Long before Ken Burns captured the nation with such landmark documentaries as “The Civil War” and “Baseball” and the world knew the bizarre world of “The Tiger King,” non-fiction specials and series played an important part on the television landscape. Here’s a look at some of the pioneering specials and series that either won or were nominated for the Emmy Award.
“Crusade in Europe”
Could a documentary lead to the Presidency?
Well, in the case of 1949’s “Crusade in Europe” the Emmy Award-winning 1949 ABC documentary series probably helped Dwight D. Eisenhower’s rise to the White House. The small screen’s first major documentary series was based on Eisenhower’s best-selling 1948 account of his experiences from World War II from his appointment by General George Marshall to plan the defense of the Philippines to him being named the Supreme Allied Commander in Northern Europe.
The 26-part series featured terrific footage of Eisenhower during the global conflict which had ended just four years earlier and a narration based on the book. The series won the Emmy in 1950 for public service, cultural or educational program as well as the Peabody. The Republican Eisenhower went on to beat Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson in 1952 to become the 34th President of the United States.
“Victory at Sea”
As “Crusade in Europe” proved, war may be hell, but audiences love documentaries about conflicts. And NBC’s 26-part documentary series was the gift that kept on giving. “Victory at Sea,” which aired from October 1952 to May 1953, was nominated for 1953’s Public Affairs program before winning in that category in 1954.
The series concentrated on naval warfare during World War II utilizing footage from archives around the world. Leonard Graves narrated the series which featured 12 short compositions from Broadway composer Richard Rodgers. Richard Rodney Bennett served as orchestrator, as well as composer for the rest of the series.
RCA released four different album versions of the score. And Rodger’s collaborator Oscar Hammerstein II added words to his gorgeous “Beneath the Southern Cross” theme. The end result, “No Other Love,” was featured in their 1953 musical “Me and Juliet.” And Perry Como hit No 1 with the recording of the tune. In mid-1954, United Artists released an edited film version of the series, and six years later NBC aired a 79-minute version.
“The Harvest of Shame”
Winner of the Peabody and nominated for an Emmy for outstanding writing achievement in the documentary field, this “CBS Reports” shocked the nation when it aired Nov. 25, 1960, the day after Thanksgiving. It was the last documentary by legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow.
“Harvest of Shame” was a gritty, hard-hitting look at the plight of the migrant farm workers. And airing the day after enjoying the bounty of Thanksgiving dinner had a real impact on viewers. In fact, producer David Lowe told Time magazine in December, “We felt that by scheduling the program the day after Thanksgiving we could stress that much of food cooked for Thanksgiving throughout the country was picked by migratory workers. We hoped that the pictures of how these people live and work would shock the consciousness of a nation.”
Murrow closed the hour-long documentary with these words: “The migrants have no lobby. Only an enlightened, aroused and perhaps angered public opinion can do anything about the migrants. The people you have seen have the strength to harvest your fruit and vegetables. They do not have the strength to influence legislation. Maybe we do. Good night, and good luck.”
This 1962 installment of the long-running documentary series “NBC White Paper” chronicled how three West Berlin students dug a tunnel from a former factory in the West to the Communist East Berlin in order to smuggle out 26 friends and family members The 90-minute film received three Emmys: outstanding achievement in the field of documentary, outstanding achievement in international reporting and, in a first for a documentary, program of the year.
“The Tunnel” was not without controversy. NBC originally announced it would air the documentary on Halloween 1962, but cancelled the airing a week before because the Cold War had gotten extremely hot. The U.S. was in the middle of the Cuban Missile crisis and there was fear escalations of tensions with Russia if the documentary aired on Oct. 31. It was delayed to until Dec. 10, 1962.
“Ku Klux Klan: The Invisible Empire”
The Emmy Award-winning “CBS Reports” documentary series aired this shocking examination of the Klan on Sept. 21, 1965; four days later its producer and writer David Lowe died. Charles Kuralt narrated and hosted this acclaimed look at the infamous white supremacist organization.
The documentary shone a spotlight on the history of the KKK, its influences and even a rare-and frightening- look at an initiation rite. Kuralt also interviewed Alabama Attorney General Raymond Flowers and KKK Imperial Wizard Robert Shelton. “Ku Klux Klan” won Emmys for outstanding achievement in news and documentaries (program) and for outstanding achievement in news and documentaries (individuals). The late Lowe received both awards posthumously.
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