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CBS announced it would be "purely and simply a telecast about hunting." It would be "about what hunting really is," it would seek to explain why people hunt and what the rules are. For the first time, network television was going to take a journalistic look at blood sports.
But the indications of what the hour-and-a-half show, The Guns of Autumn, really was about were not hard to detect even from the advance publicity. The public was enticingly warned that the program contained "scenes of the deaths of animals which may be disturbing to some members of your family." An hour of Sunday evening programming three weeks later was already set aside for Echoes of the Guns of Autumn, a sequel to be based on the controversy it would surely arouse.
If viewer reaction were the sole guide to a program's success, Guns could be the start of a new series. On the evening of Sept. 5 when it was shown, switchboards at CBS affiliates in Chicago and Albuquerque and in New York were overloaded with complaints. At WCCO in St. Paul, Minn., station personnel fielded an estimated 300 calls. Most of the calls were from outraged hunters, a few from parents and animal lovers appalled at the tight close-ups of the prey's final agonies and bloody butchering scenes. In the days following the telecast CBS probably got even more attention than it desired in the nation's press, as paper after paper castigated the show for assorted prejudices and inadequacies: "A new low in the standards of electronic journalism," "extreme and inflammatory," "massively ignorant or deliberately false." Amid all this sound and fury, who really deserves to be called what?
The title of the program was an obvious parallel to the titles of familiar movies and novels about warfare and outlawry. Its scheduling coincided neatly with not only the start of the hunting season in many states but with Congress' consideration of strict new anti-gun legislation and the nationwide scare campaign by the National Rifle Association on the old "when guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns" theme.
In other words, CBS was boldly hammering on the NRA's knees to see how its reflexes worked. Before show time, the NRA apparently kicked almost all the sponsors where they live, because all but one pulled out. CBS was reduced to airing public-service announcements and promos for its own fall activities.
Gunsshowed its viewers a series of bizarre scenes, most of them far out on the freakish periphery where no self-or game-respecting hunter would be found. The script, which CBS may have thought "lean," was coy instead. Whatever, the terse commentary was fortuitous because Writer-Producer Irv Drasnin let his bias lead him into either inaccuracies or misrepresentations. In one segment, he suggested these brutal killers slit bears' bellies and roll out the guts as much to lighten their load as to prevent spoilage of the meat, as if the very dressing of game were despicable. In another episode, a hunter claims that nature kills off the weak and sick of a herd, while hunters take the healthy. That's too simple; in a hard winter the strong bucks drive healthy does and fawns away from feed; it is the fawns that nature kills the soonest. But, even without gratuitously biased comment, the program seemed edited to condemn all who hunt, since we 1) aren't cavemen killing out of primitive necessity and 2) aren't European noblemen of some century when sport hunting was done right, by the right few people.
Admittedly, what was shown being done by people who clearly thought they were hunters right to the marrow of their bones was deplorable. They came at daybreak on the first day of bear season to an infamous dumping ground in Michigan. Bears so tame that they ate out of a woman's hands the day before were plugged and hauled away on the tailgates of $6,000 four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Another bear was hounded through the Michigan woods by a huge party of men and women and dogs and children and trucks and radio equipment, across dirt roads that had been dragged the previous night to obliterate old tracks. Every road is covered, every turn of the bear and dogs reported to the waiting guns. When the bear is brought to bay, all the people race to be first at the scene, and all are standing around with beer and cameras when the animal is gunned out of a tree and the finishing shot administered. The dogs are then let at the bear. The leader of the hunt tells the TV crew, "We get condemned a lot for shooting a bear out of a tree, but after the miles we put on today, we figure these dogs deserve a chew." Catch 22.
One watched these introductory scenes thinking, "All right, that's the way it's going to begin. It's going to start low and establish a contrast for respectful and knowledgeable and challenging hunting. A spectrum." That seemed fair enough, although an invidious kind of editing was already apparent. While a hunter is trying to explain the appeal of pheasant hunting on the sound track, saying, "You give [a man] a shotgun and you give him a beautiful cornfield and, man, there's just something about it," the screen shows a hedgerow with an armed man every 30 yards along it as far as you can see, rather than the solitary hunter the words evoke.
But, actually, that bear hunt was the nearest thing to hunting Guns covered. It was all downhill from there. In the remaining hour or so we were treated to another opening-day hunt—and every hunter knows that opening day, when the game is unwary, bears little relation to what will occur the rest of the season. This one was filmed in the marshes of Pennsylvania, where the state game department officers assign sites to the hordes of hunters and rent them goose and duck decoys, and the gunnery begins before the legal shooting hour and gunners rain shot on each other whenever the ducks are so ill-bred as to fly low.