April 22, 2017

This week in TV Guide: April 23, 1977

We've skipped ahead in time to the late '70s, and moved south to Atlanta, in search of television's past. Who knew that television itself was looking for the same thing?

It's a two-hour CBS News Special Thursday evening (9:00 pm. ET) entitled "When Television Was Young," and unlike many of today's shows about "pioneers of television," this one stays firmly rooted in the 1950's, when the medium really was young. It's hosted by Charles Kuralt, the perfect choice for a retrospective that combines history and nostalgia, looking at an imperfect era with an often romantic hue. We see the great triumphs of early television: series like I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, and Ed Sullivan, landmark anthology dramas from "Requiem for a Heavyweight" to "Twelve Angry Men," stars such as Paul Newman, Jack Lemmon, Grace Kelly and James Dean, and memorable moments from a time when baseball really was the National Pastime.

However - and you knew there has to be one of those - there are also the dark times: the blacklist, the Army-McCarthy hearings, the Korean War, and the Quiz Show Scandal. Although the decade is remembered for serious, intense dramas, there's also a fair share of interference from advertisers and network executives, who often demand changes in the scripts: minor ones, such as a coffee sponsor objecting to characters drinking tea, and major ones, dealing with significant social issues such as race and sex. Some will seem silly, while others - Southern stations refusing to air programs with black entertainers - are appalling.

Ultimately, it is what it is, and that's what history's all about. It's critical that television remembers its own roots, even if many of today's viewers have no idea about it, or the people who created it. But then, if TV doesn't care, why should anyone else? Fortunately, this show exists in its entirety on YouTube; here's part one as a sample, and you can take it from there.

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On weeks when we can, we'll match up two of the biggest rock shows of the '70s, NBC's The Midnight Special and the syndicated Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, and see who's better, who's best.

Hey, what a treat! I can't remember the last time we did this - well, I could look it up, but that would just delay the excitement! Let's see what our shows have in store for us...

Kirshner: The Average White Band, Ray Barretto, David Soul, comic Tom Dressen, and the Mime Company.

Special: British rock is the theme of a show featuring Elton John, Rod Stewart, Fleetwood Mac, Genesis, Electric Light Orchestra, and Queen.

Do you even have to ask? The only reason I'd even hesitate is that for so many years, Tom Dressen opened for Frank Sinatra, and you don't want to disappoint The Chairman. But let's face it: this week there's no comparison, which makes it a special night for The Special - winner by a landslide.

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Continuing with music, some interesting variety specials this week, a genre you don't see much anymore; you can still see concerts with stars like Adele and Lady Gaga, especially (but not exclusively) on HBO or Showtime, but not shows with the traditional Bob Hope-type format. On ABC Saturday night, Paul Lynde gets an hour of his own (8:00 p.m.), a traditional set up with musical guests and comedy skits. Paul's guests are Cloris Leachman, Tony Randall, LeVar Burton, and K.C. and the Sunshine Band, and Paul does a comic monologue about an encounter with an unfriendly alien...

On Monday night at 10:00 p.m, ABC's back as Paul Anka hosts an hour with Natalie Cole and Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, plus cameos from Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Ann-Margaret, Dean Martin, Don Rickles, and others (singing special lyrics to "My Way."). It's mostly Anka singing his hits from through the years, and he's got plenty of them.

NBC follows up with back-to-back country-flavored specials on Tuesday; the first, at 9:00 p.m., starring the aforementioned "Ann-Margaret. . .Rhinestone Cowgirl." While you let that image sink in for a minute, I'll mention that the special, taped at the Grand Ole Opry, includes appearances by Bob Hope (of course!), Perry Como, Chet Atkins, and Minnie Pearl. That's followed at 10:00 p.m. by an hour with Mac Davis, and his special guests Tom Jones, Dolly Parton, and Donna Summer, and 84-year-old Memphis guitarist Furry Lewis.

Elsewhere, George Burns co-stars with Abbe Lane in a special taped by the BBC in 1975 and airing on WXIA at 10:00 p.m. Thursday. One of the things for which I'm grateful to classic television is the chance to see Burns in his prime, because by this time he's in what I'd call his "Dirty Old Man" phase, with Brooke Shields or some other comely young thing on his arm while he does a little singing and a little more leering. Quite frankly, I didn't much like that George Burns; the Burns of Burns and Allen, on the other hand, is a lot more fun.*

*Although from the stories we read, that Burns had a wondering eye (and hand) as well.

Whereas variety shows were all the rage just a decade ago, most of them are syndicated now and, like the Ann-Margaret/Mac Davis shows, are of the country variety: Buck Owens, Porter Wagoner, Pop Goes the Country, That Good Ole Nashville Music, and Nashville on the Road all run consecutively on WTCG Saturday night, and that doesn't even include Hee Haw and Dolly Parton. (Note how these shows all feature some of the biggest country stars around.) And then there's the one last big network show, Carol Burnett, Saturday at 10:00 p.m. Carol's guest is a pretty big star himself, in stature if not size: Sammy Davis., Jr.

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Baseball season is now in full swing, but the year’s biggest play didn’t happen on the diamond, or even a front office. It occurred, instead, in a board room, where on December 23, 1975, arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in favor of players Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally in a case challenging baseball’s reserve clause, the provision in the standard contract that allowed teams to “reserve” the rights to players even after their contracts had expired. After the appeals process had played itself out, with the owners finally conceding defeat after losing in the federal courts, Major League Baseball and the Players Association sat down and negotiated the terms of free agency, with the result that many players chose to play the 1976 season without a contract, preferring to test the free agency waters after the season.

The 1977 season will be the first contested in this new environment, and the effect this will have on the game, both short- and long-term, is the subject of Tuesday's CBS Reports special, "The Baseball Business," airing at 10:00 p.m. Fans aren't so naïve as to think baseball isn't a business, of course, not with the strike from a few seasons ago; nonetheless, "free agents, player agents, million-dollar bonuses and long-term contracts" are guaranteed to change the way the game is played, and the way fans, players and owners see it. For this report, correspondent Bill Moyers travels to spring training to look at the team "many have singled out as the most flagrant practitioner of checkbook baseball" - and if you think that team is any other than the New York Yankees, you've got another think coming.

In other sports, Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ABC presents professional bowling's most prestigious event, the Firestone Tournament of Champions from Akron, Ohio. I loved watching the Pro Bowlers Tour when I was a kid; after we moved back from The World's Worst Town™, one of life's simple pleasures was reintroducing myself to the sport and my old favorites, while quickly picking up on new stars. Mike Berlin comes out on top, defeating Mike Durbin in the final match. CBS has an NBA playoff doubleheader on Sunday afternoon, and WTCG has syndicated coverage of the NHL playoffs Sunday night at 8:00 p.m. Oh, and WTCG also has the Braves - of course - taking on the Cardinals Friday night at 8:30 p.m.

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Here's a real collector's item - an article about Bruce Jenner in which the phrase "sex change" is nowhere to be found. The only transformation to be found is the one Jenner's making from track and field to the broadcasting booth with ABC, a challenge Jenner approaches the same way he did when he was in competition: "It may be a good idea," he tells Melvin Durslag. "But I first have to believe it myself, and that's what I'm trying to do."

The son of a tree surgeon, Jenner was an excellent all-around athlete in school, but he didn't try track until he was 20, and didn't get into the decathlon until 1970. Six years later, he won the gold medal at the Montreal Olympics, setting a world record in the process. He admits that his dedication to preparing for the Games put a strain on his marriage, but he hopes that giving up the competitive world of sports will make a new man out of him, and heal the divisions - for the time being, at least. (They divorce in 1981.) Now that he's made himself over, Jenner hopes to start an acting career as well, and as this article is being written, he's won a small part in a movie called - SST - Death Flight.

ABC is bullish on Jenner's future, but as Durslag notes, the athletes most successful at making the transition from the playing field to the broadcast booth - Frank Gifford, Pat Summerall - did so only after long hours of preparation and worth, and the ability to win over their non-athlete colleagues. Concludes Durslag, "[Jenner] has an incredible personality. This will carry him for a while. But how far he goes from there will be up to him." One thing's for sure - as is the case with any former jock, a new life awaits Bruce Jenner.

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Thanks in large part to the local stations, we have a top-notch slate of movies in this pre-movie channel era. Not so with the ABC Sunday Night Movie, alas, at least according to Judith Crist. That movie, For a Few Dollars More*, represents "the sadism of allegedly adult adventure," "the kind of fun you can find at your neighborhood abattoir." That's more than a bit harsh when describing what's become something of a modern classic, but then, as I remember, she never did like Clint. Or Charles Bronson, for that matter. She opts, instead, for A Boy Named Charlie Brown, the 1969 feature-length Peanuts film being shown Friday night on CBS. It's on up against ABC's Friday night effort, "a silly but slanderous view" of cruise ships: The Love Boat. No suggestion that it's destined for long-run success.

*Which, ironically, I was watching while writing Wednesday's Brutalism piece.

No, the big movies this week are home-grown. On Saturday night's Late Movie, WXIA presents the Oscar-winning From Here to Eternity, with Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, and Frank Sinatra. Monday night WGTV, the PBS channel in Atlanta, has a most un-PBS like movie, the 1943 Howard Hughes epic The Outlaw, starring Jane Russell's breasts. Chattanooga's WTVC gets in the act on Tuesday night, with "a TV-edited version" of the 1970 Best Picture, Midnight Cowboy. Come on guys, it's on at 11:30 p.m. - do you really need to show a bowdlerized version? Wednesday night, WTCG offers the 1964 version of Ernest Hemingway's The Killers, anchored by a terrific Lee Marvin performance, with Angie Dickinson and Ronald Reagan (in his last movie role), and Thursday night this proto-TCM follows up with the eerie, disturbing On the Beach, with Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Fred Astaire.

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It's been an unusually program-centric review of TV Guide this week, no? And we've barely scratched the surface - for example, on Sunday night, part 15 of Upstairs, Downstairs (9:00 p.m., PBS) takes us to the Great Depression of 1929, when James and Rose are both wiped out by the stock market crash.  Not to mention Tom Snyder's week in Chicago with The Tomorrow Show, and a lineup that includes Bill Veeck, Paul Harvey, Studs Terkel, and Fran Allison. And then there's that Monday night Tonight Show where Johnny's guest is Orson Welles! Don't tell me these '70s issues are starting to rub off...

April 21, 2017

Around the dial

As usual, we have some very good articles to read this week. I'm constantly impressed by the high quality of writing out there, and the thoughtfulness (not to mention creativity) displayed by so many of these authors. That's why I like to do this roundup every week, and believe me when I say I just scratch the surface - there are just as many good ones that I don't write about; if I did, I wouldn't have time to do much else!

The Broadcasting Archives at the University of Maryland has some great info (and pictures) on Joey Bishop’s talk show from the late ‘60s. As I’ve mentioned before, contrary to what most people think today, Bishop really did give Carson a run, until Johnny put the strongarm on guests to keep them from appearing on the Bishop show.

Network is one of those movies (like A Man For All Seasons) that I didn’t really “get” the first time around, but I’ve come to appreciate both of them since. In Network’s case, it’s a razor-sharp satire of the television industry, witty while still managing to make its devastating points. Realweegiemidget takes a closer look at the movie, which I don’t think could be done today – not because TV doesn’t deserve satirizing, but because too much of what happens in Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning script seems too plausible!

Great news from Vote For Bob Crane, announcing the debut of their new podcast — The Bob Crane Show: Reloaded. This podcast, hosted by Eric Senich and based on Carol Ford’s Bob Crane: The Definitive Biography (2015), will explore the life and times of Bob Crane. The link includes the first podcast, with future announcements as more episodes become available.

Silver Scenes has a fantastic list of Easter- and other religious-themed movies for the season; even though Easter has passed, there’s always next year – and after all, a movie like Ben-Hur is good for any time of the year!

Back in the day, the Twilight Zone episode "The Fugitive" always made me a bit uneasy. The idea of a young alien king, in the guise of old-timer J. Pat O'Malley, befriending a young girl who suffers at the hands of an abusive aunt - well, that part is OK, but then whisking her to his home planet where she'll grow up to be his bride, that struck me as a bit creepy. The Twilight Zone Vortex doesn't mention that particular apprehension, but their review of the episode leaves little doubt that it's not one of the series' better endeavors.

I ask you: how could you possibly pass up a title like "None of This Crap Works"? If I had a dollar for every time I've said that, I'd be a rich man. At Comfort TV, David uses the phrase to describe his frustrations with streaming video, internet problems - all crap that doesn't work. (Come to think if it, this really does sound like me.) That may be what we're left with, though, if the classic TV DVD market continues to dry up. (David also makes some very interesting observations about the series he struggled to stream, Netflix's 13 Reasons Why.

Cult TV Blog takes me back to an Avengers episode that people either love or hate - "Small Game for Big Hunters." John and I see eye-to-eye on this - we think it's a good episode, and it stands as a reminder once again of why it's important to take a show in the context of the times from which it comes, and to look at that show in terms of what it can tell the viewer about those times.

That should do it for the time being; I'll try and keep up with everyone with my own efforts tomorrow.

April 19, 2017

The Brutalist era of television

Lileks wrote something last week about architecture, and I keep coming back to it because it seems to me that there’s an essential truth embedded in what he wrote, and one way to tell whether or not it’s both essential and true is to try it out in another area, another field of endeavor, and see if it still holds up.

He’s writing about the architectural style called Brutalism, and I’d contend that television today, for all its achievements in storytelling and sophistication, is displaying something of its own Brutalist movement. Architecture and television are both creative, even artistic, forms, and they both can be used to tell a story, so it seems to make some sense to think there could be similarities. And ironically, the era of architectural Brutalism to which Lileks refers – the mid-60s – is precisely the era in which television displayed perhaps its least Brutalist characteristics. Or perhaps it isn’t so ironic after all.

In the most literal sense, the Brutalism of television has, in context, been an issue for decades. Whenever an act of violence occurs – assassinations, riots, mass shootings – television has been held up as one of the contributing factors. As an easy example, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy resulted in well-documented cases of episodes being pulled off the air in response to public revulsion. These were episodes that had already been made, so there was no question that they’d be aired eventually – just not at the time, in the wake of what had happened. (Whether network executives expected audiences to be more discerning about these episodes when they did air, or, more cynically, they figured people would have forgotten about the fuss, is anyone’s guess.) The point is this: if you go back and look at most of these episodes and compared them to the content of programs on cable and network today, you’d find the level of “violence” laughable, almost genteel. The point is, I think you could make the case that every time this happens, and TV tones its act down accordingly, it winds up regeneration somewhere down the line, ever more graphic (both visually and psychologically) – more brutal – than before. And they’re not just brutal in content, but in look as well; natural lighting which often gives the shows a perpetually dark look; washed out colors that accomplish the same thing, as well as suggesting characters drained of hope; and graphic sex and violence that serves to dehumanize the characters and desensitize the viewers. There was something stylized about the violence of early television – not unlike the stylized nature of Streamlined architecture of the pre-Brutalist era – where, for example, multiple gunshot wounds rarely produced the kind of blood that one would see in real life. It didn’t need to; the viewer’s imagination would supply the rest. Now, the producers want you to see every speck of blood, every particle of bone fragment or brain tissue – and in HD to boot.

I’ve mentioned this before, and it’s not an original thought of mine, that this has created a universe that bears little resemblance to that with which most people are familiar, one to which very few would aspire. As Lileks puts it with regard to architecture, “Their answer to ‘the urban problem’ was to raze history and replace it with something unmoored from human experience.” I think the same goes with television. One of Brutalism’s proponents described the experiment, “We had a very modern, sixties attitude towards what an urban university should be. We thought it should provide skills and philosophies that would help resolve the urban problem. Of course it didn’t. But the buildings reflected that effort.”

The favorite example is a program like Leave it to Beaver, which may have presented an idealistic view of family life in the ‘50s, but which remained recognizable to most people, and which had many aspects that were attainable to the average American family. In the same way that pre-Brutalist architecture gave us buildings that guided the eye upward, presenting their beauty in an aspirational sense, television of the ‘50s and ‘60s lifted viewers up, rather than pressing them down. In addition to their messages, which I’ll get to in the next paragraph or so, there was the sheer beauty of late-‘60s programming, the vividness of the palate in the wake of the transfer to all-color programming. The lighting may have been unrealistically bright, the colors themselves might have lacked decorating sense, but there was something celebratory about them, something that doesn’t come through in the more naturalistic cinematography that’s used today. And, as we know, “naturalism,” along with “functionality,” is a word and a philosophy closely associated with Brutalism. But television of the ‘50s and ‘60s didn’t necessarily have to be functional in an intellectual or philosophical sense, just in the way in which it served its dual purposes of attracting viewers and selling products.

So far the analogy has worked primarily in an aesthetic sense, because both television and architecture are visual media. Pre-Brutalist architecture celebrated that aesthetic pleasure, in the same way that pre-Brutalist television tended not to emphasize the ugly side of life. In fact, though, Brutalism is not just a visual style of architecture, but a philosophical as well; buildings that, according to Lileks, “were technocratic machines for making technocrats and social scientists.” He’s talking about college campuses, where Brutalism was a big hit, but he could be talking about business as well. He continues: “It is possible to be rational and beautiful, but there’s always a certain type of pinched soul drained of wit who distrusts beauty: it cozens and seduces you from the true goal, which is usually some sociopolitical objective.” Again, he’s talking about architecture, but he could just as well be talking about modern television. The aspirational ideal of pre-Brutalist television exists, not just aesthetically, but as a link to the past. The Honeymooners sent the message that success was possible for the lower middle-class. The moral of the story in Dragnet was that crime didn’t pay. Perry Mason presented a man dedicated to preserving the integrity of the legal system and the defense of the innocent. Countless comedies and dramas gave us a nuclear family that could at least give one hope that the thorniest problems could be solved if a family was determined to solve them. Even a show like The Beverly Hillbillies, derisively dismissed though it may have been, could reassure viewers that wealth didn’t have to corrupt the average man. These were all themes that were part of the American psyche, that - to use a cliche - had been passed down from generation to generation in their familiarity.

Shows such as these still exist, but many of them have an additional flavor thrown in, a sense of cynicism that, at its best, does not flatter it, and at its worst, degrades and offends a large segment of the public with its abrupt divorce from the past. We shouldn’t be surprised by this; One of the characteristics of Brutalist architects, writes Lileks, is that many of them typify “a certain type of pinched soul drained of wit who distrusts beauty: it cozens and seduces you from the true goal, which is usually some sociopolitical objective.” The humor of today’s shows, for example, takes many forms, but a genuine wit is seldom one of them. Its primary characteristic is snark and ridicule, which it employs relentlessly in support of its underlying message of tolerance and freedom of expression – or, as some might put it, libertinism. Often, to accept the humor of a given situation, one is forced to accept also the premise which the program tries to present. With Friends, for instance, the premise was that sex is “no big deal”, and only if you conceded that premise did the humor become natural. Modern Family presents homosexuality as “no big deal,” and if shows like this ever think to portray characters who have trouble reconciling this lifestyle with their own moral values, it’s only done with the proviso that those moral values have to be presented as being wrong.

Dramas carry their own agenda, predictably a liberal one. You might recall that a few weeks ago I wrote about the problems ‘70s television had in portraying the drug crisis, and how much of that challenge revolved around ideology.* So it is with television today, especially in its ability to create programing that “flyover” territory can identify with. Considering how over 90% of people in the industry profess a liberal political agenda, it’s only natural. It does, however, transform television from a medium of entertainment (and commerce) to one that favors and advocates a distinct ideological way of thinking and behaving.

*One reason why I’ve tended to limit the pre-Brutalist era of television to the ‘50s and ‘60s; this is not to say, however, that the Brutalist aesthetic had infiltrated programming of the ‘70s and ‘80s to the extent that it has today. It didn’t. However, it would be foolish to suggest that Brutalism simply sprung up out of nowhere, and I think the ‘70s is a good place to look

Everything from police procedurals to legal dramas are filled with this weary cynicism, which again is implicit in the Brutalist style. As Lileks writes, “[Y]ou might think its example was enough to put everyone off the idea for the rest of human civilization.” Just as the Brutalist landscape leaves you thinking that it "looks like a place for a robed, mutated council to pronounce sentence on a man from the irradiated outlands," Brutalist television can leave one with that crushing feeling. Lileks, in another column, has it just right: "The very thing that makes modern TV so different from old rote TV with its one-off eps and no continuity is the same thing that makes it feel like a duty some times." And this makes sense: after all, being forced to sit in school and learn what's good for you often feels like a duty, and as we've seen, Brutalism tried to impart that same kind of aesthetic medicine. The Brutalist message is thus: "If we have curved, meandering paths and different styles of buildings, the students we produce will have minds so accustomed to disorder they will hesitate to shoot the proletariat when - I mean, they will be unable to properly grasp the need for theories that shape the masses for the betterment of all!" In other words, let's make it easy for the viewers to understand the proper feelings, emotions, opinions.

This is an imperfect analogy, of course; all analogies are, and any one of you can probably come up with examples of current television shows that fail to fit neatly into this comparison, or contradict it completely*, as well as dozens of shows from the '50s and '60s that don't even rise to the level of crap. It's also an imperfect example of - well, I won't call it scholarship, because it fails the academic standards of research that would be required to classify it as such. It's an opinion piece, albeit a well-reasoned one, if I do say so myself. But then, I never claimed this site to be a scholarly one. If I took the time to research everything I wrote, there might be fewer mistakes and more sophisticated theories - but there'd also be about half the number of pieces, and I don't really think you'd like that, do you? By the time this makes it to the book, combined with other essays comparing past and present television, I suspect I'll have had the opportunity to flesh it out a little more.

*And let's face it, everyone enjoys a little Brutality once in a while,he says as he watches the end of "For a Few Dollars More." But then, Clint hardly seems to exhibit the world-weariness that so many of today's television stars show.

At any rate, I think it makes for a compelling argument. And you remember how, at the beginning, I said that perhaps it wasn't so ironic after all that the Brutalist era of architecture coincided with the least Brutalist era of television? Recall that as Lileks writes, those Brutalist-designed campuses were intended to be "technocratic machines," and recall also that those students who were products of that education are probably the showrunners and scriptwriters of today. Coincidence?

April 17, 2017

What's on TV? Tuesday, April 18, 1972

This week it's another trip to the Baltimore-Washington area, and one of the first things you might notice about the prime-time lineup is that for NBC and CBS, the network programming ends at 10:30 p.m. ET, rather than 11. The implementation of the new access rule (about which you read a complaint in the Letters to the Editor section last week) exempts Sunday and Tuesday (for now), but the Peacock and Tiffany networks have both ceded Tuesday's final half-hour back to local stations anyway. (ABC made up for it, at least in the spring, by giving back the last 30 minutes on Wednesday.)

As I've suggested before, this was, on balance, a bad idea - the extra time was rarely used the way it was intended, and today it means more to local stations as a source of revenue than a way of serving the community. For ABC, it didn't make any different tonight anyway; they've preempted Marcus Welby, M.D., for the fifth game of the NBA Western Conference finals between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's current team, the Milwaukee Bucks, and his future team, the Los Angeles Lakers.

By the way, in case you ever wondered what the original owners of these TV Guides watched at the time, perhaps the pencil marks give us an idea. Or maybe it's just a way of ranking the shows?

April 15, 2017

This week in TV Guide: April 15, 1972

There's another moon landing scheduled for this week, and to say something this matter-of-factly a few weeks ago would have been unthinkable. And yet that's what success will do for you. By Apollo 13 the novelty of a manned moon flight was already wearing off, and it was only the life-and-death struggle to get the astronauts back that captured the public's attention. Apollo 14 would have brought people back somewhat, just to see if anything happened this time, but by the time of Apollo 16, it takes a moon buggy to capture people's imagination once again.

The launch of Apollo 16 comes off as scheduled on Sunday, with the first of three moon walks taking place on Thursday. And while that little car might not look like much, it revolutionizes exploration of the moon, dramatically increasing the amount of terrain that astronauts John Young and Charlie Duke will be able to cover. And there will be more television coverage of this trip than ever before, including three prime-time color broadcasts live from the moon - with, NASA says, an improved and "cleaned up" picture. They also promise a better view of the Lunar Module launch from the moon's surface to reunite with Ken Mattingly, orbiting the moon - the camera on Apollo 15 failed to follow the upward flight of the LM, but "a new-type clutch in the camera mounting should fix that." And while the shock absorbers on the buggy aren't good enough to permit live shots while it's moving, it will allow viewers at home to see some truly spectacular shots of the moon's terrain, including Stone and Smoky Mountains and Palmetto crater.

Hard to believe that after this, there's only one more moon flight - December's launch of Apollo 17, the first nighttime launch. And after that - well, there's the joint mission with the Soviets, and then the space shuttle and the international space station, and - that's it. Forty-five years later, and we haven't returned to the moon since.

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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. 

I'll be upfront (as I always am with you, dear readers) by admitting that I've never been a fan of David Frost, and so you'll forgive me if I seem to be focusing on only the negative parts of Cleve's review. But then, where is one to go when the very first paragraph notes that Our Favorite Reviewer takes "a rather dim vue of it." When he adds that "it's not all bad, by any means," you know that's damning with faint praise. Part of the problem stems from the talent that Frost has apparently displayed for the deft interview, and Amory feels that he deserves higher standards than what he's been given here. The jokes are old - for example, in discussing the Seven Deadly Sins, Frost refers to "autolatry," defined as "the intemperate worship of one's automobile - and they weren't all that funny to begin with.

Frost has a band of regulars, ala Steve Allen, who join him in each episode, and with the exception of Jack Gilford, who does "long vignettes," the cast "are subjected to one or two skits which are either underwritten or overdirected or both." Of course, that's nothing terribly unusual - Saturday Night Live has been doing the same thing for decades - but that doesn't mean it's very good, either. Even when a bit does succeed at hitting the mark, there seems to be just too much of it, and as we all know too much of anything isn't necessarily a good thing.

Amory also complains that guest stars aren't used to their particular advantage, and that can be fatal - when Sid Caesar is your guest and you're not getting laughs, there's something seriously wrong. This show, which happened to be about politics - every episode tends to have a theme - should have been a barrel of laughs; if you can't find something funny about politics, you might as well just give up. And yet, as Amory notes, he could only think of two funny scenes, and one of those was overcooked. It is too bad, as he notes in conclusion, that the show doesn't come off better. "Can't anybody on this show tell what's funny and what isn't?" he asks plaintively. "And, if he can, why doesn't he tell somebody else?"

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If David Frost had really wanted to do a funny show about politics, he should have turned to David Brinkley. He's no longer anchoring The Huntley-Brinkley Report since Chet Huntley's retirement, but his commentaries on NBC Nightly News allow him a platform from which he can launch his incisive opinions, most of which are quite funny without him even trying. (Frost, take note!)

For example, there's the story of the time he was in West Virginia covering the 1960 Democratic presidential primary, when the longest lines weren't to talk to the candidates, but to get Brinkley's autograph. "It was just . . .embarrassing," Brinkley recalls. "What I think is that you could put a baboon on television every night for 15 years and he'd become some sort of celebrity."

It's that refusal to take himself seriously that's endeared himself to so many. Brinkley considers himself not a celebrity, nor an anchorman, but a newsman - a reporter. And yet, even within that definition, there are limitations. He compares the lot of the journalist to that of a politician. "In the case of the politicians, it's a seeking of approval and a seeking for power. In journalism it may be more of the first and less of the latter, because there's no real power in journalism. People say you have it, but you don't. You may write about them, talk about them, watch them, follow them, chronicle their doings, but they have the power."

It's not all fun and games, being a respected television reporter; as a matter of fact, it isn't much fun at all. "I like what I do, but I don't much like the way I have to do it," he says, lamenting that with the tight, rigid schedule under which they all have to work, TV newsmen often wind up slapping something together, rather than crafting a story that really interests him. He does find, however, encouragement in his frequent trips to speak on college campuses. Whether or not young people are as smart as they think they are, or have all the answers, ("everybody who's 19 years old is wrong about a lot of things, because in most cases he doesn't know what he's talking about"), "they do talk and they do care about it and they think about it and they ask about it and they read about it." Had previous generations done this, he thinks, "this country would be in much better shape now than it is."

Interspersed with glimpses of Brinkley's grueling workday ("At the end of the day I'm like a squeezed lemon."), are more of his pithy comments on the issues of the day. "The Federal Government is marvelously equipped to start things and totally ill-equipped to stop them. It never stops anything. Everything that was started in the '30s to deal with the Depression and unemployment is still thriving and booming. Government as an instrument of social reform is an idea I used to hold but don't much any longer." He's a fervent believer in freedom of the press, reminding one and all that "if people are concerned about dangers to their liberties, they ought to know where these dangers come from, and they do not come from the press." And he is convinced that "power is very much apart from the people. The people in this country have no power."

Lest you get too caught up in this seriousness, though, one more Brinkley anecdote to lighten the mood" "When I was [in the Washington airport] waiting for an airplane, a lady came up to me and said, 'Aren't you Chet Huntley?' And I said, 'Yes.' Actually, that is the polite answer, because first of all, it doesn't make any difference. People confuse us all the time; nothing could be less important, so if I had said, 'No, I'm Brinkley,' then she would have been embarrassed and would have felt it necessary to apologize, which was not necessary, and this would have taken some time and I would have missed my airplane. So I said, 'Yes,' and she said, 'Well, I want to say I think you're pretty good, but I don't know how you put up with that idiot in Washington'."

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Of all the items of interest this week, one stands out from the rest, a momentous change in television. On Wednesday, April 19, Johnny Carson hosts the last regular episode of The Tonight Show from New York; after a few days off, the show will start up again on May 1 from its new home in Hollywood. This is a landmark in more ways than one. It demonstrates, once and for all, that the celebrity balance of power has moved away from New York and the legitimate theater, and to California, the land of movies and television. That might not mean much to those of you who grew up watching Johnny from Hollywood (or Burbank, if you will), but there was something about New York that gave those shows a different feel.

New York was the home of the first late-night show, Broadway Open House, with Jerry Lester. It was the home to Lester's successors in the time slot, Steve Allen and Jack Paar. When Tonight was done live, it could count on stars appearing after they'd finished a Broadway performance. There were comedians who were playing in the Village, or at clubs in other parts of the city. Most celebrities promoting their latest book or movie or television show had to pass through New York at some point in time, and a trip to Tonight was natural. There was a sense of - I don't know, maybe grown-up sophistication - that wasn't particularly apparent in Hollywood. But one has to go where the stars are - Joey Bishop had done his show from there, and Merv Griffin would soon move his as well - and Johnny wanted to make the move, so there.

Of course, with Jimmy Fallon as host The Tonight Show has returned to the city of its birth, and Letterman was always based there. It's a different New York, naturally, a different world in fact. I'm not sure there is any one center of the entertainment world anymore, not when you can make a successful web series or cut an album from your own home, not when travel between the two coasts is much more commonplace. There was a time, though - and that time runs out this week.

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The Doan Report has the scoop on the new television season, as CBS and ABC announce their new fall lineups, to go along with NBC, which made their announcement last month. Anything here we should be concerned with? Well, yes.

On CBS, debuting series include M*A*S*H, "an army hospital comedy with Alan Alda and Wayne Rogers," Cousin Maude, with Bea Arthur in a spin-off from All in the Family, Spencer's Mountain, starring Richard Thomas, and The Bob Newhart Show, with Bob "as a condominium manager, with Suzanne Pleshette as his wife." Obviously, some of these series underwent a bit of fine-tuning between now and the time in September when they go on the air - Spencer's Mountain becomes The Waltons, Maude drops the "Cousin," and Newhart goes from managing a condo to being a psychologist. Still, that's not bad for one season. To make way, the losers include My Three Sons, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, and Arnie.

How does ABC counter this? Start with The Rookies, about "four young, antiviolence policement," Temperature's Rising, which the network tried so hard to make work, The Julie Andrews Show, which should have worked, and Kung Fu and The Streets of San Francisco, which did work. Among the casualties: The Courtship of Eddie's Father, Longstreet, and Bewitched (sorry, Adam-Michael!).

By the way, speaking of Eddie's Father, Brandon Cruz - Eddie - is among the acquaintances waiting to surprise Bill Bixby on This Is Your Life (WJZ, 10:30 p.m. Wednesday). He's joined by Ray Walston (My Favorite Martian), William Windom, and Dinah Shore. I wonder if you could do a show like that nowadays? "Kim Kardashian, this is your life!" I mean, what more is there to show?

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It was called "Ping Pong Diplomacy," the exchange of table tennis players between the United States and Communist China; it helped make possible Nixon's trip to China, and on Saturday it's the feature presentation on ABC's Wide World of Sports (5:00 p.m. ET), as the Chinese team kicks off its 13-city tour of the U.S. It is not, however, the only pivotal moment in sports history that day, as a syndicated lineup of stations presents third-round coverage of the richest tournament in women's professional golf history, the inaugural Dinah Shore Women's Circle Championship, from Palm Springs, California (5:30 p.m.). The winner's share of the purse is $20,000, nothing to sneeze at, but it's Dinah's long-term support of women's golf, starting here, that makes this tournament one of the oldest and most prestigious on the women's tour to this day, even though the late star's name is no longer appended to the tournament.

On Sunday, we get a glimpse at one of the most infamous stars from the Jerry Springer era of television: Maury Povich. Only he's not involved in sleazy, sensationalist chat yet; he's best-known as the son of famed Washington baseball writer Shirley Povich, and at 10:30 p.m. on WTTG, his Sports, People and Povich show takes a look "A Town Without a Team: - the first year without baseball in the nation's capital, now that the Senators have moved to Texas.

One of the biggest music stars of the early '70s, Chuck Mangione, headlines with the Rochester (N.Y.) Philharmonic in a 90 minute special on PBS Monday night (8:00 p.m. ET). He had some really big hits in the day - do that many people remember him today? Meanwhile, Dinah Shore guest stars as herself in Here's Lucy (9:00 p.m., CBS). The redhead, typically, is star-struck to meet her.

On Tuesday, Today (7:00 a.m., NBC) presents a terrific show, with the legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski* interviewed on the occasion of his 90th birthday, after which John Houseman discusses his memoir Run-Through.

*"Leopold!" in the Bugs Bunny cartoon "Long-Haired Hare," and the maestro in the Disney movie Fantasia.

We've already touched on Wednesday a couple of times, so we'll skip to Thursday, where I love this description of tonight's Ironside: " 'Murder Impromptu,' a whodunit about an on-stage stabbing during an improvisational comedy show." I don't ever remember that happening on Who's Line is it, Anyway? - not even the British version. CBS counters this with a CBS Reports look at Chicago Mayor Richard Daley - timely, with a presidential election coming up.

And there's supposed to be some baseball on Friday, but at press time, we're not quite sure. Under the description for the Cleveland - Baltimore game, the notation informs us that "a players' strike threatened cancellation of the game." For those of you who've never known a time when labor unrest was not part of professional sports, you can't appreciate how disturbing this possibility was. The players walked on April 1, and didn't return until April 13, when the union reached agreement with the owners about salary arbitration and increases in the players pension fund. Nearly 90 games were cancelled during the strike, and were never made up - cold comfort to the Boston Red Sox, who will lose the American League East title to the Detroit Tigers by one-half game because the Sox will have one more game cancelled than the Tigers. It's just the way the ball bounces, I guess.

April 14, 2017

Bishop Sheen, Good Friday, 1979

There probably has never been a religious figure, with the possible exception of Billy Graham, more familiar to television viewers than Bishop Fulton Sheen. His program Life Is Worth Living ran on network and syndicated television from 1951 to 1968, and reruns appeared on local television for years afterward.

The following is from his Good Friday reflection at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City on Friday, April 13, 1979. It's known as his "last Good Friday," since he died on December 9 of that year. I've said it before, but I think his message is every bit as relevant today as it was then. Timeless, in other words.

April 12, 2017

Two from Trotta

Hopefully, many of you will remember Liz Trotta, the former correspondent for NBC and CBS from the mid-60s through the 80s. Throughout her career she’s had to battle on two fronts: as a woman - the first to report from Vietnam for television - and as a conservative. She’s also had a perspective on the world that many of her colleagues lack, one that’s shown in the two engrossing books she’s written about wildly different topics.

Fighting for Air: In the Trenches with Television News, written in 1991, is her memoir on her television days, beginning with her time at NBC. It was there that she found herself, as they say, in “the jungles of Vietnam”, and while that sounds like a trite cliché, it’s difficult to find a better way to describe that claustrophobic war, one in which nature itself seemed to suffocate those who went there. Heart of darkness, indeed – Trotta writes that she’s still haunted by the experience, and it’s easy to see why. On one hand, the country tries to swallow you up, while at the same time you have to worry about someone shooting at you, and all the while questions continue to be asked about the meaning of it all. (Sometimes I think the wonder of Vietnam is that anyone returned without being insane, addicted, depressed, or dead – in fact, Trotta’s six-month assignment comes about after two reporters are wounded and another suffers a breakdown; as she puts it, NBC’s “cannon fodder was getting scarce.”)

Trotta’s view of the war is that the only thing wrong is ``the U.S. government's half-hearted commitment to it,'' and that pro-war sentiment gets her in trouble with the more liberal members of the network, including soon-to-be evening news anchor John Chancellor, and it’s a foreshadowing of the trouble she’ll have throughout her journalistic career – well, that and her own outspoken nature. (I knew there was a reason I liked her!) Throughout her career, she covers some of the big stories that the job has to offer, from presidential campaigns to civil war in the Philippines, from war between India and Pakistan to the hostage crisis in Iran, from unrest in Northern Ireland to the murder trial of Claus von Bulow.

Trotta suggests her conservative politics, along with that outspokenness (she’s wonderfully candid about many of her colleagues, as well as the issues of the day) is what leads to her “demotion” by NBC (just after winning an Overseas Press Club award) and her sacking at CBS (supposedly for being “too old” at age 41), and the quality of her work certainly lends credence to those who suggest that the media is more interested in their own narrative than in the actual story.

It’s a great read, but her second book proves to be a real change of pace, one that’s not only intriguing but quite affecting. Jude: A Pilgrimage to the Saint of Last Resort, written in 1998, serves partly as a biography of the famous “patron saint of desperate causes,” about whom we actually know very little. His actual name may have been Judas Thaddaeus, and during his lifetime he may have been a victim of mistaken identity from those who confused him with the betrayer of Jesus.* The Latin translation of the Roman Canon contains no mention of Jude; instead, he is referred to as Thaddeaus. Aside from the Epistle of Jude, which the saint may or may not have written, there is but one line in the Bible credited to him: “Lord, why is it that you will reveal yourself to us and not to the world?” (John 14:22).

*Which may help explain how Jude became the patron of lost causes. Since so many wrongly associated him with Judas and for that reason gave him less attention and reverence than the other disciples, "St. Jude is ready and waiting to hear the prayers of those who call upon him."

Trotta shares with us the fantastic story of the Image of Edessa, or Mandylion, a piece of cloth upon which the image of Jesus had been imprinted and which Jude is often portrayed as wearing around his neck. According to tradition, King Abgar of Edessa had written to Jesus, asking him to come and cure him of an illness; Jesus had replied that he would not be able to come, but the king would later be visited by one of his disciples – which turned out to be Jude, bringing the Mandylion as a sign. Abgar was cured of his illness, and the rest, as they say, is history.

While all this is educational, it is the personal testimonials which Trotta relates that makes the greatest impact. In story after story, ordinary people relate how and what circumstances they've turned to Jude. Probably the most famous is that of entertainer Danny Thomas, who prayed to Jude for success in show business and vowed that if his prayer were to be answered, he would build a shrine to the saint in gratitude. This, of course, is how St. Jude Children's Hospital came to be. And indeed there are many stories of people cured of illnesses, freed from unemployment, reunited with lost family members, and so on. Just as impressive, however, are those who come to Jude not in desperation, but for everyday requests - a good day at work, success on a test. To them Jude is not the saint of last resort, but a friend with whom they talk every day. As for her own relationship with Jude, Trotta confides that she has yet to approach him with that desperate petition for help. She doesn't want to take the saint lightly, wasting his time with something inconsequential to her life. When the time is right to go to him, she will know.

There is something about St. Jude, as Trotta notes, that compels people not just to seek him out, but to share him with others. Almost everyone who has been the beneficiary of his intercession has at one time or another "gone public" with their thanks, hoping to serve as an example for others in similar situations. In my own case, I consider everything about our return to Minnesota - the jobs which enabled us to make the move, the apartment which we found on very short notice, the success of a move that was put together in about two weeks - to be inexplicable any other way. There was absolutely no reason to think that everything would fall into place the way it did; it's not an exaggeration to say that it happened against all odds. Some might ask for more proof - I rather think that asking for help and receiving it is proof enough. Gratitude does not begin to explain it.

The story of Jude is filled with such examples, and as a result some critics have dismissed Trotta's book as mere hagiography. I'm not sure about that; in the first place, as a journalist she's too good for that. She doesn't attempt to hide her Catholicism, however, nor her belief in the intercessory powers of the saints. If that strikes some as cheerleading, so be it.

With Fighting for Air and Jude, Liz Trotta addresses the two dominant themes of our time, Caesar and Christ, and renders to each their due. We stand to profit from those endeavors.

April 10, 2017

What's on TV? Saturday, April 10, 1971

Lots of movies today, many of them of the B-horror variety, and it's interesting to see how the Saturday movie staple has evolved over the years; in the '50s and early '60s, a lot of them are Westerns, but now they've evolved into sci-fi and horror. The Saturday morning fare brought back memories; I'd forgotten about the old Jerry Lewis cartoon, and I can't remember at all The Bugaloos and the Doubledeckers. Funny how the memory works, isn't it?

It's also the first Saturday of baseball season (by the way, did you see the Opening Week baseball tribute on the other blog? If not, take a moment and check it out), which means Channel 33 cuts American Bandstand back to a half hour. I don't know if I would have been so thrilled about that if I'd been a music fan instead of a sports fan. And a good prime-time lineup, from Mission: Impossible to Pearl Bailey to Mannix. All in all, an eminently watchable day of television.

This week's listings are from Cleveland, with Youngstown and Canton thrown in for good measure.

April 8, 2017

This week in TV Guide: April 10, 1971

The tradition of holding the Academy Awards ceremony on Monday night started, according to Oscar historian Damien Bona, because Monday was the slowest night of the week for movie viewing. By scheduling the show on Monday, the thinking went, you’d be less likely to pull movie fans away from the theater so they could sit in front of their television sets to watch an awards show about movies.

Over the years there had been occasional exceptions to the rule; in 1968 the Oscars were moved to Wednesday to allow interested parties to travel to Martin Luther King’s funeral in Atlanta on Tuesday and in 1981 the ceremony was delayed by a day due to the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. Now, of course, they’re held on Sunday, the night on which TV has its highest viewership. (Ironic, isn’t it, that the emphasis is now on what’s best for TV rather than the movie industry.) But there was a time, back in 1971, when the Academy decided to do something really radical – and so they scheduled the Oscars for Thursday. I'm not really sure why; there's no explanation in Bona and Wiley's definitive history, and a cursory internet search failed to turn anything up. Easter was on Sunday, so perhaps the Academy was uncomfortable with staging the big show on Easter Monday - but surely it's been done before, n'est-ce pas? Or maybe the Academy was simply trying different things - the 1970 show was on Tuesday. I think Thursday is a perfectly good day for the Oscars; after all, if the show runs too late you can take Friday off, and make a three-day weekend out of it.* However, whatever the experiment hoped to accomplish apparently didn’t pan out, and next year the ceremony was back to Monday, where it mostly stayed until it moved to Sunday in 1999.

*It’s the third-longest ceremony to date, running eight minutes short of three hours, which today would be considered breathtakingly short – by contrast, the 2002 broadcast will last four hours and 23 minutes. It’s still apparently still too long for the Academy, though: the 1972 show will clock in at one hour and 44 minutes. Yes, those were the days.

That’s not all that’s different about this year’s Oscarcast though: for one thing, it’s being televised not on longtime home ABC, but on NBC (at 10:00 p.m. ET) – the Peacock Network is in the first of a five-year deal, after which the rights are won back by ABC, which has had them ever since. And Bob Hope, the perennial emcee of the show, is merely one of a number of presenters who share the hosting duties.* Hope has been involved in the show for 30 years, and Leslie Raddatz looks back on some of the more memorable moments from Hope's Oscar career, including his five honorary Oscars, his 14 times emceeing the show, and the time he almost missed the start of the show (in 1953) when, of all things, he got stuck in traffic. The fact that Hope has never won an Oscar legitimately doesn't bother him, he says, although it's certainly been fodder for many of his jokes, such as "Welcome to the Academy Awards, or as it's known at my house - Passover." He also used Mission: Impossible in that joke, a few years later.

*I never much liked the idea of multiple hosts, but after the last few years, maybe they should consider going back to it.

Sign of the times: near the end of his article, Raddatz writes that in the years where Hope hasn't been the host, "he has been missed." And yet by 1971, Hope's jokes are falling flat with a new generation of Oscar attendees. A quip about remembering "when a girl says 'I love you,' and it's a declaration, not a demonstration," was actually booed. After years of multiple hosts (or no hosts at all, as was the case in 1971), Hope returns as solo host in 1978 for the 50th anniversary ceremony, after which Johnny Carson takes over. One thing is for sure, and that's that the Oscars used to have glamour - I'm not sure you can say that today.

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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. 

It's not often that a talk show gets the Amory treatment, but not every talk show is hosted by Merv Griffin. The question is: is this a good thing?

When Merv was in syndication, it was a very good thing, says Amory - "relaxed and easy, earnest when the occasion demanded it, and cute but not too cute when it didn't." And then something happened: CBS. When the network picked up Merv to go head-to-head with Carson and Bishop, the producers found the idea of tampering with a successful formula to be irresistible. They "pushed most of Mr. Griffin's old friends, who were the staples of his syndicated show, off - and just about everything else every show did, on." In the midst of this Carson copycat, however, Merv "got lost in the shuttle. He was less a host than a traffic cop, less a personality than a puppet. We never got to know what he was like, or what he liked." The result, laments Cleve, is that "even the people who couldn't stand Mr. Carson couldn't sit still for the new Mr. Griffin."

The cavalry has arrived, though, in the form of a new producer, and with that change there's hope for the show at last. The show's new format stresses themes - one night was filled with old-time orchestra leaders, which Amory says was "a new-time hit parade all by itself." Other shows featured mayors from around the country, Hollywood fathers and their sons, and bachelors vs. married people. This, Amory thinks, was the best yet, featuring a showdown between Cher and former football player Fred "The Hammer" Williamson. After putting Sonny down - or, rather, his mother (My mother-in-law, she says, had an accident: "She went out wearing a yellow coat, and three men tried to jump her. They thought she was a taxicab."), she turns her attentions on the egocentric Williamson, currently appearing on Julia, who "unburdened himself of some of his deepest public secrets, among them the fact that he is beautiful and never asks girls out on dates - they, it seems, ask him." Merv asks The Hammer what he looks for in a girl, to which he replies, "Looks, and obedience." Chimed in Cher, "Oh - a collie."

Concludes Amory, "A few more shows like this, and Mr. Griffin's troubles will be over." Behind the scenes, however, we know that Griffin and the network were constantly at loggerheads, and that in the dying days of his time with the network he was already arranging a return to syndication. By March 1972 he was back where he wanted to be, free of interference from the CBS suits, where he would remain until his retirement in 1986.

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This week's biggest sporting event is the Masters golf tournament, the third and fourth rounds of which are seen on CBS Saturday and Sunday. As is always the case, the azaleas are matched by a glittering field of champions, but this year's tournament produces a surprise winner - Charles Coody, winning his only major title by two shots over a couple of golfers named Nicklaus and Miller.

It's the first weekend of baseball season, and since this is a Cleveland-area TV Guide, we're not surprised to see a couple of Indians games, against the Boston Red Sox on Saturday and Sunday. NBC's Game of the Week coverage debuts on Saturday with the defending World Series champion Baltimore Orioles hosting the Detroit Tigers. The Orioles are going to be very, very good this year as well, and they'll make it back to the Series, where they'll lose in seven games to the Pittsburgh Pirates - a Series that will give us the first-ever nighttime post-season game, and change the way we watch the Fall Classic forever.

The NBA playoffs are in full swing, and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. ET ABC will give us a conference finals game between two teams yet to be determined. Just think - the conference finals. The playoffs won't even have started on April 10 this year, and there's something just wrong about that. CBS counters with a quarter-final matchup between the Chicago Black Hawks and either the Minnesota North Stars or Philadelphia Flyers. (Hint: it's the Flyers.) The Stanley Cup playoffs won't have started by April 10 this year either. I think that in many ways sports was a lot better back then.

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Let's see, I already mentioned Thursday's Academy Awards broadcast, and on the night before, there's a star-studded look at Oscar's past and present. It's not hosted by Barbara Walters, though, but by Hollywood columnist Rona Barrett, whose syndicated special airs on Cleveland's WEWS, thereby preempting a special called Changing Scene, which in turn preempts The Johnny Cash Show. I guess the scene indeed is changing, and we'll see it first-hand with Robert Goulet, Robert Culp (singing!), Barbara Eden, comedians Jud Strunk (I haven't heard that name in years) and Bernie Koppell, John Denver, and the Mike Curb Congregation.

Sunday is Easter, and while it doesn't measure up to Christmas in terms of television content, there are a number of religious specials on the day, including morning services, classical music (on ABC's Directions), and - provided the basketball game doesn't run too long - the Rankin-Bass animated special Here Comes Peter Cottontail (5:00 p.m., ABC), featuring the voices of Danny Kaye and Vincent Price.  It's not limited to Sunday, though; Lawrence Welk and his Champagne Music Makers celebrate with their annual Easter program on Saturday (7:30 p.m., ABC) and the King Family returns for their own seasonal syndicated special on Tuesday (7:30 p.m., WUAB).

And the week's starlet is Brenda Sykes, "99 pounds of surprise," who parlayed a winning appearance on The Dating Game to a string of appearances in Mayberry, R.F.D. and Room 222, and movies with Elliott Gould and Rock Hudson. She also happened to be the girlfriend of Fred "The Hammer" Williamson during that infamous appearance on The Merv Griffin Show that we read about earlier. When not tangling with Cher, Williamson mentioned to Merv that "he had no trouble acquiring girls." When the show was over and he went to take her home, he found that she had disappeared - for good. "I think I was ready to break that one up," she says.

Her career pretty much ends in the '70s, with a few more appearances on the big and small screens. Her first husband was Grammy winner Gil Scott-Heron, with whom she had a daughter, poet Gia Scott-Heron; I suppose the fact that I haven't heard of either her or her poetry is my fault.

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Want a sign of how things have changed? I'll just give you a headline, from The Doan Report: "TV Most Trusted of Mass Media, Survey Says." That wasn't one of Richard Dawson's surveys from Family Feud, was it?

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Finally, let's take a look at letters. I almost always find these interesting, not least because it gives us a bit of insight not only into what was going on back then, but how people felt about it - something that isn't readily apparent when all you do is read the listings.

John Potter Jr. of Rochester, New York (or as it's known here in Minnesota, "the other Rochester"), is shocked by the FCC's recent decision to give a half-hour of prime time back to local stations. But don't take my word for it - let him tell you himself: "I am shocked [see?] at the recent requirements of the FCC to cut some more network programming for more local programming. How does one of those low-budget amateur local shows rate against shows like Lassie and Wild Kingdom? Americans are going to miss a lot of good shows. Merrill Panitt's response: "FCC says there are a number of reasons for the new rule but 'the main thrust' is to encourage greater diversity of programming by giving independent film producers an opportunity to compete for time."

This entire exchange is full of irony. Mr. Potter is right when he touts shows like Lassie and Wild Kingdom, but it's unlikely he could have foreseen that in the not-too-distant future, Wild Kingdom would, in first-run syndication, fill that very half-hour in many markets, as could Lassie when it went into syndicated reruns. The amateur local programming that had Mr. Potter concerned (and some FCC commissioners hopeful) never materialized, not really, and I can't believe that "independent film producers" profited much either. The real winner was someone like Merv Griffin, who was able to make a few dollars by strip-programming Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune into that half-hour "local" programming. My own opinion is that viewers would, indeed, have been better served had those 30 minutes remained with the networks. The only way this was going to work was if the FCC had forced local stations to producer their own programming. I wonder how that would have gone?

Then there's the letter from Dorothy B. Forsythe of Broomall, Pennsylvania, who has a gripe about commercials. "During a recent illness, I watched daytime TV for five hours and witnessed 151 commercials. On another occasion, as we settled to watch 'Ben-Hur,' my husband said, 'I wonder how many commercials we will see in the next four hours?' I got pad and pencil and counted them - 74. . . I know commercials pay the bill, but isn't there a less annoying way of doing it?" Yes, Dorothy, there is - it's called pay-TV. And today we often pay over a hundred dollars a month for the privilege of seeing commercial-free movies, while other programs have more commercials than ever. What was I saying about ironic?

Staying on the same subject, K. Rita Hart of South Euclid, Ohio (I wonder what the K. stands for?) writes, "A month ago, I came back from a 45-day stay in Sweden (my birthplace). It was grand, but the TV shows are still next to nothing  and no commercials. I bless American TV with all its commercials. Without them, we wouldn't hve any good shows at all." Hmm, if she's Swedish, her name could have been Kaarin; went with her middle name to sound more American. At any rate, I can't figure out whether or not she's being sarcastic here. I don't think so; I think she's suggesting that it's the revenue from commercials that allows networks to invest in making better programs, and I suppose that's a plausible theory. Either that, or the "good shows" she's talking about are the commercials themselves, which is how Terry Teachout's mother felt in that article of his that I quoted a couple of weeks ago.

I guess we'll never know the answer, will we? To what the K stands for, I mean.

April 7, 2017

Around the dial

It's beginning to feel like the start of a beautiful spring here in Minneapolis, but that doesn't mean you can't think about Christmas, and at Christmas TV History Joanna looks at the 1974 animated Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus. When I saw the ad for the cartoon, I though to myself that the drawings were very much in the spirit of Charles Schulz, and what do you know - it was produced and directed by Bill Melendez!

From last month, Once Upon a Screen revisits a classic Columbo, "By Dawn's Early Light," from 1974. I take the time to come back to this not just because of Peter Falk, but because the villain du jour is none other than the great Patrick McGoohan, in some ways just as quirky as he was in The Prisoner. Hard to go wrong there.

Speaking of favorites, Classic Film and TV Café presents us with Seven Things We Need to Know About Raymond Burr. I didn't know he'd appeared on a Canadian postage stamp, for instance, and I didn't know his Rear Window character had been made up to look like movie producer David O. Selznick - someone with whom the film's director, Alfred Hitchcock, had frequently clashed.

Cult TV Blog goes back in time to the early Doctor Who adventure "The Gunfighters," which goes back in time to the Gunfight at the OK Corral. When you're known simply as The Doctor, of course, you're bound to be confused with that "other" doctor in Tombstone, Doc Holliday. This has long been considered one of the worst Doctor Who stories, and it's not great - but not nearly as bad as you're led to believe. (Although those American accents...)

Not TV related, but when I was a kid, for some reason I was fascinated by the D.C. Comics series "The Haunted Tank," in which a World War II M3 Stuart tank is haunted by the spirit of Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart. I think there was something about the combination of ghost story and war drama that really appealed to me, and I greatly enjoyed those stories, which appeared in the G.I. Combat issues. So when I saw that Peter and Jack were talking about it at bare-bones e-zine, well - there was no doubt I'd be linking to it!

If you think that sounds a lot like an episode of The Twilight Zone, there was an story about a trio of National Guardsmen who drove a Sherman tank into the middle of the Little Big Horn. You'll have to read on to find out if that was one of the 20 best TZ twist endings, which I mentioned last week and which concludes here with episodes #5 through #1. This is a very fun list, since so many of the episodes on it are so well remembered. Who could forget #5, "Time Enough at Last," where Burgess Meredith's bookworm survives a nuclear explosion only to - no, if you haven't seen it yet, I'm not going to spoil the twist. I remember being stunned by #2, "The Invaders," really enjoyed the bold visual style of #9, "Third from the Sun," and was really impressed by #15, "Escape Clause." It's up to you as to whether or not you quibble about the order in which the episodes are ranked, but there's no questioning the twists involved. If you haven't really sat down to watch The Twilight Zone (and if that's the case, why haven't you?), I'd suggest partaking in a broader sample because some of the subtle character studies are really wonderful, but if you've watched the series before and loved it, I think you'd really enjoy doing a weekend binge with these episodes. Great job, guys!

I hope this has whetted your appetite for more - check out the blogs on the sidebar, and be back here tomorrow for another TV Guide!

April 3, 2017

What's on TV? Tuesday, April 7, 1998

I suppose one of the things about a large television market like Los Angeles is that with the number of stations available, you get to see the best that TV has to offer, and the worst. And looking at today's daytime schedule, one can certainly see the worst. That's not to say that daytime television was exactly Golden-Age-worthy back in the days we usually look at, but between game shows, soap operas, the odd talk show or music program, kids' shows, and movies, there was at least some variety to it, and if the programs weren't Shakespearean, at least they were mostly harmless. The only thing Shakespearean about today's daytime shows, however, is the tragic nature of their garbage.

Somewhere along the line, someone decided that every borderline celebrity, "journalist," or personality standing on the corner looking as if they had nothing to do at the moment, should have their own talk show. And by "talk," they often didn't mean having guests promoting their latest book, movie, single, or television appearance, but their latest perversion, addiction, or scandal. How else could one explain Ricki Lake, Jenny Jones, Gayle King, Sally Jessy Raphael, Leeza Gibbons, Geraldo Rivera, Steve Harvey, Rosie O'Donnell, Maury Povich, Jerry Springer, and Montel Williams? And that doesn't even include Oprah!

Elsewhere, you'll recall that on Saturday I mentioned how USA didn't strip-mine - er, I mean strip program one series for hours at a time, they way they do now. That's true, but like many other cable stations of the time they did repeat their programming in blocks of four or six hours three or four times a day. I included AMC, back when they were American Movie Classics and showed nothing but movies. And you'll notice that, based on his appearances on multiple talk shows, Matt LeBlanc must be the busiest man in Hollywood.

Well, I guess there's no putting it off - let's take a look!

April 1, 2017

This week in TV Guide: April 4, 1998

As most of you know by now, I'm not in the habit of looking at TV Guides of the 1990s. (And no, this isn't an April Fools' joke.) I can't remember if I'd cancelled my subscription yet - no, now that I think about it a bit more, I was still getting it, though I was probably getting less use out of it than before. But thanks to my friend Steve Harris from In Other Words (and his donation of the 40th anniversary issue, which we looked at here), we have a chance to look at a historic issue celebrating the 45th anniversary of TV Guide! The cover reminds us of some of the great issues (and stars) of the past, and even throws back to the original logo, which is a nice touch. Now, having heaped praise on the exterior, let's see what we can say about the interior...

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Not surprisingly, the theme of this issue is the number 45, as in the 45 who made the biggest difference. Rather than ranking them from 1-45, the authors have chosen to group the trailblazers by genre, thus we get comedy, creative forces, visionaries, talk show hosts, and so on. Some of them might seem a bit suspect: I'll bet they'd like to have a do-over on that choice of Bill Cosby, for example, even though he was unquestionably part of television history. I think the choice of Robert Halmi, Sr. - for creating Lonesome Dove, Gulliver's Travels, Merlin, and The Odyssey - is a bit premature; though these miniseries might have been blockbusters at the time, I really don't know their staying power, with the exception of Lonesome Dove. And is Roseanne as influential today as they thought she was back then?

Some choices are a given: Lucille Ball, Ed Sullivan, Ernie Kovacs, Rod Serling (am I being heretical in suggesting they could have chosen Paddy Chayefsky instead?). I am a bit surprised that Arthur Godfrey made the list, and Jackie Gleason didn't. Steve Allen and Johnny Carson were obvious picks in the talk category, and Merv Griffin a perceptive one, but Phil Donahue and David Letterman instead of Jack Paar? While Allen may have been the first Tonight host, it was Paar, after all, who really perfected the format as we know it today.*

*And what about Jerry Lester and Dagmar of Broadway Open House?

I might have included Lee Mendelson for bringing the Peanuts gang to life, one of the most notable achievements television has seen, and if not him than perhaps Rankin-Bass, without whom there'd be no Rudolph. I am, quite frankly, quite surprised that Edward R. Murrow made the list but Walter Cronkite didn't; after all, wasn't Uncle Walter the most trusted man in America at one time? David L. Wolper and Aaron Spelling are very good picks, I think, as is Rupert Murdoch, if you keep in mind that "most influential" doesn't necessarily mean "most distinguished." (But then, Time named Hitler and Khomeini "Men of the Year"; I rest my case.) I won't argue with Agnes Nixon for creating the modern soap opera, nor Roone Arledge for revolutionizing television's coverage of sports, but I have a hard time justifying Barbara Walters, especially if you're not going to include Cronkite.

And Ted Turner's selection appears more prescient than ever - where would we be without CNN, WTBS, and their offspring? In fact, I suppose you can make the case that his was the most influential name of them all.

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There's also a nice look back at the 45 greatest covers; although these aren't ranked either, I'd suspect that issue #1, with Lucy's baby, would be the choice of most. Some of the more notable covers commemorate stars such as Carson, Steve McQueen (Wanted - Dead or Alive), Andy Griffith, Alan Young (Mr. Ed), and Fred Flintstone, while others focus on events - the first moon landing, the premiere of Roots, the phenomenon of Charlie's Angels. I think I only have six or seven of the issues profiled here, including this one with Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore on the cover, which probably says more about the state of my bank account than anything else.

There's an article on what viewers would have seen the day the first issue of TV Guide hit the newsstands - April 3, 1953. That's kind of fun; the big news on Today concerns the Korean War and Sen. Joseph McCarthy's latest accusation, and when that's done you can catch Ernie Kovacs' morning show on NBC. There are sitcom reruns in the morning and soaps in the early afternoon, and there's more religion as well - a sermon on The Guiding Light - and not just because April 3 happened to be Good Friday; as author Ed Weiner notes, religion is "more an aspect of everyday life" in 1953 than in 1998. After the soaps it's game shows, like Break the Bank, hosted by Bert Parks, and then it's shows for the kids, Howdy Doody being the biggest but not the only one. That's followed by the network news, which is only 15 minutes long, and then it's primetime, and the evening is awash with sitcoms and drama anthologies, with some boxing thrown in. And when the broadcast day ends - and it does end - the test pattern with the Indian head logo comes on, and viewers head for bed, to await the wonders that the new medium will bring next.

There's another article on changing fashions, everything from Davy Crockett's coonskin cap to Valerie Harper's head scarves to Jennifer Aniston's hairdo. Some of the regular features retain the retro theme; Phil Muchnick, TV Guide's successor to Melvin Durslag, takes a fond look back at Red Smith, the legendary sportswriter and TV Guide's first sports expert, who early and often voiced his concern about television's influence on sports (umpires mugging it up for the cameras, directors cutting away from the action to show fans), most of which evolved into something far worse than what Smith foresaw.

Oh, and then there's an article about people who actually collect TV Guides, who are in fact obsessed with them. Move along, nothing to see here.

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As an addendum, here are the shows in the top 25 the year that first issue appeared:

You'll notice ABC is nowhere to be found; it would be many years before they became a player, but when they did it was with a vengeance.

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There's something of a retro feel to this week's big premiere: Tom Hanks' out-of-this-world miniseries, From the Earth to the Moon, which debuts Sunday on HBO. It's something of a passion project for Hanks, whose love of the space program was rekindled during his time on the set of Apollo 13. "I was much more enthralled by what was going on with Apollo 10 than with the Starship Enterprise," he recalls. "It was a combination of Shakespeare, Sophocles and T.S. Eliot."

One of the things that stands out for Hanks - as well as some of the others working on the series with him - is how easy it's been to forget all about it. The first moon landing was, after all, nearly 30 years ago, and a sizable part of the population has never known a time when man on the moon was not a reality. While it was happening, though, ultimate success was far from certain - as was demonstrated by the tragic Apollo 1 fire. Says Hanks, "We also want the audience to say, 'My God, look at what people accomplished.' "

That's an understatement, to be sure. I grew up during the manned space program - Alan Shepard's flight came three days before my first birthday - and the excitement it generated compares to nothing else I've seen. My grandparents had lived their entire lives thinking that man on the moon was nothing more than a dream; I hadn't had that much experience, but I didn't need it to know there was something truly awesome (in the real sense of the word) about seeing a television transmission with the caption "Live From the Moon."

Being the space buff that I am, I probably would have been more enthralled by a multi-hour documentary on the space program (provided it was done well, and not one of those dry NASA educational films), but even so, I thought From the Earth to the Moon was pretty good. Ah, yes - wasn't that a time.

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Before we go, let’s take a look at some of the actual listings in this issue, shall we? (All right, if you insist.)

For one thing, we now have Fox* joining the fray, which means we also have shows like The Simpsons, King of the Hill, The X Files, Melrose Place, Ally McBeal, Beverly Hills 90210, COPS, and America’s Most Wanted. Sure, Fox produced its share of clunkers as well, but there’s no question that these series entered the American consciousness, particularly in the way many of them spoke to a particular demographic. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that, for better or ill, Fox substantially changes the television landscape, perhaps more so than any network since ABC in the late ‘70s. When you think of it, the fact that The Simpsons is still going, even if its best days are behind it, is quite a statement.

*Yes, I know the network insists on spelling it FOX, but you're not going to see that here.

We have two additional networks as well, The WB and UPN, although neither of them is programming seven nights a week, and they’ll eventually merge into The CW. We can thank them for Star Trek: Voyager, Sister, Sister, and shows from Steve Harvey and Jamie Foxx. The biggest breakout, however, has to be The WB’s new series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I think really defines the network, perhaps as much as any of the shows we’ve discussed. A close second could be either Seventh Heaven or Dawson’s Creek, and while none of these series mean much to me, there’s no doubt that they helped The WB stakeout its own style and demographic, one that has continued in the current CW incarnation.

That’s not to say the traditional networks have been quiet all this time. 60 Minutes, Everybody Loves Raymond and Touched by an Angel are still big hits for CBS, and NBC has its "Must See Thursday" lineup of Friends, Just Shoot Me, Seinfeld, Veronica’s Closet, and ER. (What they wouldn’t give for even one hit like that today.) ABC has Home Improvement, Drew Carey, Ellen, America’s Funniest Home Videos, and (of course) the ubiquitous Monday Night Football. And that doesn’t even begin to touch those other series that you’ll remember – Suddenly Susan, Murphy Brown, Cybill, Frazier, The Nanny, 3rd Rock, JAG – I know they’re all guaranteed to bring back memories for someone.

Even though I didn’t watch most of these shows - truth be told, I didn't watch any of them - it just doesn’t seem as if it’s been nearly 20 years since they were on. Is that because we see so many of them over and over and over in endless reruns on cable stations, or is it because time really does go more quickly as you get older?

What else, anything more specific? Well, the Masters golf tournament begins on Thursday – not on ESPN, as it is nowadays, but on USA. USA also shows – get this – more than one series each night! Instead of countless marathons of NCIS or Law & Order, they have Baywatch, Highlander, and Walker, Texas Ranger, plus a movie, boxing match, or wrestling. Different series each hour - what a concept…  As for the Masters, Tiger Woods is the defending champion, having won by a historically huge margin the year before. And now, it seems, the golf world has returned to what things were like pre-Tiger (hint: it’s not so bad).

Otherwise, ABC has the World Figure Skating Championships in prime time (Saturday at 7:00 p.m. PT) A&E begins a pointless remake of the 1964 Best Picture winner, Tom Jones, on Sunday at 5:00 p.m, PT (with numerous repeats throughout the evening), Murphy Brown celebrates her 50th birthday with Sally Field and other guest stars (Monday, 9:30 p.m., CBS), someone gets written out of Babylon 5 on TNT (Wednesday, 8:00 p.m.), ABC's Prime Time Live (Wednesday, 10:00 p.m.) profiles the McCaughey septuplets (born November 19 of the previous year), all of whom are still alive today, and Billy Graham warns that most of us are on the highway to Hell, but there is a way to take a different route (Friday, KCOP, 8:00 p.m.)

Some of these programs may be recalled when we look at TV 45 years from now, while many others will disappear into the mists of time, as was the case back in 1953. The only thing we can be sure of is that we're discussing them, right here, right now - and I wonder how many of them would have expected that?