February 28, 2013

Around the Dial

It's a real smorgasbord on tap today, so since we're all over the place, might as well just jump in:

  • First off, an update from Chip Arcuri at the great Yule Log site.  I'd talked to Chip after the fiasco surrounding TCM's December showing of Carol for Another Christmas, in hopes of finding out why Henry Mancini's theme music had been removed.  Chip now has this:  
"Felice (Mancini) has not been able to determine why the print of Carol For Another Christmas that TCM aired last December did not include her father's music. It was not a legal copyright issue because she and her siblings manage her father's extensive library of music. However, the theory that I suggested to her is probably the most logical reason for the omission. And that theory is that the copy of the print that TCM aired was probably made before her father was signed on by ABC-TV to compose an original theme for the film. If she should find out anything different, I'll certainly post it here."
Thanks, Chip.  You wouldn't think it would be so hard, would you?
  • Another update, this time from reader C.D., who offers an explanation for that strange Flintstones cartoon I shared with you the other day.  "The drawings, especially Barney, are not as far-fetched as you might think.  The 1960 pilot film 'The Flagstones' has them pretty much looking like that.  I understand that the title was changed since it sounded too much like the Flagston family in the 'Hi and Lois' comic strip."

    Thanks to you as well, C.D.  It's great to have loyal readers out there!
  • Paul Hughes, writing at How Sweet It Was, has another Columbo piece, this one entitled "Why We Watch."  The ending is spot on.
That's it for this week - see you Saturday with a new TV Guide!

February 26, 2013

Ayn Rand on the Tonight Show, 1967

Ayn Rand's been in the news a lot the last few years, though it's likely that few of the people who read her today and debate her philosophy ever had the chance to see her live.  So let's take this opportunity to look at footage on Rand appearing with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show in 1967.

Not only does this give us a chance to hear Rand describe Objectivism in her own voice, it points out the vapidity of today's late night talk shows.  In fact, Carson's own version of The Tonight Show was a shadow of its former self by the time it came to an end, but it towers as an ivory tower of intellectualism compared to Jay, Dave, the Jimmys, Conan and the rest.


I've frequently written in the past about the decline of what Terry Teachout refers to as "middlebrow" culture on television.  Usually I'm talking about the lack of classical music, drama or documentary shows, but this reminds us that the dearth of smart programming extends to the talk show as well.  Sure, you might be able to find something like this from Charlie Rose (as a matter of fact, offhand he's the only one I can think of who would do something like this), but perish the thought that it would appear on one of the broadcast networks.  
As for daytime talk shows - well, we won't even go there.  
(Although it would be interesting to see what Rand would have done with Oprah.)

February 23, 2013

This week in TV Guide: February 25, 1961

James Hagerty, prior to becoming head of ABC News, was President Eisenhower's press secretary - so it is with this dual authority that he offers, in this week's edition, a "Creed for Television Newsmen."    There are six points to this creed:

1. TV news reporting must be "factual, impartial, free and fearless. It cannot permit itself to be dominated or even remotely to be associated with any group or faction of special interest, any political party or any government."

2.  While analyzing and explaining news developments, "it must not confuse news reporting with personal opinion of a commentator who, after all, is expressing only his own thoughts and analysis."

3. Local, regional and national news "must never be neglected or overlooked."

4. News must be reported from "all sections" of the world, regarding a larger staff of trained reporters with expertise in foreign languages.

5. TV news cameras "must have the right to cover news wherever it happens, here at home or overseas."

6. "A good reporter does not seek to fake or exaggerate his story.  He gets the news as it happens, and reports the truth, the whole truth.  That is his job."

Politics is part of the cultural history not only of this country but of television, and so I've spent a fair amount of time on it.  I've tried, however, to keep my distance when it comes to ideological interjections, although I've got a fair number of opinions (as anyone who knows me can attest).  Having said this, I find it interesting that fully three of Hagerty's six points deal with the importance of neutral and objective reporting.  Now, without injecting any partisanship, I think we can all agree on the importance of this, and I hope we can also acknowledge that, no matter which side of the political fence you stand on, television news falls woefully short not only in this area but on all of Hagerty's points.

Hagerty served as head of
ABC News from 61-63
Obviously, this isn't a new problem; Hagerty wouldn't have made such an issue of it otherwise.  But one of the more unfortunate aspects of the fragmentation of American society over the decades is that the discerning viewer can pretty much watch whichever news program slants towards his or her point of view.  Just as music doesn't need to appeal to the masses any longer, and thus shatters into a million different niche networks, there is no incentive for any news program to offer objective, unbiased coverage.  Liberal?  Watch MSNBC or CNN.  Conservative?  Fox News.  Human interest stories?  There's always the networks, who seem to have pretty much given up on hard stuff.  And so on.

This isn't the place to debate solutions to the situation, of course, but one further point before we move on: Hagerty's first point, that the news must be kept separate from special interests, is one reason why Reuven Frank, as producer of NBC's Huntley-Brinkley Report, kept it commercial-free in its early years.  Frank understood that a news program had to avoid even the hint of a conflict of interest.  Considering the amount of influence sponsors exercised over programs in the early days of TV, it's no wonder Frank wanted to keep the news free of such entanglements.  Of course, today the bottom line in TV news is not journalism so much as the network's profit-loss statement.  So I guess none of us should be surprised.

***

CBS's Sunday documentary series The Twentieth Century casts a spotlight on French turmoil, and one can't help but see this as a forerunner of the chaos waiting around the corner in the United States.  The show promises to tell us about the "turbulent youth of France.  LEARN why they condemn conscription, defy [President] deGaulle, rebel against the Algerian war.  SEE if they are the sinners or the saviors of France."  We learn that amidst this tumult, "one dominant theme always recurs - Algeria."

Substitute "Vietnam" for "Algeria" and you've got almost a perfect match, don't you think?  Resist conscription, i.e. the draft?  Check.  Defy the President?  Check.  Sinners or saviors?  That's the question people would be asking here in a few years.  Certainly this country had problems in 1961; the civil rights movement was in full swing, and there was nothing tranquil about that.  And yet, Americans watching this show might well have thought that the French were going mad, the Republic was teetering on the brink, and the children were lunatics running the asylum.  Thank God it couldn't happen here.

***

Life magazine celebrates its 25th anniversary on Thursday night with a 90-minute star-studded extravaganza on NBC, hosted by Bob Hope.  It's truly a moment in time; for two decades the famed weekly picture magazine had chronicled our times, portraying life in all its various shapes, sizes and (eventually) colors.  And here it is being feted by the very medium that is inexorably taking its place.  Exotic images of foreign lands, the pomp and pageantry of coronations, the breathtaking drama of sporting events - all of this had made Life a staple of American households.  But now you can see all that on television, except for the color (and that's coming soon enough), and these pictures move!

Soon enough Life would be gone.  It folded in 1972, came back as a monthly in 1978, folded again in 2000, tried one further comeback as a Sunday newspaper supplement in 2004, and finally folded for good in 2007.  And the medium that took its place, television, now finds itself in the same position in relation to the internet.  Am I the only one who finds this moment ironic?

***

On the cover this week are the stars of CBS's Candid Camera.  If the smiles in the picture look somewhat forced, there's a good reason for it.

Candid Camera premiered on radio in 1947, where it was known as Candid Microphone.  It made the transition to television the next year where it remained, off and on, until 2004.  Candid Camera was an early form of reality television, but rather than the celebrity horror shows of today, I think you could describe it as being more like America's Funniest Home Videos.  For those of you unfamiliar with it, the premise was simple: an ordinary person walks into a seemingly normal situation, which rapidly becomes completely abnormal.  For example, a gas station attendant* fills the tank of a car, but no matter how long he's at it the tank never fills up.  The car is found to have a fake tank in it, but not before the surprised attendant is told, "Smile - you're on Candid Camera!"

The picture on the cover is taken from Camera's 1960-67 run on CBS.  The balding man in the background, looking as if he desperately wants to be seen, is Candid Camera creator Allen Funt.  He's being blocked by the legendary Arthur Godfrey, who at this time is co-host of the program.  The woman to the left is the singer-actress Dorothy Collins, who often appeared as the person who introduces the unsuspecting victim into the extraordinary situation (for example, she drove the car to the gas station in the prank listed above).

Candid Camera was Funt's baby through and through, but Godfrey was a known commodity to CBS and sponsors, and it might well be that the network thought he would be more likely to attract viewers than Funt alone. It was a relationship doomed from the start; Godfrey's ego demanded a large role, and he saw the program as a vehicle for his folksy humor and commentary, and yet at heart the show was nothing more than a collection of videos requiring basic introductions.

Funt, no shrinking violet himself, resisted Godfrey's efforts to put himself at the center of the show. He told a San Francisco interviewer "that Candid Camera would be much better if Godfrey didn't talk too much" and added that "if the Godfrey problem can't be solved, the Candid Camera company has another similar show in the works and ready to put on the air."  In one instance, Funt was said to have become so fed up with Godfrey that he stormed off the set during rehearsal, refusing to take part in the show's taping.  In the end, Funt won out.  Godfrey disappeared after the first season, replaced by Garry Moore's sidekick Durward Kirby (Camera had for several years been a regular feature of Moore's variety show).

Here's a clip from the Godfrey-Funt season of Candid Camera:


***

Isn't this a terrible cartoon rendition of The Flintstones?  Fred and Wilma aren't bad, but Barney is terrible.  And who's that kid supposed to be?  It's not Bamm-Bamm.

I don't know where this came from; it's clearly not a network advertisement, although The Flintstones were in first-run on ABC.  I can only think that the ad came from WTCN, and despite what I've said about it, local ads like this are one of the charms of TV Guides of this era.  It's the opposite of the slick, packaged material we're so used to seeing in publication nowadays.  Considering ABC's status as the number-three network of the time (by a wide margin), I wouldn't be surprised if most of its affiliates were on their own when it came to this kind of advertising.

Speaking of advertising, let's close with this note, a very clever, very funny TV Guide parody by Checkboard Square, makers of Chex cereals. (Click on each image to enlarge.)



It's not only an ingenious way to advertise Chex, but a brilliant, meticulously done spoof of television and TV Guide itself. The shows themselves are great (My Three Chex, starring Claude Grains; movies including A Star is Corn and King Corn), but best of all is the care with which the TV Guide layout was duplicated.  Had to have been done with the magazine's cooperation, don't you think?   I wonder how many people, gradually flipping through the pages, actually thought this was legit?  

February 21, 2013

Around the Dial

With the Oscars just around the corner, Noir and Chick Flicks provides a rundown of the greatest noir films never to have won Best Picture.

I remember watching the syndicated Beat the Clock after I got home from school.  (Although when I was able to catch the original on GSN a few years ago, I found it indescribably silly.)  Thanks to the U of Maryland Archives, you can now relive those memories with the home version of the Beat the Clock game!

Lee Marvin remains one of my favorite tough-guy actors, and for people who think the original Dragnet was tough, you need to check out Marvin's Frank Ballinger in M-Squad.*  Classic Film and TV Cafe reviews Dwayne Epstein's new bio of Marvin, Point Blank. 

I always preferred the original NBC Columbo to the ABC movies made in the late 80s/early 90s, but How Sweet it Was reminds us that even some of those later-day stories were pretty sweet.  And nothing makes a better Columbo than seeing smug killers get their just rewards!

Remember Willie Tyler and Lester?  Kliph Nesteroff does, and presents part two of a terrific interview with Tyler, who shares some great showbiz stories.

Stephen Bowie has a nice article on the recently-cancelled LeverageI used to be a regular viewer, but a review from a few years ago suggested the show might be losing me - as in fact it did (I recorded the first few episodes from that new season, but never bothered to catch up with it again).  To me the show became too much about the characters and not enough about the caper. (If I wanted to see depressed characters develop, I'd go watch a Tennessee Williams play.)  Ultimately Leverage lacked the intelligence of Mission: Impossible, the sheer fun of The A-Team, and the sophisticated charm of The Rogues, but judging by the comments at Stephen's blog, I appear to be in the minority.

That's it for this week - see you back here Saturday for the new issue of TV Guide!

February 19, 2013

Oscar comes to TV

The Academy Awards were, once upon a time, must-see television. The show routinely drew the largest TV audience of the year, and the winners and losers would be debated for days afterward.  Today, not so much.  But with Oscar Sunday coming up this weekend, let's have some fun and look back at some of Oscar's television history.

The picture at left is from the first Academy Awards telecast, on March 19, 1953.  The idea of televising the Oscars was not a new one; portions of the show, including the major awards, had been broadcast on national radio for years, and as early as the late 40s there had been offers to televise it, but it wasn't until the movie studios withdrew their financial support from the awards show that the Academy cut a deal with NBC  for $100,000 to broadcast the event.  For the first few years  the show was telecast from both Hollywood and New York, in order to accommodate the nominees acting in Broadway shows, with each venue sporting a giant screen so that attendees might see the winners on the other coast.  Because of the harsh television lights, men's white tuxedo shirts were tinted blue, while women were urged to wear pale blues and grays.  Mr. Oscar, Bob Hope, was the emcee from Hollywood, while actor Conrad Nagel did the honors in New York.

The 1958 telecast was sponsored by the Academy itself; with the result that the show was presented without commercial interruption.  (Imagine that today!)  1958 was also the end of the bi-coastal broadcasts; from here on it, the Oscars would come live from Hollywood (or, later, Los Angeles).

Jerry Lewis, who had hosted the show to great acclaim in 1957, returned as one of the six hosts in 1959*, and thus was the man on the spot for one of the more ignominious moments in Oscar history.  Having wrapped up the show with Mitzi Gaynor singing "There's No Business Like Show Business," Lewis received a frantic signal from director Jerry Wald - there were still twenty minutes of air time left!  The show actually ran short!  Lewis vamped for a few minutes, the show degenerating into a kind of chaotic panic, before NBC   pulled the plug and filled the remaining time with a short film.  That show ran, if you can believe it, one hour and fifty minutes.

*The other hosts were Bob Hope, David Niven, Tony Randall, Mort Sahl, and Laurence Olivier.

From 1961: cake worthy of an award
And that wasn't terribly unusual.  The initial Oscar shows regularly ran under two hours; the first one to top three hours was in 1957, but between 1958 and 1973 the average running time was 2:20, and as recently as 1972 the show had wrapped things up in a tidy 1:44.  The turning point was in 1974, when the running time leapt to 3:22; it hasn't been under three hours since, and maxed out at 4:23 in 2002.  Johnny Carson, when he was the host, once joked that it was time to look at the toteboard and see how much money they'd raised.  More recent shows have manged to keep it down somewhat, running a little under 3½ hours.

One of the reasons for the brevity of those earlier broadcasts might have been the starting time; the traditional   broadcast time was 10:30 pm ET, requiring the network to only preempt a half-hour of regular programming. In Hollywood, a 7:30 PT start allowed for the traditional searchlight and flashbulb popping on the red carpet, and a two-hour broadcast would wrap up at 12:30 am Eastern, before midnight to the rest of the country.  In 1963, with the ceremonies now being held in the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, the start was moved up to 7:00 PT, and in 1980 it moved up another hour, to 6:00 PT, 9:00 ET.  It meant the show was still finishing up around 12:30, but you had to sit through another hour or so to get to it.

The traditional night for the Oscars was Monday, with rare forays into other nights.  It was postponed for two days in 1968 in order to avoid conflicting with the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr., and was delayed for a night in 1981 following the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, but otherwise remained on Monday until 1999*, when TV once again intervened and the ceremony was moved to Sunday, where it could start even earlier, and East Coast viewers stood a slim chance of getting to bed before midnight.  And of course the show has been moved up on the calendar, from its traditional March-April dates to late February, in order to try and head off the other awards shows that have started to horn in on the prestige.

*For many of those years in the 70s and 80s, the show went head-to-head with the NCAA basketball finals.  One guess as to who won that battle.

As for the networks presenting the show, while NBC carried the initial telecasts, the Oscars have been most frequently identified with ABC, which has presented the show since 1960, with a brief return to NBC between 1971-75.  For better or worse, ABC continues to have the rights to the broadcast through 2020.  The first color broadcast was in 1966; as Bob Hope said, "[F]or the first time, you can actually see the losers turn green."  In 1967, a strike by AFTRA against ABC cast doubt that the show would be seen by anyone outside the Civic Auditorium; the Academy vowed, in the best tradition of entertainers, that "the show would go on" with or without TV, but fortunately the strike was settled a bare three hours before airtime.

I don't watch the show anymore - I've gotten weary from the endless politicizing from the hosts, the presenters, the winners, and the movies themselves.  And besides, it's just so damn boring.  But I still enjoy looking through the archives, the TV Guides and the Inside Oscar books, and remembering the great Oscar winners of the past.  Perhaps someday the program will be compelling enough to get me to return to the living room couch (well, that and a better time zone), but for now the memories will have to suffice.

February 16, 2013

This week in TV Guide: February 18, 1961

Every year it seems there's yet another meaningless awards show on TV. And yet, very view of them seem to go away. (Personally, I don't think they'll stop until everyone's won at least
one.  I'm still waiting for mine.)

A variety of sources suggest that the "TV Guide Awards" began in 1999, but if the magazine says that then they're ignoring their own history - as this week's issue proves.  The TV Guide Awards started in 1960, and by the next year AP's Cynthia Lowry refers to the "three important awards-presenting shows - Oscar, Emmy and TV Guide."  The young medium hadn't been around that long, and there are already two awards shows devoted to it.

What makes this different from other awards shows of the time is that, in kind of an early People's Choice Awards, the winners of the TV Guide Awards are chosen entirely by viewer votes. The ballot we see here  for the 1961 Awards (which was scheduled to be on NBC April 11, but in fact didn't air until June 13) allows readers to cast their vote for Favorite Series, Favorite New Series, Best Single Musical or Variety Show, Best Single Dramatic Program, Best Single News or Information Program, Favorite Male Performer, and Favorite Female Performer.  Not many categories compared to today, hmm?


The awards show had a moderately successful run, lasting from 1960 until 1964.  It didn't always have a dedicated program built around it; for example, the 1963 awards were presented during the last segment of the Bob Hope Show.  According to the contemporary reports, the 1961 show had its pluses-and-minuses - the pluses included the entertainment portions, which were done on videotape; the minuses, which occurred during the live awards presentation, included technical glitches, speeches ending before they were done, and confused winners not knowing which way to exit the stage.  Despite all that, it sounds as if a good time was had by all.

Interested in knowing who won the '61 trophies?  You're going to have to wait until you get to the end of the column to find out.

***

One of those shows nominated for a TV Guide Award was Astaire Time, Fred Astaire's third television special, which was rerun on NBC Monday night "by popular demand".  Fred's guests include his current dancing partner Barrie Chase, the Count Basie band with singer Joe Williams, the Hermes Pan Dancers (Pan being Astaire's long-time choreographer) featuring Ruth and Jane Earl, and the David Rose Orchestra.  I've seen all the Astaire specials on DVD and this one, like the others, is terrific.

Continuing the awards theme, Wednesday night's U.S. Steel Hour on CBS presents "The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon," starring Cliff Robertson, which would be made into the big-screen movie Charley, for which Robertson would win the Best Actor Oscar in 1968.

I don't think it won any awards, but one of the prestige shows of the time, David Susskind's Dupont Show of the Month, features a live 90-minute presentation of "The Lincoln Murder Case," starring Luther Adler, House Jameson and Roger Evan Boxill as John Wilkes Booth.*  I don't have a clip of that show, but for what it's worth, here's an episode of I've Got a Secret from 1956 featuring a gentleman whose secret was that he was an eyewitness to Lincoln's assassination.  Think of that for a minute - he lived during the Civil War, while Lincoln was President, and appeared on television.  That is something to marvel at.

*Meaning no disrespect to Roger Evan Boxill, I'd like to think he was cast as John Wilkes Booth because of the three names.


***

Once again, the sporting landscape is much different from today.  Let's take Saturday afternoon, for example.  Wide World of Sports hasn't premiered yet, and college basketball hasn't become a national obsession, with only two games on tap: SMU vs. Texas on Channel 11 and the Big Ten Game of the Week between Purdue and Michigan on Channel 4.  The NHL isn't on network TV and there isn't a team in Minnesota yet, so the hockey coverage is a taped replay of last night's game between the St. Paul Saints and the Omaha Knights.  The NBA isn't the cool game yet, so there's only one game - NBC has the Lakers and "Knickerbockers" in New York.  The PGA isn't a weekly happening, so the duffer out there has to settle for All-Star Golf  (Sam Snead vs. Bob Rosberg) on Channel 11.  Even the Pro Bowlers Tour hasn't hit the big time yet (it'll be on ABC next year), so we've got a potpourri of bowling shows: Bowling Stars at 3:30, and Championship Bowling at 5, both on Channel 5.  There is football, though, at least sort of: CBS presents a one-hour replay of the Packers-Lions Thanksgiving Day football game* from three months ago.

*That might seem strange, but CBS showed these condensed NFL games on off-season Saturdays through much of the 60s.  During the football season, they showed replays of major league baseball games.

But there's still boxing, and it's still a prime-time sport in 1961.  ABC's Fight of the Week features future middleweight champion Dick Tiger taking on Gene Armstrong from Madison Square Garden, which has apparently been turned around from the Lakers-Knicks game earlier in the day.  Tiger wins in a 9th round TKO, by the way.  Fight of the Week was the last regularly scheduled prime-time boxing show, running on Saturday nights through September 1963 before spending another year on Friday nights.  When it ended its run on September 11, 1964, it was the end of an era that at one time had seen as many as six televised boxing shows a week.

***

Jackie Gleason's profiled in an article sans byline.  He's described as "the star of a new CBS panel show called You're in the Picture, which went on the air Jan. 20 and which was pre-empted on Jan. 27 by Jackie himself, who spent a half hour apologizing to viewers for perpetuating 'that bomb' on them."

You're in the Picture was, in fact, one of the most infamous bombs in TV history.  Although the article professes confidence that the show would return, in fact it did not.  Of that initial episode, UPI's Vernon Scott wrote "Jackie Gleason is a big guy who does everything in a big way. Friday night he laid a big egg."  Gleason's apology on January 27, delivered with real panache, won raves from critics, including Scott, who this time called it "the most delightful show on television in the last few weeks"


Jackie Gleason : "You're in the Picture" by werquin

As detailed by Television Obscurities, there was great confusion as to what was going to happen after the January 27 apology show - as late as the day before the next broadcast (February 3), the network didn't know what they were going to get.  Kellogg's, the sponsor, apparently wanted (for some unfathomable reason) to continue with You're in the Picture, but Gleason did not.  What went out that night was Gleason again, continuing his apology, this time joined by a chimp.  Kellogg's dropped its sponsorship, and the remainder of the show's run (seven weeks) was in talk-show format, entitled The Jackie Gleason Show, with The Great One interviewing various celebrities.

Such a debacle might have brought down a lesser star, but not Gleason.  He would be back on CBS in 1962 with his big-budget variety show from Miami Beach, which would run for four successful years.

***

Maharis (left) with Milner and the famed 'vette
There's also a profile of George Maharis (again without byline), co-star of the CBS series Route 66. Maharis, much like Buz Murdock, the character he portrayed, comes across as loud, brash, a fighter, a man who "not only looks like a hood but might well have become one."  The article opens with the story of Maharis, while on location, walking into a bank and shouting, "All right, folks - this is a stick-up" before breaking into a big grin.  Everyone agrees that he was lucky he wasn't killed.  No question, he's a stark contrast to his Route 66 co-star, Martin Milner, a veteran actor who brings his family along during the location shoots whenever possible (virtually all of the show was shot on location).

Maharis is being prepped for stardom, - "the hottest thing to come along in TV since the invention of the hot plate," according to one executive.  But Maharis will miss several episodes in 1962, near the end of the second season, reportedly due to infectious hepatitis.  He returns for the start of the third season but there are rumors that he is difficult to work with, that he wants a movie career, that his illness persists.  Eventually he breaks his contract in the middle of the third season and leaves the series, and although he has steady work, he never does quite become the star that everyone thought he would be, back in 1961.

***

A few notes from the yellow Teletype section, where "It looks definite now for The Rifleman to switch from ABC to CBS in the fall."  For some reason the switch never happened though, and The Rifleman would end its days on ABC after two more seasons.

Producer Hubbell Robinson has four shows on tap for the 1961-62 season.  ABC is interested in Stage 61, although what they eventually got was Stage 67, and The Lawyer, which apparently nobody got.  NBC was luckier, though - it got not only the police series 87th Precinct, but the Boris Karloff-hosted Thriller.

There's also excitement about a TV version of the hit movie Some Like It Hot, with Vic Damone and Tina Louise.  Despite getting Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis to cameo at the start of the pilot, there were no takers.

***

And that goofy picture on the cover?  That's Nanette Fabray, who in 1961 was the star of her own sitcom, the appropriately-named Nanette Fabray show.  I must admit that I've never been a fan of hers; I find her brand of comedy loud, broad, obnoxious and overdone.  You know the saying "a little goes a long way?"  With Fabray, even a little could be too much.  And yet she's had a long and very successful career on television, and her fight with hearing loss has been quite admirable.  It just goes to show, as Jackie Gleason said, how hard it is to predict success.  It sure is for me, anyway.

***

That's right, I did promise you the winners of the TV Guide Awards, didn't I?  See how your favorites did:

Favorite Show: Perry Mason
Favorite New Show: Andy Griffith
Favorite Variety Show: Sing Along With Mitch
Male Performer: Raymond Burr
Female Performer: Carol Burnett
Best News Program: The Huntley-Brinkley Report
Dramatic Program: Macbeth, Hallmark Hall of Fame


February 14, 2013

Around the Dial

According to at least one source, this week is the 60th anniversary of the first television appearance of Superman, and How Sweet It Was offers an appropriate commemoration.  I've seen The Adventures of Superman a few times, but I have to admit that whenever I think of Superman, this is what comes to mind:

 
What If...? from centexcasa on Vimeo.

The University of Maryland Broadcasting Archives and Thrilling Days of Yesteryear both celebrate the birthday of the great Jack Benny.  His death in 1974 from cancer was front page news worldwide; one newspaper called him the "comedian of an era."

Made for TV Mayhem covers two TV-movies that spell mayhem if any ever did: "The Screaming Woman" and "When Michael Calls."  Without stories like these, the made-for-TV movie would never have survived.

Classic Sports TV and Media blows the whistle on NBC's false claim that next year's Winter Olympics coverage would feature the first-ever prime time broadcast prior to the Opening Ceremonies.  Good for Jeff; the way the regular media accepted NBC's claim without bothering to check it (and any of us with TV Guide collections could have vouched for this) is what gives us fiascos like Manti Te'o.  Whatever happened to that guy, anyway?

That's it for now - have a great weekend, see you back here on Saturday!

February 12, 2013

TV in your hand? You're kidding!

It's become a cliché to talk about the marvels of technology. For the youngsters out there, it isn’t even a marvel, just something they’ve grown up with and always known.

But for those of us who remember this ad, there’s truly something remarkable about it. Take this ad for Sony. We were excited - perhaps even stunned - by the idea of a television set so small it could be held in the hand.

Imagine, as the ad says: now you could carry your television around with you, like a book.  Watch it next to your bed, on the desk at your office, picnicking on the patio.  It even had a battery pack that you could use to make it truly portable.  For those who remembered a picture tube that size encased in a huge, bulky console that sat in the living room - well, it must have been an amazing thought.

Fast-forward* to today.  What's the big deal about being able to carry your television around like a book?  Thanks to the iPad, we can have both television and book all in one slim tablet.  Watching TV at work?  Anyone with a computer can do that.  Got an iPhone?  That alone makes your Sony look ancient, and it picks up more stations besides.  In other words, the future did come true - and yet it's completely unrecognizable.

*If the term "fast forward" itself hasn't become anachronistic.

A more familiar ad for the tiny Sony.
Think about this for a moment, because it's so easy to take it for granted.  In the span of a few years, we've developed a machine, not that much bigger than a credit card, that allows you to watch television, make a phone call, listen to music, access the internet (something that wasn't even around when this ad ran), keep a calendar, - in short, you can carry your whole life around in that little thing.  Any of this technology would be amazing, but to think you can have it all, right there in the palm of your hand - for about the same price as that television!

A while back I wrote about how the cell phone had changed so many of the standard plot elements of classic TV, and another about how the ads we saw back then described a culture that simply doesn't exist anymore.  And again, this isn't meant as criticism.  The advancements in technology have been truly incredible, enabling us to do things we would once have thought amazing, but now we don't even bat an eye at them.  Ads like this don't just demonstrate another time - they show us another way of life entirely.

The ad copy is spot-on: today you can hold the future in your hand.  It's just a future that, back then, would have been unimaginable.

February 9, 2013

This week in TV Guide: February 13, 1965

This week's cover profile of Andy Williams was written by John Gregory Dunne before he became a successful novelist.  I don't have anything against Dunne, although I do prefer the work of his brother, Dominick, to either John Gregory or his wife, Joan Didion, but it bears saying that Dunne's story on Williams displays, I think, the worst aspects of TV Guide writing of the era.

There is, for starters, the annoying habit of the author injecting himself into the article.  Dunne notes in the first page that "I had no particular desire to meet the boy next door, and the first two paragraphs concern Dunne's reactions to the comments of Williams' publicist, his thoughts on the decor of the dressing room, his impressions of the books on the shelf.

Once the focus of the story turns to the putative subject, Williams, there are more TV Guide trademarks; the anonymous criticisms, for instance.  "One executive who has had dealings with [Williams] refers to him in extremely unflattering terms.  Another says, 'He's not a very nice young man.'"  We are, of course, never told who the unnamed critics are, nor are the criticisms put in any context.  Is Williams an unpleasant person?  A hard negotiator?  A driven, hands-on micromanager of his own show?  Your guess is as good as mine.

I'm not a fan of this kind of faceless, nameless attack, but one reads it week after week in the TV Guides of the 60s. A story about insecure Gene Barry, a score-evening profile of David Susskind, a hatchet job on Patty Duke - it's almost as if the magazine. desperate to distinguish itself from the fan magazines of the era, bends over backwards to tear down every star it profiles.  Now, these comments could be from someone with a score to settle: a jealous co-worker, a disgruntled former employee, a frustrated publicist.  They might be completely true, or a bushel of lies, or something in-between.  We could be seeing one side of the story with two sides, or we could learn what everyone in Hollywood already knows.

The point is, I don't much like writers who repeat anonymous comments without providing context.  I don't think it's good journalism.  I'm not suggesting all TV Guide profiles should be puff pieces; that's just as bad, and it's terrible to read.  But a journalist should demand more of his sources - he should challenge them just as much as he does his subject.  If what they have to say is reliable, if he's satisfied himself that their comments have merit, if he can give a positive answer to the question "Do my readers need to know this?" then by all means go ahead.  But if that's the case, then give your readers that same satisfaction.  Otherwise, I'm going to think your source is just nursing a grudge - and you're just a lazy writer.

***

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: Scheduled guests: Victor Borge; Steve Allen; comedian Jackie Vernon; the Israeli Ballet; the Dave Clark Five, British rock 'n' rollers; comedians Rowan and Martin; the Mattison dance trio; and John's balancing act.

Palace: Host George Burns welcomes Connie Stevens, his co-star on "Wendy and Me"; singer Wayne Newton; the Greenwood County Singers; impressionist Rich Little; the Zacchinis, human cannonballs; illusionist Prassana Rao; and the Ganoas, Mexican trampolinists.

Following up on that point from last week's Dean Martin piece: if it is true that 1965 is the representative year of the 60s, one can see it right here in this week's Sullivan show.  Victor Borge had been around (and very funny) for years; Steve Allen was also a TV veteran, but one who'd shown an ability to adapt to the times.  Jackie Vernon was a classic nightclub comedian (as well as the future voice of Frosty the Snowman); Rowan and Martin would in a few short years be part of the progressive TV future with Laugh In, and the Dave Clark Five were a prime example of the state of rock music, as the breeziness of The Beatles transitions to the harder sound of the Stones.*  I can't speak for the success of John's balancing act.  (And who is John, by the way?)

*A website that lists the Dave Clark Five's appearances on the Sullivan show says that Steve Lawrence was also on this show, and does not mention Steve Allen.  Either TV Guide got the wrong Steve, or the website did (although the songs they list for Lawrence aren't the kind you'd expect to hear from Allen), or both were on the show but Allen didn't sing any numbers.

You see this to a lesser extent in Palace - Burns the old-time star trying to recapture the magic with the new generation, Connie Stevens taking the place of Gracie Allen; Wayne Newton, the youngster singing the old-time songs, and Rich Little, part of the new breed with the politically sharp humor.   But unless Little can impersonate two or three more big-name guests, this one goes to Sullivan.

***

These United Nations dramas just seem to keep popping up.  You'll recall my article from a few years ago on the series of four dramas designed to educate the public on the activities of the United Nations; the first drama in the series, Carol for Another Christmas, broadcast in December 1964, was reviewed here.

Well, now, in February 1965, ABC airs the second installment: Who Has Seen the Wind?  Like Carol, it boasts an all-star cast, including Edward G. Robinson, Maria Schell, and Theodore Bikel; an original story, by Pulitzer Prize-winner Tad Mosel, adapted by Oscar and Emmy nominee Don Mankiewicz (nephew of Joseph L.); costumes by Oscar-winner Edith Head; and produced and directed by George Sidney, who had cut his teeth on Our Gang comedies before going on to such classic musicals as Anchors Aweigh, Show Boat and Bye Bye Birdie.  Like Carol, it's presented without commercial interruption and sponsored by Xerox.

Who Has Seen the Wind? was more successful, or at least not as heavy-handed a mess, compared to Carol.  The Los Angeles Times called it “better than [the] first,” and the Lima (OH) News named it the night’s “Best Bet” and pronounced it “an extraordinary television film.” On the other hand, to The New York Times it was a “soap opera at sea,” a “waste of [the actors’] artistry.” Oh well, you can't please everyone.

***

Want some more politics?  Earlier that week (Monday, to be precise) on the same network, Dinah Shore hosts a musical salute to the Peace Corps, with Harry Belafonte and Peace Corps Director Sargent Shriver. You think I'm kidding, right? Well, here's proof:


According to newspaper accounts, there were about 100 Peace Corps volunteers in the audience along with Shriver, preparing to head for Uganda and Kenya.  However, aside from a cringe-worthy opening in which Shore sang "Getting to Know You" while shaking hands with members of the audience, the show was apparently pretty good.  UPI correspondent Rick Du Brow called it a "so-easy, so-relaxed, so-expert" evening, and that the stars were able to concentrate on the job at hand "without too many pitches for the corps."  Significantly, the show was featured "a minimum of heavy-handed idealistic talk (thank heaven no one thought of calling Abby Mann to write the script)."  That, of course, might have been even worse than Carol for Another Christmas.  

Which just goes to show that Samuel Goldwyn was on to something when he famously said, "If you want to send a message, call Western Union." "Message" shows like this one and the UN series go a lot farther if you take it easy on the message and emphasize the entertainment.  Nobody likes to be preached to, but everyone likes to be entertained.*

*Well, almost everyone.  I'm sure I have to put that disclaimer in somewhere.  By the way, some of you youngsters might be too young to remember what Western Union was.  They sent something called "telegrams."  Think of them as emails printed on paper, sent by an intermediary who'd charge you for them by the word, which could result in some pretty fragmented speech, generally without conjunctions or articles.


***

Had enough politics?  How about we through Pope Pius XII into the mix?  Though he died in 1958, Pius remains a controversial historical figure.  Did he do enough to save the Jews during the Holocaust?  Was he, as one author referred to him, "Hitler's Pope"?  Or was he a man of heroic virtue, arch foe of the Nazis, who in fact did everything he could to save the lives of the Jews?

The controversy about Pius was largely absent during his lifetime, largely gaining traction following the staging of Rolf Hochhuth's 1963 play The Deputy, which suggested that Pius was too timid to speak out publicly against the Nazis.  Evidence suggests* that Hochhuth's play was financed and promoted by the KGB as part of a Kremlin disinformation plot against the Vatican.  I myself hold to this position, and believe Pius to be the victim of a wholesale character assassination.  However, this is neither the time nor the place to debate the issue, nor do I bring it up for this reason.

*Full disclosure: the author of the piece, Fr. Welzbacher, is my former pastor.

Regardless, in 1965 the public perception of Pius was still largely positive, as witnessed by Tuesday night's episode of Biography on KCMT Channel 7narrated by Mike Wallace, in which Pius is presented as a man who "dedicated his life to peace and denounced tyranny and religious persecution."

This early Biography series was produced by master documentarian David L. Wolper and ran for three seasons in the early 60s before going into a seemingly endless series of syndicated reruns.  It was a popular film in schools (I sat through more than one in my days), and eventually wound up on A&E, where many additional episodes were produced (though without Wallace; the most popular narrator was Peter Graves), and was eventually spun off into the Biography channel, which may or may not still show biographies.

***

A few weeks ago I'd noted in passing how there were so many more soap operas on TV in the 60s than there are today.  (I don't think that's giving away any state secrets.)  But it's interesting how some of them even have episode write-ups, which I'd think would be very unusual for a soap since they always tried to keep you tuned in to see what happens next.

Moment of Truth (NBC): Nancy's sister and niece arrive unexpectedly.
Flame in the Wind (ABC): Jason's maneuvering brings unusual results. (Live)
The Doctors (NBC): Matt's actions have a surprising effect on Maggie and Kurt. (Live)
Day in Court (ABC): A five-part story begins today when a woman seeks to have her husband committed.

Granted, with the possible exception of The Doctors, none of these are the biggest soapers, so this could have represented an effort to drum up an audience.  But, looking through the entire week's listings, there's nothing in any of these write-ups that would seem to give anything away or tip off viewers as to what happens next, so I guess the key element of surprise is retained.*

*In other words, we don't learn that "Joan has shocking news for Martin" on Monday, and "After telling Martin she's pregnant, Joan runs away with Jeff" on Friday.

Of course, we know that soap operas used to be done live; after all, it's because As the World Turns was being taped for rebroadcast in the Pacific time zone that we have CBS' first bulletin on JFK's assassination.  But as late as 1965, we still have at least two being shot live.  I wonder how long it was before they all went to video tape?  I'm sure there's someone out there who knows.  And, aside from some variety shows, were these the last regularly scheduled series to be done live?

***

On Saturday evening ABC has a David L. Wolper documentary entitled "The Way-Out Men."  Sounds vaguely psychedelic, doesn't it?  In fact, it has to do with "[t]oday's scientific theorists, researchers and other inquiring men [who] are testing theories and ideas that are 'way out'."  Probably the best-known featured was the famed heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey, who'd recently operated on the Duke of Windsor. However, for my money, the most interesting was probably Dr. James V. McConnell.  Here he's profiled for his work on "the chemistry of memory," but that doesn't begin to scratch the surface.

His original research involved memory transfer among flatworms that had been trained to respond to external stimulus - bright lights and electric shocks.  The flatworms were subsequently cut up and fed to other flatworms; the second group of flatworms, McConnell contended, responded to the same stimuli more quickly than flatworms not part of the experiment.  McConnell called this memory RNA, but when subsequent experiments by other researchers failed to duplicate his results, buzz on the theory faded away.

It may well have been his research on human behavioral modification that attracted the attention in 1985 of Ted Kaczynski, aka The Unabomber.  Kaczynski sent a bomb, disguised as a manuscript, to McConnell's office; the resulting explosion caused hearing loss.

But on a more pleasant note, McConnell was also known for his quirky sense of humor, beginning a magazine called The Worm-Runner's Digest featuring flatworm-themed satirical articles - because, supposedly, readers couldn't tell the difference between the serious and satirical articles that appeared in his other journal, The Journal of Biological Psychology.  And you know how much of a sucker I am for flatworm humor.  I wonder if Wolper covered any of that in his documentary?

February 7, 2013

Around the Dial

Many of this week's links can be found at the Classic TV Variety Show Blogathon, but that doesn't mean there aren't other good things out there:

It's not exactly part of the classic TV genre, but soccer fans (like me) have been all abuzz about the news (h/t Awful Announcing) that Fox is grooming Gus Johnson to take over as the networks' voice of the 2018 World Cup.  Now, I'm inclined to like Johnson, and I think there's every chance that he could turn out to be a pretty good soccer announcer.  On the other hand, as a fan of dependable British announcers like Martin Tyler, Ian Darke and Jon Champion, I'm also apprehensive about this.  But that World Cup is five years away (ESPN and ABC still have next year's edition), and I'm just hoping I'll be around then.  At any rate, we'll get some idea of how this work in progress is going when Johnson calls the upcoming Champions League final, as well as some Premier League matches.

TV Obscurities reviews the latest episode of PBS’ Pioneers of Primetime and finds it the best of the season, so far.  I watched the first two seasons of this series, spending about as much time complaining about it as I did enjoying it, so I decided to take a flyer on this third season, and from what I’ve read here, I don’t think I’m missing anything. My main bone to pick has always been that the producers of this series have a very unique definition of the word “Pioneers” that emphasizes programs from the 70s and 80s, rather than the dawn of TV..

Look, I get it that much of the video from the truly “pioneering” shows in TV’s history are gone forever. I know that for many people today, shows from the 80s are part of ancient history. And I understand that television is a visual medium and that, when you’re making a TV series, the emphasis is going to be on moving pictures. But this show has long been guilty of ignoring TV’s rich past in favor of the more recent (and accessible). I mean, how can you virtually ignore Peyton Place in any discussion about soaps in primetime? Dallas and Dynasty were megahits, and perhaps they changed the definition of prime time soaps, raising the bar forever. But that’s not quite the same thing as being a “pioneer,” is it?

If producers can get the footage, they should use it. If they can’t, then they should show still photos, interview people who where there, show how the old shows influenced the new. Either that, or change the name from Pioneers of Primetime to something more accurate. 

The original Saturday Night Live? Try Your Show of Shows, with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. Now that’s what being a pioneer is all about!

February 3, 2013

The Dean Martin Show (1965-1974)

I was always a Jerry Lewis fan, so if I had to choose between Martin and Lewis, I would have chosen Lewis. But I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Dean Martin, primarily because of my mother. She had been quite ill in the mid 60s, and she told me once that during that illness, the Dean Martin Show was the only TV show she enjoyed, the only one that made her laugh, and that she had regretted not sending him a letter telling him about that – he did, after all, end each show by urging his viewers to “keep those cards and letters coming in.”

I don’t know whether or not that letter would have reached Dean, or if it would have meant anything to him if it did. It’s a moot point now, of course; both he and my mother have been dead for many years. But it did teach me a couple of things: first, you should never hesitate to let someone know when they’ve made an impact in your life. The people you think are most inaccessible may well be the ones who most need to hear from you. And second, that Dean Martin was an entertainer worth appreciating.

At one point in 1967, Dean Martin was the highest paid entertainer in show business. His show had just been renewed by NBC for not one but three years, at a cost (to the network) of $34 million. Added to the $5 million that Dean was already making*, the man they called the “King of Cool” was sitting pretty.

*$750,000 each for three movies (not including his share of the profits), $825,000 for his records, $150,000 for three weeks at the Sands Hotel, and $2 million for the past season of the show.

It hadn’t always been this way. After the tumultuous breakup of Martin and Lewis, Dean had watched as Jerry made it big with a string of solo movies. Martin’s movie career, by contrast, laid an egg - a bomb called 10,000 Bedrooms. He’d received $250,000 for that movie, but that wouldn’t do him much good if he wasn’t able to turn things around. That turning point came with a dramatic role in the movie The Young Lions, which Martin eagerly accepted even though it paid him almost $200,000 less than he’d received for 10,000 Bedrooms. He then followed up with his own string of hits – Rio Bravo and Some Came Running – and all of a sudden Dean Martin was hot stuff again.

The Dean Martin Show began in 1965, and Martin’s easygoing style made the show an instant success.  In retrospect Dean seems a natural for his own variety show.  There was only one problem - doing a weekly series would be too much like work.  "I only left the house four times last year and made a million dollars," Dean joked, and between the movies and the records, who needed work?  William Harbach, producer of ABC’s Hollywood Palace, tells Kliph Nesteroff a wonderful story about trying to get Martin to host an episode of Palace (prior to the NBC series) that illustrates precisely Deano’s style, and the appeal it had for viewers:

One of the guys that Nick [Vanoff, Harbach's partner on Palace] and I wanted on the show because he belonged on the show was Dean Martin. He didn't want to do it. We asked him several times. He always said no. Finally I said to Nick, "What if we ask him twenty minutes before the taping?" All he has to do is go to the dressing room, put on his dinner jacket and look at the cue cards to see if he wants anything changed. He'll just do the show and go right back to the golf course. No rehearsal, just bang. We asked him and he said, "Yeah, I'll do that if I don't have to do any goddamn rehearsal."

When NBC approached Martin for a weekly series, he exhibited the same lack of interest.  Still, they pressed, so he gave them his terms.  He knew they'd never accept them - he wanted a lot of money, and only wanted to show up for the actual taping - no rehearsal.  They said yes anyway.  He told his family, "They went for it. So now I have to do it."

There's no question that Martin's laid-back attitude was one of the show's major selling points.  It was Dean the way people wanted to see him - dressed in a tux with a red pocket hanky, cigarette in one hand, drink in the other, so relaxed you wondered how he could stand up.  Martin didn't put on airs, and that's why people loved him.  He'd enter the show running down stairs, or sliding down a pole, making it all look cool. He was just himself - to be anyone else would have required too much work.

But really - you don't want to read someone writing about Dean Martin.  Not when you can actually watch him, right?

This skit with Jonathan Winters is one of my favorites; it's a great example of how Dean's lack of rehearsal made the show that much funnier.  Of course, nobody could really prepare for Jonathan Winters.


Here's a similar sketch from a few years later.  Look at how Martin replies to Winters' "I just buried my brother" line - he has this wonderful "Did I just say that?" reaction.  That's what made Dean Martin cool.*


*Notice how Dean's always playing himself in these bits?  He doesn't bother to change into something that might be more "suitable" for the sketch.  I mean, when was the last time you sat next to someone in an airplane wearing a tux?

And here's Bob Newhart, reprising one of his famous monologues with Dean as his foil.  I don't know about you, but I've never had someone that well-dressed wait on me in a department store.


Don't think that it was all just comedy, though: Martin had some of the business' greatest entertainers as guests.  Here he is with the great Ella Fitzgerald.


And another medley - this one with Bing Crosby.


One of the highlights of each show was his banter with longtime accompanies Ken Lane.


Of course, things weren't always as they appeared:


And it's also true you never knew just who might show up.


The Dean Martin Show ran until 1974 - when the very format of variety shows was on life support.  By then the "Celebrity Roast" feature had taken over, and it was in that format that the show would continue, as a series of specials, for another few years.  I prefer to forget about those years; you don't see the real Dean there.  By then his drunk act had become dominant, almost forced.  The easy charm of the early days was gone, and soon Dean would be as well.

The decade of the 60s, for all its fame, is difficult to pigeonhole. It began as a continuation of the 50s, in style and substance, and at the moment it seemed poised to morph into something new – modern, streamlined, space-aged – it all came to an end on a street in Dallas. By the end of the decade it had become something else entirely, a cultural French Revolution, awash in libertines and protestors and druggies, which would continue into the early part of the 70s.

One could say, then, that the identity of the 60s rests between two bookend decades, beginning like the 50s and ending like the 70s, with perhaps two or three years in the middle which it could call its own. In that sense, you could argue that 1965 was the model year of the 60s, the year that the decade might, under other circumstances, have most resembled. The drive to the moon was in full swing, the surging tumult hadn’t yet boiled over, the war still garnered widespread support.

It was then that Dean Martin’s show premiered, and I would suggest it serves as the perfect bridge to connect the times. Watching the show’s progression through the years, one sees sideburns grow longer while skirts grow shorter, pop standards mixing with rock (and more than one artist painfully trying to remain relevant), and the devil-may-care attitude of the Rat Pack sliding into the hedonistic end of the decade.  We can see it all, the end of one era and the beginning of another.

When Martin hosted the Hollywood Palace back in June of 1964 he made a comment that, I think, illustrates his ability to live in both these eras.  Introducing the Rolling Stones, a group he may or may not have ever heard of, he commented that "I've been rolled while I was stoned myself."  He could just as easily have said that in 1974, and he would have been just as much at home saying it.

Ah, Deano - there'll never be another one like him.

***

Just a reminder that today's the first day of the Classic TV Blog Association's variety show blogathon.  It should be a lot of fun, with some great bloggers writing about some classic shows.  Here's the schedule for the rest of the week.

Sunday, Feb 3 
The Judy Garland Show - How Sweet It Was
The Flip Wilson Show - Outspoken & Freckled
The Muppet Show - TV Gems

Monday, Feb 4
The Jerry Lewis Show - Thrilling Days of Yesteryear
The Brady Bunch Hour - Michael's TV Tray
The Frank Sinatra Show (Christmas episode) - Christmas TV History
Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell - Classic TV Sports and Media

Tuesday, Feb 5
The Paul Lynde Halloween Special - Made for TV Mayhem
The Carol Burnett Show - ClassicBecky's Brain Food
Shindig! - Classic Film & TV Cafe

Be sure to check them out!

February 2, 2013

This week in TV Guide: February 4, 1984

We've skipped ahead twenty years from last week's issue, to another Olympics preview - the XIV Winter Olympiad, in perhaps the most tragic city ever to host the games.

The '84 Games were the first Winter Olympics to be held in a Communist country, Yugoslavia.  At the time Sarajevo was known primarily as the site of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the event that triggered World War I.  Fresh off of its triumphant coverage of the Lake Placid games, ABC presented what was then a record 63½ hours of coverage for the 14 days*. As was the case in 1980, we see the coverage dominating ABC's prime-time schedule, covering anywhere from 2 to 4½ hours each night, with a 30 minute review after the late local news. It's interesting that ABC feels the need to point out that most of the coverage will be on a tape-delay basis, viewers having been spoiled by all the live coverage from Lake Placid (not including the US - USSR hockey game, of course).

*This was the last Winter Olympics to start in mid-week; in 1988 the Calgary games would begin on Saturday, and since then the start has been moved to Friday in order to accommodate a prime-time opening.  ABC's coverage actually started the night before, on Tuesday, with the first round of the hockey tournament.


The Opening Ceremonies, Kosevo Stadium
Questions abounded: would the hockey team be able to repeat its memorable gold medal-winning 1980 run?    (Not hardly; they managed to defeat Poland 7-4 in the seventh-place game.)  Would the speed skaters duplicate the amazing Eric Heiden's five gold medals?  (Not quite - no medals at all, actually.)  Would the Mahre brothers come through in the alpine events?  (Yes; Phil won gold and Steve silver in the slalom.)  And would there be another American star born in Sarajevo?  (I'd nominate Bill Johnson, the downhill gold medalist.)

It was a great show; everyone agreed that Wednesday afternoon's Opening Ceremonies were charming, capturing the spirit and culture of Sarajevo.  As the flag was passed to Calgary for 1988, everyone agreed that the Canadians would have a hard act to follow.

The bobsled run became a mortar launching pad
Fast forward to 1994. Kosevo Stadium, the site of the Opening Ceremonies, is riddled with holes from howitzer shells and snipers' bullets, and a graveyard lies not far away. The bobsled run has been turned into an artillery position from which rebel forces can shell the city. The men’s downhill ski area is now a UN buffer, and the steps on the medal presentation stand are being used for executions. Zetra Stadium, home of the figure skating, was blown up a few years ago, and now serves as a base for French UN troops.  Maps that used to direct tourists to various Olympic venues are now used by journalists as military battle maps.

The civil war that gutted Yugoslavia in the 90s killed nearly 150,000 people, and resulted in hundreds of thousands of refugees and the breakup of the country itself.*  The siege of Sarajevo, which lasted nearly four years, killed over 11,000 people, including 1,500 children.  Reminders of the 1984 games are few and far between, even as the city (now the capital of Boznia and Herzegovina) is well on the way to rebuilding.  Some civic leaders even speak of the hope that they might once again host the Olympics.  That, indeed, would be a miracle.

The stand for medal ceremonies: an execution site
*Making this the only Olympic Games to be held in a country that no longer exists, if one discounts the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, West Germany.  I don't think the reunification of a country is quite the same as the dissolution of one, myself.

One of the most memorable quotes about Sarajevo came in a Sports Illustrated article written during the height of the war.  Skier Jure Franko, who carried Yugoslavia's flag in the Opening Ceremonies and went on to win silver in the giant slalom, speaks bitterly about Sarajevo ten years later:

"As many positive feelings as I had then, that's how many negative feelings I have now. For me to know that the people who surrounded me with such love, the same people who surrounded all the athletes with such love, who wrapped the entire Olympic Village in all possible warm feelings...to know that they are now trying to kill each other is basically unthinkable. Eighty, maybe 90 percent of the people dying now in Sarajevo have absolutely nothing to do with the war. They die when they go to get bread or a bucket of water. They are innocent."

It puts the "warfare" of modern athletic competition in perspective a bit, don't you think?

***

I don't know about you, but these 1980s TV Guides really don't do much for me.  But that just means I have to work a little harder to find something of interest, and hard work is good for you.  Isn't it?

How about Barbara Walters?  Her Monday night interview special features Mr. T. ("Is he as mean as he looks?  Is anybody?"), Ester Williams ("The movie queen of the 50s dove out of stardom, into marriage.  Any regrets?") and Howard Cosell ""Why does he think people love to hate him?").  No word on whether or not she asked any of them what kind of tree they would be.

It's also a pretty good movie week, with a number of top theatrical flicks making their network debuts.  Three alone come from 1981: Chariots of Fire, the Oscar winner for Best Picture, premieres on Sunday night on CBS.  Its Oscar rival, On Golden Pond, makes its own bow 30 minutes later on NBC  And a third, Dudley Moore's Arthur, hits the airwaves on Monday, courtesy of ABC.  But if you want to watch that one, you're going to have to skip Little House: The Last Farewell on NBC.  Tough call, isn't it?

There's plenty of sports to choose from, mostly for college basketball fans.  I count ten games on Saturday alone, and - this is the important part - only two of them are exclusively on cable.  ESPN has those, while the rest of them are either network, syndication, or a syndication/ESPN pairing.  If you don't like roundball, there's other stuff: bowling and boxing on ABC, the 24 Hours of Daytona on TBS, the Bing Crosby Pro-Am on CBS, the NHL on USA.

***

You might notice that some cable stations have started to creep into our discussion.  It's not much, but we are seeing some of the mainstream networks being featured in the programming grids - A&E, ESPN, HBO, Nick, Showtime, TBS, TMC, USA and WGN.  Of these, I'd say that A&E has undergone the most dramatic change over time.  It's still only a part-time station, starting its broadcasting day at 8pm ET, known as "Arts & Entertainment" and listed in the programming grid as "ART", and that's where the focus is.  A selection of typical shows: Dudley Moore in concert with the San Francisco Symphony, the hilarious British sitcom Yes, Minister, a profile of the painter Andrew Wyeth, and a program by the Allen Ailey American Dance Theater.  Is all of this to my interest?  No, of course not.  But for anyone interested in the arts, there's going to be something there - and it's not likely you're going to find this kind of programming anywhere else.

Indeed, today you won't even find it on A&E.  Hell, the network doesn't even have the words "Arts" and "Entertainment" as part of their name.  Today's A&E is dominated by various reality shows.  Now, my inclination is that the letters A and E ought to stand for "Artless" and "Embarrassing", but I haven't watched it in many years, so I can't really say for sure.  Any of you out there care to chip in?

***

CBS must really be banking on the success of two of its mid-season replacement shows.  It has full-page ads for Airwolf and Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer.  That's something else I've noticed about this issue: it's very busy.  Every page seems to have a half- or quarter-sized ad for something or other, and there are more than a few pages that only have ads.  And there's very cluttered ads as well, filled with explosive ads and garish images, fairly shouting off the page.  Between that and the newly introduced prime-time programming grid, not to mention the added cable stations, there's less and less room for the programs themselves.


And that's why it's so hard to "read" a TV Guide from this era.  When you pick up a coffee-table book of photographs, you don't think of yourself as "reading" it; you leaf through it, browse the pages, scan the contents.  (Probably the only picture publication anyone reads is Playboy, where the "reading" is sure to be in quotes.)  Same here - there's so much visual overload, you can't really do anything more than flip through it.  Maybe there's something worth watching buried somewhere in this mess, maybe there isn't.  And that's change; times are different.  More networks, more shows, more choice than back in the 60s.

I wonder how I felt about it at the time.  Did I notice?  Would I have made the same complaints that I'm making now?  Perhaps; probably, if I'm truthful about it.  After all, I was weaned on what to expect from reading those old TV Guides, that had such a different look and feel to them.  I remember being disappointed with TV Guide's redesign at the end of 1969 - it its attempt to look modern and updated I thought it was too sparse, too insignificant, not special enough.  Compared to the clutter of the 80s, though, I might be inclined to give them a break.  It's true that I love TV, but as one of our great TV heroes, Captain Kirk, once said, "Too much of anything, even love, isn't necessarily a good thing."


Come back tomorrow for a special version of the Tuesday essay, as the Classic TV Blog Association kicks off the Variety Show Blogathon with "The Dean Martin Show"