Most of the technological advances discussed in this issue have to do with refining color and adding inputs in the rear of the television for the discerning technophile's VCR or laserdisk. I shouldn't really make fun of this; I was around in these days, and I remember being as impressed as anyone by these advances. But what interests me most about this article is that there's no attempt at forecasting the future, envisioning television screens as large as walls, or anything like that. It would have been fun, as always, to see just how close they came to predicting the future.
In the end, though, it's true that all of these advances have been incorporated into today's televisions as a fundamental part what makes TV work, and without them we probably wouldn't have what we enjoy today.
Herminio Traviesas tells us what it's like to be a network censor, or as the headline puts it, "the thankless task of cleaning up everyone else's act." Traviesas is the former vice president of Broadcast Standards for NBC, which means one of the shows under his purview is Saturday Night Live, enough to give anyone a headache.
Traviesas also tells of a line that he vetoed from the old Laugh-In show, belonging to Henry Gibson's meek pastor, who would have said, "I don't understand members of my flock who on Saturday sow their wild oats and on Sunday pray for crop failure." That one definitely would make it today; in fact, even if Gibson's pastor was a Catholic priest, they'd probably let it go.
Lest you think Traviesas' job was limited to the series that one might expect to be pushing the envelope of good taste, he throws this one in, from The Dean Martin Show. Seems that one year Dean's producer, Greg Garrison, wanted to open every show in a bar. Traviesas explained to him why this couldn't be done - "community standards, the feminist movement, the plight of alcoholics," and so on. That probably wouldn't be an issue today; you'd likely have to glamorize it in a setting other than that of a successful variety show headed by a man known for having a fondness for drink. At any rate, Garrison wasn't having any of it, either. "Last year," he told Traviesas, his voice rising, "you took away the braods. Now you want to take away the booze. What have I got left?"
The show that gave Traviesas the most problems? None other than Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. Johnny would, on occasion, throw out a word that he knew wouldn't make it past the censor, but he used it to get a rise out of the studio audience. He was cool with it being bleeped out of the show. His guests, however, weren't as understanding, as in the case of one who used a word which, interpolating the context of the story Traviesas relates, I would guess was "ass." You hear a lot worse today on family shows, but this one got the boot. (Kind of nice, when you think about it.) Says Traviesas, tongue-in-cheek, "I just made another momentous policy decision for NBC."
For instance, Durslag has as his three AFC division winners New England, Pittsburgh and San Diego. That actually sounds as if it would be a good bet today as well, doesn't it? In fact, however, of the three only the Chargers made it to the playoffs; both the Patriots and Steelers had winning records that would probably have gotten them into the playoffs nowadays, but back then there were only three divisions and two wild cards, so New England's 10-6 and Pittsburgh's 9-7 were just not good enough.
Over in the NFC, Durslag faired no better. Of his division winners - Philadelphia, Chicago and New Orleans - only the Eagles came out on top (and they'll go all the way to the Super Bowl, before falling to the Oakland Raiders, whom Durslag had finishing third in the AFC West). The Saints, who Durslag saw as a team possibly on the rise, finished with a record of 1-15 - the absolute worst in football. They didn't call them the 'Aints for nothing.
Of interest is Durslag's commentary on ABC's Monday Night Football. The franchise is still going strong, with Fran Tarkenton filling in for Don Meredith in nearly half the games. But there are possible cracks in the foundation, mostly pointing back to Howard Cosell. It's true that ad rates for MNF have risen from $65,000 a minute to $230,000 a minute today.* But for the first time the ratings have slipped a little, and CBS Radio, also carrying the games, reported a record audience. Stories are that people watch the picture on ABC but turn down the sound to favor CBS. No such long-term worries, though - MNF (now seen on ESPN) and its progeny, NBC's Sunday Night Football, continue to rule the ratings roost for their networks.
*The prorated figure today is nearly $1.2 million, by contrast.
It's Labor Day Weekend, which back in the day meant only one thing: the Jerry Lewis Telethon. If I can digress for a moment and give a personal opinion, I'm still offended by the way in which the Muscular Dystrophy Association gave Lewis the heave-ho after so many decades of service, making a heretofore unknown disease into one of America's Charities (if that isn't too crass a way of putting it; it isn't meant to be). The MDA Telethon was an institution, and now it's little more than an infomercial. The failure of MDA to disclose the reasons for the change don't say much for the organization's definition of transparency either, enough so that we've stopped giving to them. For all the criticism Jerry Lewis took over the years, there was never a shred of evidence of any financial impropriety, a rarity for any charity nowadays, and given MDA's tight-lipped response, it would cause one to wonder how reputable the agency is in handling its donations with Lewis gone. The sad part of this is that it's the kids, as always, that suffer. I know they're still taking in a lot of money (although I've heard that the conversation rates on pledges is much lower than previously; whether that's an urban myth or not I don't know), but they're not getting any of ours.
Be that as it may, there's no doubt that the show's quality declined over the years, which isn't surprising given the shift in entertainment, away from variety shows and toward Vegas entertainers that no longer carry the cache in mainstream America that they once did. The 1980 lineup features some big names, including Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Liza Minnelli, John and Patty Duke Astin, Johnny and June Carter Cash, Tony Bennett, Paul McCartney, and more. Now, there was an actors strike that year, so it's possible not everyone appeared, but it's still a pretty good lineup. I'm fairly sure I watched the Telethon that year - it might have been one of the last times I decided to make a go of it and watch the whole 21+ hours without sleep. I could do that back in my younger days, you know. The haul that year was $31,103,787
Here's a clip of Patty Duke Astin and her then-husband John hosting the New York segment of the show, along with their sons Mackenzie and Sean, who've done all right for themselves. Plenty of other stars appear with them as well.
I realize I've gotten this far, and I really haven't talked a bit about what's on television. Hmm.
Saturday: Not a program, but one of those "Vital Statistics" that TV Guide used to insert into the programming guide to fill space. According to the Screen Actor's Guild, "Although they are a full one-third of this Nation's population, people under the age of 19 make up only one-tenth of television's fictional population." I wonder if that's still true today - it sure seems as if there are more youngsters, or adults playing teens, than there used to be. At least as far as the IQ of today's shows, we can rest assured that teens are well-represented.
Sunday: For a minute I thought I was in PBS Pledge Week territory, but no - this program appears on WEAU, the NBC affiliate in Eau Claire. It's called The Neal Sedaka Touch, a special starring the early '60s pop singer whose career underwent a renaissance in the '70s, but who's now on the downslide of that comeback. He's joined by Andy GIbb and the Captain and Tennille, and Neil's daughter Dara, with whom he recorded one of his big comeback hits, "Should've Never Let You Go." I was never a big fan of Sedaka, but never had anything against him, either. WEAU aired this essentially as a warm-up for the Telethon.
Also on Sunday, an episode of William F. Buckley Jr.'s Firing Line on PBS features Buckley's tribute to liberal activist Allard Lowenstein, who'd been murdered five months earlier. I include this because it shows how much politics has changed since the '80s; Lowenstein and Buckley were about as far apart politically as could be. Buckley was the author of the nation's conservative movement, while Lowenstein was a former congressman and head of Americans for Democratic Action. Yet he was also a frequent guest on Firing Line, and the two men maintained a mutual respect despite their political differences. According to Buckley, Lowenstein "spent a praiseworthy and highly unusual amount of time listening to his constituents' complaints and trying to redress their grievances and injustices one-to-one, face-to-face." That, Buckley said, was a reason why he endorsed Lowenstein's reelection effort. Buckley was one of the eulogists at Lowenstein's funeral; here's a clip from the episode of Firing Line in question.
I wonder how many on either the right or left are like Buckley and Lowenstein today?
Monday: It's Labor Day, which means regular programming is subject to change. The Telethon continues on many channels, both independent and network affiliate. The CBS stations are covering the start of the second week of the U.S. Open tennis championship, with the broadcast starting at 11:30am CT and continuing through to 5:30, although WCCO bails out at 3pm to present The Joker's Wild followed by The John Davidson Show. Until I started rereading the early '80s issues, I'd completely forgotten that John Davidson had taken over for Mike Douglas on the Group W stations. He had the whole format down, from the 90-minute timespot to the celebrity co-host. John didn't have Mike's easy charm or appeal, though, and the show ended after two seasons. I never really liked John Davidson, by the way; nothing against him personally, but something about him always rubbed me the wrong way.
Labor Day sports include a matinee between the Cubs and Braves, tying up both WGN and WTBS for the afternoon, and a live broadcast of the All American Futurity quarter horse race from Ruidoso Downs, New Mexico. It was billed as the richest event in horse racing, and was broadcast at 7pm on KMSP, Channel 9. I always coupled the Futurity with the Telethon back in the day; I didn't consider my marathon TV watching complete unless I was able to make it through the race as well.*
*I was so disappointed the first time I saw the race; it was the first time I'd ever seen a quarter horse race, and I wasn't expecting the even shorter-than-usual event. All this for a million bucks? I thought.
Tuesday: It occurs to me that I've neglected to give you the biggest television story of the week, the continuing actors strike, which has indefinitely postponed the start of the new television season. As such, we're stuck with reruns, bad television movies, and reruns of bad television movies. Tonight we get part 1 of the massive war epic Midway on NBC, the disease-of-the-week drama "Echoes of a Summer Night" on CBS (salvaged by a cast including Richard Harris, Lois Nettleton and Jodie Foster), and reruns of staples like Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley and The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo. And you wonder why I don't spend much time on television of the '80s?
Wednesday: An NBC White Paper looks at the influence of Fidel Castro, "the spiritual godfather of every leftist revolution in Latin America." Back then, the U.S. still fought against Communist insurgents, particularly in this hemisphere. On the flip side, a coterie of stations present night two of telecasts from Billy Graham's crusade in Edmonton.
Thursday: PBS' afternoon talk-show lineup features a couple of episodes worth watching; Hugh Downs' interview with Peter Pan herself, Mary Martin, and her son, Dallas' own Larry Hagman. Following that, Dick Cavett's show talks with the great opera baritone Sherrill Milnes, and there were few better than him.
Friday: The action's all on late-night this time: Bob Hope is Johnny's guest on The Tonight Show, while CBS' late night features a classic Steed-Mrs. Peel episode of The Avengers, followed by part 1 of the Charlton Heston-Sophia Loren epic El Cid. And if that isn't enough for you, the classic sci-fi movie The Incredible Shrinking Man airs on WGN. In a week of reruns, it proves that the classics can still be the best thing on TV.