October 30, 2014

The Love Boat, Maverick, The Prisoner and more!

Yours truly has, from time to time, poked fun at ABC's '70s-'80s hit The Love Boat, and will probably continue to do so when given the opportunity.  And yet, as Comfort TV reminds us, it was an enormous hit that's still fondly remembered by many - and maybe it's the perfect kind of show to watch when the real world gets a little too hard to handle.

The Broadcasting Archives at the University of Maryland has this very cool picture of Portland, Oregon television station KGWs futuristic broadcasting studio.  Does this scream midcentury, futuristic design or what?  What a great link between early television and the styles of American culture.

Be sure to read the conclusion of Cult TV's write-up on allegory in The Prisoner - this week, it's the infamous final episode, "Fall Out."  Some very interesting conclusions here, with which I'm inclined to agree - that The Prisoner "may be better interpreted in psychological terms" than as an allegory, though I don't think there's any doubt there are allegorical images contained.

Nice picture at The Lucky Strike Papers of author Andrew Lee Fielding's mother, Sue Bennett (a member of the cast of Your Hit Parade) along with fellow singer Russell Arms.  We're really geared to think of moving images when studying television, and yet I think that still photographs, with an unlimited time to study them, can be even more forceful in bringing back memories.*  And by the way, read the book!

*Did you know that every time you remember a memory of the past, you're actually remembering the last time you remembered it, rather than the original memory?  I didn't know that until recently.  But of course I'm not recalling that conversation - merely the last time I thought about it.

All Things Kevyn has nothing to do this week with television, but everything to do with the wonderful Calvin and Hobbes.  Anyone who's ever looked at the sidebar knows that strip is held in high esteem around here, and this cartoon helps explain why.

Television's New Frontier: the 1960s takes a look at what it is that makes Maverick one of the most unique, clever and fondly remembered Westerns of the late '50s, and how Warner Brothers' foolish decisions brought the show down.  It's always the suits in the end, isn't it?

You should always read Television Obscurities for the weekly TV Guide review, but also for the looks at the obscure shows of the past (hence the title, right?) such as Thrills and Chills, a New York show from 1941.  Always interesting to remember that television started much earlier than we think, isn't it?

Coming up this Saturday - a look at Election Day 1980 in the pages of TV Guide!

October 28, 2014

Reagan's "Time For Choosing" - when people watched politics on television

Just so we're clear from the outset, it's not my intent here to make an ideological point.  As always, what matters most is our analysis of the influence that television has on the American culture.  If you'd still rather skip the politics, come on back Thursday - I'll see what I can do for you.

For the rest of you: yesterday was the 50th anniversary of what has been called the "Time For Choosing" speech delivered by Ronald Reagan on behalf of Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater.  Contrary to what you might read from some on the Internet, this speech was not given at the Republican Convention (which was held in July), nor was it coverage of a speech that Reagan was giving out on the stump.  It was, in fact, a made-for-television program, with a live audience to give it some atmosphere.

The speech was given during the final days of the campaign (Election Day was, as it is this year, November 3), and as far as influencing the outcome of the race, its impact was negligible - the incumbent, Lyndon Johnson, pounded Goldwater 61%-39%, the sixth-most lopsided presidential race in history.  In other ways, though, the speech was a sensation.  It raised over $8 million for the cash-strapped Goldwater, which as this columnist points out would be about $60 million in today's money.  Washington Post writer David Broder compared its impact to William Jennings Bryan's famed "Cross of Gold" speech in 1896.  Most important, it catapulted Reagan, who two years before had been a Democrat and was hitherto best known as a movie star and the host of GE Theater, to national political prominence.  Two years later he would be elected Governor of California, and he would seek the Republican presidential nomination in 1968 and 1976 before winning the presidency in 1980.*

*And you can read more about that in this coming Saturday's TV Guide.

Again, the point here is not to look at Reagan's political legacy - what fascinates me is the impact this televised speech had.  It's rather difficult today to imagine a televised political appearance being this influential, given the disdain most of us have for politicians, and the lengths to which many of us will go to avoid seeing them on TV.*  But this speech, a variation on a speech he'd been giving to groups throughout California, defined Ronald Reagan politically and made him a force to be reckoned with for the remainder of his political life.

*I suppose then-state Senator Barack Obama's speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention is the closest we've come since.

We've seen how the advent of television has changed politics, for better or worse.  Keep in mind that four years before Reagan's speech, the inaugural televised debate between Kennedy and Nixon had been the highest-rated broadcast of all time, and that eight years before that, Nixon's "Checkers Speech" (likewise the largest television audience at the time) had saved his spot on the ticket with Dwight Eisenhower, with telegrams of support overwhelming Republican headquarters.  In the sense that today's political campaigns are geared for the mass audience as opposed to the more intimate style that personified previous generations, the effects of television apply equally to all candidates.  Some, like the Kennedys, Reagan and (arguably) Obama, use it to better use than others, but they all play under the same rules.*

*Witness the number of times you hear it said of a candidate that "if he (or she) could personally meet every voter, he'd win in a landslide."  Some people just do better in person than on the tube.

Nowadays we live in cynical times; virtually every source of authority has been discredited and is looked upon with deep distrust, so it's unlikely that a single television appearance nowadays - as part of a paid political advertisement, no less - could have the effect of Reagan's speech.  And that's what makes it so extraordinary; that on that night in October 1964, a great many people sat around their television sets and watched Ronald Reagan give a political speech.  They liked what they saw and heard, and they remembered it.  It may be one of the last example of its kind, the use of television to capture the political imagination of the public, and thereby to shape the nation's political future.

Here, in its entirety, is the "Time For Choosing" speech from October 27, 1964.  See what you think.

October 25, 2014

This week in TV Guide: October 25, 1980

It's one week until the Presidential election, and things are really heating up, with the biggest television event being a no-show in the pages of TV Guide.

We've previously looked at the controversies and difficulties surrounding the 1980 debates, and it wasn't until late in October (apparently too late to change this issue) that the one and only debate between the principal candidates, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, was agreed to.

The debate took place in Cleveland on October 28, one week to the day before Election Day, and it's said to have been the turning point in a close race becoming a landslide.*  Three things stand out from the confrontation: the President remarking on his conversation with his twelve-year-old daughter about nuclear proliferation, Reagan's response to Carter's accusations with the line, "There you go again," and the closing peroration in Reagan's final statement, in which he asked the voters "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"

*Which is another good reason not to have early voting - but that's another discussion for another day and, probably, a different blog.

The debate was one of the highest-rated television programs of the last decade, and the last time that the candidates of the two major parties would engage in, essentially, single-warrior combat.  I'm not exactly certain what it did to that night's broadcast schedule; a quick look at the listings suggests the biggest program that night was Bob Hope's two-hour election special, which may well have been interrupted for the debate and continued afterward.  In any event, it's likely that those high ratings were much better for the networks than anything they wound up preempting.

One other election note: there's a fairly extensive article with the three candidates (Reagan, Carter and Anderson) answering questions about television put to them by TV Guide.  The answers are about what you'd expect: Reagan and Anderson both think their campaigns have been, for the most part, covered fairly by the media, while Carter complains that the the press holds the incumbent's record to a higher standard than that of his challengers.  In response to a question about the predicted low voter turnout, Anderson makes a very interesting observation, that the more voters learn about candidates and officeholders the lower the turnout tends to become, though he thinks it more likely the fault of the candidates themselves than the coverage they receive.  When asked about their favorite shows, Reagan identifies news, sports, family programs and miniseries, Anderson watches news and public affairs shows, and Carter has very little time to watch anything.

***

I've written before about the complex relationship between boxing and television.  Over the years, we've seen boxing go from a thrice-weekly staple of prime-time television to a closed-circuit event in theaters and then, behind Howard Cosell, return to prime-time for big events.  This week's fight falls somewhere in-between: the network premier of the Larry Holmes-Muhammad Ali heavyweight title fight, which had been broadcast in theaters earlier in the month.  Broadcasts such as this still got big ratings, even though everyone knew the outcome, because relatively few had seen the fight in the theater, and only still photographs had been published prior to the telecast.

Ali, the man responsible for boxing's renaissance, was coming back from a two-year retirement after having won back the championship from Leon Spinks in 1978.  Holmes was considered the best heavyweight in the world, undefeated champion* since June of 1978; despite this, Ali appeared to have worked himself into good shape and a surprising number of experts gave him a good chance of regaining his crown.  In the event, the fight was a total mismatch, with Holmes dominating from the outset.  Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee, tried to throw in the towel after the ninth round, and the fight was stopped after ten rounds, with Holmes far ahead on all scorecards.

*Of the World Boxing Council, which had stripped Spinks of the title for giving Ali a rematch rather than fulfilling his contractual obligation to defend his title against the number one contender, Ken Norton.  The champion of the World Boxing Association (the unbroken title line which passed from Spinks to Ali to John Tate) is currently Mike Weaver.  More about him in a minute. 

I'm not quite sure why the ABC advertisement talks about "The Controversy"; certainly there's no doubt that Holmes was winning the fight easily.  It could be the thyroid medication that Ali blamed in part for the loss (it supposedly helped him lose weight), or it could be the inability of the obviously dominant Holmes to knockout his idol - was he taking it easy on Ali in order not to hurt him*, or was Holmes perhaps not quite the big puncher everyone thought he was?

*Holmes appeared at the post-fight press conference with tears in his eyes over the battering he gave the former champion.

There's been some speculation that Ali was already suffering from Parkinson's disease at the time of the fight, based on Ali's reactions during the pre-fight neurological examination at the Mayo Clinic.  If this is true, as the author suggests, his ability to stand up to the beating he received from Holmes is particularly remarkable.  Here's the fight as broadcast; see what you think.


What's also interesting about this two-hour Friday night broadcast is that the lead-in to the Holmes-Ali replay is a live fight, the lightweight championship fight between James Watt and Sean O'Grady live from Glasgow, Scotland (where it was after 2:00 Saturday morning). Watt takes a fairly controversial victory, and here's the broadcast of that fight:


***

That fight was telecast on Halloween, and there's plenty of seasonal programming in store during the week.

On Tuesday night, CBS kicks things off with a three-hour condensed version of the original two-part Salem's Lot, starring David Soul.  NBC counters with a horror double-header, with The Omen on Wednesday night and it's sequel, Damien - Omen II on Thursday night.  The former stars Gregory Peck and Lee Remick, the latter William Holden and Lee Grant.  Judith Crist called them "dopey and pretentious."

SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
If you want something perhaps a little less pretentious on Wednesday, CBS has its old standby, Bugs Bunny, in a "Howl-O-Ween Special," followed by Raggedy Ann and Andy in "The Pumpkin  Who Couldn't Smile."  What a sad story!  (Covered very nicely here by The Last Drive In.)  NBC's Real People follows suit with a ghost-flavored episode, including haunted houses and a medium trying to contact Elvis!  Thursday belongs to ABC, with "The Grinch That Stole Halloween," featuring Hans Conried taking the place of Boris Karloff, and "The Halloween That Almost Wasn't," with Judd Hirsch as Dracula.  Scary!

Finally, on Friday night, if the Holmes-Ali fight isn't creepy enough for you, NBC has a made-for-TV flick, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" starring Jeff Goldblum, not to be confused with the Fox series Sleepy Hollow, which doesn't star Jeff Goldblum.  The one show that's missing is the one I would have expected to see, It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.  Must have been on the previous week.

***

Some interesting Saturday matinee choices on local channels.  Superstation WTBS, dipping into the United Artists inventory, presents Stanley Kramer's apocalyptic On the Beach, based on Nevil Shute's brilliant novel, about which one of my colleagues has written here.  I have to admit never having seen the movie; something about the tone of it, I think; I was never able to get beyond "Waltzing Matilda" being used for the theme.  I've no doubt it's far better than the remake, though.

Meanwhile, KDLH, Channel 3 in Duluth, has the Oscar-winning foreign film Investigation of a Citizen About Suspicion, one of the great crime dramas of the '70s, with a touch of existentialism thrown in.  It's a grim story about a top Italian police inspector who murders his mistress and then plants clues to implicate himself, wanting to see how far he can get, confident that despite the evidence his fellow detectives will never dare to suspect him.  I saw this movie on television in the early '70s (a daytime matinee no less!), and even though I've only seen it once since then, both the title and the story have stuck with me since.  In a day when most of the Saturday afternoon movies are still either Westerns, schlock horror, adventure or comedy, these are two very unusual choices.

Also on Saturday, some more evidence that sports coverage in 1980 isn't quite the same as today.  WEAU, Channel 13 in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, presents taped highlights of the Formula 1 Grand Prix of the United States, which had been run on October 5.  This is followed by NBC Sportsworld's presentation of taped coverage of NASCAR's Charlotte 500, held on October 5 as well.  Both of these events would be shown live today, but back then they were not only on tape, they were merely highlights.

Speaking of which, we have yet another tape-delay presentation of yet another heavyweight championship boxing match on tap as well, CBS's same-day coverage of the WBA title bout between champ Mike Weaver and challenger Gerrie Coetzee,  (I did warn you we'd get back to title fights, didn't I?) The fight was held earlier in the day in Bophuthatswana, South Africa* and recorded so it could be presented at a more suitable hour.  Weaver retains the title with a tough 13th round KO, and just to be fair here's the fateful moment as seen on Sports Spectacular.

*Try saying that five times fast.

a

***

Last but not least, a few tidbits from the rest of the television week.

The actors' strike has finally ended, which means some series are getting belated premieres.  Among the new shows to come in the next couple of months: Hill Street Blues and Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters on NBC, Magnum, P.I. on NBC, and Too Close For Comfort, Bosom Buddies and It's a Living on ABC.  The networks can't agree on when the new season starts, though.

Roger Mudd, the longtime CBS newsman who lost the replace-Walter Cronkite-sweepstakes to Dan Rather, has made the move to NBC, where he's expected to eventually take over for John Chancellor on the evening news.  He doesn't though, not really; after serving as co-anchor for awhile with Tom Brokaw, he winds up working on Meet the Press and assorted NBC newsmagazines until heading over to PBS and, later, The History Channel.

SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
Charles Kuralt is taking over the weekday CBS Morning News as an expansion of his Sunday Morning program.  As I recall, the name changed each day: Monday Morning, Tuesday Morning, etc.  It lasted until 1982 (Kuralt was joined by Diane Sawyer in 1981), and it was probably the best of the morning news incarnations that CBS has tried over the last 35 years.

As a side note, I've always had an affection for WCCO, the CBS affiliate in the Twin Cities, the only one of the four main channels to remain stable in network affiliation over the years, and the last to get rid of its local kids' shows.  I've also complained, however, about their long-standing habit of preempting CBS' Sunday morning religion/culture block (Camera Three, Lamp Unto My Feet and Look Up and Live) in favor of Bowery Boys movies, not to mention how they frequently refused to air the weekday CBS morning news (which often wound up onChannel 9, the ABC affiliate).  Now, in this issue, I'm finding that WCCO doesn't carry Captain Kangaroo in the mornings, either.  Too busy airing Phil Donahue.  Remind me again what it was I liked about WCCO?

You might have noticed that this week's cover is another work of art by Al Hirschfeld, whom I wrote about here.  One of Hirschfeld's endearing traits was working the name of his daughter, Nina, into each of his portraits.  Can you find it this week's cover?

And about that cover: it's for an article on James Gregory, who plays Inspector Lugar on Barney Miller.  I know several people who absolutely love that show, but I was never really a fan.  The cast and stories were good, for the most part, but I think the weakest link in the show was Hal Linden himself, which can be a problem when you're talking about the star of the series.  Never really cared for Linden as an actor, and in Barney Miller I thought he played the role too broadly at times, as if he were still on the stage rather than in the intimacy of television, but since I'm likely in the minority on this I'm probably wrong (except to me).  It finally got to the point where I couldn't really appreciate the program because of his presence.  The other characters were great, especially the late Steve Landesberg as Dietrich, and I'd probably accept the viewpoints of many former policemen that Barney Miller was the most realistic cop show on TV.  As for who should have played the sane voice in a squad room full of loonies, I don't know.  Any ideas?

October 23, 2014

Brit TV, stars when they were young, old sports announcers, holiday specials, and prunes!

Lots to cover today, so let's get to it, shall we?

Oh, my. The Broadcasting Archives at the University of Maryland offers a picture of Kevin Whately and John Thaw, Lewis and Morse respectively, from the start of the series Inspector Morse.  Were we really that young once?

Cult TV is back with allegory in the epic Prisoner episode "Once Upon a Time."  These have been stimulating, enthralling discussions, and I've certainly done poorly at describing how much I get out of them, at least in terms of leaving comments.  Boy, they're interesting!

I've taken shots from time to time at The Love Boat when I do my TV Guide writeups, but there's no denying it was a big show, and a lot of fun for a lot of people.  See what I mean when Joanna takes a look at the 1977 Christmas episode at Christmas TV History.

In the past, I've identified Pat Summerall as one of the "big game" voices of televised sports.  It seemed as if he could do it all - not only the NFL, but golf, tennis, the NBA - even baseball from time to time.  But until I read it at Classic TV Sports, I didn't know that he and his sidekick Tom Brookshier once called a boxing match.

You'll read a brief mention of it in Saturday's TV Guide piece, but this week The Last Drive-In tells us about the great Chuck Jones and his Raggedy Ann and Andy Halloween adventure "The Pumpkin Who Couldn't Smile."*

*I almost wrote "The Pumpkin Without a Smile."  Could it be because I'm currently listening to Richard Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten, "The Woman Without a Face"?

Heh.  I was just reading a book that had a mention of prunes (I'll tell you about it sometime), and here Michael's TV Tray has something about October 17 having been "Four Prunes Day"!  Plus there's a dandy commercial for prunes featuring Ray Bradbury!

There's nothing particularly English about prunes, although I suppose they like them as much as anyone, but that doesn't stop me from linking to Embarrassing Treasures' latest Family Affair Friday, "Oh To Be in England."

Since I'm doing this on time this week (Wednesday night, to be exact), no update on the latest TV Guide recap at Television Obscurities, but be sure to go there and read the latest on Friday!

And speaking of TV Guides as we are, I don't link there often enough, but the TV Guide Historian gives us a daily fix of classic TVG.  Today - a Close-Up on PBS' Smithsonian World.  Does PBS even show many programs like this anymore?

Another site I don't tell you about often enough is the terrific site Television.AU, all about the history of television in Australia.  Here, Andrew talks about the 50th anniversary of the premiere of the long-running police drama Homicide. I really ought to become familiar with more things than Aussie Rules Football.

Finally, a word of sympathy to anyone who might be reading this in Canada.  Horrific images from Ottawa; thoughts and prayers to everyone in our neighbor to the north.

That's it for today - see you back here on Saturday, right?

October 21, 2014

Additions to the Top Ten: Naked City

PAUL BURKE IN A SCENE FROM NAKED CITY
Most people of a certain age are familiar with the saying, "There are eight million stories in the Naked City," though I'm not sure that it means anything to people today.  But back in the early '60s, the Naked City was New York, and there were indeed eight million stories to be told - many of them on the television series of the same name.

The Naked City was one of the great noir films of the '40s, directed by Jules Dassan in 1948.  It was notable for its gritty, documentary-like style, aided by its extensive use of location shooting in New York City.  (It won an Academy Award for cinematography.)   It followed two police detectives, veteran Detective Lieutenant. Dan Muldoon (Going My Way's Barry Fitzgerald) and his young associate Detective Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor) as they investigate a murder.

In 1958, the story made the transition to television as a weekly half-hour drama on ABC, with John McIntyre taking on the role of Muldoon and James Franciscus portraying Halloran, joined by Harry Bellaver as Sergeant Frank Arcaro.  It didn't take long for things to change, though; halfway through the season, McIntyre left the show (his character was killed off in a spectacular car crash), replaced by Horace McMahon as Lieutenant Mike Parker.  The series won critical acclaim but didn't fare so well in the ratings, and was cancelled after that first season.

A year later, though, after lobbying by the show's sponsor and producer, the series returned to ABC with a new title (dropping the article The; it would now simply be called Naked City), a new running time (expanded to one hour), and a new star to join the returning McMahon and Bellaver - Paul Burke, as Detective Adam Flint, replacing Franciscus' Halloran.  This version of the series lasted an additional three seasons before going off the air for good in 1963.

Naked City the series was created by Sterling Silliphant and produced by Herbert B. Leonard, and it shared the movie's trademark location shooting, which means that, like Silliphant and Leonard's other series, Route 66, it serves today as an almost documentary look at the city of New York, much of which no longer exists.  It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that New York City, it all its glory and grime, is as much a star of the show as any of the actors. It's a highly atmospheric show, and it wouldn't be possible with a studio-bound production.

Although I'd read about Naked City for years, it wasn't until a couple of years ago that I actually got to see an episode of it, courtesy of MeTV.  The first few episodes took a while to grow on me, but once I got hooked it became one of my favorites.  The chemistry between the three leads - with Burke as the young, intellectual, sensitive Flint, McMahon as the grizzled, gruffy veteran with the astute eye, and Bellaver as a solid, hard-working cop who also provides much of the show's humor - is perfect.  Like another of my favorite series, Burke's Law, the viewer can't help but be impressed by the competency of the cops.  They don't get a lot of screen time (more on that in a moment), but they so fully inhabit their characters that you can see the wheels turn every time they're confronted by another tough case.  Best of all (to my thinking) is that the series rarely strays into the characters' personal lives.  Oh, there's Flint's girlfriend Libby (Nancy Malone), but she's not in every episode, and often she's shown helping Flint think through a difficult part of the case, or dealing with the stress of police work.  No quirkbots here, no soap opera stories.

One reason why the series stays out of the personal lives of the leads is because most stories focus on the guest stars - the victims of crime, or the perpetrators.  It's their stories that make up the bulk of Naked City, and unlike procedurals of today, they're fully fleshed-out characters, with backstories and motivations that make the cases far more complex and less black-and-white than the normal police show.  I think, for example, of Jack Klugman as a henpecked husband talked by his domineering wife into a kidnapping.  He's a disappointment to his ambitious wife, he knows, and a disappointment to himself as well.  But he loves his wife so much that in order to keep her, he'll do anything to make himself a "big man" - and when she suggests kidnapping a young girl in order to bankroll a more luxurious life, he has no choice but to go along with the scheme.  Klugman, an actor with a limited range but a marvelous expressiveness within that range, wonderfully portrays a man who wants nothing more than to be a father (to the chagrin of his wife), and his genuine affection for and worry about their victim makes him a lousy kidnapper, but a good man.  It's that kind of depth that typifies the stories on Naked City.

Another thing that distinguishes the series is the absence of cynicism that clouds so much of television today.*  Not every case turns out the way Naked City's detectives would like - sometimes they don't get the breaks, sometimes it's just the way the system's made up.  But through this, the detectives always keep in mind that they're public servants, hired to protect the people of the city.  They don't view the public as their adversary, they don't assume that everyone they run into is either guilty or hiding a secret, and they don't greet every accused suspect with a sneer and a smirk.  Flint, the most sensitive of the three, is the most likely to shoot from the heart rather than the hip, but he's always able to back it up with solid police logic; his boss Parker, in turn, emphasizes that if he feels that strongly about his hunch, he has to be willing to do the hard legwork required to see it through to the end.  And although Flint sometimes feels the stress of not being able to change the whole world, he never falls victim to a cynical view of the job, never stops trying to make a difference in the cases that come his way.  It's a refreshing change from today's shows.

*Which I intend to write about at length one of these days.

One of the things I worried about when I started watching Naked City is Silliphant's penchant for writing preachy, achingly earnest scripts, filled with dialogue that's about as far from how real people talk as you can get.  But once Route 66 started, Silliphant devoted most of his time and energy to that series, and it's to Naked City's benefit.  The show never shies away from offering social criticism or taking on the issues of the day, but in so doing it remembers that it's first and foremost a police drama, and never fails to deliver an intricate investigation, highlighting the hard work and frustration that make up the unglamorous lives of detectives.

Naked City is terrific drama and terrific storytelling, backed up by a terrific cast.  It's gritty, grimy, and original.  (And would have been a disaster in color.)  It's free of the cliche and crassness of today's television, and its protagonists are actually likable.  Best of all, with its movie parent, it shares the closing narration: "There are eight million stories in the Naked City.  This has been one of them."  Truth in advertising, to be sure.  Maybe it didn't tell eight million stories, but the 138 it did tell were pretty damn good.

October 18, 2014

This week in TV Guide: October 17, 1981

The cover story for this week's issue is the World Series, which kicks off Tuesday night on ABC.  It's difficult to work up much enthusiasm for the 1981 baseball season; a players' strike cancels nearly 40% of the games and splits the season into two halves, resulting in a second layer of playoffs that somehow manages to exclude the two teams that finished with the best winning percentages in the National League (Cincinnati and St. Louis).  TV Guide refers to it as "baseball's longest - and shortest - season," and no wonder - this year's Series, should it go the full seven, won't end until October 28.  Just imagine!

In the event, the Series pits the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers for the eleventh time.  The Yanks are favored and win the first two games before the Dodgers come storming back to win the last four, taking the Series right there at Yankee Stadium.  What I remember most about this game (back in the day when I actually watched baseball) is that, with the Dodgers holding a decisive 9-2 lead, Yankee Stadium had emptied to probably half-capacity by the final out.  So much for those games where the home fans stick around until the bitter end to offer their congratulations to their guys for a good effort.

***

Eleven days before the publication date of this issue, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated, putting the little-known Vice President Hosni Mubarak in charge.  TV Update details the difficulties television news had in covering the story.   It was early morning in the United States when the fatal attack took place, and the first reports were sketchy - for some time, it was said that Sadat had been unhurt, then only that he had been shot, before the truth of the situation was finally learned.  Adding to the difficulties for the networks, the Egyptian government immediately shut down all television transmissions, meaning that U.S. correspondents couldn't transmit their footage back to New York.

SOURCE: NBC
In these pre-cable news days, the networks stayed with their coverage for most of the day, finally being able to air pictures around 2pm Eastern - vivid pictures that left the anchors grasping for words,  and showing the viewers the full horror of the event. Up until then, the networks filled the time with speculation on what had happened (the presumption that Sadat was dead, but no official word for several hours) and interviews with Middle East experts.

We look back at history and identify black periods - 1968, for example, when Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated within two months or so.  That was bad - but so was 1981.  In the span of seven months, from March 30 to October 6, the news had been dominated by three major shootings - assassination attempts against President Reagan and Pope John Paul II, and the successful attempt against Sadat.  As someone who watched all three of them on television, I can attest that those days were madness indeed.

***

Jeff Prugh's lead article talks about yet another bleak news story of 1981, the culmination of the search for the Atlanta child killer and the question as to whether television news paid too much attention to the case - or too little.  The cases dated back to 1979, when the first of 28 murders of young blacks, all but two of them male and all but five minors, took place.  In 1981 Wayne Williams was arrested for the murders, and subsequently convicted of two of them.

*The case continues to generate controversy.  Note that the facts and figures cited are from the article itself; I haven't presumed to add additional information from more recent sources.

On the one hand, much of the coverage was sensational.  ABC, more aggressive than the other two networks, at first reports that Williams will be charged with as many as 18 of the murders; not long after that, Williams is released from custody.  And both networks and local affiliates go overboard covering the funerals, for example; one cameraman actually jumped on top of a coffin.  One observer likened the coverage to a circus, with psychics offering help, Guardian Angels patrolling the streets, well-meaning people wearing green ribbons, and even a benefit concert by Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. At the same time, there is (at least at first) a distinct lack of desire to closely scrutinize the competence of the police investigation, and Prugh notes that until 1981, much of white Atlanta wasn't even aware that anything unusual was going on at all.  As one reporter notes, it's difficult to know how to cover such a story, whether to keep the public informed on all details, or to keep certain aspects of the case secret at the request of the police: "You want to be a responsible journalist and tell people what is going on.  But then again, you want to do what a good citizen would do."

It's the eternal dilemma that plagues television news to this day, the combination of sensationalism and shallowness.  Most people would probably think that, in this day of 24/7 news, television has become even more sensational and shallow, and I wouldn't disagree with that.  Prugh points out that not all television coverage falls into this category; in-depth reporting on CBS' Sunday Morning and 60 Minutes, ABC's Nightline and PBS' MacNeil/Lehrer Report is of a high quality.  But at the end of the day, there have been four additional murders committed since Williams' arrest.  Nobody seems to notice, but in Atlanta there are many who suspect the story isn't really over after all.

***

Enough of the historical analysis - let's take a look at what's on TV this week, shall we?

Saturday:  ABC's Wide World of Sports presents a replay of the Sugar Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns welterweight title fight, which had been shown in theaters September 16.  Leonard wins the showdown via 14th round TKO.  I wouldn't have watched this: I admit that I never liked Sugar Ray Leonard, but saw him as a showboat and a phony.

I wouldn't have watched ABC's prime-time schedule either.  Back then the networks had actual series on, rather than the mix of sports and reruns that dominate Saturday nights.  But ABC's schedule would have made me look for something else in a hurry, probably the North Stars - Penguins game on Channel 9.  It stars with a special 90-minute Love Boat trip to "the starlit Caribbean," followed by a special 90-minute Fantasy Island as "the Devil battles for Mr. Roarke's soul."  Each show is loaded with B-level stars and ABC featured players.

SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION

Sunday:  Sunday Night Football wasn't a regular feature in 1981, but this week there's a special Sunday night edition of Monday Night Football (got all that?) featuring the Los Angeles Rams and the Dallas Cowboys, from Irving - just a few miles from where I now live, in fact.  It goes up against CBS' all-star Sunday lineup: 60 Minutes, Archie Bunker's Place, One Day at a Time, Alice, The Jeffersons, and Trapper John, M.D.  Considering that ABC's experiment with Sunday night football didn't last long, I'm willing to bet CBS won the night.

Monday:  Oh boy, dueling Monday night movies!  On CBS it's Valley of the Dolls 1981 (Part I),* starring Catherine Hicks, Jean Simmons and Veronica Hamel.  Our Judith Crist calls it "just another trash-wallow - second-hand and fifth-rate."  On the other hand, NBC has More American Grafitti, with much of the original cast but little of the original charm; Crist calls it "exploitative rather than nostalgic."

*Not to be confused with 1970's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which starred Dolly Read - who, as our commentators Mike and Ray pointed out last week, was the second wife of comedian Dick Martin.  I love all these tangential connections, don't you?

Tuesday:  As I mentioned at the top, it's the first game of the World Series on ABC.  CBS has part two of the aforementioned Valley of the Dolls 1981.  NBC has a "comedy" called The Day the Women Got Even, which Crist says is "feeble" and "wastes women and men alike."

Wednesday:  If Game 2 of the Fall Classic isn't to your liking, the best program is probably PBS' The Hunter and the Hunted, which profiles Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal and his search for the infamous Josef Mengele.

Thursday:  It's back to ABC, where Mork & Mindy are on their honeymoon, with the teaser of "next week's astonishing news: Mork's pregnant!"  On NBC, Bob Hope hosts a gala entertainment show to celebrate the opening of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Joining Hope and the Fords are political satirist Mark Russell, "drunk" comic Foster Brooks, Danny Thomas, Glen Campbell and Sammy Davis Jr.  Oh, and the current First Family, President and Mrs. Reagan.

Friday:  Tonight's best bet comes courtesy of Channel 11, the NBC affiliate.  On NBC's schedule for tonight is the movie Revenge of the Stepford Wives, but Channel 11 has the good taste to preempt this for Francis Ford Coppola's acclaimed thriller The Conversation, starring Gene Hackman as a wiretapper who learns a little too much about the people he's investigating.  The Conversation came out the same year as Coppola's The Godfather Part II, and both movies were nominated for Best Picture Oscars.  I'm not sure but that this is the only time one director has had two movies up for Best Picture at the same time.  Coppola himself was nominated for Best Director only once, for Godfather II.  Quite an accomplishment, wouldn't you say?