May 31, 2014

This week in TV Guide: May 25, 1974

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

May 29, 2014

Around the dial

Last reminder that the Summer of MeTV Blogathon begins next week. Come by here Monday to see what I'm writing about!

Always, always liked Dana Andrews, an actor who I thought gave great dignity to the roles he played, so I was interested to read Classic Film and TV Cafe's account of his 1965 movie Crack in the World, the plot of which sounds suspiciously like the classic 1970 Doctor Who episode "Inferno."  But then I don't think anyone ever accused science fiction of being a particularly original source of plots...

From a tie-in to one Brit series, we go to Cult TV Blog for a recap of another archetypal Brit offering, Danger Man, and the episode "Yesterday's Enemies."  Interesting that John has the same thoughts that I did when first seeing this episode, that " if this story were intended to set up the correct circumstances for the events of The Prisoner, I can't think of a better way to do it."

This week, CNN is doing a series on the '60s, and today's installment is on television; one of their questions: was TV better in the '60s than it is today?  At the start, let me say that I don't have much respect for CNN as a news organization, and lest you think I'm being political here, for many years CNN was my go-to station for breaking news, far more than the other networks.  Whatever else they had, you could always count on them in that one area.  Not so much anymore, when they apparently can't tell the difference between "Breaking News" and "Developing Story" and "Overhyped all to Hell."  Still, you might think it worth your time, though the article's conclusions aren't closing the deal for me.

Does Mystery Science Theater 3000 count as classic television?  Now, by classic I don't mean great, although there's no question that MST3K makes the grade there.  What I mean is that, for a blog that mostly discusses television from the '50s through the '70s, is it too new?  I don't think so, because if you think about it, the show is created around a framework that's not all that dissimilar from the old kids shows of the era - Joel could just as easily be the guy who does the weekend weather.  Not only that, the bulk of the movies that constitute the show's best episodes are B&W marvels we might well have seen as Saturday matinees or (for the better ones) the Late, Late Show.  So I was glad to see Professor Barnhardt's link to Wired's ultimate oral history of the show.  Thanks, Prof!

Finally, Stephen Bowie of The Classic TV History Blog is back at his other gig, the Onion A.V. Club (how do you get to write for a swell place like that?) with a piece on what might have been one of the last great private detective series, CBS' Mannix.  The headline describes Mannix as "brutal, stylish comfort food."  Yes, yes, and yes.

And since you don't want to be bored by my story of having the flu, I think we'll call it a day and see you back here on Saturday for a TV Guide trip into the mid-'70s.  Be here - aloha.*

*Although if anyone out there has expertise in tracking blog links, please contact me at the site's email address (found at, sensibly enough, the "Contact" tab.)

May 27, 2014

The FOX in the chicken coop

Feral - a good word for Fox and Murdoch
There will be a point to all of this eventually, so if you'll just be patient for a moment, I'll explain how a story on a blog devoted to classic television begins in Lisbon, Portugal at the finals of Saturday's UEFA Champions League soccer tournament.

The match itself was a thriller, with Real Madrid rallying in extra time to defeat its crosstown rival Atletico Madrid.  But nearly as entertaining as the match itself was the online commentary decrying FOX* Sports' announce team of Gus Johnson and Eric Wynalda.  Fox's decision to put an "American voice" on its soccer broadcasts, filled with the requisite American style, has been widely vilified by soccer fans and media critics everywhere.  According to World Soccer Talk's Christopher Harris, "FOX’s coverage of soccer has moved from being a joke to something that’s just second-rate. Unfortunately,given that Fox seems to have no consideration for the soccer fan, preferring to dumb its coverage down to the lowest common denominator, " I have no confidence or faith that it’ll get any better in the future."

*Is there anything more pretentious than the convention that the network's name is spelled in all caps?  I know it, but other than making the point in this article's title and in quoting other sources, I just can't bring myself to do it that way.

With that established, suddenly it seems that Fox is popping up everywhere.  At the website Awful Announcing, this was this morning's headline:  "Fox Sports Putting Viewers Last By Cutting Corners With Production Costs." The story relates how last Saturday's coverage of the Angels-Tigers game on Fox Sports 1 was hampered by shoddy camerawork, including losing fly balls, because the network hired "cheap, inexpensive labor" after failing in an attempt to lowball the regular Fox Sports Detroit camera operators.

Of course, it goes on.  NASCAR fans criticize Fox for having way too many commercials in their coverage (turning off the fan just trying to keep up with the race) and the incessant cheerleading from its commentators. Liberals have decried Fox News for years, and the network's emphasis on shout-a-thons and talking heads in lieu of actual broadcast news has even begun to turn off conservatives.  Even before that, the Fox broadcast network has been criticized for its dumbing-down of programming, including its plethora of tasteless reality shows.*

*Probably an oxymoron.

What do all of these stories, and others like them, have in common?  Well, when one thinks of Fox, of course, one thinks of Rupert Murdoch, the media tycoon who displays something of the reverse-Midas touch, turning everything he touches into crap.

In 1988 Murdock, the "titan of tabloids," purchased TV Guide.  In my opinion, the magazine was already on the downhill slide; it's best days had been in the '60s and '70s when it combined intelligent writing about the business of TV with incisive commentary about the role TV played in the cultural landscape, and added political and historical perspectives to the shows being broadcast.  By the late '80s I felt that TV Guide was heading toward being just another fan magazine, but under Murdoch's ownership the slide became a total freefall, as documented in Changing Channels: America in TV Guide by Glenn Altschuler and David Grossvogel, the latest offering in the Hadley Institute of Cultural Archaeology's reading list.

Altschuler and Grossvogel's book takes us only through the early '90s, before Murdoch's destruction of the magazine had become complete, but it didn't take them long to size up the situation.  Whereas in the past TV Guide prided itself on articles written by renowned critics and historians, the new management
Grumbled that articles on news and public affairs were too long or too boring...Within the year the new management had doubled the number of personality profiles, added more photos, inserted a soap opera summary, and even offered a horoscope (where readers followed Uranus, the planet that rules television).

Of all the sections in the national edition, the "Insider" was least in need of alteration, given the emphasis on fun.  If anything, its tidbits grew more childish.  For example, on September 2, 1989, it revealed that Vanna White considered her greatest beauty flaw to be her ugly toes and that Robin Leach stole soap from hotels.  And nastiness now accompanied the childishness more frequently...In essence, the tabloid-thinking Murdochians expanded the "Insider" to the rest of the magazine.  
As one observer put it, the image of the average TV guide reader became that of "a couch potato who lives in a trailer park."

Under Murdoch's management, TV Guide now sought to create news as much as they covered it, as was the case with the 1990 "TV Beauty Poll."  By 1989, the magazine's Managing Editor "implied that investigative reporting was no longer valued," telling his bureau chiefs that "We feel that the overwhelming majority of our pieces require no more than two weeks to write and report," when in fact even a simple profile used to run to dozens of interviews and several weeks' preparation time.

Time referred to all this as the "Tarting up of TV Guide."  Under previous owner Walter Annenberg and his chief lieutenant Merrill Panitt, it was always emphasized that TV Guide was "a family publication," and that any articles and pictures that appeared in its pages should keep that central fact in mind.  The joke in the newsroom was that Panitt kept a stamp in his desk drawer that said "Airbrush nipples."  And yet, anyone who's looked at an issue of TV Guide over the last two decades can vouch for how sexed-up it's become.  For me, the final straw came around 2000 or so, I think,when the magazine ran a feature on homosexuality in TV, including fawning pictures of same-sex kissing.  When I called to cancel my subscription, I explained that although I'd been a subscriber for close to 30 years, I had no desire to get a magazine that looked and read as if it ought to come in a brown paper wrapper.

Mind you, TV Guide was never a perfect publication - I've taken my share of shots at it during the course of this blog, and I expect to continue to do so.  In fact, in the coming months you'll see an influx of "This Week" articles coming from a decade we've rarely visited in these features, the '80s.  But the magazine had always had ambitions to be something other than a simple fan magazine, something that could be of merit not only in the quality of writing, but in the subject matter covered and the influence it might wield within the industry.  And while the decay might already have been visible in the early '80s, it bears scant resemblance to the tawdry stamp which Murdoch and his people have put on it in the years since.

As is the case, I expect I'll be excerpting various parts of this book as time goes on, before giving a formal review of the whole thing.  And by no means is everything in the book as bleak as the section covering the Murdoch takeover.  But that's all for another time.  Today, I seek only to lament the involvement of Rupert Murdoch and Fox Broadcasting in the television business.  If there's been a man or an organization that's done more damage to television, I'd like to know who.  Perhaps everything would have come to pass eventually, but it is strange, isn't it, that those same three letters seem to come up so often when assessing the state of the medium today?  I can't really say that I'm surprised.

May 24, 2014

This week in TV Guide: May 20, 1961

You've probably seen the series in the listings I post from time to time.  During its span of morning reruns it's called The McCoys, but in its prime-time lifetime it was known by its real title, The Real McCoys.  The great Walter Brennan, who has to be one of the lesser-remembered three-time Oscar winners (seriously: more than Tom Hanks!) starred as the McCoy patriarch, and Richard Crenna portrays his grandson, Luke.

If you only know Dick Crenna from his appearance in the Rambo movies, you're missing an actor who had a long and distinguished career in radio, television and movies.  Prior to his six-season turn as Luke, Crenna had done seven seasons on the successful comedy Our Miss Brooks with Eve Arden, and even before that he'd been a fixture on radio, having "appeared in nearly every important radio show extant" according to this week's cover story.  In these earlier roles, he'd been typecast as "knuckleheaded adolescents," but he's broken the mold in The Real McCoys, and he'll go on to put it even further behind him with his starring role as a state senator in Slattery's People (two Emmy nominations), and a long string of television and movie appearances (including a very funny spoof of his Rambo character in the underrated Hot Shots! Part Deux movie).  Even if you don't recognize his name, his solid, strong, craggy visage probably rings a bell.  Always liked him as an actor.

***

There's not a lot to rock our world in this week's issue, so we're probably looking at a lot of hit-and-run notes.  But here's one that gave me a momentary pause - a note in the Teletype that a previous movie commitment will probably prevent Marilyn Monroe from doing an NBC adaptation of Somerset Maugham's play Rain, costarring Frederic March, directed by Oscar winner George Roy Hill and adapted by Rod Serling.

Now, a little online research suggests there might have been more to it than that - everything from conflicts between Hill and Monroe's acting coach Lee Strasberg to Monroe's supposed mental unstability have been cited as complications that eventually scuttled the production.  One Monroe biographer suggests that Rain "would have shown Monroe’s capabilities as a serious actress."

The real reason this bit attracted my interest, however, is that we've become so accustomed to thinking of Marilyn Monroe in the past tense, as a legend, someone who lived and died tragically, that it's somewhat jarring to read an article in which Monroe appears in the present tense, alive and well, with a television project in the works.  I don't know, perhaps that just makes me old.  I was alive when Marilyn Monroe died, although her name meant nothing to me*; I wouldn't have known her from Bette Davis at that age.  But think about it - if you read an article that talked about a very famous someone, very much alive, whom you knew only as someone who had lived and died long before your own life, wouldn't that attract your attention as well?

*The cult of Marilyn Monroe still doesn't make that much of an impression on me.  She's just never struck me as being that much of a big deal.  Perhaps I just wasn't the right age at the right time, if you know what I mean.


***

Another note in the Teletype talks about ABC's plans for a future episode of Wide World of Sports featuring "an experimental baseball game" incorporating many of the suggestions made over the years by baseball maverick Bill Veeck.  Veeck is one of baseball's great characters, former owner of the Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Browns, and current owner of the Chicago White Sox, a team which he will once again own in the 1970s.  In his autobiography Veeck - As in Wreck, he had written of how baseball was being bogged down by its slow pace: "There would be nothing wrong with the now standard three-hour game if we were presenting two-and-a-half hours of action.  We aren't."*

*He wrote this in 1962.  You could write the same thing, word for word, today.

Veeck planned to let fans vote on team's next move.
Among the ideas Veeck has proposed: widening the plate by 25%, thus making the strike zone larger; changing the definition of a walk from four balls to three, and a strikeout from three strikes to two; reducing the time between pitches and between innings; and making the intentional walk automatic, i.e. rather than throwing four pitches wide of the plate, just tell the batter to take his base.*

*Veeck also advocated interleague play.  Oh well, we can't always be right.

In his book, Veeck mentions his plans for the Wide World telecast, which would have been an exhibition game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the White Sox.  "It was only because of my physical condition," he writes, "that the game wasn't played.  Better not to do it at all, I decided, than to go ahead and do a lousy job."  Too bad - I would have enjoyed seeing how that came out.

Oh, more from the Teletype?   Okay - here's a note on "the new CBS comedy series" Double Trouble, with Dick Van Dyke and Morey Amsterdam already signed up, adding Rose Marie to the cast.  That, of course, is The Dick Van Dyke show we're talking about.  I wonder when Mary Tyler Moore comes on the scene?

Another item - "Who Killed Julie Greer?", the opening episode of Dick Powell's new anthology series, is being filmed.  That episode, starring Powell and featuring appearances by Ronald Reagan, Mickey Rooney, Ralph Bellamy and others, will serve as a pilot for one of my favorite shows of the 60s: Burke's Law

***

A couple of weeks ago Andy Williams was TV Guide's cover boy.  He's riding high, the star of a very successful variety series.  But that's five years from now, and the article in this week's edition is about "Andy Williams' everybody's favorite summer replacement, is still waiting for a regular show."  Says the author, "the fact that he was still performing in a night club and not singing regularly in television was still one of the medium's mysteries."

What's the story?  Well, at the outset, Andy declined the projects that were being pitched to him, shows that would have been scheduled against ratings giants such as Gunsmoke.  "I had enough offers," he says.  "Why not wait?"  Maybe it's not a sure thing that Williams will be a smash when the right offer does come along, but it's a pretty good bet - Steve Allen says "I know of no one with higher standards or better musical taste," while Bing Crosby calls him "a fine singer whose scope is limitless...and an appealing person with a great deal of integrity."  Jack Benny, of course, is a little more cautious: he doesn't think Williams is "the greatest thing since Seven-Up," but adds that he's maybe the next best.*

*On MeTV, if you ever catch it - a terrific episode of Benny's show in which he rooks Andy into appearing with him at the grand opening of a supermarket - doing his act while standing on the top of the frozen foods counter.

In any event, when Andy does make the move the next year, he's pretty much the hit that everyone expects.  Bing Crosby's words are true, and remain so for as long as Andy Williams is on TV.

***

Gilbert Seldes
An interesting review of Bob Hope's latest TV appearances by Gilbert Seldes, himself an interesting man.  Seldes was one of the large figures in cultural criticism.  He wrote one of the influential books of the earlier part of the century, The Seven Lively Arts.  As editor of The Dial magazine, he published one of the greatest poems of the Twentieth Century, T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land.  He was one of the early advocates of  television as a cultural institution in its own right, worthy of review and criticism, and eventually made it to TV, as Director of Television Programming for CBS.  One of the shows he helped develop was the landmark dramatic anthology Studio One.

But we're not here to talk about Seldes; rather, it's Bob Hope who's our subject.  Seldes likes Hope, "a good comic actor who has been turned into a comedian, which is a different thing altogether."  And this, for Seldes, is the problem with Hope on television - it's that Hope is capable of more than he's showing.  "The shows in which he appears have no special atmosphere or quality; except that Hope is in them, they are like a sampler of half a dozen other variety shows."

I've read this kind of criticism of Hope before.  His early humor, particularly in his radio days, was sharp, edgy and occasionally suggestive.  On television, however, he's fallen into a rut, "the old reliable who is always doing the same old things."  Seldes doesn't use the word lazy, but others have.  At some point Hope saw the laughs he could get with a golf club, a few wisecracks, and some attractive actresses standing on either side of him, and after that he stopped trying to do anything new.  And while it makes for a successful career, it doesn't necessarily mean fulfilling what you're capable of.  Seldes says the best thing Hope's done this year was his Project 20 Will Rogers documentary voiceover, because it was something different, which he did "with confidence and modesty and skill.  It reminded you that he really has talent, even if no one (and that includes himself) bothers to use it."  Seldes, who confesses to a soft spot for Hope, concludes that Hope "has the talent. It needs only to be shown."

***

One more article from this week's issue, and that discusses Walt Disney's plans to take his long-running show from ABC to NBC.  At one time the struggling network, which helped finance Disneyland, was just grateful to have him on their lineup.  He provided not only credibility, but ratings.  But now, he complains, "I no longer had the freedom of action I enjoyed in those first three years."  The network, pleased with the success of his Davy Crockett series, "kept insisting that I do more and more Westerns."  One of the stories they rejected, he complains, was The Shaggy Dog.  In the light of ABC's turndown, he made a theater movie out of it "and it grossed $9,000,000."  In case you're wondering, that was a lot of money back then.

When ABC axed Disney's Mickey Mouse Club, it was the last straw.  He's been approached by NBC to come on over when his ABC contract expires in 1961, and he has jumped at the chance.  Says a friend, "I never saw such an overnight change in a man."  The freedom from ABC, not to mention the prospect of working in color, has so energized him that he's started working on programs "that can't possibly be shown until 1963."  One idea after another keeps coming from him, making him positively giddy.  "Oh boy!  Color - and no Westerns.  I can do whatever I want.  Do you hear me?  I can do whatever I want."

May 22, 2014

Around the Dial - Bob Cummings, George & Gracie, and more!

You know, for all the times I've run across Love That Bob! in all the old TV Guide listings, I've never actually seen an episode.  Oh, sure, I know who Bob Cummings is; he was terrific in an episode of The Twilight Zone, and I actually prefer his performance in Studio One's "Twelve Angry Men" to that of Henry Fonda.  But I've never seen Love That Bob!  Now, at least, I know more about it, thanks to this episode review from The Horn Section.

I have distinct memories of watching Wonderful World of Color when Walt Disney was still alive, and I enjoy reading about the 1964-65 World's Fair, so it's no surprise that I'd be interested in Dixon's review of Disney's trip to the Fair at TV When I Was Born.  What vivid colors!  That's the kind of miracle color TV was back in the '60s.

I've written about Terry Teachout before; the drama critic for The Wall Street Journal* always has thoughtful perspectives on the relationship of television to American culture.  This week, he links to an article he wrote ten years ago, in which he ponders what it means to abandon series television.

*Not to mention author, playwright and opera librettist, all of which give me a massive inferiority complex.

A couple of years ago, some friends of ours gave us a DVD of the best of Match Game.  Now, I'm old enough that I actually remember the original version in the mid-to-late '60s, particularly an episode in which the guests were the Apollo astronauts.  (Or was that You Don't Say?  I'm never sure about that - maybe someone can remind me.)  Anyway, this week's Bootleg Files takes a look back at the show's bawdy '70s revival, which I also remember with some fondness.  I don't know that it wears very well, but there are some very funny moments.  And some stupid ones as well.

I don't know about you, but when I think of Burns & Allen (which is probably less often than I should), I never think about them in color.  I might ahve to change that now, thanks to Kinescope HD's post of an episode of the show done in color!

At The Lucky Strike Papers, Andrew mentions a terrific movie that I never saw in the theater but enjoyed immensely on TV (which is perhaps appropriate): My Favorite Year, which starred the great Peter O'Toole in one of his later-career Oscar-nominated roles, and was directed by TV and movie veteran Richard Benjamin.  (Husband of **sigh** Paula Prentiss.)  Unfortunately I didn't catch the rerun on TCM this week, but that's no reason for you not to get out there and find it on DVD or streaming video.

And finally, a quick reminder that the Classic TV Blog Association's Summer of MeTV Blogathon is coming up June 2-5.  I've got my contribution ready - I hope you'll take time to read it!

That's all for today, kiddies - back Saturday with another look in the dusty pages of TV Guide!

May 20, 2014

He was the Real McKay, all right

The Real McKay: My Wide World of Sports, by Jim McKay, Plume, 320 pages, available through local and online used booksellers

Jim McKay was from the old school.  He didn’t try to make himself bigger than the events he covered; hell, apart from the introduction he often didn’t even appear on camera.  But when you heard his voice, you knew something important was on – even if it was just a demolition derby in Islip, New Jersey.  Because it was Jim McKay calling it.

I mention the demolition derby because McKay gives it a prominent spot in his autobiography, The Real McKay.  Not so much for anything memorable that might have happened, but because of what it taught him about covering sports.  Interviewing the winner, McKay was inclined to treat the whole thing as a lark. But it was no lark to the winner, who had just won his sport’s "world championship" and discussed his strategy as seriously as would any other athlete. McKay learned a valuable lesson that day: "I had committed an unforgivable bit of gaucherie, looking down on this man in a condescending manner during what he considered the greatest moment of his life." From then on, McKay said, he tried to approach all sports "through the eyes of its competitors."

I might add that, successful as he was in approaching the sports he covered through the eyes of the participants, Jim McKay was equally successful at approaching them through the eyes of the viewers at home.  We often hear about games “being brought into the living room of the viewer,” but McKay had an even greater talent – a gift, really – for bringing the viewer into the stadium, allowing them to appreciate the sights and sounds of places as exotic as Monte Carlo and Rio De Janeiro, and as ordinary as McKeesport, Pennsylvania and Hayward, Wisconsin.

McKay the writer is equally adept at taking the reader to these places; The Real McKay outlines McKay’s career from its beginnings in Baltimore, where the young Jim McManus started out covering airport openings and hosting afternoon variety shows, to his time at CBS, where the prospect of a dead-end career hosting the courtroom drama The Verdict Is Yours threw him into a bout of depression, to the lifeline that came his way with the offer to host a new, summer sports anthology series on ABC: Wide World of Sports.  The rest, as they say, is history.

McKay’s open, honest account of his successful battle with depression is one of a number of stories that will likely be new to readers familiar with McKay only from Wide World, as are the many anecdotes gathered  from a lifetime of broadcasting, such as his very funny account of locking himself out of the broadcast booth while covering Dwight Eisenhower’s inaugural parade.  More familiar, but no less riveting, is McKay’s first-hand account of the event for which he’s probably best known, his coverage of the massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.  Even though many of us have heard the story before, McKay vividly portrays the behind-the-scenes drama at the ABC broadcast center; he wasn’t even scheduled to be on camera that day, and had almost literally been pulled from a swimming pool to come into the studio to cover the breaking story, his wet bathing trunks under his trousers.  When word comes in of the deaths of the Israeli athletes in the airport shootout, we feel the pain that shot through McKay, and his on-camera words – “they’re all gone” still pack a wallop.*

*And if you think Jim McKay wasn't a real journalist, that he might have been in over his head covering a breaking news story, read the forward from his friend and colleague, Peter Jennings, who knew a thing or two about journalism.

The bulk of The Real McKay consists of the author sharing the most memorable moments and personalities from his long broadcasting history.  And what a history it was: the Olympics, the Masters, U.S., and British Opens, the Indy 500, the Grand Prix of Monaco and the 24 hours of LeMans, the Grey Cup, the World Cup, the Kentucky Derby, Wimbledon, figure skating, track and field - how's that for starters?  Again, many of these events will be familiar to sports fans, such as the gymnast Olga Korbut’s memorable splash on the world scene in those 72 Munich Olympics.  But even more entertaining are his portraits of athletes that might be lesser-known today, such as 1961 Formula 1 World Driving Champion Phil Hill, with whom McKay teamed up on a memorable vintage car rally in Brighton in 1967.

McKay rarely turns the spotlight on himself, preferring instead to discuss the amazing life he’s lived, the things he’s seen and heard around the world, but when he does turn inward, it’s mostly to McKay the family man, referring to he and his wife Margaret as "a team," and crediting that "team" for much of his professional and personal success. He understood that hard work was essential to a successful marriage and family, and believed that a common faith and shared interests had much to do with it. He was proud of his son, Sean McManus, who became president of CBS sports and news, and equally proud of his daughter Mary, a counselor. Of the life he and his wife shared, he wrote, "There is little more we could ask for."

The Real McKay is the perfect biography: it not only tells you about the man, it also entertains you with the stories of his life and times.  You feel as if you know him; at the very least, it makes you want to have known him.  It’s not a heavy book; you should be able to polish it off over a long weekend if you want, and it makes a very good summer read.  I found it on the sales table myself, and I don’t think you’ll have too much difficulty tracking it down through your local or online used bookstore.

A last thing, and this is really more about Jim McKay the man than the book he authored.

When we’re kids, many of us, we’re fearless.  That extends from pretending to be a superhero and jumping off the garage roof with a towel tied around our necks, to writing fan letters to athletes and other celebrities.  Sometimes something happens, though, as we grow older – people and events become more remote, we put people on a kind of pedestal, we think they’re untouchable.  The blogosphere has done a lot to ameliorate that, to spread a kind of egalitarianism that closes the gap between the famous and the ordinary, but for some of us, especially from the old school, it still exists.  And then you learn, often after it’s too late, how accessible many of those untouchables were, and how many people were able to benefit from it.   Jim McKay’s book made a real impression on me when I read it; it made me admire a man I already liked, and reminded me of just how much pleasure he’d given me through all those years, and how he seemed to grow in stature even more after his retirement, in comparison to the relative pygmies that replaced him.  I thought about writing him, to tell him that; I wouldn’t have needed any kind of a reply except perhaps an acknowledgement that he’d received my words and understood the impact he’d had.  I never did, and now of course I’ll never be able to.  It wasn’t the first time I’d missed that kind of opportunity, and it probably won’t be the last.

And let that be a lesson to you: nobody is that unapproachable.  If someone moves you, if something really strikes home with you, changes your life, or even gives you that moment of pleasure, let them know.  Make a connection with them.  Even if you never hear back, you’ll have made the effort.  But I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if you did get an answer; the few people I’ve connected with have turned out – surprise! – to be almost as ordinary as I am.  I’d like to think that my expression of appreciation would have meant something to Jim McKay, would have given him a moment of satisfaction (as if he needed it!) at the millions of people who’d listened to and watched him throughout the years, and whose lives he’d become a part of, even if for only that moment.

In the meantime, give this book a read.

May 17, 2014

This week in TV Guide: May 14, 1966

I've made this joke before, but it bears telling again: with Frank Sinatra on the cover, I didn't dare not pick it for this week's review.

Leslie Radditz' article, which accompanies Sinatra's acclaimed NBC special "A Man and His Music" on Sunday, looks at Sinatra at 50.  In many ways, Radditz notes, Sinatra "seems to be reaching new peaks."  He complains about not getting enough sleep, about his current Vegas gig being about two weeks too long, about lousy service in the hotel dining room.  But then, when he gets onstage - well, as Radditz says, "the old excitement is there."  Comments from women in the audience bear this out: "It's the eyeball-to-eyeball contact that gets me," one says.  "I"ll bet there isn't a place in that room where you wouldn't feel he was looking at you."  Adds another, "His animal attraction is amazing."

Sunday's Sinatra special, which originally aired the previous November, bears it out.  It's just an hour of Frank singing - no skits, no forced banter, just Sinatra, with two of his best collaborators, Gordon Jenkins and Nelson Riddle, providing the orchestral backing.  The show's available on DVD, and if you're a Sinatra fan you need to have it.  Looking through some of the songs is like reading the notes on a Greatest Hits album: "I've Got You Under My Skin," "I Get a Kick Out of You," "It Was a Very Good Year," "Young at Heart," "Come Fly with Me," "Lady is a Tramp," "You Make Me Feel So Young," "One For My Baby."  He closes the show with his longtime theme, "Put Your Dreams Away."  "My Way" and "New York, New York"?  He hasn't even recorded those yet.  Yes, Frank Sinatra still has some very good years ahead of him.


***

No Hollywood Palace this week, preempted by a "Holiday on Ice" show hosted by Milton Berle.  However, that doesn't mean we don't have some variety for you.  Sullivan himself has a reasonably good lineup, headlined by Alan King, Kate Smith, and dancer Peter Gennero.  Frank's Rat Pack pal Dean Martin, on NBC Thursday night, has singers Gisele MacKenzie, Tommy Sands and the McGuire Sisters, comedian Jack Carter, and Sherri Lewis and Lamb Chop.  Red Skelton's Tuesday CBS show features Petula Clark, who was so big back in the early 60s that she's on twice this week - she's also a co-headliner on NBC's Best on Record program, airing Monday night and featuring performances by winners from March's Grammy Awards.

That show in and of itself is interesting.  The listing for it reads "The annual Grammy awards are presented," and mentions that Dinah Shore will be giving the Golden Achievement award to Duke Ellington.  But we know it isn't the awards show itself - that was on March 15, in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Nashville.  So what gives?  Well, believe it or not, the Grammy award ceremony wasn't broadcast live on TV until 1971 - prior to that, a series of annual specials - Best on Record - showcased the winners in the major categories, performing their winning tunes.  It wasn't about the competition; who knows whether or not they named the losing nominees on the show?  It was all about the music.  And in that sense, it's no different than the Grammys today.  Nobody really turns on the show to see the lame jokes from the presenters, the envelope opened, the four losers on screen while the winner tearfully accepts the award.  No - people want the performances, and that's what this show gives them.  Maybe they should consider this format every year?

***

If you're a sports fan, there's not much to look forward to this week.  The Dodgers and Pirates meet in NBC's Saturday Game of the Week, and the Twins take on the Yankees in a local broadcast Friday night on Channel 11.  Otherwise you've got swimming, wrestling, bowling, ice-dancing and hydroplane races to look forward to.  Oh, and Sam Snead offers tips on how to avoid sand traps.  Many of the weekly series have started the rerun season, so there's not a lot new there either.  Even the week's biggest show (except for Frank, that is) comes up a cropper.

That's the scheduled launch of Gemini IX, which was slated to take off on Tuesday morning as the second-half of a space doubleheader.  The day was to begin with the launch of an Atlas-Agena target vehicle, followed a little over 90 minutes later by the Gemini launch.  The Gemini, manned by Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan, would then catch up with, rendezvous and dock with the Agena, a crucial component that had to be understood and mastered prior to the forthcoming Apollo flights.

However, as you can see here, the launch of the Agena didn't exactly come off as planned; Mission Control lost contact with the vehicle after the Atlas booster failed, and the Agena plunged into the Atlantic.  The Gemini flight was postponed until the following month, when a replacement vehicle was launched.  Gemini IX finally took off on June 3, and while it didn't quite come off without a hitch, it was still a success.


***

A show I might have watched if I'd been older is on NBC Thursday night: A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to the White House, featuring Jack Paar and Tom Lehrer, along with clips of political humor from JFK, FDR, Adlai Stevenson (the author of the quote used as the program's title) and others.  Gifted as some of the show's humorists are, I doubt the program rose to the level of political humor of Mark Russell's political satires.  It's also a bit like showing a history of great home run hitters that was made just before Hank Aaron comes on the scene (or Barry Bonds, if you prefer).  A documentary about political humor that doesn't include Ronald Reagan can't help but be incomplete.

***

And now for some British television.

First is Cleveland Amory's review of ABC's The Avengers.  As I recounted last week, it apparently took the British public a while to figure out that The Avengers was a satire, but with the passage of a couple of years, Amory has no such problem - "Each of the episodes we've seen has involved not only individual satires of the old days, but also general satires of modern life."  He likes the show, although he adds that it's "so British you don't have to be British to understand it - but it helps."  I don't really buy that; after all, we appear to have figured out the satire before the Brits.  But he's absolutely on with his take of Diana Rigg, whom he describes as "both pretty and good."

And then there's Robert Musel's (yes, this one's for you, Mike Doran!) profile of "the incorruptible" Patrick McGoohan, star of the decidedly more serious Danger Man or, as it's known in these parts, Secret Agent.  McGoohan hasn't yet ventured into what will become his most famous role, that of Number Six in The Prisoner, but it's not hard to see the genesis of that show as he riffs on his television philosophy.  "Every real hero since Jesus Christ has been moral," he says, a statement that will come as absolutely no surprise to those who've noticed the occasional Messianic parallel in Number Six's actions.  He adds that he will not let John Drake, his character in Danger Man*, do anything he would not do himself.

*And, perhaps, alter ego of Number Six?

SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
McGoohan's a man who knows what he believes in and isn't afraid to say so.  "When I first started the series," he tells Musel, "they wanted me to carry a gun and have an affair with a different girl in each episode.  I wasn't going to do that. I simply will not appear in anything offensive.  I won't accept bad language or eroticism."  That doesn't mean he's against romance on screen; "Romance is the finest for of entertainment...It's something you create in the mind of the viewer."  Rather, it's his philosophy toward television itself, and its responsibility to the viewer.  "What I object to is promiscuous sex which is anti-romance.  Television is watched by so many people, children and grandmothers among them, that it has a moral obligation to its audience."

McGoohan's a demanding man to work with, but "generally liked by his crew because they recognize him as a professional who could, if he had to, light a set or edit a film or even design a production."  I suspect it also doesn't hurt that he has a clear idea of what he wants in a series.  All in all, we get a picture of a man with an ego, a man with vision and the determination to bring it to fruition, a man with a pure artistic integrity.  It's hard not to respect a man like that.

***

Another of the fashion spreads that TV Guide features from time to time, and this week our model is Joan Hackett.  Hackett, a woman of unconventional beauty, has had a pretty good career, winning awards for her work on stage and showing up regularly on a variety of movies and television shows and series.  This article has nothing to do with that, of course; for TV Guide, Hackett makes a perfect model for the English-styled fashions popularized by the ultra-chic New York shop Paraphernalia.

SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION

The store, which opened multiple locations and remained around in one form or another until the late 70s, is quite a story itself.  As for Hackett, her career continues on the upswing, with critical plaudits for the TV adaptation of Mourning Becomes Electra followed by Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for her work in her last movie, Only When I Laugh; in 1983 she will die of ovarian cancer.

***

That seems like kind of a down note to end on, so let's take a look at a movie that sounds so awful, you have to smile at it.  It's 1958's Attack of the Puppet People, starring two actors who really ought to have known better, John Hoyt (many television shows) and John Agar (Shirley Temple's first husband; how far we've fallen since then, hmm?), and I swear to you that this is the real description of the movie, which airs on Channel 5 at 12:45am on Saturday night/Sunday morning:  "A toymaker carries his occupation to an extreme.  He shrinks people and locks them in a dollhouse."

Shockingly, the always-reliable Wikipedia says that the movie, which was shot under the working title The Fantastic Puppet People,  "has had a generally poor reception amongst critics."  It was rushed into production to capitalize on the recent popularity of The Incredible Shrinking Man, but something tells me that no amount of time would have helped this flick out.


Perhaps it makes more sense with the Spanish subtitles.  But I keep waiting for three silhouettes to appear on the bottom of the screen.

May 15, 2014

Around the dial

Back again for another look at the classic TV blogosphere, and as usual there's plenty to read. Here are some that caught my eye.

Remember Robert Vaughn? Alas, while his Man from U.N.C.L.E. sidekick David McCallum reaches new audiences on N.C.I.S. (must have a thing for shows with initials, no?), Vaughn may well be better known to today's viewers as a commercial spokesman for lawyers.  And that's too bad because, as Rick points out at Classic Film and TV Cafe, Vaughn's a pretty interesting guy.  I've always identified with Vaughn's smug, pretentious turns - even in the first season of U.N.C.L.E., he manages to make the good guy smarmy.  But as the series progresses into satire and then camp, Vaughn begins to grow on me.  His reactions and takes to the sometimes bizarre events surrounding each week's caper are delightful.

I've said this before, but I'm going to have to check out The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.  Now that we're got MeTV back in Dallas, I have no excuses for not setting the DVR to early Sunday morning.  And if I'm lucky, it won't be long before I catch the 1960 Christmas show, an episode Joanna Wilson recounts this week at Christmas TV History.  I know I've seen Dobie before, in after-school reruns - I can't tell you about any episodes, but I sure remember his pose mirroring Rodin's The Thinker.

One of the newer blogs I enjoy is Dixon Hayes' TV When I Was Born, not only because of his wonderful writing, but we're close enough in age* that his memories are quite similar to mine.  This week Dixon writes about a show that aired the day he was born: The Garry Moore Show.  I've written about Moore a couple of times in the last few weeks, and Dixon covers well Moore's unlikely, unorthodox variety show stardom.

*I'm not telling you which of us is older, though you can figure out Dixon's age easily enough from his age when various shows aired; I've left more subtle clues throughout the blog's history, but they're there if you look hard enough.

At Comfort TV, David Hofstede touches on something near to me - he asks if watching television can be a hobby.  David talks about assembling TV "theme" viewing for things like the start of baseball season, which I think is very cool.  We do the same thing in the Hadley household at Christmastime, and we've got a batch of TV shows and movies that make theme appearances throughout the year (Great Pumpkin at Halloween, Grand Prix before the start of the F1 season, Rhubarb before the World Series, 1776 and The Music Man for the 4th of July, and so on.  I commented at his blog that my writing may be a bit more than a hobby for me, but the act of watching television is, as always, a simple pleasure, and collecting favorite series on DVD is as good a hobby as it gets.

Finally, you might have noticed on the sidebar a logo for this year's "Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon" - as was the case last year, yours truly will be part of it on June 2.  I could tell you what I'm writing about - but better that you check out the lineup at The Classic TV Blog Association and find out about the other great articles on tap.  You won't want to miss this one!

And you won't want to miss Saturday's TV Guide recap, either - see you then!

May 13, 2014

How we became who we are

Glued to the Set: The 60 Television Shows and Events That Made Us Who We Are Today, by Steven A. Stark, Free Press, 352 pages, available through second-hand bookshops and online

I've referenced Steven Stark’s book many times in the last couple of years, so to add too many more words would be superfluous.   Nonetheless, there are, I think, a few more things than can be added when writing about this terrific book, and why anyone interested in classic television and American culture should read it.

Rather than writing a conventional history of television and its cultural influence, Stark has chosen to view that relationship by looking at 60 television shows and/or events that reflect particularly significant points regarding the influence TV has had on us.  These range all the way from the pioneers of television (The Milton Berle Show, Howdy Doody) to moments frozen in time (the JFK assassination, the moon landing, Watergate) to shows of the more recent past (Saturday Night Live, ER, Oprah).

Many of Stark’s insights might seem surprising at first; few people might invest Howdy Doody with Stark’s gravitas, but as Stark relates how Doody was actually little more than Berle for kids, and signified what became a major debate regarding children’s programming, and in fact how we view children in this society, “whether adults would permit their children to see pretty much the same type of programming that they did, since – given the choice between something educational and something entertaining – it was obvious which one kids would pick.”  As Stark points out, programming – whether for adults or children – has always been “designed to reach the broadest audience possible.”

In a chapter on “Masterpiece Theatre and the Failure of PBS,” Stark again makes the reader think counter-intuitively; the massive success of Masterpiece, arguably PBS’ signature program (along with Sesame Street) is actually an indicator of the network’s failure to develop original programming, and indeed a reflection of the deep confusion surround what public broadcasting’s mission is supposed to be.

Looking at the westerns and police shows that were so popular in the 50s and 60s, Stark finds much of interest in what this tells us about society at the time: “Until the advent of television, however, popular culture had traditionally romanticized crime, with the police (or their equivalents) often treated as villains not heroes. A strong antiestablishment distrust of formal legal authority used to run through our popular culture.”  The heroes of the time are the private detective and the cowboy – “highly individualistic” individuals “who distained the traditional mechanisms of the law.”

This all changes with the premiere of Dragnet in 1952, as the police detective – often portrayed as world-weary, underpaid and overworked, and often stymied by the bureaucracy in his attempts to enforce the law – becomes television’s new protagonist, a status that with few exceptions remains to this day.  Consequently, in an age that doesn’t seem to particularly value the rugged individualism of the frontier cowboy, law-and-order reigns supreme.

Stark can be particularly savage in looking at news programming; looking at the rise of tabloid shows such as ET, Hard Copy and Inside Edition, he notes that their success led network news shows to “ape” their style, to the extent that by 1993, “for the first time, news about the entertainment industry and its stars became among the Top Ten most heavily reported subjects on the evening newscasts.”  Quoting media critic Neil Postman, Stark concludes that “both the form and content of news becomes entertainment.”

Stark also makes a subtle point about the trustworthiness of television news which I think bears mention; as he praises Walter Cronkite’s career, he parenthetically notes that Cronkite’s success in casting a light on the dark shadows of the government’s often nefarious activities (for which he became known as “America’s most trusted man”) caused the public to become more cynical about institutions in general –including, eventually, television news.  In the same way that society has drifted away from valuing individualism and independence, those who set themselves up as gatekeepers of the establishment are often looked upon with as much suspicion as those whom they investigate.  Hoisted on their own petards, so to speak.

I hope I’ve not made this sound too academic, because it isn’t.  Stark writes with a clear, entertaining prose, often making his points as if he were sitting with you on the living room couch, watching the same programs.  His viewpoint is that of someone who watches and appreciates television, rather than that of an intellectual or professional critic.

I didn’t agree with all of Stark’s choices for the 60 most influential, and I’m not always on board with his interpretations, but I had great fun reading this book and pondering it afterwards.  I’ve referred to it often on the blog, and suspect I’ll continue to do so.  And if I’ve encouraged you to check it out, then I’ve done my job.

May 10, 2014

This week in TV Guide: May 9, 1964

This TV Guide came out the day after my fourth birthday, but that's not why I picked it up.  No, I ran across this isolated copy in an antique store and, despite the fact it was somewhat battered and missing a page, I bought it to find out just what that outlandish TV spoof was that fooled a nation.  After all, how can you pass up a teaser like that?

Somewhat to my surprise, it turned out the answer was the classic British series The Avengers.  Perhaps it's our American sensibilities, the era in which the show first came to our shores, the episodes that were shown here, or the fact that I'm looking back on it with the perspective of many years, but I have a hard time believing that anyone could ever have taken The Avengers seriously as a spy thriller.

That doesn't mean I'm taking the series lightly or putting it down.  If you're been a regular reader, you know The Avengers is a favorite of mine, particularly Patrick Macnee's dapper John Steed.  (Of course, there's the beautiful Honor Blackman, the painfully young Diana Rigg, and the shapely Linda Thorson, but that is a topic - or two, or three - for another day.  Or week.)  I've got the complete boxed set at home, and after having gone through the whole series once, I'm feeling as if it's about time to start from the top once again.

But really.  Considering the leather catsuits that Honor Blackman wore, could you really have thought this was straight drama?  Apparently so, based on the frustration expressed by producer John Bryce, who after two seasons has finally admitted that "The Avengers was conceived as a satire of counterespionage thrillers, but the British public still insists on taking it seriously."

To be fair about it, the early episodes when Steed was partnered with Ian Hendry, John Rollason and Julie Stevens, were of quite a different tenor.  The series was in black and white back then, and shot on tape rather than film, giving the shows a somewhat stagebound feeling  Cathy Gale, Blackman's character, was smart, independent, and tough - every bit the equal of her male counterparts.  And the villains were typical spies, not fantastic creations that came later, such as the Aquanauts.  Seeing these episodes in isolation, one could understand how viewers could have seen The Avengers as pretty much of a straight drama, albeit with some lighthearted moments.

Mrs. Peel and one of her leather outfits
The straw that broke the camel's back, apparently, came a year or so into the run when critic Lionel Hale, appearing on a television panel show, expressed amazement that people didn't realize the show "was being played for laughs."  The others on the panel protested - The Avengers didn't bill itself as satire, so how could this be the case?  Such a British attitude, don't you think?  After this little exchange, producer Bryce started looking back at past episodes, "moodily wonder[ing] what more he could do in the realm of wild unreality to get the idea over."  After all, the show had already featured (1) a neo-Casear, planning to conquer the world from the headquarters of his fertilizer factory, (2) Mrs. Gale running for Parliament while someone plants to detonate an H-bomb underneath the foundation, (3) Steed being brainwashed into thinking World War III has started, and (4) a pair of lawyers who sell perfect legal defenses to criminals before they commit crimes, with guaranteed acquittal promised.  Bryce even contemplated "a program in which Mrs. Gale would be tied to the railroad tracks with the midnight express swiftly approaching.  He said this was bound to give the game away."

By the time The Avengers made it over here, it fit in perfectly with shows like The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Batman, and other over-the-top adventure series.  Plus, American viewers never did get to see episodes with Mrs. Gale until they appeared on cable years later.  So perhaps we were already well prepared for the joke by that time.  Still, I have to admit that the hook for this article turned out to be something of a letdown.  I guess the joke was on me this time.

***

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 include comediennes Phyllis Diller and Mary Tyler Moore; violinist Itzhac Perlman; vocalist Dusty Springfield; the Brooks Sisters, instrumental trio; comic Jackie Mason; the Cinco Latinos, vocal-instrumentalist quintet; and comic acrobat Doug Hart.

Palace:  Host Dale Robertson introduces actress-songstress Betty Hutton; comics Paul Lynde and Carole Cook; vocalist John Gary; French singers Varel, Bailly and Les Chanteurs de Paris; comedians Davis and Reese; juggler Dave Parker; the Bumpy Spectaculars, acrobats; Cueno's Horse Fantasy; and the Womenfolk, a singing group.

Questions: I wonder what Mary Tyler Moore was doing on Sullivan's show?  She wouldn't have had a standup act, would she?  The Van Dyke show was in full swing so doubtless she was promoting that, perhaps with a clip?  The great, great Itzhac Perlman is more evidence of the middlebrow culture that Sullivan understood so well, and people would have enjoyed his appearance; Dusty Springfield would have been representative of the new pop mentality that was on the way.  Jackie Mason was a regular performer on the Sullivan show, at least for a few more months.

I've written before about Dale Robertson; he's my kind of guy, but I'm not sure that even Dale can help the Palace out too much.  I was never a fan of Betty Hutton; thought she was too much over the top.  Paul Lynde is good, but I think he's got to be playing off of someone else.  The rest of the show doesn't do a lot for me, which means that though it's not his best, I'm giving the nod this week to Sullivan.

***

It's interesting that in 1964 people are already looking back to the "good old days" of television, or at least taking stock of the industry and seeing what kind of progress it's made.  In the fourth part of a continuing series, TV Guide's editors have asked celebrities what they think of the current state of TV:  has programming improved, what kinds of shows would you like to see, and what is the medium's greatest need.

I haven't read any of the other articles, but the respondents in this series seem like a pretty good cross-section of knowledgeable people: satirist and TV veteran Henry Morgan, writer and occasional teleplay author Gore Vidal, Dobie Gillis creator Max Shulman, novelist John Dos Passos, artist Leonard Baskin, photographer Philippe Halsman, TV host Lawrence Welk and Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz.

In general, the consensus seems to be that TV has improved technically and in its ability to cover news and sports, but that the overall quality is either stagnant or has actually gone down.  Vidal sees television with an "enthusiastic commitment" to producing junk, while Shulman blames a lack of talented writers and interference from network executives, and Baskin describes programming as "essentially pap."  All bemoan the loss of live drama and anthology, and agree that there are too many commercials and too much pressure from advertisers (Halsman has the kindest word, saying that today's commercials "are now often more original and visually exciting than the shows they sponsor."), and Schulz talks of the need for the "artist to be able to record his work without its being torn apart and put together again by a host of others in authority."  When asked what TV needs for the future, there are few surprises.  The comedian Morgan would like more sketch comedy, comedy specials and comedy dramas; the musician Welk would like music "well played and in good taste"; the artist Baskin longs for the elimination of advertising, the novelist and historian Dos Passos would like more non-partisan news and analysis.  Vidal comments acidly that television needs "a sense that getting people to buy things they do not need is morally indefensible," and Halsman looks back with nostalgia "of the time laughter came out of me and not out of a can."

In many ways, we could be having this conversation today.  You'd see some of the same complaints about commercials and commercialism, you'd read comments about a need for more serious coverage of the news, you'd hear calls for more creativity and less interference.  And yet this isn't really a situation where we look back at an era that was never as good as we thought it was, one that's been burnished by time.  For those who know television history, one could indeed say that by 1964, the decline of TV from the Golden Age was well under way.  Anthologies, the lifeblood of early television, were mostly gone, being replaced by sitcoms such as The Beverly Hillbillies, and by the middle of the 60s there was a general consensus that TV was being dumbed down dramatically.  Though I have many favorite shows from this time period, it's not particularly an era I'd be anxious to return to.

***

Speaking of the sitcom (dumbed down or not), word on the street (or at least from TV Teletype) is that "Producers of Gilligan's Island are looking for three more regulars to co-star in the new comedy with Bob Denver, Alan Hale, Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer."  Those three would turn out to be Tina Louise, Russell Johnson and Dawn Wells.  I don't know that I'd ever have considered myself a big fan of Gilligan, but I liked most of those people on it.  And I always had a soft spot in my heart for Mary Ann.  A very soft spot - in fact, I think she's worth a **sigh**, don't you?

There's a note about some of the stories planned next season for The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo, and the Gilligan note above reminded me that these two shows were on opposite each other for Gilligan's first season, meaning that Jim Backus, the voice of Magoo, will be the first - and only, I think - person in the history of television to appear on two different shows on two different networks at the same time and day.  He was competing with himself.  Hard to imagine that nowadays.

I'd tell you more of the Teletype news from New York, but that's one of the pages ripped out of this issue.  Someone thought a coupon for Kraft mustard was more important.  They were probably right.

***

Despite the notation above about the diminishing quality of television, I offer you, without comment, another installment of this week's lament on the decline of television.

The 1963 Emmy Award nominations have just been announced.  The categories are a bit different from what we're used to today; in addition to best comedy, drama and variety series, there's an award for "the best program of the year."  The nominees are "Blacklist," an episode from the CBS drama The Defenders (also nominated for best drama), and four documentaries: "American Revolution of '63" (NBC), "The Kremlin" (NBC), "The Making of the President 1960" (ABC) and "Town Meeting of the World" (CBS).  Not surprisingly, "Making of the President" won, and while it would have been very difficult not to vote for a program about the election of a man who had been dead for six months, I have to say that it is a very good documentary, and may well have won on its own merits.

***

And now a word or two about a couple of medical series on the air, and what their storylines might tell us about today's TV world.

Back then, there were two big-time doctor series - Ben Casey on ABC, and Dr. Kildare on NBC.  The shows were quite different in many ways, but they shared a similar structure, that of a young doctor paired up with an older mentor (Vincent Edwards and Sam Jaffe on Casey, Richard Chamberlain and Raymond Massey on Kildare.)  They each also spawned similar shows about psychiatrists: Breaking Point, which spun off from Casey, featured Paul Richards and Eduard Franz as the junior and senior psychiatrists, while Kildare's companion*, The Eleventh Hour, had Wendell Corey (first season) and Ralph Bellamy (second season; there's also a pretty good article about him in this edition) as the elder doctor, and Jack Ging as the protege.

*Not technically a spinoff, but the shows did at one point engage in a two-part crossover story.

Each of these series features plotlines this week that I think would be told differently were they on TV today.  In Breaking Point, the subject is autism, in the story "And James Was a Very Small Snail."  Autism wasn't a very well-known or understood condition in 1964, so the material was probably much fresher than it would be today.  Dr. Thompson's (Richards) small patient is seven-year-old Petey Babcock, whose only means of communication  with his therapist is through a crayon.  Thompson's burden is to con vince Petey's parents and older brother that Petey's only chance at making progress is if he remains at the clinic.  Later that week, The Eleventh Hour presents "This Wonderful Madman Calls Me 'Beauty," the story of a biochemist recently diagnosed with a brain tumor, who wants to forego treatment until he's concluded his research on isolating a life-prolonging enzyme, work that he feels is on the threshold of success.

In each of these episodes, we're presented with something of an existential dilemma that in my opinion would be missed by today's television.  Kenneth Newell, the biochemist in Eleventh Hour, is emblematic of a man driven to succeed, so much so that he's willing to jeopardize his own life in the quest for an answer that may save many other lives.  Not having seen the episode, I can't say for sure whether or not Newell acts from ego or altruism, which I suppose is why it's being told on a drama about psychiatrists instead of brain surgeons, but at the very least there's a potential for a real philosophical debate about the meaning of life and whether or not Newell's potential breakthrough is more important for him that to simply preserve his own life.

Breaking Point is, I think, even more fertile ground.  Today this story would be on a legal show - The Good Wife, probably.  The issue would be the legal rights of the family vs. the health of Petey, which I think overlooks the heart of the drama: the mystery of existence, the depth of the human mind, what "quality of life" really means.  Once again, without watching the show I can't tell what the producers did with the story, but given that it's not an episode of Ben Casey, I think it's safe to suggest that some of these deeper issues might have been explored.

My point here (and, as Ellen used to say, I do have a point) is that in the 60s, "issue" drama was a big deal.  Despite what we read earlier about the diminishing quality of television, dramatists such as Sterling Silliphant* and Reginald Rose were well-known for raising big themes on TV, and these two stories seem as if they could have fallen in that category.  (Their episode titles were certainly pretentious enough.)  By reducing the storyline in, say, Breaking Point to a legal, rather than an existential, point would be to miss that point entirely.

*Silliphant's Route 66, pretentious though it could be, was also possibly one of the most existential series ever shown on television.

If anyone out there has seen either or both of these episodes and can show my theories are full of hooey, by all means please do so.  It wouldn't be the first time, trust me.  But in reading these storylines, I couldn't shake the idea that there was something about them that was different, richer, from what we might see today.

***

If I haven't put you to sleep completely with that last section, a brief mention of this week's cover story should be a good way to wrap things up.  Combat! was probably the best of the World War II dramas that populated television in the 60s; it was a gritty, realistic portrayal of an American squad of troops working their way across Europe following D-Day.  (It also didn't hurt that all but the last season was done in B&W.)  The stars, Vic Morrow and Rick Jason, more or less alternated leads each week, though they also could appear together in stories.  Morrow is probably the better known of the two, but Jason was thought by many to be the likely star of the series when it began, and he's the focus of the unbylined profile.

Jason reminds me a bit of a similar profile of Jack Lord that was done a few months before; both come across as men trying just a little too hard to show everyone what Renaissance men they are.  In Jason's case, it's how he prides himself on sculpting, painting, woodworking, leathercraft, carpentry, plumbing, landscaping, cooking, photography, dog training, fish breeding, guitar playing, singing, writing, bridge, chess, hunting, fishing, underwater swimming, and karate, in addition to starring in a weekly hour drama.  He also reads "everything from Aristotle and Plato to Henry Miller," pilots an airplane, and speaks Spanish, French, Italian and Chinese.  Makes me tired just to type that.

The typically unnamed friend concedes that Jason probably does "most, if not all, of these things" but adds that "he's not as much of an expert as he'd like you to think."  His first wife says "he is very handy - but he never finishes anything."  Like Lord, he's seen as something of a throwback to Hollywood's larger-than-life stars of its glamorous past - "Vic is more of an actor," another unnamed source says, "Rick is a star."  But whereas Jack Lord clearly rubs some people the wrong way, Rick Jason is inherently more likable, with "a naiveté which might leave him open to ridicule were it not for his very guilelessness."

I wasn't particularly impressed with Jason's character as presented in the first episode of Combat!, a show that for some reason I remembered from its last seasons, but like Jason the man, he grew on me as the series progressed.  It's a show that, unlike M*A*S*H, has aged well because it never tried to tell a contemporary story through the lens of a period piece.  It's never dated, because it's frozen in time as a moment in history.  However, I can promise that after I've watched an episode featuring Rick Jason, I've had no particular desire to get up and do some woodworking, fix the plumbing, whip up a gourmet meal, train a dog, study Chinese, . . .