January 31, 2014

Ed Hookstratten, Joe Buck, The Fugitive and more!

In response to last week's TV Guide post mentioning the marriage (and eventual divorce) of actress Pat Crowley and attorney Ed Hookstratten, loyal readers Ken and Andrew each forwarded a link to a notice of Ed Hookstratten's obituary, which appeared on the same day as my post.*  Hookstratten led a remarkable life; in addition to his marriage to Crowley, he acted as attorney and/or agent to such widely varied figures as singers Peggy Lee and Elvis Presley, football coach George Allen, and newsmen Tom Snyder and Tom Brokaw.  His nickname was "The Hook," which has to be one of the great (if slightly unimaginative) nicknames in Hollywood.  Really, read the obit - quite a life.

*I certainly hope it was nothing I said.

You probably recall that The Fugitive was on my list of Top Ten TV series, which means I was naturally interested in a couple of Fugitive posts this week.  Rick at Classic Film and TV Cafe* tells us about seven things we ought to know about The Fugitive, which Rick likewise esteems highly.  On the other hand, TV When I Was Born points out that Kimble must have had a bad attorney to be convicted on such a flimsy case, especially when his alibi might well have checked out.  I don't quite agree with his harsh assessment of Lieutenant Gerard - I've always thought that Gerard was merely myopic in focusing on his job so much that he didn't consider whether or not Kimble was actually guilty.  No doubt though that Barry Morse played Gerard to the hilt, and made you want to see him as the bad guy.

*Given that interview with the stunning Elke Sommer (and that picture!), it's a wonder I was able to get to any of the other posts.

Another blog I've enjoyed a great deal lately is Cult TV Blog, and this week John takes on one of my favorite (or should I say favourite) episodes from The Prisoner, "Fall Out."  His analysis of the big questions from the series (Is Number Six really John Drake?  Who is really Number One?  What the hell was that last episode all about) is a lot of fun to read.  John, if you're reading this, I owe you some discussion on the Six/Drake issue - I agree that they're one and the same man, and I like your take on it.  My own literal interpretation has been that Danger Man simply continues into The Prisoner, picking up the story at a later time and date, but that the groundwork for Drake's* resignation had been laid in the last season of Danger Man.  By taking it a step further (and no, readers, I'm not going to tell you - read it for yourself) makes a lot of sense.  But now, here's the burning question - can Arsenal take first in the Premier League or is City too strong for them?  And what about United?

*If, in fact, that is his name.

Classic Sports TV and Media presents some archival audio from the television broadcast of the 1965 NFL Championship, back when it was merely a league title game and not a worldwide entertainment phenomenon.  I remember this game vaguely; it would have been the start of my rooting interest in the Packers, whom I especially wanted to win because the Browns had defeated the Colts (my second-favorite team) for the championship the year before.  Mostly I remember the mud - check out the pictures for yourself.

And finally, though this is not particularly about classic television, who could not like this terrific faux Super Bowl promotion starring Joe Buck.  I have to put myself down as one of those who prefer his father Jack, but I've quite liked some of the self-effacing commercials Joe has done in the past, and this spoof on the dislike so many fans have for him is not only that, it's laugh-out-loud funny.  A good way to lead into the weekend - see you tomorrow with another great issue of TV Guide.

January 29, 2014

The 180-minute warning

What with the Super Bowl coming up this weekend, I thought this might be an appropriate time to revisit a story I'd done at the motherblog a few years ago. The statistics in the article might have changed slightly, but not significantly.  You've probably read me refer to the Super Bowl as the "Stupor Bowl," and the "Super Bore," among other derogatory comments.  There's a good reason why.

An interesting article by David Biderman in the Wall Street Journal back in 2010 talked about the amount of action in the average professional football telecast. According to Biderman's research, there is an average of 10 minutes and 43 seconds of action during a three-hour broadcast. Less than eleven minutes, out of 180. Lest you get too up in arms about that, though, Biderman reports the following:

In November 1912, Indiana University's C.P. Hutchins, the school's director of physical training, observed a game, stopwatch in hand, between two independent teams. He counted 13 minutes, 16 seconds of play. During last week's Wild Card games, Mr. Crippen, the football researcher, dissected the broadcasts and found about 13 minutes, 30 seconds of action.

Well, that's a relief.

So the amount of action in a football game has changed by less than three minutes in the course of almost one hundred years. But if games seem to be taking longer to play than they used to, there's a good reason why.

Back in the day (actually, up until the the very early 1970s), NFL games had a uniform starting time of 1 p.m. local time (except in Baltimore, where the Blue Laws prevented games from kicking off prior to 2:00.) That meant games in the Midwest (Minneapolis, Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas) started an hour after those on the East Coast; thus, the second game of the doubleheader (if there was one; they were fairly rare until the late 60s) would be joined in progress.

That wasn't such a big deal back when I was growing up in the 60s, though, since it wasn't unusual to see games come in at around 2½ hours, meaning you'd only miss part of the first quarter of that second game. And when the game did run over three hours – the Heidi Bowl, for example – it was usually due to penalties, incomplete passes, and the like. Since games often ended before 7, networks had highlight shows (the Sperry-Rand Scoreboard show on NBC, for example) in case they needed to fill the time.

Contrast that to today’s television schedule, where the early games begin at 1:00 Eastern time (noon if you’re in the Central time zone), and are scheduled to fit into a 3¼ hour time spot. If there's a doubleheader, the second game doesn’t start until 4:15, and the whole telecast (including the post-game show) won’t wrap up until 7:30. Unless, of course, there's overtime.

So if the amount of action in the average game hasn’t changed that much, then what gives? Well, for starters, there's about an hour's worth of commercials included in each broadcast. Think of that - one hour, 60 minutes. Figure that each commercial is 30 seconds; that makes 120 commercials. If some of them are 15 second spots, that makes for even more. True, many of these take place during natural stoppages in the game, but the commercials serve to make those stoppages longer than they otherwise would have been. And then there's the insidious "TV timeout," which creates a pause (after a kickoff or turnover, for example) that not only isn't natural, it can (and often does) disrupt the flow of the game. (Touchdown, extra point, commercial, kickoff, commercial. Yeah, that's a real good flow.) But as we know, as long as the game (and the networks) depends on sponsorship money, it isn't going to change any time soon.

What about the rest of the time, you ask? Well, there's the seemingly endless replay of the previous play: 17 minutes are devoted to that alone. The instant replay didn't come into usage until the early 60s, and even then it was used primarily to show an extraordinary play, to allow people to have another look at it. There might have been some analysis included, but nothing like the dissecting that goes on now, where you might see the play from a dozen different angles: overhead, reverse angle, sideline, every which way. ESPN was the worst offender here (41% more on average than the other three networks), to no one's surprise.

You get 75 minutes of players just standing around, which is to be expected since the average play only takes up about four seconds. Shots of the head coaches and referees take up about 13 minutes. The halftime show runs 15 or 20 minutes. (Cheerleaders, incidentally, only take up about three seconds per game.) As Biderman notes, the ratio of inaction to action is about 10 to 1.

Apparently all this hasn't driven viewers away; a lot of people watch the Super Bowl more for the commercials than the game itself. I haven't watched the Super Bowl in probably ten years, so I wouldn't know.

In fact, all this has really helped to drive me away from watching football on TV. I'll watch the odd college game, and I remain a dedicated fan of the faster-paced Canadian version, but the NFL leaves me cold. TV isn't all to blame; between the politically correct owners, the hoodlum players, the semi-pornographic commercials, the drunken fans, and the fawning announcers, there's plenty of reason to find something else to watch.

So when you're watching the Super Bowl on Sunday, having possibly paid in excess of $1,000 for tickets to see it in person, you've obviously made a value-based decision that your time and money are well spent. So there's no use arguing about it, or trying to convince yourself otherwise. It is what it is.

It just seems to me you're left with too much of what you don't want, and not enough of what you do.

January 25, 2014

This week in TV Guide: January 29, 1966

I'm generally not one to make hay of other people's misfortunes, but there's a line in Robert De Roos' cover story profile of Pat Crowley that shouts out for contextualization.

The actress, currently starring with Mark Miller in NBC's Please Don't Eat the Daisies, is talking about her marriage to attorney Ed Hookstratten.  De Roos asks her if the marriage, now eight years long, will last now that she's working on a weekly series.  "It sure is," she tells him.  "We are Catholics and there is a little solidity there."

That sounded like such a refreshing attitude to me that I immediately went to Google, to find that the Hookstrattens had divorced sometime in the 70s or 80s - Crowley remarried in 1986, to producer Andy Friendly.*

*Fun fact: Andy Friendly's father is legendary TV newsman Fred Friendly; his brother, David Friendly, was nominated for an Oscar in 2006 as producer of Little Miss Sunshine.

I hasten to say here that I have no knowledge of why Crowley and Hookstratten divorced, and I don't want to play either a pop psychologist, a pop marriage counselor, or a pop theologian.  But one of the many tragedies of the Catholic Church in the latter half of the 20th Century - particularly the post-Vatican II turmoil, which reached a peak in 1968 with Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae - is the breakdown of basic Catholic beliefs.  By the late 60s, Catholic doctrine had become a smorgasbord; if you didn't like what one priest had to say on birth control, for example, you could shop around and find a priest who would readily sanction it.  Similar situations existed for everything from premarital sex to divorce and remarriage to a whole host of previous elements of Catholic teaching that had rarely been questioned.  Inevitably, this kind of confusion among the faithful led many to doubt the Church's sincerity, authority, - what have you.  Bottom line: no solidity.

Again, I have no reason to think that this might have had any role to play in Pat Crowley's divorce from Ed Hookstratten. But I do think it's part of this blog's narrative to fit these kinds of things into the larger cultural environment.  The 60s were already a period of flux by now, and they were headed toward even more cataclysmic change. Understanding the climate of the times (even though the insufficient space here hardly scratches the surface) puts little moments like this into some sense of context.  It even adds, I think, a note of poignancy.

*Hookstratten, Elvis Presley's personal attorney, represented The King in his divorce from Priscilla, which certainly suggests mixed feelings regarding divorce.  


***

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..

Sullivan: Scheduled guests: Dinah Shore; puppet Topo Gigio; comic Jackie Vernon; the rock'n' rolling Four Tops; Les Feux Follets, Canadian folk dancers; guitarist José Feliciano; comic Dick Capri; Markworth and Mayana, trick bow-and-arrow act; and Army sergeant Barry Sadler, who sings "The Ballad of the Green Berets."  In a special film segment, Sir Laurence Olivier is seen in excerpts from his film of Shakespeare's "Othello."
  
Palace: Host Arthur Godfrey presents comedian Sid Caesar; singer Abbe Lane; The Mamas and the Papas, rock 'n' roll group; comic Corbett Monica; the Berosinis, Czechoslovakian acrobats; and Les Apollos, balancing act.

I like Dinah, and you can't beat Olivier doing Shakespeare (nor the beat of "The Ballad of the Green Berets"), but I think Abbe Lane and Sid Caesar, with a little help from The Old Redhead, are enough to push Palace over the finish line first this week.

Now, if you lived in LaCrosse, Wisconsin and were so inclined to tune to WKBT, Channel 8 (the NBC affiliate), you would have been able to catch last week's episode of Palace at 10:30pm on Tuesday night*. Let's see if that might have made for a better show:

*Since Western Wisconsin lacked an ABC affiliate at the time.

Palace (from last week):  Fred Astaire hosts this night at the Palace making a rare TV appearance with dancer Barrie Chase.  Guests include Mickey Rooney and his nightclub partner Bobby Van; British singer Petula Clark; the Nitwits, musical cutups; the Lenz Chimps; and comedian Ray Hastings.

Yes.  It definitely did make for a better show. See?


***

In the early days of this blog, I did a piece on the short-lived Sammy Davis, Jr. Show, which featured the oddity of its star having to sit out nearly a month's worth of shows immediately following the premiere due to a no-compete clause.  Seems that Sammy had done a special for ABC, and the terms of that contract prohibited him from appearing on any other network for the three weeks immediately preceding the show. The Sammy Davis, Jr. show was on NBC.  You can, of course, see the problems coming a mile away.

SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
Well, this is the week that Sammy and His Friends, the ABC special in question, airs, and he hangs out with a pretty cool bunch of people: Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, Edie Adams and Joey Heatherton.  It's on Tuesday night at 7:30pm ET, up against Red Skelton on CBS (with guests George Gobel and The Hollies) and Dr. Kildare on NBC.*  As for Sammy's own show, it airs its fourth episode on Friday night, the third to feature a guest host - this week, Jerry Lewis, who welcomes Peggy Lee, the comic Weire Brothers, singer Danny Costello, and The Skylarks.  Debuting your own show and then having to follow it up with three weeks' worth of guest hosts doesn't seem to me to be a successful formula.  I said it in my earlier article and I'll say it again here - what a strange, strange situation.

*I wonder how NBC felt about all this?  On the one hand, a ratings win for Sammy might well have boded well for the ratings on his NBC series; on the other, the network would probably have wanted to see Kildare beat Red.  Should such an absurd thing happen nowadays, I wonder if the network would consider airing a Kildare rerun?


***

Sammy's show probably didn't stand much of a chance anyway - it's opposition was Hogan's Heroes and Gomer Pyle on CBS, The Addams Family and Honey West on ABC.  But later on that Friday night, we'll see another oddity: Garry Moore on a network other than CBS.

Moore had been a fixture on the network since his radio show debuted in 1949; from 1950 on he'd had both morning and evening variety programs, as well as his long-running emcee duties on I've Got a Secret.  But Moore's prime-time show had been cancelled by the network in 1964, after which he'd left Secret and the network.  Now, a year and a half later, Moore's ready to come back.  There's only one problem - CBS, to whom he's still under contract, doesn't want him.  Or, to be precise, they don't want what he has to offer.

Moore acknowledges that the variety format he'd been so successful with has seen better days, and he's ready for something new and different.  He thought he'd found the answer when CBS news chief Fred Friendly approached him about working on some public affairs programs, but the network's policy forbade entertainers from working in news or public affairs.  In later years, Moore will talk with TV Guide about his desire to move into news and "people" programming, even becoming a news reporter, and his immense frustration at CBS' reluctance to see him in that light.  You can see the seeds of that disappointment here, as Moore chafes at being paid "to sit around and do nothing."  His exclusive contract with CBS, which prevents him from doing a series for any other network and requires him to give CBS first refusal on any one-shot special, still has nine years to run. He's asked the network to release him from the contract, but they refuse to do so.  His only recourse is to sue, an option he says he'd consider.

In the meantime, an agency came up with an idea right up Moore's alley.  Garry Moore's People Poll, a special in which he gets to travel around the country interviewing ordinary people and asking them basic questions: Do you kiss your wife when you get up in the morning?  Are you stricter than your own parents?  Are you satisfied with your life - and what changes would you make if you could start over? Things like that.  Per the provisions of the contract, the show is first offered to CBS, which turns it down.  So he turned elsewhere.  "We were delighted," Moore says, "to find a more flexible policy at ABC."

Earlier in the article, Moore mentions a project he and Jay Ward are working on for CBS, a comedy-variety program.  It debuts in the fall, and is quickly wiped out by Bonanza.  Moore will eventually come back to regular television as host of the syndicated To Tell the Truth (with CBS' approval) in 1969, and will host it until 1977, after which, suffering from throat cancer, he'll retire for good, dying in 1993.

Here's footage from Moore's final appearance on To Tell the Truth in 1977.

***
Some classy programming this week, the kind you'd never see today:  Sir John Gielgud stars in part two of Ages of Man, in which he gives dramatic readings from Shakespeare's works.  It runs for an hour on CBS, which split the original two-hour version of Gielgud's one-man Broadway show into two parts and broadcast them on Sunday afternoons, because they worried that viewers wouldn't be able to sit still long enough to listen to a longer show, and wouldn't tune in if it were on prime-time.  At least they showed it at all - I doubt they would today.  If you're curious about what kind of show it was, here's a brief excerpt:


If you liked that, you can get the whole program (both hours) here.

And on Thursday night, NBC reminds us of what Hallmark Hall of Fame used to be before it became home to tear-jerking sentimental chick flicks, when they present a rerun of "The Magnificent Yankee," a biography of the Washington years of Supreme Count justice Oliver Wendell Holmes starring the husband-and-wife team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, two of the greats of the theater.  "The Magnificent Yankee" won five Emmy awards when it was originally broadcast, including Best Actor (Lunt), Best Actress (Fontanne) and Best Drama.

SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
Oh, and one of the co-hosts of the 1965 Emmy Awards show?  Sammy Davis, Jr.

***

John Schneider, president of CBS, had this to say at the recent convention of the Association of National Advertisers:
By 1975 virtually every television home in the United States will be capable of receiving programming from six times as many sources as today!. . .
By 1975 it looks as if three out of four homes will own at least two sets. . . No longer will every member of the family be forced to look at the same program.  Viewing will become fractionalized and selective. . . 
The teen-ager, the intellectual, the tired businessman, the housewife - each will be able to tune in the particular kind of entertainment, information, music or discussion that suits his or her respective desires.

Now, I don't know how things were by 1975, but his predictions become very interesting when viewed in light of today's cultural norms.  For example, every home today has at least six times as many programming sources, but Schneider couldn't have anticipated how they would shake out.  Streaming video on laptops, tablets, iPhones, Roku; original programming on services like Netflix that mean you don't even have to have access to conventional television broadcasting; DVDs and DVRs that enable viewers to watch an entire season of a series over a weekend,even if that series is 50 years old - it has, indeed, resulted in fractionalized viewing.

But even more, technology has forever changed the impact of television viewing.  Because people can watch whatever they want whenever they want, the shared experience of watching television has virtually disappeared, except for the Super Bowl.  Schneider did indeed foresee this kind of individual viewing, with the concurrent result that programs no longer had to appeal to a broad audience, but could he have predicted the kind of Balkanization that resulted?

TV Guide's editors wonder about this vision of the future.  They look at the current state of television in Los Angeles, where numerous multi-TV homes and ten stations have merely produced programming "given over to hundreds of old movies and old TV series."  And isn't that what we have today?  I've made this complaint before (as have others) so I won't belabor the point, but who can tell TNT from TBS from USA from Cloo from Bravo from Hallmark? What's the difference between A&E and History and TLC and Discovery?

Reality programming of one kind or another dominates networks as diverse as HGTV and TruTV.  MTV is all about lifestyle, and ESPN spends half their broadcasting day with editions of SportsCenter.  Cultural programming, which used to be seen at least occasionally on some of these networks, is all but gone.  And overnight hours (on both cable and OTA stations) is dominated by informercials and replays of previously broadcast shows.  Is this really what the future was supposed to give us?

The editors compare Schneider's view of TV's future to the state of radio in 1966, "which long since has become fractionalized (several sets per home) and selective (there's a choice of many stations everywhere).  In most areas these days, once you've heard the news, radio offers records, talking disc jockeys and very little else."  Is TV today any more diverse than that?

TV Guide's conclusion was this:  "Improvement and variety in programming will not just happen in television any more than they happened in radio.  There must be planning.  There must be direction.  So far we have neither."  I'll end by asking the question: is there any evidence that television executives are doing any planning today?  Or are they simply waiting for things to happen?

January 24, 2014

Review: Mitzi Gaynor: Razzle Dazzle! The Special Years

Below is a DVD review done a few years ago at the motherblog, which in looking back, I think is pretty good.  I can assure you that I didn't pay what Amazon is asking for it; I don't think any single DVD I have is worth that. But if you can find it for considerably less, it's a great look at the glamour of TV back in the day.


I don't know how many of you remember Mitzi Gaynor, but it's a pity that more people don't. Her biggest role was that of Ensign Nellie Forbush in the 1958 film version of South Pacific. After that she had a very successful run in Vegas with her own show. Mitzi Gaynor could do it all: she was vivacious, she could act, she could sing - and boy, could she dance.  You get all this and more in the new DVD Mitzi Gaynor: Razzle Dazzle! The Special Years.

From the first moment of her 1968 special, simply entitled Mitzi, it was apparent that television showcased Mitzi Gaynor's talents to the utmost. It was a confluence of factors that made these annual specials, which ran between 1968 and 1978, so spectacular. By 1968 color TV was hardly a novelty, and these shows take full advantage of the color saturation that was common to the era, with hues that fairly leap off the screen.

Then too, broadcast standards had eased somewhat by then (this was the 60s, after all), and the costumes by designer Bob Mackie played this to the hilt. The fabrics often appeared nude or semi-nude, accompanied by a judicious placement of spangles. (Mackie later adapted some of these costumes for use by another of his famous clients: Cher.)

The specials were loaded with big-name guest stars of the era; some of their names might not mean as much to you now as they did then (Mike Connors, Ross Martin, and Ken Berry), while others should ring a bell (Jerry Orbach, Suzanne Pleshette, Michael Landon and George Hamilton, to name a few). And they featured great production numbers, mostly choreographed by the great Tony Charmoli.

But the biggest asset to these specials was Mitzi herself. Between her terrific dance moves, the Mackie costumes, and her own formidable figure, one can only regret that these were not originally telecast in HD. (Or perhaps not; Mackie mentions one Mitzi dance that the network censor deemed a little too provocative, ordering her to be shown only from the mid-upper body up. The disc shows, for the first time, the full-body footage as it was originally shot.) Need more evidence? Check out the trailer below:



So why have I gone on for so long without telling you much about this DVD? Because it's important for you to know why you should want it. The hour-long program features highlights from Gaynor's eight specials, along with comments by Gaynor, Mackie, and others such as Kristin Chenoweth, Carl Reiner, and choreographer Charmoli. Now, since this show is popping up on public television pledge drives all over the place, you might figure that you'll just wait and let the DVR take care of it. Which is where you'd be wrong. The extras on this disc are wonderful; over an hour of features, including extended musical numbers from each of the specials, a sit-down (or more like a stand-up) with Mitzi and Mackie, reviewing the designs for some of her outfits, and Mitzi herself sharing stories of her career (including her headline appearance on the Ed Sullivan show - which just happened to come on the same night as the Sullivan TV-debut of the Beatles!).

This is a slick, good looking disc from City Lights Home Entertainment, with sharp graphics and a menu that's easy to maneuver. If there's one bone to pick (and it's a slight one), it's that many of Mitzi's co-stars are not identified by on-screen graphics. Yes, it's true that at the time they were all well-known, but viewers today who might be drawn in by Mitzi's charisma might wonder who that clumsy dancer was in that very funny bit. (Hint: it was Michael Landon.)

Mitzi Gaynor's specials ended in 1978, and that's probably about right. By then the era of the big-budget variety special was well on its way out, and although Mitzi even managed to survive the disco era, the format was living on borrowed time. But for those among us who remember those glory years, along with anyone who wants to see what those big, high-rated TV specials really looked like, you couldn't do much better than Mitzi Gaynor: Razzle Dazzle! The Special Years.

January 21, 2014

The town that was a test-tube

It sounds like one of those 50s sci-fi movies that MST3K used to parody: a team of researchers dressed in white coats working secretly out of an garage, using the local television to control the minds of the unsuspecting townfolk, to fill their brains with all kinds of subliminal thoughts - well, you get the picture.

In this case, we're talking about an experiment conducted in the Delaware River Valley town of Port Jervis, New York.  Beginning in 1964, the television-watching citizens of Port Jervis were used as human guinea pigs by advertisers testing out commercials.  Such was the magnitude of the experiment that company advertising executives from all over the country would fly into the garage laboratory to witness the tests and view the results.

Port Jervis was an ideal location: nestled in the valley, with conventional television reception problematic, the town was serviced by a cable television system called Port Video, subscribed to by nearly everyone in the town of 9500.  Port Video was approached by the Center for Research in Marketing, a small marketing research firm in Peekskill, NY.  The Center's Executive Director, Ed Wallerstein, saw the advantages inherent in the television delivery method in Port Jervis, and came up with a proposition.  As detailed in an article by Richard Doan and Denis Govern in the December 10, 1966 issue of TV Guide,

It involved rewiring the CATV system - a network of coaxial cables strung through town on telephone poles - so the community would be divided into halves.  Thus, Side A, as one of half of Port Jervis would be coded, could be exposed to one test commercial while Side B was shown either the regular one or still another test spot.  The effectiveness of the test commercials would be ascertained by questioning families on Sides A and B, and by checking actual sales of the advertised products in stores on Side A and Side B.

From the garage headquarters, technicians would flip switches that would interrupt the network commercial feed and substitute a test commercial provided to the Center by one of their clients. Later on, surveyors would go door-to-door interviewing viewers to check commercial penetration.  Results would be tabulated and provided to the advertisers.  For this, the Center would subsidize the cost of rewiring Port Video's cable system and purchasing the necessary equipment, and would pay Port Video as much as $25 for each cut-in commercial.  The ads would only air on time that had already been purchased by the Center's clients - in other words, no commercials from non-participating companies would be preempted.

It was a tricky proposition, to say the least.  The citizens of Port Jervis had to remain in the dark, lest their perceptions be tainted by knowledge of their guinea pig status.  The networks, too, could not know that their feed was being tampered with, resulting in some amusing commercial cutaways.   ("And now here's some interesting news about a new cake flour" might be followed instead by "a man painting his bedroom with a new Du Pont mix, or a girl examining a stretch bra.")  Even the women conducting the door-to-door surveys were not told about what was actually happening. And when the New York Times got wind of an experiment being conducted in "a small town somewhere in the United States," the Center bought up every copy of the Times in Port Jervis lest citizens put two and two together and figure out they were the small town.

The Center's clients were impressive: General Mills, Bristol-Myers, Dow Chemical, Brown & Williamson Tobacco, and Du Pont were among advertisers providing commercials for products such as Viceroy and Kool cigarettes, Clarol hair preparations, Micrin mouthwash, and Vitalis hair oil.  During a test run, network commercials would be blocked out throughout the schedule, day and night, on shows like Mister Ed, Wagon Train, Father Knows Best, Jeopardy, Truth or Consequences, and Arrest and Trial.

If the test results for a new commercial on Side A of Port Jervis proved more effective than a new commercial tested on Side B of the town, the Side A commercials would later be used on television nationally.  Similarly the effectiveness of new commercials was tested against old ones already in use on the networks.

Everyone involved agreed that the data collected during the experiment was most valuable; "Wallerstein reported that the results had been so good he had had difficulty convincing his clients that the sales-test figures were genuine."  The differences in sales figures between Side A and Side B were "spectacular."

With the publication of this article, details of the experiment were being revealed for the first time. Presumably, although I don't know this for a fact, Port Jervis would have ceased to be Ground Zero for the testing, since its residents were now fully aware of their role in the testing.  There was no doubt at the time, though, that such testing would continue somewhere, in one form or another.

Today, of course, we're used to this kind of thing, what with focus groups of one kind or another helping determine everything from the programs we watch to the products we buy to the candidates we vote for. But I can imagine that this article might have caused quite a stir at the time.  Science fiction movies, as well as many of the more imaginative television shows, had long featured the citizens of small towns being subject to mind control through what they saw or heard on television or radio.  (I can especially see this on an episode of The Avengers.)  Although this experiment was a benign one, the fact that it had actually happened, as well as the secrecy involved, might well have raised alarm bells in some quarters.  Remember, fluoridated water was a topic of hot controversy in the era.  The idea that television could watch you, even unobtrusively, while you watched it - that must have been an interesting thought back then.  As it is today.

January 18, 2014

This week in TV Guide: January 14, 1961

After two weeks in the 70s, it's back to this 60s with this issue celebrating the upcoming inauguration of John F. Kennedy as President.

Actually, it's kind of strange (not to say disconcerting), having so recently spent a good amount of time on Kennedy's assassination, to suddenly be propelled backwards to a time before "Ask not," before Camelot, before any of the myth.  In an ideal world I might well be giving you this TV Guide series in chronological order, but I have to go with what I have, and this happens to be the only available issue that fits the bill for what we need this week.*

*Of course, if' you'd like to help me rectify this by expanding my TV Guide collection, I'll be more than happy to accept your donations.  Email me and I'll give you my Paypal account.

***

Perry Como has no complaints about being labeled a nice guy.  "I suppose it is a tag it's hard to swallow at times.  Mr. Nice Guy.  But what in hell is wrong with that?  I don't know anyone in his right mind who doesn't like to be thought of as a nice person.*"

*Dennis Rodman doesn't count; we're talking about people in their right minds, remember?

Como is the 50s version of the king of cool, with one wife, three children, two homes, two cars and two offices, all of which are an oasis of calm.  As of 1961, Como has been on television longer than any other singer, and NBC pays him $1,250,000 per year for his services.  (He has an additional two-year, $25 million contract with Kraft Foods, sponsor of his show.)  And his biggest problem, according to industry insiders, is that Perry Como is bland.  As one says, "Perry's got all the seven sins - green, envy and so on - but he's blocked them out - almost."  When asked to explain the "almost," the source replies, "Well, he gets just as angry as anybody else if the men's room is locked."

Como's lifestyle would probably be considered unacceptable today, lacking the spicy elements of "celebrity" that seem to be prerequisites for stardom.  He's heard it all, of course, but "It really doesn't make a hell of a lo of difference to me."  But, he adds, ""I've got my moments, like everyone else.  But I hide 'em better'n anyone else*.  That's all it is."  When arguments do arise during production, "It takes me just 10 seconds to tell 'em - to set things straight.  And then maybe they think, 'Maybe this old so-and-so, he's been around, maybe he's right.'  I haven't beat anyone up lately.  Nobody's beat me up.  Maybe they have respect for my old age.  Here's a guy - me - sings a song, goes home, takes a bath, grabs what few dollars he can - of course, I'm exaggerating; it's a damned sight more than a few dollars - and doesn't beat up the old lady. She could probably beat me up.  What do they expect me to do?"

*Obviously, the man is immune to Freudian theories of repression.

Is it just me, or is this kind of refreshing?  It didn't hurt Como's career; his regular series runs until 1967, and his Christmas specials run for years after that.  Perhaps it's because Como was a barber before his musical success, and could probably go back to cutting hair if he wanted.  There's no sense of entitlement from Mr. C, though - "I've had things so good, I've just never really had to worry.  It's a hell of a feeling.  If that's bland, then I'm bland.  And pretty damned glad of it, at that."

***

I covered a previous Como cover story here.  At the time, Como shared the spotlight with an article written by a young U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, who wrote of television as a "force that has changed the political landscape." This week Kennedy again is front and center, as JFK prepares to be sworn in as President of the United States.  Television provides complete coverage of Friday's festivities, which I wrote about in a "Retro TV Friday" at the motherblog some time ago.  Rather than repeat it, I'll just steer you in that direction.

Speaking of politics, however: last week I mentioned how TV Guide wasn't afraid to take a political stance, whether defending the CIA against its critics or taking the media to task for trying to scare the public with "biased" science.  That wasn't something new for TVG, though, as we see in an article this week by Dr. Frank Stanton, president of CBS, discussing the impact of the "Great Debates" of 1960 and urging the public to write to Congress so these debates might continue in future presidential campaigns.

The only reason the debates were able to happen in 1960 is that Congress temporarily suspended the equal-time requirement, allowing the networks to cover the Kennedy-Nixon debates without fear of demands for equal time from other candidates.  Nearly 90% of television households watched the debates, which played such a pivotal role in the outcome of the election.  However, unless the equal-time law is repealed, future debates could be in jeopardy.  Writes Stanton, "the equal-time law is not needed to assure fairness to the candidates and [its] repeal is needed to assure fairness to the American people."  Television, Stanton argues, like other American institutions, has its part to play in the events that determine the country's future.  "Let's use television wisely, fully, effectively in the most serious business that a democracy has - choosing its leadership."

All well and good, bu in retrospect, some of Stanton's concerns do seem a little naive.  For instance, in the absence of debates, Stanton sees "the pattern of set speeches, fake interviews and stage-directed rallies, all on paid time, that constituted the use of television in campaigns before 1960" - and, I would suggest, are principal elements of television's coverage of campaigns today.  Nobody seriously looks at debates as anything other than joint media appearances by the candidates, most of whom mouth the same old platitudes as always.  The political conventions themselves, which were quite lively in the 60s, are almost entirely media-driven public relations events, with not an ounce of spontaneity.  And anyone who would suggest, as Stanton does, that television can help form a "more informed electorate" will probably take up my offer on a bridge for sale in Brooklyn.

I don't ridicule Stanton, however; I suspect he would be at least as appalled by today's campaigns as anyone.  And that's ultimately what's tragic about it, when one looks at the promise and potential that Stanton saw back in 1961.  Interestingly enough, after JFK's assassination, ABC news chief (and former Eisenhower press secretary) Jim Hagerty voiced the concern that, should security concerns prevent future presidents the chance to move freely and mingle with the public, they might be reduced to reaching the votes solely through speeches on television and radio.  I suspect that the major reason for reliance on the media is cost-effectiveness; after all, you can reach a lot more people through television for a lot less money per voter. Nonetheless, there can't be much doubt that security constraints play a role as well.  It is a sad commentary that we now live in an age when someone has to take their lives in their hands to run for president, and have to have their interactions with the public regulated.

Whatever the reason, the difference in coverage between 1960 and today is a substantial one indeed.

***

Here's a show I literally haven't thought about for decades.  On Saturday afternoons, frequently between a sports event and the local news, Channel 4, WCCO, would present a time-filler called Almanac Newsreel.  It was usually only about 15 minutes long, and seldom topical in the sense that it was reporting on current events.  I could be sitting in the living room in 1967, having watched a football or basketball game, and suddenly be confronted with footage of the sinking of the Andrea Doria or, as in this instance, the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958 (seen near the end of this collection).


Watching these clips while writing this piece brought back some long-ago memories for me.  I haven't seen Almanac Newsreel since I was a kid, so it's been over 40 years; and I hadn't even thought enough of it to look it up on YouTube until now. The show always carried something of a fascination for me; part of it was that there seemed to be no reason for it to be on, since there was almost always a total disconnect between events that had happened a decade or more ago, and I wasn't sure what I was supposed to make of it.  It was also short; if I left the room to go to the bathroom or get something to drink, it would be over by the time I returned.

I think a bigger part of it may have been the graphics, though.  I was taken by the striking similarity between the world map used in the Almanac Newsreeel logo and the one on ABC's Wide World of Sports:


There were probably times when I might not have even realized that one show had ended and the other started.  But for a kid not yet 10, I'm sure that was all the linkage one needed to make.

I don't remember when WCCO stopped running Almanac Newsreel, but I know it was on at least into the very late 60s - but it seemed as if it had been on forever.  And, considering it had been shown though the entirety of my life to that point, it might as well have been forever.

***

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Richard Boone's 1950s medical series Medic.  This week Boone, now the star of Have Gun - Will Travel, namedrops the series himself.  "Every time I had a heart case, I got all the murmers," the hypochondriac Boone says.  "When I was performing an ear operation, my own hearing went sour.  I won't discuss brain damage - some of my friends might say I had that long before Styner."

Boone's iconic role is that of Paladin, the gun for hire with the distinctive calling card in Have Gun, the show I most like that I wish I liked more than I do.  Paladin is a rich character - suave, sophisticated, intelligent, a man at home at the opera, the theater, in intellectual discussions. But when he takes a job, he becomes the man in black, menacing, willing even to turn against the person who hired him if he finds out he's been lied to. Boone plays this complex character well, in a manner totally different from how Wayne or Eastwood might have seen the role.  (Perhaps the Magnificent Seven-era Yul Brynner would have been up to the task.)  However, my problem with the series is that Paladin rarely follows through with the menace as often as I'd like.  Being an intelligent man, he seeks to avoid violence unless it's necessary, and I'll be frank that I'd like to see him avoid it a lot less often than he does*.  Maybe I've been raised on the Eastwood model of how to handle a problem, but I can't help thinking that a little less sensitivity and a little more frontier justice would have been just fine.  But then, Gene Roddenberry was one of the early writers for the show, which explains a lot.

*A complaint I also had about the Edward Woodward series The Equalizer.

Lest you think I'm being too harsh, I'll hasten to add that I purchased the first three seasons on DVD when those were the only three seasons available, and I'll be happy to add the final three somewhere along the line. Just because I want to like it more doesn't mean I don't still like it.

***

It's kind of a weak week for sports, though not so very dissimilar from what we tend to see this time of year.  Lots of college basketball, a couple of NBA games, and some golf (albeit of the made-for-TV kind).  What stands out, as it often does in this era, is bowling.  On Saturday, Channel 4 has a show called Pin Pounders, while Channel 5 has Bowling Stars followed by Championship Bowling.  On Sunday, Channel 4 is back with Bowlerama in the afternoon and All Star Bowling in the evening.  And on Monday, it's the woeful Jackpot Bowling Starring Milton Berle.  I think the last time I mentioned this show, I included a clip so you'd know I was on the up-and-up.  I do so again this week:


Keeping in the spirit, the pro football season ends on Sunday with the NFL Pro Bowl from Los Angeles.  All-star games were much bigger back in these days; fans in all sports didn't get to see many games other than those of their home team, and the all-star game was one of the few times the average viewer could see some of the biggest names in the game.  This one had some pretty big ones, too; can you imagine a team where your two quarterbacks were Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr?

One other sporting event, on Saturday night, a big one: the world middleweight boxing championship from Boston, featuring champion Paul Pender* taking on challenger Terry Downes.  It's a hometown fight for Pender, who hails from nearby Brookline.  I thought I might be able to find a YouTube clip of this, but no sale.  However, I can tell you that Pender successfully defended his title with a 7th round TKO in the first of his three title fights against Downes.  Downes would win the rematch six months later in London, but Pender would take the rubber match, and the title, in their third fight back in Boston in April of 1962.

*One of the middleweight champions, that is.  Pender, who'd defeated Sugar Ray Robinson after Robinson had been stripped of the National Boxing Association crown, shared the title with Gene Fullmer.


***

Last year I made mention of Jackie Gleason's infamous bomb You're in the Picture, which ran for exactly one episode and was followed the next week by a half-hour apology from Gleason for putting on such a fiasco.  At the time of that TV Guide, Gleason's replacement talk show was still on the air, but this Friday at 8:30 pm CT, we get the Real McCoy:

JACKIE GLEASON - Panel(Debut) Jackie returns to television as host-moderator of a weekly half-hour panel show, "You're in the Picture."  The panelists, four in number, put their heads through the four portholes in a large picture cut-out (like the ones used in old-time photography studios) and are then asked to identify the setting.

Doesn't tell you much, does it?  And yet it's innocuous tidbits like this that I live for.

January 17, 2014

Russell Johnson, R.I.P.

In the days of my youth, when I most definitely favored Mary Ann over Ginger (and still do), there was something comforting about The Professor. Among the band of loonies occupying that uncharted island, The Professor often seemed to be the only sane one*. Unlike many of the others, he was usually slow to attack Gilligan. He was the focal point of whatever sexual tension might exist among the castaways (given that Mr. Howell was married, The Skipper was too much like Dad, and Gilligan was Gilligan). He was unquestionably brilliant, an early-day MacGyver able to concoct scientific marvels out of the most primitive materials. And yet, for all that, he was an everyman, neither a pocket-protector nerd nor an elitist, conquer-the-world mad scientist. Even his seldom-heard name, Roy Hinkley, was connotative of an ordinary man, someone who might have lived right next door.

*NPR had it right, describing him as "the voice of reason and calm on an island of shipwrecked ninnies."

It's fashionable, I suppose, to think of Gilligan as a show you should be embarrassed to have watched as a kid, before you became a sophisticated adult.  I can't speak to that; it's been a long time since I really tried to watch an episode.*  But even if Gilligan didn't stand the viewing test of time, there can be no doubt that it won a place in the hearts of millions of young viewers and stayed there forever, frozen in that memory, a series that was more than the sum of its stories.  It may or may not have been very good, but it endeared itself to people in a way that most series can only aspire to.

*I don't recall if I watched Gilligan's Island in its first-run days, though I suspect I did, but I definitely remember watching it when it was a fixture on Channel 11's after-school programming.  

How else to explain the outpouring of affection upon the news yesterday of the death of Russell Johnson at the age of 89?  It was Breaking News on CNN's website, a featured story in newspapers and broadcasts everywhere, an immediate topic on Facebook pages and Internet message boards and everywhere else classic television fans might reside.  Johnson was never a major star aside from Gilligan, but he did a lot of TV and movies over the years, playing both good guys and heavies.  Every time his face popped up (and it really wouldn't take long, if you were a dedicated viewer), the reaction was instantaneous: "Hey, it's The Professor!"

I started off talking about The Professor's likability quotient, and it seems that Russell Johnson the man was much the same way.  Dawn Wells said yesterday that "Russell was a true gentleman, a dear friend with a fantastic wit, and a wonderful actor."  It was a sentiment echoed by many others.

There are television stars and television celebrities, and we seem to have no shortage of the latter and too few of the former.  But Russell Johnson was something more than that; an icon, if you will, always remembered with warmth and affection by fans who invariably shared memories from their days watching Gilligan and probably knew the stories better than the actors did.  That takes something more than "talent," and it makes for a different kind of "success."  It's the ability to make that personal connection to the viewer and to leave an impression that can stay for upwards of 40 years.  Go back to the early 60s, check out what was on television, and see how many actors had that quality.

That's Russell Johnson's legacy, and I suspect there are a lot of stars and celebrities out there who would trade a lot to have it.

January 14, 2014

A Christmas wrap-up

We're halfway through January, but it's never too late to take a look back at December.

Not too long ago, loyal reader David mentioned to me that he'd wrapped up his annual tradition of watching Christmas episodes of his favorite series. David wrote, "it's nice to know they'll always be there no matter how the rest of the world changes."

Naturally, I had to know more, so I asked him if he'd share a list of the shows he'd watched this season.  How many of them were on your list of Christmas-themed watching this last year?:

Brady Bunch 
Flintstones
Partridge Family
Bob Newhart Show
Dick Van Dyke Show
Mary Tyler Moore Show
Father Knows Best
Donna Reed Show
Patty Duke Show
Wings
Eight is Enough
I Love Lucy 
The Lucy Show
The Avengers
Dragnet
The Monkees
The Facts of Life
Happy Days
The Love Boat
Hotel
Green Acres
Petticoat Junction
Ozzie & Harriet
Bewitched 
That Girl
Glee

There are some absolutely classic series in that list, aren't there?  David added that "If I could only watch one, I think it would be "A Vision of Sugar Plums" (Bewitched). I never get tired of seeing it."

Our Christmas viewing was a mixture of movies (Miracle on 34th Street, several versions of A Christmas Carol) and classic television.  What was nice this year was that we were able to add some brand-new shows to our playlist.

The Stingiest Man in Town, starring Basil Rathbone, was a 1956 musical version of A Christmas Carol. This show was long thought to have been lost, or at least incomplete, so the DVD of the live broadcast is a welcome addition.

We also checked out selections from the Bing Crosby and Bell Telephone Hour collections.  The Crosby show, from 1961, was part of a collection of his Christmas shows, which we've been watching over the years.  Ditto for the 1966 installment of Telephone Hour, which starred Florence Henderson, Sherrill Milnes, Anita Gillette, Bruce Yarnell and Gianna d'Angelo.  It was a beautiful program, featuring a reading of the Nativity from Luke - I know I'm a broken record here, but it's truly hard to imagine that happening on network television today (except for Charlie Brown.)

And then there's YouTube, which gave us a stirring telecast from Studio One of "The Nativity" from 1952, Perry Como's Christmas broadcast from the same year, Walt Disney's "From All of Us to All of You," and a truly bizarre Hollywood Palace Christmas show hosted by Bing and featuring the cast of Hogan's Heroes, in character.  Crosby's production company owned Hogan's Heroes, and Hogan and his merry men - again, in character - refer to Crosby as being "the boss."  The moment when Schultz refers to him as "Der Bingle" is hilarious.  This one was a lot of fun but very, very strange.

They don't do Christmas variety specials anymore, or at least not the kind that we'd watch.  For that matter, the idea of a network Christmas special with any kind of a religious theme is hard to imagine.  And that's what makes shows like this special.  Back in the day, when they were broadcast, there was seemingly an inexhaustible supply of them - if you missed Crosby or Como this year, there'd always be next year.  But that isn't the case now; the classic Christmas specials - "old fashioned," as the Bell Telephone title implies - are a finite number, which makes any new airing a special event, at least in our household.  As the years go by, it's going to be harder and harder to find anything new to watch, and in that sense we'll never be able to duplicate the experience of the viewers of that time.

But I digress.  How about you?  Do you have a favorite Christmas episode you just had to see this year?  If so, share some of the titles with us!

January 11, 2014

This week in TV Guide: January 10, 1976

Thought we'd stay with the 70s for another week, see what happens.  Will I live to regret it, or be pleasantly surprised?  Stay tuned.

This is another TV Guide from my own personal subscription, meaning it has my name on the mailing label and serves as a constant reminder of the programs I wasn't able to see while living in the world's worst town.  Shows like Happy Days, starring our cover boys, Ron Howard and Henry Winkler.  Oh sure, I'd heard of Happy Days, was aware that it was a hit, but the only time I might be able to see it was when we traveled back to the Twin Cities on vacation.  It seemed a lot more exotic then than it does now.

Last week I wrote about ABC's penchant for "prestige" dramas, and mentioned the acclaimed Eleanor and Franklin.  Well, that's the ABC Theatre two-part presentation on Sunday and Monday nights. The movie, which stars Jane Alexander and Edward Herrmann, will go on to win nine Emmys, a Golden Globe, and a Peabody, and spawn a sequel - The White House Years - that will air the following year. However, ABC doesn't have the Prestigious Presidential Biography category all to itself; NBC counters on Monday night with part five of Sandburg's Lincoln, starring Hal Holbrook in the title role.  That series, part of the ongoing Bicentennial celebration, was aired in six episodes over a year and a half, beginning in September 1974 and concluding in April 1976.  I won't spill the beans on the surprise ending...

Continuing our political theme, first lady Betty Ford appears on Saturday's episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, playing herself.  Probably just as well that I missed that one.  I didn't miss the replay of John Wayne's Swing Out, Sweet Land though.  The star-studded 90-minute special, which had originally been broadcast in 1970* and was being repeated as "A Bicentennial Salute," featured Lorne Greene and Jack Benny as George Washington and friend, Rowan and Martin as the Wright Brothers, Bing Crosby as Mark Twain, Bob Hope and Ann-Margaret as entertainers at Valley Forge - well, you get the idea.  Surprisingly, it's available on DVD (under the title John Wayne's Tribute to America), and it's actually not bad.  Mind you, it's not great, either.  But who am I to judge - see for yourself and make up your own mind:


*Come to think of it, that's probably the airing I remember.

Speaking of Happy Days as we were, the cover story is a profile of Winkler, emerging as the breakout star of the series.  The article may be timed to coincide with the show's second anniversary, which includes a clip-filled retrospective on Monday night.  As I mentioned, Happy Days seemed like an exotically successful program to me back then, mostly because I couldn't see it.  When I could, after the move back to the Twin Cities, I thought it was harmless enough.  I probably even enjoyed it for awhile, living off the fumes of its mystery.  Today, I probably don't have many feelings about it at all.  Although I never did warm up to Winkler; when he appears on TV nowadays, in an informercial for some senior product, I delight in pointing out to my wife that he probably appeals to seniors because they're the only ones who remember he used to be a star.


***

Occasionally in these 70s-era TV Guides, I'll have the opportunity to do a matchup between NBC's Midnight Special and ABC's In Concert, a la my "Sullivan vs. The Palace" feature for 60s Guides. Well, In Concert has left the airwaves - but fear not, we still have a matchup we can look at.  Midnight Special is still running strong, and up against it (in the same time spot, even!) is the other major music series of the 70s, Don Kirshner's Rock Concert.  In fact, because this is the Minnesota state edition of TV Guide, with over 20 stations to choose from, we actually have two episodes of Kirschner we can look at.  How exciting is this?

Midnight Special:  (Helen Reddy, hostess) Olivia Newton-John, Kenny Rankin, the Staple Singers, and country-rock group Poco are the guests.  This week's spotlighted hit is Carole King's "I Feel the Earth Move," and the salute is to B.B. King.

Kirschner (as seen on WTCN, Channel 11):  The Staple Singers, Sparks, and the Flying Burrito Bros. do songs that include "Let's Do It Again," "I'll Take You There," "Without Using Hands," "Hospitality on Parade," "Looks, Looks, Looks."

Kirschner (as seen on WXOW, Channel 19, LaCrosse, WI):  Harry Chapin, Tom Chapin and Louden Wainwright III perform songs that include "Dreams Go By," "Love Story," "Plane, Too," "Cat's in the Cradle," "New York City," "Down Drinking at the Bar."

I would have watched Midnight Special, seeing as how it was on Channel 7, the only commercial station I could get.  And in truth that's probably the best of a weak group.  Now, I know there may be some of you who think these artists are terrific - you've got every Olivia Newton-John CD and workout tape, and you're a faithful fan of the Flying Burrito Bros.  I'm happy for you, but I can't go there. I'd never heard of the Flying Burrito Brothers until just now, by the way. For those of you who are like me, here's a clip just to prove I'm not making this up.


As an alternative, perhaps look at Soundstage, PBS' Saturday night music program.  Once again we have two versions, representing the various PBS stations in the market, so you get your choice of John Sebastian and David Bromberg on one hand, and Don McLean and The Persuasions on the other.  I'd probably opt for the latter.  At the time, though, I was probably watching KTCA's presentation of Monty Python's Flying Circus - a high school friend of mine was nuts about the show and kept trying to get me into it.  It didn't do anything for me at the time - it would be years before I'd come to appreciate the bizarre humor of the series.  But hey, you've got to start somewhere.

***
Some random notes:

How the mighty have fallen.  One of my favorite pieces of all time was the one I did last year as part of the Classic TV Blog Association, a remembrance of The Dean Martin Show.  Martin's classic original series ended in 1974, but he's back this week with a special in which he plays "the owner-host of Dean's Place, a plush nightspot showcasing new talent."  The cast included Jack Cassidy as the maitre d', Vincent Gardenia as the chef, Guy Marks as a bartender, and Foster Brooks as the obligatory drunk customer. Unlike Deano's original show, this one is not cool.  Not cool at all.

And now the sports.  Not a whole lot to report this week.  The Hula Bowl makes its annual appearance on Wide World of Sports Saturday; I'd guess the biggest stars in the game were Steve Owens, Joe Washington and Chuck Muncie for the West, and two-time Heisman winner Archie Griffin for the East.

The Satanic spawn of the Bobby Riggs-Billie Jean King "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match is Challenge of the Sexes, one of CBS' entrants in a 70s genre known as "trashsport."  This week's debut episode features Evonne Goolagong taking on Ille Nastase in a one-set tennis match, and a race through an obstacle course between gold medal sprinter Wyomia Tyus and gold medal pole vaulter Bob Seagren.  If you think this doesn't make any sense whatsoever, you're absolutely correct.

Sunday's version of Wide World features the TV premiere of the epic October 1975 "Thrilla in Manilla" between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, which Ali won on a 14th round TKO.  Never having been a fan (or admirer) of Ali, I think the less said about this, the better.  And spanning the two days is NBC's coverage of the Tucson Open, the start of the professional golf season.

Oddity of the week: Tuesday night's World Hockey Association All Star Game, broadcast on a tape-delay from Cleveland, can be seen on WDSE, Channel 8 - the PBS station in Duluth.  I could make a joke here, but sports actually has a modest but distinguished history on PBS, whether as original productions (such as summer tennis tournaments, which PBS broadcast for several years, or the documentary series The Way It Was), or specials picked up by individual affiliates (the Stanley Cup playoffs on KTCA in 1978, a WHA game featuring the Minnesota Fighting Saints in the early 70s).  There are some who might suggest that PBS was providing a far greater public service with their sports coverage than they do with their regular programming.

New program:  Guess what's coming to TV?  That's right - Wednesday sees the debut of an "exciting new series" - The Bionic Woman, with special guest star Lee Majors.  Bionic Woman was a spin-off of Majors' Six Million Dollar Man, and in fact Sunday night's episode of the latter series served to introduce the concept of the bionic woman, as Lindsay Wagner's character struggles with the aftereffects of the brain surgery that transforms her life.

By any other name...:  We're still in the period when currently-running series that had also gone into syndication would sport a different name for its syndicated run.  Dragnet, for example, was also known as Badge 714 (Joe Friday's badge number*), Wagon Train became Wagonmaster, and Gunsmoke was known as Marshal Dillon.  Weekdays at 4pm, the aformentioned XWOW has a program called Robert Young, Family Doctor.  Now I wonder what that series could be?

*Also the number of home runs Babe Ruth hit during his career.  Coincidence?

***

Every once in a while - OK, probably more often than that - we'll run across something that could easily be written today, with nary a change to dot or comma.  This week's version comes from the News Watch column by Edith Efron entitled "Biased 'Science' Reporting Scares TV Viewers."  Her specific target is CBS, which she says "seems to be specializing in" news presented by "scientifically untrained reporters" who are "scaring the population to death with the idea that incalculable numbers of products are on the market which are inducing cancer and other dread diseases."

Now, I'll say upfront, as I usually do, that I'm not trying to take sides here.  This is a TV blog, not a political commentary site.  Nonetheless, one can't help but get the idea that this could have been written about Al Gore's Global Warming, Meryl Streep's Alar scare, Jenny McCarthy's anti-vaccination campaign, and so on.  Doesn't mean that any of them are right or wrong, just that this kind of thing has been going on for a long time,* and that then, as now, a good many people view this as a case of biased reporting.

*Witness Harry Reasoner's comment from 1967 that "The idea of trying to outguess life, to avoid everything that might conceivably injure your life, is a peculiarly dangerous one. Pretty soon you are existing in a morass of fear."

My favorite quote from the article is her telling of a magazine story from a few years back:

About 20 years ago, a magazine carried an article which I remember vividly.  In fact, I thought it so clever, I clipped it, and used it for several years as required reading in a journalism course I gave, to illustrate originality in the use of research.  The reporter involved was struck, one day, by the realization that almost everything on earth was dangerous to somebody.  So he reviewed all the medical literature he could get his hands on, and came up with the most incredible list of dangerous products anyone had ever seen.  It turned out that practically everything touched, breathed, tasted or swallowed caused disease and death in somebody, somewhere.  The reporter's straight-faced moral was this: If you want to stay alive, don't touch, breathe, taste, or swallow anything.  The magazine's editors, at the time, thought it was hilarious, readers thought it was hilarious, and it was hilarious.  Twenty years ago, semi-literate hysterics had not acquired a dominant voice in the culture, and did not see an apocalyptic threat to existence under every bush.  What's more, all sane human beings knew that the very act of daily living involved risk.

Efron goes on to say, and I would absolutely agree with this, that this doesn't mean that serious dangers and risks don't exist, nor does it mean that constant scientific assessment of dangerous drugs isn't necessary.  "And I don't mean that the public should not receive valid medical information; it should."  Her point is that "the networks should stop this scandalous process of allowing the scientifically untrained to air ill-informed, unbalanced, and terrifying opinions to a scientifically untrained public."  I think reporters such as John Stossel would agree with this.

***

We seem to have a lot of politics in this issue, seriously discussed, which is something that distinguishes the old TV Guide from today's fan-mag rag.  Witness this week's "As We See It" editorial taking U.S. Senator Frank Church to task for his televised hearings on the Central Intelligence Agency.  This ties in to an article written by former CIA chief John McCone, on television's role in coverage of CIA activities.  McCone's assertion is that the United States desperately needs the intelligence information gathered and evaluated by the CIA, and that television's recent coverage - much of it, in McCone's opinion, inaccurate - has damaged the Agency's credibility and functionality.

In "As We See It," the editors acknowledge "clear examples of wrongdoing" by the Agency in years past, uncovered in the Church committee's hearings.  The magazine argues, however, that the obviously ambitious Church (who would unsuccessfully run for president in 1976) is using the hearings for political gain, and that any Congressional legislation required to provide more effective oversight of the CIA "might have been drafted and passed by Congress without publicizing our secrets, exposing America to ridicule and discrediting our intelligence organization."

There's no question that the public has the right and the necessity to know how the government operates - but, "must we know everything about everything?"  The editorial concludes with this assessment: "A hundred KGB agents working overtime for the Kremlin could hardly have undermined the CIA as effectively as Senator Church's committee did.  It was a shocking and immeasurably harmful blow to our national security."

A couple of thoughts: first, there's no question that TV Guide at this point is a right-leaning publication; no surprise, perhaps, since publisher Walter Annenberg was a political ally of Richard Nixon and had served as Nixon's ambassador to the Court of St. James.  In addition to Edith Efron, Pat Buchanan serves as a regular columnist for TV Guide in this era.  Which leads to the second observation, that TV Guide does not shy away from literate discussions of serious issues.  In the past I've pointed out articles by Arnold Toynbee and Malcolm Muggeridge, and last week's issue included an article by James Michener.  TV Guide used to be a publication that did not talk down to its readership, that thought it was important to think as well as watch TV, and more importantly to think about what we watched on TV.

Annenberg sold TV Guide to Rupert Murdoch in the late 80s.  Now, Murdoch may be a political conservative but he's not a cultural conservative, and under his leadership TV Guide morphed into a much glossier, more sensational, more superficial, less informative magazine.  Now, of course, it's little better than the National Enquirer, and probably doesn't even have that paper's journalistic chops.

It's one more example, as if we needed it, as to how much things have changed.-

January 9, 2014

Around the dial

S ome good stuff on tap this week!

First, another fun post from Cult TV touching on another of my Top 10, Doctor Who.  I remember many years ago, when the adventures of William Hartnell's First Doctor came ashore - it took me awhile to warm to him, but there was a moment (I don't remember the serial) when he became the Doctor we all know and love. People who grew up with Doctor Who from the start might not have had that same experience as we did, since we'd already absorbed three or four Doctors and knew what the character was supposed to be like, but when Hartnell becomes that character - great stuff.

(Oh, and John - yes, it's wrong to feel sorry for the Daleks.  Very wrong...)

Keeping in the sci-fi vein, Rick at Classic Film and TV Cafe gives us "Seven Things to Know About Lost in Space."  I have to admit that, although I watched a lot of TV growing up, Lost in Space was never a show that I got into (neither was Star Trek, for that matter).  Don't know why, but while I know what the series is about and who the characters are, I don't have any memories of having watched it as a kid.  I do admit a fondness for The Robot, though.  And by the way, please don't tell me that I'm the only one who was terribly - distracted - by that picture of Elke Sommer that Rick has on the sidebar.  You can bet his interview with her next week will show up when we go around the dial again...

TV When I Was Born has a very good story on East Side/West Side, one of the grittiest (and perhaps most depressing) network series from the 60s.  I saw some of the series a few years ago when it was rebroadcast on Trio; it's another show I didn't see growing up, although somehow (perhaps reading my favorite old TV Guide) I was well familiar with the title.  Tough stuff, and of course George C. Scott is brilliant.  But then, he could make reading the phone book interesting - if he was interested in it himself, that is.

How Sweet It Was talks this week about Letter to Loretta, which was the original name of The Loretta Young Show.  That's a series that shows up constantly in the TV Guides of the 60s, having a long run in daytime television as well as prime time.  I've got a few episodes of the series on DVD; it's been hard for me to appreciate it - maybe I haven't seen a good cross-section of stories yet.  But there's no complaining about Loretta Young herself, who was always a class act onscreen - you can understand why Cary Grant's angel is so tempted in The Bishop's Wife, can't you?

For the last few weeks of 2013, I spent a lot of time looking back at the TV Guides of 50 years ago - it was kind of nice to be able to do that for several weeks, particularly since the calendars for 1963 and 2013 were identical. (November 22 was a Friday, Christmas was a Wednesday, etc.)  In that spirit, Comfort TV gives us a look at television shows turning 50 in 2014.  Bewitched, Gilligan's Island, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Underdog - thanks, David, for making me feel very old...

I started with Doctor Who, so why don't we end the same way?  From a couple of weeks ago, Joanna Wilson at Christmas TV History has a great story about Peter Capaldi, the new Doctor, and the Oscar-winning short film he made back in 1996, Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life.  Yes, it's every bit as bizarre as it sounds; you have to check it out when you get a chance.  It sounds as if Joanna and I have more than a love of Christmas shows in common; I think we're both looking forward to seeing Capaldi's take as the new Doctor.  Any man who can come up with an idea like this should have some interesting things to add to Doctor Who!

Great week, isn't it?  And we'll be back on Saturday with another dip into TV Guide of the 1970s.

January 7, 2014

Medic, 1955 - the calm before the storm

Last night as we were watching an episode of Richard Boone's mid-50s medical drama Medic, I was struck once again by how much society has changed during the television era, and how helpful TV can be at seeing - if not understanding - those changes.

The episode in question, "A Time to Be Alive," was originally broadcast on January 31, 1955 on NBC. Medic has long been considered one of the first "realistic" medical dramas on television*, and so it's no surprise that this episode would deal with some fairly weighty subjects.  In this case, an 11-year-old hemophiliac boy lies in critical condition in the hospital, as doctors attempt to stop the bleeding from a fall and save his life.  Now, as far as television goes, there's only so much action you can wring out of doctors administering transfusions and hoping that the blood begins to clot, so the focus of the story quickly moves to the boy's family.

*No surprise, since its creator, James E. Moser, went on to create Ben Casey.

His mother blames herself for the boy's condition, since the hemophilia gene is passed through the female, and ever since he was diagnosed with the disease - in the first few weeks of his life - she has awakened every day in fear that something would happen to him.  His father talks of the difficulty of telling a young boy that he can't live the same active life as his classmates, and that he's so fragile you're afraid he might break when you hold him.

But it's the older sister's dilemma that is most interesting.  Contrary to what you might expect from a TV drama, she's not resentful of the attention her little brother gets; she doesn't feel left out or ignored, she loves him and worries about him.  No, there's something else at work here.  We learn that she's engaged to be married, and after witnessing her brother's latest medical crisis, and listening to the anguish it causes her parents, she's terrified that she, too, might pass the gene on to any children she has.  Moreover, she worries that her fiance will no longer want to marry her because of the possibility of giving birth to a hemophiliac.

Fortunately, her young man seems to be level-headed; he tells her that he loves her and wants to spend the rest of his life with her, no matter what the future may bring.  If that means running the risk of having a hemophiliac child, with its attendant burdens and fears, so be it.  That's part of being an adult - to face the world as it is, and to do so together.  Her brother comes through this medical crisis, and despite the uncertain future the family is prepared to move forward, with hopes that a cure for hemophilia will eventually be found.*

*Note: it hasn't yet, though more effective treatments have been developed.


Richard Boone as Dr. Konrad Styner in Medic
I was struck by several things in this episode, and the dramatic contrast they provide to our times.  First is the idea that a marriage without children is somehow incomplete, and thus undesirable.  There's no thought that children are inherently a burden, no suggestion that the young couple wouldn't want to have kids, and a real concern that the man might seek a different mate because of the uncertain future.  To the contemporary ear, the idea that a woman might be less attractive to a man because of this might sound completely foreign, but this episode treats the subject as a completely natural one, worthy of serious discussion.

There's also no talk about birth control, about simply choosing to not have children, and this marks "A Time to Be Alive" as an episode rooted in a very specific point in time.  The Pill is already in development and will be widely available within the decade.  We're only three years away from the Lambeth Conference in which the Anglican church called for "respect for the consciences of married couples who use birth control," and when Pope Paul VI issues Humanae Vitae in 1968, it will upset many who'd assumed the Catholic Church would accept birth control.

This isn't to say that "family planning" was a foreign idea at the time.  Many married couples, especially those just starting out and with limited means, would discuss the best time to start a family, and might well wait for marriage until they were financially able to take on children.  There were forms of "natural" family planning - condoms, the rhythm method, and other forms of birth control were around, and often appeared in popular fiction.  But we're not quite to the sexual revolution just yet. Were this episode to have been made even just a few years later, there would be an entirely different conversation being carried on, likely with completely different sensibilities expressed by the participants - probably on a show like Peyton Place.

The world we see in this episode of Medic shows us how radically the family has changed, as well as our own thoughts and values.  Were we to attempt to replicate that era in a contemporary program, a la Mad Men, it would suffer from our contemporary knowledge, and the inability to filter it out and restore an original context. Likewise, as Andrew Fielding points out in his book The Lucky Strike Papers (review to come shortly!), it is impossible for us to watch an episode like this today and view it through the context of its original setting, and how it was viewed by an audience that hadn't experienced the changes of the last 60 years.

Lacking that ability, to see Medic in the same way as the original viewers did, we are left with an original document, as it were, set within the context of a very different time.  I find something like that priceless, in the same way as the original coverage of the JFK assassination does something for us that no contemporary history can do.  It gives us something - if not complete realism (for we all know that dramas of the 50s and early 60s lacked the freedom to be completely "realistic" in certain areas), then at least something that in context would be accepted as plausible by the viewer, not asking for a suspension of disbelief.  And in its own way, that tells us much more about what things were like back then - what people thought, what they said, what they did.

It's one of the many reasons I appreciate classic television as a window to our world.  To a self-styled "cultural archaeologist," programs like these become artifacts which, when studied from the perspective of their "native habitats," provide us with a mirror of the times that may not have been ours and never will be, but which must be understood nonetheless.