June 28, 2014

This week in TV Guide: June 26, 1965

Back when I first started my TV Guide collection, it wasn't to provide sociological analysis of '60s television and how it reflected American culture and vice versa.  Northing that deep or pretentious.  It was simply because I liked paging through them, finding shows I remembered, shows I was sorry I didn't remember, and shows that I thought never should have made it to the air.  It was a miniature time capsule for me, a chance to relive some days and experience others for the first time, and it remains a simple pleasure to do so.

Since we're in the midst of the summer rerun season and there isn't a lot of depth in these issues, I thought I'd go back to those former days and just see what jumps off the page of this issue.  Maybe there's some good stuff in here, maybe not.  Let's see.


Here's something you wouldn't see on network TV nowadays.  At 8:45 am CT on ABC, it's the Irish Sweeps Derby horse race, live via Early Bird satellite from Dublin, with Jim McKay and Irish sports announcer Michael O'Hehir providing the call.  It wasn't that unusual for ABC, in particular, to provide Saturday morning sports coverage from overseas, as they did during Ford Motor's campaign to win the 24 Hours of LeMans.  The Early Bird, which was quite famous at the time, had only been up since April and live television coverage from Europe and Asia was a novelty at the time, leading me to suspect ABC covered the Derby not just because it was a big race, but simply because they could.  Lending credence to this theory is a mention in "For the Record" that Comsat is set to start collecting fees for the use of the Early Bird, ending the free run that had existed prior to then.

Here are highlights of the race, by the way, which was won by Meadow Court, partly owned by Bing Crosby.  I'm surprised a tape of the race wasn't found in his basement.


No Sullivan vs. The Palace this week, as Palace is preempted by the Coaches All-America college football game, live from Buffalo, New York.  This was one of the more unusual post-season all-star games, coming as it did more than five months after the end of the college football season.  For a football fan like me it was a real treat, a much-needed antidote to the endless stream of baseball throughout the summer*, and a signal that football season was just around the corner.  It was sort of a companion to July's College All-Star game, which pitted the NFL champions against an all-star team of seniors.  And besides, Chris Schenkel and Bud Wilkinson usually announced it, which meant it had to be a big game, right?

*This was long before I'd come to appreciate the subtleties and nuances of baseball, which in turn was long before the drug scandals and increasingly slow pace of the game drove me away again.

It's no surprise that all-star games like these don't exist anymore.  For one thing, the NFL would never permit their expensive new rookies to endanger themselves playing in meaningless college exhibition games when they could be playing in meaningless pro exhibition games.  And the whole all-star experience has waned across all leagues, given that the proliferation of televised sports has made household names out of almost everyone - it used to be, for example, that people who lived in American League cities only got to see National League players at the All Star Game, or on the occasional Game of the Week telecast.

Games like this may not be missed, but they're still missed, if you know what I mean.


I mentioned the single-season series The Rogues a couple of weeks ago.  It's on KCMT, Channel 7, at 10:30 Sunday night, rather than it's normal 9:00 Sunday timeslot.  Channel 7, an NBC affiliate that also carried various ABC shows, broadcast the previous day's Lawrence Welk at 9:00 instead.  Some people thought the failure of The Rogues, a clever and humorous show that starred Gig Young, David Niven and Charles Boyer, was because the show was too sophisticated for viewers.  In Channel 7's case, I can believe it.

Anyway, this week's episode is entitled "The Boston Money Party," and features Young's character (the three stars rotated turns as leads) "posing as the owner of a New England textile plant, to trap Paul Mannix, the 'wolf' of Wall Street."  An unscrupulous one, no doubt, as the rogues seldom scammed someone who didn't deserve it.  An attraction of this episode: it was written by William Link and Richard Levenson, the creators of Columbo and countless other clever shows.  Since I've talked about this show twice now, it's only fair I give you a glimpse of it to demonstrate why it's worth your while.  So here's the very episode we're talking about, "The Boston Money Party."

By the way, you'll (hopefully) remember that last week I brought up the practice in TV Guide of often crediting the writer of a particular episode, and you can see that in spades Sunday night.  Besides the mention of Levenson and Link, we also find out that this week's episode of Bonanza, "The Flapjack Contest," was written by Frank Cleaver, and that host Rod Serling penned this week's Twilight Zone, "The Bard."  Later in the week, we'll see that The Alfred Hitchcock Hour's "The Return of Verge Likens" (which was actually on MeTV a few weeks ago) was written by James Bridges, and the Kraft Suspense Theatre presentation of "Connery's Hands" was written by William Wood.  I still think it's a nice idea.


My mother watched soap operas when I was a kid, as I suspect did many mothers of many sons and daughters.  I'm fairly well-acquainted with many of them, but here's one that doesn't ring a bell - it's ABC's A Time For Us, a spin-off of the soap Flame in the Wind (which I hadn't heard of either), which has its debut this Monday.  It was only on for two years, if you count the two shows as one (as does the always-reliable Wikipedia), so I guess I'm not all that surprised.

Still, it's interesting - soap operas engendered such a passionate following among their loyal viewers, it's always interesting to run across the ones that didn't really catch on.  Still, if you're curious, here's an extended clip from an episode, sponsored by Dristan nasal mist, and Sleep-Eze, for a good night's sleep.

Speaking of soaps, here's the listing for Thursday's episode of General Hospital: "Steve hires a new staff member."  How could they stand the suspense?


Wait just a minute, you say!  You just said there wasn't any Sullivan vs. The Palace this week!  Well, that's what you get for believing everything I write.

Actually, we're cheating a little here, since the Hollywood Palace episode we've got is last week's, as it appears on WKBT, Channel 8 in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, a CBS affiliate who also dabbles in that wacky cross-affiliate programming.  They air Palace on Tuesday night at 10:30, right after your late edition of the local news, but we don't care, do we?

Sullivan:  TVG doesn't call this a rerun, but it doesn't say it's live either.  At any rate, Ed's guests this week are Tony Bennett; puppet Topo Gigio; rock 'n' rollers Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas; comic Jackie Vernon; the singing Kim Sisters; magician Johnny Hart; the two Carmenas, acrobats*; and Africa's Djolimba song and drum ensemble.

*My wife, upon hearing this lineup, suggested that the two Carmenas would be followed by the two Buranas.  If you don't get it, look it up.

Palace:  Host David Janssen introduces vocalists Edie Adams and Vic Damone; comedians Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks; Les Surfs, a singing group from Madagascar; the Harlem Globetrotters; Tim Conway; the knife-throwing Zeros*; and the Princess Tajana trapeze act.

*Let's hope that refers to the number of errant throws they make.

I'd say that one Edie Adams and one Vic Damone equal one Tony Bennett, and Jackie Vernon and Tim Conway probably offset themselves, as to the the acrobats and the knife throwers.  But the reason the Palace wins this week is the supporting cast: Reiner and Brooks, who may not do their "2000 Year Old Man" routine but do have a very funny bit on filing income taxes, the 'Trotters, who were very funny in those days, and Janssen, who's probably not that at ease in a hosting role, especially when his team of "Hollywood Dribblers" take on the Globetrotters.  But why speculate on it?  Here, watch the show for yourself:


Fred Astaire had essentially retired from Hollywood a few years ago, limiting his appearances to rare (and critically acclaimed) variety specials, but he and his current partner Barrie Chase are back this week in a comedy on NBC's Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre called "Think Pretty."  "Record company owners Fred Addams* [played by you-know-who] wants to win over female talent manager Tony Franklin - he's trying to sign one of her clients to a recording contract."  Fred and Barrie do a few dances, and Fred sings the title song.

*I wonder - since this was up directly against ABC's The Addams Family, did they perhaps spell Fred's character's last name that way on purpose?

And yes, here's a clip of one of their dances.  You knew that was coming, didn't you?


Saturday night at 8pm, CBS carries Secret Agent, which in England (and on DVD) is known by its original name Danger Man*.  I've written in the past about this show, the precursor to Patrick McGoohan's magnificent The Prisoner, which had a pretty successful run of its own.  I wouldn't have noticed this series back in 1965 - particularly this week, I would have been watching the football game - but you can bet I notice it now.

*Admit it though, Johnny Rivers singing Secret Agent is way cooler than the theme that was used under the title Danger Man.

This week's episode, "Whatever Happened to George Foster?", doesn't play into the Prisoner theme in the way that some other episodes do, but it's a strong one in its own right.  And speaking of familiar faces in unfamiliar roles, isn't that Bernard Lee playing the heavy?  You know, "M" - as in the James Bond movies? Glad he finally turned away from his life of crime.


Hawaii Five-0 isn't on yet, but we still have a double-dose of Jack Lord this week.  First, on a Dr. Kildare rerun (written by Harold Gast), Lord plays a doctor who fears rheumatoid arthritis may end his surgical career, just as it once ended his professional football career.  I'll bet we get Jack in full-on bitter mode here.  Question for any of you doctors out there, though: if his character had rheumatoid arthritis as a young man, bad enough that it stopped him from playing football, how was he ever able to become a surgeon in the first place?  I'm no doctor, I'm just wondering.

Later that week, Jack's back in an episode of his very good modern-day cowboy series Stoney Burke, which runs as a syndicated rerun at 10:15pm on Duluth's KDAL.  In this episode, a rodeo colleague of Stoney's is killed while riding a Brahma bull.  How does Stoney figure into it?  Let's find out:


And that note on The Doctors and the Nurses  Well, in a TV Guide article earlier in June, the humorist Art Buchwald wrote about how the show could have survived being on opposite ABC's new hit series The Fugitive.  His suggestion, as you can see here, was that a man would be brought to the Doctors/Nurses emergency room, "and as one of the doctors took the sheet off him, the audience would discover he had one arm.  Just before he dies on the operating table he would gasp, "I am the one-armed man the Fugitive is looking for.  Richard Kimble is innocent and I killed his wife."

As it turns out, a very funny letter to the editor from Arthur Joel Katz, former producer of The Doctors and the Nurses, suggests (likely tongue-in-cheek)  that he proposed just such an idea.  "A one-armed man comes into the hospital, confesses to Zina [Bethune, one of the nurses] that he killed David Janssen's wife, and dies.  The policy broadcast the news, but Janssen suspects a trap and doesn't believe it.  Thereafter, Zina sets out in search of David, but at every town she gets off the back of the bus just as David gets on the front.  The only trouble with this story is that I couldn't sell it to the writers.  Thus The Fugitive continues his adventures in oblivion, while we just fade into it."

The Doctors and the Nurses was originally just called The Nurses when it debuted in 1962, before doctors were brought into the mix to increase the dramatic possibilities, and the show's name was changed accordingly. Here's a look at the original version:


Well, how did we do this week?  I confess that when I started out, I had no intention of providing videos of almost every show I mentioned, but it just turned out this way.  Twenty years ago, or even ten, something like this - offering such a substantial amount of programming from a single TV Guide that was nearly fifty years old - would have been unthinkable.  And I suspect this only scratches the surface; how many other episodes that didn't catch my eye - like Wednesday's episode of CBS' Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, "Lucy Makes Room For Danny" - reside somewhere on YouTube or another streaming service?

As I say, this is just a wonder.  Who could possibly have imagined it was possible?  Certainly, when I picked up this issue to work on, I had no idea.  We'll have to try it again sometime, don't you think? TV  

June 26, 2014

Around the dial

We shouldn't be surprised to find some interesting things out there once again.  A shorter list than usual, but it's made up for by quality.

It's the "film" side of Classic Film and TV this week, but a movie we're more likely to catch on TCM - Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger's One of Our Aircraft Is Missing.  It's not a fantasy or sci-fi film, but what sounds like a very exciting World War II picture.  As is so often the case, half the fun of classic television is the thrill of finding something new and unseen.

Why do some series become beloved institutions, seen on television year after year, while others (many clearly superior) disappear without a trace?  That's the question Comfort TV asks with this piece on "The Disappearance of Murphy Brown."  Whether you liked Murphy Brown or not, David offers some very interesting insight into why the series never fell into the former category.

Another Danger Man piece at Cult TV Blog, this one with the wonderful title "The Man Who Wouldn't Talk."  Do I recommend this blog every week?  Seems like it, but as long as I keep reading about my favorite shows, I'll keep linking to it.

Not TV- or movie-related, but All Things Kevyn lists "The Ten Baddest Eye Patch Wearin' Moffos," and you can't really pass up a title like that.  Besides, can you resist a list that has both James Joyce and Nick Fury?

Always liked Columbo - always.  And I can't imagine anyone other than Peter Falk in it.  Here's a great piece at the AV Club with 10 episodes that show why Columbo is the most iconic TV detective of all time.  My only quibble is that the author doesn't share with us the name of the actor who played the murderous husband in the Columbo pilot Prescription: Murder - none other than our blog favorite Gene Barry.

I'd have more to list this week, but as the timestamp on this post shows, I'm running a bit behind.  Which leads me to a personal note here, for those of you whose blogs I've linked to today or in the past:  I do read all the blogs I link to, but I seldom have the time to comment on your sites.  Part of that is because I'm too damn busy and not well-enough organized, but it's also because I frequently feel I'd have little to add to what you've already written or your commentators have already offered.  This way, any comments I make on my blog won't cheapen the quality of yours.  I used to try and answer most of the comments on this site, and I really need to do a better job of that as well, but again, I do read and enjoy them all.

And speaking of links, I know that several of you have been kind enough to link to me in the past, and for that you have my thanks.  For some reason, though, this site has never shown trackbacks the way it should, and my trackers seldom tell me when someone's mentioned this blog, so I've you've had nice things to say, or questions you've asked, and you've never seen me acknowledge them, it's because I've missed it.  (By the way, if anyone knows how I can track things better, drop me an email.  You'd have my eternal gratitude - or, as Sally Brown once told her big brother Charlie Brown, at least until tomorrow.)

See you back here Saturday for another TV Guide, right? TV  

June 24, 2014

Realism vs. Plausibility

As you may know, the classic version of Hawaii Five-0 is my regular Thursday night viewing, and in the last few weeks we've seen Steve McGarrett blown up on a boat (no significant injuries), splashed in the face with gasoline (which didn't keep him from shooting the perp), blown up in a car (the lasting effects of which were mainly confined to the guy who ordered the hit on Steve), and variously shot at, punched, and targeted for mayhem.  It's nice to know that none of this got in the way of our hero catching the killer by the end of the hour, including cases in which I'm fairly sure the Hawaii State Police wouldn't have jurisdiction.

You can repeat this pattern in most classic TV shows of this kind: Mannix gets shot at and beaten up pretty much every week, with no symptoms of post-concussion trauma (expect a revival of the series to be sponsored by the NFL), and I think that every cop on TV has shot at least a couple of people in every episode without even being put on paid leave, let alone going before the grand jury.  Does this bother my viewing?  Not in the least!  Yet put me in front of a show like Law and Order or Castle, and I'll spend every moment of forced viewing* complaining about everything from inadmissible confessions to the likelihood of a police detective being able to afford living in a Manhattan loft without accepting some kind of graft from the syndicate.

*To which my wife will attest, which is why she encourages me to work out whenever she has them on.

Therefore, the question before the house is why I demand certain things from current television shows, while I let other things go in the classic genre.  Is it selective enforcement of logic, or are there deeper things at work?


My theory, and that's all it is, is a combination of original thoughts and ideas cribbed from sources I can no longer locate, so if you're one of those sources looking for credit, forgive me for swiping your ideas.  And let me know, so I can do it again.

You don't really expect me to buy that, do you?
I could probably write a book on this, but in brief, my theory is that classic television didn't attempt to create the same level of "realism" that exists in today's shows.  Instead, the main characters - McGarrett and Mannix, to name a couple - represented archetypes, symbols of something greater than an individual character on a show.  I recall reading somewhere that Mike Connors, the actor who played Joe Mannix, admitted that his type of private detective, a throwback to Spade and Marlowe and the rest, had already been gone for decades by the time the series premiered in the late '60s.  I've read elsewhere that the life of a real private detective is pretty dull; most of them have never shot anyone, and they're much more likely to investigate an employee accused of dipping a finger in the till to checking out a scandalous murder that invariably introduces them to a bevy of glamorous and deadly femme fatales.

But would we watch a show like that?  Probably not, unless it was a reality show on Discovery.

From the get-go then, a show like Mannix was never intended to be that realistic.  You might see him bleed from the corner of his mouth, but for as violent a show as it was said to be in the day, you see more gore in the average trailer for a Scorsese or Tarentino movie.  As such, while it was far more serious and deeper than, say, a cartoon, you were meant to watch it for something other than hyper-realism.  From the simple good-vs-evil showdown to a commentary on current events to an allegory of the human condition, these shows were trying to sell you something that was not meant to be believable in the small bits, just the bigger ones.  Call it a non-science fiction form of fantasy, in which heroes can be shot, beaten, and subjected to all manner of abuse that the human body was never intended to endure, all in pursuit of the larger goal of entertainment, with perhaps a message or two on the side.

What these shows often did have going for them, though, was logic.  Take Mission: Impossible, for example.  Could there be a government agency that really comes up with the kind of intricate plots for which the IMF team was famous, composed of incredibly beautiful women (Barbara Bain) and darkly handsome men (the rest of them), with a success rate of 100%?  I can't say for certain, but I suspect not.  And yet if you try to watch Mission: Impossible with an eye toward that kind of realism, you're done for.  What you do find, however, is an exceptionally logical plot.  Once you suspend a certain level of disbelief, you find that every element of this week's scheme makes sense and flows logically from one element to the next.  If there is a roadblock that pops up, it's perfectly reasonable to think that the minds responsible for cooking up such a plan in the first place could ad-lib their way out of any trouble.  Think of it as improv theater for the national security set, and you've got it made.

In contrasting these shows with the fare served up today, I describe the difference in one phrase: realism is not plausibility.  You may disagree with me on this, but I believe the contrast between realism and plausibility is more than a distinction without a difference.  If you watch an episode of any given police procedural today, you find out that people do, in fact, bleed when they're punched or shot, and that the world in general is a messier place than it looked back when.  Fine.

But in other ways, these shows seem far less plausible than their counterparts from the olden days.  When I look at these impossibly hip detectives, with their incredibly ability to tap into virtually any computer system in the known universe in less time than it takes for this laptop to boot up and go through a virus scan, I have to wonder.  When I see them living in the incredible lofts I mentioned earlier, I wonder why Internal Affairs isn't looking into their finances.  When I see a celebrity "consultant" allowed to not only sit in on interrogations but ask questions as well, I wonder what the accused's attorney is going to say about this in court.

OK, you're thinking, I get it.  You don't like what's on TV today.  (Not completely true, but we'll let it pass for now.)  You prefer the old shows to the new ones.  (I'll readily plead guilty to that.)  But aren't you trying to have it both ways?  I don't think so, and here's my explanation as to why.

The idealized policeman?
In an attempt to make today's characters deeper, more realistic, and often with a deep psychological backstory that gets parceled out in drips and drops via flashback, the show's creators make it that much harder to view them as mythic archetypes.  Whereas the classic Steve McGarrett was a stand-in for the entire system of American justice, today's McGarrett is just another hot-shot detective with a hipster wardrobe and a military past that occasionally sends him into places like North Korea.  That's when you get to the "give me a break" point in a show, because you're being asked to believe something that just isn't plausible, and in doing so it doesn't matter how grimy the city looks, or how much blood flows from someone's bullet wounds.

Part of this, I suppose, is due to the growth of ensemble television, and the concurrent fact that casting a single actor as the star of a regular series, ala Mannix, with only a supporting cast, would probably be prohibitively expensive, unless you happen to be talking about a show like Orphan Black.  Ensembles rarely leave room for mythological giants in their midst.  But I do think I'm on to something here.  I don't get upset when something unrealistic happens to the protagonist in one of my classic TV shows, because I don't view him as simply an individual - he's more than that.  I don't know if there's ever been a lawyer like Perry Mason in real life, but I also don't know of a better ambassador for what the American legal system should be than Mason.  A show like The Good Wife may present a more realistic view of the courtroom, but I don't think it would inspire you to realize just how perfect our system of justice should be.*  Likewise, when I read the late Efrem Zimbalist Jr. discuss how many FBI agents told him they were inspired to join  the agency because of his show, I ask myself if that could happen today.  Note that I don't say it couildn't happen, but I can't help thinking you'd be more likely to sign up for N.C.I.S. in order to play with the cool computers and meet goth scientists.

*Yes, I know it isn't that way now and probably never was, but it thrills the imagination in the same way that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution make the heart skip a beat: we may not follow either of them today, but that doesn't make their principles any the less stirring.

Archetypes and myths were the stuff of which heroes were made.  Realistically, we tell ourselves, heroes like that don't exist, or are rarely found, which is why we don't find them on TV.  We don't believe in heroes that much, or in anything else for that matter.  We're too cynical, too knowing, to with-it to fall for that claptrap.  That makes it that much harder to sell the kind of hero I talk about here, the one who seems oblivious to things that would stop mere mortals.  And perhaps that does give us a more realistic view of the world, albeit a less interesting one.

I don't really know if I've made a dent in my theory; I feel I've spent all my time setting up arguments that could feel superficial because I haven't built them out far enough, and any one of you might be able to tear it apart with well-founded arguments of your own, ones that might be both realistic and plausible.  Maybe it does take a book to do it justice.  But when that book does come out, you'll probably be more likely to find it in the sociology area than television, because in the end this discussion isn't really about television at all. And if you have anything to add to it, I promise I'll mention you in the index.

June 21, 2014

This week in TV Guide: June 23, 1956

This is one of the oldest issues in the collection, older even than me.  (Wow, that's old!)  And gracing the cover is Steve Allen, star of the Tonight show, and about to enter into single-warrior combat against Ed Sullivan for control of Sunday night variety supremacy.

Prior to this, NBC's entrant against Sullivan was the Colgate Comedy Hour, which as we know from Gerald Nachman's book, either was or was not successful competing against Ed.  But now Steverino's been chosen to take on Ed and his weekly audience of 50,000,000.  Allen, a mere lad of 34 and already "well on his way to becoming a millionaire" (annual income: about $300,000!), has moved from panelist on What's My Line? to the man generally credited with creating the modern Tonight show, and now to prime-time host.  His plan, according to this week's article, is to build on his Tonight success, bringing along his producer, director, bandleader, and several of his regulars.  Says Allen, "We'll resemble Tonight, but we'll be smoother,"  giving the audience "what they have a right to expect" from a show in prime-time rather than late at night.  He plans fewer guests than Sullivan, meaning each one will get more time; and he plans to stay away from the "highbrow"* guests that Sullivan often features.

*As Terry Teachout frequently notes, we'd consider Sullivan's shows to epitomize the "middlebrow" culture, which I think would include the sophisticated comedy of - Steve Allen.

Allen's plan is to continue Tonight for three nights a week while he does the Sunday night show, with the other two nights filled by reruns; in fact, it is Ernie Kovacs and his crew who fill the Monday-Tuesday slot, and Allen (and Kovacs) will leave Tonight by the following January, leading eventually to Jack Paar.  As for The Steve Allen Show, it survives until 1960 and was known, among other things, for featuring a most incongruous appearance by Elvis Presley.


This is where we'd normally have the "Sullivan vs. The Palace" feature if we were in the mid-60s, but since we have the chance, let's see what Steve Allen had to offer against Sullivan that first Sunday.

Steve's show, which airs at 6pm CT, is a blockbuster opening, featuring "Glamorous" Kim Novak; the Will Mastin Trio starring Sammy Davis, Jr.; comedian Wally Cox; actors Dane Clark and Vincent Price; and the dance team of Bambi Linn and Rod Alexander.

Unfortunately for Steve, Ed's chosen tonight (at 9pm CT) to celebrate his eighth anniversary on television, and he has an all-star cast of his own: singers Harry Belafonte, Kate Smith and Teresa Brewer; comedian Jack Paar*; Klausen's Bears; and cameo tributes by Phil Silvers, Susan Hayward, Eddie Cantor**, Abbott and Costello, Red Skelton, Gregory Peck and Tab Hunter. 

*Who, as we mentioned, would eventually take over Tonight.

**Eddie Cantor, ironically, was one of the hosts of Ed's former NBC competition, the Colgate Comedy Hour.

Now those are two heavyweight lineups.  I might be wrong about this, but I think I'm going to give Steverino the edge this week, although it would be a lucky person who chose to watch them both.

By the way, you might wonder what the relationship was like between Allen and Sullivan.  Unlike many feuds he engaged in, Sullivan had no problem with Steve, having given him one of his first big TV appearances.  "I'm a Steve Allen fan," Ed says. "Been one for years."  For his part, Allen is effusive in his praise of Sullivan, saying "I have a high opinion of Ed's show.  And Ed himself has been overly kind to me in his column."  Steve's goal isn't to knock Sullivan off his stool; "All I want him to do is push over a little so that there's room for me too."


The layout of TV Guide - and television itself, for that matter - is quite different in 1956 from what we might see in the '60s, and it takes a little getting used to.  For example, the 10pm news on Channel 4 is actually at 10:30 - with varied programs filling the 10pm slot, from Burns & Allen on Monday to What's My Line? on Wednesday (yes, WML? wasn't seen in its usual Sunday night slot on Channel 4, what with Ed's anniversary show) to Climax! on Thursday.

It actually can be quite difficult to figure out what various schedules are.  Some of this, I think, is due to the difficulties of Daylight Saving Time, especially in places such as Minnesota that don't observe it.  The Twin Cities would be two hours behind New York rather than one (which probably made things like live broadcasts even more challenging).  For example, according to the always-reliable Wikipedia, the following was CBS' Thursday prime-time schedule in 1955-56 (with times adjusted to Central):

6:30  Sergeant Preston of the Yukon
7:00  The Bob Cummings Show
7:30  Climax!
8:30  Four Star Playhouse
9:00  The Arthur Murray Party
9:30  [unknown - Wanted, which had started the season, had been canceled by now]

Now, by contrast, here's what the two CBS affiliates, KDAL, Channel 3 (Duluth) and WCCO, Channel 4 (Minneapolis) offered:

6:30  Rin Tin Tin (Channel 3, from ABC); Sergeant Preston of the Yukon (Channel 4)
7:00  The Bob Cummings Show (Channel 3); Doctor Hudson's Secret Journal (Channel 4, syndicated)
7:30  Four Star Playhouse (both channels)
8:00  The Arthur Murray Party (both channels)
8:30  Make Room For Daddy (Channel 3, from ABC); Cross Current (Channel 4, syndicated version of Foreign Intrigue)
9:00  Climax! (Channel 3, until 10pm); The Bob Cummings Show (Channel 4)
9:30  Climax! (Channel 4, until 10:30pm)

Channel 3 offered news and sports at 10, while Channel 4 didn't get to their local news until 10:30.

By contrast, NBC's schedule for that evening was simplicity itself.  The network schedule:

6:30  Dinah Shore/NBC News
7:00  You Bet Your Life
7:30  The People's Choice
8:00  Dragnet
8:30  Ford Theatre (not to be confused with Ford's Theater, which is a different subject entirely)
9:00  Lux Video Theatre

And here's how the two NBC affiliates, KSTP, Channel 5 (Minneapolis) and Channel 6, WDSM (Duluth) handled it:

6:30  Topper (Channel 5, syndicated); local news (Channel 6)
7:00  The People's Choice (Channel 5); I Led Three Lives (Channel 6, syndicated)
7:30  Ford Theatre (Channel 5); Mr. District Attorney (Channel 6, syndicated)
8:00  Lux Video Theatre (both channels)
9:00  You Bet Your Life (both channels)
9:30  Dragnet (both channels)

Being a program director back then must have been a bitch.


What's that?  You say you want sports?  Good luck with that.  On CBS' Saturday game of the week, the Yankees play the White Sox in Chicago, with Dizzy Dean and Buddy Blattner providing the commentary.  On Sunday, Channel 4 has some bowling.  Monday night Channel 9 has minor league baseball featuring the Minneapolis Millers taking on the Louisville Colonels.   Wednesday is ABC's boxing night, Thursday features a syndicated bout, and Friday is NBC's fight night.  And that's it.

On the topic, an interesting letter to the editor from Morton Solomon of Minneapolis, asking a pretty straightforward question: "How come I can't see the Major League game of the week on Saturday afternoon on Ch. 4 when the Millers or [St. Paul] Saints are playing on Ch. 9?  I'd like to spend my time partially watching both."  The answer is equally straightforward: "The major-minor agreement, in order to help increase interest and attendance, is that no Major League game can be televised at the same time the Millers or Saints are playing in town."

What really caught my eye about that question was its very local-ness.  Back then, TV Guide was still enough of a local publication (in fact, TV Guide had bought out several local publications in the process of building their national circulation) that the local editor provides answers to local questions.  Yet another thing that went away somewhere down the line.


Let's look at the Teletype and see if we can find any clues to upcoming shows that caused a stir.  Here's one - CBS' new Playhouse 90 anthology series, premiering this fall.  Playhouse 90 went on to be come one of the classic anthologies of the original Golden Age, the most famous episode probably being Rod Serling's "Requiem for a Heavyweight," starring Jack Palance.

Here's another one - notice of Dick Powell's new Zane Grey Theater, also headed for CBS this fall.  Zane Grey Theater, with Powell as host and occasional star, was a mainstay on the network until 1961.  And finally there's the upcoming Whirlybirds, a show which I remember fondly from syndicated reruns on Saturdays.  It only ran for three seasons, but it's fondly remembered by many people my age.


It seems as if I've written a lot about nothing this week.  When summer rerun season comes around, I'm more inclined to focus on the features than on the reruns, and I guess this has been no exception.  One other thing I'll note, though, is the prominence given to the writer in the program listings.  Take, for example, Monday night's episode of Producers' Showcase on NBC.  It's a production of "Happy Birthday," starring Betty Field, but prominent billing is given in the Close-Up to the writer, Anita Loos.  It's partly because of her fame; her most famous work was "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," by which Marilyn Monroe did very well. But it's something we see time after time into the late '60s - even in regular series television, the writer of an episode, and occasionally even the director, is frequently credited.


By 1970 or so this has pretty much disappeared.  I suppose it's due somewhat to the increase in television stations, and the corresponding decrease in the amount of space given to each program in the listings.  The individual writer is also less important today, his role being superseded by the showrunner, or what we used to think of as an executive producer.  Some showrunners, such as Seth McFarlane, Matt Weiner, David Chase, Vince Gilligan and Aaron Sorkin, have become as famous as their creations, so much so that their name alone can sell a series.

It was that way in the Golden Age with writers.  A teleplay by Rod Serling or Paddy Chayefsky, a series episode written by Reginald Rose or Sterling Silliphant, was almost certainly worthy of a mention in TV Guide.  Even if you didn't know what the show was all about, you'd tune in based on the name alone.

There's a certain craftsmanship to that, don't you think?  A recognition that the people in front of the screen aren't the only thing a show has going for it.  We know much more about the behind-the-scenes of a television series today than we did in the past, but the simple mention of a writing credit for an episode of Dr. Kildare or The Defenders somehow makes it more real.  But then, for a country whose economy is no longer built around making things, I suppose it's not a surprise. TV  

June 19, 2014

Around the dial

There's lots of good stuff out there, and I've been negligent lately in pointing it out to you. Let's take a look, shall we?

Another great Danger Man piece over at Cult TV Blog, this time about the episode "You're Not In Any Trouble, Are You?"  The irony is intentional.  You've probably picked up that I like both the blog and the show.

I've been listing to old-time radio (OTR) on the Sirius channel lately, and I never fail to be surprised at the number of radio shows that made the transition to television.  We all know that early TV was filled with radio imports, but it's the shows that we don't think about - such as the radio version of Have Gun - Will Travel, that actually came after the TV version stared - that are the most fun.  This week, How Sweet It Was takes a look at one of them - Father Knows Best, which had a very successful radio run before moving to TV.  And yes, Robert Young played Jim Anderson there, too..

I confess - I watched the Archie cartoons on Saturday mornings when I was a kid.  I'm not proud of it, but if I'll admit to this, just think of the things I won't admit to, at least here.  Comfort TV takes us through the history of Archie on television, but for me the clincher was in the very first sentence, alluding to the implausibility of eternal teenagers: "Seventy years in high school? Even a Kardashian could graduate in that time."

Looking at some other sites, SI.com discusses what televised football will look like ten years from now.  Are you ready for 4K and 8K HD television, pictures that will make today's HD sets look like the analog tubes of yesteryear?  What about technology that can digitally remove players from a pile up in order to see whether or not the ball crossed the goal line?  It won't do much for vintage TV, but it makes the head spin, doesn't it?

Whitman TV-tie in books.  I'll bet you had some of these when you were young.  I know I did; I remember in particular an F-Troop book that was just as much dumb fun as the show was.  This week, Television Obscurities takes a closer look at the Whitman line, including many titles I've seen in antique stores, and a lot that I was never aware of.

As you'll see on this site over the next couple of weeks, there's no shortage of classic television online nowadays, and some of the shows - classics as well as unknowns - are quite illuminating.  This week Kinescope HD offers a look at the King of 1960s Comedy, the nation's "Comic in Chief," Bob Hope, and this complete episode of the Bob Hope Buick Show.  Yes, I know it's so commercial, but I really do like those shows that had the sponsor's name in the title.  It works much better with a TV show than, say, a bowl game, don't you think? TV  

June 17, 2014


If you're like me, first of all, you have my sympathies.

But if you do happen to be like me, at least in the more agreeable ways, then you've probably been watching a fair share of the World Cup the last few days.  It's been surprisingly good so far; sides really seem to be playing to win, rather than playing not to lose.

As I mentioned over at the other blog, I've liked soccer for some time, but it's only been in the last few years that I've really started to appreciate it - to become a fan.  And one of those responsible for this development is Andrés Cantor, one of the great announcers of our time.  If you don't recognize his name, or even his face, you'll probably know him from the famous way he calls a goal...

Now, I don't speak Spanish, even though I do live in Texas.  (That will probably change eventually.)  But one year I was so disgusted by the subpar announcers on ESPN and ABC - this was before they significantly upgraded four years ago by hiring real soccer announcers, who were British and actually knew the game - I watched the World Cup final on Univision, even though I couldn't understand what they were saying aside from the players' names.  Of course, this gave me the chance to appreciate Cantor in more than just short clips on SportsCenter.

So why talk soccer on a classic TV blog?  First, because it's my blog and I can write what I want. But more seriously, one of the ways we can tell that soccer - and Andrés Cantor - have become more mainstream is by the commercials he's appeared in over the years - ads for Pepsi, Geico and, new this year, VW.  They counted on people getting the joke, and I think they showed good judgment.

Here's a Pepsi ad from a few years ago:

That was followed up by this wonderful commercial for Geico:

And then this year's addition for Volkswagen, with his real-life son:

Just watching these while I was copying them to the blog, I sat here and laughed at each one.  They're not offensive, not suggestive, not stupid.  They're not male enhancement ads, they're not for female protection, they don't have stupid fathers or slutty mothers or smart-mouthed kids or plain idiots.  They're just charming and funny.  And when watching a commercial can make you smile, that says a lot more for the product than those others.

June 14, 2014

This week in TV Guide: June 12, 1965

A while back we took a look at a TV Guide that included direct evidence of the viewing tastes of its owner, in the form of circled program listings. Whether or not these shows were actually viewed, we have a pretty good idea of what the owner of this issue intended to watch that week.

We're got another example of that this week, and while the viewing choices aren't as widespread as they were in the previous issue, they're still worth looking at.  The mailing label on this issue is missing so we can't tell much about that owner (other than that he or she lived in the Twin Cities), but my suspicion is that they liked sports.

The week kicks off on Saturday, and there, in green ink, a box has been drawn around the pre-game show preceding the Minnesota Twins game against the Tigers in Detroit.  No surprise there; this is a magic year for the Twins, who lead the American League on the way to their first pennant and appearance in the World Series, where they'll lose a heart-breaking seventh game to Sandy Koufax and the Los Angeles Dodgers.*  That's a ways in the distance though, so we'll just enjoy the Twins on their ride to the top.

*Who are on ABC's Saturday Game of the Week, playing the hapless Mets in New York.

There's more Twins baseball on Sunday, the final game of the weekend series against Detroit, but before that we see another selection - this time the syndicated Harbor Command on KSTP, Channel 5.  (That series is out on DVD now, by the way, to mostly positive reviews.  Haven't seen it yet myself, but I may check it out one of these days.)  Then, at 10:30 that evening, there's not only a box but the word "See," referring to the Channel 4 late-night movie A Cry in the Dark, starring Edmond O'Brien, Brian Donlevy, Natalie Wood, Raymond Burr and Richard Anderson.  Burr and Anderson, of course, would later be reunited in Perry Mason.  But for now, Burr - as was his wont, back in the day - plays the heavy, kidnapping Wood and intending to have his way with her, but don't worry - Natalie eventually makes it home safely.  Had she known more about Ray Burr back then, she might not have worried as much.

The Twins are on again Tuesday night (accompanied by the note "7:30 Twins"), this time in Chicago to play the White Sox.  Following that, though, we're plunged into confusion - unless this household has multiple TVs, there might have been a battle over what show to watch.  Channel 11's late movie, following the Twins game, is Only the Valiant at 11:30pm.  The movie runs two hours, but that doesn't prevent our programmer from also circling the 12:15am movie on Channel 5, Apache Woman.  And for good measure, the program following that 11:30 Channel 11 movie, Adventure Theater, is highlighted as well.  My guess is that if Only the Valiant was any good, the Channel 11 schedule probably won out.  Otherwise, it gets the hook and Apache Woman takes the night.

Unfortunately, even though there's another Twins-Chicago game the following night, and the first of a weekend series against the Yankees on Friday, this is where the notes end.  Maybe the owner got sick and didn't get to the rest of the week; perhaps there was a vacation upcoming, with no need to circle shows after Tuesday.  Hard to say.  But I'm sorry they stopped, whoever they were - it's fun looking back at what I might have watched back then, but even more fun to see the viewing habits of others.


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..

Palace:  We’re in the rerun zone at the Palace this week, with host Arthur Godfrey welcoming comedian Shelley Berman; songstress Dorothy Collins; singer John Gary; the comedy team of Gaylord and Holiday; Dwight Moore and His Mongrels; juggler Eva Vidos; and the Dalrays, comic acrobats.

Sullivan:  Ed's live this week, with comedian Sid Caesar; comics Allen and Rossi; French pop singer Jean Paul Vignon; British rock 'n' roller Tom Jones; comic London Lee; singer Dee Dee Sharpe; the Seekers, folk singers; and the Wychwoods, an illusionist act which uses 14 trained poodles.

Let's see: dog acts?  Check.  Comedians?  Check.  Comedy teams?  Check.  Singers?  Check.  Each show has ticked the boxes this week, which leaves us to look at the personalities.  Shelley Berman can be very funny, Dorothy Collins is easy on the eyes, and John Gary has a smooth voice.  On the other hand,  Tom Jones is still going strong!  Even so, it's not unusual for me to go with The Palace, and that's where the winner is this week.


Jack Paar's in London for this week's rerun, with a stellar cast of his own: the legendary Judy Garland, the very witty Robert Morley, and the distinguished journalist Randolph Churchill, son of the late Winston.  I've seen clips of this on one of the Paar compilation videos, and it's very funny - particularly this bit where a slightly tipsy Judy has some fun at Marlene Dietrich's expense:

Oh, and she can still sing a bit, too.  What a sad, sad life she led.


Pretentious alert: on Thursday's repeat episode of The Defenders, Jack Klugman stars as a formerly blacklisted actor whose comeback is being threatened by a "vigilante" group trying to get him fired.  So we have Klugman, one of the most intense, scene-chewing actors around; we have McCarthyite villians in the "vigilantes" trying to prevent a decent man from earning a living; and we have The Defenders itself, one of the more strident, issues-oriented programs on the air.

I don't say that this wasn't a good episode; regardless of the show's political slant, The Defenders was one of the quality programs of the early 60s, a series that wasn't afraid to take on serious issues.  It's their advocacy that often grinds on me.  Likewise, Klugman's a man who's very good at intense but doesn't have any other speed, and I think it's a race to see who tires first: the actor or his audience.  And we don't need to deny that there were misdeeds done during the blacklist to acknowledge that the anti-Communists make a juicy straw man target.  I've never seen The Defenders, I admit; I was too young when it was on originally, it's not out on DVD, and there are very few significant clips online.  But if I'd liked The Defenders back then, I probably would have skipped an episode like this, because I wouldn't have wanted to get mad.


Entertaining documentary alert: ABC has a couple this week, which shows that not all docs were dry, dull affairs.  First off, on Sunday night, is "Assault on Le Mans," the third installment in ABC's "Daring Americans" series, portraying American Grand Prix champion Phil Hill, one of the greatest racing drivers of the 1960s.  Hill was the first American, and the only native-born one, to win the World Driving Championship.  Now he's at the fabled Le Mans, a race he's won three times in the past.  His teammate in the 24-hour race is Bruce McLaren*, as they drive for the upstart American Ford team, taking on the legendary European powers, particularly Ferrari.  Hill and McLaren don't win; as a matter of fact, they dropped out after 192 laps.  But two years later, Ford would topple mighty Ferrari, the legendary Ford GT taking first, second and third.

*Yes, the same McLaren who formed the car company that continues to race in Formula 1, and manufactures one of the greatest, and most expensive, supercars around.

Then, on Friday night, ABC turns its attention to gambling, as host Terry-Thomas takes a humorous look at "the urge to gamble" in "Everybody's Got a System."  The show visits horse racing tracks in Europe, talks to bettors and bookies to learn about the sport's attraction, visits a bingo parlor to see how even small-scale gambling can thrill, and visits the casinos, where Thomas explains his own "system" at the roulette wheel.  It seems lightweight, but a fun show, not unlike something you might see on History or A&E today.


Fashion alert: it's time for another starlet to display the latest in haute fashion.  This time it's actress Janet Margolin, who will go on to a successful career with appearances in media as varied as Woody Allen movies, a Ghostbusters sequel, and episodes of Columbo and Murder, She Wrote.  But never mind that - her mission this week is to show off the newest craze, the Finnish Marimekko, made famous by Jackie Kennedy.


Janet Margolin died of cancer in 1993, not quite 30 years after this issue.


James Arness is so big (besides being 6'7", that is), he even dominates this week's profile of Milburn Stone, who plays Doc on the long-running Gunsmoke.  Stone remembers the first few years working with Arness, and he wasn't impressed: "He'd be late or wouldn't show up - never apologize.  And once he was there he'd clown around."  When Stone couldn't take it any longer, he lit into Arness at a rehearsal, telling him that he didn't belong in the business, and added that "I've read my contract and there's nothing in it that says I have to put diapers on you or wait for you.  And if you ever show up late again, buddy, you'll have two things to explain - not only where you were, but where I went!"  To Stone's surprise, Arness took the tongue-lashing like a man, telling him that "You're absolutely right."  "From that moment on," Stone says, Arness changed, becoming the consummate profession we've read about in TV Guide.  "I begain to love that guy.  He's a great big wonderful cub bear."

I watched Gunsmoke when I was a kid, primarily because my grandfather did, and although I wouldn't rank it as a favorite it was a memorable show nonetheless.  The byplay between the main characters - Matt, Doc, Festus and Kitty, and the obvious chemistry between the actors playing them - is the glue that held the show together, and watching it in reruns today confirms the quality of the program.

As for Stone, he's now making the circuit with Ken Curtis, the former Ripcord star who plays Festus, playing fairs, rodeos and horse shows.  Of all the characters on Gunsmoke I think Doc and Festus were my two favorites.  Seeing them appear together must have been quite an experience.


Finally, on this longer-than-usual entry, a brief mention of Edith Efron's profile of Gig Young.  Young was an acclaimed stage and movie actor, with three Oscar nominations (and one win) to his credit, but in this issue he's talking about his current series, The Rogues, in which he stars along with Charles Boyer and David Niven.  I bring this up because this article, which I read some years ago now, was the first time I'd read about The Rogues, a series about a family of good-natured con artists making a living out of swindling people who deserve it.  According to the reviews, there is a sense that The Rogues is too literate, too clever, for the average viewer who wants his television without having to think about it.

I first saw The Rogues a couple of years ago, when we first got MeTV, and I was absolutely charmed by it. It's a show that desperately deserves a commercial DVD release (although you can get copies if you know where to look), and since I only caught maybe half of the episodes, I'd love to see it back on the MeTV schedule.  It was better than Leverage, more humorous than The A-Team, and not nearly as complicated as Mission: Impossible.  And since it was a series, unlike The Sting, you got to see it every week.  It should have run for more than one season, and if you ever get the chance you should give it a try.  I will be surprised if my readers aren't as charmed by it as was I. TV  

June 12, 2014

The do-it-yourself network

Courtesy www.allthingskevyn.com/
I got this email the other day from Kevyn Knox, author of the blog "All Things Kevyn," which by the way you should check out when you get the chance.  Anyway, Kevyn sent me a link to this wonderful post in which he gives us the programming schedule of the fictional NBS network - in other words, the kind of programming he'd do if he was in charge of a network.  And I loved it!

I wonder how many TV buffs out there have done something like this?  One of the reasons it appealed to me is that I did something very similar, back around 1990 or so.  I even wrote a schedule down, though I didn't go to the detail that Kevyn did in his piece.  I don't know where it is now, but there are still some shows that I remember from HBN, which of course stood for "Hadley Broadcasting Network."  (Ted Turner had nothing on me.)

The show I was most proud of was Sunday night's The Phil Collins Show.  It was modeled on the then-successful Tracey Ullman Show on Fox, a half-hour variety show.  Phil Collins was nearing the end of his productive music career at that point, sounding more and more like a white Lionel Richie.*  He'd settled into the bland last years of both his Genesis and solo careers, and it seemed to me to be a good time to transition into television.  My favorite episode idea: "This week's guest star is Eric Clapton.  In a skit, an exasperated man (Eric) can't rid himself of his annoying neighbor (Phil).  I think Collins could have extended his career by years with this show.

*No offense to Lionel; I use that example specifically because Phil Collins once said, in a Playboy interview, that he didn't want to wind up sounding "like a white Lionel Richie."  Of course, I only read the interview.

Another show I thought would work well was the late-night entry, The Bobby Rivers Show.  Bobby Rivers was a hot property at the time, with a real-life talk show on VH1, and I thought he would have made a terrific alternative to Leno and Letterman.  I'd imagine it would be something like the Graham Norton Show on BBC America.

I recall that my morning show, U.S.A.M., was three hours, long before Today went the same route.  It would have been mostly hard news, closer to the Today of Frank McGee.  I brought back What's My Line?, with the same genteel qualities that the original had - it was hosted by James Lipton, and Charles Grodin was one of the regular panelists.  I had a half-hour prime-time news program every night at 7pm (CT), and at 10:30, before Bobby Rivers, there was a national sports report.  Because I could, I brought back Voice of Firestone at 9:30pm Mondays, and being the ecumenical person I am, Wednesday night I had a half-hour show called The Pope Speaks, which would have been something like the old Bishop Sheen show.

The heavy drama series was a prize possession of mine called The Killers.  No, it isn't based on the Hemingway story that's spawned two terrific movies, but it did star Lee Marvin, who was still alive at the time.  (Today it would be Liam Neeson.)  The premise of The Killers was simple - a much more violent version of The Equalizer.  Marvin, and any associate he might have (in order to get the plural Killers, you know) were extremely sophisticated, professional assassins, who took jobs only through referral from past clients, and only if they were interested in the job.  They weren't really hitmen per se, but you hired them to do a job that seemed hopeless, where a hit might well be the only way out.  They'd only kill if necessary but, given the show's title, that was often the case.  But if they found out you'd deceived them, or were using them for personal gain (a philandering husband making up a story in order to hit his wife or mistress, for example), they'd come back and kill you.  Marvin had the toughness and weariness to pull off a series like this - and hey, he'd already starred in a movie by the same name.

Sleazy though this idea might be, the point of it was actually serious - to challenge the audience.  Here was a protagonist (Marvin) with whom the audience was clearly meant to identify.  The people he hunted down were child abusers, rapists, corrupt public officials, and the like.  You sympathized with their victims, and understood that Marvin was a last resort when all legal options had failed.  But you had to ask yourself this question: am I really comfortable rooting for a man who, in essense, is a well-paid murderer?  Does the end justify the means?  I still think this show would be extremely successful, particularly since anti-heroes have become more fashionable

And then there was a ridiculous show, I suppose my version of Walt Disney, called TV Cat Theatre, which was devoted to programs about cats - not just documentaries or nature programs, but dramas and comedies casting cats in the place of humans.  For example, I had an absurd idea for a Hawthornesque costume drama called "Snow White and the House of the Seven Cats." I probably shouldn't go into this any further if I want to have any credibility with my readers, but I will suggest that I certainly anticipated the advent of cat videos, didn't I?  TV Cat Theatre probably would have been the highest-rated show on the network.

There were other programs, enough to fill out a schedule, but most of them escape me now.  I had a couple of sitcoms, and a drama series or three including a lawyer show, and a reasonably heavy rotation of sports specials; maybe I'd brought back Friday Night Fights.  I do know that if I were putting a network together today, I'd commission something from David Lynch, and I'd introduce a regular news/documentary series that's more entertaining than the old-time documentaries, but not as trashy as today's tabloid newsmagazine shows.  And I'd make sure to have room for this drama.

But I fear in all of this I'm drawing attention to myself, when what I really wanted to do was point you Kevyn's way.  Go and check him out, and give him some hits.  I think this "what-if" programming is something many of us have done, and if you've got some ideas for TV series you'd like to see, whether somewhat realistic or far out there, I'd like to hear about them.  Maybe we can put together something better than what we're getting now.

June 10, 2014

On censorship

It's a topic I haven’t addressed much here, except for mentions from articles about it in TV Guide.  I suppose my attitude toward it vacillates between libertarian and churlish, and one of the reasons I can’t quite make up my mind is that it’s not as straightforward as it ought to be.

I thought of it after reading the editorial in the TV Guide I reviewed last Saturday.  In it, the Editors (probably Merrill Panitt) reported on an interesting suggestion by Democratic Representative Torbert Macdonald that schools should teach children courses in "critical viewing" of television.  As children watch anywhere from six to 40 hours of TV a week*, often indiscriminately and uncritically, they need to be taught the importance of "selecting programs and evaluating what they see."

*I hate to think of where I might have fallen on that spectrum.

Pannitt agrees with this idea in principle; after all, it would be good not only for the children but, as they grow older and audiences become more critical of what they watch, it could potentially be good for improving programming as well.  But, on the other hand, he points to the words of a New York TV executive who reminds us that "If we produce shows that bore children to death, TV can teach them nothing" because they won't be watching it.

Acknowledging the truth of the statement, the editorial notes that "we doubt that if the proposed school courses are set up they will signal the total extinction of Batman, Gomer Pyle, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Monkees.*"  In much the same way as a balanced nutritional diet doesn't try to eliminate every treat from the menu, there's always going to be room for "elements of nonsense, fantasy and Walter Mittyism."  However, the hope is that "the courses would probably cut down the volume of this stuff and get a wider audience for some of the more constructive material now being offered to children."

*Intriguing, their choice of shows, don't you think?


I find this discussion most interesting, for many reasons. As you know if you've been reading the blog the last couple of years, the controversy about the quality of programming is one that's raged for years, frequently in the pages of TV Guide, and the timing of this editorial would fit right in with the general debate.  We're used, therefore, to seeing TV Guide express concern, for example, about the TV diet that children are fed.  On the other hand, TV Guide has frequently been against the idea of controlling the content of programming, particularly when it emanates from outside bodies such as the government.  The shorthand for this. although we could have a protracted discussion on this at a later date, is censorship.  We'll use that word because it comes up frequently in these conversations, and TV Guide itself used it when discussing the content that appears on television.

One of the arguments made by those against censorship, for example TV Guide's Edith Efron, is that it absolves the viewer of his or her own responsibility in the matter.  If the government, or some other authority, decrees that thus-and-such shouldn't be show on television, then you’re spared having to decide whether or not you would have watched it if it had been broadcast.  This leads to a lot of righteous breast-beating from some parts, people who might say “of course I’d never watch a public execution if it were televised,” secure in the knowledge that they’ll be true to their word – they won’t watch it, since it isn't televised.   But as Joyce Carol Oates once wrote, when the demon beckons, “You won't know until it beckons. To you. So long as it temps others you can judge - can sneer - can express shock, disgust, outrage, and prim disdain - the usual emotions of punitive people. But you won't know. I didn't."  Or, put another way, someone once said that the difference between an honest man and a man of integrity is that the man of integrity does the right thing even when no one is watching.


So one argument against censorship is that we should require the viewer to make choices, keeping in mind that ultimately, the market decides, and insofar as the market is a bellwether for public opinion, the public will get what they want.  At the very least, society will be prepared to accept the consequences which emanate from the decisions they make. The other argument you hear, and this is probably the more prevalent one, is that “if you don’t like what you see on TV, change the channel.  Nobody’s forcing you to watch it.”  It is, on the face, undeniably true; however, it’s a truth that exists in the laboratory, outside of the real world.  In reality, where most of us spend most of our time, it’s not that easy.

For one thing, we have to live in a world where other people do watch “that kind of thing,” and to the extent that it affects their behavior, we have to live with the consequences of that behavior.  I've always found this most compelling when it comes to programming that objectifies women.  If men, through constant exposure to shows that portray women as nothing more than sex objects, willing or unwilling, then it’s more likely that’s how men will see them.  That's dehumanizing enough, but add a dollop or two of violence to the mix, and then see what happens.  If we're taught not to show restraint, isn't that what will happen?

However, even here, the question arises as to whether or not we can be sure that watching this kind of behavior on television does, in fact, affect the viewer’s external behavior.  For instance, I love watching Road Runner cartoons.  In a good many of them, something hideous happens to Wile E. Coyote – he’s blown up, has an anvil dropped on his head, falls off a cliff; you get the idea.  Pound for pound, these cartoons might be among the most violent things on TV.  But can you show a correlation between me watching these cartoons and me becoming a violent, anti-social person?  I doubt it, because it isn't true.*

*The violent part, anyway.  As for the anti-social part, I suppose the jury is still out.


And yet, there’s something about the smell test here that supports the overall contention.  After all, why does an advertiser bother to put commercials on television if they don’t think the viewer’s behavior (in this case, their shopping habits) will be influenced by it?  It’s somewhat fatuous to argue that viewers who fall for commercials – blatant attempts to get them to buy Product X, with no bones made as to why it’s being shown – will have the discernment to filter out the behavioral messages presented in their favorite shows.  Isn't it?

So while I don’t accept the premise that viewers are completely influenced by their environment, neither do I think they can be totally unfazed by it.  There has to be a residue that rubs off on them, the difference being the moral and philosophical background the viewer brings into it.  And with that, we're back to the question of personal responsibility.  Again, within the comfort of a lab setting, people with well-formed consciences (or at the very least people who understand and appreciate the value of a civil society) will be able to watch television with a discerning eye; they neither become hostage to the behavior shown on screen, nor do they accept programs that promote a message at odds with that of the wider society.  As I've said, this is true only in the context of a controlled experiment, preferably one that doesn't rely on the behavior of others to determine the results.

And so we return to what started this discussion: the idea of teaching "critical viewing."  Now, I'm all for critical thinking, which is really what we're talking about; I think it's a skill that's in short supply nowadays, and schools ought to be teaching kids how to think.  But too often that crosses the line, from the mechanics of thinking ("here's how it's done") to being taught what to think instead ("here's how you should think about this").  While the idea of school classes in critical viewing is not censorship per se, there's no doubt that the whole idea carries with it the whiff of elitism, the idea that people in general have to be taught not how to watch TV, but how to watch the right programs.  Who determines what makes a program "right"?  I'm thinking here of everything from HGTV's recent decision to axe a show hosted by two brothers who opposed gay marriage* to shows that were preempted in the South because they portrayed blacks and whites together.  Is this how we want to teach "critical viewing"?  Will it improve the viewing experience?  Does it provide us with more varied, well-rounded programming?  Or is it simply another form of censorship?  It has the potential for mischief written all over it - anyone besides me comparing this to how schools teaching about nutrition has led to governments trying to ban supersized soft drinks?

*Proving once again that HGTV will never have a show entitled "Interior Design for Heterosexual Males."

Now, perhaps I'm not the right person to be talking about this, given that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a staple of our Friday-night DVD viewing, but while I'm all for better programming on television, I do have a problem with the idea of labeling shows as ones a viewer "shouldn't watch" simply because they're not "good" for you, for whatever reason.  To me, it sounds a whole lot more like taking medicine than watching television, and while I appreciate what medicine can do for me when I'm not feeling well, that's not why I usually watch TV.  I recently read an article about why book discussion clubs aren't necessarily a good thing - they can force you to focus more on your reaction to a book than what the book actually says, and consequently you become more self-aware, becoming the focal point yourself rather than the book you're ostensibly reading for pleasure or enlightenment.


I confess I don't have a ready answer for any of this, and I'm not sure I would even if I weren't working under a deadline to get this piece up.  It's clear that the libertarian answer, inviting though it may be, has flaws when it's applied to the real world.  It's equally clear that whenever an outside authority gets involved, be it school or bureaucracy, there's an inevitable level of bias involved that tends to taint the experience.

The best I can offer, and it's hardly an original thought, is that we expose people to different types of experiences throughout their lives, not pushing them toward preferring one over the other, but simply allowing them to witness the variety.  One popular idea making the rounds is that the graying of classical music audiences can be related to the lack of music appreciation being taught in schools today.  Putting aside the question of who is responsible for this failure (schools, administrators, classical music organizations, taxpayers), there's no doubt that being exposed to classical music at an early age made an impression on me that continues to pay dividends.  I'd suggest that exposing people to theater, drama, comedy, and other art forms without forcing them down their throats would be one way of educating potential viewers to become more discerning, or at least more varied, in their television tastes.  If that means developing a palate like mine*, running the gamut from Hogans Heroes to Top Gear to The Prisoner to Doctor Who to MST3K, and including things like Masterpiece Theatre, Live from Lincoln Center, Great Performances and other shows that might be considered highbrow, then at least we'd have a varied programming schedule out there, instead of the pablum we're generally served.

*I'm not advocating that, by the way.  My tastes could easily give you an upset stomach.  

The fact remains that in a market-based economy, the market will determine what's on television.  Unless and until networks (both commercial and cable) and advertisers decide otherwise, shows with niche audiences and low ratings will be consigned to the trash heap, and most of our programs will simply be pallid clones of what's already gone before.  Extend this to other forms of entertainment - books, movies, music - and what we're left with isn't a pretty picture.  And that's why we should care.