Do all you people who watched Len Dawson confound the Vikings on the tube really believe what you saw? You're lucky. Luckier by far than Associate Editor William Johnson, whose five-part series on the wondrous workings of TV comes to an end in this issue. After months of close scrutiny, not only of the TV tube itself but of what goes on behind its gleaming phosphors, Johnson says he no longer believes anything at all—and neither does Writer-Reporter Nancy Williamson, who worked with him on the project. "Color me numb," she says.
This is an article from the Jan. 26, 1970 issue
In his series in LIFE on Apollo 11, Author Norman Mailer recently suggested that maybe the moonshot never took place at all, that we were all simply deluded into thinking it did through ingenious MassCom manipulations. Bill Johnson finds himself in much the same state of mind. "After all these months pondering TV," he says, "I can no longer suspend my disbelief about the business. I disbelieve that there are millions of us life-sized, grown, middle-aged, responsible men sitting around in the dark staring for hours at eensy-weensy mosaics made of electronic dots. I disbelieve that there are highly paid people who are paid highly simply because they believe that if they show for the 10 trillionth time a commercial in which two guys stand in two bathrooms talking to each other through a jointly held medicine cabinet, all us middle-aged people will buy vats of underarm deodorant. I disbelieve anything I see or know about television because it's all too damned absurd. And what I disbelieve most about it is what I know the best: that it is all true."
Like Mailer, Johnson (an oldtime bleacher-sitter) is beginning to wonder if there are really any such things as ballplayers or stadiums or spectators, or whether the whole panorama of sport is just some electronic fiction flickering on a 21-inch (measured diagonally) screen in his own basement. Even the things that happened to him during his long course in disbelief have taken on a curious unreality.
"Bill Stern," he says by way of example, "came to my home personally on a summer Sunday last year to deliver an armload of his private scrap-books. Well, maybe that doesn't sound like much to you, but when I was a boy Bill Stern was more famous to me than Franklin D. Roosevelt. Then, too, I've had my grammar corrected in a public restaurant at full volume by that relentless perfectionist, Howard Cosell. I got the opportunity to peek over the fence at Tony Verna's house at Malibu to see if his neighbor (Doris Day) was out lounging on her porch. She wasn't. Within the space of five minutes at an ABC hospitality suite at the U.S. Open I met Astronaut Walter Cunningham, Bandleader Phil Harris, Golfer Ben Hogan, Heart Surgeon Dr. Denton Cooley and a lady whom I believe was Miss America of 1965. I even talked over the telephone to the guru of mass media, Marshall McLuhan himself. He turned out to be a grumpy guru. He said he did not want his ideas cast about any longer without his being fully reimbursed in cash for them. He said it was fruitless for someone of my background (he had no idea who I was, but I do not contest his conclusion) to attempt an undertaking as complex as interpreting the relationship between TV and sports. He said, rather cryptically, 'For instance, you don't even understand that the moonshot is going to have an incredible impact on sport.' Then he said he was in the middle of writing an article for big money and that he couldn't waste any more time. I guess we'll just have to wait to find out what he meant. We often do."
One thing Bill added that he does believe: "With some exceptions, the people Nancy and I interviewed—announcers, executives, directors, cameramen, producers, salesmen, flacks—were friendly and candid people of real wit and high general intelligence. The messengers, hurrah and alas, sometimes shine brighter than their media."