September 10, 2016

This week in TV Guide: September 12, 1970

Ah, the Fall Preview edition - to TV fans what the Sears and Penney's Christmas catalogs were to children. Here was our chance to leaf through pages that showed us the new and exciting series for the coming season, allowing us to start to plan out our viewing schedules for each night (at least until shows started getting cancelled). Here also were lists of everything - movies making the journey from the big screen to our homes, stars and their specials scheduled throughout the year, sporting events that we'd come to look forward to along with some that would be brand new, and more: cartoons, parades, changes in our favorite shows. No wonder they're so valued at sites like eBay - it's our record of the hopes and dreams for the new television season, all gathered in one place. Added to that, this issue (again courtesy of friend-of-the-blog Jon Hobden) represents the first new fall season of the '70s, and after the awful decade of the '60s, I think everyone hoped this season might be something special.

I particularly enjoy looking at an issue like this because it gives us a chance to read about the season's new series in context, without the baggage that comes from our own knowledge, either through having seen them ourselves, or having read about them in the ensuing decades. For instance, the "As We See It" editorial lauds NBC's experiment with a new format  - "a series of four different six-episode series which run in the same time period." It's called Four-in-One, running Wednesday from 9:30 - 11:00 (ET) and, indeed, features four completely unrelated series: McCloud, San Francisco International, Night Gallery, and The Psychiatrist, each of which will run for six consecutive episodes before yielding to the next in line. Two of them, McCloud and Night Gallery, will assume their places in the pantheon of television history; the other two, not so much. It's an interesting experiment - TV Guide says that, if it works, it "could mean a lot more variety in the television schedule - but on balance I'd have to say it doesn't quite work out.

What NBC discovers ultimately is that it's much more effective if the series have something in common, as will be the case when McCloud gets reshuffled into the Mystery Movie series, along with Columbo, McMillian and Wife, and various fourth wheels. It also seems to work better if the shows are rotated each week, rather than burning off their episodes consecutively, as is done with The Bold Ones (a technique that, in fact, dates back all the way to ABC's Warner Bros. Presents in the '50s, and was duplicated later on with their Western series Cheyenne, Bronco, and Sugarfoot). It's probably also more common to see the leads in a series rotated, which we've seen in shows from Maverick to The Name of the Game. In this sense, I think TV Guide's hope for more variety eventually goes wanting.

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There's another trend present in the new season, one that's been percolating for some time but is pronounced now more than ever. "The computers insist," As We See It says, "that the best television audience from the network standpoint, which means from the advertiser standpoint, is young people who have growing children and who buy most of the products advertised on television. Accordingly, the emphasis for the new season, now at hand, is on youth."

The Youth Movement is something that NBC and ABC have been involved with for some time, but when CBS - then, as now, perceived as skewing to older viewers - moves to attract the 18-35 audience, people notice. The network has hopped on board with The Storefront Lawyers (later Men at Law), about three crusading lawyers working out of a "Neighborhood Legal Services" storefront and The Interns, about five crusading interns working out of a big city hospital; tweaked existing series such as Mission: Impossible by adding two younger team members and focusing several episodes on student demonstrators working for government reform; and cancelled old favorites with old audiences, shows like Petticoat Junction, The Jackie Gleason Show, and The Red Skelton Hour (which transitioned to NBC for a final half-hour season), in a precursor to the network's "Rural Purge" following this season.

CBS's shows joined new offerings from ABC - The Young Rebels, about, well, young, idealistic rebels in the Continental army during the Revolution, The Young Lawyers, about young, idealistic law students working with an established attorney to provide legal aid, and Matt Lincoln, which is not about an idealistic young physician, but is about a "community psychiatrist" running a hotline for troubled teenagers. They join existing series like Room 222, about young teachers teaching young students, and The Mod Squad, about young cops busting young criminals - or at least older criminals preying on young people. And you can't leave out NBC - The Senator, the newest segment of The Bold Ones, is long on relevance and idealism, and its returning shows Julia, Laugh-In, and The Bill Cosby Show certainly play to the younger demographic.

The problem with all this is that corporations - which is what networks are, regardless of what anyone might say about providing entertainment and art and whatnot - are seldom good at playing catchup when it comes to becoming young and hip. At their best they come across as pandering, if not condescending; at their worst, painfully out-of-step, like your grandparents trying to talk the lingo of your friends. Their strident, earnest preaching often is neither effective in presenting an agenda nor entertaining to viewers. Most of the time it depends on the writing and acting, and if either or both of those are very good, then the series has a chance. And so for every Senator, which earns star Hal Holbrook an Emmy, or Mod Squad, which runs for five seasons and spawns a big-screen movie years after the fact, there's The Young Rebels (15 episodes), The Young Lawyers (24 episodes), The Storefront Lawyers (23 episodes), and The Interns (23 episodes). Even The Senator only lasts one season.

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SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
One trend that we see this year is the return of established stars to new shows. Sometimes it works, as Mary Tyler Moore proves with the debut of her new sitcom, which takes her from memorable co-star of The Dick Van Dyke Show to television icon. On the other hand, there's Vince Edwards, former star of Ben Casey, whose return to series television with Matt Lincoln lasts only sixteen episodes. At least it isn't as embarrassing as Andy Griffith's return; the former sheriff of Mayberry goes through two series this season.

Griffith badly wants to break out of the rural bumpkin mold (and having shown how well he could act in A Face in the Crowd, who could blame him?), but his first try, as star of The Headmaster, is a ratings failure. Viewers don't accept Griffith in "a completely new setting" as headmaster of a private school in California, and the series lasts only 14 episodes before the ax falls. The next attempt, in the same timeslot, is a sitcom called The New Andy Griffith Show, and this time Griffith is cast as - you guessed it - the mayor of a small town in North Carolina. It's more like his old show, but it doesn't capture the magic, lasting only 10 episodes, whereupon CBS replaces it with - what else? Repeats of The Headmaster. I think it's a tribute to Griffith's star power that he was able to have two cracks at success in this timeslot, but old viewing habits die hard, especially when your (kind of) original show, Mayberry R.F.D., is still on.

His former partner, Don Knotts, tries to fly solo with The Don Knotts Show on NBC, but the network perhaps sees the handwriting on the wall and schedules the variety show against The Mod Squad on ABC and The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres on CBS. Executive producer Nick Vanoff offers an honest answer when he says the show's aim is "To stay on the air," but even with guest stars like Dan Blocker, Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Falk, and with future M*A*S*H star Gary Burghoff and Elaine Joyce as part of the cast of regulars, the series only runs for 24 weeks. In a similar vein, Ernset Borgnine's former sidekick Tim Conway debuts in The Tim Conway Comedy Hour on CBS Sunday night, but it faces opposition from The Bold Ones on NBC and The ABC Sunday Night Movie. It is just one in a long line of failures for Conway - 13 weeks and out. And Danny Thomas is back, sort of; the former star of Make Room for Daddy revives the concept (and part of the original cast) with Make Room for Granddaddy, but after 24 weeks the star finds there's no more room on ABC's schedule.

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We've seen a good number of flops here, but besides Mary Tyler Moore, are there any hits on the horizon, any shows destined to enter television lore? I think so.

For starters, there's one of the biggest prime-time series ever, one that's still on the air: Monday Night Football. It's worth bearing in mind that prime-time football was far from a sure thing when ABC took a chance on it in 1970; CBS, having had the first shot, had already turned the league down. ABC, whose sports department is led by the visionary Roone Arledge and is looking to expand beyond college football and the Olympics, has no problem taking a flyer on it. The key is that while MNF appears to be a sports show, it's really packaged as a variety show, featuring "Keith Jackson with the facts, Don Meredith the expertise and Howard Cosell the controversy," plus numerous drop-in guests, and occasionally a description of what's going on down on the field. When Frank Gifford replaces Jackson the following season, the die is cast: sports becomes prime-time entertainment, and the NFL hasn't been the same since.

Thursday night offers a couple of notables; Flip Wilson breaks the color barrier as host and star of his very successful, eponymously-named variety show on NBC, which endears him to the hears of viewers everywhere. An hour after that, ABC debuts a back-to-back pair of sitcoms based on successful Neil Simon plays, The first one, Barefoot in the Park, stars Scoey Mitchill and is the first American sitcom since Amos 'n' Andy to feature a predominantly black cast. Unfortunately, it only runs for 12 weeks. The other series is called The Odd Couple, and I think you might have heard of it.

And finally Friday night features another sitcom, one that fits right in with an ABC lineup that includes The Brady Bunch, Nanny and the Professor, That Girl, and Love, American Style. It's The Partridge Family, and despite what sounds like a hokey premise ("Wait a minute! Why don't we let Mom sing Gloria's part?"), it is burned into the consciousness of an entire generation.

So that's three sitcoms, a variety show, and football - really, not a bad haul for a season of newcomers.

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CBS and NBC are premiering their new lineups this week, while ABC waits until next week. I love these old "NBC Week" ads; it really ads to the wonder and excitement which used to represent television's fall season. There's just something of an event about these ads. It isn't just returning series that pack in the excitement, though: for instance, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor are the guests on the new season of Here's Lucy, Alan King hosts the season premiere of The Kraft Music Hall, Orson Welles is one of the guests welcoming back Dean Martin, and The Brady Bunch kicks off the new year with a replay of the series premiere, in which Robert Reed and Florence Henderson prove you can have success with a blended family of six kids.

There are also specials to kick off the year. On Saturday night, the Miss America Pageant returns to NBC, and millions watch none other than Phyllis George, Miss Texas, take home the crown. On CBS Wednesday night, it's one of the lesser-known Peanuts specials, It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown. Truer words have seldom been spoken.

And what would a new season be without changes to old favorites? Merv Griffin has moved his CBS late-night show lock, stock and barrel to Hollywood from New York, and that's where it will stay when he quits the network and returns to syndication. NBC's long-running 90-minute Western, The Virginian, is back with a new name: The Men From Shiloh. In an ill-advised move, Mission: Impossible brings in Lesley (Ann) Warren as a new agent and tries to replace Peter Lupus with Sam Elliot, until viewer feedback forces them to bring Lupus back. Ivan Dixon leaves Hogan's Heroes, replaced (with no explanation; how does someone escape from a Stalag that's never had an escape?) by Kenneth Washington. There's a new daughter-in-law on My Three Sons, a de-facto family member on Bonanza, and The Golddiggers become regulars on Dean Martin's show. As they say, what's old is new again.

TV Guide, in its editorial, concludes with this helpful advice: "Try to sample all the new shows at least once. It's the only way to keep up with the medium." Imagine trying to do that today, without a DVR. Even with one, I wonder if anyone who's not a critic tries to do this. All I can say is, Godspeed.

10 comments:

  1. We were not a TV Guide-subscribing household, but I do remember that sense of excitement and anticipation that accompanied every new fall season - as well as the on-air promotions that brought stars from new shows and old together for musical production numbers. At a time when new TV shows debut every week - some not even on TV - it must be hard for millennials to understand what that era was like.

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  2. THE YOUNG REBELS was originally titled YANKEE DOODLE, but it was felt that was a turn off to the desired demographic....

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    1. Perhaps they should have called it "Yankee Doodletown Pipers"... :)

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  3. Before "The Tim Conway Show" Conway had a very short-lived Western-Comedy: RANGO. A handful of episodes are available on the 150 Western Show DVDs and they're pretty good! They date to 1967 and are very much in the vein of F TROOP.

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    1. I agree, RANGO wasn't bad. Too bad ABC didn't try teaming F TROOP and RANGO the following fall, instead of (say) putting CUSTER on at 7:30 ET on Wednesdays.

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  4. Perhaps Griffith was a little too early with his comeback. As you mentioned, MAYBERRY RFD and others were still on, but CBS would ax them all after 1970-71. Maybe Griffith's comeback in a new setting would have been better received if he'd waited until his old show (and all the rural hits of its heyday) were gone. Dick Van Dyke's comeback just a season later ended up lasting three years (though it didn't touch his 60's series).

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    1. You're right - timing is everything. Starting a new series so quickly seems a little like getting into a new relationship on the rebound, and perhaps he should have waited longer. I don't recall - did he ever express a desire to go back into the movies? That would have been a logical route as well for someone leaving a successful series.

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    2. He originally left the series in 1968 to re-start his movie career (also he stated he was tired of the TV grind after eight years, if I recall right). Griffith had a three year, three picture deal with Universal immediately, but ended up breaking the deal after just one year and one disappointing film, ANGEL IN MY POCKET. (Incidentally, it's a candidate for my "not on DVD" series if I can track it down. It never even received a VHS release!)

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  5. I understand THE YOUNG LAWYERS is coming out on DVD...although I don't know which is the expected selling point--Lee J. Cobb, the original Willy Loman, as the father figure adviser (remember that line in NETWORK--"presumably Oliver Wendell Holmes meets Dr. Zorba") or the male title character, played by Zalman King--better known for his work behind the camera, as creator/producer of the Showtime series RED SHOE DIARIES.

    The show was set in Boston because Massachusetts permits law school students to try cases in court, under the supervision of a practicing lawyer.

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  6. It's strange that they mentioned Ted Baxter as "Tex" in the page mentioning "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"!!!

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