July 29, 2012

This week in TV Guide: July 26, 1975

I've mentioned in the past my preference for the ABC evening news when I watched the news back in the late 60s and early 70s.  After Peter Jennings left the anchor desk (for the first time), Frank Reynolds was teamed up with Howard K. Smith, but he was replaced by Harry Reasoner when Reasoner gave up on the idea that he'd ever succeed Walter Cronkite at CBS.

This feature on Smith, written by veteran TVG writer Neil Hickey, is of particular interest to me right now, because of a discussion about Smith I've been involved in over at the classic TV board of Radio-Info.com.  (Only among classic TV buffs can you get into a discussion of Howard K. Smith in a topic that's supposed to be about Walter Cronkite.)  Smith was a veteran newsman, having served his time at CBS before leaving in a dispute over continuing editorial interference in Smith's commentaries.

Smith didn't find the going much easier at ABC, where he raised more hackles with a retrospective, which he presented as the end of Richard Nixon's political career, following Nixon's defeat in the 1962 California gubernatorial election.  Among the guests on Smith's program was Alger Hiss, Nixon's old enemy from the Hiss-Chambers case in the late 40s.  Nixon's political allies were not happy about Hiss' participation in the program, most prominent among them being Dwight D. Eisenhower, who just happened to be the former president of the United States.  Ike complained to the network, with the result that Smith found himself assigned to less controversial activities for a while, before he would reemerge 1969 as Reynolds' co-anchor on the evening news.

Smith is no less outspoken in this profile, in which he talks about ABC's recent decision to remove him as co-anchor with Reasoner and reassign him to giving regular commentaries.  It's clear from Smith's comments that television news was a bare-knuckled proposition in the 70s, not for the faint of heart.  "I'm not running a Sunday School platform," he tells Hickey in defense of his controversial viewpoints.  And yet, as was the case in a 1971 article about Reasoner, Smith is a complex man, not easy to pinpoint politically.  "I'm totally liberal," he tells Hickey.  "I'm the most liberal newsman on the air."

Liberal, perhaps, in the classic sense of the word.  Smith is an outspoken supporter of the Vietnam War, and an opponent of the spread of communism.  ("I am a hawk...[to win in Vietnam w]e would have had to do some brutal things, but war is brutal.")  He voices support, despite criticism from his colleagues, for former Vice President Spiro Agnew's harsh attacks on the news media.  ("We are too negative.  Bad news is easier to cover, and that's what wins prizes.")  He disagrees with those who moan about American influence worldwide ("In general, the period of American domination in foreign affairs has been one of the most progressive in history."), as well as those who accuse America of inertia in civil rights.  ("Anybody watching television news might conclude that we have failed on the race question.  But there's a black man on the Supreme Court, and we've had two in the cabinet.  Progress has been outstanding, but we have given the wrong impression.")  During Vietnam, some listened to Smith's commentaries on the war and dubbed ABC the "Administration Broadcasting Company."  Smith cites his support for civil rights, congressional reform and government activism on the economy as his liberal bonafides, but it's clear that, although his colleague Reasoner says "he's not particularly conservative," he's not a liberal in the MSNBC sense either.  A man of dignity and professionalism, in the Huntley-Brinkley mold; would that we had men like him on the news today.

Summer issues of TV Guide don't usually have much to offer but reruns, but there a a lot of items of interest to recommend this issue.  Perhaps the most interesting program - certainly one of the most interesting I've run across in in many a TV Guide - was on Friday night: CBS' Playhouse 90 presentation of Brian Moore's Catholics, starring Trevor Howard and Martin Sheen in a story of rebellion in the Catholic Church at a time of great change, something that could be ripped from today's headlines.  Ah, but there's a twist: the rebels are "a monastic community [that] is defying Vatican policy by continuing to celebrate the Mass in Latin instead of English." And the priest from Rome "[is] sent to crush what may be the seeds of a counterrevolution." 

To me, this is utterly fascinating.  On the one hand, this story "set in the future," with Sheen's "inquisitor" as "a young emissary of change" while Howard's dissident abbott "clings to the old ways as an affirmation of 'the real presence of God in the Mass,' is more or less the exact opposite of what's going on in the Church today, with the Latin Mass gaining popularity especially among the young.  And yet in many ways it's an eerie foreshadowing of what first happened in the post-Vatican II Church.  For Howard's Abbott, substitute Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, founder of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), dedicated to the Latin Mass, harshly critical of the reforms allegedly introduced by Vatican II, eventually to lead his followers into what may or may not be a formal or informal schism from the Church.  In truth, traditional Catholics did feel lost with the changes in the Church in the 60s and 70s, as if everything they'd believed their entire lives had been cast aside in the name of "change."  And the SSPX did (and still does, to some extent) represent a challenge to the authority of the Vatican.  But look at the reality back in 1972, which is when this movie was originally made: Latin all but gone forever from the Mass, the tabernacles (containing the consecrated Eucharist, the "real presence" to which the Abbott refers) moved from the altars and in many cases taken out of the main church altogether, and guitars and folk songs the principal form of music.  Could anyone have possibly imagined that the future - today, in other words - would look so different, and that the old ways, which were hopelessly out of date, would now be on the way back? 

I'd love to see that program today, but I didn't watch it that Friday.  Instead, I was tuned to ABC for one of my favorite sporting events of the year: the College All-Star football game from Soldier Field in Chicago, featuring a team of college stars versus the NFL champions. The College All-Star Game began in 1934 as a benefit for Chicago-area charities, and continued until 1974, when it was cancelled forever over concern by NFL coaches that their prize rookies were missing too much traning camp and risking injuries by participating in the game. The collegians were usually overmatched, winning only nine times in the game's history (the Packers, for example, beat the All-Stars 38-0 in 1966), but many of the games were surprisingly competitive. Joe Namath's Jets, for example, had to hold on for a 26-24 win in 1969, and the undefeated Dolphins led the Stars only 7-3 in the fourth quarter before winning 14-3 in 1973. The 1975 game was no different, as the Stars, including Steve Bartkowski, Walter Payton and Randy White, led the Pittsburgh Steelers 14-7 in the fourth quarter before Joe Gilliam, coming off the bench to replace Terry Bradshaw, tossed a pair of touchdown passes as the Steelers pulled out a 21-14 victory.

In other news, the Democrats were back with another telethon, the fourth and last in the series.  This one was called "Tune In, America," and was the final step in the party's rehabilitation leading to Jimmy Carter's victory the next year.  The show started Saturday night and ran through to Sunday at 6pm, going head to head with the final round of golf's Canadian Open (which, coincidentally, is being played this year as I write this), which would be won by Tom Weiskopf.

Variety shows are sprinkled throughtout the week, with such 70s icons as Gladys Knight and the Pips (Thursday, ABC) and Tony Orlando and Dawn (Wednesday, CBS). On Sunday, the elegant guitar god Chet Atkins stars on PBS' Evening at Pops. The late Sherman Hemsley stars in The Jeffersons on Saturday, right after its parent show, All in the Family. Adam-12, The Rookies and Kojack fight crime in the present, while Matt Dillon patrols the old west in Gunsmoke.

Thursday ABC premieres a summer series called Almost Anything Goes, which predated modern shows such as Wipeout, with the novel twist that the teams, competing in events such as "You Bet Your Loaf" (in which players try to inch across greased poles while carrying loaves of bread, while at the same time trying to avoid opposing players swinging sacks at them) and "Grand Prix" (players drive dune buggys on a slalom course while carrying plates of jello),  are made up of participants from neighboring small towns.  In the opener, Burrillville (RI) takes on Webster (MA) and Putnam (CT).  Charlie Jones calls the play-by-play.

And finally, this great TV Guide allows me to relive the wonderful summers of my youth, when I didn't have to go to school the next day and could stay up as late as I wanted, watching all the shows I couldn't see the rest of the year.  Channel 11, the Twin Cities' independent station, was my go-to station, with my favorite late-night lineup of all time. The FBI at 10pm, Perry Mason at 11, and a double-dip of Alfred Hitchcock at midnight. I ask you, can you find a better three hours of television on the air today?

Well, actually, in our household you can, since among our DVD collection are complete season sets of The FBI, Perry Mason and Alfred Hitchcock.  I say again, back in 1975, could anyone have imagined that? TV  

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