Bring Back What’s My Line

As a kid in the early 1960’s, the tv shows I watched were part of a group decision. There was only one set for a family of four kids (for the time being) and two parental units. My three sisters had their preference for girlie shows, but, we all always wanted to watch what we thought must have been meant for adult viewing. As if we got extra credit for trying to make ourselves seem more sophisticated than we were.

In those days, if a show got good ratings, it stayed on the air for several years. Good ratings meant that they were drawing lots of people on a regular basis. Of course, this was before cable and dishes that give you anywhere from 50 to 150 channels to choose from. In the big cities, you were glad to have five or six channels. In 1973, All in The Family one week drew a 33.7 rating which translated into a 54 share. This meant that fifty-four percent of all tv’s in use were watching Archie Bunker pontificate. Today, the most watched shows are ecstatic to get up to 25 percent of the sets in use.

Loyalty works both ways. In the 1960’s, if a show did well, for example, on a Sunday night, it stayed there in its timeslot. For several years, we could depend on Ed Sullivan to put out a great variety show for the entire family. He was on the air for twenty years, from the early 1950’s to the 1970’s. The programmers at Ed’s host network, CBS, made sure to put out other light entertaining shows geared for the whole family. Later in the evening, we could expect to see two quasi-game shows, What’s My Line and Candid Camera.

What’s My Line lasted in its late Sunday Evening Time Slot from 1951 until 1967 when it then switched shortly afterward to a weeknight syndicated run for several more years. There was something quite special about the Sunday edition. The same moderator, John Charles Daly, a respected news anchor on another network, and three of the panelists were there for most of the run. They were Arlene Francis, a Broadway stage actress, Bennett Cerf, publisher of Random House Books, and Dorothy Kilgallen, a noted newspaper gossip columnist. They always dressed as if attending a formal dinner as well as exuded the most urbane wit. For a kid, it was like going to a prep boarding school to watch this show, By observing the panelists, you got a lesson in sophisticated speech and graceful manners as well as how to use both inductive and deductive reasoning to solve the occupation of the regular guests. Even more amazing was the ability to use other senses to detect mystery guests while the panelists were blindfolded.

The panelists and moderator were generally civil and respectful to each other and the guests even when they were the butt of tricks being played on them. Historical figures visited such as the Lincoln poet Carl Sandburg and the noted architect, Frank Llloyd Wright. The five to ten minutes they would be questioned and later interviewed gave a truly lucid insight into these luminaries more than any textbook could pass along.

The studio audience and viewers were let in on at the beginning the occupation of the guest and the identity of the mystery guest. We always anticipated the point when a panelist would catch on to the correct line of questioning and guess right. For much of the run of this show, it was done live. No chance to edit out obscenities or bad guests or panelists. Somehow, this was never much of an issue. People were kinder to each other and learned to control their frustrations and thoughts of malice.

On second thought, maybe we don’t need a revived run of What’s My Line but a tv show that teaches us all how to get along.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *