December 9, 2017

This week in TV Guide: December 14, 1996

We're back with another of the special, themed issues that TV Guide occasionally dabbled in. Having looked in the past at greatest shows and greatest moments, we're now on to greatest stars. This isn't about the suspense of who's on the list; you can read it right here, without ever looking at the issue. But as I page through the list, my question is whether the list is meant as a historical record or a sign of the times. It is, after all, over 20 years old. If someone falls off the list, is it because they're less important, or less remembered? Are lists made by historians or fans?

Number One is Lucy, and I don't think that would surprise anyone - I actually wrote that sentence before looking at the list, it was that predictable. I mean this as no criticism of Miss Ball, but sometimes I think people who've never even seen her just vote her in as if the position were hers by some kind of divine decree; that's riduculous, of course, because what it proves is that her kind of humor is timeless. Does Roseanne Barr, who comes in at #28, share that trait? I don't think so; her comedy may have been cutting edge at one time, and she might have been a trailblazer in terms of how women are portrayed in sitcoms, but I'm not sure that translates to timelessness. I see her more as a product of her time, not someone a television historian would choose if limited to only 50 picks.

Johnny Carson is #2, and though Terry Teachout described him a while back as virtually unknown by the present generation, any television historian is going to include him on the list. Maybe you've got him at #2, maybe #8, but either way it's a pick you can defend. Less defensible, however, is the omission of Steve Allen, who invented late night television - if Carson refined it, someone still had to come up with it in the first place. Allen was a certifiable legend, not only with Tonight but What's My Line?, Meeting of Minds, and a score or more appearances through the decades. I understand you may not want to load up on talk show hosts, but I don't see how Steve Allen does not make the list, especialy when Phil Donahue is #42.

And then there's David Letterman at #45. TV Guide calls him the natural successor to Ernie Kovacs, and that may have been true back when Dave was doing Stupid Pet Tricks and the like, but by the time he got around to sexually harrassing his staff and espousing liberal politics, he'd lost a lot of his creativity. And yet - if this list were made today, would Letterman be ahead of Carson? He's not only more recent in people's minds, he's still revered by many viewers, and unlike Carson's time, it's now fashionable to get political on late night television. If the list is based on trendiness rather than historical significance, I think Letterman would get the edge. Speaking of Kovacs, he's nowhere to be seen on the list, and I think that's criminal. His greatest sin as an entertainer may have been that he was too far ahead of his time, but he was the first to realize and exploit the potential of television. I would have had him in the top ten. At least they remembered Sid Caesar, at #29.

See how easy it is to demonstrate he should be higher?
Raymond Burr is far too low on the list, at #41. Maybe realism is valued more in courtroom dramas than it was in the days of Perry Mason, but Burr created an iconic character, the symbol of TV lawyers for a generation, and that ought to count for something, don't you think? And while we're on the topic of crime, Jack Webb is another one missing from the list; while Webb might not be considered a great actor, Dragnet revolutionized the way police drama was portrayed on television; his "just the facts" persona and use of detailed realism really changed how the game was played. He was to cop shows what James Arness was to the Western, and Arness makes the list at #20. Fred Rogers is on the list at #35, but is there a Fred Rogers without Bob Keeshen? I don't think you can overlook Captain Kangaroo - but then, Mr. Rogers was on PBS. Why not include them both? And I like the choice of Don Knotts at #27, proving that second bananas have a place - but what about Art Carney? Jackie Gleason is #3, but would he be that high without Carney?

Bill Cosby is #9, and while I was never a great fan of Cosby, I'll certainly defend his place on the list, even though I suspect he wouldn't make the list today. Carroll O'Connor is #38, and rightfully so; starring on a show that redefined the sitcom, he was Archie Bunker. Michael J. Fox is #39, but I question his being on the list. It's not that he's not good, but in sports terms this should be the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Very Good. Bob Newhart, on the other hand, is probably underrated at #17, having starred in two of the great sitcoms of the era.

Patty Duke is on the list at #40, and I'm not sure why - her signature series, The Patty Duke Show, only ran for three seasons, and while she appeared in 30 TV movies and miniseries, Jane Seymour has probably done the same, and she isn't on the list. My complaint about Patty, as it is with Telly Savalas (#33), is that her fame comes from movies as well as television; you might as well include Sally Field or Denzel Washington or George Clooney or Johnny Depp; they all featured on TV as well. Dinah Shore is #16 - if the list were being made today, would historians recognize her place in TV history? Same with George Burns and Gracie Allen at #13; a list made today probably wouldnot include them.

I do like the picks of Milton Berle (how could you leave out Mr. Television?), Michael Landon, Carol Burnett, and James Garner. I think Rocky and Bullwinkle was an inspired choice, but I'm not sure Bart Simpson falls in the same category; it wasn't long before he was eclipsed by Homer. I think Dick Van Dyke should be rated higher than Mary Tyler Moore, but they both belong there. I think Oprah's done more cultural damage than perhaps any other television personality, but for that very reason she has to be on the list.

Like any list, this one has its good points and bad. We're not quite done with it yet, though - stick around until the end.

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There are only 11 days until Christmas as the week begins, which means we should be able to find some seasonal tidbits to highlight.

What's striking about the mid-'90s, after having spent so much time looking at the '50s and '60s (and '70s), is how Christmas programming was dominated by variety shows. There was at least one on almost every night, and every one of them had a Christmas episode just before December 25. (And that doesn't include the one-off specials by stars like Bob Hope and Perry Como.)

By now, most of your Christmas TV consists of "holiday" episodes of sitcoms with vague, Hallmark-like storylines, such as Ellen (Wednesday, 9:30 p.m. PT, ABC), in which "Christmas goes to the dogs for Ellen, who adopts a stray and ends up not going on a Mexican vacation with Paige because of her new canine attachment." Now, there's nothing wrong with this, although I'd suggest that many of the episodes from years past tend to have at least some kind of more overtly Christmas message in them, such as the Yuletide variety show episode of The Dick Van Dyke show, which coincidentelly appears on Nick at Nite Sunday night as part of their 17-episode classic TV Christmas Party, which includes the Bewitched episode in which Samantha is determined to prove to a skeptical orphan that Santa Claus exists. Shows also love to do variations on It's a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol, and we have an example of the latter with Martin (Thursday, 8:00 p.m., Fox) as "Martin has a Dickens of a time scaring up some Yuletide sentiment in this takeoff on "A Christmas Carol" that finds him playing host to some unexpected ghosts.

There are, however, specials this week, and not surprisingly there's a good share of music to be found. For example, there's Opryland's Country Christmas (Saturday, 9:00 p.m., CBS), which features Patty Loveless, Clint Black and LeAnn Rimes. On Wednesday, it's the 15th annual Christmas in Washington (NBC, 10:00 p.m.), in which the cast of 3rd Rock from the Sun and others serenade President and Mrs. Clinton.* And a syndicated special at midnight on Saturday, This is Christmas (KCAL), stars Luther Vandross, with guests Mariah Carey Boyz II Men, U2, Melissa Ehtridge, and Gloria Estefan.

*Do they even do that show anymore? No - it turns out the 2014 edition was the last. They probably couldn't have found anyone to do it this year anyway.

There are also cartoons; ABC has an animated version of Lilly Tomlin's Edith Ann character on An Edith Ann Christmas (Saturday, 8:30 p.m.), while CBS offers a triple-header on Thursday night, beginning at 8:00 p.m. with A Charlie Brown Christmas, followed by A Garfield Christmas, and concluding with Mickey's Christmas Carol. (Not a bad lineup there.) And of course, it wouldn't be Christmas without movies, would it? On Tuesday, KTLA airs A Christmas Story (8:00 p.m.) long before it becomes a Christmas marathon staple; an hour later, Dolly Parton starsas an angel unlike any I've seen in Unlikely Angel (9:00 p.m., NBC). On Wednesday, The Angel of Pennsylvania Avenue (Wednesday, 8:00 p.m., Family) has Robert Urich as a falsely imprisoned mfsadan whose children appeal for help to President Hoover. There are also airings of White Christmas and A Christmas Carol on various stations through the week.

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This week's highlight in sports is on Tuesday night, as Shaquille O'Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers take on Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls on TNT. Good game, as the Bulls - en route to their historic 72-10 season - pull out an overtime win, 129-123. Shaq has 27 points and 13 rebounds, while Jordan scores 30, and his sidekick Scottie Pippen puts in 35. You'd want to point to a game like this for the historical record, for a number of reasons. Besides featuring two all-time greats (and a third, Kobe Bryant, coming off the bench for the Lakers), it gives us a chance to look at another way in which the context of sports has changed in society.

You may recall that Michael Jordan took a fair amount of heat from black political leaders for not being more outspoken on civil rights and other issues, to which Jordan made the famous reply that "Republicans buy shoes, too." Of course, social media didn't really exist back in 1996, unless you count talk radio, newspapers, and face-to-face communication; still, despite the flippant sound of the answer, Jordan made a point that many athletes seem to have forgotten today: athletes are salesmen, and fans are consumers. That doesn't mean an athlete, or anyone else, has to give up their individuality, or their rights of speech, just because they've become famous.

No, the larger point - and I'm not trying to take sides here or get political myself - is that the successful businessperson knows that it's never a good idea to antagonize the customer. The NFL is finding this out now. Granted, we can't know what Jordan may have done had social media been in existence in 1996, nor are today's athletes the first to become politically active - see John Carlos and Tommie Smith in the 1968 Summer Olympics. Nonetheless, in an age when Taylor Swift is criticized for not being political, one can see how different the entertainment landscape has become. The Michael Jordan of 1998 is a reminder of that.

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Let's take a look at what else the week has to offer.

On Saturday, it's a first-ever prime-time episode of General Hospital (9:00 p.m, ABC), as the shocking story from Friday is continued. Boy, that's classic soap opera jargon, isn't it?  Sunday's highlights include the Yuletide classic Christmas in Connecticut (WGN, 2:00 p.m.), and a Louis & Clark episode that features Howie Mandel as an alien intruder. Meanwhile, A&E's Holiday at Pops (9:00 p.m.) features Tony Bennett with John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra. 

Monday night is something of a remembrance of series past: Melrose Place on Fox (8:00 p.m.), The Jeff Foxworthy Show on NBC (also 8:00 p.m.), Murphy Brown and Cybil (9:00 and 9:30 p.m., CBS). Oh, the Bills play the Dolphins on Monday Night Football (ABC, 6:00 p.m.)

Tuesday, Dan comes home to Roseanne to spend the holidays with the family (8:00 p.m., ABC), Fox tries (and fails) to recapture the magic with The Munsters Scary Little Christmas (8:00 p.m.) featuring none of the original cast, and in the night's winner, PBS plays a pair of Wallace and Gromit shorts, "A Grand Day Out" and "A Close Shave" (8:00 p.m.)

On Wednesday Nick at Nite takes home the prize, with Season's Greetings from the Honeymooners (9:00 p.m.), two hours of bits first shown on The Jackie Gleason Show. If you don't like that, there are holiday-themed episodes of NewsRadio (NBC) and Drew Carey (ABC). Thursday brings the first college bowl game of the year, the don't-miss Las Vegas Bowl between Ball State and Nevada (ESPN, 6:00 p.m.) Seriously, these are two pretty good teams, with combined records of 16-6. Many of this year's games should do so well. And Friday has highlights at the beginning and end of the day; Sandi Patti: O Holy Night brings us Christmas music (9:00 a.m., Family), while the prime-time spectacular is NBC's airing of The Sound of Music (8:00 p.m.), or as co-star Christopher Plummer allegedly called it, "The Sound of Mucus." 

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Since this was kind of a short entry this week, that leaves us time for a little self-indulgence. You may be thinking, after reading my comments on the 50 Greatest Stars list, what my choices would have been. (Or maybe not; just play along here.) Do I think I could do any better?

Well, sure. After all, why do anything if you don't think it can be just as good as, if not better than, anyone else's? That doesn't mean it is better, but it does mean it's out there for others to pick on for a change. The list is updated to include stars who appeared after 1996, as well as to rectify oversights from the first one. And as a historian, I tend to take a long view of things; I'm hesitant to include stars who are too recent, whose stardom hasn't yet had a chance to ferment. Real stars have staying power, so it doesn't hurt to be a little cautious.

And so, for what it's worth, here's how I would have done it.

1.       Lucille Ball
26.   Andy Griffith

2.       Johnny Carson
27.   Art Carney

3.       Ernie Kovacs
28.   Edward R. Murrow

4.       Steve Allen
29.   Robert Young

5.       Raymond Burr
30.   David Janssen

6.       Carol Burnett
31.   Bob Keeshan

7.       Jack Webb
32.   James Arness

8.       Regis Philbin
33.   Betty White

9.       Oprah Winfrey
34.   Don Knotts

10.   Michael Landon
35.   Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca

11.   Dick Van Dyke
36.   Fred Rogers

12.   James Garner
37.   Phil Silvers

13.   Mary Tyler Moore
38.   Jerry Seinfeld

14.   Jon Stewart
39.   Rocky & Bullwinkle

15.   William Shatner
40.   Bob Hope

16.   Jackie Gleason
41.   Carroll O’Connor

17.   Ellen DeGeneres
42.   Jim McKay

18.   Bob Newhart
43.   Lawrence Welk

19.   Bill Cosby
44.   Julia Child

20.   Milton Berle
45.   Howard Cosell

21.   Walter Cronkite
46.   Barbara Walters

22.   Ted Danson
47.   Ed Sullivan

23.   Peter Falk
48.   Chris Berman

24.   Tom Sellick
49.   Jane Seymour

25.   Julia Louis-Dreyfus
50.   Chet Huntley and David Brinkley

There - the floor is now yours.  TV  


  1. Lists are always subjective. Yours is a really good one, but I'd have to find room for Larry Hagman and Buddy Ebsen.

  2. As Hal just stated, these lists are always subjective, still I have to think Jack Benny should have been on here somewhere.....I'd say pretty high. Ball and Carson seem like logical choices at top two spots, I have high regards for Jim Garner and Bob Newhart.

  3. One error caught in this article: After her divorce in 1992, Sandi Patty (note the spelling) and management corrected the spelling mistake that was originally made in 1978 by the printer of her first album and was repeated by ABC (which owned Word at the time) in sheet music publishing also. She used the divorce to correct the spelling, and Word, by that time owned by Nelson Publishing, released a statement announcing the correction a year later, and it was displayed during "Find It on the Wings" a year later). The corrected spelling (see her sheet music that includes her family) was used by Word (now part of Warner Music Group) by the time "O Holy Night!" was released in 1996. A friend of mine from college knows very well that -- she was a big Sandi Patty fan back in the day.

    In fact, of the first four presenters of the 1999 GMA Dove Awards, of which Sandi Patty was one of the four, three had their names too often misspelled! The only one whose name was not often misspelled died recently (Della Reese), and I've seen all three within an 18-month span in Charlotte -- one on New Year's Eve 1998, one on New Year's Eve 1999, and the third (not a singer) in May 2000 on the other side of Charlotte (see "The Cruelest Irony" from In Other Words to catch the reference to the other two presenters whose names were too-often misspelled, there is a photo of that pair!).

    Sandi was a dynasty to the point she was GMA Dove Female Vocalist of the Year from 1982-92. The other half of the irony came because of the presenting pair who gave Sandi the Female Vocalist of the Year award in 1992 -- it was the same pair who followed Patty and Reese to award Song of the Year in 1999, and because of the male presenter's occupation, it was a cruel irony since one writer who won died when his Jeep overturned and he was not wearing a seat belt in 1999. But in 1992, the male presenter faced a cruel irony himself. He gave Sandi her 11th consecutive Dove in that category (note the numerical irony) would claim three more trophies in his line of work. Sandi didn't claim that trophy again, and the presenter would not claim another trophy in his line of work after 1992 after finishing a Career Grand Slam.

    (Presenter in question is at 5:20 -- we've been able to confirm in further videos the presenters)

  4. Oh, how TV Guide fell in love with these lists as it turned more and more into a fan magazine. I once read a piece by a columnist who wrote, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that these sorts of "top 20" or "top 50" lists started out as the result of "I've got a piece due in an hour and I'm out of ideas," and eventually they turned into a thing and an industry unto themselves. (See also Charles Kuralt telling the story that chili was originally invented by a Wyoming rancher to keep the feet of his horses warm in the winter, and he sent some to a friend in Texas, who ate it by mistake.) And when you get into an "of all time" list, too often there's a recency bias that sends people going "what were they thinking?" 20 years later - which Mitchell rightly points out in his comment prior to his own list.

    There's a shade of that in the 1996 list having Letterman on it - and I write this as somebody whose sense of humor was profoundly influenced by Letterman's late-night NBC program. In 1996 it was "they're trying too hard to be too current," with too much of the glow of the CBS deal and the Jay vs. Dave competition. I could justify Letterman on a 2017 list, particularly with how many current hosts were inspired by him and follow his example, but even with that I would put Steve Allen (who, among other accomplishments, carved out the genre) and Johnny Carson (who defined the model we're accustomed to) ahead of Letterman.

    I'm not even going to take a stab at my own list, for I know my own biases all too well. It would be far easier for me to put together a list of the behind-the-scenes people who most profoundly shaped television programming. But I have the feeling that would set records for most unsold issues of a magazine, with remaindered copies being handed out by doctors to people who couldn't take Nytol.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!