April 26, 2017

TV that should not have existed

Last week, you might recall that I was kind of hard - brutal, almost - on the state of contemporary television. Well, I'd like to make up for that, and give you this clip from the rapidly indispensable FredFlix YouTube channel. The title is pretty self-descriptive: "21 TV Shows That Should Not Have Existed, Yet Did." It's not one of those clickbait slide shows that pollute the internet; rather, it's an often humorous look at some really bad programs, with the shows themselves providing the evidence that convicts them. The best that can be said about some of them is that they look a lot like a really good SCTV parody, until you figure out that they're real. While some of these shows are from the '80s and later, a good number of them come before that. No matter when their origin, it's a reminder that bad TV - like good TV - has existed always and everywhere. The only difference is that in television's earlier days, the evidence was destroyed.

April 24, 2017

What's on TV? Wednesday, April 27, 1977

This week offers some interesting program choices - so interesting, in fact, that there's a little something to say about all of our stations. The area covered includes both Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tennessee, and it should have a little something for everyone. Have a look and enjoy!

April 22, 2017

This week in TV Guide: April 23, 1977

We've skipped ahead in time to the late '70s, and moved south to Atlanta, in search of television's past. Who knew that television itself was looking for the same thing?

It's a two-hour CBS News Special Thursday evening (9:00 pm. ET) entitled "When Television Was Young," and unlike many of today's shows about "pioneers of television," this one stays firmly rooted in the 1950's, when the medium really was young. It's hosted by Charles Kuralt, the perfect choice for a retrospective that combines history and nostalgia, looking at an imperfect era with an often romantic hue. We see the great triumphs of early television: series like I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, and Ed Sullivan, landmark anthology dramas from "Requiem for a Heavyweight" to "Twelve Angry Men," stars such as Paul Newman, Jack Lemmon, Grace Kelly and James Dean, and memorable moments from a time when baseball really was the National Pastime.

However - and you knew there has to be one of those - there are also the dark times: the blacklist, the Army-McCarthy hearings, the Korean War, and the Quiz Show Scandal. Although the decade is remembered for serious, intense dramas, there's also a fair share of interference from advertisers and network executives, who often demand changes in the scripts: minor ones, such as a coffee sponsor objecting to characters drinking tea, and major ones, dealing with significant social issues such as race and sex. Some will seem silly, while others - Southern stations refusing to air programs with black entertainers - are appalling.

Ultimately, it is what it is, and that's what history's all about. It's critical that television remembers its own roots, even if many of today's viewers have no idea about it, or the people who created it. But then, if TV doesn't care, why should anyone else? Fortunately, this show exists in its entirety on YouTube; here's part one as a sample, and you can take it from there.

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On weeks when we can, we'll match up two of the biggest rock shows of the '70s, NBC's The Midnight Special and the syndicated Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, and see who's better, who's best.

Hey, what a treat! I can't remember the last time we did this - well, I could look it up, but that would just delay the excitement! Let's see what our shows have in store for us...

Kirshner: The Average White Band, Ray Barretto, David Soul, comic Tom Dressen, and the Mime Company.

Special: British rock is the theme of a show featuring Elton John, Rod Stewart, Fleetwood Mac, Genesis, Electric Light Orchestra, and Queen.

Do you even have to ask? The only reason I'd even hesitate is that for so many years, Tom Dressen opened for Frank Sinatra, and you don't want to disappoint The Chairman. But let's face it: this week there's no comparison, which makes it a special night for The Special - winner by a landslide.

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Continuing with music, some interesting variety specials this week, a genre you don't see much anymore; you can still see concerts with stars like Adele and Lady Gaga, especially (but not exclusively) on HBO or Showtime, but not shows with the traditional Bob Hope-type format. On ABC Saturday night, Paul Lynde gets an hour of his own (8:00 p.m.), a traditional set up with musical guests and comedy skits. Paul's guests are Cloris Leachman, Tony Randall, LeVar Burton, and K.C. and the Sunshine Band, and Paul does a comic monologue about an encounter with an unfriendly alien...

On Monday night at 10:00 p.m, ABC's back as Paul Anka hosts an hour with Natalie Cole and Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, plus cameos from Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Ann-Margaret, Dean Martin, Don Rickles, and others (singing special lyrics to "My Way."). It's mostly Anka singing his hits from through the years, and he's got plenty of them.

NBC follows up with back-to-back country-flavored specials on Tuesday; the first, at 9:00 p.m., starring the aforementioned "Ann-Margaret. . .Rhinestone Cowgirl." While you let that image sink in for a minute, I'll mention that the special, taped at the Grand Ole Opry, includes appearances by Bob Hope (of course!), Perry Como, Chet Atkins, and Minnie Pearl. That's followed at 10:00 p.m. by an hour with Mac Davis, and his special guests Tom Jones, Dolly Parton, and Donna Summer, and 84-year-old Memphis guitarist Furry Lewis.

Elsewhere, George Burns co-stars with Abbe Lane in a special taped by the BBC in 1975 and airing on WXIA at 10:00 p.m. Thursday. One of the things for which I'm grateful to classic television is the chance to see Burns in his prime, because by this time he's in what I'd call his "Dirty Old Man" phase, with Brooke Shields or some other comely young thing on his arm while he does a little singing and a little more leering. Quite frankly, I didn't much like that George Burns; the Burns of Burns and Allen, on the other hand, is a lot more fun.*

*Although from the stories we read, that Burns had a wondering eye (and hand) as well.

Whereas variety shows were all the rage just a decade ago, most of them are syndicated now and, like the Ann-Margaret/Mac Davis shows, are of the country variety: Buck Owens, Porter Wagoner, Pop Goes the Country, That Good Ole Nashville Music, and Nashville on the Road all run consecutively on WTCG Saturday night, and that doesn't even include Hee Haw and Dolly Parton. (Note how these shows all feature some of the biggest country stars around.) And then there's the one last big network show, Carol Burnett, Saturday at 10:00 p.m. Carol's guest is a pretty big star himself, in stature if not size: Sammy Davis., Jr.

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Baseball season is now in full swing, but the year’s biggest play didn’t happen on the diamond, or even a front office. It occurred, instead, in a board room, where on December 23, 1975, arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in favor of players Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally in a case challenging baseball’s reserve clause, the provision in the standard contract that allowed teams to “reserve” the rights to players even after their contracts had expired. After the appeals process had played itself out, with the owners finally conceding defeat after losing in the federal courts, Major League Baseball and the Players Association sat down and negotiated the terms of free agency, with the result that many players chose to play the 1976 season without a contract, preferring to test the free agency waters after the season.

The 1977 season will be the first contested in this new environment, and the effect this will have on the game, both short- and long-term, is the subject of Tuesday's CBS Reports special, "The Baseball Business," airing at 10:00 p.m. Fans aren't so naïve as to think baseball isn't a business, of course, not with the strike from a few seasons ago; nonetheless, "free agents, player agents, million-dollar bonuses and long-term contracts" are guaranteed to change the way the game is played, and the way fans, players and owners see it. For this report, correspondent Bill Moyers travels to spring training to look at the team "many have singled out as the most flagrant practitioner of checkbook baseball" - and if you think that team is any other than the New York Yankees, you've got another think coming.

In other sports, Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ABC presents professional bowling's most prestigious event, the Firestone Tournament of Champions from Akron, Ohio. I loved watching the Pro Bowlers Tour when I was a kid; after we moved back from The World's Worst Town™, one of life's simple pleasures was reintroducing myself to the sport and my old favorites, while quickly picking up on new stars. Mike Berlin comes out on top, defeating Mike Durbin in the final match. CBS has an NBA playoff doubleheader on Sunday afternoon, and WTCG has syndicated coverage of the NHL playoffs Sunday night at 8:00 p.m. Oh, and WTCG also has the Braves - of course - taking on the Cardinals Friday night at 8:30 p.m.

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Here's a real collector's item - an article about Bruce Jenner in which the phrase "sex change" is nowhere to be found. The only transformation to be found is the one Jenner's making from track and field to the broadcasting booth with ABC, a challenge Jenner approaches the same way he did when he was in competition: "It may be a good idea," he tells Melvin Durslag. "But I first have to believe it myself, and that's what I'm trying to do."

The son of a tree surgeon, Jenner was an excellent all-around athlete in school, but he didn't try track until he was 20, and didn't get into the decathlon until 1970. Six years later, he won the gold medal at the Montreal Olympics, setting a world record in the process. He admits that his dedication to preparing for the Games put a strain on his marriage, but he hopes that giving up the competitive world of sports will make a new man out of him, and heal the divisions - for the time being, at least. (They divorce in 1981.) Now that he's made himself over, Jenner hopes to start an acting career as well, and as this article is being written, he's won a small part in a movie called - SST - Death Flight.

ABC is bullish on Jenner's future, but as Durslag notes, the athletes most successful at making the transition from the playing field to the broadcast booth - Frank Gifford, Pat Summerall - did so only after long hours of preparation and worth, and the ability to win over their non-athlete colleagues. Concludes Durslag, "[Jenner] has an incredible personality. This will carry him for a while. But how far he goes from there will be up to him." One thing's for sure - as is the case with any former jock, a new life awaits Bruce Jenner.

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Thanks in large part to the local stations, we have a top-notch slate of movies in this pre-movie channel era. Not so with the ABC Sunday Night Movie, alas, at least according to Judith Crist. That movie, For a Few Dollars More*, represents "the sadism of allegedly adult adventure," "the kind of fun you can find at your neighborhood abattoir." That's more than a bit harsh when describing what's become something of a modern classic, but then, as I remember, she never did like Clint. Or Charles Bronson, for that matter. She opts, instead, for A Boy Named Charlie Brown, the 1969 feature-length Peanuts film being shown Friday night on CBS. It's on up against ABC's Friday night effort, "a silly but slanderous view" of cruise ships: The Love Boat. No suggestion that it's destined for long-run success.

*Which, ironically, I was watching while writing Wednesday's Brutalism piece.

No, the big movies this week are home-grown. On Saturday night's Late Movie, WXIA presents the Oscar-winning From Here to Eternity, with Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, and Frank Sinatra. Monday night WGTV, the PBS channel in Atlanta, has a most un-PBS like movie, the 1943 Howard Hughes epic The Outlaw, starring Jane Russell's breasts. Chattanooga's WTVC gets in the act on Tuesday night, with "a TV-edited version" of the 1970 Best Picture, Midnight Cowboy. Come on guys, it's on at 11:30 p.m. - do you really need to show a bowdlerized version? Wednesday night, WTCG offers the 1964 version of Ernest Hemingway's The Killers, anchored by a terrific Lee Marvin performance, with Angie Dickinson and Ronald Reagan (in his last movie role), and Thursday night this proto-TCM follows up with the eerie, disturbing On the Beach, with Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Fred Astaire.

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It's been an unusually program-centric review of TV Guide this week, no? And we've barely scratched the surface - for example, on Sunday night, part 15 of Upstairs, Downstairs (9:00 p.m., PBS) takes us to the Great Depression of 1929, when James and Rose are both wiped out by the stock market crash.  Not to mention Tom Snyder's week in Chicago with The Tomorrow Show, and a lineup that includes Bill Veeck, Paul Harvey, Studs Terkel, and Fran Allison. And then there's that Monday night Tonight Show where Johnny's guest is Orson Welles! Don't tell me these '70s issues are starting to rub off...

April 21, 2017

Around the dial

As usual, we have some very good articles to read this week. I'm constantly impressed by the high quality of writing out there, and the thoughtfulness (not to mention creativity) displayed by so many of these authors. That's why I like to do this roundup every week, and believe me when I say I just scratch the surface - there are just as many good ones that I don't write about; if I did, I wouldn't have time to do much else!

The Broadcasting Archives at the University of Maryland has some great info (and pictures) on Joey Bishop’s talk show from the late ‘60s. As I’ve mentioned before, contrary to what most people think today, Bishop really did give Carson a run, until Johnny put the strongarm on guests to keep them from appearing on the Bishop show.

Network is one of those movies (like A Man For All Seasons) that I didn’t really “get” the first time around, but I’ve come to appreciate both of them since. In Network’s case, it’s a razor-sharp satire of the television industry, witty while still managing to make its devastating points. Realweegiemidget takes a closer look at the movie, which I don’t think could be done today – not because TV doesn’t deserve satirizing, but because too much of what happens in Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning script seems too plausible!

Great news from Vote For Bob Crane, announcing the debut of their new podcast — The Bob Crane Show: Reloaded. This podcast, hosted by Eric Senich and based on Carol Ford’s Bob Crane: The Definitive Biography (2015), will explore the life and times of Bob Crane. The link includes the first podcast, with future announcements as more episodes become available.

Silver Scenes has a fantastic list of Easter- and other religious-themed movies for the season; even though Easter has passed, there’s always next year – and after all, a movie like Ben-Hur is good for any time of the year!

Back in the day, the Twilight Zone episode "The Fugitive" always made me a bit uneasy. The idea of a young alien king, in the guise of old-timer J. Pat O'Malley, befriending a young girl who suffers at the hands of an abusive aunt - well, that part is OK, but then whisking her to his home planet where she'll grow up to be his bride, that struck me as a bit creepy. The Twilight Zone Vortex doesn't mention that particular apprehension, but their review of the episode leaves little doubt that it's not one of the series' better endeavors.

I ask you: how could you possibly pass up a title like "None of This Crap Works"? If I had a dollar for every time I've said that, I'd be a rich man. At Comfort TV, David uses the phrase to describe his frustrations with streaming video, internet problems - all crap that doesn't work. (Come to think if it, this really does sound like me.) That may be what we're left with, though, if the classic TV DVD market continues to dry up. (David also makes some very interesting observations about the series he struggled to stream, Netflix's 13 Reasons Why.

Cult TV Blog takes me back to an Avengers episode that people either love or hate - "Small Game for Big Hunters." John and I see eye-to-eye on this - we think it's a good episode, and it stands as a reminder once again of why it's important to take a show in the context of the times from which it comes, and to look at that show in terms of what it can tell the viewer about those times.

That should do it for the time being; I'll try and keep up with everyone with my own efforts tomorrow.

April 19, 2017

The Brutalist era of television

Lileks wrote something last week about architecture, and I keep coming back to it because it seems to me that there’s an essential truth embedded in what he wrote, and one way to tell whether or not it’s both essential and true is to try it out in another area, another field of endeavor, and see if it still holds up.

He’s writing about the architectural style called Brutalism, and I’d contend that television today, for all its achievements in storytelling and sophistication, is displaying something of its own Brutalist movement. Architecture and television are both creative, even artistic, forms, and they both can be used to tell a story, so it seems to make some sense to think there could be similarities. And ironically, the era of architectural Brutalism to which Lileks refers – the mid-60s – is precisely the era in which television displayed perhaps its least Brutalist characteristics. Or perhaps it isn’t so ironic after all.

In the most literal sense, the Brutalism of television has, in context, been an issue for decades. Whenever an act of violence occurs – assassinations, riots, mass shootings – television has been held up as one of the contributing factors. As an easy example, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy resulted in well-documented cases of episodes being pulled off the air in response to public revulsion. These were episodes that had already been made, so there was no question that they’d be aired eventually – just not at the time, in the wake of what had happened. (Whether network executives expected audiences to be more discerning about these episodes when they did air, or, more cynically, they figured people would have forgotten about the fuss, is anyone’s guess.) The point is this: if you go back and look at most of these episodes and compared them to the content of programs on cable and network today, you’d find the level of “violence” laughable, almost genteel. The point is, I think you could make the case that every time this happens, and TV tones its act down accordingly, it winds up regeneration somewhere down the line, ever more graphic (both visually and psychologically) – more brutal – than before. And they’re not just brutal in content, but in look as well; natural lighting which often gives the shows a perpetually dark look; washed out colors that accomplish the same thing, as well as suggesting characters drained of hope; and graphic sex and violence that serves to dehumanize the characters and desensitize the viewers. There was something stylized about the violence of early television – not unlike the stylized nature of Streamlined architecture of the pre-Brutalist era – where, for example, multiple gunshot wounds rarely produced the kind of blood that one would see in real life. It didn’t need to; the viewer’s imagination would supply the rest. Now, the producers want you to see every speck of blood, every particle of bone fragment or brain tissue – and in HD to boot.

I’ve mentioned this before, and it’s not an original thought of mine, that this has created a universe that bears little resemblance to that with which most people are familiar, one to which very few would aspire. As Lileks puts it with regard to architecture, “Their answer to ‘the urban problem’ was to raze history and replace it with something unmoored from human experience.” I think the same goes with television. One of Brutalism’s proponents described the experiment, “We had a very modern, sixties attitude towards what an urban university should be. We thought it should provide skills and philosophies that would help resolve the urban problem. Of course it didn’t. But the buildings reflected that effort.”

The favorite example is a program like Leave it to Beaver, which may have presented an idealistic view of family life in the ‘50s, but which remained recognizable to most people, and which had many aspects that were attainable to the average American family. In the same way that pre-Brutalist architecture gave us buildings that guided the eye upward, presenting their beauty in an aspirational sense, television of the ‘50s and ‘60s lifted viewers up, rather than pressing them down. In addition to their messages, which I’ll get to in the next paragraph or so, there was the sheer beauty of late-‘60s programming, the vividness of the palate in the wake of the transfer to all-color programming. The lighting may have been unrealistically bright, the colors themselves might have lacked decorating sense, but there was something celebratory about them, something that doesn’t come through in the more naturalistic cinematography that’s used today. And, as we know, “naturalism,” along with “functionality,” is a word and a philosophy closely associated with Brutalism. But television of the ‘50s and ‘60s didn’t necessarily have to be functional in an intellectual or philosophical sense, just in the way in which it served its dual purposes of attracting viewers and selling products.

So far the analogy has worked primarily in an aesthetic sense, because both television and architecture are visual media. Pre-Brutalist architecture celebrated that aesthetic pleasure, in the same way that pre-Brutalist television tended not to emphasize the ugly side of life. In fact, though, Brutalism is not just a visual style of architecture, but a philosophical as well; buildings that, according to Lileks, “were technocratic machines for making technocrats and social scientists.” He’s talking about college campuses, where Brutalism was a big hit, but he could be talking about business as well. He continues: “It is possible to be rational and beautiful, but there’s always a certain type of pinched soul drained of wit who distrusts beauty: it cozens and seduces you from the true goal, which is usually some sociopolitical objective.” Again, he’s talking about architecture, but he could just as well be talking about modern television. The aspirational ideal of pre-Brutalist television exists, not just aesthetically, but as a link to the past. The Honeymooners sent the message that success was possible for the lower middle-class. The moral of the story in Dragnet was that crime didn’t pay. Perry Mason presented a man dedicated to preserving the integrity of the legal system and the defense of the innocent. Countless comedies and dramas gave us a nuclear family that could at least give one hope that the thorniest problems could be solved if a family was determined to solve them. Even a show like The Beverly Hillbillies, derisively dismissed though it may have been, could reassure viewers that wealth didn’t have to corrupt the average man. These were all themes that were part of the American psyche, that - to use a cliche - had been passed down from generation to generation in their familiarity.

Shows such as these still exist, but many of them have an additional flavor thrown in, a sense of cynicism that, at its best, does not flatter it, and at its worst, degrades and offends a large segment of the public with its abrupt divorce from the past. We shouldn’t be surprised by this; One of the characteristics of Brutalist architects, writes Lileks, is that many of them typify “a certain type of pinched soul drained of wit who distrusts beauty: it cozens and seduces you from the true goal, which is usually some sociopolitical objective.” The humor of today’s shows, for example, takes many forms, but a genuine wit is seldom one of them. Its primary characteristic is snark and ridicule, which it employs relentlessly in support of its underlying message of tolerance and freedom of expression – or, as some might put it, libertinism. Often, to accept the humor of a given situation, one is forced to accept also the premise which the program tries to present. With Friends, for instance, the premise was that sex is “no big deal”, and only if you conceded that premise did the humor become natural. Modern Family presents homosexuality as “no big deal,” and if shows like this ever think to portray characters who have trouble reconciling this lifestyle with their own moral values, it’s only done with the proviso that those moral values have to be presented as being wrong.

Dramas carry their own agenda, predictably a liberal one. You might recall that a few weeks ago I wrote about the problems ‘70s television had in portraying the drug crisis, and how much of that challenge revolved around ideology.* So it is with television today, especially in its ability to create programing that “flyover” territory can identify with. Considering how over 90% of people in the industry profess a liberal political agenda, it’s only natural. It does, however, transform television from a medium of entertainment (and commerce) to one that favors and advocates a distinct ideological way of thinking and behaving.

*One reason why I’ve tended to limit the pre-Brutalist era of television to the ‘50s and ‘60s; this is not to say, however, that the Brutalist aesthetic had infiltrated programming of the ‘70s and ‘80s to the extent that it has today. It didn’t. However, it would be foolish to suggest that Brutalism simply sprung up out of nowhere, and I think the ‘70s is a good place to look

Everything from police procedurals to legal dramas are filled with this weary cynicism, which again is implicit in the Brutalist style. As Lileks writes, “[Y]ou might think its example was enough to put everyone off the idea for the rest of human civilization.” Just as the Brutalist landscape leaves you thinking that it "looks like a place for a robed, mutated council to pronounce sentence on a man from the irradiated outlands," Brutalist television can leave one with that crushing feeling. Lileks, in another column, has it just right: "The very thing that makes modern TV so different from old rote TV with its one-off eps and no continuity is the same thing that makes it feel like a duty some times." And this makes sense: after all, being forced to sit in school and learn what's good for you often feels like a duty, and as we've seen, Brutalism tried to impart that same kind of aesthetic medicine. The Brutalist message is thus: "If we have curved, meandering paths and different styles of buildings, the students we produce will have minds so accustomed to disorder they will hesitate to shoot the proletariat when - I mean, they will be unable to properly grasp the need for theories that shape the masses for the betterment of all!" In other words, let's make it easy for the viewers to understand the proper feelings, emotions, opinions.

This is an imperfect analogy, of course; all analogies are, and any one of you can probably come up with examples of current television shows that fail to fit neatly into this comparison, or contradict it completely*, as well as dozens of shows from the '50s and '60s that don't even rise to the level of crap. It's also an imperfect example of - well, I won't call it scholarship, because it fails the academic standards of research that would be required to classify it as such. It's an opinion piece, albeit a well-reasoned one, if I do say so myself. But then, I never claimed this site to be a scholarly one. If I took the time to research everything I wrote, there might be fewer mistakes and more sophisticated theories - but there'd also be about half the number of pieces, and I don't really think you'd like that, do you? By the time this makes it to the book, combined with other essays comparing past and present television, I suspect I'll have had the opportunity to flesh it out a little more.

*And let's face it, everyone enjoys a little Brutality once in a while,he says as he watches the end of "For a Few Dollars More." But then, Clint hardly seems to exhibit the world-weariness that so many of today's television stars show.

At any rate, I think it makes for a compelling argument. And you remember how, at the beginning, I said that perhaps it wasn't so ironic after all that the Brutalist era of architecture coincided with the least Brutalist era of television? Recall that as Lileks writes, those Brutalist-designed campuses were intended to be "technocratic machines," and recall also that those students who were products of that education are probably the showrunners and scriptwriters of today. Coincidence?

April 17, 2017

What's on TV? Tuesday, April 18, 1972

This week it's another trip to the Baltimore-Washington area, and one of the first things you might notice about the prime-time lineup is that for NBC and CBS, the network programming ends at 10:30 p.m. ET, rather than 11. The implementation of the new access rule (about which you read a complaint in the Letters to the Editor section last week) exempts Sunday and Tuesday (for now), but the Peacock and Tiffany networks have both ceded Tuesday's final half-hour back to local stations anyway. (ABC made up for it, at least in the spring, by giving back the last 30 minutes on Wednesday.)

As I've suggested before, this was, on balance, a bad idea - the extra time was rarely used the way it was intended, and today it means more to local stations as a source of revenue than a way of serving the community. For ABC, it didn't make any different tonight anyway; they've preempted Marcus Welby, M.D., for the fifth game of the NBA Western Conference finals between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's current team, the Milwaukee Bucks, and his future team, the Los Angeles Lakers.

By the way, in case you ever wondered what the original owners of these TV Guides watched at the time, perhaps the pencil marks give us an idea. Or maybe it's just a way of ranking the shows?