February 25, 2012

This week in TV Guide: February 24, 1968

T he Doan Report, TV Guide's industry-insider column, surveyed the landscape of the coming television season.  What would the fall of 1968 bring?  "Variations on the familiar," was the verdict.  Since television was dominated by westerns, cop shows, science fiction and sitcoms, the future would bring: westerns, copy shows, science fiction and sitcoms. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, as the French say. 

In those early weeks of 1968, one thing was clear: television had to appeal to "the uninvolved young."  And so there were shows like ABC's The Mod Squad, "about a group of Los Angeles cops who police the hippies."  Or at least TV's idea of hippies.

Anyway, you get the picture.  And, surprisingly, many of the shows that were previewed in The Doan Report actually made it to air, and some of them stuck around for more than a cup of coffee.   The Mod Squad ran for five seasons.  NBC's effort to illustrate cops dealing with the young was Adam-12, which made it through seven seasons.  CBS offered Hawaii Five-O (the original, not the cheap remake), and that was the most successful of all, running all the way until 1980.*  Not everything came to pass; CBS was looking at an auto-racing drama called The Big Prize, and a sci-fi show entitled Man of the 25th Century.  If you've heard of either of those, please call me.

What else?  Well, on Leap Day, Carol Channing starred in an ABC special that had originally been set to air in November but was postponed by an industry strike.  Peter O'Toole and Honor Blackman (Pussy Galore!) starred in Noel Coward's play Present Laughter(Imagine that on network TV today.)  Joan Crawford guests on The Lucy Show.  That's Lucille Ball, for you kids out there.  And there's an argument in the Letters to the Editor section about the relative patriotism of the Smothers Brothers.

*Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, would run for president in 1968.  As he would in 1980.  That should tell you something about the lifespan of Hawaii Five-O.

And on each day, from Monday through Friday, there's a small ad featuring a resigned-looking Joey Bishop.  "The Joey Bishop Show.  Live in color, from Hollywood."

There was more to Joey Bishop than the Rat Pack, of course - otherwise, he wouldn't have been on the cover of TV Guide for February 24, 1968. He was a successful nightclub comedian, a not-so-successful sitcom star, and a longtime talk show host. For a generation, in fact, he was probably best known as Johnny Carson's perennial substitute, pinch-hitting for him over 200 times. And, in fact, from 1967 through 1969 he went head-to-head five nights a week as Carson's competition, hosting his own talkfest on ABC. (Fact number one: Joey's sidekick was the young Regis Philben. Fact number two: the first guest on Joey's show was none other than Governor Reagan himself, who due to a scheduling snafu was 14 minutes late to the live telecast.)

This issue of TV Guide offers a profile of Bishop that provides us with a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the talk show. However, it also gives us a portrait that is at odds with the conventional wisdom surrounding Bishop's show. For the conventional wisdom is that Carson was insurmountable, that Bishop's show was merely one in a long line of failed attempts to challeng the King of Late Night (preceded by Crane, soon to be followed by Cavett, Griffin, Thicke, Sajak, Rivers, Hall, et al). Brooks and Marsh, in their indespensible Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, state that "Joey limped along for more than two years, never posting much of a threat" to Carson. According to CNN's 2007 obit, "despite an impressive guest list and outrageous stunts, Bishop couldn't dent Carson's ratings." And that, as I said, has become the established school of thought.

Except, according to Richard Warren Lewis' story, it wasn't necessarily so. It was true that Bishop premiered on April 17, 1967, and that it wasn't met by a great deal of enthusiasm. (One-third of ABC's affiliates chose not to air the show at its premiere.) The critics of the time pronounced it a "turkey."

But, slowly, it started to turn around. As Lewis notes, "Six months after that shaky start, Bishop was seriously challenging Carson both in the battle for ratings and late-night advertisers' dollars." (Emphasis added.) According to the industry experts, Bishop had found a unique niche, a "totally different audience" that the urbane Carson (who, ironically, was thought to face the same challenge when he replaced Jack Paar, who at the time was seen as far more urbane than Carson). While Carson appealed to the sophisticated viewer, Bishop's audience resided in the outlying areas, the Bible Belt, flyover country.

Big names of the time such as Gregory Peck and Omar Sharif appeared on Bishop's show. Paar himself came out of semiretirement to trade jokes for an hour. When David Janssen, on the night of The Fugitive's final episode, appeared live with Joey, the ratings topped Carson's in New York for the first time. The picture painted by Lewis' article is an optimistic one, of a show on the rise, a show to be taken seriously as a threat to Carson's five-year run of supremacy.

But it didn't last.  Carson, reacting to any possibility of competition, put pressure on potential guests.  As TVParty's Billy Ingram told me, "Anyone booked on Bishop's show would find themselves persona non grata at the Tonight Show - unless they were a gue star, and in that case they would be temporarily sidelined or had to promise not to appear on the Bishop show for some period of time after a Tonight Show appearance."  By the end of the next year Bishop was gone, replaced for 1970 by the intellectuals' favorite, Dick Cavett.

Now, Lewis' story itself is not without its flaws; he makes a point of referring to Bishop's custom of wearing a black tie for every show since a priest had presented it to him on opening night, yet on the cover of the issue, Bishop is pictured behind the host's desk, interviewing a guest, wearing a red tie. So I suspect that, as is so often the case, the truth lies somewhere in between.

One thing is sure, however. Bishop's show was not the unmitigated disaster, the eternally ratings-challenged program that many make it out to be. And so perhaps we should be a bit kinder to the memory of Joey Bishop's talk show, and smile as indeed we do whenever we remember his presence with the Rat Pack, and remember what it feels like to be young again.

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