust.

After Cronkite traveled to Vietnam, CBS News produced the docu “Report from Vietnam by Walter Cronkite,” which aired at 10 p.m. on Feb. 27. In the final minutes of the program, Cronkite was back behind his familiar desk to offer the one-sentence observation that is said to have helped seal President Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision to not seek reelection that year.

With the uncontrollable ground conflict, Cronkite noted, “it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”

A big wakeup call to the rising militancy among middle- and upper-class youth came in April of that year when nearly 1,000 students took over five buildings on the Columbia U. campus for five days to protest the school’s involvement in defense research and what was viewed as Columbia’s mistreatment of its neighbors in Harlem. That the standoff ended with police beatings and arrests of the demonstrators in the middle of the night only firmed the resolve of others to rebel against the Establishment.

Another crystallizing event that television captured with shocking immediacy was the violence that engulfed the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, most of it instigated by Chicago police.

Students for a Democratic Society and media savvy activists like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin had sought for months — even before the June 5 assassination of Kennedy — to rally tens of thousands of protesters outside the convention. In the end, only a few thousand showed up in late August, but it was enough to spark several nights of made-for-TV melees. The sight of Chicago police clubbing and beating longhairs in the park a few miles away from the convention site added a disturbing exclamation point to what had been a long, hot summer.

As Kurlansky observed: “It was one of those moments of 1968 television magic, something ordinary enough today but was so new and startling at the time that no one who had their television sets on has ever forgotten. Rather than taking the time to edit, process, analyze and package the film for tomorrow night’s news — what people were used to television doing — the networks just ran it.”

Haskell Wexler, famed d.p. and helmer, was in the right place at the right moment to capture this history-in-the-making with his directorial debut, “Medium Cool,” much of which was shot on location during the upheaval of the convention. It wasn’t just luck — Wexler had paid attention to the efforts to organize a mass protest in his hometown around the Democratic Convention.

“What led us to Chicago was a visceral response to a war that we were lied (to about), and young people who were resenting authority in obvious ways — you saw it in their dress and their hair and their language and the dope they used,” Wexler says. “The political system was not being responsive at all to the young antiwar people.”

Wexler was hip enough to the changing times to make part of the movie a look at how the media’s role in covering social unrest was changing. For the director, the shift was encapsulated in a brief, unstaged scene in “Medium Cool” in which protesters yell at an NBC News truck as it leav
es a chaotic protest scene.

“They’re yelling, ‘NBC, come back, come back,’ ” he recalls. “In our society, the urgent need for visibility is essential.”

Elsewhere on the front lines of pop culture, Gen-’68’s taste in movies and movie stars was utterly foreign to most of the executives and talent who ruled Hollywood through the turbulent decade when Old Hollywood faded to black. Goodbye John Wayne and Rock Hudson; hello Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda.

Helmer Peter Bogdanovich, who made his studio-pic debut in 1968 with the suspense thriller “Targets,” recalls making an observation in the “dark period” for the biz in the years before ’68 that was more prescient than he could have known at the time.

“I made a joke that the easiest way to make a movie in those days was to never have made one before,” he says. “The studios would go with untried talent because they didn’t know what else to do. The conventional movies they were making at the time were tanking. They wanted to cash in on the ‘youth market,’ but they didn’t know how.”

Bogdanovich pegs the awakening in Hollywood to the success in 1966 of Roger Corman’s prototypical biker-gang pic “Wild Angels,” on which Bogdanovich worked. It was produced and distribbed through the indie American Intl. Pictures banner for about $300,000, and went on to gross $6 million. Equally as important, the movie and its swaggering anti-establishment message, embodied by star Peter Fonda, “cut through” in pop culture in a way that AIP’s money-making beach-and-bikinis romps never had, Bogdanovich says.

“Wild Angels” made Fonda a star, and it enabled him to be a multihyphenate on 1969’s landmark “Easy Rider” for Columbia Pictures.

On the smallscreen, the look and the language of the counterculture movement was quickly co-opted for commercial purposes, which only hastened the mainstreaming of that subculture.

For the 1967-68 television season, the top program on the air was the durable, homespun humor of CBS’ “The Andy Griffith Show.” By the 1968-69 season, the top series was NBC’s “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” — a clear effort by Establishment TV to get hip. The Peacock’s groundbreaking comedy “Julia,” the first to feature a black femme lead, ranked No. 7 for the season. Diahann Carroll played a widowed nurse who regroups after her husband was killed in Vietnam.

Even CBS had its bastion of cutting-edge programming with “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” The comedy-variety skein hosted by siblings Tom and Dick Smothers debuted in early 1967 and reflected the times by gradually becoming more emboldened, more politically charged and more popular — until CBS famously pulled the plug in mid-1969.

It seems hard to believe today, but ABC was treading new ground in the fall of ’68 with “The Mod Squad.” The cop show revolved around three young hipsters who happened to be undercover cops. “A black, a white and a blonde” was the network’s shorthand description for the skein starring Clarence Williams III, Michael Cole and Peggy Lipton.

Producer Leonard Goldberg, who was head of programming for ABC in that era, recalls some nervousness at the network about gambling on a concept that might turn off many viewers who by the fall of ’68 were disgusted by hippies and protest marches and the like. But ABC made a bet on a hotshot producer named Aaron Spelling, calculating it would be worth it in the long run if it made younger auds take a second look at the network.

“We were also thinking about all of this talk of the generation gap, and the gap between black and white, and we thought this might be a way to bridge some of that,” Goldberg says. “This was the era when police were considered ‘pigs.’ We thought this show might be a small step forward for the younger generation to show that police aren’t all bad.”

Such altruistic motives sound quaint today — Goldberg says the network heard from many police departments that applications from young adults shot up after “Mod Squad’s” debut — but ABC, CBS and NBC could exert that kind of influence in what now seems a pre-historic era of three networks thoroughly dominating primetime.

The plethora of channel options that have flowered since the Me decade, coupled with the media-on-steroids growth spurt of the past decade, has changed the world in wholly new ways. The year 1968 may have made us who we are today as voracious consumers of media, but even the contempo parallels of an unpopular president and an unpopular war have yet to galvanize the kind of pervasive rebellion that the U.S. and other countries witnessed in 1968.

In this moment of download-on-demand viewing of movies and TV shows, and friendships built via email and social networking dot-coms, youth culture seems more about cocooning within discreet niches (aka the Long Tail theory) than communing with a few hundred thousand other like-minded folks at rock festivals and protest marches, or laughing along with Johnny Carson and Archie Bunker.

“One of the great chants of (’60s) protestors was ‘The whole world is watching.’ Now the whole world is playing,” says Martin Kaplan, the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at U. of Southern California’s Annenberg School.

“People are being amused and entertained and otherwise engaged. The networks don’t have the mass audience they did when people watched the three evening newscasts and had the kind of communal experience that we now see with such rarity,” Kaplan says.

Kaplan lays some of the blame for our contemporary cultural passivity on the tabloidization of mainstream news outlets, particularly TV news. The focus at ABC, CBS and NBC shifted to profits rather than public service in the mid-1980s, when their audience share began to erode and all three nets were sold to bottom-line focused owners.

“Now when the Olympic protests or Darfur or Iraq come on the radar, they’re blips in the passing parade of Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and all the other crimes and scandals we’re force-fed,” Kaplan says. “Television (news) abdicated its responsibility to distinguish the important from the trivial when it became a profit center. Now the thinking is, ‘How long can we hold your attention?’ as opposed to, ‘Oh my God, people had better pay attention to this.’ “

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