"The Sixties": A chaotic decade stirs our affection

As the 1960s were unfolding, everything seemed bigger, brasher, more chaotic. Now, more than 40 years after it ended, the decade keeps providing compelling documentary TV. The latest example is "The Sixties," which debuts Thursday (May 27) on CNN. It's opener (about TV) is fairly interesting, but too crowded; many of the hours that follow are compelling. Here's the story I sent to papers:


It was a messy decade, full of dissent, disruption and
dismay. Still, people recall the 1960s fondly.

 “The affection that
people have for this decade is amazing,” said Mark Herzog, a producer (with Tom
Hanks and Gary Goetzman) of “The Sixties,” a documentary mini-series debuting
Thursday on CNN.

That affection isn’t just from those who were in the midst
of it. “I can’t believe the number of (younger) people who have said to me, ‘I
was born in the wrong era,’” said Herzog.

Affectiion? This was a time of rage over Vietnam and racial
bias … terror over the Manson murders and the Cuban missile crisis … shock over
the Bay of Pigs debacle and assassinations.

Events seemed bigger, broader, more dramatic, causing Herzog
(born in ’62) to ask why this time was so different. Writer Tom Wolfe, he said,
called it a combination “that only happens once,” when a new generation had the
time and affluence to question everything; the results varied:

The fastest changes came to things the new
generation could influence directly. Music was transformed – and not just by
one group. “Yes, the Beatles were the spark,” Herzog said. “But the Dave Clark
Five and the Rolling Stones and a lot of others were also big.”

The slowest changes involved things the older
generation ruled, especially primetime television. The Nielsen ratings for
1968-69 did have a show with a fresh style (“Laugh-In”) at No. 1 and one with a
black star (Diahann Carroll’s “Julia”) at No. 7; still, there were no other
black stars and few other distinctive shows. The No. 2 through 6 spots on the
Nielsen list went to two cowboy shows plus “Mayberry,” “Gomer Pyle” and “Family

And the biggest clashes came when the
generations collided – especially on Vietnam and civil rights. That’s where TV
– the subject of Thursday’s opener – stood out.

Unlike the networks’ bland entertainment divisions, news
departments turned serious. They dominated Kennedy-assassination coverage and gave
civil-rights protesters a national focus.

Leaders knew how to get attention, Herzog said. “They were
very careful to go into areas where they would spark” visual conflict. At
first, he said, civil rights marches in Birmingham, Ala., drew little reaction.
Then cameras showed police chief Bull Connor countering marchers with dogs and
fire hoses.

That was in May of 1963. Three months later, CBS was the
first network to double its newscast to a half-hour. By 1965, Morley Safer was
opening its Saigon bureau and bringing intensity to Vietnam coverage.

The decade was recording itself, Herzog said. “I was
surprised by the sheer amount of footage that is out there …. There were
copious amounts of great news footage and documentaries.”

And there was audio of Lyndon Johnson in the White House. He
was often a master; the documentary replays him steamrolling Sen. Richard
Russell into joining the Warren Commission.

And he was sometimes overwhelmed. Johnson, Herzog said, had
“a lack of commitment to the Vietnam War … but also a lack of knowing how to
get out of it.”

So the war continued, shaping a high-energy time that is
often viewed with affection.

“The Sixties,” 9 p.m. ET Thursdays, CNN,
rerunning at midnight and at 8 and 11 p.m. Saturdays.

The opener – “Television Comes of Age,” May 29 —also
runs at 10 p.m. and 1 a.m.

Two of the episodes – on the President Kennedy
assassination (June 12) and civil rights (June 26) are two hours; others are
one hour.

The assassination episode and the one on music’s
“British Invasion” (July 10) had advance airings on CNN; the other eight are new.

Others deal with Cuban crises (June 5), Vietnam
(June 19), space (July 17), the year 1968 (July 31) and “Sex, Drugs and Rock N’
Roll” (Aug. 7). On July 24, “The Times, They are A-Changin’” views the surge of
feminism, civil rights, gay rights, conservatism, environmentalism and more.