November 7, 2015

This week in TV Guide: November 11, 1978

On the cover this week is Ron Leibman, who in 1978 is known for two things: he's the star of Kaz, a one-season legal drama that runs on CBS, and he's married to Linda Lavin, star of CBS' Alice. The marriage lasts longer than the series, 12 years, before the couple splits. (Leibman's been married to another actress, Jessica Walter, since 1983.)

I remember Kaz, and Leibman was actually very good in it, enough so that despite the series' cancellation, he takes home an Emmy for Best Actor in a Drama Series. The series was very much his baby, according to Dick Russell's article; in addition to starring, he's also the creator, and wrote both the story for the pilot and another episode. He plays a thief turned defense attorney, one of those twists that television loves, and for Leibman it's been a long road from Broadway, where he excelled, to television. He was incredibly intense, a man who "never compromised his principles," and some worried about working with him on a regular series.

But looking for and finding his character's vulnerability seems to have led him to find his own, and producer Sam Rolfe says he's now "more at peace with himself." He and Lavin continue to have a rivalry over their success, which is probably not a good recipe for a long-term marriage. Leibman is said to be "on the edge of becoming a superstar," with a costarring role in Sally Field's upcoming movie, Norma Rae. But while Field's success does not spread to Leibman, he's had a very successful career nonetheless, adding a Tony for Angels in America as well as many guest and recurring roles on television.  Hey, series success isn't everything, right?

***

Here's an example of the kind of article that TV Guide doesn't do anymore.* It's a commentary by U.S diplomat Robert Strausz-Hupe on television's coverage of the Soviet arms buildup and their concurrent human-rights violations, and the title is "The media should educate America to build its strength," with a subtitle, "Peace depends on our successful use of resources at home and abroad."

*For that matter, virtually every article in almost every issue of TV Guide in the '60s and '70s could qualify for this statement.

The article is fraught with ramifications that will hang over future American culture for the remainder of the '70s and into the '80s, everything from disarmament to the Olympic boycott to the failed Carter presidency and the successful campaign of Ronald Reagan. And my point is not so much the content of the piece, though one can't be surprised by the essentially conservative political message considering the ideology and connections of publisher Walter Annenberg. Nor am I looking at how unlikely it is to read such a conservative message in any mainstream American publication nowadays, though both of these points are certainly true.

No, the real point here is the evolution of a magazine from one that provided serious discussions such as this to one that spends an inordinate amount of time on the latest celebrity gossip, one that replaces free trade figures with Kim Kardashian's figure. Oh well, this is a battle I've fought before and already lost, so there's no point in trying to fight it again. It does, however, remain a stark contrast.

***

I don't often get the chance to do a head-to-head between Don Kirshner's Rock Concert and The Midnight Special, primarily because there aren't often listings for the guests on Kirshner's show. This week is an exception though, because it's the 5th anniversary of the program, celebrated by a 90 minute special. So let's get going.

Kirshner: The Allman Brothers Band, George Benson, Natalie Cole, the Commodores, Fleetwood Mac, Billy Joel, Elton John, K.C. and the Sunshine Band, Kansas, Barry Manilow, Rod Stewart, John Travolta, Steve Martin, George Carlin, Billy Crystal and Robert Klein.

Special: Atlanta Rhythm Section (hosts), Van Morrison, Paul Davis, Crystal Gayle, Ambrosia, the Cars, Sea Level, and a salute to the Beach Boys.

Based on sheer number alone, Kirshner would have the edge, but it's a special occasion so we'll discount that. Special often had comedians guest on the show, but there aren't any listed this week, so if that's true Kirshner gets the edge there as well. In my personal opinion, the best guests on each show are George Benson on Kirshner and Van Morrison on Special, and Van alone can offset both of Kirshner's positives. But there are too many negatives on each side, which means that while both of these shows are watchable, I'm going with Push as the ultimate verdict.

***

The possible use of instant replay to overturn calls in pro football has probably been an issue since instant replay was introduced in 1963, but by 1978 it's become a real option, with several pre-season games experimenting with its possible use. This week two of the NFL's best-known coaches, former Redskins coach George Allen and current Colts coach Ted Marchibroda, face off over whether or not the technology should be used.

Allen, ever the innovator and perfectionist, is - not surprisingly - in favor. It is, he says, part of human nature to attempt "to improve the process of human evaluation." Doctors use X-rays to confirm their diagnoses, banks have cameras to identify robbers, manufacturers use equipment to detect flaws - why not use replay to confirm or overturn calls, if you can? Allen sketches out a plan that would put a replay official in the press box, would allow a coach to burn a time-out in order to challenge a call, and would take about the length of a commercial to review. As for the effect it might have on the game officials whose calls are coming under closer scrutiny, "it would not be a deterrent to the official, but would help him call a better game." "If we can go to the moon," Allen concludes, "we certainly ought to be able to figure out a practical, economical way to improve officiating in the NFL.

Marchibroda also cites human nature, but takes the opposite tack from Allen. Replay would remove the human element from the game, taking away the breaks (good and bad) that every team  receives, making the game more automated - "just as it would if we had a computer calling a quarterback's plays during a game." He's also not at all sure that replay will solve controversial calls, with the result that an inconclusive replay could cause more controversy than ever. What happens if one game has more cameras available than another, or if there's a technical malfunction causing the key moment to be missed? A bad call might be unfair, sure, but would this be any less so? He also disputes the effect of replay on the officials, saying that replay "would have to create tension and extra pressure and possibly affect their performance." "It's a human game played and coached and officiated by people, and enjoyed by people," Marchibroda says in summation. "I hope we keep it that way.

Marchibroda, we now know, was not on the winning side in this argument. Replay came to the NFL, on a trial basis, in 1985. And as we also know, once anything is introduced as a trial, it very rarely disappears. The system has been tweaked and refined numerous times over the past thirty years, but most people today would find it impossible to envision any sporting event without it.

***

Some quick notes on the news: the baseball television contract is up for bids, and MLB is working with the networks on a possible change in baseball alignment in order to increase the sport's TV visibility, ala football. "The most dramatic plan involves a scheme to divide each league into East, West and Central divisions. Play-offs would be held for a week in late September among the best teams in each of the three divisions plus one "wild card" team. In order to keep the World Series from drifting into November, the regular season would probably be reduced from 162 games to 156.  It will take a few more years, and the addition of interleague play, but with the exception of the shorter season and the addition of a second wild card team in each league, that's pretty much what we've got now.

Also in the sports department, the bidding for the 1984 Summer Olympics are schedule to begin in December. It will be the first time the Summer Games have been held in the United States since 1932 (as then, they'll be in Los Angeles), and that fact will allow for an unprecedented amount of network coverage. Eventually ABC will win the rights, the last time the Summer Games are on any network other than NBC.

***

Last week I mentioned on a Facebook discussion about TV Guide that the magazine once printed a article on the Dead Sea Scrolls, as background for CBS' miniseries The Word. Well, that article is in this week's issue, and The Word is on this week's schedule, broadcast for eight hours over four consecutive nights (Sunday through Wednesday). It's a fascinating and controversial story, based on the bestseller by Irving Wallace, telling the story of the discovery of a supposed "Fifth Gospel," one that purports to tell a story that could upend every belief of Christianity.  Watching it back then, I found it to be engrossing*, with a top-notch cast led by David Janssen (superbly world-weary, as usual), James Whitmore, Nicol Williamson, John Huston and others.

*Not terribly surprising, since the novel, like most books written by Wallace, was likewise engrossing.

I've read some accounts that suggest the story is anti-Christian, but I confess that I don't really see that. What I did see, in both the book and miniseries, was a story of political intrigue filled with characters willing to do unsavory things in defense of their version of the truth, for fun and profit as much as - or more so - than for the good of God. Both feature an ambiguous ending, in which the truth as we know it might still win, and both subsume that to the personal story of Janssen's character, and whether or not he finds the answer to Pilate's eternal question, "What is truth?"

The Word is the kind of miniseries from that genre's prime - a long-form adaptation of a popular novel filled with stars, one that could be easily billed as "event television." I don't know that it had great success in the ratings, which may account for its failure to be released in DVD other than in a highly edited version that completely changes the conclusions to be drawn from its ending. A pity, really, because it deserves to be out there again.

***

The Word is just one of a number of worthy (and not-so-worthy) programs battling for your attention this week.

On Saturday at 8:00 pm (CT), CBS presents Hollywood's Diamond Jubilee, a performance-and-clip special that TV used to do so often back in the day, hosted by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Raquel Welch, a mismatched pair if ever there was one. (Doug and Raquel, I mean, not Raquel's - well, you know what I mean.) The centerpiece is scheduled to be the live unveiling of the new "Hollywood" sign. That's up against "Chapter V" of NBC's massive miniseries Centennial which, as I've written before, was totally mishandled by the network.

I'd be remiss here if I didn't mention a couple of additional shows. WTCN's afternoon matinee movie presentation is Midnight Cowboy, the 1970 Best Picture Oscar winner. It's edited for TV, but still - it was X-rated when it came out, and less than a decade later it's on regular television in the afternoon. On the flip side, SCTV has its mock "30th Anniversary" celebration, presenting "clips" from some of the network's famed shows, such as The Old Texas Ranger and Liverboat. This is not to be missed.

Another Peanuts holiday special (below)
If you're not watching The Word on Sunday, you might be taking in Pat Boone and Family: A Thanksgiving Special at 6:00 pm on ABC. If that's not your cup of tea (or something else), there's the awkwardly-named Sunday Night Edition of Monday Night Football, harking back to the day when Monday Night Football was on network television and Sunday night football was far from a regular thing. The Steelers and Rams played in this one, which might have been a Super Bowl rematch.

Monday has one of the women-in-danger TV movies that were so common back then, NBC presents Betrayalwith Lesley Ann Warren (the damsel in distress) and Rip Torn (in all his smarmy glory). Judith Crist says this is several cuts above the rest, that "What might have been an exploitative melodrama becomes . . . a remarkable psychological drama." She has praise for the cast as well, with Warren "simply stunning" and Torn "equally impressive."

NBC follows up on Betrayal with another true-life story on Tuesday, Lady of the House, a "tasteful but melodramatic" story of a madam* who runs for mayor. The madam in question is "played to the hilt" (Crist) by Dyan Cannon in a gravity-defying dress, and I can only think that politics isn't much different today.  But if that's too gritty for you, better check out ABC's Happy Days at 7:00 pm, where we find out the answer to the burning question, "Is the Fonz allergic to girls?"

*We all know what a "madam" is, don't we?

Wednesday, this one from the pen of Charles Schulz, as CBS airs A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving at 7:00 pm, as always sponsored by Dolly Madison cakes. Of all the various Charlie Brown holiday cartoons, I consider this the weakest; there seems to be much more implausibility than usual when it comes to the kids' interaction with adults - seriously, do many normal families allow their grade-school kids to spend Thanksgiving with one of their little friends' families? A better choice might be Dick Clark's Life Wednesday (on NBC at the same time), an attempt to resurrect the live variety show, with a performance by ABBA, and Harvey Korman and Buddy Hackett playing Abbott & Costello.

Another Thanksgiving special on Thursday features part one of yet another miniseries (can you tell November was a sweeps month?), Pearl, a three-part spectacular on ABC with Angie Dickinson, Robert Wagner, Lesley Ann Warren, Dennis Weaver and Max Gail and based on the novel by Stirling Silliphant. Give the casting edge to The Word.

Friday is one of the more infamous holiday specials, The Star Wars Holiday Special, at 7:00 pm on CBS. Not only do you have clips and appearances from the Star Wars cast, you've got guest appearances by Bea Arthur, Diahann Carroll, Art Carney, Jefferson Starship and Harvey Korman (who should have stuck to Dick Clark for the week). Even Dr. Richard Kimble couldn't have escaped from this train wreck. Probably better to turn over to NBC at 8:30 pm, for a rare television appearance by Elizabeth Taylor in Hallmark Hall of Fame's "Return Engagement." It's too close to the modern, Oprah-type Halls of Fame for my liking, but five words for you: The Star Wars Holiday Special.

Not a bad week - and we didn't even mention the All-Star Soap Stars Family Feud!

5 comments:

  1. Ron Leibman was later seen on occasion as Rachel Green's [Jennifer Aniston] father on Friends, allowing him to play ex-husband to another tv icon, That Girl [Marlo Thomas].

    I doubt that the networks mind the idea of the World Series going into November, as that's a Sweeps Month. For this reason it's also likely that the networks love the idea of the Super Bowl now being played (since 2002) in February.

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    1. That February date has worked out very well for them, hasn't it? :)

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  2. They played Sunday night NFL before 2000? Was this part of a short tryout for a possible move to Sunday nights, or just a very rare treat?

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    1. Don't hold me to the exact figure, but I believe the MNF contract in force at the time allowed ABC to telecast a handful of games on nights other than Monday. I believe the year in question they had four Sunday night games, which actually didn't draw all that well - there was some speculation that after as many as three games during the day (single game on one network, doubleheader on the other), people had been "football-ed out." Eventually, I think ABC wound up switching the emphasis to the odd Thursday night game, which drew higher ratings, and as I recall the last week of the season there was no Monday night game at all, ABC showing a game on Saturday night instead.

      I don't think ABC was pondering a switch, but I do think that this contract had given them the exclusive rights to prime-time regular season games, which is why they were looking to expand to Sunday and Thursday nights. May have taken longer than the original plan, but I think eventually it worked out exactly as the NFL wanted.

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  3. The NFL did not want one team to have a logistical disadvantage in having a Monday night game when they would play in the postseason four days later (since the games were past midnight in the Eastern time zone). A first-round Saturday playoff game would be a nightmare for a team that won a Monday night game to advance to the playoffs in a three-round tournament. Monday night games in the final week were adopted in 1978 when the four-round format was adopted, with both first-round games were on Sunday. (The NFL has used a four-round system since 1978 but went from three to two byes in 1990; the Monday night in the final week format was abolished in 2003, 13 years after Saturday first-round playoff games returned.)

    Under the current format, NBC has two Thursday night games (opening week and Thanksgiving), so the NFL Network Thursday night games include two Saturday games during a week in the season to make up for that, and ESPN's Monday night games include two on opening week to make up for not having a final week game. The ESPN first-round playoff game moves to ABC this season in order to fix a flaw in the television contract uncovered in the off-season. If either team playing in the ESPN game had not played on Monday night (or Thursday if the CBS affiliate declined their option in the second half -- something that only Cincinnati did last season), the NFL would have to open bids for syndication under league anti-siphoning regulations. Logistics of doing an open bid for a game on Monday would be illogical for programming departments, so the NFL fixed the flaw this season.

    The terrorist attacks in 2001 have been the primary reason for November MLB Championships and February NFL Championships, though. Sweeps periods are the primary reason for the Grammys, Super Bowl, Oscars, and World Series to become sweeps periods events.

    The All-Star Family Feud -- now that was interesting how ABC's new revival of the show took place over the summer while the syndicated show's season had ended for the season in May. Of course, RTL (which produces the show) has the show air taped from CBS Television City (where many of the German network's programming is produced currently) instead of the Atlanta Civic Center, where the civilian Feud is taped. While ABC made it originally between their own shows, the success of it and federal rules regarding programming (networks didn't own their own shows) allowed the production companies to put all shows, regardless of network, to be featured, since networks bought from all studios.

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Keep those cards and letters coming in!