Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Hollywood Execs, New York Writers, and the People They Fly Over - the Origin of "Flyover Country"

The Des Moines Register, September 3, 1911, page 15.

Late in the evening of November 8, 2016, Election Day, I settled in to watch the election returns and relax after spending sixteen hours volunteering at my local polling place.  As the red-in-the-center/blue-on-the-coast maps flashed across the screen, the expression “flyover country” flashed through my mind.   

But I didn’t know where the expression came from.

A quick search with my favorite search engine dug up a relevant, recent article, The Surprising Origin of the Phrase ‘Flyover Country’ (Gabe Bullard, National Geographic online, March 15, 2016).  The article suggested that the expression originated not as an insult hurled by so-called “elites” on the coasts, but as a self-deprecating (at best) or paranoid (at worst) projection onto others of how those in the middle imagine others see them:

It’s defensive but self-deprecating, a way of shouting out for attention but also a means for identifying yourself by your home region’s lack of attention. It’s the linguistic nexus of Minnesota nice and Iowa stubborn.

As someone who grew up on the border of Iowa and Minnesota, the explanation did not ring true.  Although I identified with the self-deprecating usage, I wasn’t sure that the fear of being ignored or dismissed was entirely unfounded.  "Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean that they're not really out to get me."  But in any case, I did not know for sure and was curious to see whether the suggested self-referential origin was on target or not.

It’s not.

"Flyover Country" was preceded by the earlier expressions, "the people we fly over" and "flyover people," which sprung up among television executives and writers in Hollywood and New York City.

“The People We Flyover”

A decade before the expression “flyover country” appeared in print, Mary Tyler Moore and her production team spoke to a group of entertainment reporters to talk up a new sitcom – The Mary Tyler Moore Show. 

Reporters were apparently having a hard time wrapping their heads around the concept for the show, which represented a break from long-standing television programming patterns.  The action took place in Minneapolis, not Los Angeles or New York City:

The press shredded their story idea until all of them looked like idiots in an idiot comedy.  [The show’s producer James L.] Brooks attempted to extricate them, to explain that the show won’t be a cornball directed at the boondocks.  “We’re not doing the show for mid-America,” he protested, as unfortunate choice of words which didn’t endear him to mid-America.

He suggested then that “mid-America was a figure of speech; that in Hollywood it’s cute say say, “Middle America is the people we fly over.”

The Greenville News (Greenville, South Carolina), August 3, 1970, page 27.

The expression “the people we fly over” appeared in print several times throughout the 1970s, generally credited to a television executive:

[V]iewers . . . could well be startled by former CBS program director Mike Dann (earlier quoted by Klein as saying “the public is the people we fly over”) admitting that some of the shows he scheduled “I never saw once.”[i]

[The actor Hal Holbrook said] I don’t know anything about country music really . . . . But the people – that’s what interests me . . . what one network official called “the people we fly over.”[ii]

Those of us who see the networks’ Family Viewing Time as just another excuse to program mediocrity were somewhat taken aback to read . . . that 82% of the Americans sampled favored the concept.  So much for being in touch with popular taste, we thought – and immediately scheduled a whistlestop tour of what video execs call “the people we fly over.”[iii]

The phrase may have originated with James Aubrey, who served as the President of CBS from 1959 to 1965.  Although the phrase would later be used more dismissively, Aubrey was said to have used it to encourage his executives to spend more time understanding their audience:

Jim Aubrey (one-time head of CBS-TV and later MGM) used to say it’s not New York or Los Angeles, it’s the people we fly over.  It’s important that we spend more time in the grass roots, in Des Moines or Minneapolis.[iv]

“Flyover People”

In 1979, the novelist Tom Wolfe noted how writers from New York change after moving to Hollywood (a subject addressed in Woody Allen's film, Annie Hall, a few years earlier):

Now when the New York writer moves to the West Coast . . . to work in the television industry, this has rather marked results.  He has moved from this marvelous apartment, he moves to Hollywood, and he mellows a bit.  He no longer thinks of all the people in between as Middle America or the Silent Majority.  He thinks of them instead, in the current phrase, as the flyover people.  The flyover people are the people that you fly over on the way to someplace interesting.[v]

One year later, Wolfe’s satirical look at “The Secret Heart of the New York Culturatus” (from his book, In Our time, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980, page 52) suggested that the term had since caught on in New York City:

[The New York Culturatus is] anti-Nuke, like everybody else, but he wishes the movement wasn’t so full of earnest California types playing guitars and singing those dreadful Pete Seeger Enlightened Backpacker songs . . . .

He’s for human rights and he’s against repression, but somehow he can’t get excited about the Boat People: they’re a greedy grasping little race that refuses to be assimilated into the new order.  Besides, the subject encourages revisionism about the war in Vietnam.

It’s tacky to use terms like “Middle America” and “the silent majority.” They’re so sixties, so out of date.  He calls them “the fly-over people” instead.  They’re the people you fly over on the way to Los Angeles.

“Flyover Country”

If the people you fly over are flyover people, then the place they live might naturally be called “Flyover Country.”  The earliest example of the expression that I found in print is from Donald Bowie’s memoir of his fascination with Television, Station Identification: Confessions of a Video Kid (New York, M. Evans and Company, 1980).  Bowie, who grew up and went to college in Boston, “sought shelter from the draft” and reluctantly found it in Indiana – he didn’t like it:

Newton Minow, who said television was a “vast wasteland,” should have lived for a while in Indiana, where I was in graduate school.  Then he would have been grateful for television, which, even at its worst, can offer the saving grace of not being filmed in a place like Indiana. . . .

One Sunday evening the Smothers Brothers devoted a segment to a Bobby Goldsboro song entitled “Honey.” So sentimental it could sweeten every apple pie at the church fair, and suited for the national anthem of the flyover country . . . .

His acerbic observations must have some merit because he claims to have had a good education.  He went out of his way to reassure the reader that he “didn’t go to Harvard” but “didn’t have to go to B. U. either,” which makes me wonder whether “flyover country” is as much of a self-defense mechanism for insecure people from the coasts as it is a self-deprecating coping tool for people in between.

Coincidentally, Bowie’s book ends where “the people we fly over” began (or at least came into into public view) – the Mary Tyler Moore Show: 

[W]ith Mary Tyler Moore off the air I didn’t know where to stop spinning the dial – there was nothing on.”

As for my part, I find state-by-state binary coloration of election maps a bit misleading (except for the limited purpose of showing electoral votes).  Many people in the reddest states vote blue and many people in the bluest states vote red, making most states a shade of purple, perhaps.  And in any case, red and blue are both just parts of a larger color spectrum that runs from scarlet to pink and cerulean to turquoise with many shades in between.  

And in any case, the color conventions are arbitrary.  I am neither red nor blue regardless of how I voted – well, red, white and blue, perhaps.  


See also, "After the Election, the Concept of "Flyover Country" Rises," Ben Zimmer, Wall Street Journal (online), November 22, 2016 (print edition November 26, 2016).

[i] The Los Angeles Times, September 2, 1974, Part IV (View), page 11.
[ii] The Tennessean (Nashville), October 21, 1975, page 15.
[iii] The Los Angeles Times, January 26, 1976, Part IV, page 14.
[iv] The Los Angeles Times, November 7, 1978, Part III, page 13.
[v] The Des Moines Register (Des Moines, Iowa), June 12, 1979, page 7.

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