The Peacock turns 75

As NBC celebrates a milestone, former TV stars comment on the industry they helped develop.

In case you missed the meaning of that omnipresent 75 that floats over the peacock logo on NBC these days, 2002 is the 75th anniversary of the self-proclaimed first US broadcasting network, the National Broadcasting Company.

This counts the early days of radio, marking a live show from New York's Waldorf Astoria on Nov. 15, 1926, as the official dawn of the network era of broadcasting. That event, replete with the New York Symphony Orchestra and Metropolitan Opera stars, was perhaps a high-water mark of culture for the network, which went on to nab another broadcast first: In 1941, NBC pioneered the concept of commercial television when the Bulova Watch Co. paid $9 to NBC to show a Bulova clock on-screen.

Without a doubt, a lot has changed since then. Ad rates have hit the million-dollar mark, as have the salaries of network stars. To celebrate its anniversary, NBC has gathered a lineup of past stars, including Bill Cosby and Jerry Seinfeld, for a three-hour special Sunday night (8-11 p.m.), to be broadcast live from Rockefeller Center in New York.

Many past NBC stars, such as Carl Reiner, Peter Falk, and Ed McMahon, are synonymous with the evolution of television as a mass medium and have much to say about the industry they helped to develop.

"Comedy as an art form today has to be done in just 22 minutes," says Mr. Reiner, costar of "Your Show of Shows," which ran on NBC from 1949 to 1954 and has been considered a touchstone by comedy writers since then. "So they go to the easy subjects, like sex. They talk about sex, they have talks about lust, they have actual sex." This, in the comedian's opinion, has impoverished the TV landscape.

"Focusing on one topic doesn't help the audiences, but it also doesn't develop good writers," he says, "because they don't get to deal with all of life's experiences."

In the early days of television, Reiner says, the best writers in the country were tapped for high-quality dramas. "Horton Foote, Paddy Chayefsky, all our best playwrights and novelists were writing for TV," he says. "Now, the [prize-winning novelist] Jonathan Franzens of our time wouldn't stand a chance of getting their work on the air." The commercial TV marketplace, he adds, "has nothing to do with truth or quality."

The long-running detective series "Columbo," starring Peter Falk, is still one of Reiner's favorite. Mr. Falk, set to appear in what he calls the umpteenth "Columbo" TV movie this summer, says the appeal of the show is simple. "He is the quintessential American," Falk says. "He is the ultimate nonelitest, a true democrat. He is distracted by his search for the truth and is oblivious to the importance of the right address." He also has what he calls the curiosity of a child – invaluable in detective work. "When the elevator button lit up before I pushed it, I think: 'Why is that?' "

Few who grew up watching comedian Johnny Carson host "The Tonight Show," can forget the enduringly affable presence of Ed McMahon. But, perhaps surprisingly for the man who embodied the inoffensive talk-show sidekick for a generation, McMahon says given the proliferation of choices today, he'd take a different route.

"I'd like to host a history or anthropology show on the History Channel," the TV personality says. "I want to do something of substance." McMahon says he has spent a lifetime "telling Johnny stories," which he says he tries to do differently every time. But he has one piece of advice for interviewers that has not changed. "You really need to listen when people talk," McMahon says. "You can't have your head full of your lines and next questions; you have to be ready to respond to what people actually say."

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