February 13, 2016

This week in TV Guide: February 12, 1977

There are a couple of items in this week's Washington Report; little things, really, but combined they'll help produce one of the most controversial stories of the decade. The first note isn't that import; it really just sets the stage for what's to come, by discussing some of the ideas being bandied about to make the new President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, more accessible to the public. We'll take a closer look at those ideas later on, but right now we're only interested in mention of Carter because the next story, likely unnoticed by Carter or anyone else in the White House, details how NBC has just secured the rights (for a record $80 million) to televise the 1980 Summer Olympics from Moscow.

Those Moscow Olympics, of course, took place in a strange kind of limbo, after Carter announced that the United States would boycott the Summer Games in protest of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In all, 65 countries wound up refusing to participate in the Games, and it would not end there, as the Soviet Union would lead an Eastern Bloc boycott of the Los Angeles Summer Olympics in 1984. With that tit-for-tat out of the way, the Olympics have gone on in a relatively normal state ever since.

It was hugely controversial in the United States; although a majority of political types signed on and there was widespread public support, the people most hurt by the boycott were the athletes. To be sure, there was an American Olympic Team for 1980, but they didn't travel to the Olympics. Some of them even suggested competing without a national affiliation, just to have the chance. Those that were critical of the boycott often faced accusations of selfishness by the public. The whole thing was, in an understating word, unfortunate.

For NBC, the Moscow boycott was a bitter pill. By winning the bid for the 1980 Games, the network was poised to break the television stranglehold by ABC, which had shown every Summer Olympics since 1968, and had televised six of the eight Olympics contested since 1960. The network launched massive print and on-air promotions for their coverage, which they promised would be the most extensive ever attempted, at 150 hours. NBC didn't completely abandon the Olympics, but many affiliates refused to air even the drastically limited coverage provided by the network for their local news programs (an additional six hours of highlights broadcast nationally faced similar clearance problems), and the Peacock wound up losing $34 million on their original $87 million investment.

NBC would have to wait until 1988 to air the Summer Olympics, when they once again outbid ABC for the rights. Since then, however, NBC has become the network of the Olympics, having carried every Summer Games since, as well as every Winter Olympics since 2002.

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Those ideas for engaging President Carter with the peoole - among them are "Fireside Chats," with Carter interviewing people, including possibly Republicans; call-in shows, where the President can hear directly from the public; televised policy conferences, meetings with ordinary citizens in their own homes, and so-called "town meetings," where POTUS can here what's bothering the folks out there.

I can only remember one speech that was specifically billed as a Fireside Chat, harking back to the days of FDR; it was given before a raging fire with the President wearing a cardigan sweater, and was widely derided. I don't think it was attempted again. He also did a call-in show on CBS radio - "Ask President Carter," I think it was called, which was hosted by Walter Cronkite, and generated enough gravitas that it was lampooned on Saturday Night Live. (By contrast, Ronald Reagan introduced the Saturday radio address, which continues to this day.) In fact, the idea with the longest shelf-life has probably been the town meeting, which has become the bane of presidential debate season ever since.

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Wow! On Saturday, World Championship Tennis (10:00am, KDNL) presents Jimmy Connors taking on future Clinton budget director Leon Panetta! Who knew!  What's that, you say? Oh - Connors is playing Adriano Panatta, not Leon Panetta. Sorry, my mistake...

You can tell we're in a quiet time for sports, in an era when college basketball has yet to dominate the airwaves. CBS has skateboarding, long before the X-Games, while ABC carries the $100,000 Midas Open on the Pro Bowlers Tour, which is followed by a Soviet gymnastics exhibition, the World Barrel Jumping Championships, and the Figure Eight Stock Car Championship, all on Wide World of Sports. Meanwhile, NBC has fourth (of five) round coverage of the Bob Hope Desert Classic, once one of the biggest stops on the PGA Tour. But just as Bob Hope has slipped into obscurity, so has the tournament - it's not even named after him anymore.

On Sunday, at 12:45pm, it's the NBA All-Star Game from Milwaukee, shown live on CBS. This marks the first time one of the big leagues (except for the NFL) has scheduled their all-star game on a Sunday; previously, these games were played on Tuesdays in order not to interfere with the weekend schedule, when the in-person gates are the biggest. But as sports has morphed from an in-person spectator sport to a made-for-television event, that gate has become less and less important, and playing the game on the weekend has allowed the leagues to turn all-star games into spectacles, with skills competitions, special events, and even variety shows. The NHL would soon shift their all-star game to Saturday afternoon (the day before the Super Bowl) before landing on Sunday, where (with the exception of a disastrous one-year return to Tuesday a few years ago) it has remained ever since.

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ALL: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
Monday is Valentine's Day, and CBS marks the occasion with Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown, one of the Peanuts gang's lesser-known specials. Of course, when you think about it, aside from the Christmas and Halloween specials (and, to a lesser extent, the Thanksgiving show), most of the Peanuts specials lack the staying power of the original few. Even Charlie Brown's All-Stars, which wasn't concerned with a holiday at all, failed to become an annual tradition beyond the first few airings, which is why it's good that most of these specials have found their way to DVD. Is it because few occasions pack the wallop of Christmas and Halloween, or is it because the novelty of the cartoons, with the characters being voiced by real children, wore off?

If you're still in the mood for something mushy but don't yearn for Charlie Brown, there's always The Captain and Tennille on ABC, with guest stars Leo Sayer, Lou Rawls, John Byner and the recently late Abe Vigoda. If, on the other hand, your idea of romance tends toward the wide-open vistas of the American West, ABC has that covered too, with the conclusion of the miniseries How the West Was Won, starring James Arness and Eva Marie Saint. It was based on a 1976 movie called The Macahans, and spawned a regular series the following season.

Speaking of miniseries, that Washington Report article we referenced earlier mentions that Roots surpassed Gone with the Wind as television's most watched program, with the final episode - aired only two weeks before, on January 30 - drawing an audience estimated at 80 million. For those of you who weren't around at the time, it's really difficult to explain just what a sensation Roots was - mainly because of the subject matter, of course, which hadn't really been dealt with on television in such a scale, but also because of the way in which it was scheduled, running on eight consecutive nights for various lengths of time (45 or 90 minutes). It's been said that ABC did this for fear that the show would be a bomb - this way, at least they'd be able to be rid of it in a week - but if so, it just proves to be an example of network executives once again misjudging the audience. As this week's editorial puts it, "Roots was talked about in homes and, the morning after, in places of work. For eight winter nights it was the principal family activity in many millions of houses and apartments all over America."

*Wikipedia puts it at 100 million, and since it's always reliable, I suppose we have to go with that. 

The editorial also lauds ABC "for breaking out of the comic-strip mold; for giving us something that combines popular appeal with a serious subject; for producing the films with care, attention to detail and a generous budget; for scheduling them in a manner that gave us a change of pace from the weekly 30- and 60-minute routine; and for bringing it all off with a combination of taste and showmanship." I suppose you'd have to go back to the first couple of runs of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? to find something that captured the public's imagination in such an unexpected, enthralling way.

***

Here's another ABC feature. I don't know if you've noticed, but from time to time on the weekly listings, you might have run across a five-minute daytime series called The Children's Doctor, featuring Dr. Lendon Smith. Based on that series, and his 62 appearances with Johnny Carson, he was probably the nation's best-known pediatrician.

This week, Smith makes an appearance on Wednesday's landmark Afterschool Special "My Mom's Having a Baby" (4:00pm CT, KTVI in St. Louis) where he gave what presumably was, for the time, a frank talk (described in the listing as "simple and tasteful") on where babies come from. Nowadays a story like this would probably have been titled, "My Mom's Having a Baby and She's Not Married," but that, as I frequently say, is another discussion for another time.

I always liked Lendon Smith; his appearances with Johnny were witty and charming. He wasn't without controversy though, as this article indicates. (Hint: if you're a doctor, seeing your name pop up on an Internet search at a website called "Quackery" is probably not a good thing.) Ah, another hero with feet of clay.

***

And here's another note on miniseries: while Roots was extraordinary in that it aired over eight consecutive days, NBC tried another approach: Best Sellers, which was literally a succession of miniseries of varying lengths, all based on best-selling books. The first, and most successful, was Taylor Caldwell's Captains and the Kings, a story about a rags-to-riches immigrant obsessed with seeing his son become the first Catholic president of the United States, which made a star out of Richard Jordan and featured an all-star cast including Patty Duke Astin, Charles Durning, Perry King and Blair Brown. Presumably, any resemblance to the Kennedy family, including the story's conclusion, was purely coincidental.

At any rate, we're straying far from the story at hand. Captains and the Kings was followed by Anton Meyer's Once an Eagle, which starred a young Sam Elliot. Which brings us to where we are this Thursday: part two of Seventh Avenue, based on the novel by Norman Bogner, starring Steven Keats and Anne Archer. As an indication of the series' waning popularity, Seventh Avenue, unlike the first two installments, is both shorter (six hours, as opposed to nine hours each for the first two), and its schedule is compressed (three two-hour episodes, rather than the hour-long episodes that comprised the majority of the first two stories). It gives the story a rushed feeling, rather than the epic weekly dramas that preceded it, as if NBC could see the sagging ratings and wanted to get rid of it as quickly as possible. By the time of the fourth and final story, The Rhinemann Exchange by Robert Ludlum, the running time is down to five hours (a one-hour episode sandwiched by a pair of two-hour installments). After that, Best Sellers itself disappears. It's too bad; I think people still liked miniseries (after all, Holocaust, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance are still to come), but it's also clear that sweeping, turbulent stories along the lines of Captains and the Kings were far more successful fodder for the format. Something like, perhaps, War & Peace, the BBC's massive 19-part adaptation of Tolstoy's classic from 1972, part one of which airs Tuesday night on KETC, Channel 9, the PBS affiliate in St. Louis.

***

Finally, you probably remember Hunter, the Fred Dryer police series that ran in the late '80s and early '90s, but did you know there was another Hunter? This one, featuring the totally unconvincing ad at left, stars James Franciscus (Mr. Novak!) as a two-fisted secret agent, with Linda Evans on board to provide an asset or two on his behalf. It's not the most original plot in the world; according to the always-reliable Wikipedia, the original premise of the show actually sounds much more interesting. In that version, Hunter's character had been framed for a crime he didn't commit, and upon leaving prison after eight years, became determined to find the man who framed him and bring him to justice. In fact, it sounds a lot like the British spy drama Man in a SuitcaseFor Franciscus it was, I believe, his final go-round with series television as the lead, while Evans, I'm told, went on to some prime-time soap.

1 comment:

  1. I was born in the late 60's, so the first President that I really recall anything about was Jimmy Carter. I'm from Minnesota, so there was an even greater connection with having Walter Mondale being the Vice President. I'm of two minds about Jimmy Carter. On one hand, I feel that his presidency was one of the most disastrous 4 year periods in recent times. Many issues were out of his direct control (Arab oil crisis, Iranian hostage situation, high inflation and high unemployment), but his responses to these various crises seemed so uninspired, half hearted and a case of "too little, too late". Also, I don't think he did himself any favors with his infamous "malaise speech" that he gave, as it only seemed to come across as kicking a nation that was already feeling quite down. I give him credit for planning the attempt to rescue the hostages and when the mission failed, he didn't hide from it, he owned it and took responsibility for the failure. By the time the 1980 campaign rolled around, it just seemed that America had it's fill of this man and all of the problems which seemed to stack up on top of each other.

    On the other hand, since his departure from the presidency, Jimmy Carter has led what I can only describe as an exemplary life of a public servant and a man of deep and unshakable faith. Everyone knows of his works to eradicate diseases from third world countries, his decades of building homes for Habitat for Humanity, mediating global disputes, acting as an election observer in nations which have never known the process of true, free, fair elections. He probably never would have found the same acclaim after his presidency, as say Ronald Reagan (briefly) or Bill Clinton did, making speeches and public appearances and collecting fees in the hundred's of thousands of dollars. Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn, have spent the last 35+ years out of the limelight and keeping very busy with his many works that I believe have had a far, far greater impact on a far, far greater number of people all across this world. I do find much to admire about this man and his life.

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