August 24, 2016

Sitcoms: no laughing matter!

Last week I was fortunate enough to be invited back on Dan Schneider's YouTube interview program, along with Daniel Budnik, the greatest Polish-American television blogger ever, and Stephen Winzenburg, Communication Professor at Grand View College in Des Moines* and author of TV's Greatest Sitcoms, to sit around the virtual table and discuss the history of the American sitcom.

*Hopefully he didn't read this piece before the show.

It was great fun spending a Saturday morning talking about TV with two experts, and I don't mind telling you I really had to scramble to keep up with them. Fortunately, once someone thinks you know what you're talking about, you're able to fake it with a couple of smart-sounding lines; the show didn't run long enough for me to be uncovered.

You know, a lot of people think it's intimidating appearing on television, but it really isn't that big a deal, and it helps when you're able to appear from home. For example, although you can't tell from the video, I'm not wearing any pants. It gets hot in Texas in August even with air conditioning, and wearing a sportcoat while sitting under the lights for three hours is enough to make anyone break out in a sweat. Under those circumstances, one takes any little edge he can get. Remember well those words of wisdom from the 1980s, which probably appeared on several of these very sitcoms.

Anyway, be gentle with your comments!

August 22, 2016

What's on TV? Thursday, August 26, 1971

Although we've been in Ohio before (namely, Cincinnati), this is, I believe, the first time we've made a trip to the state's other two population centers: Cleveland and Columbus. I'm still not quite sure I chose the right day and stations to spotlight; there's some quirkiness that I'll point out in due course, but otherwise it's a pretty normal day. Not that normal isn't good. Not at all.

One final note: TV Guide is still indicating what shows are being broadcast in color, despite the fact almost all of them are. This will soon change, and they will simply identify the shows that are in B&W. For my own convenience, I've chosen to accelerate the schedule a bit, so I'm only indicating the B&W shows as well. But then I always ahead of my time.    

August 20, 2016

This week in TV Guide: August 21, 1971

It's easy to exaggerate the differences in television over the last ten years, but after having navigated the cultural disaster zone that was the '60s, I think it's safe to say there are a few programs on this week that you wouldn't have seen in August, 1961.

"Heroes and Heroin" is an ABC News Special on Saturday at 8:30 p.m., hosted by Frank Reynolds. The special is a frank, "chilling" account of the drug addiction problem sweeping the U.S. military. As soldiers return from Vietnam as addicts, both they and the country struggle to cope with the problem, which President Nixon calls "Public Enemy No. 1." Here we are 45 years later, and the drug epidemic seems to be going as strong as ever. At least we treat our returning servicemen and women better than we did when they came back from Vietnam.

Also on Saturday, NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies airs a rerun of the brutal Tennessee Williams story "The Night of the Iguana," with a cast that includes Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr, and direction by John Huston. It's a frank, adult story that was probably edited to appear on television in the first place, when it made its network debut in 1968. I can't imagine it airing on TV much earlier than that.

On Thursday night, NET Playhouse presents a group of five short films that purport to depict the world of the future, "where violence, suppression and irrationality reign." Introduced by novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr., here is the lineup: "1. 'The Scream.' A '1984'-like tape tracks down a nonconformist. 2. 'The Other Side.' An eerie, omnipotent force terrorizes a town. 3. 'Silo.' Two men, trapped in a missile silo, are at odds over starting a nuclear war. 4. 'The Fall of Varema.' Bleak panorama of a city in ruins. 5. 'Faster, Faster!' Aimless activity is dramatized in witty, fast-paced animation." No matter what your tastes, this had to have made for 90 bleak minutes of television. I probably would have liked it.

There are other series appearing throughout the schedule, new and returning, that remind us we're in a new era; The Storefront Lawyers, which by this time has been renamed Men at Law, deals with youth activism in a way you wouldn't have seen back in the days of Father Knows Best. On The Brady Bunch, "Marcia launches a fem-lib campaign," and Dragnet devotes an episode to community-police relations (something which any traditional police drama would probably be dealing with today).

Like, groovy, man.
And yet, we find reminders that this is one of those odd transition years, when the new and the old coexist on the same schedule. On Tuesday night ABC's The Mod Squad, a series that epitomizes the efforts of the networks to capture the youth demographic with "with-it" programming, goes head-to-head with CBS's The Beverly Hillbillies, a show that dates back to 1962 and always offered a subtle spoof of the trendy and absurd. Room 222, the comedy-drama depicting the struggle in urban schools (more on that later), co-exists with the long-running Western The Virginian, even though the latter is now known as The Men From Shiloh; and iconic shows like Gunsmoke to Bonanza remain popular with viewers.

In a way, television was far more egalitarian back then, with a little something for everyone. It had to be, because there was no cable television, no channels devoted to sports or comedy or animals. The VCR was still years away, which meant not only could you not watch your favorite movies and TV shows from years past, you had to be home when your favorite program was shown or try to catch it in reruns, because there was no way to record it.

Of course, such was the case in 1961 as well; it's just that some times bring this home more than others.

Oh, and that extra point about Room 222?: On Wednesday's episode, a 95-pound weakling becomes the new school bully after a few karate lessons. "The episode features karate expert Chuck Norris." Which reminds me - have you heard the one about how there used to be a street named after Chuck Norris? It had to be changed, because nobody crosses Chuck Norris and lives. I wonder if, in 1971, anyone could have imagined...

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By now both Ed Sullivan and The Hollywood Palace are gone; Palace went off the air last year, while Sullivan aired his final broadcast a couple of months ago, although CBS assures us Ed will be back for several specials each year. This doesn't mean, however, that the variety show is completely dead, as we see Sunday night - in some of the most stark images of the difference between "then" and "now."

At 8:30 it's the venerable Red Skelton Show, having moved from CBS to NBC for its final season after running on the Tiffany Network since 1951, and having returned to its original half-hour format. This week, Red's guest is Martha Raye, who joins Red in a trademark sketch, after which he does one of his famed "Silent Spots."

Meanwhile, CBS features the type of variety program that replaced Skelton - The Sonny & Cher Show. Their guest is talk-show host and former band singer Merv Griffin, who teams up with Sonny to spoof the Hollywood lifestyle, and sings a couple of numbers. I've made this comment about The Smothers Brothers Show, and I'll say it about Sonny & Cher as well: for all the countercultural vibe that these stars represent, their shows are strikingly conventional, in style and construction, if not in substance.

On NBC, British singer/comedian Des O'Connor hosts the summer replacement for the Kraft Music Hall, along with co-host Connie Stevens. Their guests are singer Buddy Greco and British comic Jack Douglas. The Peacock Network also has Dean Martin's summer replacement, The Golddiggers*, with Tommy Tune, Marty Feldman, and Charles Nelson Reilly. And pinch-hitting for Carol Burnett, CBS Newcomers features flamenco guitarist Ronald Radford and a cast of regulars including the Good Humor Company and singers Cynthia Clawson , Gay Perkins and Raul Perez. It's hosted by Dave Garroway, who must have spent most of his time thinking to himself, "remember, I had ten years of The Today Show," over and over

*Like Des O'Connor, the Golddiggers broadcast from London. Other than that, any resemblance is purely coincidental.

It's not a variety show per se, but PBS's Evening at Pops has a charming program, with conservative pundit William F. Buckley, Jr. providing the narration (written by Ogden Nash) to Saint-Saëns' classic The Carnival of the Animals.

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Yes, I know this is actually "This Week in
the NFL," but it's the closest I could come.
One of the favorite shows of my youth was NFL Action, the football highlights show produced by NFL Films. It was a summer standard for many years, filling the gap during the summer break between the end of one season and the beginning of another. I remember it most from the late '60s (not quire sure which year), when it ran at 10:30 p.m. on Channel 4 in the Twin Cities, and I was able to watch it because school was out and I could stay up late.*

*I also remember the one year it had a network run, which was preempted on our local station for a game show or something like that. I don't have any clearer memories of it; probably the bitterness created a memory block.

With the new season only a month away, NFL Action is running full steam ahead, with different episodes appearing on different stations depending on where that station happens to be in the course of the syndicated run. WTVN, Channel 6 in Columbus, has a look at "a young team building for the future" - the Pittsburgh Steelers. The perennial losers have some promising players in the lineup for 1971, including quarterback Terry Bradshaw, defensive tackle "Mean" Joe Greene and running back Rocky Bleier. In 1972, they'll add running back Franco Harris; a couple of years after that it's wide receiver Lynn Swann. The rest, as they say, is history.

Meanwhile, WEWS, Channel 5 in Cleveland, has a look back at the "Sensational Sixties," and there's a lot of it - the Green Bay Packers, winners of five championships in the decade; Johnny Unitas, one of the game's greatest quarterbacks; Jim Brown and Gale Sayers, two of its greatest running backs; and the advent of the Super Bowl, America's greatest religious experience. And WSTV, Channel 9 in Steubenville, looks at the 1970 NFC Champion Minnesota Vikings, whose great claim to fame is that of being the last NFL champion prior to the merger - and, since they lost the Super Bowl to the AFL champion Kansas City Chiefs, the last NFL champion who wasn't really the champion.

In the days before constant coverage of the NFL on every network, before the NFL started its own network, NFL Action was one of the few chances to see many of the teams other than your own home team. In many times, it was a better, less saturated time. Good memories.

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Since it's the cover story, I suppose we should ask the same question: is, in fact, anyone watching PBS? One survey finds that most viewers see PBS "not as a medium for 'the people' but rather as a segregated vehicle for the higher-educated segment of the population, and a little left of center." Probably the same could be said of PBS today, except much of the "higher-educated" content has been replaced by pledge breaks dominated by nostalgic boomer-music groups.

PBS's most popular program, by a long shot, is Sesame Street, which attracts as much as 40% of the viewing audience in some markets. Why the awards and critical acclaim can't translate to more viewers is a mystery, though, not only to PBS but to other networks as well. "I don't know, I just don't know," one top programmer says. One reason could be that many public television stations have been consigned to hard-to-find UHF channels (even FCC Chairman Dean Burch can't pick up Sesame Street on his home television).

The network has also struggled to develop traditional "series" television, relying mostly on "anthologies" such as Masterpiece Theatre and documentaries like Civilisation. Without regular stars to tune in to every week, viewers may feel less attachment to the network's shows. Speaking of which, there's a sheer lack of programming, at least when compared to other networks; while each of the big three provide 21 hours of prime-time programming per week, PBS can only manage 13, plus its daytime feed.

Whatever the cause, PBS officials say they're not about to fall into the ratings-game trap. Says David Davis, a representative of the Ford Foundation (one of PBS's major funders), "You might destroy public broadcasting if you tried." He adds, though, that he wouldn't mind finding out how PBS might at least attract a few more viewers - a sentiment echoed by many at the network.

It doesn't explain, though, why one of the most British series possible, the miniseries The Six Wives of Henry VIII, has become such an unexpected hit - on CBS. The unedited version appears next season on Masterpiece Theatre.

◊ ◊ ◊

Care for a little comic relief? There's the story of Dora Hall, the woman whose husband literally bought her a television show. I can't bear to recoup the details; you can read a fine article about her here.

◊ ◊ ◊

Finally, the weekly ad from the back cover. I'm not sure what would be considered the greater crime today: the smoking, or the Chinese stereotype.

As much as the difference between 1961 and 1971, that's the difference between 1971 and today.

August 19, 2016

Around the dial

bare-bones e-zine has another installment of "The Hitchcock Project," this one on the seventh-season drama "The Woman Who Wanted to Live," which for some reason sounds to me like it should be the title of an Outer Limits episode. This is another one I've yet to see, and they don't make it any easier by not having released this season in DVD, but - they have in England, and since I have a region-free DVD player...

I tend to think of the 1972 Munic Summer Olympics primarily in terms of the massacre of the Israeli athletes, but there were other things that happened - as Classic TV Sports Blog reminds us with this clip of Howard Cosell interviewing American track coach Stan Wright about the controversial disqualification of U.S. runners. My, but that was a troubled Olympics on so many levels.

A nice piece from Carol at Vote For Bob Crane on how the Hogan's Heroes actor got along with his fans. Among other things, he almost always answered his own fan mail, and was unfailingly nice to fans when they came up to him. I think one of the reasons why the circumstances surrounding his death carried such shock value was that he'd projected this image so thoroughly, but as Carol points out in her book, both sides of Bob Crane happened to be true.

Reviews of two British series I'm not familiar with: British TV Detectives writes about New Tricks, which ran for 12 seasons on the other side of the pond, while Cult TV Blog focuses on the gritty early '70s drama Man at the Top.

The Twilight Zone Vortex looks back at an episode I well-remember, Still Valley, a Civil War story first broadcast in 1961. It's an uneven but still compelling story of black magic and the horror of war, done the Rod Serling way.

At Comfort TV, David takes a look back at an actor I always liked, William Windom. His long run on Murder She Wrote leads one to overlook the wide variety of roles in which he appeared over a very successful career, going from heroes to villains to the downtrodden with ease. His presence could have improved a lot of shows that are on today.

And finally, I think this headline from The Broadcasting Archives at the University of Maryland speaks for itself. The future - can you possibly imagine it?

As far as our short-term future is concerned, I'll be back tomorrow - will you?

August 17, 2016

Restoring the classics

Perhaps this is just my inner nerd showing, but I find this tremendously interesting and hopefully you will as well. There's a YouTube channel called NBNTelevision which features restored versions of classic live broadcasts originally captured by kinescope.

We all know that kinescopes, which we love because they give us recordings of classic programs that would otherwise be lost, still leave something to be desired when it comes to reproducing the "night of broadcast" look and sound.  The process, which quite literally consists of a movie camera recording the picture right off the tube, turns a live telecast into a film, taking away the immediacy of what it would have felt like when seeing the original broadcast as it happened.

The technique used by NBN, called "motion interpolation," is intended to restore the videotape look and sound, allowing us to imagine what it would have been like seeing that live broadcast. It also cleans up and sharpens both the audio and video quality, allowing us to see and hear details that may well have been hidden since the original production. So far, NBN has uploaded four restorations, and while the Studio One broadcasts of "Wuthering Heights" and "Sentence of Death" are very good, you'll get the biggest impact from the other two broadcasts.

The first is Playhouse 90's landmark "Requiem for a Heavyweight," with a brilliant script by Rod Serling and terrific performances from Jack Palance, Keenan Wynn, and his father Ed. Watch this video from the beginning to get an idea of what a difference this restoration makes.

The second is 1957's Cinderella, by Rodgers and Hammerstein, starting the young and luminous Julie Andrews in the title role. The original broadcast of Cinderella was, to that point, the most-watched program in the history of television - over 100 million saw that live telecast.

Watching these programs was a real eye-opener for me - although we're certainly able to ascertain the quality of these broadcasts based on the kinescopes, we're now able to actually replicate the feel of seeing them as they happened - to see them the way they were meant to be seen, to appreciate them the way the original audiences did, to feel the drama of actors performing live for a national television audience. It's a powerful, as well as delightful, way for classic television to come alive - and I dare you to convince yourself as you watch them that they aren't live.

August 15, 2016

What's on TV? Wednesday, August 21, 1968

It's always nice being back in the Twin Cities, at least when it comes to TV listings; I always know what I'm talking about. The great majority of my back issues are still from Minneapolis-St. Paul, but it's been some time since I've been able to acquire any; the ones that are out there are going for outrageous prices. I thought all those socialists back there were against making big profits!

Just kidding, folks. Mostly.