How Ted Koppel’s trip to ‘Mayberry’ became one of TV’s biggest moments of 2021

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During the height of lockdowns from the coronavirus pandemic, veteran reporter Ted Koppel was working on the treadmill when he came across an episode of “The Andy Griffith Show” – it caught his eye because of something he heard earlier today while listening to WMAL, a conservative talkative radio station based in Virginia. An auditor had called to explain that they lived in the Washington area, but couldn’t bear how “awake” it had become, so they fled south. They said something like, “We moved here to the Carolinas, and boy, life is just wonderful. The people are so lovely. They are so neighbors. Everything is so beautiful.

Koppel, 81, began to think about how “The Andy Griffith Show” also played out in the Carolinas, in the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina. After his practice, he went online and found the CBS comedy to be an even bigger hit than he remembered; the series, starring Griffith as the good-humored sheriff and Ron Howard as his adorable young son, was one of the most-watched shows from its debut in 1960 until its demise in 1968. And, more intriguing, while Mayberry was not real, the town of Mount Airy, North Carolina, claims to be the prototype it was based on and still attracts thousands of tourists each year seeking to relive their beloved spectacle.

So Koppel, the former ABC host of “Nightline” and now a main contributor to “CBS Sunday Morning,” called his producer, Dustin Stephens, and suggested they go to Mount Airy. Koppel was curious: What made the series so popular? And what is it about this community that makes people want to come and visit it decades later?

What started with these general questions ended up becoming one of the most striking TV segments of the year, as Koppel was visibly taken aback by the fierce nostalgia for a time and place that never had literally never existed – and how that connects to the disinformation that has infiltrated American politics.

“People looking back at this program seem to confuse the program with what reality was at that time, wishing we could only restore some of the good feelings, some of the kindness, some of the decency,” said Koppel in an interview. “But what they’re really thinking about isn’t what was going on in a particular community in North Carolina. What they’re thinking about is what was going through the creative minds of a group of writers in Hollywood.

At a grassroots level, Koppel understands why people tune in – and hang on – to the show about a friendly little town where any minor issues were resolved in 30 minutes with commercial breaks. It’s the same reason people watch “The Office” and “Friends” and “Seinfeld” repeatedly: When life is a nightmare, TV comedy is a great escape.

Likewise, “The Andy Griffith Show,” a viewing experience that Koppel likened to “chewing a marshmallow,” was an antidote to everything going on in the world at the time, which never appeared in the movie. sunny series: tens of thousands of US troops killed in the Vietnam War. Race riots across the country. Assassinations.

“If there is one period that matches our current period in terms of the severity and difficulty of things, it is the 1960s,” Koppel said.

Koppel’s 13-minute segment, which was filmed in June and aired in September on “CBS Sunday Morning,” begins by sounding like an enjoyable feature film on Mount Airy embracing its role as Mayberry’s replacement, though its only connection to “The Andy Griffith Show” is that Mount Airy was Griffith’s real hometown. (One wonders if Mount Airy was the inspiration for Mayberry, as many fans claim.) Randy Collins, President of the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce, explains to Koppel the origins of Mayberry’s recreation: When North Carolina’s tobacco and textile industries faltered, business owners needed another way to generate income.

Beginning with the happy, whistling theme song, cameras show the Andy Griffith Museum and a vintage police car and other hotspot replicas from the series, including Wally’s Filling Station, Snappy Lunch, and Floyd’s Barber Shop – all filled with tourists. The play takes its first clue of a darker, more serious turn as Koppel interviews a man who says our “society without God” could use a dose of the good old days. “Back in the days when neighbors were neighbors, and they provided for everyone else’s needs,” the man explained.

“What you say is true for some people,” Koppel told him. “If you were black in the sixties things weren’t that good.”

“It’s true,” admits the man. (The segment notes that in all of the show’s eight seasons, only one black actor had a speaking role.)

Koppel also interviews a black family who have lived in Mount Airy for decades and, since the early 1970s, have been barred from eating at certain restaurants. Yet the siblings had all returned to their hometowns. “Somehow, Mount Airy gets more complex with every conversation,” Koppel said, adding that the city “is a place where fantasy and reality intersect.”

It goes on to the segment’s defining scene, on a tourist cart: Koppel decides to “wave the political thermometer on the Mount Airy front” and asks how many people there thought the 2020 presidential election was fair. Only about two out of a dozen raise their hands.

“I think there was a lot of electoral fraud,” says a tourist. “I think it’s more mail-in ballots. You don’t know how many of them were duplicated, tripled, all. “

“Look how many dead voted for Biden,” adds another, referring to a false and debunked conspiracy theory.

The discussion continues as one person claims that the January 6 uprising on the United States Capitol was a “staged” event with “BLM people.” (“I don’t understand why they are focusing so much on this one problem, when there are so many cities set on fire every day by protesters.”) Others intervene to call the media the enemy of the people and profess their love for Donald Trump.

Koppel and its producers let the scene speak for itself. At one point, a guide steps in: “This conversation about politics and division is what people come here to get away from. We don’t care about your color. We don’t even care about your politics. We just want to be good neighbors and treat everyone the same. And that’s why they come here. The tourists shout “Amen! And applaud. “This is what America should be,” said one of them. Koppel’s voiceover concludes the segment: “And when the script was written in Hollywood, it was like that.”

After it aired, Koppel heard plenty of positive comments from those who liked it digging deeper – although some Mount Airy residents and viewers in the Southern states took issue with the way the city was portrayed. Koppel had a telephone conversation with Collins, the president of the Chamber of Commerce; while Collins was very kind and not actively complaining (Mount Airy received a huge infusion of publicity with millions of “CBS Sunday Morning” viewers), Koppel got the impression a lot of people in town were doing it.

“Nationally, people either loved it or hated it,” Koppel said, though he rejected viewers who called it a “hit job.” “As far as it was critical, it wasn’t critical of the show. He was not critical of the community. It was just saying, ‘You have to understand that what you are watching here is not the original community that the show was – the show was not shot here. It was not about that place.

Ultimately, Koppel stressed that was the point: it’s fine if you want to escape reality on TV. But confusing it with the real world can produce damaging results. Part that stuck in her mind from the segment was one of the tourists at the end who said, “I just hope that when this airs it doesn’t show Southerners like a bunch of idiots.”

“It really was never the intention,” Koppel said. “That was right – as far as people go to Disneyland and mistake Disneyland for reality, they have to be reminded that this is a place that was created to sell tickets for a lot of rides and to earn money. money. … There is nothing wrong with it. There is nothing wrong with it. But people should not be hurt if someone reminds them that they are not dealing with reality.

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