November 29, 2012

"Carol for Another Christmas" on TCM December 16

Last year around this time I wrote a brief piece about Carol for Another Christmas, the Rod Serling-written take on "A Christmas Carol" that was part of a series of made-for-TV movies produced by the United Nations.* Carol was shown on December 28, 1964 on ABC, sponsored by Xerox and presented without commercial interruption.

*Based on my article “The UN Goes to the Movies” for TVParty!
 
I’m bringing it up again this year because there's actually something new to report: thanks to Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, we now know that TCM will be showing Carol for Another Christmas on Sunday, December 16 at 8pm ET – the first time on TV since that 1964 broadcast* - and I’ll be very, very interested to see it for a number of reasons. First, there’s the curiosity factor – having written and read so much about it over the years, it will be nice to actually see it.

*Although bootleg video versions have been available for years on what I call the "gray" market - bootlegs that have not had an authorized, official release, as opposed to cheap knock-offs of commercially available videos.  You could also see it if you're fortunate enough to visit the Paley Center in New York.

But I’m also curious to see what other people think about it. Over the years, Carol has attained something of a reputation as a “lost classic” of 60s television, likely due to Serling's authorship.  And it indeed has a sterling pedigree – directed by Academy Award winner Joseph L. Mankiewicz (his one and only foray into television), with music by fellow Oscar winner Henry Mancini, and an all-star cast including Peter Sellers, Sterling Hayden, Ben Gazzara, Eva Marie Saint, Robert Shaw and Steve Lawrence – among others.

And yet much of the critical reaction to Carol for Another Christmas was just that - critical.  C. O. (Doc) Erickson, production supervisor, remembered that “Joe and Rod were inspired to do it because they felt it was important to do the U.N.’s business and promote it.” According to Erickson, “I thought it was overdone. It was too long, too tiring and beat you over the head too much.”

This kind of heavy-handedness wasn’t unusual for Serling, who was often given to lapsing into what Twilight Zone director Lamont Johnson referred to as “messianic moods.” This often happened when Serling felt strongly about his subject. “Serling has two poles in his writing,” said Marc Scott Zicree, author of The Twilight Zone Companion. “There’s his powerful, human-oriented writing, and his very didactic writing, and ‘Carol’ falls on the didactic side.”

The consensus from critics was that it was, indeed, a show given to pomposity and stiffness – the Bootleg Files called it “a dreary, unsubtle rant. . . one of the worst Christmas-themed productions of all time” – and that the only notable thing to recommend it was the title track by Mancini, which has since become a regular on many Christmas compilation albums.*  It’s been said that even hard-core Serling aficionados might have trouble stomaching this, and I’ve no doubt it’ll irritate me more than once, and perhaps bore me as well.

*I should note that this opinion is not unanimous.  There are people who've seen Carol and quite liked it, while at the same time acknowledging why others might not.

Still, I have a professional curiosity, which will be my excuse for viewing. And who knows – the bar’s been set so low, it might actually be a pleasant surprise. (Or not, as the case may be.)  But in the end, it’s television history, and that’s something that bears watching, even though (as I said last year) history ain’t always pretty.

November 27, 2012

The voice that lingers


 Does this ad have any significance for you? Does it speak to you?

My choice of words there is no accident. We’ve become so used to the idea of free long-distance phone calls that it’s hard to remember back to the time when a long-distance call was a symbol of a special occasion. Back then, long distances calls not only weren’t free, they could also be quite expensive. Oh, there were the late night and weekend rates, which helped keep things manageable, and sometimes people would develop certain tricks to keep from paying at all.* But it’s important to remember that calling long distance was not something that we took for granted.

*A typical one involved calling person-to-person, which involved having the operator place the call from a specific person to a specific person. If that person weren’t available, the call would not be completed. Clever people found clever ways to insert hidden messages in the “I have a person-to-person call from Bruce to Jean” script of the operator that would enable the caller to get their point across without paying for it.

Take this ad on the back of a November 1962 TV Guide.* “It’s the moment that lingers, when you call someone long distance.” The accompanying picture presents us with a wonderful and mysterious tableau of a young woman, lost in the moment following such a call. Just who was it who called? Her fiancĂ©e, calling her from the big city in which he now works, telling her how much he misses her and wishes she were there? Her college boyfriend, relaying his plans for coming home for the holidays? Maybe a long-lost classmate, calling to relive memories the two shared when they were schoolgirls. Personally, I think the caller was male, but I’ll leave the final decision to you.

*Obviously, the timing of the ad – right after Thanksgiving – is no accident. Your phone company wants to remind you of what a great idea it would be to make someone’s holiday extra-special with a long distance call. Not only will it make you both feel good, it helps the company’s bottom line.

Having lived in the era when receiving a long distance call was something of an event, I can tell you of the powerful feelings they can produce. Later in the 60s the Bell System would introduce the ad slogan “Reach out and touch someone,” and you can tell from the look on this woman’s face that someone has done just that. But whoever the caller was and whatever the occasion, it’s obvious that it was a special one, one that didn’t happen very often, and its effects would not soon be forgotten.

It’s also a reminder, in this age of communication through email, Twitter, texting, et al of the power of la voix humain, the human voice. A voice can transmit sensations that printed words on the page can never match. Look at her face again – no matter how many letters she might have received from her beloved, none of them can compare to the sound of his voice. Long after she’s forgotten whatever it was that might have said, it’s the memory of that voice which is the moment that lingers.

November 24, 2012

This week in TV Guide: November 27, 1965

There was, once upon a time, an era in which the biggest college football game of the year was played on the last weekend in November.  It was the game between Army and Navy, played at Philadephia Stadium, attracting well over 100,000 people each season.  The teams were perennially among the best in the nation; Army won the national championship in 1944 and 1945, while Navy finished the 1963 season ranked #2, and in the twenty years between 1945 and 1965 the two schools combined to produce five Heisman Trophy winners.

By 1965, however, things had changed.  For one thing the venue in which the game was played, although it was the same stadium, was now called John F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.  For another, the two teams had started their long decline into football irrelevance.  The symtoms weren't readily apparent; the 1965 teams were said to have had "disappointing" seasons (4-5 for Army; 4-4-1 for Navy, who'd lost Roger Staubach to graduation the previous year), and a crowd of 102,000 was expected, including President Lyndon B. Johnson.  The teams played to a 7-7 tie.

It seems as if we're always talking about how dramatically televised sports has changed over the years, and here's another example.  Later that Saturday afternoon, CBS's NFL Countdown features live reports on the "NFL college-player draft," being held at the Summit Hotel in New York.  You'll note first of all that the draft is being held in November, rather than April of the following year.  It's not only before the end of the college season, it's also before the NFL season ends. 

Today, of course, the draft is a TV spectacle, with two nights of prime-time coverage on two separate networks (ESPN and NFL Network).  Draft parties are held in cities throughout the country, and TV draft experts are a cottage industry.

But that's not to say that the pro football draft in the 1960s was without drama.*  For one thing, the NFL had competition from the AFL.  Each league held their own draft, with the result that most of the top players were drafted by a team from each league.  The battle to sign the top draft picks was fierce, and stories abounded of scouts from one league hiding players in hotel rooms under fake names, spiriting them away in the trunks of cars, and doing anything they could to keep them away from their rivals in the other league.  Many college players made a ceremony of coming to terms with a professional team, often signing the contract under the goal posts after their final college game.  (Some others, of course, signed before their final game, but that's another story for another time).  With the increased competition came, naturally, increased salaries, which went through the roof.  This ended in 1967, when as a precursor to the NFL-AFL merger the two leagues for the first time held a common draft, in which all teams took part, alternating picks.  It was an end to the bidding war between the leagues, although the era of big-money contracts was here to stay.

*Not to be confused with the military draft, drama of a different kind altogether.
 
***

During the 60s, the Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace were the premiere variety shows on television. Whenever they appear in TV Guide together, we'll match them up and see who has the best lineup..

Ed Sullivan: Ed's scheduled guests are Victor Borge, songstress Petula Clark, musical-comedy star Sally Ann Howes, singer Glen Yarbrough, comedian Jackie Vernon, band leader Sammy Kaye, the 1965 Look Magazine :All-America football team, juggler Rudi  Schweitzer and the Little Angels of Korea, children's choir.

Hollywood Palace:  Hostess Janet Leigh welcomes song parodist Allan Sherman; "F-Troop's" Forrest Tucker, Ken Berry and Larry Storch; the comedy team of Rowan and Martin; singer Andy Russell; table-tennis champion Bob Ashley; and magician Michael de la Vega.

This is an interesting week for both shows.  Victor Borge was always a delight on any show in which he appeared; Sally Ann Howes was a Broadway star, at the time appearing in What Makes Sammy Run?  Jackie Vernon  - well, we all know him from this.  And Petula Clark was a very big star at the time.  (This clip may very well be from this broadcast.)


On the other hand, Janet Leigh was a big (and very attractive) star in her own right, and Allan Sherman was Weird Al before Weird Al was.


The F-Troop gang is funny (especially Larry Storch), and Rowan and Martin (in their pre-Laugh-In) days were all right, but ultimately I think Ed has the edge.  The verdict:  Sullivan, by a nose.

***

There's a distinct military theme to this week's issue; in addition to Army-Navy, there's a feature on how newsmen are covering the growing conflict in Vietnam, and the cover story - Bob Crane, aka Colonel Hogan, and Cynthia Lynn, Colonel Klink's secretary Helga, as well as Hogan's on-screen romantic interest (and off-screen as well, according to several accounts).  It's the first season for Hogan's Heroes, and you can tell there's still some uncertainty about staging a sitcom in a POW camp, although several cast members make the point (with which I agree) that there's a big difference between a POW camp and a concentration camp, which would have been strictly off-limits.

Hogan bears more than a passing resemblence to Phil Silvers' character Bilko; Crane himself describes the show as "halfway between Combat! and McHale's Navy - with a little bit of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. thrown in."  He bristles, however, at comparisons between the characters of Hogan and McHale; "I'm not Joe Buffoon," he says, and I've always thought that was one of the secrets to the show's success.  Quinton McHale was a good Navy captain, but it's impossible to imagine him going any higher.  Robert Hogan, however, is a different sort of character altogether.  He's already a colonel, conducting an audatious undercover operation about as far behind enemy lines as one can get, and the decision of the producers to let the humor flow naturally makes Hogan that much more believeable.  Not only can you believe that this man will do whatever it takes to carry out a mission (including killing, if necessary), it would come as no surprise to see Hogan rise to the rank of general, at the very least.  (But then, we've discussed that before.)

***

Last week of November, Christmas is on the way, right?   We're always complaining about how Christmas seems to come earlier and earlier - and it does.  But we have to remember that as far as television goes, the purpose of a Christmas special is to move merchandise.  And with Thanksgiving now a full three days in the past, it's now open season, and ABC is on tap with the first special of the year, a wonderfully strange musical called The Dangerous Christmas of Red Riding Hood, with the 19-year old, pre-Cabaret Liza Minnelli (focus of an accompanying story by David Newman and Robert Benton) as Red, Cyril Ritchard as Lone T. Wolf, and Vic Damone as the Woodsman (and Red's romantic interest).  But in some of the strangest casting ever seen on a TV special, The Animals (better known for this) appear as the Wolf Pack, a group of Lone's hangers-on.  You have to think they're wondering what in the world they're doing on this show*, but they play it with a kind of insouciant charm that suggests they finally decided to just have fun with it.  (By the way, the show's listed as a "children's" Christmas story, but there are a few adult double-ententes that make me question that.)

*Not to mention what their agent was thinking of.

Liza's mom, Judy Garland, is still alive at this point, and Liza has a boyfriend,* soon-to-be-husband Peter Allen.  As for Liza herself, she says movies hold no excitement for her, that performing before a live audience is where it's all at.  Interesting, since some of her greatest fame has come from movies: The Sterile Cuckoo, Cabaret, and Arthur.  Oh, well - times change.


*Or should that be "boyfriend"?

It's not a Christmas special per se, but Julie Andrews does have a Christmas album coming out, and there's no better way to promote it than to appear on television, even if you're not going to sing anything from it. (The period between Thanksgiving and Christmas has always been a fertile period for specials, seasonal and non-seasonal alike.) It's billed as "The Program All America Has Been Waiting For," although I don't recall having been in a fevered rush to see it.  Anyway, her NBC special was probably quite good, with her special guest Gene Kelly.  (And, in smaller print, The New Christy Minstrels.)   I could've included a picture of the close-up from TVG, but this album cover is so colorful I decided to use that instead.

***

Other interesting odds and ends for the week: the Saturday matinee movie, Hellcats of the Navy, featuring the future President of the United States and his wife, Nancy, in her next-to-last role.  The King Family has their Thansgiving show, which thanks to the vagueries of local stations that show programs from multiple networks, is shown the week after Thanksgiving.  A Sunday afternoon NBC news special entitled "Who Shall Live"* explores the process of determining which patients on the waiting list will get available organ transplants.  Andy Williams' special guest on Monday night is Richard Chamberlain, star of Dr. Kildare, which conveniently airs in the slot immediately before Andy.  Liza Minnelli's back on Wednesday night in another special, CBS's Ice Capades of 1966, hosted by Arthur Godfrey and featuring Roger Miller - I think it's safe to say none of the three do their performing on ice.  There's an ad for the "John F. Kennedy" 1964 coin sets, featuring the brand-new Kennedy half-dollar, a great Christmas gift for a member of your family.  Three months after retiring as manager of the New York Mets, Casey Stengel is Hugh Downs' guest on Today.  And there's a brief obituary of Allen B. DuMont, one of television's unsung pioneers, who'd died two weeks before.

*Perhaps anticipating Obamacare?

Finally, one of those little things that amuse me, if no one else. NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies features 1954's The Long, Long Trailer.  The stars of the movie are Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez,but The Long, Long Trailer is listed as the second movie appearance, although her scenes were deleted, of the eight-year-old - Liza Minnelli!  Of course, it might have helped that the director was her father, Vincente Minnelli.


As always, you can check out a day's worth of programming  by going to my RadioDiscussions piece.


We'll be right back, this Tuesday and Thursday, with more on classic TV.

November 21, 2012

A marriage made in TV heaven

The Fifty-Year Seduction: How Television Manipulated College Football, from the Birth of the Modern NCAA to the Creation of the BCS, by Keith Dunnavant (Macmillan, available as an e-book)

On September 30, 1939, the Fordham Rams and Waynesboro State Yellow Jackets faced off at a small stadium on Randall’s Island in New York in the first college football game ever televised. And though there were only a few hundred television sets in existence, most of them in the New York City area, the telecast of this game started in motion a series of events that continue to this day.

Those events are described in The Fifty-Year Seduction: How Television Manipulated College Football, from the Birth of the Modern NCAA to the Creation of the BCS, Keith Dunnavant’s delightful and insightful analysis of the symbiotic relationship between the game and the medium.

Insightful, because Dunnavant provides a concise, readable and often surprising analysis of the evolution of college football on TV, and how the same colleges who once feared television came eventually to sell their souls to it. Delightful, because it also struck a deep chord inside me, a reminder of how much both television and sports have meant to me throughout my life. “[I]t seems clear,” Dunnavant writes in his introduction, “that television played an undeniable role in making sports a powerful force in my life,” and as he talks about the experience of parking in front of the tube watching not just football but basketball, baseball, tennis and other sports, I pretty much saw my early life flash before my eyes.*

*In both black & white and color, I should add.

Indeed, most of my earliest television memories are of sports: a vague impression of the 1965 World Series, surprised because the Twins home games were on television (they usually were; at least I knew that much); the Twins losing to the Red Sox on the last day of the 1967 season: the Packers winning memorable NFL championships against Dallas in 1967 and 1968, then going on to win the first two Super Bowls.

And college football played a large part in those images as well: the New Year’s Day tripleheaders on NBC (Sugar, Rose and Orange), the old ball coach Steve Spurrier quarterbacking Florida to an Orange Bowl win in 1967, the 1968 Sugar Bowl, which featured the most enormous midfield logo I’d ever seen*, the breathtaking last-second Penn State win in the same bowl in 1969 (so tense I couldn’t stand to watch their successful two-point conversion at the end), the epic Game of the Century between Nebraska and Oklahoma on Thanksgiving 1971, the mellifluous voice of Chris Schenkel, and so on.

*I remember nothing of the game itself; I’ve long been intrigued that a team as relatively obscure as Wyoming (even though they were undefeated) played in the Sugar Bowl, but only in the last year or two have I discovered that it was that very 1968 game. I remember nothing of the game, only the field – but I was only 7 at the time.

The point of all that was not to show off my photographic memory of unimportant events in my misspent youth,* but to point out how important memories like these are to millions of people – which in turn helps to explain why the subject matter of Dunnavant’s book has such an economic, as well as athletic, significance.

*Although that’s undoubtedly true.

For there’s no doubt that television has not only affected the economics of college sports, it’s changed the very way the game is played. The rise of some schools and the fall of others, the emergence of the “superconference” – even things that range from integration to the uniforms that college football players now wear – all have, to one extent or another, the fingerprints of television on them.

Dunnavant's story begins in 1951, as college football officials meet to discuss what they see as the rising threat of television.  The increasing interest in televised college football (surprisingly, Penn had already been televising its home games for 10 years at that point) coincided with a precipitous decline in average attendance at games: a 6% drop overall, but as high as 30% in areas with a heavier penetration of television ownership.  Football was, then as now, the primary revenue generator for most institutions, and in 1951 most of that revenue was generated by ticket sales and ancillary income. (Penn made a grand total of $150,000 off their games; Notre Dame did a little better, at $185,000..)  Hence, fewer tickets sold meant less money coming into the coffers.

The answer that they came up with was to give some teeth to a small, unstaffed organization that had previously been housed at a back room in Big 10 headquarters in Chicago and held virtually no authority over its voluntary membership: the NCAA.  That decision, perhaps more than any other, helped mold the game into what it is today.

The panicked membership felt the only way to limit the future damage by television was to limit the number of games broadcast, and that could only be done by negotiating a TV contract that would cover all colleges, rather than the previous practice of letting them make their own deals.  While most schools gladly abdicated their freedom of contract, Penn and Notre Dame, two of the few schools who understood the potential of TV, balked at what the president of Notre Dame called a "socialistic" move on the part of the NCAA.  When Penn attempted to defy the NCAA by signing a contract with ABC anyway, the school was threatened with boycotts of their games by fellow Ivy League schools who were already concerned with what they saw as Penn's undue emphasis on sports.  If followed through, the boycott would effectively cancel Penn's season, and the university ultimately relented in the face of what Dunnavant refers to as "a despicable, shameful act of thuggery, a strong-arm tactic worthy of back alley hoodlums and pulp fiction gangsters."

That first TV contract which the NCAA eventually entered into with NBC for $1.14 million, provided for one televised game each week, and that each school could appear only once per season. It was a far cry from today, but one contemporary touch was already present – players performing for the camera. It was a simpler time though, and so was the mugging; Alabama kicker Cecil “Hootie” Ingram explained how, having noticed that the camera always focused on “the guy kicking off,” he made sure to take his time – adjusting the kicking tee, picking up the ball, pacing around – all the while knowing the camera was on him.

Every relationship has its turning points, the times that signify a subtle shift in power between the partners, and in the relationship between TV and college football a significant turning point is the formation of Sports Programs Inc. by Edgar Scherik in the late 1950s. The small production company almost single-handedly built the ABC sports empire (eventually being bought by the network and relabeled "ABC Sports"), landing the 1960 TV rights for over $6 million, and revolutionizing the sport thanks to its cadre of young turks led by Roone Arledge, Chet Simmons and Andy Sidaris.

It was the dynamic 29-year-old Arledge, whose previous television experience had been working on Sherri Lewis’ puppet show Hi Mom!, who introduced showbiz to college football. His goal was to capture the pomp, the pageantry, “whatever made that game or that campus special.” With kindred soul Sideris’ revolutionary use of rolling and handheld cameras and sideline mics, along with close-ups of cheerleaders, coaches and fans (in stark contrast to NBC’s practice of using three stationary cameras looking down at the field), Arledge, had shifted the emphasis of the telecast: rather than bringing the game into your living room, he was determined to bring you into the stadium. Arledge, according to Dunnavant, “reinvented televised college football and enhanced the sport’s connection to the American public.”

From here on in the story moves swiftly: the 1963 introduction of instant replay at the Army-Navy game, NBC’s decision to move the Orange Bowl into primetime, the celebrated 1966 Notre Dame-Michigan State “Game of the Century” that perhaps epitomized the sea change that had come to college football, and the controversial Title IX decision that forced colleges to look for new revenue streams in order to subsidize gender equality in sports.

But in many ways it's all merely window-dressing for the confrontation that shook college football – that, indeed, was probably the single biggest thing to happen to the sport: the formation of the College Football Association (CFA) and its inevitable showdown with the NCAA over television rights. Dunnavant devotes the bulk of the second half of the book to this battle, which began when the administrators of the major football schools, tired of subsidizing the smaller schools that comprised the bulk of NCAA membership, sought to gain more sovereignty for themselves – particularly with regards to the TV contract. They had chafed under the NCAA’s restrictions on television appearances (which had become a key component of recruiting, which was taking on an increasingly national scope), and were even more frustrated that they received a relatively small percentage of the TV money, though it was their appearances that generated the bulk of the revenue flow from the networks.

This showdown, which resulted in two of the CFA’s schools (Georgia and Oklahoma) taking the NCAA to court, culminated in the landmark 1984 Supreme Court decision ruling the NCAA’s television contracts to be a violation of antitrust law. This in turn would create further divisions, first between the CFA and its two largest non-member conferences, the Big 10 and the Pac 10, followed by Notre Dame’s decision to bolt the CFA television deal to go it alone with NBC, and then finally between conferences themselves, battling not only over TV money but, increasingly, over schools themselves, as conference-hopping became an established part of negotiating a better TV contract.

Dunnavant concludes his book with a look at the various attempts to form a true college football championship without upsetting the cash cow represented by the bowl games – what one might call college football’s “peculiar institution” – beginning with the Bowl Alliance, followed by the Bowl Coalition, and finally the Bowl Championship Series (scheduled to be replaced in two years by a four-team playoff). The book ends in 2004, which means we don’t get a chance to see the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that undoubtedly accompanied the decision to go to a playoff; it’s clear, however, that television played a big role in its ultimate approval by the previously reluctant collage administrators.

The book is not without its flaws. There are typos here and there that should have been caught either in the fact-checking or editing process, and there’s occasionally the lack of a cohesive feel to the related stories, leading the reader to wonder just how they’re all connected. One could also have hoped for more anecdotes from decades of televised football games, such as the story of how announcers Lindsay Nelson and Red Grange discussed the possibility of a player coming off the bench in the middle of a play to make a tackle, and then looked like geniuses when that very thing happened the next day in the Cotton Bowl. I’m also more kindly disposed to books that have indexes at the end, something this book sadly lacks. But ultimately these are small miscues in a story that mixes politics, money, technology, ambition and sports to come up with an entertaining, informative brew.

Dunnavant’s book ends in 2004, but in a sense it never really ends, as the changes taking place have continued more or less unabated to the present day. But for all that, two things have remained the same: the popularity of college football with the public, and the popularity of money with the colleges. On any given day a fan can sit at home and, with the benefit of cable TV, can watch more games than he would have seen in an entire season in 1960. The monetary value of college football TV packages has soared to levels that in 1960 would have been more appropriate to discussions of the national debt. More than ever, schools have been divided into the haves vs. the have-nots. And overriding it all is the 21st Century version of the Golden Rule: whoever has the gold rules.

November 17, 2012

This week in TV Guide: November 17, 1962

As is the case this year, Thanksgiving 1962 fell on November 22, which would take on an entirely new and darker significance a scant 12 months later.  But this is all in the future; right now, there's plenty of Thanksgiving cheer in this issue, and I'm not talking turkey.

***

The thing about Jack Lord, star of ABC's modern-day western series Stoney Burke, is that he wants to be "big, big, big" - like his idol and friend, Gary Cooper.  And "fast, fast, fast" - because he's been in the business for awhile and it's about time.

A fellow actor told TV Guide's Alan Gill that Lord "could be good if he wanted to portray a real person instead of a great big star" and added that "Jack ought to chuck this Renaissance-man thing. He's been an athlete, a seafarer, a steel worker, a photographer, a TV writer, an actor. If he'd concentrate on one thing -- and heaven knows he's throwing everything into Stoney -- and if he did it with complete honesty, he'd be great. Real bronc riders are mangy, rough, sincere people, not stars."  And in 1962 that was the perception of Jack Lord, that he's self-conscious, intense, more concerned with being a star than allowing the role to make a star out of him, a man who tries so hard to make sure that things are just right, rather than - you know, just doing it.

Stoney Burke was not the series that made Jack Lord that big star.  That would come later in the 60s, with Hawaii Five-O.  Perhaps Steve McGarrett was not the most fleshed-out character; perhaps he was one-dimensional, an icon rather than a real person.  But McGarrett meant business; you didn't mess around with him and live to tell about it.  I don't know about you, but I rather like my police heroes that way.  And that new show on CBS, the imposter with the same title and a character with the same name - well, my friend, that's not Hawaii Five-O, and the cop's no Jack Lord. 

***

Holiday programming actually started earlier in the week, on Saturday, when Lawrence Welk and his Champagne Music Makers (8:00 Central, ABC) celebrated with an evening of Thanksgiving music, including "Thank the Lord for This Thanksgiving Day," "Bless This House," and "By the Waters of Minnetonka." (Bet you didn't know there were so many Thanksgiving songs, did you?)

On Red Skelton's Tuesday night show, "Red plays a Pilgrim hunting for Thanksgiving dinner."  We took a look at Perry Como last week; this week, his Kraft Music Hall presents a "Happy Thanksgiving Show" on Wednesday ("Thanksgiving Eve"* according to TV Guide) with special guest Thomas Mitchell.  the theme for the program - a fitting one - was "There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays."

*Eve, complete with a capital E, putting Thanksgiving Eve on a par with Christmas Eve.

Then we come to Thanksgiving Day itself. And what would it be without parades and football? Well, there was plenty of it, starting at 9 am. NBC, as is the case to this day, carried the Macy's parade. Only two hours back then as opposed to three hours today - I wonder if they cut out the fluff and the awful lip-synched production numbers? Guess not; the broadcast started off with a half-hour, three-ring circus in front of the store. Donald Duck was the new balloon that year, and Bud Palmer and Chris Schenkel, the well-known sportscasters, were the announcers. I find that interesting, considering that traditionally the hosts of the Today show anchored the parade coverage.

CBS's coverage also started at 9 and ran for two hours. Captain Kangaroo was in New York, hosting the overall coverage of three traditional parades: New York, Philadelphia and Detroit. But here's the interesting thing: all three parades were treated as news events, and anchored by newsmen. Douglas Edwards covered New York, Robert Trout and Gene Crane in Philadelphia, and Dallas Townsend and Bob Murphy were in Detroit. These were all well-known newsmen of the time, although you might not remember them today. Again, I wonder if they were forced to read the excruciatingly bad copy that that parade announcers do today? I doubt it.  Here's some footage from that year's Detroit parade (H/T Kevin Butler at TVParty) - it's striking to see how different downtown Detroit looked then, with a stronger economy, larger population - it just looks alive.


When I was a kid, I loved watching these parades, particularly CBS;s coverage - after all, more parades. They were all sponsored by department stores: in addition to Macy's, Gimbel's sponsored the Philadelphia parade, and Hudson's underwrote Detroit. It was good business for the stores, and good publicity. (For many years CBS would also cover the Santa Claus parade in Canada, where Eaton's department store was the sponsor.*)

*When CBS replaced the Eaton's parade with the Hawaiian Floral Parade, hosted by - you guessed it - Jack Lord.

Of course, most of these stores are gone now, as the shopping centers of large cities moved out of downtown and into the suburbs. The parades are still around, with new sponsors (IKEA is the title sponsor in Philly), and the Detroit parade is syndicated nationally, while others are shown locally. CBS and NBC both dedicate their entire parade broadcasts to New York, and we've shifted our attention to Chicago, where WGN provides national coverage of the McDonald's Thanksgiving Day parade, which was moved to Thanksgiving from an early December date a few years ago.


But I digress. There's more to Thanksgiving television than parades, right? There's football! CBS went directly from their parade coverage to the NFL game of the day, the traditional Turkey Day matchup between Detroit and Green Bay. In one of the most storied Turkey Day games ever played, the Lions sacked Packers QB Bart Starr 11 times (including once for a safety) and totally dominated Green Bay en route to a 26-14 drubbing that wasn't nearly as close as the final score would indicate. (Appropos of the day, one sportswriter said it looked as if Roger Brown and Alex Karras, the Lions' two defensive stars, were ready to take Starr by the legs and make a wish.) It was said that Lombardi was so furious about that loss that he ended the annual Thanksgiving game against the Lions; the teams would play to a lackluster 13-13 tie in 1963 (three days after JFK's funeral) and would not play again on Thanksgiving until 1984.

As soon as the Detroit-Green Bay tilt was over, the network switched to Austin, Texas for coverage of the traditional Texas-Texas A&M matchup. These two teams played for many years on Thanksgiving Day, and have sporatically continued the tradition in recent years; now that the Aggies have moved to the SEC, the teams won't be playing at all, at least for a few years. If you were in the mood for a little AFL football, you could catch the New York Titans (now the Jets) playing the Broncos in Denver at 2 pm on ABC.

There was some other holiday fare, however. Pat Boone had a variety special at 4:30* on NBC, with guest stars Patti Page, Elaine Dunn, and Peter, Paul & Mary (perhaps Pat wasn't as square as we thought he was). Also on NBC, at 6:30, was The Bell Telephone Hour Thanksgiving show, starring John Raitt (father of Bonnie), Martha Wright and Mahalia Jackson, and featuring an appearance by poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg. Now, for our younger readers those names might not mean much, but trust me - this was some big-name talent appearing on this show.  And finally, Mr. Ed gets into the act as Ed decides he wants Wilbur and Carol to stay at home with him for Thanksgiving dinner.

*It doesn't seem likely that a network show would come on at that hour today, does it?  Not with the news saturation that local stations have.

And that was it for Thanksgiving, 1962.

***

November 22 is the earliest Thanksgiving can fall in the year. In 1963 Thanksgiving was on November 28, the latest it can fall. It was six days after JFK was assassinated, three days after he was buried, one day after LBJ addressed a joint session of Congress. Parades were still held and people came, although nobody seemed that excited about it. It's for the children, the organizers said, in explanation for why the parades went on. Everyone agreed that the diversion was probably a good thing. The special programming was over; football games were played, entertainment specials were broadcast, life went on.

November 22, 1962. Nobody could possibly have anticipated what things would be like 365 days later. But that was all in the future, and people lived with what they had, which was Thanksgiving Day: parades, food and football, and they were thankful for it.


The complete program listings for Thanksgiving Day are now available here

Don't be a stranger.  There's a new TV essay every Wednesday - check it out!

November 14, 2012

Trafficking in human misery

Back in the day, there was a show called Strike It Rich. If you’ve never seen it, the basic premise was to see how miserable someone’s life might be and how much that person might be able to get for it.

That’s a simplification perhaps, but not by much. Strike It Rich, which started on radio in 1947 and made the move to TV in 1951, featured contestants (or their proxies) who would come on the show and tell of the heartbreak they were currently experiencing. Their sob stories might run the gamut from a crippled child to chronic illness to broken-down appliances to financial misfortune.

The "contestants" would be asked questions - it was, after all, a quiz show - but the questions were easy, and most people on the show were "winners."  But if they didn't get the question right, there was still the "Heart Line."  "After they told their tale of woe, emcee [Warren] Hull would open up the telephone lines and ask viewers to pitch in what they could."  And the audience would deliver, often thousands of dollars, not to mention clothes, medical equipment, and other kinds of gifts.

Of course, the supply of  desperate people far outweighed the demand of the show's producers for contestants, probably a ratio of about 5,000 to 1.  Many critics accused the show of choosing contestants based on those thought to have the "most interesting tales of woe.  Some people spent what little money they had on transportation to New York, where the show was broadcast, only to be turned away, and have to turn to the Salvation Army for money to get back home.  The show was, in the words of television historians Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, "one of the most sickening spectacles ever seen on a TV screen, exploiting those same unfortunates for the vicarious thrill of viewers and the selfish gain of advertisers."  TV Guide called it "a despicable travesty on the very nature of charity."  The head of the Travelers' Aid Society remarked, "Putting human misery on display can hardly be called right."  Despite the controversy, however, the show was popular and the ratings were good, and it continued on until dying a natural death in 1958.

I thought about this show the other day, when at lunch some colleagues of mine brought up Honey Boo Boo. Now, I’m probably dating myself by saying that when I hear the name Boo Boo, the first thing I think of is Yogi Bear. But I had some vague knowledge that his had something to do with reality TV, so I sat back to listen to the conversation in hopes of educating myself.

Considering where I fall on the hipness scale, you probably already know about Honey Boo Boo and Toddlers and Tiaras and the whole trailer trash scene. But if you don’t, here’s a thumbnail description of “the Boo Boo clan” from Betsy Woodruff at NRO:

She and her three sisters have four different fathers. Her mother, who weighs more than 300 pounds, says that farting 12 to 15 times a day helps you lose weight. And Alana’s niece, whose birth was celebrated in one episode, has a teenage mother and three thumbs (Alana’s reaction: “I wish I had an extra finger, then I could grab more cheese balls!”).

A lot of people enjoy this program; a lot of people are disgusted by it, and some people look at it as one of the signs of the upcoming apocalypse. But what does this all mean? How should we feel about it? How should I feel about it?

Now it’s a fact that many people of modest means are mocked by the prevailing culture for the lifestyle they enjoy, the idea being not only that they live a “trailer trash” kind of life, but that they’re so stupid they don’t even know that they aren’t supposed to be having fun living like that. Maybe it’s not that they’re mocked: it’s more like they’re pitied. It’s rather like the Pharisee whose prayer of thanksgiving was “I thank thee, God, that I am not like the rest of men.”*

*Luke 18:11.

At the same time, I’m not at all sure that this kind of lifestyle is something that someone should be proud of. Now, having said this, I should hasten to add that I don’t know for a fact that this family is proud of their lifestyle; they may well figure that what’s past is past, and there’s no sense in agonizing over something you can’t change. But there is the truth that reality TV generally exists for three purposes: to condone behavior, to condemn behavior, and to entertain the audience while doing so. I’m not sure whether Honey Boo Boo condones or condemns, but I am uncomfortable that, either way, we’re expected to be entertained by it.

I mean, what are the expectations for me as the viewer?* Am I supposed to think that there’s nothing wrong with the lifestyle of this family? Or is it all some kind of post-modernist ironic humor that depends on the realization that the audience is in on the joke but those poor dumb lummoxes on the show aren’t? Are we laughing with them or at them?

*The well-known “Method Watching” style – what is my motivation?

Generally, I don’t think stupidity in real life is particular funny. So if that’s what the makers of this show expect from me, I don’t buy it. On the other hand, I don’t think I’m up to laughing with these folks either. I don’t need to sit in judgment of them to say that their situation simply isn’t funny.

My sense, though, is that there is something pathetic about them – about the whole Toddlers and Tiaras crew, for that matter. I don’t condemn them, I don’t pity them, I don’t laugh at or with them. I do have compassion for them, that perhaps there’s more to life than what they know. You watch these people and you think to yourself, “they just don’t have a chance.” You get the sense that there is something miserable about the way these people live, and that deep down they know it, but since it brings them fame and fortune, they’re prisoners of it.*

*So I don’t condemn them. I do, however, have nothing but scorn and contempt for TLC, which used to be a reputable network – The Learning Channel – before descending into this crap. Lord knows what audiences are supposed to be learning.

Programs like this – like Strike It Rich, in fact – have been around since the dawn of television, or at least shortly afterward. So this show, and its success, shouldn’t surprise us. “You don’t have to like the show,” Woodruff concludes, adding that she herself doesn’t. “But you don’t have to panic either.”

So it’s not the end of the world after all. But it’s also not entertainment. Trafficking in human misery never is.

November 10, 2012

This week in TV Guide: November 14, 1959

The genial Perry Como graces the cover of this week's issue, sharing top billing with a man who in one year would be President-Elect of the United States.

***

Perry Como had been a fixture on weekly television since 1947, and had had a Saturday night show on NBC since 1955.  But as this week's feature story opens, the discussion is his move to Wednesday nights to host the network's Kraft Music Hall.  Como doesn't view the move as a major change, although he allows that he's going to have to help sell a lot of cheese to justify Kraft's rumored $25 million investment in sponsorship, and he acknowledges that the competition (The Millionaire and I've Got a Secret on CBS, Hawaiian Eye on ABC) might be tougher than what he faced on Saturdays. 

More challenging, Como thinks, is how expensive it's become to put on a good variety show on TV.  "They told me one show went up to $35,000 for one guest," he says, "And I thought that if you're going to pay $35,000 for a talent that used to cost you $1600, you're not going to be in business much longer."  One advantage that the established Como has is that many of the biggest names -"Groucho, Bob Hope, Ginger Rogers" - want to do his show, which means he's less likely to have to outbid the competition.  Even so, he acknowledges that "you've got to go for the dough" in the TV business, and that to remain successful a show has to find an angle, "something unusual.  That's the ony way we can keep our heads above water."  Como remained host of the Kraft Music Hall until 1967, so whatever it was he must have found it.

***

Television, according to Senator John F. Kennedy, is "[a] force that has changed the political scene," in the second article of the series "Television as I See It," written by "Outstanding Americans."  In this case I wouldn't want to bet against Ted Sorenson having written it, but regardless of the authorship, there's no doubt that Kennedy understood how TV had already changed the political landscape, and the kind of role it would play in the following year's campaign. 

One obvious change is in the number of people a politican can reach at one time.  Woodrow Wilson destroyed his health campaigning for the League of Nations, making 40 speeches in "three weeks of hard travel."  By contrast, President Eisenhower "is able to reach several million in one 15-minute period without ever leaving his office."  But it is the power of the televised image that may be the biggest change, JFK suggests.  "Many new political reputations have been made on TV - and many old ones have been broken."  He's probably talking about Joseph McCarthy as the "broken" reputation, but he might as well have been talking about himself as the the reputation made by TV.  He'd first come to prominence at the 1956 Democratic National Convention, running a hard-fought (if eventually unsuccessful) campaign for the vice presidential nomination, but his youth and vigor was a hit on TV, and in the campaign against Richard Nixon he would use television to enormous advantage.  In discussing the role of a candidate's image, which he acknowledges "may in fact be based only on a candidate's TV impression," Kennedy voices his conviction that "these images or impressions are likely to be uncannily correct."  Would that Nixon had read these words.
***

The quiz show scandals, which showed up in one of my This Week features from 1958, continue, as TV Guide relates the story of Steve Carlin, producer of the $64,000 Question and $64,000 Challenge.  Back in 1956, when TVG had asked Carlin if the $64,000 Question "was rigged in any way," he replied, "Absolutely not.  I will stake my entire reputation as a showman on this answer."  His two shows, he insisted, were "completely honest."  Contrast this with Carlin's testimony to a Congressional investigating committee at the end of October, where he admitted "the programs had been fixed." 

We're nearing the climax of the scandal now.  Ironically, by the time this issue of TV Guide winds up in the home of the average viewer, Charles Van Doren has already admitted his guilt to the committee.  He testified on November 2, which was likely after the publication deadline for the November 14 issue.
***

We're nearing the holiday season - Thanksgiving is only 12 days away - and TV Guide is here to present you with the latest fashions, modeled by some of TV's lovliest leading ladies. 



From left to right on this three-page spread are Marjorie Lord (The Danny Thomas Show), Amanda Blake (Gunsmoke), Lola Albright (Peter Gunn), and Nanette Fabray (Caesar's Hour).  Would TV stars do spreads like this anymore?  For fashion magazines, I suppose.  Better question - would it be rated G or NC17?

And speaking of Christmas, you want to make sure you get your order in for your TV Guide gift subscription.   An excellent idea for Christmas - and it's only $5 for 52 issues, with each additional subscription for only $4.  I just checked, and currently a TV Guide subscription runs $16.50 for one year, with no local content - not a whole lot of content period, for that matter.  This is a savings of 92% off the cover price.  Eh - I don't think so.


***

So what's on TV this week?  Some interesting things, in fact.

College football Saturday features Army vs. Oklahoma.  Army's still a college football power at this point in time; they started out the season in the top 10, but would finish at 4-4-1.  Oklahoma's suffering through one of its worst seasons in years, but they'll finish strongly: their 28-20 victory over the Cadets is the second of four straight victories to close out the season at 7-3.  However, in an indication of just how big baseball used to be, the football game is preceded by a edited replay of the St. Louis Cardinals vs. the Cincinnati Reds broadcast from August 23.  These "best-of" games were a regular feature during the off-season for many years (as would be edited replays of NFL games during the summer in the early 60s.)

Sunday gives us a couple of NFL games; most of CBS' Minnesota affiliates show the matchup between the Baltimore Colts, the defending NFL champions (who would repeat in 1959) and the Green Bay Packers, led  by first-year head coach Vince Lombardi.  Wonder whatever happened to that guy?  The Mason City, IA affiliate  however, chose the San Francisco 49ers, led by legendary QB Y.A. Tittle, taking on the Chicago Bears.  NBC countered with NBA basketball: the Detroit Pistons vs. the New York "Knickerbockers."  If you don't like any of that, there's always Roller Derby.

I've commented a few times on how Hallmark Hall of Fame used to present quality plays before it became an outlet for Oprah-esque crap.  You can always count on Hallmark to make an appearance whenever a holiday approaches, and this week is no exception, as an all-star cast of Julie Harris, Christopher Plummer, Hume Cronyn, Eileen Heckart and Jason Robards star in a 90-minute adaptation of Ibsen's A Doll's House. Brilliant, I imagine, but probably also depressing as hell.  I've never cared for Ibsen; I like downbeat stories as much as the next guy, but I find him pretentious and nihilistic.

And that's not the best drama of the week: on Thursday, CBS presents an adaptation of Hemingway's The Killers, which was a terrific noir movie in 1946, starring Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner and Edmund O'Brien.  This adaptation, broadcast live, stars Dean Stockwell, Dane Clark, and Diane Baker.  The real eye-raiser, though, is the casting of heavyweight boxing champion Ingemar Johansson in his TV dramatic debut as former boxer Ole Andreson, played in the movie by Lancaster.  "Well, I cannot fight forever," Johansson said when asked if he was serious about acting.  Hemingway was said to not like Johansson's performance, but Sports Illustrated thought he did pretty well.

Talk about counter-programming - on opposite the brutal Killers was the equally brutal The Untouchables on ABC.  In this week's episode the gangsters Dutch Schultz and "Mad Dog" Coll are involved in a ranson scheme, and it's up to Elliot Ness to stop them.  And in one of those little tidbits I love to point out, "Mad Dog" Coll is played by Clu Gulager - who will be one of the stars in the 1964 remake of The Killers.

Finally, probably the variety show of the week - NBC's Bell Telephone Hour salute to George Gershwin, with Ella Fitzgerald, Vic Damone, Polly Bergin, Marge and Gower Champion, Andre Previn and Teddy Wilson.  That's a lineup even Ed Sullivan couldn't top.

***

A last thought on this issue.  I mentioned before that one year from this issue date, John F. Kennedy would be President-Elect.  Four years from this issue date, he would be dead.  And Perry Como, who was concerned about the survival of his show, would continue for almost eight years, until 1967.  I'm willing to wager that on November 14, 1959, nobody could possibly have imagined it all.


***

And one final note: each week, I post selected selected listings from my "This Week in TV Guide" issue at Radio-Info's Classic TV message board, one of my favorite spots for fun and intelligent TV discussion.  This gives you a chance to dig behind the big stories and see the shows that TV offered, hour by hour.  Some of them are unremarkable, others unbelievable - but all of them interesting!



New to this site? Be sure to check out my classic TV essay, new every Wednesday

November 7, 2012

TV and the Cold War, part 2: exporting the American Dream

Now, I know what you're thinking. You're wondering why I'm perhaps the only blogger in America not writing about yesterday's election returns.  Well, I don't really want to alienate my audience, about half of which (statistically speaking) should be pretty torqued no matter how things turned out.  Besides, how topical can a blog devoted to 50s and 60s TV be?  I think we covered the whole TV-election angle pretty well over the last few weeks, considering what we had at hand.. 

However, that doesn't mean we're abandoning politics altogether, so I hope you’ll indulge me a little while I return to that piece from last month (how time flies when you're having fun) about spy shows and the Cold War.* I want to continue that thought, but this time in a slightly different direction.

*If you found that to be slightly pedantic and perhaps even a little boring, by the way, you can go ahead and skip this one right now and come back on Saturday for the new TV Guide bit. (Pauses, waiting.)

For those of you still reading. . .

You remember that the point of that piece was how the plots of popular spy shows of the 60s might have influenced viewers’ opinions in the Cold War against Communism. Since the charge of this blog is to look at the role TV played in the development of 50s and 60s American culture, you can see how this might be something I’d be interested in.

Suppose now that we take it a step further and look at TV not in terms of what the characters are doing, but who those characters are, and where and how they live?

Until I couple of years ago I’d never given this much (if any) thought, until I went to this lecture at the Minnesota Historical Society. Entitled “The 1950s Sitcom - Guide to American Life” and presented by University of Minnesota pop culture historian Melissa Williams, the lecture took a look at what might be called the flip side of Barnouw’s analysis of programming content during the Cold War.

Recall that Barnouw looked at spy shows and saw in them a (subconscious) justification of American actions in the fight against Communism and a reinforcement of Americans’ confidence in their government. I’d take this to mean that the primary impact of such shows was on an American, or domestic, audience.*

*Indeed, as Barnouw pointed out, foreign viewers might well think that Americans were telling them how to run their country – as indeed we occasionally were.

Williams, on the other hand, would seem to point primarily to the effect that American sitcoms had on the steadily growing audience abroad, specifically in the countries where the Cold War could be seen as a battle for hearts and minds, by promoting the ideal of America as the Land of Opportunity for all. As Williams puts it in the abstract of her Masters dissertation*, “television used middle- and working-class family sitcoms to promote the commodities necessary for middle-class assimilation, but also to position working-class characters as stern object lessons in the battle to promote a ‘classless’ American post–World War II idyll.” Specifically, television became a new weapon in the Cold War battle against communism.

Two key elements to American “success” over communism—a supposed end to racism (which, for all practical purposes, translated to a widening of the accepted definition of whiteness and a willingness to legislate incremental increases in rights for African Americans) and an increase in economic stability and upward mobility for Americans—were the cornerstones of American thought in the 1940s. An immense propaganda campaign ensued, striving to, as Elaine Tyler May has put it, “[promote] the American way of life as the triumph of capitalism, allegedly available to all who believed in its values. This way of life was characterized by affluence, located in suburbia, and epitomized by white middle-class nuclear families.”

*All of the following quotes come from that document, linked above, © Melissa Williams 2009.

This could be done effectively through the use of television, and especially the ways in which sitcom families came to exemplify the success of the American Dream.

It would be easy to see how shows such as Father Knows Best and Ozzie and Harriet fit into this dynamic, featuring as they did successful husbands, fulfilled wives, and a house full of children who, while occasionally getting into minor scrapes, were “good kids.” But what about the other shows, the popular sitcoms that weren’t “exclusively middle class”?

Programs like The Goldbergs, The O’Neills, The Life of Riley, Mama, Life With Luigi, and The Honeymooners dotted the primetime landscape and frequently made appearances in the Nielsen Top 20 ratings. How, then, can we explain the popularity—indeed, even the existence in this era—of programs in which the protagonists were emphatically NOT middle-class? What purpose would images of families who have not achieved the American Dream play in a medium designed specifically to sell that dream to consumers?

The main reason, according to Williams, might well have been what Fredric Jameson called “the symbolic fulfillment of the repressed wish.” Shows on television needed to maintain a certain degree of realism in order to make them accessible to the average viewer. Programs such as those above had to offer something worth striving for, something that the average family could reasonably hope to achieve if they worked hard and (especially in the case of ethic families) adhered to American values and the American way of life. Thus successfully assimilated, the Jewish family of The Goldbergs, the Italians in Life With Luigi, and the Scandinavians who populated Mama had every reason to hope that they, too, could become part of the American Dream. This assimilation wasn’t limited to emigrants, either; rural folk could succeed as well, as shown in program like The Andy Griffith Show, in which “the clear appeal and influence of urban consumption was present but small town life was also hailed, as long as the core values of the Cold War era—education, hard work, and commitment to the nuclear family—were foregrounded.

See how this becomes a weapon against communism? For European viewers watching the imported American shows (and a lot of them were), that valued Dream became something to which they too could aspire. Economic mobility provided a two-for-one benefit: not only did it give international viewers a positive impression of capitalism (in stark contrast to the shortages and deprivations that could be found in postwar Eastern Europe), it also created a demand for the consumer goods that were part of that upward mobility, thereby acting as an economic stimulus in both domestic and foreign markets, which in turn helped to stimulate the domestic economy and make possible the very mobility portrayed in those shows.

Williams goes on to illustrate the changing role of television in the late 60s and 70s in what she calls “The Politics of Class on Television,” when programs such as All in the Family and M*A*S*H begin to challenge those very definitions of success, and question not only the accessibility of the American Dream but whether or not in fact it’s even desirable. And with that came increased challenges to the established Cold War narrative, and the subversive suggestion that capitalism was not only not superior to communism, but that it might even be inferior.

That is, of course, a completely different era, and it would be hard to trace its development and fallout in a book-length manuscript, let alone a blog post. Suffice it to say that, far from being content-free, the television of the 50s and 60s* was teeming with underlying currents of tension, reinforcement of values, ideological justification, and subconscious support of America’s role in the world. And, like so many conflicts, television’s Cold War was fought on two fronts: conscious and subconscious, economic and political, comedic and dramatic. I shant belabor the point, but it is something to keep in the back of your mind next time you’re tuned to MeTV - might make you want to treat them with a little more respect, huh?

*The early 60s were in many ways an extension of the 50s, resembling them far more than they did the late 60s, even as The New Frontier signaled a decisive break with the perceived inertia of the 50s.

Before we're done, I wanted to show you that I'm not the only person warped enough to suggest a link between sitcoms and the Cold War.  Check out this truly bizarre (and wonderful) website.  As its authors point out, "Every genre on [television] was effected by the Bomb (the anthology genre actually dealt with it in a mostly direct fashion. As you can see elsewhere on this site, shows like 'The Twilight Zone' and 'The Outer Limits' devoted many episodes to atomic issues), but none so bizarrely as the family sitcom."

And this is why we love television.

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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