Bicentennial Minutes

Almost fifty years ago, the United States celebrated its Bicentennial, treating July 4, 1976 as the 200th anniversary of its founding. (The next “major” milestone will be the semi-quincentennial, which doesn’t quite roll of the tongue). For just over two years, from July 4, 1974 through October 1976, every night CBS Television broadcast a very short monologue by some public personality, ranging from actors and directors to writers and politicians. (Oddly, I don’t recall any historians, but one hopes with more than 750 episodes at least one made it on camera.) They were a minute long, give or take a few seconds, and served as miniature history lessons (or a long commercial), each timed to an anniversary of some specific event on that day. In some ways, they were “on-this-day-in-history” lessons. So, for example, on May 7, 1976 movie director Otto Preminger described Thomas Jefferson’s May 7, 1776 departure from Monticello to return to the Continental Congress. Similarly, on June 4, 1976 Senator Fritz Hollings very briefly described the first arrival of British ships near Charleston as a prelude to their attack on June 28, 1776. Each began with a musical flourish that told you what was coming and was integrated with some still images, a set, or a location that looked “historical” in the background. The series turned out to be relatively popular and was even nominated for two Emmys in 1975 and 1977.

The Bicentennial Minutes were not an exercise in civic education by CBS. Shell Oil Corporation bought 1 minute of daily airtime from the network for two years and told CBS what it wanted. Fortunately, the idea had some internal advocates, including Ethel Winant, who became a Vice President at CBS in 1973 (the first woman in an executive role), and Lewis Freedman, Vice President for Programming. Freedman got the ball rolling before corporate turned to Bob Markell, a CBS veteran and executive producer. (Winant’s career started in casting and Freedman had spent much of his career at PBS, only joining CBS in 1972).

            Senior executives at CBS were unhappy with Freedman’s product.  Markell had a deal for a different program based on the Playhouse 90 anthologies that CBS ran in the 1950s.  As a condition of giving it to him, they required Markell also to produce the Bicentennial Minutes.  They gave him two guidelines: his product had to be less expensive and “better.”  Markell assembled his staff, told them nobody had a clue what they were supposed to deliver and decided to treat it as a show with a script, a musical score and three acts, all in just a minute.  In short, he wanted a professional product.  

            Initially, “it was very hard to get people to come on the show because important actors would say why should we give Shell a free commercial.”  But, Markell’s formula worked and eventually “people were begging to be on the show,” he later told the Television Academy’s history interview project.  He made the critical decision not to limit it to “showbiz personalities” and introduced presenters like Tennessee Williams, Leonard Bernstein, Kukla-Fran-and-Ollie (a kids educational puppet show) and painters next to the cast of usual Hollywood suspects.  As time progressed, Markell built a staff of researchers and took the program to do location shoots in Boston, Philadelphia, and Williamsburg, giving it a patina of authenticity.  Over two-plus years, Bicentennial Minutes were ubiquitous enough to become memes in popular culture, even warranting spoofing on television itself.  A handful of the programs are still available on YouTube.

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