I am eagerly waiting for more newspapers to make their historical archives available online — so far we’ve got a few big-city papers like the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune and the Dallas Morning News, but there are so many more that need to get with the program — but the downside of those archives, and that includes all the smaller papers represented in Newspaperarchive.com, is that they cost money. So, as a less costly way of feeding my archive addiction, I’ve been looking through the free archives at the Cedar Rapids Public Library in Iowa. These PDF archives cover a number of smaller Iowa papers going back to the 19th century, and they include a lot of articles from the wire services, particularly the Associated Press. These articles are also available at Newspaper Archive, often in more complete form (though you can sometimes use Google News Archive Search to pick out bits that were left out of the other versions), but at least this is an inexpensive if frustrating way to search for old articles. At least until it stops being free.
Some of the old AP articles are useful for research, others are fun, others just show how nothing has changed. For example, looking for information about TV in the late ’60s, I came upon this AP article from 1967, called “Your Letters Don’t Seem to Make Much Difference.” The writer, Gene Hanseker, interviewed two prominent TV producers, including one guy you might have heard of, and one network executive about the impact of fan campaigns: save-our-show petitions, suggestions, and complaints. Conclusion? Things were mostly much the same then as they are over 40 years later, though a few details have changed. Like you have a network executive speaking dismissively about crank letter-writers who complain about naughty content or substance abuse (which in that time meant alcohol; characters in the late ’60s drank like fishes). I just think it’s fun that the relationship between producers and their fans is pretty constant.
Says Paul Monash of ABC’s Peyton Place:
“We get an average of 1000 letters a week, about 20 of them with story suggestions and ideas about characters: ‘If anything happens to so-and-so I’ll never watch the show again.’ ‘Let Rodney and Betty get married.’ They give us an idea of what some people in the audience are thinking, but basically I have to rely on my own instincts.”
Has Monash ever followed a viewer’s suggestion?
“Not really. For one thing, the shows are planned and written 15 weeks ahead of the air date. What the audience is responding to is something that already has been determined. Secondly, we’re not allowed to adopt ideas for nothing. We could possibly be open to a lawsuit.”
Next is Perry Lafferty, CBS TV programming chief in Hollywood:
“If you get a number of comments along the same line — like 50 letters a week, or 150 or 200 — and if the producer thinks it’s a good suggestion, they may have some effect. The first time we used a little girl on The Danny Kaye Show we got a lot of mail, which probably stepped up our use of her,” he said. “Generally we’re not influenced with derogatory mail, because we expect it anyway. With a sketch involving drinking, or with beautiful but low-cut costumes, you know you’ll get mail.”
Gene Roddenberry, producer of NBC’s Star Trek, recalls:
“At pickup time we were in danger of not being renewed, and NBC got a flood of mail. It was bound to have some effect, but I don’t think the network could be pushed into anything.”
The show, filming for next season, draws about [?] letters a week, a surprising number, Roddenberry says, from schoolteachers, professors and scientists. They offer compliments, challenge scientific slipups or seek information. An apartment builder in Santa Barbara, Calif., wrote that he wanted to install electrically operated, sliding doors like the ones on the show’s space ship. “He asked, ‘How do you get the damn door to open and close,’ so I had to write,” Roddenberry admits, “that ours is a fake.”