January 14, 2017

This week in TV Guide: January 13, 1979

What’s wrong with television news? It’s a question that could be asked today, as is the case with so many of the topics we run across in past TV Guides, which probably says more about inertia than anything else. Be that as it may, this week we get a unique opportunity to go in-depth on the question, along with many others, in a roundtable discussion comprised of the three broadcast news chiefs: Roone Arledge of ABC, Richard Salant of CBS, and NBC’s Les Crystal. It’s a wide-ranging discussion, taking up the entire front section of the issue, and while we won’t look at everything they brought up, we will focus on a few points that seem more prescient to today.

The discussion begins with a topic that’s been at the forefront of conversation – the influence of what we now refer to as the “mainstream media,” particularly television, about their ability to shape and advance the political agenda, and how the election of Donald Trump spells a diminution, if not complete end, to said influence. In comments that are either candid, defensive, or prophetic, all three presidents deny that their medium is that influential. Salant, for example, sees television news as “instruments of reinforcement rather than conversation,” and Crystal points out that “there are a whole lot of forces in this country” that shape and influence public opinion.” He adds, however, that “[o]ur primary emphasis should be, has to be, on what people ought to know, rather than what people want to hear.” I know what he means, but it’s that “eat your vegetables” attitude, I think, the idea that the networks know best, that gets under people’s skin so much. All three agree, however, that whether or not they actually have such power, it’s important for them to proceed on the assumption that they do. Says Arledge, “we spend more time, and I am sure they do too, checking, double-checking, assuring accuracy, because of this responsibility.”

What about the fact that 64% of Americans get the majority of their news from television? Again, Crystal challenges the premise, warning that “[w]e shouldn’t make assumptions” about the influence of television news. “I think people are still influenced more by the world in which they directly live – the community they live in, the neighborhood they live in, where they work – than any other single factor.” It was, of course, a much different world back then, one that suggests an actual, rather than virtual, community. In pointing out how multiple communities, however they’re constructed, inevitably diminishes the influence of television news, however, Crystal again seems to foresee today’s world. Substitute “social media” for neighborhoods and workplaces, and television does indeed become less important.

Arledge makes an interesting observation in suggesting that more people get their news from local television than national, and that a viewer who “depends upon a local television station as his sole source of news is probably in trouble to start with.” In fact, depending on any single source, or cluster of like-minded sources, as their sole outlet for information could be said to be in the same sort of trouble. Shrewdly, Arledge points out that television’s power doesn’t really come from the judgments these three men and their news departments make – it comes from the power of the medium itself, its ability to reach into every home, and, says Arledge, “there is no question that it’s there.”

The question of in-depth news coverage comes up, specifically the long-held dream, one we’ve seen in these pages before, of an hour-long network newscast. Arledge strongly suggests that ABC was on the verge of implementing such a newscast (perhaps this is what World News Tonight was supposed to be like), but that it was scuttled – “sabotage” is the world Arledge originally uses, although he later walks it back – by NBCs announcement that “under no circumstances” would NBC go to an hour-long program. “That gave all the ammunition that was needed to our affiliates” to doom the plan. Salant doesn’t deny that happened – “I wasn’t involved” in the decision – but he sees something else on the horizon, something that will not only impact the hour-long news, it will also address what all three see as a weakness, the inability to do in-depth, long-form stories.  If satellite television (direct to the home!) finally becomes a reality, with the fragmentation and specialization that inevitably accompanies it, “I expect there will be an all-news channel.”

There’s some discussion around the role of the anchor, with TV Guide questioning whether or not it’s wise to spend $500,000 on someone who reads the news; Crystal says the anchor does more than just read headlines, and the real question is whether or not the large salary interferes with the job he does. Of course, we can all see the problem NBC faced dealing with Brian Williams’ fabrications; in this case it was the anchor himself who was the distraction, but would he have done what he did had he not been paid his fabulous salary? Did it in some way pressure him to exaggerate things, to inflate his importance, in order to justify himself? Would have been a good question.

Then, there’s the matter of ratings, and here all agree that news programs have no business being slaves to ratings. Salant doesn’t think they affect news judgments, although he concedes that if news documentaries got higher ratings, they’d be seen in prime time more often. On the other hand, he acknowledges that in the modern world, it’s impossible to ask the network to be oblivious to ratings – “[t]hey must look at the fact that they’re in a business. And that has to color their decisions.” Not on the content of the news, but on its availability, or frequency.

In all, it’s an interesting discussion, although a bit of a slog to make it all the way through. There’s a little too much self-congratulatory sentiment, a bit too much bipartisanship among all three. It does, however, indicate that the networks are aware of the challenges they face, and if they didn’t predict the future with precision, at least they were aware of the shadows being cast. Personally, I don’t miss the days when anchors were much more forthcoming with their commentary and much less forthcoming admitting that’s what it was, when LBJ complained that losing Cronkite meant losing the War, when Dan Rather picked fights with President Nixon at press conferences.

That is, until I compare it to the news today. In that case, I miss it very much indeed.

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It's that time of the year, as I mentioned a week or two ago, the time for television's second season: when the hopes and prayers behind so many new series come crashing down like the Hindenburg, their places to be taken by a new set of shows, with their own hopes and prayers.

Hopes are certainly riding high for Delta House (7:30 p.m. Tuesday, ABC), based on the smash hit National Lampoon's Animal House. Despite the presence of several actors and actresses from the original movie (including John Vernon, Stephen Furst, Bruce McGill), the failure of Delta House - despite good ratings*, it only ran for 13 episodes and was off the air by April - shows not only how difficult it is to catch lightning in a bottle twice, it also demonstrates how dangerous it is doing derivative television. Seeing ABC introduce a series not only Obased on a hit movie but featuring some of the original cast, NBC and CBS both rush their own Animal House clones to the air: Brothers and Sisters and Co-Ed Fever, respectively. Brothers and Sisters only runs 12 episodes, which is still better than Co-Ed Fever, the rare series to be cancelled after a single showing. Also on Tuesday, NBC says farewell to Grandpa Goes to Washington (7:00 p.m.), the Jack Albertson sitcom that lasts but eleven episodes before the network pulls the plug. It's replacement in February will be Cliffhangers - another short-run series.

*There were constant disputes between the producers, one of which was Ivan Reitman, and the network; obviously, the ratings weren't good enough for ABC to consider it worth the price.

Wednesday brings us the first episode of the much-loved Edward the King, the epic,13-episode story of Britain's King Edward VII, the kind of series which Americans are only accustomed to seeing on Masterpiece Theatre. Edward the King, a syndicated series sponsored by Mobil. presents an interesting challenge for the networks; while many of the stations picking it up are independents, the series also makes its way to a number of affiliates who are only too willing to pre-empt their own low-rated network programs in favor of a miniseries that's both classy and popular.

On Thursday, it's the final episode of David Cassidy - Man Undercover, on at 9:00 on NBC. In was Cassidy's first starring series since The Partridge Family, and his attempt to distance himself from those memories and be taken seriously as a dramatic actor. You might be surprised, considering the title, to find out that in the series Cassidy plays an undercover cop - who knew? Cassidy Undercover was itself a replacement for W.E.B., a Network takeoff; this was its tenth and final episode, to be replaced by, in order, Mrs. Columbo, Presenting Susan Anton, and NBC Novels for Television. The timeslot, ruled by Barnaby Jones on CBS, is a tough one for NBC.

Friday brings us notice of an impending change for NBC, as they're about to take one of their few successful series - The Rockford Files - and move it to Saturday nights. Rockford is replaced by a couple of series, one of which is Turnabout, a seven-episode sitcom about a husband and wife who suddenly find themselves inhabiting each other's bodies. The other series is one of those that has since become a byword for television disaster, in the same way that Scrooge has become a descriptor for a miser. It's Hello, Larry, one of McLean Stevenson's many failed series, which actually made it through two seasons and 35 episodes. Either way, Hello, Larry is soon replaced in this timeslot by the aforementioned Brothers and Sisters, and before long they're all out, and Rockford is back where it belongs.

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Also on Thursday night at 7:00 p.m., NBC presents The Challenge of the Superheroes, which has to be either the most outrageous or the dumbest idea of this young year. It's billed as a "live action movie," which reinforces the idea that the public might have been expecting an animated adventure - either that, or some kind of "Battle of the Network Stars" showdown between the Good Guys (Adam West, Burt Ward, and a "roster of superheroes") vs. the Bad Guys (Frank Gorshin, Charlie Callas, and an "alliance of arch-villains"). I don't know how well the special does, and I don't really care - what amazes me is how far ahead of their time the producers were. They may not have realized it, but they were - they absolutely saw the superhero craze coming, twenty years before the fact. If you were to put something like this on the big screen today, schlock or not, it would make millions, millions!  If only they'd had a time machine...

Then again, the outrageous program of the week could bethe world premiere on the ABC Sunday Night Movie of “The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders,” starring Jane Seymour as a reporter going undercover to find out what goes on behind closed doors, or something like that.* It’s difficult to know how to react to something like this – I know how much the cheerleaders have done to burnish the reputation of America’s Team, not to mention the entire city of Dallas, over the years, and there’s no doubting the glamour that surrounds them even to this day. But a movie? Whether or not you like it, the football team is, after all, still the centerpiece of the organization. Making a movie about the cheerleaders is a bit like, I don’t know, doing a Washington DC insider movie that ignores the politicians altogether and focuses solely on what would have been called the secretarial pool. And they’d have done it too, I suppose, if the secretaries dressed like Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. It still sounds like a two-hour commercial for the team, I think.

*It has to be something like that – after all, it’s billed as “An Explosive New Movie!”

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Not much on the sports front this week; ABC's Pro Bowlers Tour visits Las Vegas on Saturday for one of its stalwart tournaments, the Showboat Invitational - with a total purse of $125,000! The pro golfers have it a bet better this weekend, as NBC travels to Palm Springs for the final two rounds of the year's first tournament, the Bob Hope Desert Classic, with a first prize of $54,000. In case you're curious, Emmett Shutes wins the Showboat, while John Mahaffey comes out on top in the golf.

The NBA tips off its TV schedule on CBS Sunday afternoon, with the New York Knicks taking on the Kansas City Kings, who've since moved to Sacramento. The Harlem Globetrotters make their annual appearance on ABC's Wide World of Sports Sunday as well, and just before that Wilfred Benitez retains his world welterweight boxing championship with a split-decision victory over Carlos Palomino on International Boxing Champions. Madison Square Garden, which has hosted a title fight or two over the years, is the scene for the season-ending Colgate-Palmolive Masters tennis championship, with the execrable John McEnroe taking the crown. Oh, and there's plenty of college basketball on both Saturday and Sunday.

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Elsewhere…

Diana Canova is in the spotlight this week; the daughter of comedienne Judy Canova is proving her acting chops as one of the stars of ABC’s outrageous Soap. She’s too established to call her a starlet, though.

ABC’s getting ready for its highly-anticipated Roots II sequel next month, but don’t look for any favors from the competition – while the unheralded original went up against mostly regular programming, the sequel’s going to encounter everything from Bob Hope to the two-part telecast of “Gone with the Wind” to various other movies and miniseries. I think Roots II won the day(s) anyway, though I could be mistaken.

NBC tries to get a jump on CBS’s “Gone with the Wind” broadcast by debuting “Charlestown” on Sunday night. Judith Crist compares the movie to “Carol Burnett skits or Saturday Night Life takeoffs,” and notes that Delta Burke, one of the cast’s “unknowns,” “thinks she’s Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett. No way.” She also doesn’t think much of the network’s Tuesday night offering, in which Sonny Bono solves a “Murder in Music City,” calling it a “second-rate whodunit,” although Bono’s easy charm makes it an easy movie to relax to.

Dean Martin roasts Joe Namath on Friday night (9:00 p.m., NBC). As much as I like Deano, it’s hard to get worked up over the roasts, which really are kind of a poor substitute for his old variety show. How many times can you cut away to Orson Welles laughing at the funniest thing he’s ever heard, especially when it probably comes from an entirely different context?

Rob Brown plays Captain America in a CBS movie on Friday as well. Wasn’t he in that Superhero Challenge already? Or did he just feel left out?

Finally, a week or two ago Sports Illustrated did a retrospective on Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes and the ignominious end to his career after slugging a Clemson player on the sidelines during the waning seconds of the Gator Bowl. This week, ABC is forced to defend announcers Keith Jackson and Ara Parseghian after the duo failed to mention the incident during TV coverage of the game. The network acknowledges they mishandled the coverage, not providing the announcers (who didn’t see it live) with the proper replays, and failing to follow it up until the next day. I remember watching the game live, seeing Hayes throw the punch and being stunned by what had just happened – or had it happened? The announcers didn’t mention it, after all, and if TV doesn’t pick up on it, does it really matter? Talk about the influence of television – now that’s a question the network news presidents would be hard-pressed to answer.

8 comments:

  1. Perfect timing with the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders movie, what with the team at the height of its 1970's run, the defending Super Bowl champions one week away from trying to defend the title against the Steelers in what likely became the most remembered Super Bowl of the decade. The movie was medicore at best as you mention, but was predictably a ratings smash, finishing third for the week behind MORK AND MINDY and LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY.

    On DELTA HOUSE: it was 37th out of 61 programs by its third episode. As was common for mid-season replacements of the era, it started strong, but faded quickly. CO-ED FEVER benefitted from a choice time slot for its premiers a few weeks later (following the network premiere of "ROCKY") but also fell off dramatically.

    The initial episode of ROOTS II was 8th for the week (and as you guessed, still won its timeslot) with a 27.5 rating and 41 share airing during the second week of February. Viewership increased for subsequent installments, and all 5 were in the top 10 the following week. It averaged a 30.1 rating and a 45 share for six nights overall.

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  2. Thanks again for great coverage of a time in tv that I can somewhat remember.

    I think that a couple of your statements about the network news chiefs are a bit off. First you credit Crystal for the "eat your vegetables" quote for which Salant is credited on the cover, then you state that NBC stopped ABC's hour-long newscast but quote how CBS news chief knew about it but claimed it wasn't his decision.

    I loved watching TURNABOUT more than THE ROCKFORD FILES myself, but then my tastes ran more toward sitcoms with fantastic premises than private eye dramas at the time. I also watched HELLO LARRY pretty often as well and was amazed how long it lasted on NBC. NBC did force crossover episodes between it and DIFF'RENT STROKES, making Phil Drummond an old Army buddy who bought Larry Adler's radio station. I remember these shows being scheduled back-to-back as well, whether on Friday or Wednesday nights. MAD magazine had fun with this setup in its DIFF'RENT STROKES satire called "Diff'rent Jokes", where McLean Stevenson crossed onto the show. When he was told that Stevenson's character was supposed to help his ratings, "Arnut" said "That's like using Shelley Winters to help Cheryl Ladd look beautiful!".

    I didn't see CO-ED FEVER, but I remember reading that it was cancelled after its 1 well-rated episode because, while its rating was good, it should've been much higher based on ROCKY's excellent rating just before it.

    I remember watching ROOTS II as well. As Mr. Horn stated above, its ratings were good. I read that each installment fell in the Top 11 (not quite Top 10) for the week when it aired, but it wasn't the absolute smash that ROOTS was (and probably never could have been as highly-rated).

    CHALLENGE OF THE SUPERHEROES wasn't so much a movie as a long variety show on videotape with laugh track, hosted by Ed McMahon. It was very strange, since to me the camp appeal of shows like BATMAN was how the show played everything straight. On this show everything was a big joke. Here's part of a review that includes links from the show:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fUTCePDSYy8&list=PL2E357F39746D52F1

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    1. Sorry, that last show should be LEGENDS OF THE SUPERHEROES, with the first part called "The Challenge". I remember what I saw of it being a goofy game show/roast format, where Batman yells at Robin and wants to punish him at 1 point for giving a wrong answer in the game show part, which I think was a bit like FAMILY FEUD.

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    2. Clarification Time:

      The show you've got here, Challenge Of The Superheroes, was an hour-long spoof of a standard superhero adventure-type show from not too long before; the villains were all comedians (Gorshin, Charlie Callas, Howard Morris, Gabe Dell, et al), and all was played for broad laughs.

      Legends Of The Superheroes: The Roast, the show Jon H is referring to, aired one week later on NBC.
      Per the title, this was a spoof not only of the characters but of the 'roast' format, which Dean Martin's producer Greg Garrison cleaned up and made into "family entertainment" a few years before.
      Garrison had nothing to do with this show, which was produced by Hanna-Barbera, burning off the remainder of an old contract with DC (or whatever they were calling themselves at that point).
      Mark Evanier has a post or two telling how these shows came to be at his blog, News From ME.
      Also, Warner Archive has out an MOD/DVD of both shows, available wherever these are ... well, available ...

      As to how something like this would play today:
      Obviously, Mitch, you've had little experience with modern-day comics buffs, who are almost unfailingly grim in their approach to the genre. They'd steer far clear of this, possibly to the point of organized boycotts.
      And since they're the only ones who go to these things at all any more (multiple times, admittedly), you can forget about "millions!".

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    3. I wonder if "Co-Ed Fever" got done in by terrible reviews.

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  3. I do remember watching Delta House every week. Somewhat of a substitute for Animal House, which I did not see until about two years later. There would be a newscast that would go to an hour eventually. The MacNeil/Lehrer Report on PBS originally took the whole half hour of the program on one issue, and that format continued from 1975-83. In 1983, that newscast expanded to an hour and changed its format.

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  4. *There were constant disputes between the producers, one of which was Ivan Reitman, and the network; obviously, the ratings weren't good enough for ABC to consider it worth the price.
    No surprise there, translating an R-rated movie into a TV sitcom means a lot had to go by the wayside due to 'standards and practices'. Not to mention the fact that TV has time and budget constraints that a feature film doesn't. The short-lived Police Squad! had the same problem - though it did well as a movie franchise.

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  5. And what happened in the Gator Bowl was that ABC in trying to save money(even back then) didn't purchase a net return feed which would have allowed the truck to see what they were sending back to New York. So in saving about 5K(in 1978 dollars)theywere unable to replay the incident and missed one of the biggest stories of the year

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