November 3, 2012

This week in TV Guide: November 3, 1973

The headline read, "Jim McKay: He May Have the Best Job in Sports." And why not?  "He travels 250,000 miles a year to the world's most exotic locales and the world's most exciting sports events, and he gets paid a great deal of money to do so."

I have to admit that part of the appeal of this issue is that today is November 3, and this issue is November 3 - I don't usually get that lucky.  So when I say "This week in TV Guide," I mean this week!  But a lot of it has to do with Jim McKay.

Jim McKay was one of what I once called the "big game" announcers: whenever you heard his voice on television, you knew there was something big going on. Unlike most of the other announcers in that category - Curt Gowdy, Pat Summerall, Lindsay Nelson, for example - Jim McKay wasn't necessarily doing the biggest game in town - but there was something about him that made whatever he was doing important.

That's not to say that, in a lifetime spent "spanning the globe," McKay didn't cover the big events. Those 250,000 miles covered a lot of big ones: the Olympics, the Masters, U.S., and British Opens, the Indy 500, the Grand Prix of Monaco and the 24 hours of LeMans, the Grey Cup, the World Cup, the Kentucky Derby, Wimbledon, figure skating, track and field - how's that for starters?

But Jim McKay had that rare ability to transcend the event he was covering, to make it important because the people participating in it were important. And for McKay, anyone taking part in an athletic event was important. In his charming autobiography The Real McKay, he tells the story of being in Islip, New York covering a demolition derby for Wide World of Sports. Interviewing the winner, McKay was inclined to treat the whole thing as a lark. But it was no lark to the winner, who had just won the demolition derby "world championship" and discussed his strategy as seriously as would any other athlete. McKay learned a valuable lesson that day: "I had committed an unforgivable bit of gaucherie, looking down on this man in a condescending manner during what he considered the greatest moment of his life." From then on, McKay said, he tried to approach all sports "through the eyes of its competitors."

McKay didn't start out in sports, nor did he even start out with the name McKay. His real name was Jim McManus, and he got his television start in Baltimore, as a serious news journalist. He worked with people like Douglas Edwards, interviewed scientists, and covered presidential inaugurations, or at least the parades. When he became host of a daily variety show in Baltimore, he was asked to change his last name so that the show could be called "The Real McKay." He did so, grudgingly, but always thought of himself as McManus and retained the name for the family that played such an important role in his life.  "It vaguely annoys me," he tells interviewer Neil Hickey.  "But when you're young and working in Baltimore, you let yourself be talked into a lot of things.

It should be no surprise, then, that McKay proved himself more than equal to the task at his most famous, and most tragic, appearance - covering the massacre of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.  It's still fresh in the mind in this issue, a year and two months later; "I've never had a reaction to anything I've ever reported that approximates the public response to what we did that day."  He won a Peabody and an Emmy for that, to go along with other Emmys and other awards that marked his stellar career. They were all well deserved. 

There was also McKay the family man; he refered to he and his wife Margaret as "a team," and credited that "team" for much of his professional and personal success. He understood that hard work was essential to a successful marriage and family, and believed that a common faith and shared interests had much to do with it. He was proud of his son, Sean McManus, who became president of CBS sports and news, and equally proud of his daughter Mary, a counselor. Of the life he and his wife shared, he wrote, "There is little more we could ask for."  The miles added up over the years, as they would when you've got a job that spans the globe - over three million as of 1973 - and he's often heard to mumble, "I gotta start figuring out how to stay home a little more, and I don't know how I'm going to do it."

McKay always felt it was a priviledge to have the job he had, to see the places and cover the events to which he was taken on Wide World, but in fact the priviledge was ours as well, to be able to hear him take us there. He was one of the last of a (literally) dying breed, the sportscaster who put the game ahead of himself.

***

The World Series finished a couple of weeks earlier, and surprise - half the people watching TV were watching it.  Bud Selig would kill for numbers like that today.  The only show to compete with the Series?  The Waltons.

There's more speculation about a one-hour newscast.  This seems to pop up every in TV Guide every few years, and nothing ever comes from it.  This time it's CBS, with the idea that they might expand the Cronkite news by adding an extra half-hour.  The local stations won't mind, the thought is, because their local programming hasn't been profitable.  Of course, this was before the strip programming that dominates the half-hour before prime time: Entertainment Tonight, TMZ, Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy! and the rest.  I'll bet nobody thinks those aren't profitable now.

The Graduate makes its TV debut on CBS - right after The Waltons.  Judith Crist liked it, thought it "stylish."  The CBS Sunday morning show Camera Three* has a profile of one of my favorite authors, the very strange Peter Handke.  Assuming I'd had a chance to see this, I probably wouldn't have paid attention to it; I'd not been introduced to Handke yet.  There's college and pro football on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, and basketball and hockey on Saturday, and that's it for sports for the week.  I know I keep coming back to that theme, but it truly is remarkable how television's relationship with sports has changed over the years.
 
*A series that was never shown on Channel 4 in Minneapolis; they were too busy showing Laurel & Hardy and the Bowery Boys.
 
***

In 1973, Johnny Carson and Tom Snyder were still the only shows in town as far as the late-night talk show was concerned.  CBS ran movies (and quite successfully, in fact, for many years), but ABC, burned by the failures of Joey Bishop and Dick Cavett, opted for something different.  Earlier in 1973, ABC introduced "Wide World of Entertainment," a rotating series of series, movies and specials that would run after the late local news.  Cavett, Jack Paar and Geraldo Rivera filled the talk show part of it (Cavett was on this Monday night, starting after the football game), movies filled Tuesday through Thursday, and Friday night featured In Concert,  a rival to NBC's Midnight Special.*

*I'm not about to start a regular comparison, ala Sullivan and The Palace, but on this particular Friday In Concert had Cat Stevens, Linda Ronstadt, Donny Hathaway and Dr. John, while Midnight Special countered with Jerry Lee Lewis, Ike and Tina Turner, B.B. King, Flash and Ballin' Jack, and Linda Gale Lewis.  Advantage: Midnight Special.  Don't count on me doing this again.

Speaking of ABC as we were, they have print ads in this issue for the ABC Evening News with Howard K. Smith and Harry Reasoner every day of the week.  Each one urges us to "Find out why more and more people are watching," presumably by tuning in.  Apparently not enough people must have been watching: Smith was demoted to commentary in 1975, and Reasoner was joined by Barbara Walters a year later.  Reasoner, who hated working with Walters, returned to CBS in 1978.

***

Be honest now - when was the last time you heard about Deirdre Lenihan?  She's on the cover, so I should spend a moment on her.  She was on a short-lived (14 episodes) series called Needles and Pins (and has anyone heard of that?), which starred Norman Fell, Bernie Kopell and Louis Nye, all of whom had done or would do better work than this.

It's interesting, because Dwight Whitney's article spends several pages on her, while admitting that "[n]o one seems entirely sure who she is.  Certainly not her fellow actors.  Even the studio press department, usually bullish in these matters, seems to have only the haziest recollection."  She worked in Joseph Papp's Shakespeare theater and did some other TV and movie bits, and at the time of this article had a "gentleman friend" named Jimmy Sloyan, a fellow actor. They're not against marriage, just haven't had time yet.  They did find time eventually, had two children who've done some acting (Samantha Sloyan and Dan Sloyan), and as far as I know they're still married.  But Deirdre Lenihan never did become the Next Big Thing, and it just goes to show that being on the cover of TV Guide isn't always everything it's cracked up to be.


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4 comments

  1. For what it's worth, here's a vote for an ongoing comparison of "In Concert" and "The Midnight Special." (and "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert" later in the decade). Talk about late-night, weekend teenager appointment viewing. If you didn't have eight bucks for a concert ticket, or didn't live near a venue, where else were you going to see these people live?

    This series of TV Guide posts is great. Thanks a lot.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, JB! That's a great idea - I'll keep my eyes open for when we're in that era. You're right, I remember many a Friday night spent watching "The Midnight Special" - imagine being able to get that level of talent on TV today.

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  2. Since Deirdre Lenihan, according to IMDB.com, has had no roles since 1980, it's my guess that she dropped out of acting to be a full-time mother and raise her children.

    No surprise her children became actors, given what their parents did.

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  3. And speaking of hour telecasts, local news here in SC wasn't hour-long until two of South Carolina's major stations started going the route. Charleston's WCSC (CBS; started at 6:30 PM, not 6 PM at the time) went one hour in 1991, moving syndicated programming off in favour of adding the extra 30 minutes and has been the state's unofficial leader in local newscasts, with talk radio influences in the first half of the newscast. Today, WCSC has 4:35 of news during a broadcast day (5 AM - 7 AM, noon, 4 PM, 5 PM (90 minutes), 7 PM, and 11 PM (35 minutes). Speculation at the station is what will be named for 40-year news anchor Bill Sharpe, who is the dean of South Carolina television newsmen, after weatherman Charlie Hall worked 44 years before his death, the station, which constructed a new studio and office West of the Ashley, had the street where the studio is located named for him.

    In Columbia, in the 1980's the stations started dropping newscasts where only one station offered an 11 PM news broadcast (WIS, NBC). That practice ended in the early 1990's, and the hour format is mostly a Fox affiliate move (WACH), which attempted to piggybank the Idols shows by standardising a 7:30 PM "pre-game" style newscast before primetime before the one-hour 10 PM primetime news. That was dropped, and the station has four hours of newscasts -- 6AM-9AM and 10 PM.

    The state lottery influenced the 7 PM newscasts because that newscast could follow the lottery drawings.

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