August 31, 2013

This week in TV Guide: August 24, 1974

The late summer isn't usually a time when one thinks of pro football - at least not in 1974, unless you're talking about NFL exhibition games.  But amidst the preseason hoopla, on Thursday night we have a game that actually counts: the Birmingham Americans vs. the Chicago Fire. And if those team names don’t sound familiar to you, there’s probably a good reason why. They’re franchises playing in week 8 of the inaugural season of the World Football League, with games broadcast via syndication on TVS, the network primarily known to that point for college basketball (including the epic Houston-UCLA game of 1968). (Birmingham wins this game, 22-8.)

The World Football League was the brainchild of Gary Davidson, who had played a part in the formations of the American Basketball Association and the World Hockey Association. The idea behind the WFL was to liven up the pro game which, in the wake of the NFL-AFL merger (remember, that happened only five years before), had grown a bit stale. The league placed teams in cities such as Birmingham, Memphis, Jacksonville, and Anaheim – thought to be strong football areas – and places like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit, NFL cities that had suffered from bad football teams for too long. The WFL introduced new rules that they hoped would make for a more open, high-scoring game: kickoffs from the 35 to encourage more returns (the NFL at the time kicked off from the 40), goalposts at the back of the end zone ala college football to discourage field goals (the NFL would follow suit there as well), and an “action point” to replace the perfunctory extra point (which the NFL never did adopt). Overtime would be adopted for tie games (which the NFL also incorporated). They planned a 20-game season (it would be a few more years before the NFL expanded to 16 games), and launched successful raids on NFL rosters, luring players who, since the merger, lacked the leverage to get higher salaries.

SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
With a players strike delaying the start of NFL training camps (and cancelling the annual College All-Star Game), the new league hoped to attract fans who were increasingly disgusted with labor unrest in the pros. And, in fact, the WFL had a marvelous rollout. Through two games the Jacksonville Sharks had averaged over 50,000 fans, while the Philadelphia Bell, playing in venerable JFK Stadium, averaged over 60,000. And then – Ticketgate. Turns out most of the attendance counts were padded by freebees – the Bell had given away 100,000 of the 120,000 tickets for those two games, and only about half of the Sharks fans had paid. The Detroit Wheels, playing in a decrepit high school stadium in Ypsilanti, had hoped to hang on until the Lions moved into their new domed stadium in Pontiac, at which time the Wheels could take over Tiger Stadium. They couldn’t hang on, and folded in September. The New York Stars became the Charlotte Hornets, and the Houston Texans moved to Shreveport, LA. Birmingham players went without pay for the last five games of the season. Most of the NFL stars who’d signed contracts would have to wait until the 1975 season before they could play for their new teams.

Somewhat surprisingly, the league actually made it through that first season, with Birmingham defeating the Orlando-based Florida Blazers in the World Bowl (Birmingham’s uniforms were confiscated after the game to take care of unpaid bills). The league did attempt a second season in 1975, but folded halfway through.

And yet this wasn’t really such a foolish idea. Had the WFL come along a few years later, it could have taken advantage of cable TV to get more exposure. The idea of summer football would be copied by the USFL, with some slight degree of success. The rules changes, most of which were copied by the NFL, did in fact open up the game. Had the league survived, it would have had a very good roster of players for upcoming seasons (including Memphis’ trio of Miami Dolphins stars: Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield), and new NFL stadiums in Detroit and New York would have opened up better home fields for those teams.

As they say, if ifs and buts were candy and nuts,…

***

Speaking of cable TV, it’s been predicted as the wave of the future in many of the TV Guides of the era, but this week we see that the future of television has hit a stumbling block.

Cable had started out as a way to provide clear pictures to rural areas that suffered from poor reception (or no reception at all in certain places), but everyone knew the real money lie in cable’s spread to large urban markets, which comprised 70 percent of the nation’s viewers. However, as New York City is demonstrating, there doesn’t seem to be all that big a demand for more stations, clearer reception, or some of the extra services that went along with cable: access to banking and other financial services, being able to get advice from their doctors, casting votes in elections, and fire and burglar alarms. Dayton, Newark and San Antonio have given up on cable, while Chicago and Detroit debate the issue, and Boston recommends against it.

The costs of installation, as it turns out, are enormous, and construction has been delayed time after time. Illegal taps into the system are decreasing subscriber numbers, and the service itself continues to get more expensive. Manhattan Cable reported a net loss of $1.3 million in 1973, even though they raised monthly rates from $6 to $9.

What can be done? Well, some think that sports might eventually migrate to cable, even though surveys show only about 20% would subscribe to cable for sports alone. FCC action to allow cable systems to carry local stations and syndicated programming will be required to broaden cable’s appeal. A pay channel showing first-run movies would help a system that’s already profitable, but probably can’t save one that wasn’t. As for home shopping services? It will be tough to make them work when only 12.5% of homes are wired for cable.

TV Guide’s conclusion is not an optimistic one. The rush to cable is, for now, stalled. “No one talks of ‘the wired nation.’ Potentially, it still exists. But today it is still short-circuited.”

***

TV's two definitive 70s-era rock music shows, NBC's The Midnight Special and ABC's In Concert, faced off on Friday nights.  Midnight Special was a weekly show, airing after Johnny Carson, while In Concert was an every-other week part of Wide World of Entertainment.  Whenever the two slug it out, we'll be there to give you the winner.

Well, we have a match this week! In Concert was not a weekly series, so it’s always nice when we get the chance to compare lineups. And what do we have this week? Hmm.

In Concert: Rock musician Don E. Branker welcomes guests including ‘50s style group Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids, the Hues Corporation and O’Jays soul groups, and the Chris Jagger (Mick’s brother) Band rock artists.

Midnight Special: An all-blues show with B.B. King (host), and guests Jimmy Witherspoon, Papa John Creach, Paul Butterfield’s Better Days, Big Mama Thornton, John Lee Hooker, Joe Williams and Bobby “Blue” Brand.

Okay. I think I’ve heard of the O’Jays, and I do recognize the song “Rock the Boat,” though I wouldn’t in a million years have known that it was sung by the Hues Corporation. Other than that, the only thing I can say about In Concert’s lineup is that Chris Jagger’s name reminds me of a story that Arrowsmith’s Steven Tyler told about having once passed himself off as Mick Jagger’s brother, and how the adulation he received from the girls made him want to be a rock star. I’ve never been a big blues fan, but I know who B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and Joe Williams are, and I know just how big they were. Ultimately, that’s what makes this week’s decision so easy. The verdict: Midnight Special.

As a note, Channel 4 presents Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert at 2:30am Saturday, but with no description of who was on, it’s pretty hard to say how it compared to the others. It would have been a rerun from the show’s first season; the new series wouldn’t begin until September. Maybe we’ll have better luck next time.

***

I’ve talked before about the Saturday morning cartoon graveyard so I won’t belabor the point here except to illustrate just how vapid and derivative kids programming was in the mid-70s. For one thing, a startling number were merely animated versions of past live-action shows: Emergency Plus 4, The Addams Family, My Favorite Martians, Lassie’s Rescue Rangers, Jeannie, Star Trek, The Brady Kids. On top of that, CBS also has an “animated” movie entitled “Guess Who’s Knott Coming to Dinner,” which features a cartoon version of Don Knotts.*

*Is that an oxymoron?

I’ll grant that not all of these ideas are ridiculous. The Addams Family started out as a cartoon, of course, and the animated Star Trek did offer producers a greater leeway in some of the special effects and creatures that the crew of the Enterprise encountered. But by and large, these cartoons could be taken as dumbed-down versions of adult programs that weren’t all that smart to begin with. It could have been worse, I suppose. Goober, which was a Scooby-Doo clone about a crime-fighting bunch of kids and their dog, could have been referring to him.

Other cartoons were merely spin-offs of previous cartoons, such as Sabrina (Archie) and Pebbles and Bamm Bamm (The Flintstones, which started out as an adult show), and then there’s another movie-length animated special, “The Red Baron,” in which all the characters are dogs, and the Red Baron himself is a heroic character trying to rescue the Princess of Pretzelshtein. Correct me if I’m wrong, but as far as World War I goes, wasn’t the Red Baron one of the bad guys?

There’s just a stunning lack of imagination to these programs, and it’s kind of sad considering the time period. In the last ten years, the nation had come through riots and assassinations, the Vietnam War and Watergate. It was a dark and cynical time. The least we could have done was to give kids something that would stimulate their minds, instead of the escapist junk food they got.

***

Back in the day, PBS would make the occasional foray into sports programming, and this Monday night sees the network bring us the finals of the U.S. Pro Tennis Championships from Boston. This was the cusp of the American tennis boom, when it seems that everyone was running around in shorts and carrying a racket, so I suppose PBS figured this was a good program for their demographic.

Actually, this Monday night tennis series ran for several summers on PBS, and it was an excellent production, with legendary tennis writer Bud Collins teaming up with Donald Dell to bring us the action. It was a serious, no-frills broadcast that concentrated on the tennis itself instead of the glitz. These late-summer tournaments served as the warm-up to the U.S. Open, so they tended to attract some pretty big names. I was a tennis fan myself at this time, and I always chose this over NBC’s Monday Night Baseball series. If PBS had stuck to sports, who knows where it would have wound up?

SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
Golf is another sport that’s changed radically when it comes to television. In 1974 a considerable number of tournaments were still shown through syndicated broadcasts (mostly from Hughes Sports Network), and this week’s Westchester Classic, from Harrison, NY, is no exception. The announcers are a mixture of network figures (Ray Scott), syndicated staples (Jim Thacker, John Derr) and golf experts (Bob Toski). The Westchester was actually one of golf’s biggest money tournaments of the time, with a first prize of $50,000. Johnny Miller, in the midst of his incredible 1974 season, takes the title this year, with a record winning score of -19. Today, the Westchester goes by the name of “The Barclays,” and isn’t even played at its namesake Westchester Country Club anymore. It’s still a big tournament, though – one of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoff.  You could have watched it last weekend on CBS*.

*Unless you lived in Dallas and some other cities.

***

Ah, nostalgia. We don't often get to take a nostalgic look back at a nostalgic look back, but NBC’s Wonderful World of Disney embarks on such a tour this week with a rare rebroadcast of its 1954 Davy Crockett series. It’s a great throwback to the origins of the Disney program, and one of the classic adventures that helped establish Disney’s greatness in the non-animated arena. The Crockett adventures will run for the next three weeks, starting this week with “Davy Crockett – Indian Fighter.” I wonder why NBC was rerunning the series at this particular time? Could it be because Crockett’s sidekick, George Russel, is being played by Buddy Ebsen, star of CBS’ Barnaby Jones? I wouldn’t think so. Maybe they’re just celebrating the 20th anniversary of the original run.

***

SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
Ah, Susie Blakely. Her smile, Neil Hickey tells us, is worth $100,000 a year. She’s typical of today’s big money, big star models, and she has what it takes: an inventory of great smiles. “I can do fake smiles for you all day, and every one of them will look real,” she says, matching the smile to whatever she happens to be hawking.

Right now, Susie has been taking acting lessons, hoping to duplicate the success of other models-turned-actresses such as Cybill Shepherd and Ali MacGraw. And it will be acting that will bring Susan Blakely her greatest fame, forever known for her role as Julie Prescott in the landmark miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man, winning a Golden Globe and getting an Emmy nomination in the process.

***

Finally, one more rare glimpse into the world that was. A brief TV Guide editorial morns the loss of programs such as Where’s the Fire?, Everything Money Can’t Buy, We’ll Get By, The Love Nest, Sunshine and Second Start. What’s that, you say? Haven’t heard of them? There’s a good reason why – they never aired, at least not as part of the 1974 fall season. Just two months ago, a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling overturned changes to the FCC Prime-Time Access rule, which meant networks would have to cede 90 minutes per week of prime-time to local stations – 90 minutes they’d already plotted out.

The shows listed above, manned by stars such as Paul Sorvino, Bob Crane, Cliff DeYoung, Billy Mumy and Meg Foster, would have aired in those lost time slots (mostly the 6:30 – 7:00 CT period, right after the local news). And as for what happened to them? Well, Television Obscurities has a very good write-up here.  By and large, I’d have to pronounce the local access rules a failure – the thought had been that local stations would provide news and public affairs shows in those timeslots, but the stations quickly figured out it would be cheaper and more profitable to run syndicated game shows and reruns of network series. We all know how well that’s worked out.

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