July 30, 2013

My (sort of) top 25 shows

Regular reader Don M., from my old home town of Richfield, MN, asks if I've ever considered posting a list of my top 25 television shows - series that not only count as personal favorites, but that others might enjoy discovering as well.

Well, proving that great minds think alike, I'd been pondering something like this for some time: a kind of memoir "as seen on TV," if you will. For it's undeniable that television has played a significant role in my life (if you haven't gathered that by now), and the shows I've watched probably can tell you more about me than I'd ever willingly disclose. So there was an idea: tell my life's story through the show's I've watched. See what it is that made me tick, formed my thinking, reflected something significant about my character and personality.

That's how I'd look at it, anyway.

Most people will probably read it and think, "Man, that guy likes some really stupid shows."

Over the course of the next two or three months I'll share with you the ten shows that I'd consider the most personally significant to me. They're not necessarily what I consider the ten "best" shows - having, for example, The Alvin Show on the list doesn't necessarily mean I consider it better than, say, Rocky and Bullwinkile - it just means I might have a very personal connection with Alvin, one that describes me better than Rocky. If that makes any sense.

Today, however, I'd like to list the "best of the rest" - numbers 11 through 25 on the list. I don't like the term "honorable mention," because most of them are better than that. They're shows I own on DVD or catch whenever they're on, shows I can watch more than once, shows that give me pleasure and enjoyment, shows I'm happy to share with others. Failing to mention them simply because they didn't make the "top ten" would not only be an injustice, it would present an incomplete picture of my TV likes and dislikes.*

*Does this mean a list of "bottom ten" might be in store? Until I typed that last sentence I hadn't considered it, but maybe I should. One thing about 10-worst lists, though: you make a lot more enemies.

I don't try to rank the "top ten," and I'm not going to do that with these, either. In the manner of Burke's Law, they're presented to you in alphabetical order. Let this be the start of a discussion on the topic. Agree? Disagree? Feel free to share your own favorites, and at the end we'll compare notes.

The Best of the Rest
11. The Avengers
12. Blackadder (particularly the last three series)
13. Burke’s Law
14. Columbo
15. The F.B.I.
16. M Squad
17. Masterpiece Theatre/Mystery*:
      a. I, Claudius
      b. Inspector Morse/Inspector Lewis
      c. Foyle’s War
      d. Poirot
      e. Wallander 
18. Mission: Impossible
19. Police Squad!
20. Rocky and Bullwinkle
21. The Rogues
22. The Saint
23. SCTV
24. Twin Peaks (especially the first season)
25. The Untouchables

*Yes, I know I cheated a bit by lumping in six series under Masterpiece, but it's my blog, and I get to set my rules.

Honorable Mention*
Hawaii Five-O (the original), Peter GunnRoute 66Top Cat, Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister

*Because 25 apparently isn't enough.

Tune in next Tuesday (barring any breaking news) for the first of the ten series that make up my TV bio.  Be here - aloha.

July 26, 2013

This week in TV Guide: July 26, 1958

The Millionaire, which ran on CBS for five seasons between 1955 and 1960, was a terrific idea for a TV series – a simple, straightforward concept offering a tantalizing and provocative premise with which virtually every viewer could identify. It’s also a prime candidate for a look at, in the immortal words of Paul Harvey, “the rest of the story.”

The Millionaire starred Marvin Miller as Michael Anthony, executive secretary to the mysterious multimillionaire John Beresford Tipton, Jr. Tipton remained an unseen presence throughout the series, his voice provided by veteran voice artist Paul Frees – the only part of him ever seen was his left arm, which he used to hand to Anthony a cashier’s check for one million dollars, along with instructions as to whom the money should be given. The rest of each episode played out as an anthology, as we follow the story of the beneficiaries and how the sudden wealth affects their lives.

It’s really kind of a cool idea, not unlike Fantasy Island I suppose, in that people are given the chance to experience a dramatic change in life and in the process discover the kind of stuff of which they’re made– sometimes it’s good, sometimes not so good. And, like the enigmatic Mr. Roarke, it makes you want to know more about this John Beresford Tipton.

Tipton gets ready to hand Anthony yet another million
We never know how he chooses his beneficiaries or what motivates him, save a comment in the opening episode that his goal was to set up a kind of chess game, using human beings as the pieces. So apparently Tipton has something of a God complex about him, or perhaps it’s more as if he were a scientist conducting experiments on human lab rats. Either way, there’s something somewhat disturbing about the whole idea of people being playthings of the rich (Brewster's Millions, anyone?), and one thinks that Tipton’s backstory might have made for interesting viewing itself.

I wonder, though, if The Millionaire is so much a product of its time that it couldn’t be made today. For example, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? notwithstanding, a million dollars doesn’t really go all that far anymore* (as Dr. Evil found out), which makes the show’s premise a charming artifact. To put in perspective, one million dollars in 1955 would, factored for inflation, have the buying power of $8,712,835.82 today. And then there’s the question of where the money comes from: I don’t know about you, but I might be slightly paranoid about accepting almost nine million dollars from a total stranger. Suppose I’m being sucked into some kind of money-laundering scheme? And wouldn’t that kind of sudden wealth attract the attention of the government, regardless of the tax consequences? Frankly, I’d probably suspect the whole thing of being like one of those African bank email scams.

*Even though Tipton had already taken care of the taxes for each beneficiary, which would have been quite a chunk of change itself.

Probably the best chance for a revival would have been to base the whole thing around winning a lottery, which has been done several times (Lottery, Sweepstakes, Windfall) without any great success. I think the problem there, though, is that with the lottery, we know where the money comes from – the government, in the form of ticket-buying suckers like you and me. With The Millionaire, on the other hand, the questions of “who” and “why” loom large over the series, even though the beneficiaries are prohibited from ever attempting to discover the identity of their benefactor.

Regardless, as Marvin Miller and producer Don Fedderson attest in this TV Guide article, The Millionaire is an irresistible premise. Each week Federson gets “scores” of letters from people convinced that Tipton is somehow real, who want to get a piece of the action. And Miller can’t really go anywhere anymore without people jokingly coming up to him and asking where the check is. Which just goes to show that, no matter how, the dream of instant wealth is alive and well.

***

In the category of “unfortunate use of words,” the top of this week’s cover bears the teaser, “How ‘Twenty One’ Rehearses Its Show.” It’s unfortunate because, in less than one month, the Quiz Show Scandal is about to burst into full view of the public, with Twenty One being at the center of the storm.

The article itself is pretty innocuous – telling of how host Jack Barry and the evening’s contestants run through their marks, testing microphone settings and camera angles, making sure the participants are comfortable with the setup. It’s an interesting behind-the-scenes look at a television show, which must have seemed quite the exotic thing back in 1958. Of course, looking back on it in context, the headline itself is the payoff – I mean, I bought this issue for that alone, without even caring about the rest of the contents. It’s the kind of thing you just can’t make up.

The most famous winner on Twenty One was Charles Van Doren, who parlayed his death struggle with Herb Stempel into a lot of money and a co-hosting gig on the Today show. I was hoping, in fact, that one of Today’s listings for the week would have included Van Doren’s name – but then, that would have been just too perfect, wouldn’t it? Sort of like winning a million dollars.

***

It’s always interesting to see how different things were in the 1950s compared to even five or six years later. For example, programming is all over the map. Yes, most of the affiliates in this issue adhere to network scheduling, but not all, and not all the time. And with the proliferation of syndicated shows such as Sea Hunt and Highway Patrol, not to mention the increasing availability of reruns due to the advent of tape, the local TV station has more options than ever.

For example: What’s My Line? has been a mainstay of the CBS Sunday night schedule since 1950. It’s broadcast live, every week, at 9:30pm Central, and will continue to be for the next nine years. And yet of the three CBS affiliates in this issue – WCCO in Minneapolis-St. Paul, KDAL in Duluth, and KXJB in Fargo – only WCCO carries the show in its live timeslot. (KDAL opts for the syndicated Mike Hammer, while KXJB offers a rerun of The Honeymooners.) My wife tells me that when she was growing up, her mother refused to watch What's My Line?, believing that it was too upper class and monied.* I wonder if that had anything to do with it - that it appealed to the wrong demographic?

*"Hoity-toity" was, I believe, the word she used for it.

I'm also amused by the future-tense grammar that TV Guide uses when writing about live events. For instance, Channel 4 presents a program of auto racing from a local race track. Per TV Guide, "Stock car races from Raceway Park in Shakopee, Minn., will be shown. Stew Reamer will report."* Okay.

*I've been to Raceway Park, by the way - it's still around. A lot of fun to watch races there. TV Guide misspelled Shakopee - according to them, it's "Shapokee." Good thing I new better.

Perhaps thinking that King
Arthur's no Doctor
Some other odds and ends for the week, some of which might be thought of as a preview of coming attractions. On Channel 11 at 5pm Tuesday afternoons, there's Sir Lancelot, starring William Russell - who would go on to great and lasting fame as Ian Chesterton, part of the original TARDIS crew of Doctor Who. Later that night, on a highlights edition of CBS' Name That Tune, the young Eddie Hodges is shown with his partner - Marine Colonel John Glenn - as they team up to win $25,000. That was often mentioned in stories after Glenn's selection as an astronaut. And on Monday at 10:30am, NBC debuts a new game show: Concentration. It does pretty well for itself, running until March of 1973. Hugh Downs hosts, while he's still doing double-duty as Jack Paar's sidekick. After that gig, he'll move to the morning as host of the Today show. Without Charles Van Doren.

Speaking of Paar, Monday's show is on location in Havanna, Cuba. Less than six months later, the country will have fallen to the Communists, and later Paar will try to arrange a swap of tractors for prisoners of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. I wonder if this is the only case of a network talk show originating from a country in the middle of a violent revolution?  And on Tuesday, Jack celebrates his first anniversary as host of Tonight.  He'll be the host for five years, moving to prime time in 1962 and ceding the seat to Johnny Carson.

Jim McKay - spanning
the courtroom
At 7:30 on Thursday evening, CBS presents The Verdict is Yours, a series of courtroom reenactments with actors portraying the actual participants. The court reporter in the series: a young Jim McKay, still a few years from the Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat. And at the same time, but on Tuesday night, ABC carries The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, starring Hugh O'Brian. A note after the listing teases an article in next week's TV Guide on O'Brian's efforts to get out of his Earp contract. Must not have worked; the show continues to run successfully until 1961.

Here's the kind of thing you don't see anymore: Lawrence Welk, star of the hit ABC series, will be in the Twin Cities August 5, and will be greeted by a parade from the airport to the Channel 11 studios at the Calhoun Beach Hotel. A parade!

And the word parade somehow reminds me of Disneyland. Walt Disney's show hasn't yet moved from ABC to NBC, and it isn't yet broadcast in color. (Hence: it's called Disneyland instead of The Wonderful World of Color.) Wednesday night's episode, "Magic Highway, U.S.A.," explores the roadways of the past, present and future*, but what's interesting about this is not the episode itself, but the ad appearing at the bottom of the page for the latest Disney theatrical presentation, "The Light in the Forest," opening August 1 at the State Theater in Minneapolis. Disney always did know how to use television, and he was the first of the major studio heads to understand how TV, far from being a threat, could be used to further the business. Ads for movies, especially ones starring TV actors, weren't unusual in TV Guide, but I thought this was a nice example of complimentary product placement. I wonder how much Disney had to pay for that?

*Among the predictions for the future: concrete tires on rubber roads, and separate routes for female drivers.

While we're on the subject of color TV as we were a moment ago, we've mentioned in the past that there are few enough shows broadcast in color that TV Guide actually has a special section devoted to listing them, in the same way that they list specials and time changes (and, later on, sports). Not surprisingly, given RCA's role in the whole thing, all the shows this week are on NBC, including a couple of daytime programs (It Could Be You and Haggis Baggis), a trio of prime-time game shows (Tic Tac Dough, The Big Game and The Price Is Right), a few dramas (Noah's Ark, The Investigator and Kraft Mystery Theatre), and some variety shows (Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme, Dinah Shore's Chevy Show, and Bob Crosby's Saturday night turn). Interesting, isn't it, the kinds of shows the network chose to colorcast?

***

Finally, because it's still the summer and there isn't that much else new to report, I thought we'd take a look at a few of the local ads appearing in this week's issue.


You don't see local music shows anymore, except maybe on public access.  This was a late-night show, airing live from 11pm to midnight - probably after some of these musicians had finished their gigs, or perhaps between shows.  Doesn't it look as if they've changed the start time of the show - that they laid that "11:00" over whatever it used to be?  If so, I wonder if it was a longer show before, or shorter?


I do have a fondness for the kids shows that used to be a staple of afternoon local programming - it's the kind of thing I grew up with.  Nonetheless, there is something pretty hokey about this ad, isn't there? Captain Q was played by Jack McKenna, who, like so many kids show hosts, was also a weatherman.  Here's a picture of him doing a weathercast (courtesy this site) - want to guess the era?*


*That collar could have doubled as a cold front milllibar, don't you think?

I dare say that KDAL wouldn't be able to use this ad today.  I don't know enough about the station to figure out the smoke-signal tie-in, unless it was just indicative of the culture of the time, what with Westerns being so popular.  And it's also interesting to think of Monty Hall hosting something other than Let's Make a Deal, isn't it?

The wonderful thing about these ads is that they take us back to an era when local stations had some kind of personality, an identity of their own.  They often created their own ads rather than depending on a generic network ad with a fill-in-the-blank for the station logo, and in fact they also created a lot of their own programming - nowadays, most of that falls into the news category.  There are no local variety shows, no local kids shows, no local talk or public affairs programming other than what you might find in the early morning hours on Sunday, and rarely are there things like hosts of local movies.  (For that matter, many stations don't even show movies anymore.)  KCMT, the infamous Channel 7 to which I often refer, doesn't even exist anymore, and in its last few years it had no local identity at all, simply simulcasting the programming from its parent station, WCCO.

This may or may not give us better programming - a lot of those local shows could be pretty awful - but it's deprived us of much more.  Ernie Kovacs, Ed McMahon, Jim McKay, Dave Garroway - all of them started out in local television, and they just scratch the tip of the iceberg.  We're now a "national" nation rather than a local one, as regional characteristics fade into a kind of bland homogenized culture, and in the long run we're a poorer nation for it. 

July 23, 2013

All the news that's fit to cover

At one of the television discussion boards I frequent, there was a thread last week asking whether or not TV overdid it with the George Zimmerman trial. (Note: this has nothing to do with the merits of the trial itself, or the outcome.) The pretty-much unanimous consensus has been that it did.

At Classic Sports and TV Media, Jeff reminds us that the third round of the 1999* Open Championship was moved from ABC to ESPN due to the former's continuous coverage of the search for the missing John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane.

*Fourteen years ago - can it possibly be that long?

Michael Jackson dies. Whitney Houston dies. Casey Anthony. Jodi Arias. O.J. Simpson. William Kennedy Smith (and the blue dot). Many of us, confronted with nonstop television coverage of these stories, have probably asked the question: is all this really necessary?

Today, of course, the proliferation of 24-hour news channels and 24/7 online access means that every story has the potential of being inflated far beyond its actual importance, as news events become increasingly seen as ratings events rather than legitimate informational coverage. And yet we shouldn't be surprised by it all - from the McCarthy hearings to the Cuban Missile Crisis to the JFK assassination to Watergate, there were people who complained that the continuous coverage wasn't really necessary. Why does every station have to show it, they'd ask.  Especially when nothing's new, nothing's going on.  On occasion networks did rotate coverage, but more often than not all three devoted similar time to saturation coverage.

I was reminded of this recently while reviewing some as-it-happened network news footage of Robert F. Kennedy's funeral. As I'd mentioned before, RFK's death didn't garner the same nonstop coverage of JFK's, yet for Saturday's funeral and burial, the networks turned over total coverage to the drama in New York and Washington. There were some powerful images broadcast that weekend, as captured in this end-of-the-day clip from ABC news, along with the truly stunning news of the capture of Martin Luther King's assassin, James Earl Ray.

And yet, reviewing a mere two hours from one disc, I was struck by how little there was actually happening. Picking up the "action" following the end of the funeral Mass, we see a line of cars moving from St. Patrick's Cathedral to Penn Station for the train trip to Washington. Actually, we see a lot of milling about, as the procession to the station was 45 minutes late. When the cameras shift to the station, we see a lot of dignitaries riding the escalator down to the train. There are more shots of the train. More shots of the people on the escalators. Some shots of them getting on the train. Walter Cronkite identifying the people on the escalators. Cronkite and Hughes Rudd discussing whether or not the final car of the train has a platform on the end. (It did.)

After the train left the station, we had bad ariel shots of the train from an airplane. At least it was supposed to be the train - frequently, all one could see were trees.) Then images from some of the train stations along the train's route - many of these remote shots were in black-and-white. We saw lots of pictures of people looking down the tracks, waiting for the train to come. After it did, we saw some additional pictures of them looking the other way watching the train leave. There were films of the train's route that had evidently been taken earlier in the week, a kind of artist's conception of what was going on during those times when the train was out of camera range. And when the train finally arrived in Washington, over four hours behind schedule, there was more of the same. In between, we got to see Walter Cronkite back in New York, talking in the studio with various guests.

Was all this coverage necessary? My guess is that it wasn't; that following the funeral the networks probably could have resumed their coverage with the arrival in Washington, interspersed with regular updates. Had that happened, though, what would have been aired instead? Were people really in the mood for sporting events, for movies, for comedies and dramas? While the coverage might have been boring, the alternative might equally have been unwanted. What's a network to do?

There was an alternative, of course. People could have simply turned off there televisions. They could have taken a walk and appreciated the miracle of life, they could have gone to church, they could have sat with their family or friends and talked. But for some reason, in situations like this, there's a compulsion to simply watch television. And I'm not pointing fingers here, because when this kind of thing happens (9/11, for example) I'm doing the same thing. It does say something about our culture, however, that in such situations the default setting is to watch television, even if there's nothing going on.

There is, of course, a difference between the death of a president and the death of a singer, between an investigation of the government and the investigation of an accused child killer, between an event that affects the entire world and one that directly impacts very few. But if even important events can become tedious, what about the ones that aren't as important?

Or at least I'd like to think there's a difference between those events. Having established its own importance, television has, over the years, become the arbiter of the newsworthiness of various events. We've been conditioned to understand that if it's on TV, it's important; if not, too bad. In doing so, television helps to shape the national agenda - to determine, as the quaint old phrase used to read, the major issues of the day. It may not have been necessary, it may have been driving a questionable agenda, it may have been overkill to the tenth power. But we watched.

So apparently George Zimmerman's trial was important after all, as were all the other events I discussed above. I didn't know it, but they were. After all, we're the ones who've invested television with the power to decide such things - and if TV says it's so, who are we to disagree?

July 20, 2013

This week in TV Guide: July 21, 1973

Back in the days before the internet, Americans relied on television to give them the information they couldn’t get from their doctors. And what better “virtual” physicians to have than the kindly Marcus Welby and the dedicated Joe Gannon? Muriel Davidson’s cover story shares real-life incidents of lives being saved because of what viewers had seen on their favorite medical shows. A boy in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, administers mouth-to-mouth and heart massage on his asthmatic brother because he’d seen it done on Marcus Welby, M.D.; a man in Springfield, Missouri watching Welby self-diagnoses himself with a bleeding ulcer (he was right); a woman living in Los Angeles sees a man on Medical Center suffering from slurred speech, numb hands, and difficulty seeing – symptoms identical to hers. She tells her doctor she thinks she has M.S., because that’s what the character on Medical Center had. The skeptical doctor runs the tests, which confirm her suspicions. It’s not all WebMD-type diagnoses, though; another Welby episode tells the story of a brain-damaged boy who’s been labeled “slow” – the sensitivity and compassion of the episode produced thousands of letters of commendation.

Doctors caution people not to rely on fictional television stories in place of actual medical care, and point to patients having cancelled scheduled needed surgeries after seeing a Bold Ones episode about an unscrupulous doctor performing unnecessary surgery for profit. The producers of the shows say that their purpose is not to replace doctors, but to provide awareness education for viewers, pointing out potential health concerns or de-stigmatizing others, such as sexually-transmitted diseases.

Ultimately, the money line in the story points to the growing role of television in American society, and its power – at the time – to unify. Says a mother of a child suffering from a similar brain-damaged syndrome, who used the Welby episode to educate teachers and classmates on his condition, “It’s a miracle what can be done when people no longer are alone.”

***

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.

Funny thing about Channel 9, the then-ABC affiliate in MSP. Throughout the sixties and seventies, Channel 9 would show a movie in place of the network’s Friday late-night offering, showing the pre-empted program instead on Sunday after the late local news. Has to do with revenue from those commercials, I know, but it’s still an interesting quirk in KMSP’s programming.*

*They also frequently delayed the Monday through Thursday offering, particularly during the Les Crane and Joey Bishop eras, until after their 10:30 movie.

So even though there wasn’t a Midnight Special-In Concert clash scheduled for this week, we’ll have one anyway, using Channel 9’s Sunday night’s broadcast of last Friday’s episode. Talk about luck!

In Concert: The Guess Who, B.B. King and Melanie perform in this rock concert taped at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Produced by Dick Clark Teleshows, Inc.

Midnight Special: Hostess Dionne Warwicke, with Johnny Mathis, Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, folk singer Leo Kottke, rock group Malo and pop singer Bud Brisbois.

Dionne Warwicke was in her “e” phase in 1973*, and was also making the talk show rounds. Just before this Midnight Special appearance, she’s appearing with guest host Jerry Lewis on the Tonight Show, and – at least on the Special – she’s going with what made her famous: the songs of Burt Bacharach, including 1968’s hit “I Say a Little Prayer.” Johnny Mathis follows with one of his hits, “Killing Me Softly with Her Song.” Throw in the pre-Gambler Kenny Rogers and singer Leo Kottke (later a frequent guest on radio’s Prairie Home Companion), and you have the kind of eclectic music mix that was a hallmark of top-40 radio, and is virtually non-existent nowadays.

*From the always-reliable Wikipedia: “Warwick, for years an aficionado of psychic phenomena, was advised by astrologer Linda Goodman in 1971 to add a small "e" to her last name, making Warwick ‘WARWICKe’ for good luck and to recognize her married name and her spouse, actor and drummer William ‘Bill’ Elliott. Goodman convinced Warwick that the extra small ‘e’ would add a vibration needed to balance her last name and bring her even more good fortune in her marriage and her professional life. Unfortunately, Goodman proved to be mistaken about this. The extra ‘e,’ according to Dionne, "was the worst thing I could have done in retrospect, and in 1975 I finally got rid of that damn ‘’e” and became “Dionne Warwick“ again.’” You’d think she would have known that would happen, don’t you?

Meanwhile, In Concert features some hits of its own: The Guess Who’s “American Woman,” B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone,” and Melanie’s “What Have They Done to My Song, Ma?” So who’s the winner this week? I’m afraid I’m going to show my age here, but if you can’t share it with your friends, who can you share it with? Midnight Special, on style points alone.

***

If it’s July, it must be football season, right? This Friday night the gridiron greats return with ABC’s coverage of the College All-Star Game from Soldier Field in Chicago, pitting the NFL champion Miami Dolphins (coming off their undefeated season) against a team featuring future pro stars Bert Jones, Otis Armstrong and John Matuszak. Melvin Durslag’s preview article discusses the history of the game, which started in 1934 as a benefit for the Chicago Tribune Charities.*

*The game was started by Tribune sports editor Arch Ward, who was also responsible for major league baseball’s All Star Game.

One of the problems the game faces (which helped end the game in the mid 70s) is a growing reluctance of NFL teams to allow their newly drafted stars to participate, due to both a concern about injuries and the amount of training camp the rookies will miss. This helps explain why the game’s usually a rout, and this year’s edition is expected to be no different, but the All Stars, coached by USC’s legendary John McKay, give the Fins all they can handle, and more. In the fourth quarter, buoyed by a strong defense led by Matuszak, the Stars trail the Dolphins only by 7-3, before Miami running back Larry Csonka scores the clinching touchdown in a surprisingly tough 14-3 victory.

And speaking of baseball’s All-Star Game, that’s this week as well. Before the days of cable TV and regularly scheduled interleague play, the All-Star Game really was must-see TV. For many of us living in Minnesota, it was one of the rare times we got to see National League players, whom we’d otherwise only see on the Saturday game of the week.

This year’s game is in Kansas City, televised by NBC, and the Nationals will rout the Americans 7-1 for their 10th win in the last 11 years. There were some pretty good players in that game, too – the Nats featured nine future Hall of Famers, including Johnny Bench, Hank Aaron, Joe Morgan, Ron Santo, Tom Seaver, Don Sutton, Billy Willilams, Willie Mays and Willie Stargell – plus that pesky Pete Rose character. The Americans countered with nine of their own – Carlton Fisk, Rod Carew, Brooks Robinson, Reggie Jackson, Carl Yastrzemski, Nolan Ryan, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers and Bert Blyleven. I wonder – will this year’s game do as well?

***

What with so many regular series in summer reruns, we’ve been focusing the last few weeks on summer replacement shows. Ready for some more?

Saturday night, ABS gives us Jack Burns and Avery Schreiber in The Burns and Schreiber Comedy Hour, in place of the cancelled Julie Andrews show, and on Thursday night NBC has Helen Reddy, sitting in for Flip Wilson, followed by the premiere of Dean Martin Presents Music Country, this week starring Johnny Cash, Mac Davis, Loretta Lynn, Marty Robbins and a cast of thousands. There are a lot of movies on this week as well, many of them failed pilots for series that never came to pass, such as “I Love a Mystery” with Ida Lupino (NBC) and “Crime Club,” starring Lloyd Bridges (CBS).

For the most part, though, we don’t see so many summer replacement shows right now. The networks have made many of their scheduling changes in January during the start of the “second season,” and as the variety show fades away there are fewer stars taking the summer off. It will be Fox and cable that really bring the summer season back, introducing many of their new series to compete with the tired reruns on the networks.

There is one kind of summer program not seen anymore, at least in Minneapolis: the twin Aquatennial parades. I’ve mentioned the Aquatennial before; back in the day this was the biggest summer festival around, and the two parades – the Grande Day Parade on Saturday and the Torchlight Parade on Wednesday - were major events. Channel 4 preempts its regular programming Saturday afternoon for the Grand Day parade, featuring a pair of celebrity grand marshals – Larry Linville from M*A*S*H (no coincidence that a CBS star would appear on a parade being televised by a CBS affiliate, right?), and evangelist Billy Graham, and an appearance by Colonel Sanders. Keeping with the “Seas of Antiquity,” there are also a number of representatives from Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon and Greece.

Channel 5 does the honors for the Torchlight parade (preempting Madigan and Search) with grand marshal Simcha Dimitz, Israeli Ambassador to the United States, along with the Israeli consul general, and another appearance by Colonel Sanders. Although the floats are the same ones from the Saturday parade (now with lights attached), I wonder if all of the Arab representatives still participated, considering the company they’d be keeping? After all, the Yom Kippur War is less than three months away.

***

Since we’re talking about old TV, here’s something interesting – a program about TV shows that were already considered old in 1973 . That’s not too meta for you, is it?

Eric Sevareid interviewing
Rachel Carson
It’s CBS News Retrospective, airing late on Sunday afternoons, in which the network dips into its vaults to rebroadcast some of its most acclaimed and influential CBS Reports documentaries from the fifties and sixties. This week it’s the 1963 documentary “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson,” the landmark program that first shown the spotlight on ecology and the environment – specifically the uses of DDT and other pesticides, and the effects they had on birds, fish and the soil. Carson’s assertions were controversial then, and they remain controversial today.

I never missed this limited-run series, which included several documentaries by Edward R. Murrow. This was advocacy television at its finest (in terms of quality, that is – not necessarily ideology), and these programs were great examples of a type of television journalism that’s pretty much nonexistent today. And I can’t help but wonder about the method behind CBS airing these shows at this particular time. Could it be that the Tiffany Network was reminding viewers of their great news tradition, in order to bolster the division’s credibility during the continuing coverage of the Watergate hearings? Or is that too cynical a thought?

Speaking of which, we’re reminded at the start of the programming section (as well as several times throughout the week) that regular programming stands to be preempted for those Senate Watergate hearings. The nation has just been stunned the previous week by former presidential aide Alexander Butterfield’s casual comment that there was tape recording going on in the Oval Office. On Monday, July 23, special prosecutor Archibald Cox will demand that the White House turn over transcripts of those taped conversations, which President Nixon will refuse to do, citing Executive Privilege.

What’s interesting is that even at this point, roughly a year before Nixon will be forced to resign, the public is still divided over the issue. While 50% believe former aide John Dean’s accusations that Nixon is covering up the affair, they’re also split evenly (38%037%) as to whom they would believe if Nixon denies the charge. Ah, politics.

July 18, 2013

Around the dial

Te traffic this week at the Classic TV Blog Association revolves around the Me-TV blogathon, so let’s step outside the circle and see what other kinds of goodies can be found around the dial.

Catching up on a few things I didn't get to earlier, the Onion’s AV Club has this terrific piece on Hogan’s Heroes and the lack of a series-ending episode. Reading Noel Murray’s straight recitation of an episode’s plot, without watching the accompanying clips, demonstrates that there really was some gravitas to the show’s concept – a trait I think the show shares with Burke’s Law, and one reason why Hogan is on my personal top 10 list.

From the same source, there’s this article about the classic Brit series The Avengers – perhaps not a top 10 (you’ll just have to wait and see) but a show that epitomizes the twin concepts of fun and cool. To paraphrase Zaphod Beeblebrox, Steed and company are so cool, you could keep a side of beef next to them for a week. Murray makes a point I’ve never considered before, but that I’m inclined to think is quite astute: that the cultural and social turmoil of 60s America led to a “grass is greener” importation of British TV. What do you think?

My pal Billy Ingram at TVParty! has this interesting note on my single favorite cartoon character, Felix the Cat - the first image broadcast on television, and why he was replaced by Mickey Mouse.

TV tie-in novels! Any time you're browsing through an antique store or used book store, you're apt to see a book or two with a familiar TV character on the cover. Many of these were written for young readers and included illustrations of the familiar characters, while others were virtually continuations of the TV series (think Star Trek, for example). Television Obscurities has a nice piece on these, including links to TV tie-in books. And if you're really interested in the genre of TV tie-ins, check out this website.

And while we're at it, take some time to visit Ken Levine's TV blog. Levine's TV writing credits include M*A*S*H, Cheers and Frazier, and his blog has some of the wittiest and most perceptive comments on TV - past and present.

That's it for this week - and don't forget the Me-TV blogathon!

July 16, 2013

Burke's Law: the cop show with a heart - or at least wallet - of gold

This post is part of Me-TV's Summer of Classic TV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Go to http://classic-tv-blog-assoc.blogspot.com to view more posts in this blogathon. You can also go to http://metvnetwork.com to learn more about Me-TV and view its summer line-up of classic TV shows.

***

I badly wanted to do comedy,” Gene Barry said in a profile for the November 23, 1963 issue of TV Guide. “I searched the scripts for the inherent comedy that can be found in almost any drama. I searched for the twinkle, the lift of an eyebrow [that] could change the tone of a serious sentence. I read Burke’s Law. I envisioned the twinkle in it.”

And so, after three seasons as the Western hero Bat Masterson, after having said he would never do another television series, Barry returned to the small screen to portray Amos Burke, millionaire captain of the LAPD homicide division (and eventual secret agent, but we’ll get to that later), in the whimsical mystery-comedy that ran on ABC, in two different formats, for a total of three seasons..”

I never saw Burke’s Law when it was in first-run. My only recollection of it was from the reruns that Channel 11 aired in the late-60s, and from that all I can remember is the Rolls Royce tooling down the road while a woman’s voice cooed, “It’s Burke’s Law!” To tell you the truth, that voice kind of scared me a bit. Of course, I hadn’t yet learned the meaning of the world “sultry.”

Based on the premise alone, it would have been impossible to produce Burke’s Law without that twinkle Barry mentioned. Burke is indeed a millionaire (the source of his money is never definitely stated, though he refers to an inheritance from his father, and implies that he’s multiplied that fortune through shrewd investments*) who lives in a mansion, is often clad in a tuxedo and surrounded by beautiful women, and is chauffeured to crime scenes in a Rolls Royce by his driver/valet, Henry (Leon Lontoc).

*Gene Barry himself was no slouch when it came to investing. That same 1963 TV Guide article mentions Barry’s ownership of a 40-acre orange ranch, mines in Nevada, a half-share of a construction company, and prime land in Los Angeles on which he and his partners planned to put up office buildings and apartments. Substituting Burke for Berry does a pretty good job of filling in the gaps.

Which, of course, begs the question: why does a man who clearly doesn’t have to work for a living choose a profession that’s not only difficult, but dangerous, one that required him to work his way up the ladder from beat cop to captain of homicide and could claim his life at any moment? I don’t know if Barry was one of those actors who composed backstories for each of the characters he played, but he does drop hints as to his concept of Burke. He is “a carry-over of the Old World, but part of this world,” cultured, mannered, sophisticated, worldly. “Police work is as important to Amos Burke as building a building is to me. Hell, he wouldn’t be happy sitting in a stock-exchange seat. He is alive, vital, now.”

It’s a premise that requires some selling, but Barry is just the man to do it. Producer Aaron Spelling describes him as a man “at home in [a tuxedo], secure in it,” and his portrayal of Burke owes much to his previous turn as the Western dandy Bat Masterson. In this updated environment Berry is still a crimefighter, albeit with a gun instead of a walking stick.

Given its various elements, Burke’s Law could have gone in several directions, but its success derives from the direction it chose. Neither traditional police drama nor situation comedy, each episode is centered on a spectacular murder (with the victim identified by the episode title Who Killed …) and a cast of flamboyantly eccentric (to put it lightly) suspects, mostly played by big-name guest stars (listed in alphabetical order in the opening credits, and frequently making little more than cameo appearances). Given that, one could hardly be blamed for expecting the investigating detectives to be just as zany, but far from it: Burke and his two cohorts, Sergeant Les Hart (veteran actor Regis Toomey) and Detective Tim Tilson (Gary Conway), could have been buffoons or broad caricatures, but instead they’re skilled cops who understand that murder is a deadly business and take their jobs seriously (if not always how they do them). They’re very smart, and very, very good.

The show’s premise also offers Burke an unusual advantage, never overtly stated but often implied, that as a millionaire he has the ability to deal with rich, powerful suspects on an even footing. Their money can’t intimidate him (he’s probably as wealthy as they are), nor can their influence scare him off. He’s beholden to nobody but the public, and he doesn’t scare easily.

L-R: Regis Toomey, Gary Conway and Gene Barry
The interplay between the three is one of the show’s delights. Hart is the veteran, wizened cop and mentor to the young Tilson, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of almost everything but lacks the experience and intuition to put the pieces together. Burke and Les obviously go back a long way (Les will on occasion drop the formality and refer to Burke as “Amos,”), and while Tim can sometimes be a bit of a showoff, it’s clear that Burke has a somewhat paternal affection for the young detective, often imparting a bit of his collected wisdom. (“Never ask a question unless you already know the answer - Burke’s Law.”) The three men split up the investigative work, with Burke generally reserving for himself (“Your old Captain”) the interrogation of the most interesting suspects. Those suspects are frequently also beautiful women, and their attraction to the handsome, dashing Burke may be genuine – or an attempt to throw him off the trail.

Indeed, Burke is seldom out of the company of an attractive female – the episode often begins with him in the embrace of some such lovely companion – but the moment the phone rings, with Les or Tim calling him to the scene of yet another murder, Burke is all business. The debonair playboy is gone, replaced by the determined homicide captain. There’s never an attempt to avoid his job – just a request to his female companion that she not go away.

And that, I think, is one of the main reasons I find this show so enjoyable. For all of the light touches – and the mix of comedy and drama works surprisingly well – Amos Burke is a policeman before all else, a damn good one who understands the importance of his job. His suspects may include glamorous women, but their beauty never blinds him to the possibility that behind their makeup may be the face of a killer. He’s not afraid to trade either punches or gunshots, and he’s not satisfied until the killer is apprehended.

Then there’s that twinkle in the eye that Barry talked about – the priceless reactions when Burke meets yet another crazy suspect or has to listen to yet another ridiculous story. It’s when Burke lets us know that it’s a joke, and that we’re in on it. Throw in some great supporting players, such as Michael Fox as the droll medical examiner and Eileen O’Neill as a desk sergeant who doesn’t have to take second place to any of Burke’s beauties –and you’ve got the ingredients for a great show.*

*And by the way, speaking of beauties, did I mention that Anne Francis’ detective series Honey West was a direct spin-off from Burke? She was introduced in the second-season episode “Who Killed the Jackpot?” and would go on to a one-season run in 1965-66.

Which is what makes the third and final season such a disappointment. Caught up in the spy hysteria of the early James Bond years, for 1965 the series changed format completely. Amos Burke was now a secret agent (hence the show’s new title: Amos Burke, Secret Agent), working for a spymaster known only as “The Man” (Carl Benton Reid). It had a flashy opening title and fun gadgets and even more beautiful women, if that was possible. It even had Burke’s Rolls. What it didn’t have was the chemistry of the original. No Les, no Tim, no Henry. It ran for 17 episodes, and by January 1966 it was over.

Apparently Amos Burke tired of the secret agent business and returned to the LAPD, or at least that’s what had happened in the 1994-95 revival of Burke’s Law. Burke was now a chief, his sidekick was his son Peter (during the intervening years Burke had married and was now a widower), and Henry was back behind the wheel of his Rolls (albeit with a different actor). It was a middling success, running for 24 episodes over two seasons.

Burke’s Law could have been many things. It could have been a comedy, ala Barney Miller or Car 54. It could have been a police procedural, like any one of the cop shows on at the time. Instead, it was a one-of-a-kind, a comedy-mystery, a sophisticated whodunit. Most of all, Burke’s Law was fun. It wasn’t searing drama, it didn’t involve impossibly convoluted plots. It was easy to watch, and easy to enjoy. Hopefully, those who see it on Me-TV, whether for the first time or to rekindle an old memory, feel the same way.

July 13, 2013

This week in TV Guide: July 11, 1964

Sometimes you run across a TV Guide that truly feels as if it came from a museum or an antique store*, such is the way in which it describes a world that no longer exists, at least on television. This is one of those issues, and the cover alone describes two features of this lost world: the glamor and status of the network anchorman, and the importance to the political process of the presidential nominating convention.

*Of course, many of my TV Guides, including this one, do come from antique stores.

The cover story is the Republican National Convention in San Francisco, where the GOP meets to choose a candidate to face President Johnson in November. Television is there to provide gavel-to-gavel coverage of the convention, one of the last of the great knock-down, drag-out brawls that not only made conventions so entertaining, but also demonstrates why political parties no longer hold them. Oh, they still call them conventions, but you and I both know they’re really just week-long political infomercials.

The five men on the cover: Walter Cronkite, who within a decade will be the most trusted man in American; Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, whom NBC bills in their convention ads as the “San Francisco Giants,” and ABC’s new team of Howard K. Smith and Edward P. Morgan, trying to bring credibility – and sex appeal – to the network’s news division. And it is interesting to see the esteem with which the news anchors are treated. TV news is still, at this point, in something of its infancy: CBS and NBC only went to half-hour newscasts a few months before, and ABC won’t follow suit until 1967.

Most historians say that television came of age with its coverage of the Kennedy assassination, and the five men here can all testify to that. Huntley and Brinkley dominated that coverage, ratings-wise, with more people watching NBC than CBS and ABC combined,* and NBC comes to the convention as the “network to beat,” so to speak. Cronkite, whose announcement of Kennedy’s death will eventually become the iconic image of the event, is not yet the revered institution he will become; in fact, so thoroughly is CBS trounced in the GOP convention coverage that Uncle Walter will be replaced by Robert Trout and Eric Sevareid for the Democratic convention the following month. Smith and Morgan were the prime anchors for ABC’s JFK coverage, and won enough critical approval that they would team up for the convention even though Ron Cochran would remain anchor of the network’s evening news until 1965.

*Since hardly anyone watched ABC news, the battle between NBC and CBS was actually much closer than this statement might indicate.

The news anchor of the time is seen as serious and authoritative, likely because of the emotional connection they made with viewers during the assassination and its aftermath. There’s also a carryover, I suspect, from the age of the World War II foreign correspondent, which lends a sense of gravitas to television news. And that gravitas is apparent in the coverage each network plans for the convention.

All three networks will be providing start-to-finish coverage, beginning with the opening session at noon (CT) Monday and continuing through Tuesday’s speech by former President Eisenhower, Wednesday’s nominating and balloting for president, and Thursday’s veep nomination and acceptance speeches.* In addition, there’s plenty of pre-convention programming: each network has a preview show Sunday evening, and ABC has several convention-related shows on Saturday and Sunday, including an appearance by Eisenhower on the children’s show Discovery ’64, where he’ll explain the role of the convention in the democratic process.

*Interesting thing here: the convention was originally scheduled to end on Friday, rather than Thursday. The difference was that in the original plan, the nominating speeches and demonstrations would take place on Wednesday, but the balloting itself would be on Thursday. That didn’t happen; it appears the schedule itself had been modified prior to the start of the convention, probably because the chance of multiple ballots had pretty much disappeared by the start of the festivities. Fortunately, TV Guide provides us with an alternate schedule of programming for Friday in case the convention’s already over.

The convention itself was a riotous affair. The eventual nominee, Barry Goldwater, arrived with more than enough delegates to win, although there was always the possibility of vote changes prior to the actual balloting. The platform fight, mostly over the civil rights plank, was particularly nasty; when Nelson Rockefeller took to the podium to support a liberal plank denouncing “extremism,” he was shouted down by the delegates (a grinning Rockefeller taunted them, like a kid prodding a lion with a stick, which produced great theater and proved Rocky’s point about the extremism of the Goldwater delegates). Rockefeller’s surrogate, William Scranton, put himself up as a last-minute candidate, though he had no hope of winning.

This new, more conservative GOP also expresses its distrust of the news media – increasingly personified by television. For many, Huntley and Brinkley, the top dogs in the news game, epitomized the liberal bias of the eastern media establishment. “You know,” one delegate was overheard to say, “these nighttime news shows sound to me like they’re being broadcast from Moscow.” When Eisenhower, in his speech, referred to “sensation-seeking columnists and commentators” seeking to divide the GOP, the delegates roared their approval, shaking their fists at the commentators in their booths.

Goldwater, taking the podium on Thursday night, told the delegates that “extremism moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” He went to a resounding defeat, surely in part by the negative impression left by television coverage of the convention. The grass roots movement he created, however, helped to lay the groundwork for the victory of Ronald Reagan 16 years later.

As both a TV fan and a political junkie, I can only lament the change in conventions from meetings where things actually got done to slick television productions that nobody watches. However, by 1964 the process had already begun; media representatives outnumbered delegates by two to one.

***

Here’s something else you’re not likely to see nowadays. NBC news correspondent Nancy Dickerson appears in a feature on the convention – but if you’re looking for her analysis of the party platform or her predictions for the winners, you’re out of luck. Instead, TV Guide “asked her to model some of the clothes she plans to wear on the convention floor.” There’s a pink-and-white checkered number by Gustave Tassell, a navy silk twill suit with white blouse by Yves St. Laurent, and a two-piece green sleeveless top by Geoffrey Beene.



***

One thing that hasn’t changed since 1964 is the impact television has on politics. Well, actually to the extent it’s changed, it’s become even more of an impact than it was then. In an article on TV’s influence, political columnist William S. White says “there is no question among old political observers that TV unconsciously worked against Richard Nixon in 1960,” and adds that were it not for the presence of television at the 1960 Democratic Convention, LBJ probably wouldn’t have been chosen by JFK as his running mate.

“The late-night session in Los Angeles that nominated Kennedy showed a succession of urban Democratic bosses . . . at the head of the powerful blocs that put him over. Overnight, there was concern in the Kennedy camp that the country would see this as a heavy-handed urban-boss bulldozer movement flinging all resistance out of its way.” That image had to be softened, and the way to do it was to find someone from the Southwest, a Protestant, with connections to rural and small town America. In other words, Johnson.

White feels that television can do a very good job of covering politics, and that it will be essential for the successful politician to learn how to use TV. But for all the good work that television does, it’s growing influence and efficiency mean the end of an era. “That matchless technical skill which combines the lens and the computer produces the final answers for us – tells us who has in fact won and who has in fact lost – long before the climax really should have been reached and exposed.” That’s about the size of it.

***

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: On this rerun, Ed’s guests are Duke Ellington and his orchestra and musical comedy performer Liza Minnelli. The Beatles are seen in a segment taped in London on the set of their fourthcoming movie. Other guests include French singer Jean Paul Vignon, British comics Morcombe and Wise, and mezzo-soprano Shirley Verrett. Also seen: films of Michelangelo’s Pieta, on display at the New York World’s Fair.

Hollywood Palace: Host Dale Robertson introduces singers Vic Damone and Jane Morgan; comedian Red Buttons; the Smothers Brothers, comedy folk singers; the Four Amigos, vocal quartet; ventriloquist Russ Lewis; and the Harris Nelson family, a musical comedy act.

Well, I didn’t have to put too much thought into this week’s entry. When this show originally aired, Ed had teased it the previous week by saying, “Next week – The Beatles and the Pieta!” Add in the Duke and Liza with a Z, and even though it’s a repeat it’s still Sullivan who's number one for the week.

***

Finally, I’ve talked before about the dramatic difference in the amount of sports on television in the 1960s as compared to today. A look at the weekend’s schedule really brings this into focus. For starters, there’s no baseball game of the week on Saturday afternoon – the Twins were at home, and broadcasting rules of the day prohibited a game being broadcast into the area at the same time. There is championship bridge, if you’re interested, and Channel 4 carries a big polo match between the clubs of the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. (Live, 90 min.) There’s bowling and wrestling – everybody’s favorite in the early 60s – and, of course, Wide World of Sports, which brings us the Firecracker 400 from Daytona (taped the previous week, and won by A.J. Foyt) and the final round of the British Open golf championship, taped Friday at St. Andrews.

As was the case with the U.S. Open I wrote about last month, the British Open used to be played in three days, starting on Wednesday and concluding with 36 holes on Friday. If there was a tie, the 18-hole playoff would be held on Saturday. Eventually, like the U.S. Open, the British Open went to a four-day schedule, although the final round remained on Saturday well into the 70s. The winner, Champagne Tony Lema, defeats Jack Nicklaus by five shots to claim his only major title; sadly, he will be killed in a plane crash two years later.

July 11, 2013

Permissive TV, circa 1973

In the TV Guide issue of April 21, 1973, Richard K. Doan – he of the Doan Report, which I’ve frequently cited – sits down for an interview with FCC Chairman Dean Burch, in which he quizzes the Commish about permissiveness on television. Is there too much? What should the FCC’s attitude towards sex and violence be? What are the trends for the future?

Dean Burch became FCC Chairman in 1969; prior to that, he served as Chairman of the Republican National Committee, and was one of the main players in Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. Given that Goldwater was, in many ways, more libertarian than conservative politically, it’s not a surprise – to me, at least – that Burch displays a few libertarian instincts of his own when it comes to suggestive content on television.

Burch is against censorship per se; citing the First Amendment, Burch comments that “I think any adult, by and large, ought to be able to read anything he wants to read in the privacy of his home, view anything he wants to view and, so long as he’s not interfering with the rights of others, do anything he wants to do that satisfies his own moral, ethical and religious codes.” However, Burch adds, that comes with a caveat:

However, he acknowledges there’s a difference between books and movies, “ which you pay money to see,” and the free medium of TV, available at any hour of the day or not to anyone who has a television set. The main responsibility, as Burch sees it, is the programming available to children. “We can all kid ourselves that our own children watch only what we want them to. The hell they do! They watch what they want to.” Without constant adult supervision, Burch argues, there as to be some kind of “limitation” on television content. But not censorship, he adds later on.

Regarding the unholy legal trio of obscenity, profanity and indecency, the legal guidelines for broadcasters, he remarks that because of recent court rulings, obscenity “has practically no meaning any more.” As for profanity, it too is almost impossible to define. “’Goddammit,’ for instance, is not legally profane, however profane some may thing it is.”

That leaves indecency, which is easy to see but hard to describe. And here Burch alludes to the often-forgotten “public trust” aspect of broadcasting. It’s the individual station manager, rather than the FCC, who “knows better” what his community considers pornographic, “and I think he knows what’s indecent and what’s profane.” Given the knowledge of his viewers and what they expect from him, the station manager can make the judgments, and if he’s well motivated he will make the judgments.”

Burch references CBS’ recent broadcast of the movie The Damned, a story set in Nazi Germany which I believe was originally rated X for, among other things, rape, incest, cross-dressing and other deviancy. “I imagine a lot of people thought, ‘Well, here come the X-rated movies!’” However, Burch points out, the movie was “heavily sanitized” for broadcast (which leads me to wonder how cogent the story could have been). But it does raise the point of how to deal with such concerns.

Individual, as well as community, judgment plays a key part in Burch’s philosophy. Regarding an episode of Young Dr. Kildare dealing with gonorrhea, Burch remarks that he had to wait until he was in the Army to find out about the disease, and that “I might like to have my 16- or 17- year-old children know something about its dangers before that.” However, he adds, this a situation “where someone with fairly decent judgment” – presumably the station manager or the parent – “can decide what is within bounds.” Burch noted that the show was broadcast at 7:30pm, “which is certainly family viewing time.”

The FCC receives “constant” complaints about sex and violence on TV, e.g. “This medium permeates my entire home and I don’t want to see nudity and I don’t want to see sex and lesbianism or homosexuality and the like,” This may be true, Burch says, but the FCC “cannot censor. Which I happen to think is a wise rule.” The answer isn’t necessarily with government intervention; rather, Burch suggests, look at the system that’s already set up. It’s up to the public to hold the individual stations accountable to that “public trust.”

We’ve been discussing violence quite a bit the last few weeks, and the issue pops up here as well. The Surgeon General’s recent report on violence urges “ more research, more definitions.” For example, Burch points out, the report suggested that “violence in an appropriate setting is not necessarily disturbing,” As for his own opinion on the effects of violence on children, he’s unsure. “Is Mickey Mouse running over an opponent with a steam engine and the opponent afterward puffing up to normality and running off – is that ‘violence’? I don’t know. Do children relate that to ‘violence’? I don’t know.” The answer, he suggests, could be a “code of violence” such as V for violent, NV for non-violent – not unlike the system we have now.

Aha, you might say, but what about cable and satellite TV? Cable was just starting to be developed in 1973, which raises the question about Burch’s analogy between purchased goods, i.e. books and movies, and free TV. Does this not give the viewer a right to demand, if so wanted, more explicit programming, consistent with Burch’s view of books and movies as having been invited into the home, so to speak, by virtue of the consumer’s purchase?

Burch doesn't address that question directly, but he does intimate that this does make a difference. “I’d like the option of staying home and seeing ‘Deliverance.’ I’ve never gotten to it because I don’t want to pay the parking and the baby-sitter. But if I could see it in my home for three bucks, I’d jump at the chance.”

On the question of cable-TV, by the way, Burch does have some interesting insights. He doesn't see it as the death knell for OTA television, not by a long shot. But, as was the hope of many people, he sees the potential for specialized programming, much of it of an educational bent. And it offers the possibility of more high-quality programming – showing his free-market roots, he points out the opportunities for “people who've never had a chance to broadcast, for entrepreneurs who have a idea they want to sell.” And that’s certainly the way cable-TV started: with specialized, niche programming, developed by people who felt they’d identified a demand from the public and could make a profit by meeting it.

That isn’t quite the way things turned out, of course. Many of those early networks – ARTS, for example – failed to find a way to make their business model work; and others, such as A&E, TLC and Discovery, have dramatically changed their programming over the years. Many channels simply don’t have enough to broadcast 24 hours a day, and resort to informercials to make the overnight hours profitable. Most of those who saw television as a great educational tool have overestimated its TV potential on TV - noble deeds often take a back seat to ratings and profitability – but, to be sure, Burch had seen this as something that could happen, not that it would. He saw the future of cable TV as an exciting one, with specialized cable shows augmenting general interest network shows, leading to expanded and enhanced television viewing.*

*It’s funny though, how Burch refers to “40 channels” – I've probably got access to five times that number. Doubt that there’s 40 channels worth of good programming, though.

In short, Burch is far more nuanced than one might expect when it comes to television permissiveness. There need to be standards, he feels, but they should come from the community and the family rather than the government. Violence may be a problem, but we shouldn’t leap to conclusions without more research. Television needs to be concerned about content, but viewers also have a right to the programming they want. And cable TV will be a powerful part of the future.

While the idea of the local television station as a holder of the “public trust” seems antiquated nowadays, Burch was very perceptive regarding the future of cable TV, and more moderate than some might have expected from a conservative Republican when it came to controlling content, although the idea of limited government involvement is involved as well. Over 40 years later, it’s quite interesting to look back at how these issues were perceived at the time, and how many of them have played out since.  How times have changed.

July 9, 2013

Blogging on Me-TV. Oh, and it's Christmas in July, too!

As I've mentioned in the past, I'm a proud member of the Classic TV Blog Association, and from time to time we engage in a blogathon - a week of concerted blogging by members on a specific topic.  Our next one begins next week, July 15, and takes as its theme the classic programs being shown currently on Me-TV.

There are some great articles on the way, including one a week from today by yours truly.  I'd call it a secret, but since it's on the posted lineup along with the rest of the blogs, that would probably be disingenious at best.  (Spoiler alert: It's Burke's Law!)

Please do us all a favor - as well as yourself - and check out the blogathon.  These are excellent blogs written by people who not only have a knowledge of classic TV, they also have a deep affection for it.  You might already be familiar with many of these shows; on the other hand, you could be reading about them for the first time.

In any event, look through the schedule below (and go to the CTBA website for updates), and enjoy!

Monday, July 15
Columbo ("The Most Dangerous Match") - Made for TV Mayhem
The Fugitive ("Corner of Hell") - Classic Film & TV Cafe
The Green Hornet - Ramblings of a Broadway, Film, and TV Fan
The Mary Tyler Moore Show - Outspoken & Freckled
That Girl ("Christmas and the Hard Luck Kid") - Christmas TV History

Tuesday, July 16
Adam-12 - Comet Over Hollywood
Burke's Law - It's About TV
Family Affair - Michael's TV Tray
The Honeymooners - The Lady Eve's Reel Life
Make Room for Daddy - How Sweet It Was (Aurora)

Wednesday, July 17
The Mothers-in-Law - Thrilling Days of Yesteryear
The Odd Couple - Classic Sports TV and Media
Route 66 - The Stalking Moon
Svengoolie - Journeys in Classic Film
Working Women of Classic TV - Broadcasting Archives at the University of Maryland

Thursday, July 18
Car 54, Where Are You? - The Horn Section
The Dick Van Dyke Show - Classicfilmboy's Movie Paradise
Dragnet - Comfort TV
I Dream of Jeannie - Noir and Chick Flicks
The Rifleman - How Sweet It Was (Harold)

Friday, July 19
Bewitched , Bothered, and Belittled - Christy's Inkwells
Columbo - How Sweet It Was (Paul)
Leave It to Beaver: A Father's Journey - Embarrassing Treasures
Family Affair - Silver Scenes
Rhoda - Made for TV Mayhem
Thriller - The Last Drive in

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While we're on the subject, you might have noticed Joanna Wilson's Christmas TV History blogathon on the schedule for Monday, July 15 (with a Christmas episode of That Girl).  This month, Joanna is also celebrating Christmas in July, when she turns her blog over to her readers to share their Christmas TV memories.  This year, the topic is animation, and Joanna has graciously given me some space to talk about the classic Rankin-Bass special The Little Drummer Boy.  Joanna also had some kind things to say about the blog, which I reciprocate in kind - if you love Christmas and you love TV (in that order), you should make her blog a regular part of your schedule.  And while you're at it, Joanna has also written some terrific books on Christmas TV shows; they should definitely be on my bookshelf, and yours as well.

July 6, 2013

This week in TV Guide: July 8, 1967

J. Edgar Hoover likes The F.B.I.  I mean, he really likes The F.B.I.  The longtime FBI director has been a staunch supporter of the ABC series since its debut in 1965.  Testifying before a House subcommittee, Hoover says that "I have received hundreds of letters from people saying that the inspector on the FBI series portrayed what they thought an FBI agent should portray."  He added, "I want our agents to live up to that image."

The inspector in question is Lewis Erskine, portrayed by Efrem Zimbalist Jr., formerly of 77 Sunset Strip.  Hoover is also a big fan of Zimbalist; he says that the actor "has captured the esprit de corps of the FBI and what it is like to be an FBI agent. . . He has helped to deptict the dedication of law enforcement officers to duty, integrity, and law and order."

Zimbalist is in Washington. D.C. to film some background shots for the upcoming season of The F.B.I., and he receives a hero's welcome from the Bureau's agents, three of whom provide Zimbalist with an escort as he and a camera crew drive past the city's landmarks, establishing the proper atmosphere for the series.  Following filming, Zimbalist will be ushered in to a brief private meeting with Hoover, as he has several times during the run of the series.  Hoover calls Zimbalist "one of the team."

I've often spoken of my fondness for The F.B.I., particularly the opening credits from the series' first few seasons.  Besides the memorable theme music, the opening provides a montage of Washington's most revered symbols: the Capitol building, the Washington Monument, the Supreme Court, and the Department of Justice building, the original home of the FBI.  I swear, it makes you want to run out there and sign up.



The F.B.I. was more than a propaganda piece, though it portrayed the Bureau in an exceptional light.  At the time the FBI was indeed a highly respected department, with agents that were thought by the public to be incorruptible.  (That may not have reflected the reality then, and almost certainly doesn't now, but that was in fact the image, and we all know what wins out when perception clashes with reality.)  But the series succeeded on its own merits, portraying hard-working law enforcement agents who rarely had the improbable flashes of brilliance and technological miracles of today's police procedural.  Instead, they depended on the science of the day, combined with good, exhaustive investigative work.  In place of quirky, stereotypical characters, the emphasis was on plot and detection, and the unquenchable thirst for justice.

My favorite story about The F.B.I., which I don't think I've mentioned before, concerns a couple of columns written by the political satirist Art Buchwald, who I wrote about here.  One mentions an FBI agent named Efrem Zumgard; the other tells the story of the first wiretap, when Hoover bugged the first phone call made by Alexander Graham Bell, ("When he said, 'Mr. Watson, come here - I want to see you,' the Bureau had the tape in 30 minutes.") registering in the hotel under the name of Zimbalist.  Still makes me smile.

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For the first time, baseball's All-Star Game is being shown in prime-time.  It's being played at the four-year-old Anaheim Stadium, home of the California Angels, and NBC is taking advantage of the time difference to start the game at 7pm Eastern time, 4pm on the West Coast.

Unfortunately, starting the game at that hour produces some unintended side-effects, chief among which is that the late-afternoon sun is right in the batter's eye for much of the game.  The National League scores in the top of the second, the American League ties it up in the bottom of the sixth, and there it remains for awhile.  Quite awhile, in fact.  It isn't until Tony Perez' home run in the top of the fifteenth inning, almost four hours later, that the National League emerges triumphant, 2-1.  The game sets records for most strikeouts (30, as every one of the game's twelve pitchers records at least one strikeout) and innings played, and is the first All-Star game in which every run is scored via home run.  Had the game simply started at the usual time (1pm locally, 4pm EDT), it would have made it into prime time anyway.

Next year's game will be played in Houston, at the Astrodome (a 1-0 National League win).  In the domed stadium, the angle of the sun won't make a difference.  The game starts at 7pm local time, the first true night game in All-Star history.  Except for 1969, when the game is played on Wednesday afternoon due to rain, the game will remain in prime-time for the rest of its history.

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Radziwill with Farley Granger
in
Laura
There's a note in the Doan Report that David Susskind has lined up a blockbuster for one of his two-hour ABC dramas next month: Princess Lee Radziwill, sister of Jacqueline Kennedy, will star in "The Voice of the Turtle," John Van Druten's Broadway hit, with an adaptation by Truman Capote.  Now, as far as I know, "The Voice of the Turtle" never made it to television, and the story behind that might be interesting.  What did make it to TV the next season was a disastrous adaptation of the mystery classic Laura, starring Radziwill (billed as Lee Bouvier, her maiden name), and adapted by Capote.  To say that it was panned doesn't quite do it justice; it was absolutely trashed.  "Slow moving," "Awkward material," "The wardrobe alone emerges unscathed," were some of the kinder comments.

Now that I think of it, I'm sure the story of how "The Voice of the Turtle" became Laura would be more interesting.  I do know that Capote, a longtime friend of Radziwill, was the one who encouraged her to get into acting, talked Susskind into casting her, and wrote the script for her.  Ironically, a repeat of Laura in June 1968 is postponed due to the assassination of Lee Radziwill's brother-in-law, Robert Kennedy.

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Doan also reports on high hopes that the bill authorizing creation of the Public Broadcasting Corporation, currently in Congress, will pass.  It does, although not without some fireworks, and by 1969 we'll see the debut of PBS' most lasting legacy, Sesame Street.

Not everyone is a fan of government funding for education, however.  California Governor Ronald Reagan, himself a former actor, comes out against the government entering into "direct competition with private television," and says that educational TV should be developed through closed-circuit systems, aka cable-TV.  To this day, there's more than one TV critic - me among them - wondering what PBS offers that can't be found somewhere else on the cable-TV spectrum.

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Alan Kogosowski today
No "Sullivan vs. The Palace" this week - Piccadilly Palace, Hollywood's summer replacement, is itself pre-empted by the Coaches' All-America college football game, which we mentioned a couple of weeks ago.  Ed's around, though, with a rerun featuring Tony Bennett, Nancy Sinatra, Count Basie and his orchestra, dancer-choreographer Peter Gennaro, comedienne Totie Fields and the comedy team of Hendra and Ullet, 13-year-old classical pianist Alan Kogosowski, and the acrobatic Mecners.

I'd never heard of Alan Kogosowski before and wondered if he ever amounted to anything, so naturally I looked him up on the always-reliable Wikipedia.  His story turns out to be quite interesting: he did indeed achieve some fame as a concert pianist, particularly in performing the works of Chopin, but perhaps more significant has been his work researching and treating carpal tunnel syndrome and repetitive strain injury.  Who knew?

We've got more variety shows making appearances as summer replacements, as we discussed a couple of weeks ago. In addition to the aforementioned Piccadilly Palace, Saturday night also features Away We Go, the replacement for The Jackie Gleason Show, starring George Carlin (!), singer Buddy Greco, and the great drummer Buddy Rich.  On Sunday night there's Our Place, the replacement for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, starring Rowlf the Muppett, the comedy team of Burns and Schreiber, and the Doodletown Pipers.  Here's a clip from that show if you're interested (although it's in black-and-white, the original was broadcast in color):




On Tuesday it's Spotlight, the replacement for The Red Skelton Hour, a British import hosted by comedian Shelly Berman and singer Shani Wallis - and, for a couple of weeks, Benny Hill.  Tom Jones also had a turn as host, which led in turn to This Is Tom Jones a couple of years later.  Wednesday night Steve Allen returns to TV as the replacement for The Danny Kaye Show, and on Thursday singer Vic Damone takes over for The Dean Martin Show.  Interesting thing about these shows - with the exception of Damone's, which was on NBC, the rest are all on CBS.

There's also a program on CBS Monday night called Vacation Playhouse, a charming title which hides what used to be a staple of the summer season: a collection of unsold pilots, packaged into a series that would run for 13 or so weeks.  This week's edition stars Ethel Merman as the owner of a restaurant near a U.S. Navy base.  My recollection of these playhouse-type episodes is that it was easy to see why none of the pilots ever made it as regular series.

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Joseph Finnigan has a wry article on the Golden Globes, which he calls "the tongue-in-cheek awards," based on their longtime reputation for awarding performances based on suspicious criteria.  For example, at this point very few nominees appeared for the show, and those who did were invariably the winners, which led more than one person to suspect that the only way to induce stars to show up was to promise they would win.  The show has had a successful run for several years as part of The Andy Williams Show, but its reputation would catch up with it in 1968, when the FCC ruled that this practice constituted "mis[leading] the public as to how the winners were determined," which in turn led NBC to drop coverage of the show until 1975.

The strange thing about this article, though, is that the Golden Globes were held on February 15, nearly five months before the article ran, and the 1968 show wouldn't be broadcast at all due to the FCC ruling.  Usually you want some kind of a hook when your piece is going to run - and I can't imagine why anyone would have been interested in reading about the Golden Globes in July.  Anyone?