October 28, 2016

Around the dial

It's a kind of theme week here at Around the Dial, with many of this week's pieces concentrating on the upcoming Halloween spooktacular. Let's take a closer look at them.

Science fiction movies are very popular in the old TV Guides - many of them look as though they should have the little silhouettes at the bottom of the screen. It's therefore appropriate (as well as fun) to check out this article at The Last Drive-In on science fiction movies of 1953.

Time for another Hitchcock update at bare-bones e-zine, and as was the case previously, it focuses on the frequently-cast-as-a-British-detective John Williams, this time in the second season story "I Killed the Count," the only multi-part Hitchcock story, and a fun one as well.

Also in the mystery vein, The Twilight Zone Vortex continues its Halloween countdown with another in a series of horror-themed episodes. This time, Cliff Robertson stars in the tale of a ventriloquist gone bad, "The Dummy."

I would never have associated Tales of the Crypt with Christmas, which is why Joanna Wilson writes Christmas books and I don't. This week at Christmas TV History, she takes us back to, let us say, an unconventional type of Christmas episode from 1998.

Let's stay with the horror theme for a moment, as Classic Film and TV Cafe looks at the 1970 telemovie "How Awful About Allan," with Anthony Perkins and Julie Harris - as Rick says, a very strong cast for an ABC Movie of the Week.

And Made For TV Movies continues the trend, with - natch - another made-for-TV movie. This one, from 1979, is "Mind Over Murder" with Deborah Raffin and Bruce Davison, and Amanda, who should know, classifies it as "closer to the greats" as far as horror telemovies goes.

Now for something completely different, let's shift over to British television, and of course that means we start with Cult TV Blog, and 1965's Undermind. I'm not saying we're done with the horror subtext, though, because we're talking about an alien force using technology to undermine society! And British TV Detectives follows up with the ongoing series Silent Witness, a series with potential that ultimately disappoints,

The Broadcasting Archives at the University of Maryland links to a Vox story on a topic we touched on a while back, the introduction of color-coded maps on election coverage, and how the Republicans and Democrats became labeled with the counter-intuitive colors red and blue.

David at Comfort TV has another of his thought-provoking yet nostalgic articles, this time taking a look at how foreign cultures were portrayed in various classic television series. He makes an excellent point about how watching these shows, you're reminded of how the world seemed somehow bigger back then, before the information highway brought us all closer together (and drove us farther apart int he process).

That should keep you until tomorrow, when I'll be back with one of our favorite ghoulish couples, on the cover of TV Guide.

October 26, 2016

Got a headache?

On Saturday we learned about a school of thought that held that in order to be effective, commercials also had to be offensive. We also read that the most obnoxious commercials tended to be those that hawked pain medication - "like the one for a headache tablet that had hammers banging in the brain," said one expert.

It's likely that the expert in question, ad agency executive (and putative Mad Man) Robert Robb, had the following commercial in mind when making his comment.

Now, lest you think people exaggerate when they talk about how irritating viewers found these commercials, one need look no further than Allan Sherman, the Weird Al of his time, who, my wife reminded me, penned this immortal classic, "Headaches," to the tune of "Heartaches." Enjoy!

October 24, 2016

What's on TV? Saturday, October 21, 1961

This week it's a return stop to New England, where we'll look not only at the Boston stations, but Hartford, New Haven, Providence, and other areas as well. And in case you were looking at the lower right hand corner above, you're right - that's another of the "This is the Week to Watch" issues. Can you recall the last time there was a week like that on TV?

October 22, 2016

This week in TV Guide: October 21, 1961

Do commercials actually have to be offensive? According to Martin Abramson's article, there's a school of thought that says this is precisely the case. (Then again, there was a school of thought that believed Hello, Larry was a good idea, too.)

What we have, apparently, is a situation akin to that which we find in political commercials today - namely, that obnoxious commercials are often the most effective ones. Commercials for pharmaceuticals generate the most complaints, but as Robert Robb, executive VP of the Reach, McClinton ad agency, points out, it's a case where you "sell through irritation." "When people suffer an attack of gas or a splitting pain, they run out for the remedy whose TV message they associate with their pain or discomfort. Some commercials - like the one for a headache tablet that had hammers banging in the brain - actually give many people the headache that the tablet will subsequently cure." Nice work if you can get it.

Rosser Reeves is seen as the hottest new voice in the ad business, and he's recently made waves with his comment that originality is "the most dangerous word in advertising." For Reeves, nothing succeeds like hitting the viewers over the head with the same commercial over and over and over again. (Now we know who to thank for the invention of the mute button.) It's not a universally-accepted thesis; Sylvia Dowling, VP of Benton and Bowles, says that the reason clever commercials often have bad track records is "because you can't sell on entertainment alone." No matter how fresh, how clever, how humorous the commercial, you have to be "getting across one strong simple selling idea in each commercial" in order to move the product.

Charles Kebbe, who runs a school for commercial performers, explains how the philosophy of people like Rosser Reeves came to be. Originally, he says, TV commercials were pretty clever. "But then as costs zoomed, the print-minded and print-trained agency heads and sponsor representatives too control of everything, and now 90 percent of the commercials you see are wrong for this unique, visual medium. They're static and they're as imitative as rabbits. The people turning them out are scared to take chances. And most of the performers they hire to deliver commercial messages are peas-in-a-pod, model-pretty girls and all-American boys who have no conviction or interest in what they're doing."

There is hope, however; CBS has started to crack down on the "more odious commercials," and the American TV Commercials Festival has started handing out awards to the best commercials of the year. Referring to those commercials for antacid and headaches, one ad agency executive says that because of steps like these, "There'll be fewer stomach arrows and explosions in people's heads in the future." And yet...

Let's look back at today's political commercials again for a moment. One of the comments that jumps out in this article is that the most effective commercials are those in which people remember the name of the product. "If their recall doesn't indicate a sales message is getting through, the commercial is dropped." We know everyone hates those negative political attack ads, and yet polls consistently indicate they're the most effective form of advertising when it comes to getting across a candidate's message.

People tend to give more negative feedback than positive; they're more likely to write a letter of complaint than one of praise. Perhaps, then, Rosser Reeves is right - the more irritated the viewer, the more likely they are to remember the message. And if they remember that it's the other candidate they're supposed to be irritated at, then you're home free.

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One of Ed Sullivan's first great on-air challenges came from Steve Allen, who left Tonight to take over an NBC variety show which, at the beginning, aired opposite Ed. It didn't run as long as Ed's, of course, but then Allen said his goal was never to conquer Ed, but to coexist with him, which he did for three seasons. Let's see who gets the best of the contest this week.

Sullivan: Ed's guests include Phil Silvers and Nancy Walker, who present songs and scenes from their musical comedy "Do Re Mi"; comedy teams Wayne and Shuster and Antone and Curtiss; singer Matt Monro; and the winners of the Harvest Moon Ball dance. .

Allen: Vocalists Jennie Smith and Jack Jones and a group of singing comics called the Characters (Charles Hunt, Carmen and Champ Baccari, Johnny Rico and Jack Kent) are Steve's guests.

This is kind of hard to tell, because aside from Jack Jones I don't really know any of Allen's guests. However, Matt Monro had a long and successful careeer; bet you'll recognize him from his 1963 hit "From Russia With Love," from the movie of the same title. Phil Silvers and Nancy Walker ought to be able to carry Ed past the finish line, so the verdict goes to  Sullivan.

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In sports, television coverage of the 1961-62 NBA season tips off on Saturday as the New York Knickerbockers take on the Philadelphia Warriors. The Warriors coach, Frank McGuire, came to Philadelphia from North Carolina, where his Tar Heels won the 1957 NCAA championship by defeating Kansas, led by Wilt Chamberlain. Chamberlain is now the center for McGuire's Warriors, and in March of the following year he'll score 100 points for Philadelphia against the Knicks. For the year, Wilt averages 50 points a game, the all-time single season record. It's interesting that NBC starts their basketball coverage in October; with rare exceptions, it will become customary for the networks to wait until January to begin with the weekly broadcasts.

Football's in full swing, and you can take your pick of games. On Saturday, ABC has future Heisman winner Ernie Davis leading Syracuse against Penn State (Penn State wins 14-10), while Sunday's pro games include the once and future Los Angeles Rams playing the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium on CBS, the Cleveland Browns playing the Pittsburgh Steelers on NBC, and the AFL game between the Houston Oilers and Dallas Texans on ABC.

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We haven't had a starlet for awhile, so what better than to go across the ocean to get one? It's Ulla Jacobsson, who will be making her American acting debut on Wednesday night's episode of Naked City. It isn't her first time acting, though; she started off on the stage before moving into Ingmar Bergman's stock company, appearing in Smiles of a Summer Night.* It was that performance that attracted the attention of Naked City producer Bert Leonard, who asked her to come to America just to do this one episode. She's known for her "sensitive, subtle quality," which proves particularly effective in her role as a maid who conspires with her boss (David Janssen) to murder his wife (Constance Ford).

*According to the always-reliable Wikipedia, she's perhaps best-known  internationally for her nude scenes in the 1951 movie One Summer of Happiness. How appropriate that she'd be appearing in Naked City, don't you think?

After that, there are other roles, but she never does make it big in America (if she even wanted to), and she dies of bone cancer at the painfully young age of 53.

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Mrs. J.L. Waybourn, of Farmington, New Mexico, writes to remind TV Guide that "there are still many people in these United States who find such words as "hell" and "damn" used in television shows objectionable - especially coming from teen-agers as on last week's Bus Stop."

The program to which Mrs. Waybourn refers is based on the 1956 romantic comedy starring Marilyn Monroe, which in turn was (very) loosely based on the Tony-nominated 1955 play by William Inge. Bus Stop the television series, which debuted October 1 on ABC, boasts Roy Huggins (The Fugitive, Run For Your Life) as creator and producer, stars Marilyn Maxwell, and credits Inge as a script consultant, which may or may not mean anything.

Regardless of its pedigree, though, there's no doubt the series has created quite a stir. The network ws "deluged" with protests, so much so that network president Ollie Treyz banns all such words from future network programming. Typical of the letters is another that found its way to TV Guide, from Judy Vogel of Rochester, NY, who found Bus Stop "sadly disappointing. I shall never be able to understand why I cannot watch an adult program without hearing language like "damn" and "hell." Some of our writers must indeed be in a very serious situation if they can find no better way to get their ideas across to an audience than by the use of this coarse language." The simple answer to Ms. Vogel's question, according to Huggins, is that you can't watch an adult program without hearing that kind of language because that's the way adults talk. "The words . . . are genuine and realistic," he tells TV Guide, "but they are not essential for adult drama at all."

I think Huggins' last point is the crucial one. Quite soon the same type of question will be asked by movies, only there it will pertain to nudity rather than profanity. The essence is the same, though: is it essential to the story? Starting with the 1964 film The Pawnbroker, Hollywood's Production Code will begin to grapple with the situation; by the end of the decade, the Code is gone altogether, replaced with a ratings system that acknowledges that there is in fact a time and place for profanity, nudity, and violence in movies. Eventually, the debate will move to extremities; the words in question are no longer "hell" and "damn," but "s***" and "f***," and many of the same objections will arise, to be met with the same answers.

I completely agree with Ms. Vogel in that the use of profanity can often be seen as the mark of a lazy writer, just as nudity is, far often than not, used for gratuitous titillation. The fact remains, sad though it may be, that one has only to stand on the corner to hear language far worse than what most television shows contain today. For that matter, most of us probably hear it at work.

I don't know how old either of these women were, but one has to wonder if they lived to see the works of Steven Bochco, or Martin Scorsese, or HBO, and what they though of it.

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On Saturday, one of Ernie Kovacs' lesser-remembered programs, Silents Please, presents the first part of D.W. Griffith's 1916 spectacular "Intolerance." I can't imagine condensing even part of this movie to a half-hour, but there you go. Kovacs doesn't do much more than introduce each program, and considering the tax problems he was known to have, I suspect he might have done this for the money more than any love of silent films. It's the last show of the series, at any rate. Here's a sample:

On Sunday, we have Car 54, Where Are You, which stars this week's cover boys, Fred Gwyne and Joe E. Ross, and the aforementioned Bus Stop, which had better not have any swear words tonight, dammit.

Monday you can catch an episode from a Robert Young series that doesn't work - Window on Main Street (8:30 p.m. ET, CBS), in which Young plays an author writing about the people he meets in his small hometown. It's 34 episodes and out, allowing Young to go to medical school and change his name to Marcus Welby. Also, what was probably a provocative episode of Ben Casey, in which brilliant young surgeon George C. Scott hides the fact that he's also a drug addict.

On Tuesday, Milton Berle makes a rare dramatic appearance on The Dick Powell Show (9:00 p.m., NBC), playing a blackjack dealer who finds himself badly in need of money for his daughter's operation. I've seen Berle in a few dramatic roles; like many comedians, he's really quite good. His biggest obstacle is getting you to take him seriously; once you're by that, his character portrayals are often powerful. After that, on CBS's Westinghouse Presents (which sounds a lot like Westinghouse's Studio One), Ralph Bellamy, Earl Holliman and Dina Merrill star in "The Dispossessed," the story of American Indians hoping to live outside their reservation.

Wednesday gives us dueling cartoons, starting with The Alvin Show on CBS at 7:30 p.m.; in this week's episode, "David Seville and the Chipmunks are shopping for a foreign car. THey find one that an ostrich has mistaken for its egg - and is desperately trying to hatch." If that's not to your liking, try Top Cat on ABC at 8:30; "Benny the Ball is 'discovered' when a famous impresario named Gutenbad hears him play the violin. That is, Gutenbad things he hears Benny play - actually the music comes from a nearby record shop."

Eliot Ness and the rest of The Untouchables (10:00 p.m., ABC) go after heroin dealers on Thursday's episode; Martin Balsam stars as one of the pushers, while the incomparable Bruce Gordon probably steals the episode as Frank Nitti.

On Friday, The Flintstones (ABC, 8:30 p.m.) parodies The Untouchables with an episode called "The Soft Touchables," in which Fred and Barney go into the detective business. What could possibly go wrong? If you like music, it's not likely you can do better than The Bell Telephone Hour at 10:00 p.m. on NBC. The theme is trios, and to prove it we have Benny Goodman and his jazz trio, the three McGuire Sisters, the Kingston Trio, folk singers Margaret Mercier, Eric Hyrst and Vernique Landary, and opera stars Phyllis Curtin, Nicolai Gedda and Theodor Uppman.

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And finally, Jack Paar has announced he's leaving The Tonight Show next March after a five-year run. He'll be back in the fall, however, with a once-a-week hour-long prime time variety show, which plays much as his late-night program. Unmentioned is the $64,000 question: who will be his replacement?

Thanks to Jon Hobden for this week's issue!

October 19, 2016

History in the making - RFK, June 5, 1968

Source: RFK: A Photographer’s Journal by Harry Benson, published by powerHouse Books. Copyright © 2008 by Harry Benson
Although this piece is about television footage that is unquestionably a part of political history, it's not because of the current campaign that I'm writing it - the timing is completely coincidental, as I ran across the accompanying footage just a couple of weeks ago. It's ABC's coverage of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy on June 5, 1968 (technically, it's actually coverage of his shooting, since Kennedy didn't die until the next morning, but you know what I mean), and it strikes me as a remarkable bit of television history as well. I wrote about that event a couple of years ago, but watching this stunning coverage of the first report adds another dimension to it.

Certainly this isn't the first major news story covered on television; the assassination of JFK unfolded dramatically on television just five years prior. It isn't even the only assassination that year, as Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot and killed just a month beforehand. And the mass murder by sniper Charles Whitman on August 1, 1966 at the University of Texas is considered the first time television had actually provided live coverage of a breaking story as it happened (as opposed to reading wire service reports from the studio).

What, then, makes this footage special, at least to me? For one thing, it's a stunning look at what a breaking story looks like in the studio, as people go from a state of unawareness of a major story to hearing about it to trying to gather as much information on it as possible. This usually happens in the background, but thanks to the particular circumstances involved here, we get to see it right on camera.

Perhaps before we go any farther, I should show you the clip, and we can discuss it afterward. We'll begin with discussions of the vote as it comes in, followed by Senator Kennedy's victory speech, and ABC anchor Howard K. Smith preparing to sign off. It's all captured in context rather than through highlights, but if you're pinched for time and want to skip straight to the relevant part, go to about 37:30 in, as Smith is summarizing.

You'll notice that Smith has already removed his earpiece and microphone and unbuttoned his coat which his head whips around at 19:12, and he goes to put his mic back on. ABC political analyst Bill Lawrence, sitting on the lower right hand side, is looking off-screen as well; clearly, something has happened. By 19:29 Lawrence is on the phone, probably an internal phone to the control room, and Smith joins in a few seconds later. As things unfold, you can see more activity in the background, as staffers are drawn to the teletype machines printing out wire service reports. All the while, ABC's campaign theme music plays in the background, until there is a long moment of silence before an announcer's voice comes on at 20:12 with "Please stand by." In the meantime, Smith and Lawrence have prepared themselves to go back on the air, with Smith particularly looking ready to go at any time. The theme music recycles, things become more animated,and the announcer repeats at 21:14, "Please stand by for a special report." Finally, as another round of music fills the dead space, you can see someone talking to Smith at 22:45, a director runs out on the floor, a staffer crouches down, appearing to be passing information to Smith, who bends over to talk with her. By now, all the staffers are standing around, waiting for what comes next. Controlled chaos. Finally, Smith confirms the camera that will be picking him up, puts down the phone after a quick conversation, and at 23:33 returns to the air with "an alarming report."

Now, I don't know about you, but although television remote controls did exist in 1968, I know our home didn't have one, and I suspect most households didn't, either. And so after Smith signs off and there's one final plug for the sponsor (BFGoodrich), the average viewer would have had to get up and walk across the room to turn off the TV. If he didn't do that right away (and keep in mind this is all happening around 12:15 a.m. Pacific time, which makes it 3:15 a.m. on the East Coast), he might have had the chance to wonder why the music kept playing, and he surely would have been curious after that "Please stand by" announcement. Whatever it is, it's clear something has happened. My wife pointed out it didn't necessarily mean that whatever it was was bad; it could have been as innocuous as ABC projecting that Kennedy would, indeed, be the winner. It's impossible to really know what people were thinking at the time, because we have the benefit of hindsight, but the longer the wait goes on, the more you might think the viewer's anxiety will grow. At this point you'd be a fool to turn off the television.

The same person who posted this video has shared with us coverage from CBS and NBC; unfortunately, neither captures the exact moment when news of the shooting is first aired. In the comments section, one person speculates that CBS may have signed off earlier, having been able to already project Kennedy as the winner due to their own key precinct data, and NBC may have been off the air as well. Therefore, we're left with ABC's coverage, fortunately anchored by a steady hand of a veteran newsman like Howard K. Smith.

Much like the video of CBS breaking into As the World Turns with the first bulletin of JFK's shooting, this footage really gives you a "see it now" feeling of what must have been awful, sickening news. As the coverage continues (I think YouTube has nearly seven hours just from ABC alone), we begin to see still photos of Kennedy: lying sprawled on the floor after being shot, being tended to by bystanders, being lifted into an ambulance with an oxygen mask on. Regardless of how one feels about Robert Kennedy (and there were ample reasons one could dislike him), the juxtaposition of the young, vital, alive man who claimed victory in California and vowed, "Now it's on to Chicago," and the dying victim lapsing into unconsciousness after asking whether everyone was all right, is shocking.

In terms of news as it happens, coverage of the assassination of Robert Kennedy occupies a kind of middle ground between the frontiers broken by TV during the JFK assassination and the later ability of networks to smother us with coverage of breaking events as they unfold. If for no other reason, this remains an extraordinary artifact of American history, and the chance to see it exactly as the viewer saw it then is fascinating.