August 2, 2014

This week in TV Guide: August 1, 1981

It is as testimony to the high regard in which I hold you, my readers, that I present today's issue.  Having found myself in a lull when it comes to TV Guides covering the next few months, I invested in a supply of issues from the early 1980's, which will be making their way onto the site over the next few weeks.  This, despite the fact that, television-wise, the '80s rank far behind the late '50s-early '70s era of issues in which I'm most interested.  I could have let the project lay for the next few months, or I could have dipped into the archives and presented reruns or additional information - but no.  Instead I torture myself by going through issues that frequently are of no concern to me.  Suffering for the sake of art?  Or simply readership?  You be the judge.

***

So, what will pay-TV take away from free TV?  That was one of the major concerns from the late '60s on, as TV Guide became aware of the growing potential that lie in cable TV.  At first designed merely to bring a clear picture to outlying country towns unable to get conventional signals, it soon became apparent that cable TV could be used for much more, and that entire channels might someday spring forth.  That day is now.

Today, reports Neil Hickey (today being 1981), more than 10 million American homes have some type of pay-TV.  That's 12% of the possible number, and in another ten years that number's expected to triple. And while cable continues to climb in popularity, there's an even bigger prospect on the horizon - pay-per-view.

What is the attraction of pay-TV?  An Arbitron study asked a large sample of subscribers that question, and the answers really come as no surprise:


It's movies, and as Hickey notes, "families know they'll spend more going out to a single movie than a whole month's worth of pay-TV might cost them."  You'll notice that neither sports nor original programming appear on that list.  And yet, according to Hickey, "It's inevitable that most major sports ... someday will wind up on pay-TV because that's where the big money will be: promoters can sell "tickets" directly to the public and cut out the middleman, namely the advertiser."  Clearly, Hickey is thinking of PPV here, and in fact for as far back as I can remember, the talk has always been about how events like the World Series and the Super Bowl would sometime wind up on PPV.  In fact, that hasn't happened and isn't likely to - for one thing, although it would have seemed preposterous in the early '80s, the commercials are now for many the most interesting thing about the Super Bowl.

In fact, with the exception of niche sports like boxing, wrestling and MMA, PPV has never made a big dent in the sports scene.  Conventional cable, however, has.  The Rose Bowl and all major college bowl games, the Final Four, Wimbledon, the British Open, the Stanley Cup finals, NASCAR, the NBA playoffs, Monday Night Football and so many other major events, are now seen in part or in whole on cable, and baseball's Game of the Week has become irrelevant for most fans.

And while there's no doubt that movies remain a prime attraction of cable (and PPV), it's original programming that's now driving the momentum.  From The Sopranos to Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, True Detective and all the rest, there's a consensus that quality adult drama may well be the greatest selling point for today's cable TV.

But even in 1981, the networks are worried.  Had they known what the future would bring, they might have worried even more.

***

We've looked at articles the past few weeks from figures as varied as Arnold Toynbee and Malcolm Muggeridge, writing about everything from the unfulfilled promise of television to why TV should focus on what it does best.  This week, we hear from one of the heavyweights of television news: Fred Friendly.

Fred Friendly, dean of TV news
I'll assume most classic TV buffs know who Friendly was, but brief bio: collaborator with Edward R. Murrow, president of CBS News, TV host, professor of journalism, member of the Ford Foundation.  In short, television legend.  In this interview, Friendly is asked for his opinions on a number of news-related subjects, and his answers hold about as true for today as they did back in 1981.  To wit:

On local news:  "I think most local news would horrify [Murrow].  Speaking for myself - it makes me vomit.  Some local reporters actually are pretty good, and yet when those local shows go on at 6 o'clock and 11 o'clock, it's putrid.  There's a sort of giddiness to their news.  It's laughing, joking, reporters talking about their personal lives.  And sometimes they're laughing about things that aren't laughing matters.*

*I agree with this all, by the way.  Just watch any commercial for a local news organization, and you'll see the kind of chuckle-thon Friendly references.  I don't want the people who read the news to be my pals.  I'm not going to take them more seriously if they all act like they're friends who get together to have a few on the weekends.  I don't want people trying to make a difference.  I want the damn news.

On the media's sensitivity to criticism:  "If you say to a broadcast person or a newspaper person, 'You didn't report that story on productivity very well,' they're offended.  Suddenly, you're fighting the First Amendment.  Well, the First Amendment includes the right to tell a broadcaster that he's doing a lousy job.  If Spiro Agnew had been smarter, if he had done his homework better, if he hadn't been such a bully about it all, it would have been clear that everything he was saying about the press wasn't wrong."*

*Friendly's doubtlessly referring to Agnew's famous September 11, 1970 "Nattering nabobs of negativism" speech, in which he went on to attack the media for forming "their own 4-H Club - the "hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history."  The speech was written by William Safire.

On journalists' salaries:  The journalist who deserves to make a million dollars a year hasn't been invented.*  There's something obscene about that. . . When journalists become a part of the upper class, something has happened to the news business.  It's malevolent because it's taking away money from the news budget.  You could hire 10 or 20 camera crews for that."

*Of Barbara Walters, the original million-dollar-journalist, he said, "She's a fine person and a good journalist, but she's not worth a million dollars; nobody in journalism is."

On the future of cable TV:  Ted Turner is ahead of his time [in founding CNN]. . . There just aren't enough people out there on the cable - yet.  It's an idea whose time will come."  Friendly goes on to paint a very interesting portrait of what the future looks like: "There will be a CBS-1, CBS-2, CBS-3, CBS-4 and so forth.  CBS-1 will be the kind of popcorn television we now have, a billion-dollar penny arcade. Let it be.  Then there'll be CBS-2 (as well as ABC-2 and NBC-2), which will be all-news.  Then there'll be CBS-3, which will be performing arts; CBS-4, which will be all-sports; CBS-5, which will be something we can't even figure out yet."

For the most part, that prediction has come to pass.  ESPN, for example, is really ABC-4 (or perhaps ABC is ESPN-2), and Fox (which wasn't even around back then) already has Fox sports, Fox news, Fox business and Fox movies, as well as the "popcorn television" main network.  Both CBS and NBC have significant chunks of other networks, from USA to Bravo.  I think that what Friendly did not foresee - indeed, nobody in the TV Guides of this era does - is that the niche networks, as we now call them, would succumb to the same pressure for ratings and homogeneity.  Arts networks (and any other low-performing niche network) are gone, and just about any non-specialty station left is nothing more than a collection of the same endless network reruns, syndicated programming, and infomercials.  I mean, I defy anyone to identify the difference between TBS, WGN, USA, TNT, Bravo, Hallmark, Lifetime and the rest.  They all may have one or two areas in which they specialize (the soapy movie on Hallmark and Lifetime, for example), but as to the rest of it there's virtually no difference.  And that makes me feel about the way Fred Friendly felt about local news.

***

ABC's In Concert is long gone by now, but when I saw the listings (on multiple channels) for Solid Gold, I thought I might have something I could match up to NBC's The Midnight Special on Friday night - but the clock's struck 12 for Special.  In its place is one of the great shows of the '80s, SCTV.

At this point in time it's called SCTV Network 90, to distinguish it from the syndicated reruns of SCTV Television Network that still air, and a good chunk of the network version is still comprised of bits from that syndicated series.  But the long-form spoofs that became the hallmark of SCTV are coming to the fore now, and this week's show features one of the show's funniest bits: a takeoff on Chinatown called Polynesiantown, which contains one of the great running jokes ever on TV.  You probably ought to track down the entire episode, but here's the memorable ending, including that crane shot that would come back to haunt Johnny LaRue for years to come.


***

If you look through this issue and get the feeling something's missing, you're right.  Baseball.  Where have all the players gone?

On strike, that's where.  No, this isn't the one that wiped out the World Series; that wouldn't happen for over a decade.  This is a different strike; it started on June 12, and before it ended it would force cancellation of nearly 40% of the season.  There are rumors, however, that the strike may be ending soon, and in anticipation of that possibility TV Guide has included a handy schedule at the front of the issue, with the games that might be seen this week.  Such was not the case, however; the strike is settled on July 31 (after the press date of this issue), and play resumes on August 9 with the All-Star Game in Cleveland.*

*A byproduct of the strike is that the season was split into two halves, with the division winners from each half advancing to the playoffs.  The unintended consequence of this was that the two teams with the best overall records in baseball, the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals, each failed to make the postseason because neither had been in first at the right time of the year.

In the meantime, Superstation WTBS, the home of the Atlanta Braves, is reduced to showing minor league baseball featuring the Braves' AAA affiliate in Richmond.  In the meantime, NBC replaces its Saturday afternoon Game of the Week with something called "NBC Sports' Summer Season," and if that sounds suspiciously like a show thrown together at the last minute, you're probably right.  This week's show features women's college tennis*, the Royal Horse Show, taped at Wembley, a pair of karate world championship bouts, and a NASCAR race taped in July.  Yes, these were the days before every race was carried live - and that should tell you how sports coverage has changed since then.

*This was so long ago, the NCAA hadn't yet become the orverriding governing body for women's college sports; the tourney is instead sponsored by the AIAW, the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, which will be superseded by the NCAA the following year.

***

Same song, different tune: yet again, a blurb in TV Update tells us that CBS and NBC are pushing for hour-long newscasts within the year.  This is one of the two drumbeats constantly played in TV Guide over the years, the other being the possibility that one of the networks will move its evening news into prime time rather than the dinner hour.  The affiliates are resisting the move, of course, because it will come out of their time.  The networks have countered with a proposal to get rid of that half-hour Prime-Time Access Rule that was supposed to give viewers local public affairs programming and instead saddled them with syndicated game shows and imported trash like Police Surgeon.  

It doesn't happen, of course.  As is the case with the push for prime-time news, it never happens.  To this day the networks maintain a 30-minute dinnertime newscast (and seem hard-pressed to fill even that little amount, given the number of features that would seem to fit in more with Oprah Winfrey's network).  The affiliates still maintain the half-hour before prime-time, and the programming hasn't gotten any better.  

There is one notable mention in this piece, though, and that's the emergence of ABC as the number one news program in the ratings - the first time ever for the network.  There are mitigating circumstances, of course; Dan Rather has just taken over for Walter Cronkite, and after the curiosity bump in ratings that usually accompanies these kinds of moves (see: Couric, Katie), CBS has fallen behind ABC.  There's more to it than just that, though; it's a measure of the impact of Roone Arledge as head of ABC News.  ABC's World News Tonight features not just one but three anchors - Frank Reynolds in Washington, Max Robinson in Chicago, and Peter Jennings in London, with Barbara Walters providing interviews from New York.  I always thought it was a terrific newscast, and it would stay on top even after Reynolds' death in 1983, when Jennings would take over and embark on his own long run as television's elder statesman of the news.  Ironic, given that in his first stint as ABC anchor, he had been the youngest anchor ever, at 27.  He was a pro, through and through.

***

I've studiously ignored the cover story of this week's issue until here, at the end.  Yes, the Muppets are big TV stars now, thanks to the syndicated Muppet Show, and none bigger than Miss Piggy.  I remarked a few weeks ago of my fondness for Rowlf, who had appeared with Jimmy Dean on his ABC series, and as much as I liked Rowlf, that's how much I hated Piggy.  I don't know if it was the annoying voice, the irritating self-centeredness, the way she bullied Kermit, or what.  Yes, I know it was all supposed to be an act, and this was how we were supposed to see the character, but I never thought that bit was funny.  I still don't think it's funny.


I looked for a clip of the above, but couldn't find one, so you'll just have to be content with words.  It's from the Academy Awards telecast of 1980.  She's been complaining about not being nominated for an Oscar for The Muppet Movie.

Miss Piggy:Jonathan, you saw "The Muppet Movie." Can you stand there, in your rented tuxedo, and tell me that I am not Oscar material?
Carson: Oscar Mayer, maybe!

Even Johnny wasn't able to keep a straight face for that one.  Piggy wasn't amused, but I sure was.


***

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9 comments:

  1. I want you to know that your efforts on our behalf with this issue from 1981 are appreciated.

    Fred Friendly's note about million-dollar journalists rings true today. One of the reasons we get the news coverage we get today is that the bigfoot reporters, broadcast and print, who cover Washington are paid a fortune to do it, and as a result they've adopted the point of view of the wealthiest class of Americans. They have no experience with and don't understand the concerns of working people, and they don't know anybody with children in the military. Thus their reporting tends to reflect it---cheerleading economic policy that benefits the wealthy at the expense of the poor, and supporting military actions that will involve other people's kids. Washington's elite reporter class may be liberal on social issues, but not on all issues.

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    1. Thanks for the appreciation, jb! I think you make an excellent point. I'd expand it even further than that, that the media tend to have a distorted viewpoint on anything that effects them. (I recall Chet Huntley once getting in a bit of hot water over a commentary of his decrying government regulation on something - the meat industry, perhaps - only for us to find out that Huntley, the rancher, had a vested interest in deregulation of the area because it was of economic benefit to him.)

      As is so often, the case, if you want to get to the bottom of things, follow the money.

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  2. It was fascinating to read what experts thought the future of cable TV would be, and how much they got right (and wrong). One could become wistful over some of their beliefs in higher ideals and a medium that would continue to provide more educational and cultural programming once channel selection had expanded.

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    1. Indeed, David. Their percentage of what they got right was probably far higher than most "futurists" would get, and yet you're right; what we'll remember is the idealistic predictions that never came to pass. Terry Teachout alluded to that in his Wall Street Journal piece last week talking about LBJ's charge to PBS to "enrich man's spirit." I don't think he had marathons by Dr. Wayne Dyer in mind... http://goo.gl/BHSZTI

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  3. After Frank Reynolds' death, ABC changed "World News Tonight" to a solo-anchor format with Peter Jennings.

    I had heard that ABC was going to get rid of the triple-anchor format anyway in 1983, but if Reynolds had lived he, and not Peter Jennings, would have gotten the nod as sole anchor.

    Is this story true??

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    1. My first thought was that I'd not heard that before, but now I'm not sure. World News Tonight was my news of choice back then, and I do remember that they'd modified the format somewhat to make Reynolds the "first among anchors"; the original plan would have had either Jennings or Max Robinson as leading off the news if the big story of the day happened to involve foreign affairs or the national news scene (as opposed to Washington, where Reynolds was). By the time of Reynolds' death, I think he'd pretty much emerged as the lead, although Robinson and Jennings maintained co-anchor status.

      So as I think about it, I think there's something to what you'd heard. Not necessarily that they'd ditch the triple-anchor format, but that Reynolds had clearly become the lead. But you might well be right that they'd planned to formally make it a one-anchor show. Anyone else have any information on this?

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    2. It's already thirty years ...?

      The way I remember it was that by '83, Frank Reynolds was missing more and more broadcasts as his cancer worsened; remember, he'd gotten his terminal diagnosis five years before, just about the time he got World News Tonight.
      David Brinkley, who'd just joined ABC to do the Sunday morning show, was hurriedly pressed into duty on the nightly show - and after a short time, he was appearing in the promos.
      Meanwhile, Max Robinson was feeling dissed by what he perceived as his own diminishing role at the network, combined with some bad press he was getting for his "attitude"; he was known to be making noises about leaving some time before Reynolds's death.
      By the time that last event happened, ABC was coming to the realization that one anchorman was simpler to promote than three, and since Jennings had the resume - well, there you are.
      That's what my bookshelf and my memory say, anyhow.

      In 1950s Chicago, we always looked at the local news people as "friends and family", as opposed to "oracles pontificating from on high".
      I'll just give one example to serve for many:
      For most of the '50s and '60s, the main anchor at CBS-channel 2 was Fahey Flynn, who was Chicago's most popular 10 o'clock news reader during that period.
      Flynn was a short, stocky Irishman, round-faced and mellow-voiced; his trademark was a bow tie, and his standard greeting was "How do you do, ladies and gentlemen!"
      Circa 1966, when color took over, CBS network management ordered Flynn to stop wearing bow ties and to change his open to "Good evening."
      You wouldn't believe the ruckus this kicked off in Chicago. Every columnist in town (Chicago still had four daily papers back then) weighed in on whether Fahey Flynn should be allowed to dress as he wanted to (unsurprisingly,most of them favored the bow tie).
      Cutting to the chase: not long after this, Flynn jumped to ABC-channel 7, where was teamed with a younger anchor, Joel Daly.
      The papers were abuzz over whether Flynn's bow tie would be restored to him.
      All Chicago was watching that Monday night.
      What they saw that night:
      The whole news team was wearing tuxedos - all with bow ties.
      The next night, ch7 debuted the blue blazers that were ultimately picked up by the ABC network O&Os for their newscasts.
      Fahey Flynn kept his bow tie - and he opened every newscast with "How do you do, ladies and gentlemen!" - right up to his own passing in 1983 (not long after Frank Reynolds's death).

      As I said above, this is one story that can serve for many. I tell it here to show why people my age tend not to take all this so seriously.

      More when I can think of it.

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    3. I love that story, Mike! I think we get kind of jaded because of all the "happy news" we see, but I would have loved to see the whole team wearing tuxes that night!

      Good info on World News Tonight. I know this is pretty hard to answer given that Reynolds already had his terminal diagnosis (which I didn't know, by the way, that he'd known for that long) - is it your feeling that, considering the strong ratings the program had, he would have been the sole anchor had his health permitted?

      Another point - is there any network that recycled evening news anchors as much as ABC? Reynolds, Smith, Jennings - they all served two terms, as I recall. I'm just surprised they didn't try to bring John Daly back...

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    4. Most TV historians blame WLS-TV, channel 7 in Chicago, with inventing "happy-talk news" with the Fahey Flynn-Joel Daly combination.
      Actually, this had more to do with the station promos, which leaned heavily toward humor.
      These were the creation of a Chicago commercial producer named Joe Sedelmaier, the man who came up with the fast-talking FedEx man and "Where's the beef?"
      Some of Sedelmaier's spots included a spot-on take-off on the old Fox Movietone newsreels, and a spot which depicted the newscasters as having met in a WW I trench, or in a 1930s-style fender-bender. Fahey Flynn and weatherman John Coleman in particular performed these spots with a kind of bravura that rubbed many "serious critics" the wrong way.
      When the ABC O&Os picked up the informal style for their own stations, the anti-TV press was quick to jump on it - negatively, of course.

      Had Frank Reynolds not been ill, there's some doubt about whether he would have stayed at ABC, given some well-documented difficulties he had with Roone Arledge.
      The other two nets were well-settled with their own anchors, so there wouldn't have been many options for him, and ABC's rising ratings might have kept him there.


      ABC's high turnover in anchors was a fact of life there, dictated by its limited finances (as opposed to NBC and CBS) and its low bench strength (many of its name correspondents came there after they made their bones at the bigger nets).
      As for John Daly:
      Remember, he hadn't just been the anchorman in the '50s - he was the head of ABC News, radio and TV both. He most likely wouldn't have returned as a hired hand (I know you were joking, but I think it needed to be pointed out).

      Lastly:
      The Flynn-Daly News lasted at Channel 7 for well over a decade.
      Whenever they marked an anniversary, they donned their tuxedoes for the occasion.
      At the close of the show , they'd wheel out a big cake ...
      ... and over the credits, they'd play a song from South Pacific:
      ... Happy Talk
      Keep talking Happy Talk ...



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