September 17, 2016

This week in TV Guide: September 15, 1979

It's always nice when an issue serves up a softball you can hit out of the park; it saves the effort of trying to figure out what to write about. This is such an issue.

Any article that presupposes to predict the top 15 shows for the coming season, as predicted by Michael Dann - television consultant and former programming head for both CBS and NBC - falls into that category. Keep in mind he's not predicting the most successful new shows of the season, although some rookies might make their way into the list. Nor is he necessarily saying the shows will finish in the order listed, just that these will be the top-15 at the end of 1979*.

*The cutoff date of December is to allow for hit mid-season replacements that Dann would not have been aware of at the time of this writing.

With that proviso, let's see what Dann's list looks like. At the end of this article, we'll look at the actual list and see where he went wrong (and right).
  1. Three's Company (ABC)
  2. Happy Days (ABC)
  3. Laverne & Shirley (ABC)
  4. Mork & Mindy (ABC)
  5. Taxi (ABC)
  6. Eight is Enough (ABC)
  7. 60 Minutes (CBS)
  8. The Associates (ABC)
  9. Barney Miller (ABC)
  10. ABC Sunday Night Movie
  11. Benson (ABC)
  12. M*A*S*H (CBS)
  13. Little House on the Prairie (NBC)
  14. Angie (ABC)
  15. The Love Boat (ABC)
You'll notice one thing straight away; ABC dominates the predicted list, with an even dozen of the 15 shows. CBS has two, while lowly NBC can only offer one. Will that hold true in real life? Stay tuned.

◊ ◊ ◊

Cleveland Amory, our regular TV critic, has moved on from his TV Guide gig by 1979, replaced by Robert MacKenzie, and it is to him that the duty falls to review one of ABC's new series, The Ropers, a spin-off from the above-mentioned Three's Company. If you remember Three's Company, do you also remember The Ropers? I do, not because I ever watched it, but because it's my business to remember obscure programs. Then again, maybe it's not obscure; maybe everyone remembers it. That's why I ask.

Anyway, both of these shows are similar in that the perception is that they're all about sex, even though you never see any and, as MacKenzie notes, nobody ever seems to have any. "But viewers seem to love it, for whatever that means about the national psyche." He's ambivalent about the series' two leads, Norman Fell and Audra Lindley; they "can be funny together," but now that they're the focus of the show rather than playing supporting characters to the two girls and a guy, "sometimes there is a twist of cruelty in their exchanges that sets me to wincing when I'm supposed to be chuckling," an observation which I find perceptive.

The Ropers, MacKenzie writes, "is one of numerous comedies now exploring the rather bleak frontiers of innuendo," and adds that "Small kids who watch these shows may be getting their first impressions of sex: as something that makes adults nervous and giggly, that involves underwear in some way; is seldom done and never talked about seriously, but that figures somehow in the reproduction of jokes." Not quite up to vintage Amory perhaps, but not bad at all. And I think this tells us a lot, not only about the state of television in 1979, but today as well. Back then many series chose to deal with fairly serious issues, such as sex, with an adolescent sense of humor that did kids no favors. Today, the same issues are presented with absolutely no holds barred, in all their graphic glory, which does no one any favors. Mackenzie's conclusion about The Ropers: "I know it's cute, but don't ask me to get excited about it."

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Speaking of cute, there's a feature this week on one of the stars of The Dukes of Hazard, Catharine Bach, who seems utterly sanguine about the possibility that "many viewers of The Dukes of Hazard appear to be as interested in her abbreviated outfits as they are in her dramatic status." (No!) "I wouldn't mind that at all," she says. "I'd think it was cute, but people wouldn't turn on the show just because Cathy Bach is wearing a pair of shorts." I'm not sure whether or not she expects us to believe that...

PBS is still in the culture business in 1979, and they're proving it on Sunday afternoon with a live telecast of Ponchielli's opera La Gioconda, starring Renata Scotto, Luciano Pavarotti, and Ferruccio Furlanetto, and performed by the San Francisco Opera. (Trust me, this is a very big-time cast.) You don't have to be an opera buff to recognize some of the music from La Gioconda; all you have to be is a fan of Allan Sherman's "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah" or remember the dancing hippos in Disney's Fantasia. But just in case you've forgotten, here is "Dance of the Hours" in the context of the opera.


See, I knew it would ring a bell.

Sunday night also presents three potential blockbusters, all going up against each other. On NBC, it's a three-hour Bob Hope special from China, which would have been a big deal, the country not having been opened up that long ago. That's countered on ABC by the network television premiere of Woody Allen's Oscar-winning Annie Hall, which according to Judith Crist presents in its full glory "the humor and compassion that are peculiarly [Allen's] own, an adult view of the human comedy." To complicate things, CBS gives us Carol Burnett in a rare dramatic role, starring with Keith Michell in The Tenth Month, the story of a divorcee who finds herself pregnant by a married man. Or maybe this doesn't complicate matters; Crist calls it "pat predictability" with Burnett unconvincing in the role, and a host of preposterous plot twists; she adds that "after an hour of this overblown opus you will, in your wisdom, switch to Annie Hall." I'll have more later on the dilemma of having too many good shows on at the same time.

Annie Hall's not the only big-screen smash to make it to television this week, as NBC gives us Coming Home on Monday night, with Oscar-winning turns from Jane Fonda and John Voight, and the same network presenting Semi-Tough the following night; Dan Jenkins' sardonic football satire stars Burt Reynolds, Kris Kristofferson and Jill Clayburgh. I think I might have watched The Eiger Sanction on Saturday night, which is good fun if you like Clint Eastwood tossing people off mountains, which I do.

◊ ◊ ◊

The sports season is in full swing, with the baseball pennant races winding down, and both the NFL and college football underway.

The battle for first place is tight in the National League West, and that's where NBC is focusing its Game of the Week cameras, with the Cincinnati Reds taking on the Dodgers in Los Angeles in the prime game, with the Houston Astros visiting the San Francisco Giants in the rain game. At this point, the Reds hold but a half-game lead over the Astros; with the Reds win and Astros loss today, that lead jumps to 1.5 games, which is where it will end when the season concludes on September 30.

Those games are up against ABC's college football, which gives us a classic matchup: Notre Dame vs. Michigan from Ann Arbor. At the time, Notre Dame is ranked #9 in the country, Michigan #6. It's a defensive struggle; the Fighting Irish manage four field goals and upset Michigan, 12-10. Both teams have a down season in 1979, each losing four games, although Michigan's comes in the Gator Bowl, while the 7-4 Irish decline a bowl invite.

On Sunday, the NFL offers a light schedule for fans in the Twin Cities. At 1:00 p.m. (CT) the Minnesota Vikings host the Miami Dolphins on NBC; due to the television rules of the time, that meant no other game could be broadcast in that time slot. Since NBC has the doubleheader this week, we're aced out of the second game, and have to rely on CBS's offering of the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys at 3:00 p.m., played in Texas Stadium, not all that far from where I live today in Irving. For Monday night's extravaganza, the New York Giants play the Redskins in Washington.

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Once again, the As We See It editorial takes the side of the viewers, with a problem that would seem almost incomprehensible to anyone in the last couple of generations. It has to do with what happens when two of your favorite shows are on at the same time.

As TV Guide points out, "The comparatively few people who own videocassette recorders for catching one show while watching another may be sanguine about the dilemma of which show to tune in," and I can understand that; we didn't own a VCR at the time, and as I recall they were damn expensive back then. "Audiences have grumbled about this problem for years," that being the habit networks have of scheduling blockbuster specials up against each other, or using a popular show to try and knock down the ratings of a competitor. The networks argue it's nothing more than free enterprise in action, "and may the better show win."

The solution offered by Merrill Panitt (who likely wrote the editorial) sounds like a pipe dream at best: somehow, convince the networks that it's not in the viewers' interest to continue such programming decisions. Panitt cites the example of cooperation between the BBC and Thames TV in England when it was discovered the Beeb was scheduling Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy against Themes' Quatermass miniseries - the two networks got together and agreed to juggle the scheduling so neither show appeared against the other.

The networks, of course, claim this would be seen by the government as collusion, which would violate antitrust laws. The government, naturally, is powerless to force networks to do anything. And so the viewers, as seems always to be the case, are left stuck in the middle, "What ever happened," Panitt concludes, "to 'public interest, convenience and necessity'," all of which broadcasters are supposed to take into consideration.

The ultimate solution, not surprisingly, is also the most American one. If a problem is big enough, and inconveniences enough people, and if finding a solution is profitable enough, someone will figure out a way to find it. In this case, VCRs became more practical and the prices went down. When that wasn't enough - whether they were too hard to program or whatever the reason - TiVO came along. And then it was the cable and satellite providers who developed their own DVRs that could be included in the conversion boxes. Then it was on-demand programming. Now, just about anyone can watch just about anything just about any time they want, whether on a TV, computer, laptop, iPad or phone. It's truly remarkable how far this technology has come in a relatively short time. And I'm left wondering if it would have come this far, or this fast, had the networks found a way to avoid scheduling conflicts, whether or their own or through government intervention of some sort.

◊ ◊ ◊

And now let's return to those top 15 shows that Michael Dann had predicted at the beginning of this article. How did he do? Well, it's complicated somewhat by the fact that a couple of the

They are, in order:
  1. 60 Minutes (CBS)
  2. Three's Company (ABC)
  3. That's Incredible (ABC)
  4. Alice (CBS)
  5. M*A*S*H (CBS)
  6. Dallas (CBS)
  7. Flo (CBS)
  8. The Jeffersons (CBS)
  9. The Dukes of Hazzard (CBS)
  10. One Day at a Time (CBS)
  11. Archie Bunker's Place (CBS)
  12. Eight is Enough (ABC)
  13. Taxi (ABC)
  14. House Calls (CBS)
  15. Real People (NBC)
It should be noted right off the top that several of these shows shouldn't count, since they were in fact mid-season replacements and weren't available for Dann's predictions. That's Incredible, Flo, and House Calls were brought up during the season but had the staying power to land in the top 15 and remain there. If we were to discount those three series, we could add Little House on the Prairie (NBC) and Happy Days (ABC) to the list. (The third, NBC's CHiPs, had not made Dunn's cut.)

Having said that, Dann's predictions turn out to have been something of a mixed bag. He was outright correct on five shows - seven, if you add in the two I mentioned above. Five more were good enough to finish in the top 30. But what about the three that missed altogether?

The most notable is probably Laverne & Shirley. Dann saw that as a success "in Mork's old time period against the tired Waltons and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century," and called it "an easy big winner." In fact, however, the show was all over ABC's schedule, bounding from its original Thursday timeslot to Mondays at 7:00 p.m. (CT), and then Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. It was the only season that the show did not finish in the top 25, and perhaps that was one reason the format was changed the following season, with the show's locale shifted from Milwaukee to Burbank.

As for Angie and The Associates? Critically, The Associates was praised, but Martin Short's first starring turn in a sitcom was pummeled by CBS's One Day at a Time, and even with Mork & Mindy (in its new timeslot) as a lead-in, it lasted for only nine episodes. Mork, which was buried by Archie Bunker's Place, moved back to its old spot (thus pushing out Laverne & Shirley), and The Associates became yet another example of a critical darling that failed to catch on with the audience.

Angie should have done better; it was co-created by Garry Marshall and was sandwiched between Happy Days and The Love Boat. As Dunn says, "everybody knows why" it makes the list. But the show, which was a hit in its first half-season, suffers from the move to the new time slot, and with both Happy Days and The Love Boat down in the ratings (Dann had thought The Love Boat would be "more popular than ever," but its two lead-ins, The Ropers and Detective School were both flops), and with the show losing some of its pizzazz after its romantic conflicts were solved by marriage*, the series was cancelled at the end of the season.

*Gee, who could have imagined that?

All-in-all, I suppose we'd have to give Dann a C+ on his predictions. He was right on about half of them, and just missed on a few more. His outright failures were only three, and one of those suffered from a down season. Only two were outright swings-and-misses, and considering the nature of television, I suppose that's to be expected. In other words, his performance was fitting for the season as a whole - average.

8 comments:

  1. Where to start?

    - Angie's leadout on Tuesday was Three's Company, which you'll note stayed popular this season at least at the level expected.
    Instead of the old "Top 15" (formerly "Top 10') trope, you (and Mike Dann) should have looked at the bigger picture, which was ABC's decision to break up its most popular nights all during the week.
    All of it is pure spec, of course, but splitting up a winning combo on any given night has a long history of backfiring big time, and this season was no exception.
    One blunder that you missed, because it happened outside the 15, was moving Fantasy Island to Friday, away from its sibling show Love Boat.
    Hart To Hart, the Saturday replacement, was a mismatch, and was saved by moving it to Tuesday midyear. Meanwhile, Fantasy faltered on Friday, but got back the groove when reunited with its natural running mate Love Boat.

    - In re Angie, as I recall the marriage took place early in the successful first season, so that "loss of pizazz" argument is pretty much a crock.
    What did Angie in was timeslot pinball; three different slots in less than a year. People can't watch if they don't know when the damn show is on (a lesson that TV execs still haven't learned all these years later).

    - Other matters:
    - While I enjoyed Cleveland Amory's reviews, he was always too much in love with his forced wordplay.
    Robert MacKenzie was a better reviewer: less snobbish, more knowledgeable about the business, more accessible with his humor.

    - While we're on the subject -
    - if you never saw The Ropers, how can you possibly "remember" it?
    What you've read or been told about it doesn't count. You can't honestly like or dislike something you haven't seen.
    As it happens, I do remember The Ropers.
    This was the first place that I saw Jeffrey Tambor, who played a snooty neighbor; he was funnier than the leads. Also Patty McCormack, who played his uncommonly understanding wife; if this had been their show, it might have had a chance.

    - The whole "competition" business only really became an issue once ABC became fully competitive with NBC and CBS, with the addition of affiliates all over the country.
    The local "critics" embraced the argument that the Big 3 should agree not to schedule blockbusters against each other; I was but a lad of 29, but I knew what a load of refuse this was - did anyone really expect one net to tank a whole night because another had a "Very Special Event"? I mean, really ...

    About a year before, the season began with a Sunday night showdown between the Emmy Awards on CBS, the feature-length premiere of Battlestar Galactica on ABC, and the broadcast premiere of King Kong on NBC.
    On the Emmy show, Norman Lear was the first presenter, and he called attention to this as an example of what you've cited here.
    All these years later, I'm thinking this:
    - Those two "features", promoted beyond all reason, were two of the least deserving of such treatment.
    - It all became academic when all three broadcasts were interrupted by live coverage of Begin and Sadat publicly embracing at Camp David (and as the pundits of the time said, virtually guaranteeing Jimmy Carter's reelection in 1980).
    Or something like that ...

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    1. I never said I remembered seeing the series, only that I remembered it. I don't think you have to have actually seen something to be able to remember it, particularly in an era when generational memories are so short. Do you really have to have seen an episode of The Ropers to be able to say you remember the premise, the stars, the day and time it was aired? Had I said I remembered watching the show and then admitted I'd never even seen it, then you would have had me - I'd have been guilty of the worst kind of embellishment a historian can perform. But that's not what I wrote.

      Today, outside of classic TV fans, I wonder how many people remember The Ropers at all - or Three's Company, for that matter? (I attended a lecture this weekend where the speaker reminded us that many in this generation don't even remember Johnny Carson.) To be able to say that the show starred Norman Fell and Audra Lindley, to say that the series was a spin-off from Three's Company,, to say that there was a British version of it - if you can say all this without looking it up on the always-reliable Wikipedia means, then I think it does count. I've seen plenty of newsreel footage of Babe Ruth, but even if I hadn't, even though I've read volumes of books and articles about him, does that mean I still can't say I "remember" him? Especially if I might be talking to someone who's never heard of him? Especially if I haven't said "I remember seeing him"? If so, then I think you're discrediting an entire body of work by historians who haven't experienced their subject first-hand, but have instead relied on secondary sources.

      At any rate, the point is that this is my blog, and if I say that it counts as remembering, then it counts as remembering. You'd be wise to remember that.

      Otherwise, as usual, fine contributions. As far as the Emmy competition is concerned, I wonder - don't you think that when the Super Bowl is on, the other networks "tank" the night? They're going to be slaughtered in the ratings, after all. And the Super Bowl surely counts as a "Special Event," does it not? Of course, I'm not sure that the Emmys count as a Special Event, then or now, but it does seem odd that on the one night when television celebrates its own accomplishments, three of the four broadcast networks choose to try and make sure as few viewers as possible can witness it. In effect, they're telling viewers that if they really care about the recognition of television's finest, they need to depend on another medium (print, internet) to read about it. Only TV could make that kind of argument stick.

      However, I'm quite willing not only to say that the Emmys aren't special, but that they're actually meaningless.

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  2. Do I smell a Twin Cities based "What's on Tv", fall 79 version, on the horizon? Fingers crossed!

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    1. I'm pretty sure it is the MSP edition this week, as the "5" logo on the ABC ad matches what I remember from these past columns as the logo for KSTP-TV, which had just recently switched from NBC to ABC.

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  3. I agree that ANGIE was killed by ABC moving it around. The network did that with far too many of its successful shows in 1979-80 (MORK, THE ROPERS, LAVERNE were three more examples), one reason for ABC's decline that led to CBS' six year reign as number one.

    ANGIE's basic premise, after the marriage, worked really well a couple of decades later. DHARMA AND GREG was a very similar show and lasted five seasons.

    THE ROPERS was well-cast, but inexplicably they dropped one of the funniest running gags from THREE'S COMPANY in it; Norman Fell's breaking of the fourth wall after delivering a zinger. Not sure why the producers dropped it. I still have about nine episodes on VHS, but not one "Fell Take" in any of them.

    HAPPY DAYS was hurt a bit by NBC's DUKES OF HAZZARD imitation, SHERIFF LOBO, which actually won the timeslot a few times in the fall.

    Kind of surprising that Dann had such little regard for CBS' long-running hits on Sunday night in his forecast. ONE DAY AT A TIME, ALICE and THE JEFFERSONS had been pulling in high ratings for several seasons by that time and all were still at full strength cast-wise (though Mackenzie Phillips' substance abuse problems would change that during the 1979-80 season).

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  4. Two football notes:

    1. In 1979 (as had been the case since 1951 and would be the case through 1983), the NCAA controlled college football telecasting rights.

    The result was that there was usually only one (sometimes two) games a week, more often that not nationally televised.

    There were a few occasions each year where ABC would split the network up for four or five regional games. Twin Cities viewers probably got a Big Ten (then just ten schools!) game, but the only hope Twin Cities viewers had of seeing the University of Minnesota might have been if they were playing Michigan or Ohio State on a week where ABC had regional coverage.

    In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the NCAA's college football TV policy, leading to almost every game involving a Football Bowl Subdivision/Division 1-A game being televised; at least to the school's home market, sometimes regionally, sometimes nationally.

    Today, viewers often have two dozen live college football telecasts on a typical Saturday, combining local, regional, national broadcast network, and national cable network games.

    2. The Minnesota Vikings' game against Miami was one of the very few times in that era NBC carried one of their games.

    Under the NFL Sunday-afternoon TV policy of the era, NBC televised road games of American Football Conference teams and home games of AFC teams against other AFC teams. CBS carried road games of National Football Conference teams and home games of NFC teams against other NFC teams.

    This policy was created in 1970, after the AFC (the old American Football League) and NFC (the old National Football League) began interlocking regular-season schedules. The reason for it was that until 1973, NFL games could not be televised in the cities they were being played in, even if sold out.

    This prior to 1973, CBS and WCCO-TV would have been the only place in the Twin Cities to see Vikings' games, since home games were blacked-out.

    Had regular-season home games been televised prior to 1970, it's entirely possible that the network that would carry Sunday-afternoon inter-conference games would have been determined by the home team, not the visiting team.

    This policy is generally still in force on Sunday-afternoons, with Fox carrying road games of NFC clubs and home games of NFC teams against other NFC teams, while CBS carried road games of AFC teams and home games of AFC teams against other AFC clubs. I say "generally" because there have been a few times in the last couple of years where, to balance-out network schedules, Fox has done an AFC road game or CBS has done an NFC road game.

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!