"The Sixties": A chaotic decade stirs our affection

As the 1960s were unfolding, everything seemed bigger, brasher, more chaotic. Now, more than 40 years after it ended, the decade keeps providing compelling documentary TV. The latest example is "The Sixties," which debuts Thursday (May 27) on CNN. It's opener (about TV) is fairly interesting, but too crowded; many of the hours that follow are compelling. Here's the story I sent to papers:


It was a messy decade, full of dissent, disruption and
dismay. Still, people recall the 1960s fondly.

 “The affection that
people have for this decade is amazing,” said Mark Herzog, a producer (with Tom
Hanks and Gary Goetzman) of “The Sixties,” a documentary mini-series debuting
Thursday on CNN.

That affection isn’t just from those who were in the midst
of it. “I can’t believe the number of (younger) people who have said to me, ‘I
was born in the wrong era,’” said Herzog.

Affectiion? This was a time of rage over Vietnam and racial
bias … terror over the Manson murders and the Cuban missile crisis … shock over
the Bay of Pigs debacle and assassinations.

Events seemed bigger, broader, more dramatic, causing Herzog
(born in ’62) to ask why this time was so different. Writer Tom Wolfe, he said,
called it a combination “that only happens once,” when a new generation had the
time and affluence to question everything; the results varied:

The fastest changes came to things the new
generation could influence directly. Music was transformed – and not just by
one group. “Yes, the Beatles were the spark,” Herzog said. “But the Dave Clark
Five and the Rolling Stones and a lot of others were also big.”

The slowest changes involved things the older
generation ruled, especially primetime television. The Nielsen ratings for
1968-69 did have a show with a fresh style (“Laugh-In”) at No. 1 and one with a
black star (Diahann Carroll’s “Julia”) at No. 7; still, there were no other
black stars and few other distinctive shows. The No. 2 through 6 spots on the
Nielsen list went to two cowboy shows plus “Mayberry,” “Gomer Pyle” and “Family

And the biggest clashes came when the
generations collided – especially on Vietnam and civil rights. That’s where TV
– the subject of Thursday’s opener – stood out.

Unlike the networks’ bland entertainment divisions, news
departments turned serious. They dominated Kennedy-assassination coverage and gave
civil-rights protesters a national focus.

Leaders knew how to get attention, Herzog said. “They were
very careful to go into areas where they would spark” visual conflict. At
first, he said, civil rights marches in Birmingham, Ala., drew little reaction.
Then cameras showed police chief Bull Connor countering marchers with dogs and
fire hoses.

That was in May of 1963. Three months later, CBS was the
first network to double its newscast to a half-hour. By 1965, Morley Safer was
opening its Saigon bureau and bringing intensity to Vietnam coverage.

The decade was recording itself, Herzog said. “I was
surprised by the sheer amount of footage that is out there …. There were
copious amounts of great news footage and documentaries.”

And there was audio of Lyndon Johnson in the White House. He
was often a master; the documentary replays him steamrolling Sen. Richard
Russell into joining the Warren Commission.

And he was sometimes overwhelmed. Johnson, Herzog said, had
“a lack of commitment to the Vietnam War … but also a lack of knowing how to
get out of it.”

So the war continued, shaping a high-energy time that is
often viewed with affection.

“The Sixties,” 9 p.m. ET Thursdays, CNN,
rerunning at midnight and at 8 and 11 p.m. Saturdays.

The opener – “Television Comes of Age,” May 29 —also
runs at 10 p.m. and 1 a.m.

Two of the episodes – on the President Kennedy
assassination (June 12) and civil rights (June 26) are two hours; others are
one hour.

The assassination episode and the one on music’s
“British Invasion” (July 10) had advance airings on CNN; the other eight are new.

Others deal with Cuban crises (June 5), Vietnam
(June 19), space (July 17), the year 1968 (July 31) and “Sex, Drugs and Rock N’
Roll” (Aug. 7). On July 24, “The Times, They are A-Changin’” views the surge of
feminism, civil rights, gay rights, conservatism, environmentalism and more.

For the "American Idol" finalists, there's been basement magic


The "American Idol" finalists will soon be working to arena audiences. Some of their big moments, however, also came in basements, to audiences of one or so. Here's the story I sent to papers:  


Sure, garages are nice for bands or start-up computer companies.
But some of music’s important moments happen in basements; just ask the top two
people in this year’s “American Idol.”

Jena Irene, 17, the runner-up. Two years ago,
she tried “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” the Elvis Presley song. “I remember
playing it for the first time in my basement for my mother and she cried for
the first time in a while,” she said. “I knew it was powerful, but didn’t know
if that was just because she’s my mother.”

Caleb Johnson,23, the champion. About six years
ago, he got a call from Josh Sawyer, a rock guitarist in his home town of Asheville,
N.C. “I went to his basement and sang for him,” Johnson recalls. “He literally
loved it. He invited his parents down to hear it.”

That was the start of something big. Johnson promptly sang
in the school talent show, getting a huge reaction after the first moments.
Soon, he was singing with Sawyer’s band, Elijah Hooker.

He was still doing that last year, he says, “playing shows
with the band three or four times a week,” when he auditioned for “Idol” … a
show he had tried twice before, never getting further than the top 24. This
time, he was never in the bottom three.

Now comes the next flurry. On Sunday, he’ll sing the
National Anthem in Washington, D.C., for PBS’ Memorial Day eve concert; three
days later, he’ll take Irene to her high school prom in Farmington Hills, Mich.
“I think I’m going to be up in the air all the time,” he said. Life can be a blur
for them. Just ask:

Irene why she made the unusual choice of letting
Johnson sing last, in the final performance show. She won the coin flip, but
thought it was about something else. “I wasn’t really listening, because I was
thinking of several different things.”

Or Johnson about “As Long as You Love Me,” his
first single. He said he was handed it just two days before he recorded it. He
calls it “just a fun song,” but expects his album (out Aug. 12) to be
differtent, with “really heavy, soulful, powerful rock ‘n’ roll.”

Irene also has big ambitions for her album, which she hopes
will include at least one song she’s written. First, she has to worry about her
prom. “I still don’t have a dress and I’m freaking out,” she said.

She calls Johnson “my best friend” and he praises her music
and her soul: “She’s so funny and sweet and full of love for people,” he said.

When she asked him to the prom, weeks ago, they didn’t
realize they would be the final two. But then both kept soaring. Johnson ranged
from the songs of power-rockers Rush and Led Zeppelin to doing the music of
Aretha Franklin, Adele and Lady Gaga.

Irene ranged from singing her own composition to scoring big
on love-song week with that basement song, “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Her
mother, it turns out, isn’t the only one who likes it.

This "Idol" finale was easy to predict ... or maybe not

If you like epic rock -- the sort that digs deep and pushes hard -- this is your week. Caleb Johnson and Jena Irene provide a powerhouse pair on Tuesday and Wednesday; then the winner will sing at the National Memorial Day Concert (see previous blog) on Sunday. Here's the story I sent to papers:


As some people see it, this year’s “American Idol” finale
was inevitable.

Surely, Caleb Johnson and Jena Irene would be the final two.
“Their performances are so big,” said Alex Preston, who finished third. “I knew
deep-down it would be them.”

One of the two, at least, always seemed like a sure thing. “Caleb
is a very big, dynamic performer with a big, strong voice,” said Harry Connick
Jr., one of the judges.

Johnson, 23, started strong and has never been in the bottom
three. He fits all patterns, including geographic: He’s from North Carolina,
which has had two previous winners – Scotty McCreery and Fantasia. The 12 “Idol”
winners include nine Southerners plus Oklahoma and Missouri.

And Irene? She’s 17 and a Northerner, from Farmington Hills,
Mich.; and she almost was out early.

Viewers didn’t put her in the show’s top 10; she survived because
judges gave her one of the three wild-card spots. Only one other wild-card
person (Clay Aiken, 11 years ago) has reached the final night.

Early on, viewers plunked her in the bottom three, at the
edge of ouster.  “She just keeps comin’
back and comin’ back,” said Harry Connick Jr., an “Idol” judge who spotted her
potential early. “She just has that mystique,” he said. “I think I called her
the sleeper at the time.”

That mystique seems to involve confidence. Offstage, Preston
said, “Jena is just like one of the guys. She’s just fun to hang out with.” She’s
similar, he said, to Johnson, who’s “a super-cool dude.”

And onstage, Connick said, she keeps that assertiveness.
“Jena has such variety in her song choices and her performances, from ballads
to Benatar (rock belter Pat Benatar). She’s made some great decisions.”

Italian on her father’s side (her full name is Jena Irene
Asciutto) and French on her mother’s, she grew up comfortably in Detroit
suburbia, where both parents are business executives. Early on, she started
writing songs and singing with her band, Infinity Hour.

In Ashville, Johnson was singing with the rock band Elijah
Hooker and took two previous cracks at “Idol,” reaching the top 42 and the top
24. This time, he seemed destined for the top.

Last week, Irene was singing richly emotional songs and
Johnson was delivering furious, mike-stand-smashing rock ‘n’ roll. “It’s television
and people love (that),” Preston said. “It’s awesome, but I can’t do that.” He
knew then that it would be a Caleb-Jena finale.

“American Idol,” Fox.

Performances, 8-9 p.m. Tuesday, then viewers
vote; finale, 8-10:07 p.m. Wednesday.

It's a 25-year-old concert with (among others) a 17-year-old star

Each summer, two of TV's best music events are big and outdoors and don't need to hand out any awards. Those are concerts on the Capitol lawn on the 4th of July and on the eve of Memorial Day. Now the latter has its 25th concert ... which makes it eight years older than one of its stars, Danielle Bradbery. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Back in 1989, war seemed like the distant past and soldiers
seemed invisible.

“I felt like there was nothing going on in this country on
Memorial Day,” recalled Jerry Colbert, a TV producer known for “A Capitol
Fourth.”  So he launched a new PBS
concert on the Capitol lawn.

Now – in a very different time – the 25th
National Memorial Day Concert is Sunday, mixing emotional stories with music
from Jennifer Nettles, Megan Hilty, Jackie Evancho, Anthony Kearns and two
reality-show winners – the new one from “American Idol” and Danielle Bradbery
from last year’s “The Voice.”

These singers have little in common except strong voices.
“When you get 300,000 people on the lawn, you’d better be able to project,”
Colbert said.

They range from country to classical to Broadway, some of
them much younger than the event itself. Bradbery is 17, Evancho is 14. “These
are little girls who can belt beautifully,” Colbert said.

He means “little.” At 5-foot-3, Bradbery stood in the shadow
of “Voice” coach, Blake Shelton, 6-foot-5. “The first time I saw him, from far
away, I thought, ‘Oh, he’s not that tall,’” she said. “Then I got close.”

This is what reality competitions are about – big-time opportunity
confronting total newcomers. Before entering “The Voice,” Bradbery said, she’d
hadn’t performed anywhere, not even school choirs.

“I’ve always been in love with music and singing,” she said.
“Every time I came home from school, I’d go to my room and sing for hours.”
That was in a Houston suburb; eventually, her parents – a Halliburton executive
and a hairdresser – nudged her to the “Voice” auditions.

On March 25, 2013, the teen who had never sung for a crowd was
singing to four stars. Three of them -- Shelton, Adam Levine and Usher --
pursued her. “I always thought I’d be on Team Blake,” she said. “But then I
started to think, ‘Let’s hear what everyone has to say.’”

Her choice of Shelton turned out well. “On- or off-camera, he’s
always making everyone laugh,” she said. At 16 and a high school sophomore, she
was the show’s fourth champion and Shelton’s third.

The swirl began – the promotional song (“My Day”) for NBC’s
Winter Olympics coverage … an album that reached No. 5 on Billboard’s country
chart, with a single (“Heart of Dixie”) at No. 16 … and two tours, all while
switching her high school studies to Online.

The first tour was with Brad Paisley and Chris Young, the
current one with Hunter Hayes and Dan + Shay, a show ranging in age only from
17 to 26. “We’re all young and the crowd is nothing but screaming.”

At the PBS concert, there will be less screaming. Many of
the songs – including “I Will Never Forget You,” from Bradbery’s album – will be
serious; so will the stories told in between.

Less than two weeks before the 70th anniversary of
D-Day, the show will introduce some of the men (now in their 90s) who scaled an
Omaha Beach cliff, against intense gunfire.

It will also introduce John Peck, a quadruple amputee from
the Iraq war who has found a new life … and Ruth Stonesifer, whose son and his
longtime friend were the first U.S. casualties in Afghanistan. These are
stories and wars never imagined during that first telecast in 1989.

“National Memorial Day Concert”

8 p.m. Sunday (actually Memorial Day eve), PBS

Many stations will rerun it at 9:30; check local

CBS stays the same, makes it look different


While other networks scramble, CBS has the opposite task –
making the same seem different.

Most of its shows will be back next year, with only one
major one (“The Crazy Ones”) cancelled. To keep things fresh, the fall line-up

Make three shows wait until mid-season. There’s
no fall slot for “The Mentalist,” “Undercover Boss” or “Mike & Molly”
(which also waited this season). They’re on the bench with a new cop show (“Battle
Creek”) and an “Odd Couple” reboot with Matthew Perry and Thomas Lennon.

Slide others. “NCIS: Los Angeles” goes to
Mondays, “Amazing Race” to Fridays, “CSI” to Sundays.

Have some new shows prepare for their exit. This
will be the final season for “Two and a Half Men” and possibly for “CSI” …
which, later in the season loans its slot to “CSI: Cyber,” a spin-off with
Patricia Arquette as a cyber-crime expert.

Change one tradition: For the first time since 1986,
CBS won’t have four comedies on Mondays; instead, it gives the 9 p.m. slot to “Scorpion,”
about a Homeland Security think tank led by a mega-genius. Nina Tassler, the
programming chief, insists it has “so much humor, so much heart” that comedy
fans will approve.

And the big change, forced by circumstance.
Beginning Sept. 11, pro football takes over CBS’ Thursdays for seven weeks. “The
Big Bang Theory” will temporarily move to Mondays, then return to Thursdays on
Oct. 30, when its Thursday companions debut.

“It’s really the best of both worlds,” Kelly Kahl, the
network’s scheduling chief, insisted. At the start of the season, “Big Bang” –
a ratings champion – will boost Mondays and football will spark Thursdays. When
things return to normal on Oct. 30, “it will be rolling thunder all the way,”
with few reruns.

Reruns will be scarce everywhere, Tassler said, partly
because of the overload of shows waiting.

Kahl granted that it was a weaker year for comedy
development. Plans for one from the “How I Met Your Mother” producers fell
through, Tassler said, when they disagreed about changes. The sole newcomer is “The
McCarthy’s,” which she said is about “a very loud, very spirited” Boston family.

But drama development was strong, Kahl said. That includes
the expected crime shows – including an NCIS spin-off in New Orleans – plus “Madam
Secretary.” At 8 p.m. Sundays (once the “West Wing” slot), Tea Leoni plays a
secretary of state, with Tim Daly as her husband.

The dramas are strong enough to keep “Battle Creek” waiting,
Tassler said. Set in Battle Creek, Mich., it’s planned as a gritty cop show,
linking the producers of “House” and “Breaking Bad.” The line-up:

Mondays: First, “The Big Bang Theory” at 8, then “2 Broke
Girls”; “Mom,” 8:30; “Scorpion,” 9; “NCIS: Los Angeles,” 10.

Tuesdays: “NCIS,” 8 p.m.; “NCIS: New Orleans,” 9; “Person of
Interest,” 10.

Wednesdays: “Survivor,” 8 p.m.; “Criminal Minds,” 9; “Stalker,”

Thursdays: First, football; starting Oct. 30: “Big Bang
Theory,” 8 p.m.; “The Millers,” 8:30; “Two and a Half Men,” 9; “The McCarthys,”
9:30; “Elementary,” 10.

Fridays: “The Amazing Race,” 8 p.m.; “Hawaii Five-0,” 9; “Blue
Bloods,” 10.

Saturdays: Reruns, 8 p.m.; “48 Hours,” 10.

Sundays: “60 Minutes,” 7 p.m., CBS; “Madam Secretary,” 8; “The
Good Wife,” 9; “CSI,” 10.