Firing Line (officially Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr.) was an American public affairs show founded and hosted by conservative William F. Buckley Jr., founder and publisher of National Review magazine. Its 1,504 episodes over 33 years made Firing Line the longest-running public affairs show in television history with a single host. The program, which featured many influential public figures in the United States, won an Emmy Award in 1969.
Although the program's format varied over the years, it typically featured Buckley interviewing a guest and exchanging views, with the two seated together in front of a small studio audience. Standing or sitting further away in the studio, an "examiner", typically a political liberal, would ask questions, generally toward the end of the show. Guests were people notable in the fields of politics to religion, literature and academia, and their views could sharply contrast or be in strong agreement with Buckley's. Most guests were intellectuals or those in positions of power, and they were interviewed about ideas and issues of the day.
Reflecting Buckley's talents and preferences, the exchange of views was almost always polite, and the guests were given time to answer questions at length, slowing the pace of the program. "The show was devoted to a leisurely examination of issues and ideas at an extremely high level", according to Jeff Greenfield, who frequently appeared as an examiner. John Kenneth Galbraith said of the program, "Firing Line is one of the rare occasions when you have a chance to correct the errors of the man who's interrogating you."
The show might be compared in politeness and style of discourse to other national public interview shows, specifically those hosted by Richard Heffner, Charlie Rose or Terry Gross, but Buckley was clearly interested in debate.
In a 1999 Salon.com article, The Weekly Standard editor William Kristol summarized Buckley's approach to the show: "Buckley really believes that in order to convince, you have to debate and not just preach, which of course means risking the possibility that someone will beat you in debate." Buckley was not averse to asking tough questions of friendly guests, either, according to Tom Wolfe who recalled the interviewer asking him whether there were really any original insights in his book The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Beginning with the move of the program to public television in 1971, the theme music of Firing Line was the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major, Third Movement (Allegro assai), by Johann Sebastian Bach.
Firing Line began in 1966 as an hour-long show (including breaks) for commercial television, syndicated by WOR-TV in New York City, where it ran for 240 episodes. It was mainly seen on weekends in low-rated afternoon or late-night timeslots, because of the program's admitted appeal to a small, "high-brow" demographic group.
Buckley and his producer, Warren Steibel, used various methods over the years of bringing an extra perspective to the show. In the early years there would often be a panel of questioners. In 1977 the panel was replaced by an "examiner" who played a larger part in the proceedings. Examiners varied, with Jeff Greenfield, Michael Kinsley, Harriet Pilpel, and Mark J. Green appearing most frequently. When the show was shortened to 30 minutes in 1988, the role of examiner was eliminated, but there was often a moderator, whose role was similar to that of the moderator in a formal debate. The moderator would introduce both host and guest, and then ask the opening question.
In 1971, Firing Line moved to the Public Broadcasting Service under the auspices of the Southern Educational Communications Association, an arm of South Carolina Educational Television. This was somewhat unusual, given the reputation among many conservatives that PBS unfairly discriminated against non-liberal viewpoints in its other programming. SECA/SCETV, however, was one of the very few public broadcasting entities of that time that was sympathetic to the conservative movement. Also, the program had been carried by PBS (and predecessor National Educational Television) stations in a number of markets for some years before anyway. Because the program received a relatively unfavorable Sunday evening timeslot on PBS' schedule in the early 1970s, Buckley and Steibel briefly attempted to return Firing Line to commercial TV, but could not find sponsors (the probable reason the show moved to public TV in the first place). Thus, the program would remain on PBS until Buckley and Steibel discontinued production in December 1999.
Starting in 1978, scattered among the regular broadcasts were occasional specials and two-hour formal debates, with opening statements, cross-examination, and closing statements. In 1988, at Buckley's request, the program reduced in running time to a half-hour for regular shows; previous episodes had run one hour in length. Beginning in March 1993, the formal debate would often be followed by shows in which most or all of the participants engaged in informal discussion. The debate episodes were frequently broadcast on the Monday evenings after PBS pledge drives concluded, in the 1980s and 1990s. This practice was probably a gesture of appreciation to public TV's normal audience of highly educated viewers (Firing Line's most ardent fans) for their patience in being ignored during said drives, in order for stations to broadcast mass-interest special programming aimed at drawing financial contributions from a larger public.
A recurring episode that Buckley had rebroadcast every Christmas beginning in 1981 was an interview he did with Malcolm Muggeridge at his home in Sussex, England. The title of the episode was "How Does One Find Faith?" The episode deals with questions that are religious and spiritual in nature.
Buckley's distinctive mannerisms were prominently displayed by the program and were part of the public images of both the show and Buckley. Buckley was frequently seen leaning far back in his chair, a pen near his mouth and a clipboard in hand. His flicking tongue, widening eyes and flashing smile also characterized his style, as did his multi-syllabic vocabulary. Buckley's voice was widely satirized as, for instance, by Robin Williams in the animated movie Aladdin.
At the same time that guests were treated politely, Buckley might also gently mock them, particularly if he was friendly with them, as with John Kenneth Galbraith or examiner Mark J. Green. “You’ve been on the show close to 100 times over the years", Buckley once asked Green. "Tell me, Mark, have you learned anything yet?" When Allen Ginsberg asked if he could sing a song in praise of Krishna, Buckley acceded and the poet chanted "Hare Krishna" repeatedly as he played dolefully on a harmonium. According to Richard Brookhiser, an associate of Buckley's, the host commented that it was "the most unharried Krishna I've ever heard". Buckley's celebrated politeness sometimes wore thin: in a 1969 debate with linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky, Buckley said "I rejoice in your disposition to argue the Vietnam question, especially when I recognize what an act of self-control this must involve." Chomsky acknowledged that "[s]ometimes I lose my temper. Maybe not tonight." "Maybe not tonight", Buckley said, "because if you would I'd smash you in the goddamn face." (This comment was a joking throwback to Buckley's famous response to Gore Vidal, when, during another Vietnam debate, Vidal called Buckley a "crypto-Nazi".)
Buckley addressed his guests as "Mr." or "Mrs." He once called Margaret Thatcher "Margaret" because he thought she had addressed him as "Bill". He was embarrassed later when he saw the transcript and realized she had been referring to a legislative bill. He immediately wrote a personal letter of apology to the Prime Minister.
The more prominent guests on the program included:
A number of episodes of the show have been released on DVD by the Hoover Archive, an arm of the conservative Hoover Institution, and are sold exclusively through Amazon.com, which also makes episodes accessible via Amazon Video. As well as that, for a slightly higher price, the Hoover Archive will supply unreleased episodes on DVD through its website. Episodes with playlists by year are now available on YouTube.