My Real Hidden Agenda: To Make “Good” Shows

by Norman Horowitz

In the early ’60s, I learned a business lesson that was either very valuable or very harmful. It’s fifty years later, and I’m still not sure.

Our Canadian company had produced a very charming five-minute children’s program titled “Pick a Letter, (PAL)” In the series, animator George Feyer would tell a story through drawings, starting with letters of the alphabet. With some sort of rear-screen drawing technique, they would present letters like “B is for Butterfly.”

At the time, my major sales responsibilities were limited to the gigantic markets of Curacao, Aruba, and Bermuda, as well as other small stations that no one wanted to bother with. However, since no one in our domestic sales group showed the least bit of interest in showing PAL to U.S. stations, I asked and received permission to show it to the independent New York stations.

Following the screening of three five-minute segments, the Program Director of Channel 11 in New York told me how much he liked the program. I became elated…until he told me that he had no interest in buying it. He went on to say — and it was very nice of him — that he was in the business of attracting as large an audience as possible and that, if he played PAL in a morning program, the kids in his audience would switch to another channel that was playing cartoons.

“Norman,” he said, “kids have a shit detector. If they ever have the sense that you’re trying to teach them something, they’ll change the station at once.”  

Almost twenty years later, after jousting with the owners and management of Columbia Pictures, I started Polygram Television, a German/Dutch joint venture (Siemens and Philips). In order to make a “statement” to the television operators, we acquired the distribution rights to a special program entitled Skokie.

One of my favorite lines from Skokie was: “Defending your enemy is the only way to protect a free society against its enemies.”

The name of the movie came from the town of Skokie, Illinois, where the rights of a Neo-Nazi group to hold a rally in a largely Jewish town were on trial in 1977. The basic conflict in the film arose from the issue of: Should America allow “freedom of thoughts” that most of us hate?

Now try to picture Polygram showing clips of the movie, completed with big swastikas, to its all-German management. Talk about a tense few minutes.

Skokie was a Jewish movie as well as an American movie. Perhaps someone can argue that my being a Jew or a Democrat was responsible for my involvement in the project. Maybe. But it was a big program that we expected to draw a big audience. We simply couldn’t distribute it if we believed otherwise.

A journalist once asked my Screen Gems boss John Mitchell, “Why isn’t there more good television?” John brilliantly replied, “Good for whom?”

If I had a “hidden agenda,” it was my desire to do “better” than Celebrity Charades. Yet I’m struck with the notion that there were people in the audience who liked Celebrity Charades, and these people should be able to avail themselves of alternatives to Masterpiece Theater if they wish.

A friend once asked me if I was pleased selling what she referred to as “junk” programming. I replied that what she called junk was great content that was valued by those who chose to watch it.

I still adore The Three Stooges. So there!