August 22, 2015

This week in TV Guide: August 25, 1979

I've always been pleased by the "This Week in TV Guide" feature, but in preparing this summer second look series, I've started to wonder.  For the second wee in a row, I bring you a TV Guide that was virtually untouched when I first looked at it three years ago.  What was I thinking?  More to the point, dear readers, what were you thinking that you allowed me to get away with such shoddy work?  Seriously, here's a question for you all, for which I seek to solicit a serious answer: do you like the longer pieces I've been doing the past couple of years, or do you prefer the short, stick-to-one-issue articles with which I was apparently so enamored back at the start?  I only write - you decide.

***

Morton Kondracke, the longtime panelist on PBS' The McLaughlin Group (at the time of this writing) and future mainstay of Fox News pundit shows, has a provocative Cold War-era article this week on television's obligation to provide in-depth coverage of the Pentagon.  The trigger is the SALT arms limitation treaty with the Soviet Union, which went through a bruising time in the Senate, and while Kondracke approves of the amount of coverage the networks have given the important topic (including NBC's coverage of a 90-minute live debate from the Kennedy Center), he mourns that "television doesn't devote itself to national-defense coverage consistently."  According to most D.C.-based defense experts, television's usual coverage of defense issues is "lousy" - and TV is routinely being scooped by newspapers on the most important defense issues.

CBS does well in their coverage, at least better than the other two, but that's primarily because Cronkite himself has an interest in it.  The other national defense correspondents complain that the message they get from their headquarters is a short one: not interested.  The reasons for the lack of coverage are varied: fallout from Vietnam, causing some producers to shy away from anything military; complete disinterest by other producers; and a feeling that defense spending isn't "visual" enough, doesn't make for good television.  One ABC official complains that the current Defense Secretary, Harold Brown, is too dull, not like Henry Kissinger or Robert McNamara, and that most of the real defense-related news comes from either the State Department or the White House itself.  He agrees, though, that the issues are too complex, too abstract and jargon-filled,  to be covered properly in a brief television spot.

Carter and Brezhnev sign the SALT II treaty.
Kondracke does see signs of progress: PBS, with its MacNeil/Lehrer Report devoting several shows to significant segments on defense problems; ABC, with an 11-part series on World News Tonight anchored by its diplomatic correspondent Ted Koppel, and CBS, with a five-part series on the Cronkite report using a simulated war to ask serious questions about nuclear capabilities and the ultimate cost of war.  Perhaps the SALT debate has jump-started the networks into getting past their post-Vietnam lethargy.  Even so, Kondracke concludes, "television hasn't begun to tell the public all it needs to know about America's ability to defend itself."

Over 35 years later, one has to ask the same question: with all of our 24-hour news channels, do we get any better coverage of what's going on?  One issue Kondracke doesn't address is the question of media bias in its reporting of the SALT debate, something we would pretty much take for granted today.  In these days when the media reports frequently on the media, and we can see detailed breakdowns on the number of hours each news program spends on given topics, I wonder if our news coverage today is not only worse, but more controversial, than it was even then?

***

The new fall season is less than a month away, and NBC has gotten off to a head-start on programming for the September start.  It plans a repeat of its blockbuster miniseries Holocaust for four nights starting September 10, and has moved two of its big Hollywood movie premieres - Coming Home and Semi-Tough from November to run on consecutive nights September 17 and 18.

The other networks have been forced to respond by juggling their own schedules:  ABC is moving the debut of 240-Robert to August 28, and will be starting The Lazarus Syndrome on September 4.  They've also made moves with program schedules for series such as Out of the Blue, Nobody's Perfect, Angie and Detective School.  I didn't provide links to these series, because I wanted to see first of all how many of them you remember.  Hint: there wasn't a big hit in the batch.  CBS is doing the same thing, juggling the start dates for four of its sitcoms: The Last Resort, Struck by Lightning, Working Stiffs and The Bad News Bears.  Again, not exactly setting the world on fire, are they?  The biggest attraction for the new season: the season premiere of Charlie's Angels and the introduction of the newest Angel, Shelley Hack.  Remember her?

***

It's a light sports week, due primarily to the absence of ESPN.  Let me explain.

The U.S. Open Tennis Championship kicks off this week, and CBS provides 15-minute nightly recaps after the late local news*.  Today, ESPN covers the tournament's morning, afternoon and evening sessions, giving viewers a complete look at the grand slam classic.  I'd estimate the increase in coverage from then to now would be about, let's say, 50 to 1 on a weekly basis.  That could be conservative, though.

*In Minneapolis-St. Paul, where the CBS affiliate WCCO did not carry the network's late-night programming, the updates were shown on the independent KMSP.  For many years, as I mention in next week's piece, Channel 9 was also the home of the CBS Morning News.  Very confusing for a kid.

In baseball, the pennant races are down to the last month, and we're treated to two national games: the Red Sox and Royals on NBC's Saturday Game of the Week, and a TBD matchup on ABC's Monday Night Baseball.  Today we'd probably have five or six games; a Saturday game (or two) on Fox, a Sunday afternoon game on TBS, a Sunday night game on ESPN, and perhaps two or three additional games during the week.  In addition, for those living in a baseball market, you'd have your local games.  In Minneapolis there are two Twins games; living here in Texas, where all the Rangers games are on TV, we'd probably see six.

There's one football game on this week, a pre-season clash between the Steelers and Cowboys on NBC Saturday night.  For the last week in August, we still wouldn't have much pro football today, since the NFL insists on starting its regular season the Thursday following Labor Day, but we more than make up for it with a deluge of college football.  If we were looking at the same week this year, we'd probably have at least six games, perhaps as many as a dozen, between ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, Fox Sports 1, Fox Sports 2, the Big 10 Network, the Pac 12 Network, the Longhorn Network, and various regional broadcasts.  Maybe a dozen is selling it too short?

And then there's a special on NBC Sunday afternoon profiling golf's new stars.  There's no program description though, which is a pity.  I would have liked to have seen who they were predicting for future stardom, and whether or not they were on the mark.

***

On Saturday late night, Channel 5 has the conclusion of the miniseries Evening in Byzantium, based on the bestseller by Irwin Shaw, starring Glenn Ford,  This was one of the projects from Operation Prime Time, the so-called "occasional network" that existed in the late '70s and early '80s.  There were a lot of movies such as this on OPT, including the John Jakes stories (The Bastard, The Rebels, etc.) and programs like Solid Gold and, if I'm not mistaken, Entertainment Tonight.  I remember when this started, and there was a lot of discussion about whether or not OPT would coalesce into a legitimate fourth network - a Fox network before its time.  It never did, and I'm not sure it was ever intended thus, but it was interesting nonetheless to see original programming on independent television stations*, even if it was just an occasional event.  Could anything like this work today?  I don't think so; in addition to Fox, there's the CW, MyNetwork, and micro-networks such as MeTV, Antenna, Cozi and the rest, and that doesn't even begin to get into cable.

*Although in the Twin Cities, OPT programs were shown on Channel 5, the ABC affiliate.

In fact - and I just thought of this - if there's any analogy to OPT today, it might be in the area of streaming video.  I mean, Amazon, Netflix, they're all producing their own programs, and while it's not the same as a network in that they don't have to program 24/7, they are the closest we're coming to being an occasional network.  The only difference is that instead of providing the programming to an independent station, they're providing it directly to you, the viewer.  So maybe OPT's legacy lives on, after all.

10 comments:

  1. Actually, most of the affiliates of OPT were network affiliates (something like three-quarters of the original 91 affiliates). Which is probably why OPT never tried to become a full fledged network.

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  2. I had almost forgotten about OPT and, as I was reading about many of the upcoming new series, I was indeed thinking: "I don't even remember most of those!"

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  3. I turned 18 in 1979, so without checking on the net, what I can remember of those new shows fro the top of my head…

    • - “Struck By Lightning” , a sitcom featuring a descendent of Dr. Frankenstein who inherits a (building? house? castle?) that comes with the doctor’s creature, played by Jack Elam. Didn’t last long. I think I watched the pilot.

    • - “Working Stiffs” another sitcom (mostly slapstick humor) that didn’t last long. Most noted for starring a young Jim Belushi and Michael Keaton.

    • - “The Bad News Bears”, sitcom based on the movie starring Jack Warden as the coach which Walter Matthau played in the film. That ended a decade where Jack Warden appeared in a lot of projects. This didn’t last.

    • - “Angie” if I recall, at the time, ABC was hyping this show like mad. Starred the female lead from “Saturday Night Fever”. Didn’t last too long.

    • - “Detective School” another ABC sitcom that I think starred James Gregory. He was either playing Inspector Frank Luger (who he played for years on “Barney Miller”) or a Frank Luger-type character.
    This didn’t last.

    • “Out of the Blue” - another short running sitcom from ABC that I think featured an angel as it’s main character.

    Not sure how close my memory is to getting these right. Though I’m sure I’m right that they were all cancelled in their only season.

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  4. I remember Bad News Bears but if you blinked you'd miss it. I liked it but it was a series that didn't get a huge run Down Under and if I recall correctly it was relegated to Saturday mornings.

    Detective School I'd never heard of until I saw a vintage Australian TV ident from 1980. Looks like it was used as summer filler and judging by that promo I can see why!

    And Solid Gold! That's a blast from the past. Always remembered the Solid Gold Dancers! So very 1980s.

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  5. Detective School: James Gregory was the proprietor of a "school" for would-be private eyes, one of whom was a grizzled oldster named "Robert Redford", played by 70-something Douglas Fowley; that was his joke, which he milked for what little it was worth.
    (Of course the joke now is that in 2015, Robert Redford is even more grizzled now than Fowley was then ...)

    Angie: Donna Pescow was actually the second female lead in Saturday Night Fever.
    She was the one John Travolta dumped for the first female lead, Karen Gorney.
    To this day, many wonder why either of these ladies would want a preening twit like Travolta.
    To each her own, I guess ...

    Out Of The Blue: The angel was Jimmy Brogan, who went on to be Jay Leno's monolog deputy for the entire run of his Tonight Show.
    His boss angel was (of all people) Eileen Heckart, in her only regular series stint (that I can think of; correction welcomed)

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    1. Eileen Heckart also starred as the mother-in-law in The Five Mrs. Buchanans, which involved 4 sisters-in-law and their widowed mother-in-law, played by Heckart. I rarely saw it, but I seem to remember that the husbands/brothers were rarely seen.

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  6. "Angie" did really well in its first season, then in 1979-80 ABC for some reason started tinkering with everything, and ended up with a cancelled "Angie" after Season 2 and a severely wounded "Mork and Mindy" after its second season. The two shows debuted in the Top 10 during 1978-79 and never cracked the top 25 after that season.

    "Angie" basically had the same concept that "Dharma and Greg" would ride to a five year run two decades later.

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    1. Always had a soft spot for "Angie." Looking forward to the DVD release later this year, though I fear it's a better show in my memory than it was in reality. But the theme song is awesome.

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  7. "do you like the longer pieces I've been doing the past couple of years, or do you prefer the short, stick-to-one-issue articles"

    I prefer the longer form that you are currently writing.

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  8. I thought ESPN was launched in September of 1979, a couple of weeks after this issue came out.

    And I believe this year (2015), it's also the sole telecaster of the U.S. Open Tennis tournament, including the finals that had been for years on CBS.

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!