INSIGHT (1960-1984)

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Elwood Kieser

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On May 14, 2020
Last modified:May 14, 2020

Summary:

INSIGHT was a series of religious/moral half-hour dramas starring famous actors and distributed without charge to TV stations from 1960 to 1984.

Insight is an American faith-based anthology series that aired weekly in syndication from October 1960 to 1983. Produced by Paulist Productions in Los Angeles, the series consisted of 233 half-hour dramas. These dealt with modern problems of faith, ethics, and the search for meaning. Paulist Productions was founded by Fr. Ellwood E. “Bud” Kieser, a visionary Roman Catholic parish priest who saw the potential of promoting faith and values through the medium of television. The first Insight series consisted of homilies written and presented by the priest, akin to those of the popular Bishop Fulton Sheen. But wanting to move beyond preaching, Fr. Bud turned to story telling, using comedy, melodrama, and fantasy to explore values and decision making.

Situated as he was in Pacific Palisades close to Hollywood, Fr. Bud was able to secure the services of many movie stars willing to work between more lucrative assignments at basic union pay. (Many of those stars donated their checks back to the Paulist studio.) Among those stars were Jack Albertson, Ed Asner, Bill Bixby, Beau Bridges, Carol Burnett, Laura Dern, James Doohan, Patty Duke, James Farentino, Gene Hackman, Barbara Hersey, Ron Howard, Ann Jillian, Jack Klugman, Ida Lupino, Walter Matthau, Bob Newhart, John Ritter, Mark Hamill, and Martin Sheen, Cicely Tyson, Cindy Williams, and Flip Wilson.

The priest also expanded his writing stable beyond himself to include numerous talented professional scriptwriters, among whom were Rod Serling  Arthur Hiller, and Michael Crichton. When he went on to produce feature films, he was able to attract John Wells, of future West Wing fame to write the script for Entertaining Angels: the Dorothy Day Story, and for Romero, the writer/producer John Duigan, who also would go on to write episodes of West Wing. As Fr. Bud states in his book, he divided his programs into 3 categories: “God shows, which focused on divine-human relationship; love shows, which focused on individuals relating to each other or to themselves; and justice shows, which focused on the problems of society.”* The formats included both comedy and dramas.

Even though the programs were scheduled during “public service” hours, which meant anytime between midnight and 6 A.M. or on Sundays during the “church ghetto hour,” the series was popular with the public and media executives and managers because of the stars and the short well-written dramas. Two factors eventually brought it to an end. Ambitious evangelists, using their programs to milk money from their viewers, bought up the “public service” time slots, and the government’s  deregulation of the media allowed the station to credit such lucrative presentations as “public service.”

Paulist Productions, which did not charge stations for their programs, found itself shut out, a station executive saying why should he give away a slot free when a televangelist would pay him for it. At its peak in 1971, Insight was carried by 171 commercial stations, but by 1978, it was down to 101. Fr. Bud joined with Civil Rights and Protestant media leaders such as Dr. Everett Parker to try to get the FCC to change its lax rules, but they failed to convince its members, and so the Catholic and main line denominations eventually gave up their nationally syndicated programs. Fr. Bud cut back on the number of productions during the early 80s, and in 1983 made the sad decision to cease production, concluding in his book, “I had poured twenty-three years of my life into “Insight.” I was proud of it. It was the right idea at the right time, and it had made a significant contribution. But now there was an abundance of evidence indicating that time was over. ‘Insight’ was no longer the best way to invest these resources. And so, I decided to continue to distribute the series but to produce no new episodes.  It was time to move on; not out of show business, but to different types of shows.”** The “different types of shows” includes the already mentioned feature films Romero and Entertaining Angels, plus the TV films The Fourth Wiseman, The Juggler of Notre Dame, and We Are the Children.

After Fr. Kieser’s death from cancer in September 2000, Frank Desiderio C.S.P. became President of Paulist Productions and broadened the scope of the company to produce television documentaries for the History Channel, including Visions of Mary, Stigmata, Prophecies of Iraq, Judas – Traitor or Friend, Joseph: The Silent Saint, “The Twelve Apostles, St. Peter: The Rock and Paul, the Apostle. Healing and Prayer: Power or Placebo was also produced for A&E. In 2004 Paulist Productions released the made-for-television film Judas which aired on ABC and was written by multi-Emmy Award winning writer/producer Tom Fontana, who also served as executive producer on the film.

“This Side of Eden” includes 3 great stars at their funniest in this insightful story about God visiting Adam & Eve after “the Cain thing.” (c) Paulist Productions

Fortunately for those like myself who loved the Insight series, in 2003 the tapes of the series were entrusted to UCLA Film & Television Archives. Now, thanks, I believe, to them and Paulist Productions, the episodes are available free to the public on YouTube. Thus, here at Visual Parables begins what I hope will be a long running feature of 2 to 4 Insight films per issue that include a short synopsis of the episode, one or two related Scripture passages, and a set of questions for discussion. These will be suitable for church school or other group use. After a considerable number have been covered, an index of themes will be set up so that leaders can plan short term series on a specific subject. The episodes and guides included in this issue are “Clown of Freedom,” “This Side of Eden,” and “Death of the Elephant.”

* p. 235, The Spiritual Journey of a Showbusiness Priest. This book, available on Amazon books, goes into more detail on the series in Chapters 7 “Producer” and Chapter 13 “Insight, the Later Years.” See my review later in this issue.

** (ibid, p. 244)

The episodes are available on YouTube at:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCGoeE2xoH5S6ve-Xd0lOh1g

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INSIGHT was a series of religious/moral half-hour dramas starring famous actors and distributed without charge to TV stations from 1960 to 1984.

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