May 31, 2014

This week in TV Guide: May 25, 1974

The Indianapolis 500, "auto racing's premiere event," takes center stage in the sporting world this Memorial Day weekend, so that's where we'll start.

The race is at a crossroads, following one of its most controversial runnings ever, in 1973.  That year two drivers were killed in crashes (one during practice), and a mechanic in the pits died after being hit by a fire truck racing to the scene of one of the fatal accidents.  The race itself took three days to run, rain interrupting both the first and second tries, and eventually ended after less than 350 miles when yet more rain finally brought it to a merciful end.  The crowd, which had numbered more than 350,000 on day one, was less than 50,000 by the conclusion.

The problems are many, according to Hal Higdon's article, but center around the fact that technological advances have made the cars too fast, with neither the speedway nor the cars themselves prepared to handle the risks from increased speeds (over 30 mph in less than three years).  The speedway has taken steps, firing the chief steward, widening the pit lane, and raising walls and pushing seating back (several spectators had been injured in driver Swede Savage's fiery fatal crash in 1973).  The cars have also undergone changes, with fuel tanks cut almost in half, and aerodynamic adjustments designed to lower speeds by as much as 15 mph.  Despite the changes, Higdon writes, the race still faces challenges: the speedway and the governing body "allowed speeds to soar dangerously past 200 mph with little more than talk," and he warns that "if unnecessary deaths continue, the so-called greatest spectacle in auto racing may not survive."

For several reasons, this article represents a moment frozen in time.  Today, as speeds top 230 mph, we might wonder what all the fuss was about.  Auto racing was infinitely more dangerous in the early 70s than it is today, even has it had become safer than it was in, say, the 50s.  Safety features have been introduced to both speedways and automotive structure, helping to absorb impacts and providing greater protection for the driver.

Earlier this month the 20th anniversary of the death of the great Formula 1 champion Ayrton Senna was observed.  Senna and driver Roland Ratzenberger were killed in separate accidents on one of the grimmest weekends in motor racing history*  Similar concerns were raised over racing's future.  And yet, to date Senna is the last driver to be killed in a Formula 1 race.  Dale Earnhardt and Dan Wheldon have died in accidents in recent years, but their deaths, too, are the last of their respective series.  The fact remains that while motor sports are still dangerous, they are nowhere near as deadly as they were.

*A third accident nearly killed young driver Rubens Barrichello, and several spectators and track officials were also injured over the course of the San Marino Grand Prix weekend.

And yet the Indianapolis 500 is no longer the "greatest spectacle in racing," all of IndyCar having been surpassed by NASCAR in terms of popularity and talent.  A divisive split in the Indy racing community created competing series, with neither having either the talent or the financial support to thrive.  Indianapolis, caught in the middle, is still trying to recover, with empty seats and low television ratings out there for all to see.

The irony is that the bleak future forecast in the article has, in many ways, come to pass - but for entirely different reasons.

***

With live television of the 500 still a decade away, the race is being shown on Sunday night on a tape-delay basis.  It's the first time in the history of the race that it is being held on Sunday; previously, the race had been held on Memorial Day itself*, but after the fiasco of 1973 it's thought that a Sunday race will allow people to attend on Monday should rain intervene again.

*Prior to 1970, Memorial Day was on May 30, as was the race.  When Memorial Day fell on a Sunday, the race was moved to Monday.  In 1970 Memorial Day itself became a Monday holiday; the first two 500s were held on Saturday, with the 1973 race being the first to run on the new Memorial Day.  All races since then have been scheduled for Sunday.

As I mentioned earlier, the 500 isn't what it used to be.  However, if you're looking for its great competitor, the Coca-Cola 600, you're going to have to travel to Charlotte to see it; the race, then known as the World 600, is not on live TV.  Instead, we've got a nice assortment of minor sports to fill out Sunday
 - the Family Circle Cup women's tennis final on NBC, the final round of the Danny Thomas Memphis Classic on an independent feed (I'm guessing Hughes Television), diving and horse jumping on CBS Sports Spectacular.  No baseball, which means the Twins must be at home.

***

The breakthrough summer hit of the year is the House of Representatives hearing into the impeachment of President Nixon.  It's a spin-off from the earlier joint House-Senate select committee hearings, which made minor stars out of lesser political hacks such as North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin, Tennessee Senator Howard Baker, judge John Sirica*, stoolie John Dean, and featured an appearance by future TV and movie star - and U.S. Senator - Fred Thompson as the minority council.

*Who probably would have gotten The People's Court if it had existed back then.

This week's schedule calls for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday hearings, with either live or taped coverage. I haven't checked to see what might actually have aired, but I remember from the earlier go-around that the networks rotated coverage to assuage those who either weren't interested or couldn't do without their daytime stories.

The drama continues to playout until August, when Nixon resigns in the final episode.  A reboot of the series is attempted in 1998-99, but fails to attract an audience.

***

SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
Let's see, what else might you be interested in this week?  There are a lot of reruns kicking in, so we'll try to find something else.  Dick Clark's at the beach in ABC's Action '74 on Saturday at noon.  Bill Withers and the Staple Singers are the guests.  NBC offers an Emmy Awards doubleheader on Tuesday, with the inaugural Daytime Emmys being presented at 11am CT, followed by the traditional Primetime Emmys at 8pm.  Barbara Walters and Peter Marshall do the honors in the Daytime show, telecast from New York, while Johnny Carson hosts the nighttime extravaganza in Hollywood.*

*An interesting but perhaps ill-advised feature of these Emmys is that in addition to the genre awards (Best Comedy Series, Best Drama Series, etc.), there are "Outstanding Performance" awards for "Actor of the Year," "Actress of the Year," etc., featuring the winners in the individual genre categories.  Thus, Alan Alda in M*A*S*H faces off against Hal Holbrook in the special Pueblo, William Holden in the limited series The Blue Knight, and Telly Savalas in the drama Kojak.

"Upstairs, Downstairs" is the feature on PBS' Masterpiece Theater, as it was apt to be at any given time.  ABC News Closeup does a show on stolen art at 7pm on Thursday, while NBC News Presents counters at 9pm with "The Pursuit of Youth."  And then Let's Make a Deal's Monty Hall hosts a Sea World special on ABC Friday night; an hour later the same network has a Jacques Cousteau special on the octopus.  Must have been a theme night.

***

An interesting bit of contentiousness in the Letters to the Editor section, as Stanley Borucinski of Riverside, NJ writes in to criticize a recent TV Guide editorial lamenting press censorship when it comes to covering crime.  The editorial had referred to the recent example of a voluntary 90 day news blackout on vandalism in Webster City, Iowa.  Proponents of the blackout felt that news coverage gave unwarranted publicity to the vandals, which would then result in increased vandalism.*  The editor (in fact, probably Merrill Panitt) pointed out that during the period of the news blackout, vandalism in Webster City increased 36.5 per cent compared to. the same month the previous year.

*Similar to the idea of not showing a drunk fan racing across the field during a football game; if you give him face time on television, you'll just encourage others to do the same.

Mr. Borucinski argues that what the media is really interested in is making money, and they know that crime coverage "sells better than good news," which means "the press exaggerates and sometimes even invents news."  Panitt (we'll assume it was him) counters with a lengthy rebuttal of his own, in which he states that the increase in crime "seems to have been caused by a censored press," and concludes that "When facts are hidden or covered up, nothing improves as things usually get worse."

You might recall that in a 1976 TV Guide, the editors argued strongly that media exposure of the CIA's clandestine activities was harmful to American foreign policy, and concluded that while the public had the right to know how their government operated, "must we know everything about everything?"  I think that's a fair point, and ultimately what the editors are saying is that the media has to exercise responsible restraint in how much of a story they tell, while still ensuring that the story itself is told.  Not an easy task, but one would assume that teaching this kind of responsibility is what you should get in journalism school.

And if you thought that, you'd probably be wrong.

***

Judith Crist has one of her vintage rip jobs in her movie review section.  Her first target is the family comedy Hello Down There, which she describes as an "Ivan Tors production apparently designed to give fans of his "Flipper" more - just a little more - of the same.  It features Tony Randall and Janet Leigh as
the alleged adults in this travesty of a "family" film involving idiot parents (papa is a crazy inventor of an underwater house and mama gets her way by depriving him of you-know-what), moronic children (one suspects this is essentially a propaganda film for birth control), assorted television sub-personalities and a pair of dolphins.  The dolphins get all the lines.  A pity then didn't write them.  Those who are willing to settle for insults to their intelligence in the guise of situation comedy are welcome to it - but why foist it on the young?
She also tears into The Christmas Tree, with William Holden as the rich father of a dying 10-year-old son, who contracted radiation poisoning from an accident involving a military jet off the coast of Corsica while the two were camping there.
The movie is obviously against nuclear contamination of the air and doom of kiddies.  But beyond somehow suspecting that dear old dad is making his millions out of defense contracts, one needn't even comment on the vulgarity of dealing with so serious a subject on this level or the stupidity and tastelessness of the plotting.  The film's ultimate message basically is that if you've got to die young, it's good to be rich to enjoy it.  Depending on your taste threshold, of course, there may not be a dry eye- or a full stomach - in the house.
No wonder she'd described the week as consisting of movies with "the slickery and banality that too many of us tolerate in our search for nonviolent non-sordid entertainment.  It's an argument you saw often back then, and still see today - the idea that if you take sex and violence out of a movie, you're perforce left with little more than pablum.  It doesn't have to be that way, and it shouldn't be.  There is still a way to make tasteful, serious adult dramas - the question is, are there any adults left out there to enjoy them?

***

Finally, we close with the devastating news that, for the first time in its 21-year history, TV Guide is forced to increase the cover price of a single issue.  Ever since the first issue on April 3, 1953, the price has remained 15 cents, but starting next week, it will climb to 20 cents.  The annual subscription rate will go up as well, to $9.50.

Today, an annual subscription would set you back over $200, although it's not that hard to find special offers.  That's what I call paying a whole lot more for a whole lot less.

2 comments:

  1. The Family Circle Cup women's tennis tournament has since moved up the road from Hilton Head Island to Daniel Island (Charleston market) in the first weekend of April. The hotels for that event are very high, as the Charleston area is also known to hosting a 40,000-strong 10km running event on the Saturday of the Family Circle now, so hotels are literally $300 a night that weekend.

    There were no fatalities in the 1973 Indy 500 start crash. But looking at the videos of the 1973 and 1974 Indy 500 races and how the pit lane was designed, note how little runoff there was on the inside in 1973 -- after the Savage crash the pit entrance was changed though it was narrowed in 1993 by the elimination of the apron and addition of the pit entrance and exit lanes (the apron was removed in Turn 2 in 2000 in preparation for the road course).

    Completely different thinking but that's what motorsport and road safety coincide together.

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