Saudek’s Omnibus: ambitious forerunner of public TV

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When producer Robert Saudek died in 1998, his New York Times obituary called him “the alchemist-in-­chief of what is often called the golden age of television.” From 1952 to 1961, the product of Saudek’s alchemy was Omnibus, a weekly that did what public TV now aspires to do, but on commercial network TV. It turned out to be one of the last but finest gasps of the Cooperation Doctrine — the notion that commercial broadcasting could ignore the bottom line and the largest available audience. [More on the Cooperation Doctrine.]

For the December 1999 pledge drives, PBS distributed the first-ever TV retrospective on the famous series, “Omnibus: Television’s Golden Age,” from New River Media. The writers are William M. Jones, professor of political science at Virginia Wesleyan College and author of Omnibus: American Television’s Season in the Sun, from Wesleyan University Press, and Andrew Walworth, executive producer and president of New River Media.

The Public Broadcasting Act was 15 years into the future when Omnibus began on commercial TV. But with heavy backing from the Ford Foundation, which would soon begin helping start the first public TV stations, Omnibus presented a model of what public TV could become. (Photo: Roy Stevens.)

On Nov. 9, 1952, more than 3 million American viewers tuned their black-and-white sets to the CBS television network. They saw a trim, youthful Alistair Cooke walk slowly toward a screen of vertical blinds and turn to camera. He welcomed them to a new series that, as he put it, held “something for everybody.” Tentative, slightly dissonant music heightened the mood of anticipation.

At the end of that first 90-minute program, viewers had been treated to excerpts from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado performed by Martyn Greene of the D’Oyly Carte Company; the debut of “The Bad Men,” an original television play written by William Saroyan that featured a walk-on part by an unknown actor named Sidney Poiter; “Witch Doctor,” a Haitian dance performed to a throbbing drumbeat; and “The Trial of Anne Boleyn,” an original play by Maxwell Anderson, starring Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer. Interspersed among these major segments were short features, including a piece on X-ray motion pictures—the first ever presented on television. The show closed with an impressionistic short film that commemorated Veterans’ Day, inspired by the text from Ecclesiasticus, “Let us now praise famous men.”

The new series was called Omnibus, and there had never been a program quite so ambitious in scope. During its eight-season run, Omnibus aired on all three commercial networks —four seasons on CBS, one on ABC and the last three on NBC. From beginning to end, Omnibus attracted and held a loyal audience, which ranged from about 4 million homes in the first season to 5.7 million in the 1958-59 season. It won more than 65 awards, including seven Emmys.

When Omnibus made its debut, the Public Broadcasting Act was 15 years into the future. The U.S. television industry was still immersed in fierce debate over just how to harness broadcasting in the service of academic instruction and civic education. On the one hand, some argued that noncommercial stations—typically licensed to universities—should be strengthened and charged with the mission of public education. Others held that cooperation between commercial broadcasters and nonprofit organizations provided a more promising path: only the networks, with their production expertise, large budgets and economies of scale, would be able to produce educational programming of sufficient quality to draw a mass audience.

Omnibus was perhaps the last and best attempt to realize the promise of the Cooperation movement. Ultimately, the movement, like Omnibus, would founder on the unyielding demands of the commercial marketplace, clearing the way for the birth of public broadcasting as we now know it. But Omnibus did present a model for much of what public broadcasting would become, both in its acknowledgment of the need for corporate sponsorship balanced by foundation support, and in its eclectic programming mix. Indeed, if you unpack the editorial content that was Omnibus, you find the basic building blocks of much of what is on the public television airwaves today.

Omnibus was created by a hybrid commercial/nonprofit production company called the Ford Foundation TV-Radio Workshop, brainchild of advertising pioneer James Webb Young, a retired senior vice president of J. Walter Thompson and a pioneer in advertising, who had been retained by the Ford Foundation to find ways to improve commercial television’s efforts in the field of educational programming. Young was convinced by the arguments of industry leaders such as NBC’s Sylvester (Pat) Weaver that it was not necessary to set aside a large number of channels for noncommercial educational television because the commercial broadcasters themselves could be counted on to supply cultural, educational and public affairs programming.

Young understood that to succeed, the Workshop would have to think big. He convinced the Ford Foundation to put up $1.2 million — the equivalent of $8.2 million in today’s dollars — for the Workshop’s mission.

Saudek created a culture of integrity and commitment to excellence at Omnibus. (Photo: Roy Stevens.)

Young also had the extraordinarily good judgment to hire Robert W. Saudek to head the effort, and invited him to think broadly about how the achieve the Workshop’s admittedly vague charter. Saudek had been a Peabody- Award-winning documentary producer and v.p. for public affairs at ABC Radio. Having already established a reputation as a rising star at ABC by producing such programs as a radio adaptation of John Hersey’s Hiroshima, Saudek combined rock-solid character, superb administrative skills, refined artistic sensibilities, and a fearlessness in spending the Ford Foundation’s largesse. As he later remarked about the TV Workshop’s budget, “We should take the money and blow it, and we should blow it in a big way.”

Above all, Saudek was a cultural impresario and producer, who understood the harsh and unforgiving demands of live broadcasting. Michael Ritchie, Saudek’s assistant who went on to direct films such as Downhill Racer and The Candidate, put it this way: “Television is a producer’s medium, and nobody exemplifies that more than Bob Saudek. He thrived on chaos. I think that he did his bet work when his back was against the wall, and it looked as if nothing could possibly get on the air, and yet something had to get on the air. And that of course was one of the great virtues of live television: the gun was to your head, you couldn’t just say, “Well, I’m going to go off and think about it for a month.”

Bob Saudek had a knack for hiring people to help him who shared his gifts and vision for the program, beginning with Alistair Cooke, and including feature editor Mary Ahern, production designer Henry May, film supervisor Boris Kaplan, associate producers John Coburn Turner and Paul Feigay, and business manager George Benson. Almost without exception, these people remained fiercely loyal to Omnibus throughout its run. Indeed, Saudek created a culture of integrity, good taste, attention to detail, and commitment to excellence and authenticity in every aspect of production which remained remarkably consistent from the first show to the last.

The Ford Foundation grant insured the independence of both the Workshop and its programming. Additional funds were raised through sponsorships of individual episodes, divided among as many as five separate corporate underwriters, called “subscribers.” The combination of secured foundation support and a broad underwriting base enabling Omnibus to remain largely aloof from sponsor influence. Commercials were carefully rotated from one slot to another in successive programs, preventing sponsors from becoming associated with any one segment.

Corporations sponsored Omnibus because it allowed them to associate their companies and products with prestigious, high-quality programming. Among the most loyal sponsors were Aluminium Ltd., Union Carbide, Scott Paper, Greyhound, J.P. Stevens, American Machine and Foundry, and Remington. As is true for today’s public television corporate underwriters, many Omnibus sponsors used their time for “high-concept” messages designed to build a favorable corporate image in the minds of a more discriminating audience. (This again was an idea inspired by Saudek. In many cases the spots—which were branded “institutionals” — were produced in-house by Saudek and his team.)

With its top-drawer production values, access to the deep pockets of the Ford Foundation, and corporate support, Omnibus occupied an entirely different world than the fledgling university and community noncommercial television stations of the era. But for all its success, Omnibus was never commercially viable without Ford Foundation support. During its five-year lifespan, the Workshop received $9.5 million in grants from the Ford Foundation and took in $5.9 million in advertising revenue, demonstrating that while this kind of programming could generate corporate support to cover most of its costs, it needed continuing substantial support from the nonprofit sector.

In many ways, Omnibus was a precursor to the magazine-format television programs so popular today. Omnibus was the first to break away from the rigid 15/30/60-minute program segment pattern that had dominated radio and then television. Each Omnibus show was more like an issue of a weekly magazine, as Saudek liked to point out. Some episodes had as many as five separate features, while others presented a single work, usually a play or an opera. This extraordinary variety in the content and length of features stemmed from Omnibus‘s free-flowing form, which in turn grew from Saudek’s desire to be able to feature in the same series an entire grand opera or a 30-second high-speed film of a jackrabbit running through a field.

Omnibus was always designed as entertainment that educated. It is not surprising, then, to discover that Omnibus featured performers who were established stars, like Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, Helen Hayes, Burgess Meredith, Bert Lahr, Peter Ustinov, E.G. Marshall, Charlton Heston, Cyril Ritchard and Hermione Gingold.

The stars of public television first shone on Omnibus, too. Alistair Cooke is known to a generation for his brilliant America series and as the 20-year host of Masterpiece Theatre, but fans of Omnibus know that he was the master of ceremonies for every one of the 164 Omnibus programs. Leonard Bernstein, already famous for his composing and conducting and now remembered by so many baby boomers for his televised Young People’s Concerts, first established himself on Omnibus as the preeminent TV lecturer on music. The National Geographic Society and Jacques Cousteau made their television debuts on Omnibus.

But Omnibus also showcased new and rising talent. James Dean’s 1953 appearance on Omnibus in a dramatic role—his first on television—is perhaps the most famous, but a host of others made early appearances as well: Joanne Woodward, Sal Mineo, Ed Asner, Bradford Dillman, Larry Hagman, Susan Strasberg and Peter Falk, just to name a few. Jonathan Winters and Mike Nichols and Elaine May made debut appearances on Omnibus, which catapulted them to fame.

Many who later prospered behind the camera contributed to Omnibus, including directors Don Hewitt, Delbert Mann, Bob Banner and Lee Rothberg, and producer Allen Funt.

In addition to Maxwell Anderson, playwrights William Saroyan, William Inge, Moss Hart and Andrew Lewis wrote for Omnibus. And the series produced plays by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Oliver Goldsmith, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and adaptations of stories by John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charles Dickens, Jean Giraudoux, Guy de Maupassant, as well as longer works by Homer and Boswell.

Choreographer Agnes deMille, legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski, drama critic Walter Kerr, writer and educator Theodore Geisell (Dr. Seuss) and conductor Joseph Levine wrote and performed for Omnibus many times over. Opera was a regular feature on Omnibus, with productions of Puccini’s La Boheme, Lehar’s The Merry Widow, Menotti’s The Telephone and The Medium, Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe, Gershwin’s 135th Street, and several operettas by Gilbert & Sullivan.

To serve as writers, consultants and on-air personalities, Omnibus plucked from the groves of academe such intellectuals as Richard Hofstadter, Alan Nevins, Frank Baxter, Rachel Carson and Eliot Noyes. Joseph Nye Welch, the Boston attorney who become famous for his forthright denunciation on national television of Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, became a major contributor to Omnibus as both writer and on-air commentator on legal and constitutional issues.

Difficult though it may be to imagine after such a recitation, this is just a taste of the programming that poured from the Omnibus cornucopia. This list of glories also unjustly obscures the dozens of small jewels, short films of all sorts and in-studio demonstrations and interviews done so engagingly and adroitly by Alistair Cooke, many dance features, and now-precious profiles of great Americans in arts and letters and public affairs, such as Abraham Lincoln, William Faulkner, James Thurber, Thomas Hart Benton, Grandma Moses, Frank Lloyd Wright, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Amelia Earhart, Pearl Buck, and four generations of Adamses.

Cooke’s hosting “soared above even my hopes,” Saudek wrote. (Photo: Roy Stevens.)

At the center of all this was, of course, Alistair Cooke, a 44-year-old BBC correspondent when Saudek handpicked him as series moderator. Saudek later wrote, “I had the highest hopes for Alistair in his untried role of host, but I must say that in ease of manner, clarity of expression, deftness of wit and the unusual ability to flatter an audience into feeling sophisticated themselves, he soared above even my hopes.”

For his part, Cooke has fond memories of Saudek and Omnibus. “Bob Saudek foresaw so many things that we now take for granted. And it wasn’t a question of just saying, ‘Let’s have documentaries, let’s have history, let’s have opera, let’s have orchestras.’ The great thing about Bob Saudek was something you¹d never guess from this modest, earnest, rather scholarly man. The great thing was inventiveness. It wasn’t enough to say ‘Let’s have a ballet.’ He’d say ‘Well, I tell you what we do. We bring in Sam Sneed and have him show the most beautiful golf swing. We bring in [Wimbledon Champion] Ellsworth Vines and show the most beautiful backhand. We bring in a skier and show his balance. And then bring in Gene Kelly, who’d weave those motions together and show that these people were all superb dancers. That made the program called “Dancing Is a Man’s Game.”

When we met with Cooke this spring, he was still the courtly, seemingly omniscient raconteur that television viewers have come to expect. “Well, I tell you, I was lucky with Saudek. The chemistry was right—just one of those things. So for nine years we had a flawless relationship.” What became equally clear during our interview was Cooke¹s command of the television medium, and his willingness to impart his tricks of the trade. When offered a glass of water to clear his throat, he turned it down. “Salt,” he said. “Salt is what we use at the BBC. Water just makes you swallow, and that dries you out. Salt makes your mouth wet.”

When the Ford Foundation terminated its funding after the fifth year, Saudek found the resources to continue production of Omnibus for three more seasons under the aegis of Robert Saudek Associates. On April 16, 1961, Alistair Cooke closed the final program of the season with an invitation to his audience to rejoin Omnibus in the fall. It was not to be. The networks’ insatiable thirst for bigger audiences and higher revenues from each time slot, the lack of a generous underwriter to replace Ford, the TV industry’s exodus to Hollywood from RSA’s home turf of New York City, the wear and tear of eight strenuous years of producing creative programming—all of these things had taken their toll.

Yet even afterward, Robert Saudek Associates continued the Omnibus tradition by producing a series of Leonard Bernstein specials, The Dow Hour of Great Mysteries, and a serial dramatization of John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage. Robert Saudek himself went on to sit on the first Carnegie Commission, which in 1967 recommended the creation of CPB and PBS. He was the founding president of the Museum of Broadcasting in New York City, and served as the chief of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress, where it is possible to view archival videotapes of Omnibus programs. He was a recipient of the National Medal of the Arts. As a grace note to the coda of his spectacular career he gave the extraordinarily complete production records of the Television-Radio Workshop and Robert Saudek Associates, along with the original kinescopes and archival videotape transfers of all 164 Omnibus programs, to the Cinema Archives at Wesleyan University, where they constitute what is very likely the most complete record of any television series ever produced.

For those involved with public television at every level, Omnibus presents a vivid reminder of the pioneering spirit and values of those who produced quality programming when the medium was still new. Almost 50 years after its debut, the mission of Omnibus and Saudek’s message to the world should still resonate with all of us who produce, schedule, fund or broadcast public television programming.

“The world was too full of wonderful things,” Saudek once said. “And television had very little on it that was wonderful.”

Who are we to aim any lower than that today?


Omnibus host Alistair Cooke dies, 2004.


Entry about Omnibus in the Encyclopedia of Television.

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