Getting to know Lou Grant

Let's start with the end, shall we?. I was one of three hundred people (including author and columnist Harlan Ellison) who picketed CBS when this series was cancelled. Our efforts were of course of no effect. The series would have been cancelled had there been three thousand people protesting.

And yet this series had been one of the most critically acclaimed and heavily awarded in television history. It won thirteen Emmys in five years, including two for Best Drama Series, two for Ed Asner, and four for Nancy Marchand. And it won dozens of other entertainment awards and humanitarian awards (not many TV shows have been awarded those!). It always rated high in the Neilsons, except during football season when just in the mid-west and on the eastern coasts (who got their Monday Night Football during the same time slot as Lou Grant was scheduled), the ratings were lower. But during the off season when Lou Grant was in re-runs, the show's ratings were just as high in those parts of the countries as they were on the west coast. Normally a show with such an esteemed reputation would be moved to another time period so as not to clash with what was obviously a specific competition from another network. Why did CBS choose to cancel the series instead of moving it?

There are a number of theories. The main one is because Ed Asner was an outspoken activist in opposition to the U.S.'s support of the Junta (militaristic government) in El Salvador. Since the rebels of El Salvador received some support from the Sandanista government in Nicaragua (who in return received economic support from Cuba), most people on the political right saw anyone who supported the rebels of El Salvador as communist. Thus dozens of right-wing organizations from all over America requested to their members that they write to the sponsors of the Lou Grant show, threatening them to boycott their products if they continue to sponsor the show (this was a technique also used in the 1950s during the McCarthy era, when sponsors of live television programs would also receive such threats). Also at least one Lou Grant sponsor (Kimberly Clark, makers of Kleenex and Pampers) had factories in El Salvador, and they were quite happy to stay there under the current regime where they could continue to pay slave wages to their employees. Rumors are that Kimberly Clark itself urged other sponsors to boycott the show.

It seems silly to think that one measly TV star could cause so much angst among giant companies and whole countries, but pressure groups did have an impact, and overall many people loathed actors who publicly solicited their political ideals. Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave felt the strains of popular opinion going against them as they solicited their ideals to a public who no longer wanted to hear about the various improprieties of government or big business. Asner was also president of The Screen Actor's Guild, and was very outspoken about labor policies there. Someone had to put Ed in his place!

The ironic thing is that all of this sounds like an episode of Lou Grant!. One can just see Rossi and Billie beating down doors and scrounging up facts about how pressure groups can force a TV network to cancel a show simply because of the political leanings of its star. Not a network in the former U.S.S.R., or Romania, but here, in the United States. Or, maybe by digging down further they might even come up with ulterior motives for which the series was canceled. Did the series have a particular leftist slant? Did it cover such controversial issues as religious charlatans, book burnings, abortion, prostitution, child pornography, racism, homophobia, the negative treatment of Native Americans, Vietnam vets, Vietnamese immigrants, illegal aliens, U.S. support of military juntas, big business corruption, medical fraud, toxic dumping, Third World dumping, labor disputes, freedom of the press and other forms of censorship; not to mention past American atrocities like the blacklist, and the internment of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps? Geez, how did this show even last five years??

No other show has dared to take on so many hard issues. We live in an age where indifference to issues has grown to an all-time high. A new form of pride has swept over the land. Being unconcerned for others or even of our own welfare (outside of our current economic status) is a sign that we are not victims of that dreaded term, "political correctness". Should one remind us of our civil duty in regarding the plight of those less fortunate than ourselves, we need only roll our eyes and spout the term "PC", and the lack of our sense of humanity need not feel the pangs of guilt or the dread of participating in what is almost always a hopeless fight. A show like Lou Grant simply wouldn't have a chance today. Occasionally I see or hear people criticize this series for being too involved with political and social issues. Apparently, they've never read a newspaper, since one can hardly make a dramatic series about running a newspaper without dealing with the content of what it is they're covering! Especially on a newspaper that actually cares about bringing these important facts to the public. Newspapers like "The Trib" are very rare now. The kind of coverage it had isn't seen in most newspapers today. It is doubly sad to say that a newspaper like The Los Angeles Tribune wouldn't have a chance today.

But the series wasn't all about darkness and dread. Despite the classification of a drama series, the series did always feature a fresh sense of humour. There were light and humourous episodes like Hoax, where Lou and Rossi and Animal are led all over a Caribbean island resort by an old "pal" of Lou's who promises him a lead on a notorious gangster. The gangster was a hoax, but they all got to wine and dine and buy nice white suits (which brought the show's funniest line when all four men are standing at the hotel's bar clad in white and Rossi said: "It looks like we're going to step out and sing"). I also remember a show where the Trib was facing a censorship issue. They obtained a list of "obscene" words that were going to be judged by their offensiveness, and various people were constantly asking each other the meanings of certain words by referring to their numbers on the list ("I know what numbers 1 through 9 are, but what are 10 and 13?"). At one point, someone even resorted to calling another person one of the numbers instead of the name. There was also some familiar Lou Grant humour from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, in scenes where he struggled with the domesticity of single life, and when he would occasionally threaten Rossi in a way similar to how he had often threatened Ted Baxter.

Another interesting thing to watch out for in this series are the major changes in the newsroom. In 1977 when this series started, most of the reporters were still using typewriters (remember those?) As computers gradually made the scene, most people didn't trust them (hmm). But within a couple of years, everyone was using them. The way in which newspapers were printed also went into a more modern, automated system. Luckily, leisure suits went the way of typewriters!