Shooting a documentary on the early innovators of television seemed natural to former WTMJ Milwaukee photographer Steve Boettcher (left) and Mike Trinklein, because they wanted to get the recollections of the medium’s trailblazers recorded while those giants were still around. Financed with a credit card, Pioneers of Television found a home on PBS and the original hour program did well enough that it grew into a four-show series, followed by another four episodes. Both received Emmy nominations, with the second series up for consideration this year.
Steve Boettcher loves television and he believes that the programming that is now appearing on living room screens on any given night is as good as any in the 60-odd-year history of the medium.
“This is another golden age we’re going through right now,” he says. “I am always kind of amazed when people say, ‘I have 150 channels and there’s nothing on.’ I am thinking, wow, you’re not trying very hard. There’s amazing stuff on television today.”
Boettcher’s enthusiasm for contemporary TV comes as something of a surprise. For the past several years, the one-time local TV news photographer has been dedicating his professional life to exploring what others would insist is the only Golden Age — the 1950s and early 1960s when the medium was young and broadcasters, producers, actors, comedians, journalists and puppeteers were simply making it up as they went along.
Boettcher, along with his old college buddy Mike Trinklein, are co-producers of the Pioneers of Television series on PBS, whose second, four-part season was just nominated for a 2011 Emmy for Best Non-Fiction Series after scoring big (by PBS standards, anyway) in the ratings.
To Boettcher’s way of thinking, TV today is as good as it is because TV yesterday was as good as it was.
“These people — these pioneers of television — started this trickle that is a raging river today called television and anybody that joins this medium today joins it midstream,” he says. “I click on latenight television and I still see shades of Johnny Carson. I flip on sitcoms and I will see a lot of the Honeymooners. There’s a lot of similarities.”
As the chief news photographer for WTMJ Milwaukee in the early 1990s, Boettcher began making specials for the NBC affiliate, and he was soon contributing pieces to the NBC Nightly News, The Today Show and Dateline. While still at WTMJ, Boettcher began branching out, producing The Gold Rush and The Oregon Trail for PBS.
It was his interest in the early years of television that induced him to leave WTMJ in 1996 and dedicate himself to producing documentaries full time. What was to become Pioneers of Prime Time — the original hour — took root with a visit to Milton Berle at the Friars Club in Los Angeles.
Berle embraced the project: “Let’s do this together; let’s grab this history while we can, [Berle said]. He introduced me to everyone at the Friars club from Bob Hope to Red Skelton to Henny Youngman to Donald O’Connor and Mickey Rooney.”
Boettcher spent the next several years interviewing as many pioneers as his time and money allowed. “For us it was just a huge, huge risk to take, but I felt it was really calculated. I also felt like this is something that has just got to get on the air. So it’s one of those credit card movie stories.”
By the time the show was finished, his financial commitment to the project was “deep into six figures.” During this time, Boettcher also produced Legend of Lambeau Field, a history of the Green Bay Packers. It was a big hit with the Packer faithful and helped pay the bills.
Boettcher shopped Pioneers to a number of the commercial networks before PBS said yes. “It was probably the worst business deal in the world. PBS agreed to air it and did not pay a dime for the program. If it did well, we would create a series out of it. If it didn’t do well, that was the end.”
Of course, Pioneers did do well in its 2005 debut, and PBS made good on its word by greenlighting the series, re-titled Pioneers of Television so that other genres could be addressed. The first series, comprising sitcoms, game shows, variety shows and talk shows, aired in 2008 and also earned an Emmy nod. The second series looked at science fiction, crime dramas, westerns and local kids’ shows.
With the series, Boettcher began stretching the concept of pioneer to go beyond the first generation of talent to include those who were pioneers in other ways. For instance, Boettcher says, Angie Dickinson was singled out for her role as an undercover cop in Police Woman in 1974, a year before the Milwaukee police department hired its first female officer.
The shows are laden with clips and rely heavily on talking heads, all principals — no TV historians or critics or academics, just the people who made it happen.
Boettcher says that going after principals is a result of his early training. “In television news, I always felt like you had to get the interview and that means the eyewitness or the person who was there, the person that was on the front line,” he says. “With Pioneers of Television, it’s the same thing. We want the exact star who was there and can tell us exactly what that experience was like.”
The shows are spiced with a few dramatizations. For the sitcoms hour, Boettcher recreated the set of The Honeymooners. “We actually got blueprints from the original set. We had a set builder build the set. We brought in cameras from the period. We set everyone in period clothing, haircuts, glasses; it was an extensive effort to make it look accurate.
“We wanted to bring the audience into what was happening at that time period. It’s expensive to do, but I think it just adds value to the program.”
For the most part, Pioneers is a compilation of network shows. The one exception is the hour in the second season dedicated to the locally produced kids shows that flourished in the 1950s and 1960s. With just 60 minutes to work with, it had to be selective, but it manages to cover the genre with looks at purely local phenomena like KPHO Phoenix’s Wallace and Ladmo Show, which ran for 36 years; talents like Jim Henson and Fred Rogers; and franchises like Romper Room and Bozo the Clown.
Boettcher was amazed by how commercial the programs were. At one Indiana station, he says, he found a 16 mm film selling the upcoming season of the kids show to advertisers. “It had the host just very openly selling the show and sponsorship and how we’re going to place content in our programs that will help advertisers. It was just the way the business was done in 1950s era television.”
Boettcher believes that a crackdown on such commercialization by activist Peggy Charren and others accelerated the demise of the genre. By 1970, they were rapidly disappearing.
When Boettcher uses the first-person plural in talking about Pioneers, he is mostly thinking of Mike Trinklein whom he met during their days at the University of Wisconsin. While Boettcher went into TV news, Trinklein ended up teaching TV at Idaho State. But over the years, they stayed close and collaborated on various projects. “Mike does most of the writing. I still shoot much of the programs that we do. He comes from a learning background; I come from more of a production background, so it’s a good fit. “
While waiting for Emmy night, the duo is already at work on the third season, another four-parter. Topics under consider includes superheroes, “funny ladies,” latenight soaps, lawyer shows and news.
His research has already yielded such curiosities as the fact that Dick Van Dyke hosted a CBS morning news show in the 1950s alongside Walter Cronkite. “Isn’t that weird? I just can’t see Dick Van Dyke sitting on the anchor desk next to Walter Cronkite. But it was a time when the network owned Dick Van Dyke and they were trying to find where can we put this guy. They tried movies, they tried news and finally they found a sweet spot with him with The Dick Van Dyke Show.”
To enliven the “funny ladies” show (and perhaps to drag down the median age of the audience a bit), Boettcher says he may include some of the younger female comics. “We may want to talk to the Amy Poehlers and Tina Feys of the world and find out what influenced them when they were growing up and made them funny today.”
The Emmy competition is tough, including PBS’s American Masters and ESPN’s 30 for 30. In true Emmy nominee fashion, Boettcher says he is flattered just to be under consideration. “It’s always said, but we’re honored to be invited to the event and being nominated. It’s a huge, a huge deal for us. What started out just as a flicker of an idea has really been…. We’re really blessed.”
Boettcher’s says he learned most of what he knows about producing shows from the TV newsroom in Milwaukee, particularly to get the story done on time. “You walk in at 9 o’clock in the morning, you have no idea what you’re doing that day, and at 5 o’clock you deliver a product that’s complete — shot, edited,” he says. “These are incredibly valuable skills and you don’t realize it when you’re right in the middle of it.”
So, in outsourcing interviews, he tends to hire news pros. “They understand the business so well. We tend to stay away from production people.”
Boettcher is now trying to jump from public TV to cable. He says that he is talking to Discovery Communications about a “man versus nature” show. “There’s a lot of networks and there’s a lot of content need. It’s a great time to be feeding the beast.”