January 21, 2017

This week in TV Guide: January 23, 1971

Here's another timeless headline for you: why television turns off college students – and vice versa. Today, we’d ascribe this phenomenon to cord-cutting, streaming, game-playing. In a way, we’ve now come full-circle, to the first generations to not really live with television since – well, since the before World War II, I suppose. The Boomers would all know it well, would grow up and grow old with it, and so you’d really have to look at the generation that died out in the ‘50s, perhaps the early ‘60s, to find people who didn’t really know TV.

Until now.

This week we have part one of a five-part series by Neil Hickey, whom TV Guide often turned to when they wanted a serious article, and since we’ve only got part one here, his analysis is going to necessarily be incomplete. But that hasn’t stopped us before, so let’s see what the problem is.

It isn’t necessarily what you think it might be. In 1971, one of “the most dangerous problems” facing America, according to pollsters, is campus unrest.* With the nation still in the throws of Vietnam, and student protests frequently ending in violence, is it any wonder that Americans harbor concerns about college campuses? “The lines of communication between students and the adult population are almost nonexistent,” writes Hickey, and the divide has caused consternation for groups ranging from “most parents, to law enforcers, to many in the blue-collar class who never had the opportunity of attending college, and to large segments of the press, including television.”

*The previous spring it had been rated the most dangerous problem, ahead of Vietnam, crime, inflation, racial unrest, the environment, and everything else.

Indeed, in many ways this divide resembles the one existing today, although we use different terms to describe it: “undesirables vs. social justice warriors” might be one way of doing so. In fact, with one exception the battle lines, if you want to call them that, are arrayed on almost exactly the same fault line. That one exception, I think, is television. Back in 1971, TV newsmen saw the protesting students as “snobbish elitists with a ‘line of goods’ they’re avid to force upon the American public by whatever terrorist means they can muster.” Personally, I happen to think that’s the case today as well, but I don’t think the media would describe it that way. Today’s portrayal of student activism is often sympathetic if not favorable, in the ”conscience of the nation” vein, and the more sordid incidents are given nuanced treatment, if not ignored altogether. I’d be happy to entertain anyone with an opposite opinion, but to this writer it appears to be the most dramatic difference between then and now, a cultural sea change to be sure.

For their part, Hickey notes, students view television with deep suspicion, unresponsive and obtuse. TV represents the Establishment, the “pig press” as they call it, “a financial dependent of the materialistic ‘consumer culture’: a cog in the great machine of interlocking power blocs” which has resulted in war, racism, environmental decay, and polarization – all while lulling viewers to sleep with its soothing, meaningless drivel. Again, it’s difficult to know how this contrasts with student feelings today, or if students think much about television at all.

Which brings us back to the original premise of the article. Many students see TV as a hopeless medium, too entrenched with the establishment. Any coverage they give of the issues important to the students is likely to be “ingenious, superficial and ultimately distorted” if not ignored altogether, and that the students themselves are misrepresented. Students with a more moderate bent aren’t ready to write off the medium yet; they’d like to use it as “a forum to improve understanding between themselves, the administration, and the people of the community in which the university exists.” The minute something happens on campus, they claim, television sensationalizes it without trying to find out the root cause, the motivation behind student acts. Their problem is lack of access, and they know it’s only when things get violent that TV gets interested.

Riots at the University of Wisconsin
The reaction from the media is varied. Vic Burton, news director of KRON in San Francisco, acknowledges the station could do a better job with its coverage, but complains he doesn’t have the resources. “We need people to cover campus militancy before it erupts in violence,” he says. “Did I say we could use 30 [reporters]? Hell, we could use a hundred.” On the other hand, Reuven Frank, head of NBC news, is far less sympathetic. “These students think of themselves as an elite,” he says. “So why don’t they just talk to each other? Why do they want to press their opinions on people they detest? I don’t owe them anything. I refuse to believe they are of any significance.” Brave words -unthinkable, in today’s day and age. Were a network news head to say such things today, he’d be branded with several different -phobes, compared to Trump and Hitler (likely in that order), and forced out of his position by nervous executives and sponsors concerned about selling their products to that demographic.

Yet another school of thought is that the students aren’t media-savvy, that they haven’t learned how to use the power of television in the same way that, say, civil rights groups have. “Students think they’re well organized,” according to Thomas Dorsey, news director at WBNS in Columbus, “but they’re not.” His station’s refusal to be dragged into the unrest at Ohio State was met with opposition from many of Dorsey’s own reporters, who accused him of “a form of news distortion.” Nevertheless, “a virtual news blackout from Ohio State was in effect while the demonstrations grew in intensity.” When the inevitable riots did occur, says Dorsey, it was “without any help from us whatsoever.”

Some experts think that students need to “meld their efforts with the needs of television,” while others feel the students have given up on any hope of changing the media. As student demands escalate beyond issues of campus reform to merge with the general political unrest of the times, as the students get angrier and angrier with everything including, it would seem, life itself. But with next year’s presidential election set to be the first in which 18 year-olds can cast votes, it becomes more important, in Hickey’s words, “that what America thinks is going on in the universities coincides with what is really going on there.”

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Throughout the 60s and early 70s, TV Guide's reviews were written by the witty and acerbic Cleveland Amory. Whenever we get the chance, we'll look at Cleve's latest take on the series of the era. 

This week’s show is a dog. I mean that – an actual dog. It can only be Lassie, of course, which has now been on for 17 years – “through thick and thin, through war and peace, through fire and flood, through good guys and bad guys, through the Golden Age and the Vast Wasteland, through Milton Berle and Marshall McLuhan, through great critics like ourself and terrible critics like other people, through good plots, bad plots and no plots at all,” as Cleveland Amory puts it.

Now, we know about Amory’s career as an animal-rights activist, so we shouldn’t be surprised that his ultimate assessment of the series is a positive one. He loves the humanity and warmth the good-naturedness of it “in a cold and cynical world where on the one hand articles are written that we must get rid of all of the dogs in the cities and, on the other, where the ‘use’ of dogs is discussed only in terms of research laboratories.” Even so, there are some things that are just too much – too much fighting, for example. And throughout the history of the show, the kid actors have been “awful,” often because of the shortcomings of the scripts they’re given to work with. He cites an early season episode about a child who was a mute, due to a psychological block. At least that’s one theory. “It was our theory that the kid could talk fine – he just wouldn’t talk. He’d seen the script.”

That rundown that Amory gives at the start of the review – that’s pretty much the entire history of television, and although Lassie might not have been there at the very beginning, it wasn’t far off. And for a show to have continued for that length of time, with an audience base consisting of kids from 2 to 13, along with parents who’d watched the show when they were that age, well, that’s pretty good. I don’t know that there’s room for a series like Lassie today; it often ran late on Sunday afternoons, time that’s now taken by sports or infomercials, and that’s too bad. As Amory says, “somehow it’s reassuring to have Lassie on television every Sunday night year after year standing guard – not only over all dogs and all animals but also, and just as vigilantly over our better selves.”

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In sports, it’s an all-star weekend, starting on Saturday afternoon with CBS’s coverage of the American Basketball Association All-Star Game, from Greensboro, NC. Don Criqui and Pat Summerall are on hand to call the action, and while not all of the names would be familiar to casual fans, I think everyone of the time would agree that the New York Nets’ Rick Barry belongs there.

On Sunday, the same network presents what they call the “NFL All-Star Game.” In this first year of the NFL-AFL merger, it’s the inaugural matchup of stars from the NFC and AFC. In the past, when this was an NFL-only contest, it was called the Pro Bowl, just as it is today. Perhaps they thought a new name might be in order considering the new format, and this was just a tryout to see if the name would stick. Or it’s possible that TV Guide was just lazy with its listings; after all, other sports called it an All-Star game, why not football? The venue isn’t even listed, although it had been the same since the game started – the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Maybe TVG thought we already knew that as well. And that it was called the Pro Bowl.

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It appears that CBS’s gamble with All in the Family has paid off. The “bias-bating” show is being applauded by views as “a breath of fresh air,” with more than 60% of viewer feedback being positive, although some have complained about what the ethnic slurs. The critics have been positive as well.

ABC’s announced that Joseph Campanella, Arthur Hill, and Tim Matheson will be starring in their upcoming Movie of the Week “Owen Marshall, Counselor-at-Law.” No hint that the movie’s serving as a pilot, but Hill and the series will return in September for the start of a three-season run.

Pearl Bailey’s new variety series begins at 8:30 (ET) Saturday on ABC. I’d actually forgotten that Pearlie Mae had her own show at one time, and I can’t even blame it on having lived in The World’s Worst Town™ (where we surely wouldn’t have gotten it) because we hadn’t moved there yet. Pearl pulls out all the stops for that first show, with Louis Armstrong, Andy Williams, and Bing Crosby as the guests; unfortunately, the show still only lasts 15 weeks. Here’s a sample:


Even though we don’t have The Hollywood Palace for comparison, that’s no reason why we can’t take a look at Ed Sullivan’s lineup for the week. Ed’s guests on Sunday night are Godfrey Cambridge, Nancy Ames, Sergio Franchi, B.J. Thomas, dancer-choreographer Peter Gennaro, jazz musician Fahsaan Roland Kirk, and the Texas A&M Singing Cadets. (Doing “The Ballad of the Green Berets”?) Not a bad show, but certainly beatable – I’d take Pearl Bailey over Ed this week, for example.

And Lucille Ball’s series is set to return on CBS next season – she’ll be joining Ed in logging 20 seasons with the network. Can you imagine? When I look at today’s series, I’m often stunned by how long some of them have run – Grey’s Anatomy, for example, or NCIS. It’s not the quality of the shows that I’m complaining about, at least at this time – it’s that with the smaller number of episodes produced each year, there just seems to be less gravitas to their longevity. That, perhaps, and the endless times you can see these shows rerun on multiple cable networks, which I’m sure is what TV reformers had in mind.

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A couple of weeks ago I promised you Flip Wilson, and now you’re going to get Flip Wilson. He’s the hot new thing on television, and that fact is “one of the miracles of this current TV season.” It isn’t just that he’s black, although that can’t be overlooked: no black performer has ever had a successful comedy-variety series, and that includes notables from Nat King Cole to Leslie Uggams. (With Pearl Bailey to follow.) It’s a touchy subject in 1971, but no less true. Also true is that the comedy-variety format is itself the most volatile - 16 of them currently grace the airwaves, with all but Hee Haw competing for the same guest stars. It's a battleground that's claimed its share of big names, including Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, and Jerry Lewis, to name just a few.

In fact, it's one of the reasons why NBC was reluctant to throw Wilson into the variety show maelstrom. "We were determined to give him his own show this year," NBC's West Coast programming chief Herb Schlosser tells writer Bill Davidson, "but we were afraid of tackling that terrible variety-hour competition with him." They worked out a half-hour sitcom for him, one that might have worked. But "[w]e looked at that and then we looked at Flip and we said, 'The hell with it. Let's go for broke with the variety show.' It was a last-minute decision and we haven't regretted it."

What Flip Wilson brings to the variety show game is a charm and good cheer that, according to the show's producer Bob Henry, makes him attractive to audiences of both races. "Black people love Flip because he revives their old favorite Negro comedy routines from the Apollo Theater, without Uncle Tomming it. White people love Flip because even though his early life was bittersweet, he seems to be able to tone town the bitter and retain the sweet - unlike many other black comedians." No less than Bill Cosby, visiting the set, says that "Old Flip here might just be the one cat to put across black feelings through comedy."

That "bittersweet" early life is both blessing and curse to Wilson, though. His storytelling style and characters (Geraldine, Reverend Leroy) all come from that hardscrabble life, but so does the loneliness that often plagues him, "the moods and the faraway trances afflict him in the midst of his triumphs," causing him to try remedies such as biorhythm and hypnotism, and take "long, lonely journeys out into the desert in his car 'to find the funny.'"

Flip Wilson's series runs for four seasons, winning him two Emmys and a Golden Globe, and next year he'll appear on the cover of Time as "TV's first black superstar." After his show ends, he's a regular on other television shows and in movies, but it's probably safe to say his career never again reached the heights that he scaled in the early '70s. No matter; the historicity of his accomplishments, not to mention the enjoyment they brought people, is enough.

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And finally, an inside look at the workings of this blog provides an ironic coincidence.

It's the Sunday evening before the Saturday on which this piece appears. NBC's Bell System Family Theatre presents an hour of highlights of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, hosted by Jack Cassidy. This morning, the news carried the story that after 146 years, the circus is closing down, victim of a changing culture - video games, short attention spans, fewer kids' TV show on which they can run commercials - and increasing political pressure from PETA and the Humane Society. Without having read the news this morning, I doubt I would even have noticed the listing.

I suppose it's yet more evidence of how things inevitably change over time, but regardless of how you might feel about it, there's something bittersweet about the whole thing. Television shows of the '50s and '60s, warm family comedies and variety shows, would always have at least one episode in which a young boy would be running away to join the circus. It was a synonym for excitement and adventure, the thrill of the exotic, of thinking about what you wanted to do when you grew up. Most of all, it had to do with the power of dreams, of lying in bed at night and thinking of that big, exotic, wide, wonderful, unknown world out there.

What do kids dream of nowadays? What captures their imagination, where would they go if they wanted to see the world? Do they even want to grow up anymore? It doesn't seem to be such a big deal.

The world of the circus, the world of hopes and dreams. As my wife said, "Catch it while you can."


7 comments:

  1. Ringling Bros. is claiming declining ticket sales due to the retirement of elephants, which IMHO is only partially true. It is true they had little choice but to retire the elephants due to a 'crazy quilt' of State, County and City laws concerning performing animals.
    There were other problems that likely meant they were struggling for years:
    1. Unlike smaller circuses, RB hasn't played ''under the big top'' for at least 50 years - it's Basketball/Hockey arenas, at a sizable rental cost (smaller ones rent a open field or even a parking lot and erect the big top - much less cost).
    2. Because of that, RB is rather limited in concession revenue, mainly souvenirs and not much else. Food and drink (where the profit is really at, it's what actually pays the bills for a movie theater) they don't see diddly from. The City/County and NBA/NHL team gets the proceeds from the food/drink concessions.
    3. Transportation for a large squad of performers, animals and all the equipment requires a good sized fleet of 18-wheelers. Costly.
    4. Sigfried and Roy. Surprised? Don't be, after that tragedy, insurance companies looked at that, thought ''What if that tiger had leaped into the audience instead?'' and fainted. Liability insurance on performing animals probably went up big time - and likely prevented Sigfried (with or without Roy) from staging any kind of comeback.
    5. And finally, yes, PETA, Blackfish did hurt Sea World, in Orlando their attendance dropped by roughly a third - drops that Disney and Universal didn't have.
    That was probably ''the straw that broke the camel's back''. I wouldn't be surprised if RB will lose money on each remaining show - that would have been much worse if they simply cancelled them.

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  2. I remember so many circus shows growing up in my lifetime. It is a pity that such shows have faded from existence in modern TV.

    GE

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  3. I was born in 1961 and never dreamed of joining the circus, never watched any circus events aired on TV and don't remember if I ever attended a circus at all. As a kid if I dreamed of going somewhere and exploring something new, it was probably somewhere in outer space. After all, I did grow up during the space age and traveling to the moon and beyond seemed more exciting than going to a big tent to see a clown.

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  4. I went to one circus-the Shrine Circus at the old Omaha Civic Auditorium in 1974. You don't hear about circuses now as much anymore. Someone brought up PETA. TV Guide columnist Cleveland Amory had also been an animal-rights activist since the early 60s.

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  5. I, too, wonder what kids dream about nowadays. I asked a group of high-school juniors the other day if any of them knew what they wanted to do after high school beyond going to college---what their career choices were. Out of 18 kids, nobody had specific plans. A million years ago, when I was a junior, almost all of us knew where we wanted to go.

    Maybe they don't feel like the adult world has anything to offer them. Sometimes I feel the same way.

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  6. They did put Flip in the Thursday at 7:30 PM slot, where FAMILY AFFAIR and Jim Nabors (flipped from sitcom to variety) did something even BATMAN couldn't do...kill off DANIEL BOONE. So who knows what they were expecting (much like two years later, when CBS put THE WALTONS against him.

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  7. Something else to mention...in his book about the industry at the time, titled TELEVISION:THE BUSINESS BEHIND THE BOX, Les Brown (editor of VARIETY, not Bob Hope's bandleader) wrote about the splash Wilson made. He also brought up some food for thought...as Wilson leaped to the top of the ratings, the numbers for BILL COSBY and JULIA, equally out of the box sensations one and two seasons before, respectively, took a major drop. Brown commented that it seemed that "Wilson was the new 'pet" Negro for a country that could only handle one at a time"

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