February 27, 2014

Oscar, Oscar, Oscar*

I've written before about the Academy Awards on television, about how I used to look forward to it with great anticipation but now scarcely pay any attention to it.  This isn't going to be another hit piece on the Oscars, but with the ceremony coming up this weekend, I thought it might be fun to take a look at some footage of Oscar ceremonies past.

The Academy has assembled a truly wonderful YouTube channel, in which they've deposited a massive quantity of clips from previous telecasts - not only the winners of the major awards, but more recently they've added opening monologues from many years.

Here's a vintage clip - the very first televised Oscar ceremony, held on March 19, 1953.  The host, of course, was Bob Hope.  (The running time of that show, by the way?  an hour and 32 minutes.)

One of the interesting things about classic television is watching the transition from the black-and-white era to color, and the Oscarcast is no different.  Oscar first came to us in color in 1966.  (As Hope said in a promo, now you can see the losers turn green in living color.)  Isn't it great hearing the notice at the beginning of the broadcasts of how regular programming is being preempted to present the special broadcast?

You can draw a few conclusions from endless hours watching these clips, hours that could have been spent doing productive things - like work.  (Channeling Hope there, I guess.)  Really, the opening monologue serves as a snapshot of the times - Hope's 1970 opening can't be embedded, but check it out here. (Just after the 11:00 mark if you don't want to watch it all.) His discussion of everything from nudity in movies to Ronald Reagan to drugs captures perfectly an America in transition and turmoil.

As always when waxing nostalgic, you have to be careful - the jokes from previous years were not necessarily funnier than they are today.  And by that I mean that Hope's monologues often contain a lot of material that's either dated or inside baseball, and thus likely to go over the heads of any viewer not of that specific era.  Having said that, they're still often very good, as was that one from 1966.  I'd go on to add that Bob Hope is still the best Oscar MC outside of Johnny Carson.

Speaking of Carson, at first blush it seems strange for him to have hosted the show.  He wasn't from Hollywood, wasn't part of the movie community, and the TV show that had made him famous was on a different network from that which was telecasting the Oscars.  But there was more to it than that.  He had experience, having previously hosted the Emmys several times, and more important, he was one of the most feared men in the entertainment business.  He was able to speak from authority; even though he wasn't in the movie business, everyone sitting out there in the Oscar audience knew how powerful he was, and how important it was for them to remain on good terms with him in order to promote their latest movie. Though this clip isn't from the Oscar YouTube channel, it's a great look at Carson the unparalleled monologist:

And do you notice how Oscarcasts have changed over the years?  I covered that in my previous piece, but in watching the clips from the 50s and 60s, it becomes apparent how the show has evolved from an event being covered by television to a television event.  Look at that first clip from the 1969 broadcast (of the 1968 awards) - you can see the big, lumbering cameras, and the overture makes for very static television.

But for all that, I don't think that evolution has been particularly beneficial for the show.  In gearing things toward the viewer at home rather than those in the live audience, the show has often become tedious and repetitive.  There's just too much - too much glitz and flash, too much of the artsy camera angels, too much of the endless montage of film clips that too often remind you how much better movies used to be.

Back in the day, when the Miss America pageant was still big TV, there were two sets of hosts: Bert Parks, who emceed'd the live event in Convention Hall, and another host (Bess Myerson, for example) who, stationed somewhere else in the auditorium, would provide the television audience with the segways into and out of commerical breaks.  In doing so, the producers were making a clear distinction between the event that was going on in Convention Hall, and the television broadcast that was bringing that show to the viewers.

As television took over the Oscar show, those awful production numbers became impossible to capture on the small screen, and so it made sense to reduce the scale so things didn't get lost to the home viewer.  But in doing so, in concentrating solely on the entertainment of that viewer, I think something has been lost.  At the start of the 1970 program, Gregory Peck refers to the Oscars as a "news event," not a television program.  Perhaps if the Academy still felt that way, we wouldn't be having four-hour shows.

Well, a guy can dream, can't he?

*Bonus points to anyone who can identify the show from which the post title comes.

February 25, 2014

Dead affiliates walking - February 28, 1979

It's that time again - time to look at a day in the week of our most recent TV Guide.  (Loyal readers know this probably means I don't have anything else ready to post today, but that doesn't mean it isn't still fun.)

Today's listing is from Wednesday, February 28, 1979.  It's a strange time in Minneapolis-St. Paul television - the Great Affiliate Switch is right around the corner, in which longtime NBC affiliate KSTP moves to the suddenly-dominate ABC, while independent (and one-time ABC affiliate) WTCN takes the now-homeless NBC, and former ABC affiliate (and previous independent) KMSP once again goes it alone. Got all that?  This ad gives us a flavor of the coming confusion:

KTCA, Channel 2 (PBS) 
07:00a Japan: Living Tradition
07:30a Vegetable Soup
07:45a A.M. Weather
08:00a Sesame Street
09:00a The Electric Company
09:30a American Indian Artists
10:00a The Naturalists
10:30a Consumer Survival Kit
11:00a Studio See
11:30a Sesame Street
12:30p Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
01:00p The Electric Company
01:30p Julia Child & Company
02:00p Over Easy (guest Jack Carter)
02:30p Dick Cavett
03:00p Country Matters
04:00p Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
04:30p Sesame Street
05:30p The Electric Company
06:00p Studio See
06:30p MacNeil/Lehrer Report
07:00p Dick Cavett (guest Neil Simon)
07:30p Wyld Rice
08:00p Shakespeare Plays – “As You Like It”
10:30p Cousteau Odyssey (special)
11:30p Cousteau Odyssey (special)
12:30a Crosstalk (guest Stan Kenton)

KTCA doesn't have much inventory, does it?  A lot of these shows, such as The Electric Company, run two or three times a day.  (As you can see, the station has pretty much abandoned the classroom programming that was a mainstay of its early years.)

I don't know if you remember Not For Women Only, the show hosted by Barbara Walters that was, in fact, mostly for women.  Her old Today show partner Hugh Downs has his own show, Over Easy, which tries to tell us it isn't mostly for seniors, which it is.  But pretty soon the two are going to reunite on ABC's 20/20.  Dick Cavett has found a home on PBS as well, with his half-hour, one-guest version of his ABC program.  Someone recently wrote that Cavett was the last remnant of a time when good conversation was accepted as entertainment, and although I frequently found Cavett tiresome, I would have to agree with that.

WCCO, Channel 4 (CBS)
06:00a Wednesday Morning
07:00a Allan’s Window
07:30a Captain Kangaroo
08:00a Phil Donahue (Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame)
09:00a All in the Family
09:30a The Price is Right
10:30a Love of Life
10:55a CBS News
11:00a The Young and the Restless
11:30a Search for Tomorrow
12:00p Midday
12:30p As the World Turns
01:30p Guiding Light
02:30p M*A*S*H
03:00p Match Game ’79 (panelists Bart Braverman, Fannie Flagg, Dick Martin, Charles Nelson Reily, Barbara Rhoades, Brett Somers)
03:30p Mike Douglas (guests Lou Rawls, Andy Williams, Lennon Sisters, Shecky Greene, Loretta Lynn)
05:00p News (local)
05:30p CBS News (Walter Cronkite)
06:00p News (local)
06:30p $25,000 Pyramid (celebrity contestants Anita Gillette, Tony Randall)
07:00p Married: The First Year (debut)
08:00p One Day at a Time
08:30p The Jeffersons
09:00p Kaz
10:00p News (local)
10:30p Marcus Welby, M.D.
11:30p Bonanza
12:30a News (local)
01:00a Phil Donahue (replay)
02:00a News (local)
04:00a News (local)

Aside from the educational stations, WCCO is the only affiliate staying put, and their lineup shows that consistency .  The 6am program, Wednesday Morning, was part of Charles Kuralt's morning series of which only Sunday Morning remains.  It was actually a pretty good morning program, the predecessor to what I think was CBS' best morning news program, hosted by Bill Kurtis and Diane Sawyer.  From then on, it's been all downhill.

In the TV Guides of the 60s, soap operas run for 30 minutes, and CBS even has a couple that remain in the 15 minute format.  No longer.  Now one hour is the rule, and 30 minutes the exception.  After the local noontime news, that old warhorse As the World Turns continues in the same timeslot it filled, it seems, forever.

Notice how bland 'CCO's late-night programming is?  Ah, back in the days before the late-night chatfests.

KSTP, Channel 5
05:00a To Be Announced
06:00a News (local)
06:20a Country Day
07:00a Today (Charles Grodin, Albert Brooks)
09:00a Twin Cities Today (Dr. Joyce Brothers)
10:00a High Rollers
10:30a Wheel of Fortune
11:00a Jeopardy!
11:30a Password (Elizabeth Montgomery, Bert Convy)
12:00p Princess Knight, Princess Knight
12:30p Days of Our Lives
01:30p The Doctors
02:00p Another World
03:00p Movie – “Never Say Goodbye” (B&W)
05:00p Hogan’s Heroes
05:30p NBC News (Chancellor/Brinkley)
06:00p News (local)
06:30p The Gong Show (panelists Pat McCormick, Jaye P. Morgan, George Lindsey)
07:00p Eight is Enough
08:00p From Here to Eternity (miniseries version)
10:00p News (local)
10:30p Johnny Carson (guests Robert Blake, Kelly Monteith, Rand)
12:00a Flak on Five
12:30a News (local)
01:00a Laird Brooks Schmidt

KSTP is already transitioning to ABC, airing Eight is Enough at 7pm (more about that below).  From Here to Eternity is not the Oscar-winning movie with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, nor is it the 1980 series with William Devane and Kim Basinger.  Instead, it's what could be thought of as the pilot for that series, which instead of Basinger starred Natalie Wood.  Who, at the time, was a much bigger star than Kim.

Tomorrow has vacated KSTP for future home WTCN; in its place are two local programs, Flak on Five and Laird Brooks Schmidt.  I'm not positive, but "Flak" might have been Gary Flakne, former Hennepin County prosecutor turned talk show host.  ( I'm sure someone can fill us in if that's not right.)  Schmidt, on the other hand, was a wonderful personality, a host of late-night movies and a great talker. And speaking of local programming, Twin Cities Today was one of the legendary local programs of the 70s and 80s, starring "Steve and Sharon" - Steve Edelman and Sharon Anderson, who married during the show's long run.  They later went into the production business - Edelman Productions being a major domo for decorating shows on HGTV.

KMSP, Channel 9
06:00a 700 Club
07:00a Good Morning, America
09:00a Dinah! (guests Dennis Weaver, Robert Wagner, Betty White, Jacques Cousteau, Graham Nash)
10:00a Happy Days
10:30a Family Feud
11:00a $20,000 Pyramid (guests Jo Anne Worley, David Letterman)
11:30a Ryan’s Hope
12:00p All My Children
01:00p One Life to Live
02:00p General Hospital
03:00p Medical Center
04:00p Streets of San Francisco
05:00p ABC News (Frank Reynolds)
05:30p Sanford and Son
06:00p News (local)
06:30p The Muppet Show (guest Sylvester Stallone)
07:00p Edward the King
08:00p Charlie’s Angels
09:00p Vega$
10:00p News (local)
10:30p The Rockford Files
11:40p Kojak
12:50a News (local)

Edward the King, which I covered on Saturday, is bringing in big ratings for Channel 9, bumping Eight is Enough to future home KSTP.  After all, KMSP doesn't give a damn about ABC programming, right?  Edward is in one sense an example of Masterpiece Theatre moved to commercial television, but I always thought of it as a kind of throwback program - the kind that David Susskind might have produced for a network back in the 60s.

Although TV Guide only lists Frank Reynolds as anchor for the ABC News, this is actually Roone Arlidge's World News Tonight, which featured Reynolds as lead anchor, along with Max Robinson in Chicago, Peter Jennings in London, and Barbara Walters in New York.  I remember that newscast, and Reynolds, fondly.

WTCN, Channel 11 (Ind.)
05:30a What’s New?
06:00a PTL Club
07:00a The Flintstones
07:30a Popeye and Porky
08:30a Groovie Goolies and Friends
09:00a Fred Flintstone and Friends
09:30a Bewitched
10:00a Family Affair
10:30a Mayberry R.F.D.
11:00a Love American Style
11:30a What’s New?
12:30p Andy Griffith
01:00p Movie – “The Big Heat” (B&W)
03:00p Spiderman
03:30p Tom and Jerry
04:30p Leave it to Beaver (B&W)
05:00p I Love Lucy (B&W)
05:30p My Three Sons
06:00p Carol Burnett and Friends (guests Joel Grey, Cass Elliot)
06:30p The Newlywed Game
07:00p Supertrain
08:00p Merv Griffin (guests Neil Sedaka, Milton Berle, Eartha Kitt, Robert Urich, Barclay Shaw, Charlie Hill, Irv Benson)
09:30p News (local)
10:00p Mary Tyler Moore
10:30p Bob Newhart
11:00p The Odd Couple
11:30p The Gong Show (Jamie Farr, Jaye P. Morgan, Pat McCormiick)
12:00a Tomorrow (guest Irving Mansfield)
01:00a The FBI
02:00a Alfred Hitchcock Presents (B&W)
02:30a Alfred Hitchcock Presents (B&W)

KSTP isn't interested in carrying Tom Snyder's Tomorrow show anymore, so it pops up in its future home, Channel 11.  The guest, Irving Mansfield, is the widower of Valley of the Dolls author Jacqueline Susann.  And as I already mentioned, Eight is Enough and Supertrain have traded places, which makes for some very strange advertising:
A great night, sure - if you're willing to
watch two stations to catch it.

What's New?, which airs at 11:30 am (with a repeat the following morning at 5:30), is that almost-extinct species: the local variety show.  Almost extinct, because this kind of show now masquerades as a late-morning or early-afternoon news program.

KTCI, Channel 17
05:30p Villa Alegre
06:00p Japan: Living Tradition
06:30p MacNeil/Lehrer Report
07:00p Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
07:30p The Electric Company
08:00p MacNeil/Lehrer Report
08:30p Over Easy (guests Marlin and Carol Perkins)
09:00p Bill Moyers’ Journal
09:30p Mark Russell
10:00p Dick Cavett (guest Neil Simon)
10:30p ABC News (Frank Reynolds) (closed-captioned)

KTCI is the secondary PBS affiliate.  At this point in time it carries mostly reruns of big brother KTCA's shows.  Later, the station honchos will try to develop a full, mostly original, schedule for KTCI.  Then it seems to go back mostly to re-airing shows from KTCA.  

When I was politically active, I used to love watching Mark Russell, the Capitol Hill comedian responsible for some of the funniest, most clever satires of Washington life.  I always thought him a fair, equal-opportunity satirist. See if this rings a bill for any of you:

Those of you who read this blog regularly know that I've been slow to warm to TV Guides of the 70s and 80s, but the issues from this particular era have a soft spot in my heart, for reasons that have nothing to do with specific programming.  You see, in the spring of 1978 I graduated from high school in the world's worst town, and in the fall of that year we moved back to the Twin Cities as I started college.  My personal collection of TV Guides from then on, therefore, revert to the Minneapolis-St. Paul edition, rather than the Minnesota State Edition that I got during the Dark Ages.  Just looking at the simpler, more familiar program listings from these issues reminds me of how happy I was to return to civilization, and to this day it brings a smile to my face.

February 22, 2014

This week in TV Guide: February 24, 1979

The last time we saw James Arness, he was patrolling Dodge City as Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke.  He's now on a different network, ABC, in a different role, Zeb Macahan, on a different show, How the West Was Won. But Arness remains a larger-than-life star in a genre that's been very good to him: the Western.

Westerns used to dominate television - in 1959 alone there were 26 of them.  But there hasn't been a successful one since - when? Brisco County, Jr.?  That was a quirky series that really tried to transcend the genre to make it more relevant to the 21st Century, but perhaps it was too far ahead of its time, and it only lasted one season on Fox.  Firefly?  That was another series that Fox didn't really get, and it too ran only one season.  It was a blend of the old West and the new West - space. For all its sci-fi trappings, though, its sensibility was the Western.  Then there are the modern-day Westerns, from Walker, Texas Ranger to Justified to Longmire, but those are programs that I'd say are set in the West geographically more than philosophically. Little House on the Prairie had a good pedigree, Michael Landon having been one of the stars of one of the last big-time Westerns, Bonanza.  Doctor Quinn probably qualifies as a Western in spirit as well as setting, but that strikes me more as soap opera than horse opera.

How the West Was Won wasn't what you'd call a long-running success, but it's one of those shows that seemed always to be on TV one way or another.  It started as a TV-movie in 1976, The Macahans, then had a go in miniseries format the next season, before becoming a regular series for 1978 and 1979.  As the notoriously reclusive Arness sits down for his "one and only" interview of the new season, he explains to Dick Russell the difference between his two titanic characters.  Machaan, he says, is a man from "an era when men were the law unto themselves," making their own rules, taking advice only from themselves.  Matt Dillion, on the other hand, "was the opposite - a guy who not only had to see that the laws were carried out, but live by them himself.  He had to do the right thing." Arness took this code to heart, as "Miss Kitty," Amanda Blake, recalls: "He didn't want Matt to make a mistake."  She wondered why he couldn't be "on the other end of the pole" even once.  "Might've been interesting.  But Jim would never hear of it."

How the West Was Won gives Arness a chance to live out a different kind of Western hero, one closer to his own persona - the rugged outdoorsman, less restrained and buttoned up than Dillon.  But the strength of Dillon, and of James Arness the man, remains paramount.  In real life, as a close friend confides, Arness "really believes in the law of the West - what's right is right, and wrong is wrong; there are no grays."  It's impossible to not see this quality in Arness, and perhaps that had to do with the end of the Western.  As the 50s morphed into the 60s and 70s, society was less confident, less able to tell the difference between right and wrong, more willing to see the shades of grey that Arness was unwilling to acknowledge.  The kind of self-assuredness of a Matt Dillon or Zeb Macahan threatens people at times like this, people who lack that kind of knowledge of themselves, and when confronted with it they often shut their eyes to it.  By the time the public was again ready for that kind of television hero, as Steven Stark comments in Glued to the Set, the maverick cowboy had been replaced by the maverick police detective.

How the West Was Won leaves the air in 1979, and James Arness will return to Gunsmoke, making five TV-movies between 1987 and 1994. His own foray into police procedurals, McClain's Law, has a brief run in 1981-82.  Arness' character, Jim McClain, is described as an "old-school" cop; but when it comes to taking the bad guy to school, nobody does it better than the heroes of the Old West, the ones James Arness plays so well.


Up against How the West Was Won on Monday night is the debut of one of the dumbest ideas we'll see in a long time - NBC's Mrs. Columbo, starring Kate Mulgrew as the supposed wife of Peter Falk's Lieutenant Columbo, an amateur crime solver in her own right.  The Lieutenant isn't seen in this series, of course, just as Mrs. Columbo was never seen in the former series*.  She isn't seen by many viewers in this series either, and the Lieutenant's shadowy presence makes it much easier for NBC to change the premise; as the always-reliable Wikipedia relates, the negative critical response forces the network to rename the series first as Kate Columbo, followed by Kate the Detective, and finally Kate Loves a Mystery, by which time the character has been renamed Kate Callahan, presumably because even she doesn't want anything to do with this dog. The only real mystery remains how this series gets greenlighted at all.

*Although unlike the detective, she did have a first name, as we see - Kate.

And speaking as we were of Westerns, the star of that grand oater Bonanza is now playing Captain Adama on Battlestar Galactica.  Lorne Greene never does recapture the magic of Ben Cartwright; like James Arness, he tries to transition to the role of cop-hero in Griff, but that doesn't work.  Galactica, a series which I never thought was quite as bad as its reputation, is probably his most successful post-Bonanza network foray, but I remember him in those years as the commercial spokesman for Alpo dog food.  Hey, don't knock it - Ed McMahon did pretty well by Alpo, as I recall.*

*Watch out, though - it's not as easy as it looks.

Lorne Greene did have a notable role in the original Roots miniseries, as a villainous slave owner.  This Sunday, right after a special two-hour episode of Galactica, Roots: The Next Generations concludes with James Earl Jones playing Alex Haley as the author, traveling back to Africa in search of his, well, roots. While TNG doesn't quite match up to the impact made by the original - face it, nothing was ever going to compare to the sensation of that - it does receive considerable commercial and critical praise, and takes home the Emmy for best miniseries.*

*As well as an Emmy for Marlon Brando (who didn't refuse) in the brief but memorable role of American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell.


Just as Westerns were the dominant form of television in the day, the 70s is the era of the miniseries. Whether turned into an event, as with Roots and TNG being broadcast on consecutive nights, or spread out, as in the cases of Rich Man, Poor Man, Captains and the Kings, and others, the miniseries is synonymous with quality, epic, must-see television.  And while Roots: The Next Generations is a singular sensation in February 1979, there's another landmark miniseries that month leaving its mark on television: Edward the King.

Originally produced by ATV for British television, Edward the King comes to America as a ready-made package, with introductions by PBS newsman Robert MacNeil, and sponsorship by Mobil Oil, which, ala the networks, is paying individual stations to carry the program.  And, after viewing a 27-minute teaser for the series, stations do jump at the chance: 19 CBS affiliates, 7 from NBC, one from ABC and 22 independents.  "According to one programming manager who saw the presentation, Edward the King was 'the kind of show you'd love to buy and the sales department would moan, but this one is prepaid.  It's the best of all possible worlds.'"  CBS is particularly hurt by the defections, which will cost the network an estimated $5 to $6 million in revenue.  Desperate to stem the tide, the network announces it will risk one of its few successful new series, The Incredible Hulk, by putting it up against Edward in an attempt to hold onto its affiliates.

And this could be just the beginning.  Operation Prime Time, an ad-hoc collection of affiliates and independent stations, has already struck with big-name productions such as John Jakes' "Kent Family Chronicles" (The Bastard and The Rebel) and Evening in Byzantium, featuring big-name stars like Glenn Ford, Shirley Jones and Ingrid Bergman.*  Mobil has plans for more miniseries, and the Group W-owned stations regularly preempt network programming for local public-service programs.

*OPT ran intermittently until 1987, except for its most successful program, which continues to this day: Entertainment Tonight.

The number-one network, ABC, is relatively unaffected by these preemptions,  but NBC and CBS are plenty worried, routinely having to offer "make-good" rebates to sponsors because their commercials failed to reach a nationwide audience.  The fear is that affiliates may decide to flex their muscles, demanding lower fees to carry network programming under the threat of increased preemptions.  And you know how networks feel about their bottom line.  But as worried as the networks are in 1979, can you imagine how they would have felt if you'd told them about cable and streaming video?


There's a story building in college basketball, and the name of that story is Larry Bird.  The Birdman has led unheralded Indiana State to an undefeated season and the nation's number-one ranking,* despite and NBC, the home of college basketball, is scrambling to catch up.  Hence, Sunday's feature game on the network pits the Sycamores against Wichita State.  Buoyed by the national attention, Indiana State wins 109-84.

*Not to mention a victory over the touring Soviet national team - one of only four college teams to accomplish that feat.

The magic continues for the Cinderella Sycamores, as they dispatch three top-ten ranked teams in the NCAA tournament before they run into a team with magic of their own - Magic Johnson, that is.  His Michigan State Spartans defeat Indiana State 75-64 in the title game, a matchup that remains the highest-rated college basketball game ever televised.  It is, in the opinion of many, "the game that changed college basketball."

Meanwhile, as of this writing, the team that Indiana State defeated that Sunday - Wichita State - is the nation's lone undefeated team in 2014.  They're not quite as unheralded as Indiana State, but they're a great underdog team nonetheless.  One wonders how their story will end?

Elsewhere in TV sportsland, CBS' NBA game of the week features the Philadelphia 76ers, led by Julius Erving, taking on their old teammate, George McGinnis, and his Denver Nuggets, followed by the final round of the Glen Campbell Los Angeles Open golf tournament (won by Lanny Wadkins).  ABC counters with their Sunday afternoon trashsports, in this case Women Superstars, and Sunday's edition of Wide World of Sports (an exhibition by world figure-skating champions).  I'm not going to let CBS off the hook though; their own trashsport, Celebrity Challenge of the Sexes, is on against the final episode of Roots: The Next Generations.


Finally, to end our review of this very interesting issue, let's take about a quick look at the week's celebrity game shows? There aren't many anymore - certainly not like the golden age of game shows in the 60s.  ABC leads off with Dick Clark's $20,000 Pyramid, with Jo Anne Worley and David Letterman.  Password, once a staple of CBS, is now on NBC, with this week's guests Elizabeth Montgomery and Bert Convy.  And CBS has its own celeb-fest, the raunchy Match Game '79, with Bart Braverman, Fannie Flagg, Dick Martin, Charles Nelson Reilly, Barbara Rhoades, and Brett Somers.  No Richard Dawson - he's on Family Feud by this time.

Maybe there was better money to be made appearing in a brief role on one of those multi-story guest star-studded shows of the late 70s.  The Love Boat, for example, has Match Game's Gene Rayburn, while Fantasy Island has our friend Stuart Whitman, Diana Canova and Lola Falana.  NBC's $weepstakes has Gary Burghoff, Susan Strasberg, Edd Byrnes, Jack Carter and Nipsey Russell, and the same network's super-disaster Supertrain has Roy Thinnes, Loretta Swit and Victor Buono.  And that Celebrity Challenge of the Sexes is a veritable who's who of the B-list: from Valerie Bertinelli, Connie Stevens, Suzanne Somers and Carol Wayne to Sammy Davis, Jr., Gary Coleman, Erik Estrada and Ted Knight.

And then, of course, there are those made-for-TV movies, such as Women at West Point, a CBS movie starring Linda Purl and Andrew Stevens.  It makes you long for the game shows, doesn't it?

But without those awful movies, we would have been deprived of the line of the week, coming from TV Guide's movie critic Judith Crist.  After ripping the 1969 movie Stiletto, which "gives us Alex Cord as a Mafia hit man masquerading as a playboy," she turns her attention to the 1972 bank heist-flick Snow Job, which "gives us Olympic champ Jean-Claude Killy masquerading as an actor.  At least it has some top-notch skiing by Killy; he should have had a stand-in do his acting." TV  

February 21, 2014

The 1964 Winter Olympics revisited

On this last weekend of the Olympics, my friend Marc Ryan suggested it might be fun if we compared TV coverage from this year to that of 50 years ago.  The 1964 Winter Olympics were held in Innsbruck, Austria, and telecast on ABC.  As you can see from the closeup below, coverage of the Opening Ceremonies was, shall we say, a little different from how it was this year:

Yes - it was only on for an hour - from 9 to 10pm CT, presumably so it didn't interfere with the night's regular programming.  And, in these days when the Winter games didn't run for quite as long as they do today, the Opening Ceremony was on Wednesday.  Notice also that ABC doesn't even devote the full hour to the Ceremonies; included is a preview of some of the competitors and venues.

Lest you think things changed as the Olympics went on, check out the listings for Thursday and Friday:

Again, you'll note that coverage is only for an hour each night.  I would presume there might have been additional coverage on the weekend - I wish I had the next issue of TV Guide to see what else they did, but I don't.  But you notice that the emphasis tends to be on the medal events - no preliminaries or early heats.

I see that the famous Protopopovs, Oleg and Ljudmila, are competing in the pairs figure skating on Thursday.  One of the greatest of all pairs skaters, they would win the gold in both 1964 and 1968, with a grace and elegance seldom seen today.  And on Friday, the men's downhill - then, as now, one of the most glamorous of all events.  Egon Zimmerman was the defending gold medalist, and he would take gold here as well.  The hockey competition gets underway on Friday; nobody really expected the United States to repeat, and they didn't.  The Soviets won, as expected.  Interesting that Canada was one of the favorites - might this have been the last time they competed before boycotting Olympic hockey in protest over the Soviet use of professional players?

So for the first three days of the games, ABC presents a grand total of three hours, out of a total of 17.5 hours.  With all of NBC's resources, I think that total might have been topped on the first day alone.  And yet, one suspects that viewers might well have gotten everything they wanted from these games, seen all the winners, thrilled to the highlights that would emphasize the most important moments.  Saturation coverage wasn't necessary back then - but the marketplace ultimately decides, doesn't it?

February 18, 2014

TV and sports: the big sell-out

In the TV Guide from two or three weeks ago, I mentioned an article by Stanley Frank on how television has corrupted sports, and how this deserved a space of its own.  In prose that could well have been ripped from today's headlines (I should get today's award for best use of a cliche), Frank denounces the "Money-grabbing promoters [who] are collaborating with TV in debasing college and pro football, basketball, bowling and hockey.  The major networks have been guilty of phony buildups in boxing and golf to pull bigger audiences."  In short, says Frank, "With the sole exception of the Olympic Games, TV has corrupted every sport it has touched."*

*Frank wins the award for most ironic comment with that mention of the Olympics, but remember this is 1967 we're talking about.  The Olympics, as my friend Marc Ryan mentioned, has yet to figure out how valuable the television dollar can be.  

There are two things that really strike me here.  First, it's always interesting to see how willing TV Guide is to publish a piece by one of its own writers attacking the very industry the magazine covers.  Interesting but, perhaps, not surprising - we've noted before that TV Guide was a much more substantive publication back in the day.

Second, and perhaps even more intriguing, is how used we've become to the control television exercises over sports.  For in lamenting the effect TV has had on everything from TV timeouts to start times for football games to rest days in the World Series, Frank expresses disgust over things we nowadays take for granted.  And it’s that aspect that most demonstrates the difference between then and now.

For example, Frank references a pair of football games played during the 1966 season.  One, an November NFL game between the Vikings and Packers in Minnesota, was moved from its original 1:00pm CT start to 3:00pm in order to be part of a CBS doubleheader, while a Penn State-Syracuse college football game finished in near darkness, in a stadium lacking lights, simply because ABC wanted a later starting time.  Frank's point here is that these decisions, when made due to "requests" from the networks, can materially affect not just the game itself, but the spectators who've paid good money to attend - fans in Minnesota, for instance, who'd bought tickets to a late November game they thought would begin at 1pm now have to shiver through a game that won't end until around 6pm*, while those in State College, PA could barely make out the end of their team's 12-10 loss to Syracuse due to the darkness.  Why were leagues and teams willing to play ball with the networks?  As Asa Bushnell, executive director of the NCAA television committee, puts it, "I suppose they were afraid of losing the TV fee."

Professional leagues are constantly expanding, adding new teams in areas not previously known for being sporting hotbeds (two NHL teams in California, for instance), often when there don’t seem to be enough competent players around to field the number of teams they already have.  Why?  TV money.  Bowl games have expanded from the “Big Four” (Rose, Cotton, Sugar, Orange) to as many as 20 in 1966.  Why?  TV money.   The PGA Championship switches from match play, where two unknowns could go head-to-head in a final match that might only last 14 or 15 holes, to stroke play, which guarantees at least 18 holes  on Sunday and allows the sport’s biggest names to recover from a bad round.  Why?  TV money.

And what about that big money that prompted Syracuse and Penn State to change their start time?  To put it in context, the Big Ten took in $900,000 in television fees for all of 1966.  Last year, the league’s various television contracts (including the money from their own network) totaled $308 million.  Whereas in the 60s the conference might have had 16 to 18 games telecast per season, now virtually every conference game is aired.  And as Perry Mason would say, “I rest my case.”  (Of course, we've talked about this before.)

The reason I find this so interesting, enough so that I’d devote an entire piece to it, is to demonstrate how much times have changed – how used to it all we are now.  We accept the television timeouts in football – as a matter of fact, the Super Bowl is television’s biggest show in large part because people who aren't that interested in football actually tune in to watch the commercials.*  Those people would likely laugh at Frank’s concern over the “contrived” television timeout.  We may not like the delay (although it’s certainly more palatable for the television viewer than it is the fan in the stands who has to sit through them, or the player who has to wait for next play to be run, or the team concerned about losing momentum at precisely the time when it needs it most), but we’ve gotten accustomed to them.  Not unlike the frog in the boiling pot, I suppose.

*Which, in fairness, are often more interesting than the game itself.

Regarding the altered start time of games, would that it was as quaint as Frank’s complaint.  Not only are we used to them, we fairly demand them.  It matters little that a Monday night game might not start until after 9pm, or that a Thursday night game demands that a team play on only three days’ rest, or that a baseball game on the West Coast begins while the sun is still shining in the batter’s eyes.  What matters is the convenience of the television viewer – and if the viewers desire an NFL doubleheader every Sunday, then who cares if it means the kickoff might not be until 4:30?  Hell, with the league’s flexible scheduling policy, you could have a noon game moved to 8pm on very short notice.

And as far as television’s effect on the games themselves?  It’s true that the TV timeout can be a momentum-killer, although in the NBA, for example, a struggling team might wait to call a timeout of their own in hopes that the TV timeout will halt their opponent’s Big Mo.  But I doubt that most sports fans today would appreciate the more subtle aspects of Frank’s argument that the so-called “travel day” in the World Series has unalterably changed the “fundamental character” of the game.  His point is that great players from Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson to Ted Williams and Stan Musial rarely played in the World Series because their teams “lacked depth” at key positions, especially starting pitching.  Championship teams needed four good starting pictures, on the assumption that the Series could run for seven consecutive days, with no day off between games.  Add the travel days following the second and fifth games, and now a team can win with only three good starters – or even two, as the Tigers would prove in 1968.  While the travel day may have been necessary in the days before jet travel, certainly by 1967 that need has disappeared.

*Who knows what Frank would have thought if you’d pointed out that today’s teams travel on luxurious charters, and employ five-man rotations?

The point I’m making here is that Frank likely spoke for many fans in his 1967 article, and yet today he could well be speaking in a foreign tongue.  I doubt that even television executives could have foreseen back then the extent to which television would be a player at the sporting table – if, in fact, they don’t already own that table.  NBC vice president Carl Lindemann had it right when he told Frank that TV’s influence would continue – after all, it was NBC’s money that essentially allowed the American Football League to go toe-to-toe with the NFL until the two leagues merged.  As the leagues required more money, they’d turn to the networks.  As the networks needed more advertising revenue to cover costs, they’d charge the sponsors more.  As that amount maxed out, more commercials would be required in order to make up the difference.  And to justify it all, the networks would need to receive concessions from the leagues, whether it be through more teams, more playoff games, more games, more control.  More, more, more.

It didn’t have to turn out that way, of course, although once it started on the path the ending was probably inevitable.  But once money talks, it’s hard to shut it up.  When you get a taste of it, you want more.

Stanley Frank is frankly disgusted with television’s influence over sports.  But could Frank possibly have foreseen how much farther it could go?  Television networks influencing college conference realignment, creating conference-specific networks, owning bowl games, dictating the terms of how American sports operates.  Perhaps this would have come as a real shock to him – or maybe he could see it coming all along, he knew where the path would eventually lead, and that’s why those first few steps bothered him so much.

February 15, 2014

This week in TV Guide: February 20, 1965

When we think of Burgess Meredith, we tend to associate him with the Penguin in the original Batman, or as the hapless librarian in the Twilight Zone episode "Time Enough at Last," or perhaps as the veteran cornerman in Rocky, for which he received an Oscar nomination.  But in February 1965, he's co-starring with James Franciscus in the high school drama Mr. Novak, where he plays Principal Martin Woodridge.

Meredith has come to the series in its second and last season, as a replacement for the ailing Dean Jagger, who was forced to leave due to an ulcer.  It is hoped that Meredith's character will inject some tension into the series; Jagger, as Principal Albert Vane, had been more of a father-figure, and Woodridge's introduction figures to inject some conflict with the idealistic Novak.  (It doesn't work, or at least not enough to boost the ratings; Meredith appears for 17 episodes, after which the show is cancelled.)

It's considered quite the coup to attract Meredith to series television; he'd previously turned down series such as The Travels of Jamie McPheeters, and is known much more as a Broadway actor and director. His TV guest shots, including four appearances on Twilight Zone, have been memorable, but he's well aware of the difficulties facing veteran actors.  "Let's face it, I live high," he tells Dwight Whitney.  "I raise jumping horses, Kaja [his wife] flies airplanes.  The younger people don't know who I am.  And that, in this day and age, is essential."

So Novak is not the show that will bring Burgess Meredith to prominence among the younger generation. But just wait a couple of years, and that will change. . .


During the 60s, the Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace were the premiere variety shows on television. Whenever they appear in TV Guide together, we'll match them up and see who has the best lineup..

Sullivan: Scheduled guests are Sid Caesar, actress Betsy Palmer, Metropolitan Opera soprano Roberta Peters, impressionist Frank Gorshin, comedian London Lee, singer Jerry Vale, dancer Conrad Buckner, British ventriloquist Malcolm Powell and the Three Kims, acrobats.

Palace: Actress Bette Davis makes a rare TV appearance, and also appears with Bert Lahr in "Jealousy," a comedy sketch.  Other performers on the bill: dancer Barrie Chase; singer Julius La Rosa; comic Jan Murray; Les Cinci, apache dance team; Australian comic juggler Rob Murray; and the Nerveless Nocks, Swiss sway-pole artists.

Sid Caesar! (Rest his soul.) Bette Davis!  Roberta Peters!  Barrie Chase!  Frank Gorshin!  Jan Murray! Betsy Palmer!  Julius La Rosa!  Two of the best lineups we've seen in quite a while.  No way to choose, no reason we have to.  The verdict:  Push, and both well-worth watching.


When the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Cinderella was originally broadcast live on March 31, 1957, it was, according to the metrics of the day, the single most-watched television program to that time.*  It was the only Rodgers and Hammerstein musical to be written for television, and with future superstar Julie Andrews in the lead role, it created a sensation.

*There have been suggestions that this program remains the most-watched TV ever - a claim that's debunked at Television Obscurities.  Nevertheless, the audience for that evening was substantial.

Unfortunately, the program, which was broadcast in color, aired prior to the invention of video tape (although a black-and-white kinescope was found in the last few years), and owing to its live broadcast, it was never repeated.  Hence, eight years later, CBS has decided that it's time for a remake.  The new version, featuring Ginger Rogers, Walter Pidgeon and Celeste Holm and starring Lesley Ann Warren in the title role, premiers on Monday evening.

I don't know how the critics come down between the two versions (a third, starring pop star Brandy and broadcast by ABC in 1997, isn't really worth discussing), but certainly the 1965 edition, owing to an excellent color videotape, is more accessible.  It aired eight times over the next ten years, and made a star out of Lesley Ann Warren.

Up against the second half of Cinderella is what must have been a riotous hour of comedy on NBC, a Jonathan Winters special starring Bob and Ray.  The result, according to the TV Guide listing: "Television of the Absurd."  Among the bits: Bob's famous character Wally Ballou ("winner of 25 diction awards") interviews a "free-lance paper picker-upper" and visits the annual Benjamin Franklin Look-Alike Convention, and later Bob and Ray go back in time to meet George Washington (Winters) at Valley Forge. I looked on YouTube for a clip from the show, to no avail, but here's a vintage Bob and Ray routine from Johnny Carson's Tonight show:

If you want to check out Winters, one of the funniest men who ever lived, there are plenty of clips from the obit I did for him last year.

My personal preference would have been to watch Winters (I don't know what we did have on that night; it was almost 50 years ago, after all), but it's hard today to imagine a time when viewers would have had to choose which one to watch.  There were no VCRs, no DVRs, no way to save one show and watch it later.  Unless you had two televisions out and tried to keep an eye on each one, you were stuck.  It's one of the true marvels of technology, this ability to record programming for later viewing, or to watch an entire series via DVD or streaming video.  I complain occasionally about not being able to find a clip on YouTube; to find anything at all from that far back is a miracle in and of itself.  How soon we become accustomed to it.

CBS must have felt viewers had too much fun that night; they followed Cinderella with the pompous and provocative political pundit Walter Lippmann, offering comments and opinion on the state of the nation and the world.


Opening titles, from Inger Stevens website
Stop me if you've heard this, but I'm always interested in the quasi-documentary specials that used to pop up from time to time in the 60s.  Case in point is the lovely Inger Stevens, star of The Farmer's Daughter, hosting the special Inger Stevens in Sweden on ABC Friday night.  This was one of a number of celebrity-helmed tours shown on ABC; the network had previously aired Sophia Loren in Rome and Elizabeth Taylor in London.  Stevens had left Sweden for the United States when she was 13, which means, as TV Guide puts it, "she's almost as much a tourist as she is a Svenska flicka (Swedish girl)."  Among Inger's guests during the show are Prime Minister Tage Erlander, former world heavyweight champion Ingemar Johansson, painter Bo Beskow and actor Max von Sydow, and she works in time to visit the gardens of the Royal Palace and make a trip to her hometown of Dalarna.  All in all, a pleasant way to spend the evening.

Another of ABC's long-running documentary series is Saga of Western Man, produced and directed by ABC newsman John Secondari* and his wife, Helen Jean Rogers.  The series featured such episodes as "The Legacy of Rome," "Beethoven: Ordeal and Triumph," "Christ is Born," and this Tuesday's installment, "I, Leonardo Da Vinci,"  frequently narrated by former Oscar winner Fredric March.

*Secondari is perhaps even better known as author of the novel Three Coins in the Fountain, which in turn is probably best-remembered for its theme, sung by Frank Sinatra - the only time Sinatra ever sung a theme for a movie in which he didn't appear.  The song, which won an Academy Award for best original, was performed at the Oscars by Frank's cohort Dean Martin.  

In the world of dueling documentaries, NBC counters Saga of Western Man with its own special, "The Journals of Lewis and Clark," narrated by Lorne Greene and produced and directed by Ted Yates.  Yates, an acclaimed television documentarian and former producer of Mike Wallace's ABC interview show, would be killed in 1967 while covering the Six-Day War.

It was a frequent complaint by viewers that the networks would dump documentaries into a ghetto timeslot, often opposite each other.  Even in the early 60s, which we might romanticize as a more civilized television era, docs were a drag on the ratings, and while the networks enjoyed the prestige and awards they brought, they cringed at the thought of the low viewership numbers.  I'm willing to bet that the winner of the 9pm CT timeslot that night was CBS' The Doctors and the Nurses, which attempted to take advantage by airing the first of a two-part episode, which would conclude the following Sunday on the network's legal drama For the People, starring William Shatner.


The Big Three
Things are reasonably quiet on the sports front this week.  Remember, neither professional nor college basketball receive the saturation coverage they enjoy today, the NHL is a limited attraction even in Minnesota, and though golf is in the midst of the "Big Three" era (Palmer, Nicklaus, Player), most golf coverage consists of made-for-TV events (including, fittingly, a series of "Big Three" matches, coming this week from the famed Firestone Country Club in Akron).  If you want serious sports, start with ABC's Pro Bowlers Tour, which this week brings us the Thunderbird Open from Wichita, Kansas, followed by Wide World of Sports, with taped coverage of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships from Lake Placid.

On Sunday, CBS' Wide World clone Sports Spectacular features next-day coverage of the AAU Indoor Track and Field Championships from Madison Square Garden in New York.  Today we think of track maybe every four years, around Olympics time, but in the day track and field was a major sport, and this meet would have brought the biggest names in sports to one of the most famous arenas in the world.  And if that isn't enough, there's also tape of last week's Westminster Dog Show, also from the Garden, which is probably the only one of these events to be even bigger now than it was in 1965.

NBC Sports in Action, their version of Wide World, counters with a track meet of its own, the Los Angeles Times meet from the Sports Arena, taped a couple of weeks ago.  Most of the big names from New York participate in Los Angeles as well, so if you're a track fan (and who wasn't back then?), this is your weekend.  Wisely, the two programs are not aired opposite each other.

And then there's the National Indoor Tennis Championships, live on a syndicated hookup from Salisbury, Maryland.  Unlike today, where the indoor game is played on a synthetic carpet (the most famous brand name being "Supreme Court"), the indoor game of the 50s and 60s is played on a canvas mat that had been stretched tightly over the concrete arena floor.  In another departure from how the game is structured today, tennis back then has a clear delineation between amateurs and professionals.  The pros are not allowed in the sport's biggest events such as Wimbledon, the U.S. Open (which, because it wasn't "open" to both pros and amateurs, was called simply the U.S. Championships) and the Davis Cup, and instead play a limited schedule of tournaments, combined with a cross-country barnstorming exhibition tour.  In 1965, the Indoor Championships would have been for amateurs only, and was won by the Swedish star Jan-Erik Lundquist, who defeated American champion Dennis Ralston. The tournament, which started in 1898, is still played today, having called Memphis its home since 1976.  Frankly, I don't know if it's even on television anymore, and it certainly doesn't have the cache it had back then.


Finally, this note from the TV Teletype that "MARLO THOMAS, daughter of DANNY, is starred with RON HUSMANN and ANNE JEFFREYS in Two's Company, a comedy pilot about a young married couple."

The pilot failed, but out of it was the genesis of another sitcom project featuring a young woman and her boyfriend, which Thomas talks about in this interview; a series we all know as That Girl.  That was a success, running for five seasons and giving Marlo Thomas an identity independent of her famous father. And now you know the rest of the story. TV  

February 13, 2014

Remembering: Shirley Temple, Sid Caesar

Fair warning: this post is filled with videos, so make sure you've got plenty of time before you sit down to read it; it's like eating potato chips.  One clip leads to another, and before you know it it's already tomorrow.

First, a follow-up on the passing of Shirley Temple Black. I received a very nice and informative email from Lisl Magboo, who included some wonderful clips from interviews with some of the key people involved with the production of Shirley Temple's Storybook, conducted for the Archive of American Television.  The Archive is a product of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences* Foundation, and over the years they've accumulated a phenomenal collection of interviews with the early trailblazers of television.

*In other words, the people who put on the Emmys, among many other activities.

At the Archive's page on Shirley Temple's Storybook are interviews with costume designer Ray Aghayan; directors William Asher and Kirk Browning, who discuss what it was like working on the show; and actor Robert Culp, who recalls working on Storybook the day of JFK's assassination.  I don't think too many people remember Shirley Temple for her work on television (they're probably much more familiar with her film work, which will play on TV forever), and it's good to see a place where Shirley Temple's Storybook is remembered with its proper due.


Also from Lisl is the Archive's remembrance of Sid Caesar, the brilliant comedian who died yesterday at 91. It's such a cliche to say something like "Sid Caesar was a pioneer of television comedy." Yes, but it's also true. What else can you say when the words mean exactly what you want them to mean?  Your Show of Shows was a milestone in early sketch comedy - clever, innovative, sophisticated.  Its pace might seem a bit slow today, in an era when anything lasting longer than eight or so seconds is an eternity, but back when people had actual attention spans - long enough for comedy bits to develop and blossom, long enough for people to appreciate them - one could sit back and let the situation grow until - bam! - the payoff.  And then the laughter would wash over them and everyone else, only they probably wouldn't be aware of it because they were laughing too.

I was going to add that Caesar's passing marked the death of one of the last of the television pioneers, except that two of his colleagues from Your Show of Shows - Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks - still live. Cherish them while you can, and appreciate their legacy.

Enough from me - here's Sid Caesar in his own words, from the Archive's interview series.  Here he talks about his early career:

His advice for aspiring performers:

Here he recounts a time on Your Show of Shows when things didn't quite go right...

Speaking of Reiner and Brooks, Caesar discusses his famed writing staff:

Caesar had a legendary temper, which he discusses here:

As with Shirley Temple, you can see more of these great archive interviews at the Archive's blog here, or by visiting their website. And my thanks once again to Lisl for providing these links, and to the Archive for keeping alive the ghostly memories of television's past, and making sure they don't disappear into the mists for good.

February 11, 2014

Thoughts on "The Narcissism of Boomer Nostalgia"

Terry Teachout, a writer whom I like and admire enormously, had a provocative Wall Street Journal article a month or so ago in what he refers to as "The Narcissism of Boomer Nostalgia; I would hate to think I fit his description of

Baby boomers who have long been a nostalgic lot and are growing more so as they totter toward old age. Witness their tiresomely obsessive fascination with the popular television series of their youth. Likewise their undimmed passion for the rock music of the 1960s and '70s, which they still love so much that they'll buy expensive tickets to see wrinkled old codgers play it onstage.

You talkin' to me?  Probably not, although I can't deny there are days when I fade into the mists of classic television time as if it were a town called Willoughby.  In fact, I was going to write about this earlier - much closer to when it was actually published - but never got the piece past the "draft" stage.  Probably too busy watching The Saint and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  

But I'm glad I didn't get to it until now, and in fact what prompted me to return to the subject was the Grammy Salute to The Beatles on CBS on Sunday.  I didn't watch it; as you may recall, I've never been a particular fan of the Fab Four, and besides, it would have interrupted my viewing of season two of The F.B.I.  So let me ask all of you out there - does this show fall into Teachout's description?  Either the one above, or the one below:

As always with the boomers, this nostalgia contains more than a touch of narcissism. The same narcissism was on display in many of the countless gushy boomer-penned reminiscences occasioned by the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. An indisputably major historical event, to be sure, but there was also something decidedly creepy about the self-centered tone of those suddenly-my-world-changed pieces, which was deftly skewered by this Onion headline: "Area Man Can Remember Exactly Where He Was, What He Was Doing When He Assassinated John F. Kennedy. " Like everything else in the boomers' world, Kennedy's death turned out in the end to have been all about them.

My first reaction was, and remains, that the Beatles/Grammy special probably does fall into this category. As a historical moment in time, you can't deny that it was significant.*  However, had CBS wanted to commemorate that, it probably would have been easier to simply rerun the Sullivan show that had aired exactly 50 years ago that night.  It exists, after all.  And though The Beatles are just one part of the show, that very fact illustrates how at least two eras existed in the same space that night; the world as it was, and as it was about to become.  (Had Ed had Señor Wences on that night as well, you could have added the vaudeville past as well.)

*Though I'm not prone to attaching as much significance to it as many do.  I think the idea that "The Beatles helped America recover from JFK" shtick is a bit overblown.  However, given what Teachout says about JFK above, it's not at all a surprise.

The real significance of The Beatles on the Sullivan show was that it demonstrated at once the need of programs to appeal to more than one age demographic, and the increasing likelihood that they would no longer be able to do so, leading to the fragmented programming we have today.  As suggested in the Sullivan book I reviewed a couple of years ago, one could argue that it was Sullivan's desire to remain relevant by booking rock groups such as The Beatles that led to his eventual downfall, a classic case of trying to satisfy everyone and winding up satisfying no one.

So instead of offering a one-hour look at a moment that's since been frozen in time (with perhaps a wraparound documentary), the network opted for an all-evening extravaganza consisting of a reunion of the remaining members of the group (these reunions, by the way, are starting to resemble nothing so much as the old Peter Cook-Dudley Moore movie The Wrong Box) and an appreciation concert by legendary rockers.  It was, in short, an event that came dangerously close to a marathon of self-congratulatory ceremony by the industry, for the industry, and on behalf of the industry.  Look at us, they seem to say, look at how we changed the world.

And this, I think, is the kind of thing that Teachout writes about.  Because the whole thing was important to the industry, it has to be important to everyone, inflated beyond all reasonableness.


Now, I know what you're thinking: wait a minute. You write about things like the JFK assassination as much as anyone.  In fact, your whole blog is devoted to classic TV.  Don't his words speak to you as well?


I know some classic TV buffs who fit Teachout's description of those who “don’t want to see anything new, though they’ll put up with it if absolutely necessary.”  Maybe I fit in that category somewhere, although those who've followed my Top Ten list know I've heartily embraced several shows from this century - a couple of which are still going.  But it does raise a larger question: what is it about classic television that causes us to feel nostalgia?  Is it the hearkening back to an era that never really existed except in the yearning of the imagination?  Is it that television itself, which has always styled itself a guest in our homes, has the rare ability to touch our interior in a way that other media can't?

I'll be frank that in general I prefer many old television programs to new ones - I've never made a secret of it. The reasons often are the same as those given by people who prefer the current version: things like character development, longer story arcs, complex backstories, ensemble casts.  And I'd agree that there's a time and place for them, but - to coin a phrase - they should be safe, legal and rare.  For example, a program such as 87th Precinct - one of the better one-season cop shows of the early 60s - tells us virtually nothing about the private lives of its lead characters, save what's essential to that week's particular storyline.  But I'm a far bigger fan of programs that are plot-driven, shows such as Mission: Impossible in which the plot is everything and the players are generally interchangeable.  Let me ask you this: how many times have you seen Perry Mason's home?  Do you know where he went to college, what law school he graduated from, why he even went into law in the first place?  Does he have brothers and sisters?  Are his parents still alive?  Who does he chum around with when he's not working on a case?  We don't know any of that, and it matters not a whit when he sits down to do battle each week with Hamilton Burger.  The show is entertaining enough as it is.

There are other reasons I prefer older shows: often I find the absence of "frank adult content" to be a relief.  I like the immediacy and imperfection of live drama.  I think the civilizing influence of classical music is not only refreshing but necessary.  I think the rapid quick-cuts that are popular on so many shows are good for not much besides inducing seizures.  And so on and so on.

Does this mean that new television is all bad?  Of course not.  I think location filming has done a great deal to enhance the viewing experience.  The acting in many old shows was stilted, and character motivation could hover between naivety and improbable.  Advances in technology and special effects have made many action scenes more compelling, and I like avant-garde camera angles about as much as anyone.  And though I think story arcs and serializations are best left to soap operas, some character development and continuity would be welcome in the old warhorses.


So where does that leave us?  I think the dangers in nostalgia are twofold: first, it can be dangerously close to sentimentality, which not only isn't necessarily good but can often be bad.*  And second, it can cultivate, as Teachout suggests, a self-centeredness that combines both narcissism and isolation, to a very bad effect.

*And makes for bad television, as demonstrated by virtually anything by Hallmark or Oprah.

When we live constantly in the past, we fail to grow personally.  We refuse to mature, to take on the responsibilities of adults.  We submerge ourselves in cartoons, much the same way as some take refuge in videogames, refusing to leave the comfort of our childhood.  We stop striving, because things can't get any better than they already were.  We ignore the contributions made by present and future generations.  I didn't reject new Doctor Who, for example, just because I loved the old series.

If it seems that I'm giving classic television nostalgia a lot of power and significance, it's because the issue really isn't watching old TV shows.  It's living one's life for one's own pleasure and satisfaction, in finding a comfort zone from the past that excludes the present, in shutting everything else out.  It's defining your tastes as the correct ones, and your preferences as the only ones worth appreciating.  It is, as Teachout says, turning everything inward, it making it all about you.  And when everyone does that, when everyone points to themselves as the center of the universe - well, I guess you wind up with the world we now have, to a great extent.

And, oddly, that's not the world portrayed in the sitcoms of the 50s and early 60s, when families ate meals together and sat around the fireplace together (or the radio, or the early television) and sometimes just talked to each other.

As a cultural archaeologist, I try to use the past to understand the present and gain insight into the future.  I look at the programs of the 50s and 60s (and early 70s) in an attempt to see how and why things developed as they did, to gain a glimpse of worlds long gone, to see if there's a hint of what's yet to come.  Television both shapes and reflects its times, and as a measurement of a given time and place it's as good as anything.

Someone once said that where there's life, there's hope.  When you remove the incentive to strive, to achieve, to create something new, you've removed a crucial aspect of life.  And that, in the end, is what this is all about.  When you live in the past to the exclusion of the present, when you say that what we have is as good as it gets, then you're not really experiencing life at all.  And where's the hope in that?