PEOPLE KEEP telling Robert "Shad" Northshield that they watch his Sunday newspaper of the air with a real Sunday newspaper on their laps, and how dare they? Imagine, reading and sampling the TV show at the same time.
"I was kind of hurt by it for awhile," Northshield says, "until I realized that I watch almost every television show that way myself."
Just eight weeks old today, "Sunday Morning," the 90minute CBS News hard and soft information package that Northshield produces, had quickly settled in like an old American tradition and successfully liberated a time period previously reserved exclusively for Popeye cartoons, Tarzan movies and Rev. Feelgoods emoting from lucite pulpits.
The program peeped onto the air a trifle facile and on the bland-pat side; the participants seemed to be congratulating themselves on having embarked on such a holy endeavor at such an ungodly hour (9 a.m. in most cites; 10:30 a.m. in Washington, on Channel 9). Over the weeks, however, "Sunday Morning," part of the revamped CBS Morning News format, which Northshield runs, has either steadily improved in character and quality or merely become awfully comfortable in a very short time, like a corduroy sport coat that has turned rumply overnight.
It takes nothing away from the broadcast to say it is easily watched with a Sunday newspaper of the old print kind in hand, because just as not everyone reads every section of a newspaper, not everyone should be expected to remain riveted to every instant of "Sunday Morning," even if it excels in many departments.
Now and then, however, there comes a time on "Sunday Morning" when one peaks over the newspaper and, sensing something extraordinary, drops it flat. This happened just last week with a segment called "Little Louie," beautifully produced for "Sunday Morning" by Elliott Bernstein and reported by Morton Dean.
Louie is a 10-year-old Queens, N.Y., boy named Louis Ciardulli who, shortly after birth, developed a rare bone disease that is often swiftly fatal. "Doctors said he wouldn't make it past 3," Dean said. Totally blind in his left eye, his growth stunted since the age of 5, his short and pudgy body subjected to nine operations -- including an experimental bone-marrow transplant -- in the past 10 years, Louis has not only survived but, it was obvious from film of him at home and school, brought immense joy to those around him.
Dean's narration was a shade too insistent and redundant -- "This is a story about..." he kept repeating throughout the story -- but it wasn't lachymose; you only had to imagine how ABC News would handle a story like this to be grateful for the discretion. Because here was a subject who spoke in triumph for himself, whether perkily describing the medical technology used to keep him alive or just laughing while his bus driver-father tickled him at the family breakfast table.
The story was played, and not really overplayed, for its inspirational qualities, which were clear enough. You could not meet Louis this way and ever forget him. The segment ended with Louis listening to a recording of "You Light Up My Life," which until that moment had seemed the most banal of pop tunes. It never will again. Louis had earlier attended the funeral of a 16-year-old girl who'd been a fellow patient at the hospital. "You Light Up My Life" was her favorite song. He had it added to the jukebox his parents had bought him. Banality was obliviated.
There may be only one Louie, but there have been many outstanding or at least marginally superior reports on "Sunday Morning." Sometimes -- oh, joy -- they do "nature pieces" in which there is no narration at all.
There are, however, problems with the program. A battle-scratched veteran of television news at another network put his finger on one of them when he said of watching "Sunday Morning," "It's like visiting a bunch of uncles." Most of the correspondents and commentators tend to be middleaged white males. And the program is hosted by Mr. Middle Age, Charles "Chipmunk Cheeks" Kuralt, himself.
"It's something I'm very aware of," says Northshield when the uncle issue is mentioned to him. What does he plan to do about it? "We'll get some young aunts on there," he says, as if inviting an avalanche of resumes.
He also defends the middle-aged men, Kuralt especially, because they defy the TV news standard of "plastic people with hair helmets" who "came out of a cookie-cutter."
With his casting policy, Northshield says, "You do end up with a bunch of dumplings, but they're real."
Northshield sees other problems. "What we still have to do is what a Sunday paper does," he says. "And that is to supplement and still stay connected with the main flow of news." A longtime master of the network news game -- he produced NBC's spectacular coverage of July 4, 1976, while at that network -- Northshield sees "Sunday Morning" as a return to broadcasting fundamentals he doesn't mind having labeled "old-fashioned." The program has an easy, classy and very civilized personality.
"I think we've got a Sunday morning mood, whatever that is," Northshield says. "To me, the height of arrogance is saying what people want or need or will watch, or that crap. I go with what I believe is the right stuff. And I think that a kind of leisurely and moderately sophisticated calm thing on Sunday morning is right."
Still, "Sunday Morning" suffers from too much talk. The sit-down pieces in the studio, with such contributing columnists as Heywood Hale Broun, Jeff Greenfield and Fran Cole, are fine, if uneven in content; but the filmed reports still sometimes choke on the extraneous words of reporters who refuse to trust the visual.
Northshield says he is not afraid of talking heads, the alleged dread of television news and public affairs, because the effectiveness of this depends on "what talk and what head" are involved. If it's Bernard Kalb in Peking and Peter Collins in Hong Kong convening live by satellite with Kuralt in New York just as China stepped up its invasion of Vietnam, talking heads can be hunky-dory, as on a recent "Sunday Morning."
Walter Cronkite came in by tape delay from Jerusalem last Sunday for a chat with Kuralt. Northshield says there is a provision in his budget for "a lot of satellite time" to permit such intercontinental debriefings. These things can be expensive; the 10-minute session with Cronkite cost between $8,000 and $9,000, although the satellite time was used for transmitting some additional Mideast footage.
So far, only 80 stations, less than half the CBS Network affiliates, are carrying "Sunday Morning," and a few of those in the West air it at horrendously early hours when only mothers and crying babies are up. "It's not a runaway hit," Northshield says. "The ratings haven't gone through the roof or anything like that.But the mail is 99 percent favorable, the response from the stations is wonderful, and I am told the show is very pleasing to my bosses at CBS News and at Black Rock [CBS corporate headquarters in New York] as well.
"In Washington, they're very happy with it. A guy told me he's getting a 4 rating where he used to get only on asterisk." Northshield would like to see the day when the response is so good that CBS moves the show to an 11:30 p.m. timeslot and out of the cartoon ghetto in which it now blossoms.
On today's edition of "Sunday Morning," the major "cover story" will be President Carter's peace capade in the Mideast. There will also be such reports as a visit to Texas A&M University, once unsuccessfully integrated and now nearly an all-black college again, and a talk with baseball's Bill Veeck, whom Northshield optimistically considers "the voice of spring."
Though "Sunday Morning" can occasionally become as stuffily ceremonial as a lot of CBS News endeabors, and though Kuralt can be insufferably grandiloquent at times -- he's the flag that waves itself -- this program still has succeeded in proving its worth in less than three months on the air. It's really become unthinkable to turn on a TV set Sunday mornings and not talk at least a peek at what's doing on "Sunday Morning." The show threatens to become indispensably supplemental.
And best of all, Northshield has shepherded it along with no visible reliance on marketing-research studies or the latest glitter trenda in TV news. He's made it a program for people who do not need to be bullied or tricked into curiousity about the world in which they live and the creatures who share it with them.