It’s Alright, Ma (It’s Only Cable TV)

CNN cashes in on ’60s nostalgia boom with new miniseries

Jeff Zucker at "Sixties" New York Series Premiere Party

Jeff Zucker at “Sixties” New York Series Premiere Party

Mad Men may have ended for the year, but CNN is milking the persistent longing for all things ’60s with a 10-part documentary series. It’s called The Sixties.

The schmaltz factor was high at the premiere party last Wednesday evening, the night before the network debut.

A crowd of media types, most of whom hadn’t been alive during the actual ’60s, gathered under the stars in Grand Central’s main concourse, pushing past confused commuters to get to Vanderbilt Hall. As the crowd grew, the overwhelmed event coordinators threw open the rope, not bothering to check the list. After all, there were retro cocktails and, because some things never change, thirsty people to drink them.

We almost tripped over the shag rug as we made our way to the buffet, which was piled high with plastic TV-dinner trays waiting to be filled with the cuisine of the era like beef stroganoff, green bean casserole with fried onion, and fried chicken. Another table featured shrimp cocktail, twice-baked potatoes and iceberg wedges.

Waiters in granny glasses brought around shots of Swedish meatballs and celery stuffed with pimento cheese. (“It’s really fun and easy to make,” one of them offered with Cold War-era neighborliness.)

“Now, I am sure there are some that wonder why we need a miniseries about the 1960s,” CNN President Jeff Zucker, who was born in 1965, told the crowd. “But the reality is that when you start to think about everything that happened in those 10 years, you realize how many questions remain unanswered and how much we have to learn from that decade of America’s own coming of age.”

There probably is a lot to learn that has been erased by the reductive specter of five decades, but the event turned out to be something like the Forrest Gump of media parties. The line for foods that involved at least one canned ingredient was longer than the one for drinks, and eventually people loaded up goody bags with vintage candy and lollipops shaped like peace signs. The Smithsonian had co-sponsored a retrospective display of paraphernalia from the decade. Rather incongruously, posters for Woodstock and Age of Aquarius parties were displayed next to now-vintage pocketbooks and kitten heels. Quotes from Fidel Castro commingled with quotes from Richard Nixon. Whatever rebellion had fomented, whatever stylistic and ideological differences existed between The Man and the youthful counterculture had been washed away by the halcyon glow of half a century. As if to highlight the point, there was a life-size reproduction of Mister Rogers, comfortingly removing his shoes.

Mr. Zucker introduced a montage of the show, images of the half-lucid hippies transposed with familiar clips of politicians and civil rights leaders, Vietnam and anti-war protesters, all overlaid with Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” An animated poster made to look like a vintage television displayed trivia about the decade such as house prices and tame facts about Fidel Castro (“third longest-serving head of state”).

“Citizens everywhere can remember the moment when 70 million Americans tuned in to see the Beatles perform on American television for the first time,” Mr. Zucker said. Things were simpler back then for television stations. Events were events, and they garnered ratings. Mercifully, there was no Netflix or HBO.

Of course, cable news also didn’t exist yet. One can only imagine the CNN crawl and constant coverage of some key 1960s events, though the event helped give a pretty concrete taste of what that would have been like in practice.

After Mr. Zucker spoke, a Beatles tribute band (the Fab Faux) took the stage. We found ourselves bopping along to “Can’t Buy Me Love.” We spotted Mr. Zucker, clearly hoping that he could buy love, at least in the form of ratings.

It’s Alright, Ma (It’s Only Cable TV)