December 10, 2016

This week in TV Guide: December 10, 1977

Steady now, everyone. Before you get too excited, this week's cover story does not go into explicit detail on lewd and salacious scenes being trimmed for home consumption. There's no discussion about how much bare skin is appropriate, or whether or not a thrust under the sheets is acceptable. In observing the actions of CBS's Office of Program Practices, Eric Levin finds that the actual job of network censor is far more dry, and far less fascinating, than we at home might think.

What do we know about network censors? Well, if the team at CBS is any indication, they wear beards, they don't wear ties, they're relaxed, and they laugh a lot. They also spend a lot of time reviewing banal lines such as the following:

In the first script, a convict being taken to jail in leg irons tells his captor to go get a good meal and afterward pick him up, waiting at the roadside. "You can't miss me," he says. "I'll be the one with the dangling cuff." "And that ain't all," the cop quips. This, the group agreed, was a lewd reference to the convict's sexual organ. Not much had to be said. Here is the sum of it:

"Page five. Is it just my dirty mind?"

"No, we couldn't figure anything else that would be dangling."

"OK, that's going, going, gone."

Next, they looked at a scene in which several characters are discussing the remote possibility of an earthquake when suddenly the ground begins to shake. When the tremor passes, one man says to another, who has frozen in his tracks, "I thought you had to go to the bathroom." He responds, "I just did."

There was one sentence spoken about this line. "That's a little more bathroom than we want to go."

Other lines involve jokes about rape and prostitution, which they deem "not a valid source of humor." Adds one team member, "You make the jokes, you diminish the seriousness of the issue."

One problem, department director Jim Revard points out, is that "A lot of the producers seem to think their show is the only one on the air." It's true; "the department is responsible for the integrity of everything that appears on CBS, except news. Everything else, down to and including commercials." While one show might be able to get away with one joke about a hooker, say, if you multiply that joke by the number of shows on the network, all of a sudden CBS would be literally swimming in hooker jokes. It's also true that not all shows are judged the same; take the aforementioned hooker joke. If multiple shows do come up with similar angles, "we will often decide to give it to the show where we think it is most appropriate or natural, or where we have the most faith that the writers and directors will handle it well."

Violence is the other prime area of concern for Program Practices, and here it's typical to see a lot of give-and-take. A producer submitting a script with four acts of violence might be asked to "lose" one of them; if the plot makes that impossible, then they might have the next episode go lighter on violence. Even this counting system is going the way of the passenger pigeon, being retained only for the network's established action/adventure series, according to VP Van Gordon Sauter (future head of CBS News*). "It's misleading. It equates a pie in the face with a slap in the face with a bullet in the face. It's too inflexible." What's important, he says, is not the count, but the "overall tone of the program."

*And, in the small world that it is, brother-in-law of California Governor Jerry Brown.

When asked what the ideal qualifications for a censor are, director Paul Bogrow says the most important is intelligence. Zealous, supercharged prudes are rejected immediately,. "We don't want anyone who is eager to go out swinging a club on behalf of some personal, absolute moral standard," he says.

I'm sure there must still be network censors around today, and while I suspect their jobs are just as dry as they were back in 1977, it's a good bet that there are some dramatic differences as well. The allowable degree of permissiveness is far greater now than it was then, and they're probably being asked to make judgments that would have been unthinkable 40 years ago. Still, although it may be a dirty job (no pun intended), someone still has to do it.

***

This week's editorial, "As We See It," consists of a guest column written by the late Bing Crosby for his friend, columnist James Bacon, shortly before his death. It seems to tie in nicely with the week's cover story, in that Crosby writes about the state of television today.

"I was laid up for five or six weeks lately - hospitalized - and, of course, I saw lots and lots of TV. It became apparent to me that very slowly and very subtly writers and producers are working in nudity, permissiveness, irresponsibility, profanity, scenes of semiexplicit sex, provocative dialogue, smutty innuendos and situations into their shows. Moral responsibility is almost indiscernible."

The First Amendment doesn't apply in cases like this, Crosby says. "A citizen can say or do anything he wants out on the street unless he breaks the law, but he shouldn't be allowed to come into a man's house and fill his TV set with prurient material." Crosby's fear is for the effect such programming will have on children, who are susceptible to "anything they see in a film done by attractive, famous people."

He then makes a point that I bring up here, a political point. Crosby, as you may know, was politically a liberal, a supporter of FDR, a fervent proponent of equality. As a Catholic, he was educated by the Jesuits, not the most conservative of Catholic orders.* And yet what follows would undeniably be classified as right-wing in today's culture wars, perhaps even categorized as hate speech. "I happen to believe that the family is the basis for a strong society," Crosby writes. "A good strong society makes for a good strong community, and you get enough good strong communities and you've got a strong nation."

*As we see with the current pope.

Many people, when they find out I write about television and its relationship to culture, ask me about what I see as the eternal chicken-egg question: does culture influence what we see on TV, or does TV shape what we see in culture? Crosby's conclusion is as good an answer to that as anything. When he raised all of these concerns with a TV executive, the man replied, "We're only depicting life as it is." Says Crosby, "I fear that they are depicting life as it is going to be if they are not diverted."

***

There are only 15 days until Christmas as the week begins, which means the holiday programming season is in full swing - in fact, it's probably starting to wind down by the end of the week. What good is a Christmas program, after all, if it's too late to purchase the products being advertised on it?

Ah, that was cynical, wasn't it?

On Saturday, CBS hauls out two of it's venerable traditions, the animated specials How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Frosty the Snowman, beginning at 8:00 p.m. ET. It simply would not be December without them, even though I'm not exactly sure who broadcasts them nowadays.

Saturday's highlight is ABC's broadcast of Rudolph's Shiny New Year, which strictly speaking isn't a Christmas program at all, even if Billie Richards is back to reprise her role as the voice of Rudolph. In fact, it's all about Rudolph's search for Happy, the Baby New Year - and if this sounds a little lame to you, keep in mind that it's the best ABC can do, seeing as how CBS has the rights to the original Rudolph, which was broadcast last week. That's followed by the made-for-TV premiere of It Happened One Christmas, a retelling of the It's a Wonderful Life story with the sexes flipped. Marlo Thomas stars in the Jimmy Stewart role, with Cloris Leachman as her guardian angel, and since the original movie isn't a favorite of mine to begin with, it sounds perfectly dreadful to me. The only exception is the casting of Orson Welles as Potter - inspired, to say the least, as long as Welles brings as much enthusiasm to the role as he does when he's hawking Paul Masson wine.

Perhaps the quintessential Christmas cartoon, A Charlie Brown Christmas, takes center stage on Monday. (8:00 p.m., CBS) My ardor for Charles Schulz and the Peanuts gang has faded somewhat over the years, but no matter how many times I see this cartoon, I never get tired of it. It's followed by 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, a cartoon narrated by Joel Grey, featuring the mice who weren't stirring in Clement Moore's poem. Meanwhile, the independent WDCA runs one of the more underrated Christmas movies, The Bishop's Wife, with Cary Grant oozing charm as an angel sent to help out the harrassed bishop David Nivel (who's almost as thick-headed as George Bailey, truth be told), and the bishop's wife, Loretta Young. Watch for a scene-stealing performance by Monty Woolley. NBC counters with Sunshine Christmas, a TV-move based on the 1975 series of the same name, starring Cliff DeYoung.

WDCA is back at 9:00 p.m. on Tuesday with my favorite Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street. You can read why I feel this way here; be sure to also read this, where I show what happens when the movies intersect with real life. And Wednesday's highlight is Perry Como's annual Christmas show (10:00 p.m., ABC); this year, the globe-trotting star does an "Olde English Christmas" with Petula Clark, Leo Sayer, Olympic figure skater John Curry, and the Boys Choir of St. Paul's Cathedral. However, in order to get to Perry, you'll first have to sit through the Bradford clan in the two-hour Eight is Enough Christmas special. You might be all right with that, though.

On Thursday, The Waltons, Welcome Back Kotter, and Jackie Gleason (on WBAL) all have Christmas-themed episodes, and Friday rounds out the week with Mikhail Baryshnokov's staging of The Nutcracker at 8:00 p.m. on PBS, going head-to-head with the Hallmark Hall of Fame's annual Christmas appearance - this time, "Have I Got a Christmas for You," the story of how members of a synagogue volunteer to fill in at jobs for Christians who would otherwise have to work on Christmas Eve. It stars Milton Berle, Harold Gould, Jim Backus, Adrienne Barbeau, Sheree North, and Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows, and compared to some of their more recent showings it sounds rather charming. CBS responds with a movie of its own, House Without a Christmas Tree, starring Jason Robards and Mildred Natwick, and sounds a bit too precious for my taste.

***

I mentioned a few movies above, but I really have to share with you Judith Crist's take on the week's major features, and she's in rare form this week. Take, for example, her review of W.C. Fields and Me (Saturday, NBC), the 1976 movie based on the book by Fields' mistress Carlotta Monti, and starring Rod Steiger as Fields, with Valerie Perrine as Carlotta. "The result," says Crist, "is a silly fiction," in which "Steiger emerges as 10th-rate Rich Little, with makeup - of the death-mask-and-Pan-Cake variety - that makes him look like an aged Van Johnson with a clown nose. Not only is the real Fields available to us on film, but also the facts of his life are better than any fiction the exploitation boys might concoct. The one they've come up with is a stupid and pointless slander."

Up next: "Stupidity is the hallmark of 1976's The Next Man (Wednesday, CBS), a Sean Connery thriller in which the erstwhile James Bond plays a Saudi Arabian (with a Scottish brogue!) who's signed a mutual assistance pact with Israel. The powers-that-be want him dead because of this, and dispatch an international hit woman, "a Bryn Mawr grad, a ruthless killer and a sexpot. Corneila Sharpe is the last, all right, though her nude scenes, alas, will be cut. Everything else in this mindless mess should have been." Ouch.

Then, there's The Golden Voyage of Sinbad from 1974 (Friday, ABC), a movie "that should be run on Saturday mornings for the little ones." Morning, because if you run it in the evening, not even Ray Harryhausen's special effects will keep them awake. "And the wisdom of the sages, including 'Trust in Allah but tie up your camel,' is highly missable."

The good news is that she had nothing bad to say about either It Happened One Christmas or Sunshine Christmas. Possible reason: they were unavailable for preview.

***

Edith Efron has a News Watch feature this week that was probably controversial then, and in light of this year's presidential campaign, would surely be so now. Her target: "the liberal feminist fiction of the Helpless Wife," and how nobody on television is challenging this absurd claptrap.

What Efron notes is the epidemic of abused women striking back at the men abusing them, in most cases their husbands. She draws a distinction between the Helpless Wife and the other favorite of news, talk shows and dramas: the rape victim. "Women assaulted by rapists are helpless and unwilling victims of male abuse," she says. "But wives of brutal husbands are not helpless and unwilling victims - they are voluntary victims."

All of them live in houses with front doors. They can walk out those doors at any moment. If they lack friends, family and funds, if they have children, and if, to boot, they are total incompetents, they can go to charities or welfare agencies, any one of which is preferable to being routinely beaten to a bloody pulp. But such women have not walked out their front doors. They've clung to the male brutes like limpets, often for years, consenting to bestial abuse, concealing it, lying about it. They've covered up appalling cruelty to children. They complicity of such women in their own victimization, their genuine guilt, is enormous. But on the "reality" shows I've seen, that point is not made.

That's a very stern indictment. Efron goes on to discuss the psychology of women in this situation, many of whom suffer from a fear of independence, of standing on their own two feet. Anything, including brutal assault, is preferable to that. The problem, she writes, is that only once has she seen this portrayed on television - in the drama Family. It never comes up in any of those "serious" programs, and there's a good reason why. "The liberal feminists want us to believe that the land is burstling with oppressed females who cannot help themselves and need huge new social programs and bureaucracies that the feminists, of course, will run. Whenever such a campaign is on, TV becomes the megaphone."

Efron recalls a recent Phil Donahue show in which a woman who had been abused by her husband for years - had even left him, only to return - had finally had enough, whereupon she burned her husband to death. At this revelation, "the audience of middle-class Philadelphia ladies gave her an explosive hand of applause." Even Donahue seemed taken aback by this, reminding that audience that they were applauding murder, at which a second ovation resulted. "Not only did they applaud murder, but they were hostile to the very notion that the woman had ever had any conscious choice or responsibility in the matter."

This idea, she stresses, is incredibly offensive and derogatory to women, suggesting that they are incapable of independent thought, unable to take any form of proactive action, save when they're pushed beyond the point of no return, and Efron wonders if they're being programmed, in a sense, to behave that way. "However wretched 'battered wives' may be, that has not been an act of compassion but an act of corruption. And signs of that corruption are now showing up in the culture."

It is time, Efron concludes, for TV to "make immaculately clear the difference between an authentic feminine victim of male oppression and a woman who has cooperated every step of the way in her own victimization." To deny that there is such a thing as female responsibility, she says, "is to dehumanize women."

I'm sure that today Edith Efron would be pilloried on college campuses as a self-loathing woman guilty of hate speech. That's only one reason I doubt we'd ever read anything like this in TV Guide today.

***

I realize, friends, that you might be tired of politics. It seems as if that's all we've lived with these last few months, and with Christmas almost upon us, you probably think it's time to give it a rest. As you know, I try not to dip into politics too much here, and when I do I usually give you forewarning.

I thought this issue was different, because in Crosby's editorial, Levin's article about censorship, and Efron's essay, we see a kind of issue-wide theme being developed, one that's more important than the weekly programming. In addition, all three of these articles touch on issues that remain part of the political dialogue today. In looking at them, we see how things change, and how they stay the same; I sometimes use this phrase in jest, but not here. This is a time capsule issue in a way, because it shows us with specificity what the issues of the time were, and how people thought about them back then. With our perspective, we can see how things have evolved - or devolved - since then.

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for another good look back at a time, unlike many of those covered here, where I can actually remember watching some of the programs that week.
    As far as Bing Crosby goes, I thought he was a Republican. I heard on tv that on a West Coast trip JFK was supposed to stay with Frank Sinatra one time, but due to Sinatra's alleged mob ties, JFK stayed with Crosby, who was unlike Sinatra (at the time) a Republican. This affront to Sinatra was somehow blamed (probably scapegoated) on JFK's brother-in-law, Peter Lawford, who was more or less kicked out of the Rat Pack after this.
    THE LOVE BOAT ran its first Christmas episode Saturday night, including Dick Sargent playing a priest taking a group of orphans on the Pacific Princess to sing at a stop in Mexico and John Gavin as a man planning revenge on the man in whose place he'd just served a prison sentence. Oddly enough on Christmas Eve, 2 weeks later, THE LOVE BOAT aired a different original episode that was in no way related to Christmas. It included 1 of Will Geer's last performances outside of THE WALTONS, as he died the next April.
    I'm pretty sure I saw IT HAPPENED ONE CHRISTMAS this week on Sunday, just before I remember seeing IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE for the first time, so the tv movie was my first exposure to this story. This version, like the 1973 tv remake of MIRACLE ON 34TH ST., had lots of familiar (in the future if not yet then) tv faces, like Wayne Rogers as Mary's husband George Hatch (Mary & George switched last names for the remake.), Richard Dysart & Doris Roberts as her parents, Barney Martin as Uncle "Willie", and Christopher Guest as Mary's brother, Harry (who wasn't turned into Harriet for this movie).
    While I don't remember the Perry Como, I did see EIGHT IS ENOUGH that Wednesday night, which included Will Geer (again outside of THE WALTONS & on a different network) and it was a real tearjerker, as all the family members ended up crying & reminiscing about the first Mrs. Bradford, who'd been played when the series began by the recently-passed Diana Hyland.
    I agree with what you wrote about Edith Efron. I imagine if she were scheduled to speak on a college campus now, she'd be banned before the students had to run to their "safe spaces" to avoid her.

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  2. This year (2016), NBC ran "Grinch", and the presentation lasted 35 minutes so that the network could air the original 1966 special in its entirety (minus commercials, it was around 26 minutes).

    "A Charlie Brown Christmas" this year aired on ABC, while "Frosty" was again on CBS this time around.

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  3. Bing Crosby was a Republican, almost all his life.
    During the War, he supported FDR - as most Americans did during that time.
    There wasn't an "extreme right wing" back then; that didn't come about until after the War, when the Soviet Union asserted itself.
    Even then, Bing Crosby, following the lead of his friend Bob Hope, stayed out of partisan politics as much as possible; entree to DC and the White House was all-important, no matter how you voted.
    It was only in the late '60s, when everything blew up generally, that Crosby began to publicly identify as GOP; one time he told David Frost that "... my heroes these days are Bill Buckley, Louis Armstrong, and George Blanda!"

    We could segue from here to Crosby's morality piece (which was most likely ghosted for him by the like-minded Jim Bacon), and perhaps contrast it with what has become known about how he treated his first wife and his older sons - and maybe tie that in to Edith Efron's advocacy of "Blame the Victim", which even conservative prosecutors place little credence in ...

    Jeez, this is getting ugly.
    Change the subject ...

    Say, did you ever get around to reading my belated Brett Halliday comments (one post late as they were)?
    Just thought I'd ask ...

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And now for something completely different.