Behind the debate
New York — The first dispute arose when Vanessa Redgrave, generally acknowledged to be a superb actress but also a vocal supporter of the Palestine Liberation Organization and a proclaimed anti-Zionist, was chosen to play the role of Fania Fenelon, a half-Jewish cabaret singer/pianist survivor of Auschwitz who has written about her experiences in the camp orchestra in a memoir. Jewish organizations objected to Miss Redgrave because of her political views. Then Miss Fenelon also objected (on CBS'S own "60 Minutes," as a matter of fact).
Only a few days ago, the director of the civil rights division of the Anti-defamation League of the B'nai B'rith restated that group's objection to Miss Redgrave's participation, insisting that "it degrades all those who survived Hitler's death camps and those who died in them."
After viewing the completed program, CBS/Broadcast Group president Gene F. Jankowski told the Monitor: "I believe that Vanessa -- in fact the whole production -- does honor to the book and to the memory of the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust as well as those who survived."
I agree with Jankowski.
However, it has been reported that advertising executives who have attended screenings of the film last Thursday were reluctant to recommend sponsorship to their clients because of the "downbeat" quality of the drama.
A CBS sales executive has already stressed the fact that the the network will be very careful about the placement and content of any commercials, bearing in mind the widespread objection to the crass commercial spots interspersed throughout NBC's broadcast of "Holocaust."
However, one CBS executive insisted to me that there has been no discussion of the possibility of airing the three-hour drama as a sustaining program with only public-service announcements during intermissions, mainly because "we do not want to propogate the idea that commercial sponsorship precludes the airing of sensitive material."
One factor that is undoubtedly being considered, however, is the fact that nonsponsored, sustaining shows are not computed into the weekly ratings by the Nielsen ratings service.
This critic believes that CBS's committment to the drama as a tribute to the Holocaust victims and survivors might be even more convincing if CBS took a totally statesmanlike stance and decided to air it with no commercial interruptions at all.
Or perhaps a major sponsor such as IBM or Xerox could be convinced to risk the controversy and pick up the tab in return for a tasteful commercial message fore and aft, and perhaps at intermission time?
Certainly a very special program like "Playing for time" deserves very special treatment.