The following appeared in #235 (5/11/01) of Holt Uncensored, a twice-weekly email column and website about books and the book industry written by Pat Holt, former Book Review Editor and Critic for The San Francisco Chronicle.
The Prize Winner on TV: CBS Sunday Morning News, Part IIAt least with print, readers can stop the action, as it were, peer into the photograph and draw their own conclusion, But the tendency to blur journalistic boundaries gets slicker with television news, especially as camera technology gets more sophisticated.
Of course, we've all adapted to such changes with typical consumer wariness. But when the crew of CBS Sunday Morning traveled to the small town of Defiance, Ohio - no mean thing - it takes one or two plane trips and hours of driving one one dinky (and gorgeous) two-lane farm road after another - to do a feature on my partner Terry's book, "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio," I had to wonder: Is it possible to condense a 351-page book into a television feature and retain the author's vision and theme?
Granted, this is a "high concept" book, as they say in television, meaning it's a no-brainer in terms of commercial appeal: Terry's mother won hundreds of contests in the '50s and '60s to keep her family of 12 from being evicted or running out of food, and all the fun "visuals" TV editors love have been kept intact - the entry blanks, the photos, the winning submissions.
Then, too, Evelyn Ryan's livelier wins, such as her rollicking 10-minute Supermarket Spree, are perfect for reenactment on television (see #234).
But the deeper, subtler message of the book - how Evelyn stood up to the Church, an alcoholic husband and the limitations society placed on women in the '50s; how she faced a ton of laundry and grinding poverty every minute of every day with indefatigable energy, even joy, and no resentment; how she represents a slice of American history that's long been neglected - the partnership of business and consumers in the post-World War II period that started the whole jingle-laden culture; and how she taught her kids that the key to winning in life is to believe that anything is possible - all this is not so easily translated into images on the tiny screen.
Veteran CBS producer Mary Lou Teel knows all this, of course, having worked for many years with one of the great on-the-road TV correspondents, Charles Kuralt. He was that seemingly jovial guy who got people to tell their life stories and knew how to cull those rare transformative moments from miles of tape.
Mary Lou believes that the way television can uncover the hidden riches of Evelyn's story is to attack it from every possible angle. On her first visit to Defiance, she hires a local crew (camera and sound operators) to capture background elements; on the second, she brings the show's co-host Martha Teichner from New York, CBS cameraman Arny Cantu and soundman Steve Azzato from Chicago.
Talk about indefatigable. A critic in the background may go around listening for the substance of the book; but you can't beat these guys for spending an inordinate amount of time capturing the look and feel of the book. So the taping goes like this:
*Three hours at Defiance College, where an exhibit of Evelyn Ryan's photos and contest memorabilia provides an in-depth look at the effect that Dial Soap, Tootsie Rolls, Kool Aid, Chevrolet and other sponsors had on American culture in this region;
*Two hours on a trip to the even smaller town (pop: 1200) of Payne, Ohio, to interview Dortha Schaefer, another contest winner, now in her 80s, who introduced Evelyn to the group of women called the Affadaisies, who shared box tops and tips and family news while earning surprisingly lucrative incomes through contest wins; *Three hours filming Terry's autographing session at the Chief Supermarket, where siblings, former co-workers, family friends and store managers are interviewed individually and in groups;
*Two hours filming Terry and her siblings at her mother's grave in the town's beautiful cemetery, a woodsy and serene glen by the quietly spectacular Auglaize River;
*Two hours filming Martha's interview with Dortha and Terry together; *Two hours in front of the house that Evelyn won (twice), where Terry and Martha do a "walk and talk," as TV people call it, up and down the sidewalk and under the railroad trestle and by the Catholic school nearby; *Three hours filming the Supermarket Spree re-enactment and follow-up interviews; *Two hours of Terry and Martha doing a one-on-one at the Defiance College library; *Several hours of borrowed film - from Defiance Community TV's taping of Terry's speech at Defiance College (see #230); from WTOL-TV in Toledo of Terry's first autographing and reception; from home movies recorded by various family members;
*And several hours of "b-roll" - background shots of Defiance's old fort grounds, local kids playing baseball, the town's gorgeous Carnegie library, enough tree-lined streets to send you to Norman Rockwell school for life and the two historic rivers, the great and muddy Maumee and Auglaize, that merge in "slow collision," as Terry calls it, right in the middle of town.