So Nixon is going to get back in the White House and James T. Aubrey is getting back into television. Well, well, well.
Well, well, well, well, well, well... WELL!
Richard M. Nixon is a former presisent of the United States. James T. Aubrey is a former president of the CBS television network. Nixon resigned in disgrace when up to his dimple in scandal. Aubrey got about waist deep in scandal himself. But he did not voluntarily resign. From late 1959 to early 1965 he led CBS to astronomical ratings and doubled its profits. He could have ridden out a lot more scandal than he did.
However, something more scandalous than scandals happened. The ratings fell. So did the ax. Aubrey was fired.
"I've been inactive for a while," said Aubrey this week. "But I'm back in production now, in television and in features." And so the man who gave America "Mr. Ed," "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Petticoat Junction" is ready to give America more -- and America is going to get it.
For Aubrey, last Sunday was super Sunday. He and Robert Hamner were executive producers of "The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders," a two-hour, bouncy-wouncy romp on ABC that, when it aired one week ago, earned the highest rating of any movie televised this season -- higher even than "The Sting," if there's any irony in that -- and the second highest ratings, according to ABC, of any made-for-TV movie in history. ABC estimates "Cheerleaders" reached 24.5 million households, which means around 65 million people saw part or all of the show.
That's only 10 million short of the total number who voted in the 1972 presidential elections.
What those millions watched was the featherweight fabrication in which the Dallas cheerleaders played themselves and were given ample screen time to shake their pompons. Was this another example of TV's "jiggle" programming? Co-producer Hamner said, "Actually, no. We specifically did not do a jiggle show. We decided not to emphasize 't&a' or anything like that."
How did Hamner get to be partners with Aubrey? "We're not partners," Hamner answers quickly. "This is our first project together. We may do some others. I also have a miniseries and a pilot I'm working on with Bob Wood, who also used to be president of CBS. So I tell people, 'You have to be an ex-president of CBS to be a partner of mine.' Heh heh heh."
Any TV movie that gets a 48 percent share of the viewing audience on a Sunday night, the heaviest viewing night of the week, is automatically a potential series, whether officially made as a pilot or not. "It's funny you should ask," says Hamner. "I was just on the phone with ABC and we just don't know yet. It depends a lot on Dallas."
Of all the iron, steel, and corrugated aluminum men who have ever run TV networks, probably none struck more terror or contempt into more hearts than did James T. Aubrey, whose coldblooded decisiveness while running CBS earned him nicknames like "The Smiling Cobra" and "Jungle Jim." Aubrey was known for firing people face to face with the two simple words, "You're through." According to Robert Metz in "CBS: Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye," Aubrey not only said "you're through" to Hubbell Robinson, a brilliant young executive he viewed as a threat, but also to an American institution known as Jack Benny. Benny was then picked up by NBC.
But what Aubrey did to television while building fortunes for CBS was worse.
Aubrey led television down a garden path to the briar patch. In "Air Time," the history of CBS News, Gary Paul Gates refers to Aubrey as "the eminent vulgarian," and indeed, many of the shows Aubrey fostered and groomed at CBS were hick-humored, rubetickling, canned comedies like "Petticoat Junction." "The Andy Griffith Show" was the cream of this crop; more typical was the simple-minded and one-dimensional "Mr. Ed." Metz notes of Aubrey: "He made no attempt whatsoever to improve the tastes of the American viewing public," but then it might be said nobody ever got rich doing that. ABC didn't in recent seasons and you can bet your boots CBS didn't during its chef salad days with Aubrey.
But in television, it's through today, back tomorrow.
Now, in Hollywood, a politely frank secretary is saying over the phone, "I'm sorry, Mr. Aubrey doesn't speak to the press, he told me that if any newspaper or magazine called he wouldn't speak to them. Mr. Aubrey doesn't like the press."
One hour later, there is a surprise return call from Mr. Aubrey, sounding quiet, seasoned and agingly debonair and not much like a cobra. He is asked what appealed to him about the cheerleaders that made it a suitable comeback vehicle.
"Why, the same reason it appealed to audiences," he says. "That's what we try to do produce: a product that will appeal to audiences. This had a wholesome way of appealing to a broad majority of audiences."
In Aubrey's defense, he also put on the air such programs as "The Defenders" and "East Side, West Side," a realistic social drama set on New York's meaner streets. Though Aubrey did put that one on the air, he reportedly disliked its gritty and non-escapist aura and wanted the setting changed to Park Avenue. When he gave those orders to series star George C. Scott, Metz says Scott left Aubrey's office with the words, "The show is staying right where it is. Goodbye, Mr. Aubrey. We are not meeting again."
Aubrey's undoing came about because of associations he developed with such shady industry figures as actor Keefe Brasselle, who suddenly turned producer and managed to sell CBS, through Aubrey, three new series -- all of them bombs -- without ever making pilot episodes. Aubrey's private playboy life also proved embarrassing for the stuffed shirts in the CBS corporate ozone layer -- but in the end it was lowering Nielsens that broke the camel's back. Aubrey, you're through.
Aubrey naturally does not think this was a jiggle show. "I don't know exactly what they mean with all that terminology. I think this was just a very truthful and wholesome explanation of a phenomenon that's occurring in this country. It was not done in any salacious way. It showed the type of organization Dallas really has and how they feel about these girls."
Aubrey is then asked how it feels to be known as a man whose name is associated with much that is bad about television and with an era that marked a turning point straight down.
"I don't attempt to answer that," Aubrey says. "If you take a look at the things I did on CBS you'll see that's a very false evaluation." But doesn't this reputation haunt him? "No. The people I deal with are by-and-large too knowledgeable to be affected by things like that."
At CBS today, if they talk of Aubrey at all, it's as if he had taken the network hostage and held it at gunpoint for four years. Everyone else involved, including CBS chairman William S. Paley, appears to be completely innocent. Aubrey is asked why this is so and why so few people in television are left to sing his praises.
"In this business, unfortunately -- and I don't know who said this first, but they were right -- it's not enough that you should succeed; your friends also have to fail. There's so much jealousy in television, I think because people are so insecure."
It's not the return of Aubrey to TV that should send shudders through the nerves of those with hope for television. He has as much right to offer programs to networks as anybody. What's more distressing is the coincidental rebirth of Aubreyvision. The three networks are about to unleash a mid-season schedule dominated by programs as trashy, empty-headed and low-minded as anything Aubrey ever gave on O.K.
On Friday night, CBS will premiere "The Dukes of Hazzard," a one-hour hillbilly action comedy with characters who make Jed Clampett and his clan look like the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. When the program was shown to TV columnists and editors gathered for the networks' mid-season press tour here, there were groans and moans and a shout of "I don't believe it." One TV critic counted five shots of the heroine, who wears either short shorts, cut-off jeans or a bikini, thrusting her derriere toward the camera whenever an excuse was found for her to bend over.
Brother Bo at one point sizes up a cutey whom he had known as a child, turns leeringly to his brother Luke and by-goshes, "Hey Luke, ain't it wonderful what hormones can do?"
"Dukes of Hazzard" offers perhaps the largest assortment of slob heroes ever on one TV show, but with the advent of not one but three "Animal House" imitations on the air, slob heroes are going to be running in barefoot hordes across our screens.
Suddenly the Fonz is going to look like something out of Noel Coward.
You get some indications of the mentality shared by the new TV shows just from the names that have been given the characters on them. On NBC's pratfall frat farce "Brothers and Sisters," premiering with absolutely no distinction tonight, there are characters with the names "Checko" and "Zipper." On the CBS "Flatbush," premiering Feb. 19, we'll meet "Presto," "Socks," "Figgy" and "Turtle." The good ole boys on "Hazzard" include not only Bo and Luke but also "Boss Hogg," "Cooter," "Enos" and "Debro."
And the CBS campus comedy "Co-ed Fever" is inhabited by "Tuck," "Mousie" and "Gobo."
A funny thing about "Co-ed Fever." It marks a television comeback, too. Executive producer Martin Ransohoff has been inactive in television since the days when he ran Filmways Productions and it made a fortune producing such shows as -- these may sound slightly familiar -- "The Beverly Hillbillies," "Mr. Ed," "Petticoat Junction" and "Green Acres" for CBS. According to his public relations firm, Ransohoff "literally ushered in a new era of situation comedy," one for which none of us has any reason to be grateful.
According to Metz, Aubrey, while the head of CBS, took over the Central Park South apartment that Filmways had maintained for Ransohoff and other company executives. This was one of the irregularities that prompted Aubrey's tumble from the top.
Meanwhile it could very well be that the new era of situation comedy ushering in now will make the hicksville yocks of yesteryear seem fresh and innocent by comparison. The Aubreys and the Ransohoffs and others like them could be, thanks to the escalated gusto of the ratings wars, having their day again.
O brave new world of television that not only has such people in it but brings them back for encores.