September 20, 2014

This week in TV Guide: September 20, 1980

What is "the Washington that TV news can't cover"? Why can't they cover it?  If they can't, how do we know it's there?  And is it being covered today, 34 years later?

So many questions.  We'll be back with the answers in a moment.


Have there been many people in the entertainment industry who've been able to get by on their last names as long as Priscilla Presley?*  At this point in her "career," Priscilla is only seven years' divorced from The King, and trying to carve out a niche for herself.  Until the divorce, "I was totally devoted to my life style at that time, to being a wife and mother.  I had no ambitions then.  It was a totally other life."

*Don't answer that; I know you'll probably be able to come up with a hundred examples that will ruin the bit completely.

Since then she's opened and sold a clothing boutique in Beverly Hills, taken acting lessons, and done some modeling.  She's been turned down for some roles she really wanted, and turned down other roles that were offered to her (including, she says, Charlie's Angels - I wonder which one she would have been?), but not she may have the opportunity she's been looking for.  Along with Burgess Meredith (!) and Jim Stafford, she's co-hosting the new ABC program Those Amazing Animals.  It's something she's looking forward to: "I don't care about being a superstar, but I feel I have something to give and to share, and if I can do that and maintain my values . . .well, I can."

The show, a spinoff of That's Incredible, runs for only one season, but Priscilla Presley, though she never becomes a superstar to match her last name, does pretty well with herself.  She co-stars with Leslie Nielsen in three Naked Gun movies (far less funny than the TV version, Police Squad!), and has seldom been out of the public eye for too long at a time.  And, my goodness, at 35 she has ripened into a strikingly attractive woman, hasn't she?  I really hadn't appreciated that until now.


Back a couple of weeks or so ago, we had a discussion in the comments section about what constitutes a miniseries.  With that in mind, I'll ask the question now: is Centennial a miniseries or not?  It's 26 hours long - longer than a lot of series that run for only a half-season or so.  Today it might be called a "limited series," and with our penchant for serialization it might simply be a regular series.  But it has other of the hallmarks of the miniseries genre: an adaptation of a best-seller (in this case by James Michener), an epic sweep (covering a period from the 18th Century to the present day), and an all-star cast.  In its advertising, NBC itself calls it a "motion picture," as in "The Biggest Motion Picture Ever Made."   The always-reliable Wikipedia calls it a miniseries, so I guess that's that.

Whatever it is, NBC's rerunning the 1978 program, which I think the network never did handle correctly.  Rather than broadcasting it over consecutive nights (admittedly a difficult thing considering its length) or putting it on at the same time each week, the network moved it around hither and yon, making it extremely difficult (in those days before networks shuffled series at will, sometimes without notice) for anyone to get used to when it would be on.  I mean, look at this schedule (most episodes ran two hours):

It appeared on three different nights of the week and seldom appeared for more than two weeks in a row (sometimes as long as a month) until it finally settled down to a regular schedule in the middle of January.  I can't remember if it was a ratings hit at that point or of NBC was just trying to burn the remainder of the episodes, but it sure took them long enough to get it right.  I suppose I should have saved this argument for when it was on the first time, but I don't have that issue.

And why is NBC running Centennial again?  Because of the actor's strike, that's why.  The strike ran for three months and included a boycott of the Emmy Awards, broadcast on NBC September 7.  TV Update tells of the desolate program, for which only a few performers would appear as presenters, and only one - Powers Boothe - would be there to accept his award, for Best Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Special.*

*He played Jim Jones in "Guyana Tragedy."

I remember watching that show; it was a dramatic moment.  To that point no winner had been present, and none were expected.  It was, therefore, very startling to see this tall man, who appeared even more gigantic as he slowly rose up the steps to accept the award.  He got a standing ovation, as I recall.  His comment was that "this is either the most courageous moment of my career or the stupidest."


Understandably, given the strike, there are a lot of reruns on this week.  In fact, virtually everything that could be described as a scripted program is a rerun, leaving much of the big noise to the movies. There are four big ones, and improbably, Brad Davis stars in half of them.

The first is the two-part TV movie A Rumor of War (shot, as were the other TV movies this week, well before the start of the strike), in which he plays a Vietnam soldier in an adaptation of Philip Caputo's own time in the war.  Judith Crist had good things to say about the movie, which co-starred Brian Dennehy: "despite the war-is-hell cliches, the obligatory bed scenes and elliptical characters, the special horrors of the Vietnam experience are made clear and, one would hope, unforgettable."

That aired on CBS Wednesday and Thursday nights, but Davis had already been the star of one evening that week, in ABC's Sunday night presentation of Midnight Express*.  Crist describes the movie as "grim and sordid," and has praise for the performances of Davis, Randy Quaid, and Oscar nominee John Hurt.

*That is, if it aired.  See the next story for an explanation of why.

And back in the day when Saturday night was not the television graveyard, CBS shows one of the great movies of the '70s, Chinatown. with Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway.  If that isn't enough star power for you, try Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in Papillon, which CBS has on Tuesday.

Just to show you that everything isn't coming up roses, though, there's ABC's For the Love of It, a telemovie starring Deborah Raffin and featuring a cast mostly of stars of ABC series (Jeff Conaway, Tom Bosley, Norman Fell, Pat Morita, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), in the story of "a madcap search for stolen Soviet secrets."  Better, I think, to hang on for an hour and watch Dallas at 9 on CBS.


In case you don't remember, 1980 is a presidential election year, and the first televised debate of the campaign is scheduled for Sunday night in Baltimore.  The emphasis is on scheduled, because nobody's sure if it's going to happen or, if so, who's going to be in it.

If you're up on your history, you might remember that there were three presidential candidates that year; Jimmy Carter, the Democratic incumbent, Ronald Reagan, the Republican challenger, and John Anderson, the Illinois Republican-turned independent candidate.  The uncertainty arises from the fact that Carter has refused to participate in any debates including Anderson, and Reagan refused to participate in any that excluded Anderson.*

*Of Carter's reluctance to debate, Reagan remarked, "He knows that he couldn't win a debate even if it were held in the Rose Garden before an audience of Administration officials with the questions being asked by [press secretary] Jody Powell." 

In the event, Anderson showed up, Carter didn't, and the debate went on without him.  The decision not to debate was probably a mistake for Carter; Reagan rose in the polls and Anderson slumped, and the subsequent October debate between Carter and Reagan, held just one week before the election, proved to be a decisive win for the Gipper.

As for Midnight Express, a note in the programming guide states that "The movie will be pre-empted if President Carter participates in the Presidential Debate scheduled tonight."  Frankly, I don't know if ABC showed it or not.


As we've been speaking of politics, this seems a good time to follow up on our lead story.  "The Washington that TV news can't cover" is, as you might expect, the smarmy side of DC - lobbyists, lawyers, consultants, grant seekers, and the parties and balls where the real work of the Capital is done.  According to former NBC corresponded and presidential press secretary Ron Nessen, television - with its fixation on the moving image, is loathe to fall into the so-called "talking head" trap that it fears will turn off viewers.

One veteran Washington correspondent points out the inherent advantage the print media has over television in covering the secret Washington: "A source can't talk to you on camera and maintain his anonymity," he points out.  "We can do that kind of story, but not on camera."  Were  a network to attempt this, with a correspondent "accumulating the facts of this backstairs Washington" in his notebook, "then coming back to the studio and telling the story without film," the viewers will either fall asleep, or leave.

Nessen cites a series of safety regulations on power lawn mowers that took seven years from instigation to implementation as an example of the complexity of backstage Washington, and maintains that the country needs to know about these Machiavellian proceedings.  He also takes television to task for its failure to cover itself, relating a story about how the FCC subtly exerts pressure on stations to sell holdings to minority entrepreneurs and implement equal-employment opportunities in return for having merger transactions approved.  Nothing of this sort appears on network news.

Other than being vigilant and trusting the viewer to not be bored, Nessen doesn't really offer any suggestions for how television news can improve its coverage of the secret Washington.  And does TV do any better today?  We get more shouting, more of the conflict than we used to, but is that really covering the story?  We have more spin doctors, lobbyists, think-tank consultants on the air, open in their affiliations, but to they lend us any real insight into the story?  We have cable news networks that air 24 hours a day, rather than the measly 30 minutes networks offer (Nessen comments that one of Walter Cronkite's nightly scripts would fit on the front page of the Washington Post "with several columns to spare," but is our coverage any less superficial than it used to be?  I think the answer speaks for itself.


Interesting little piece of gossip on the back page TV Teletype, talking about Craig Tennis' new book about what goes on behind-the-scenes at The Tonight Show.  Johnny Tonight, written by the show's former head talent coordinator, spills some of the beans on Johnny Carson, including the fact that some staffers view him as a "cold fish."  Jerry Buck, the AP's television writer, called it "amusing and revealing," while noting that "it offers no new insights on Carson," who even then was known as an exceptionally private man.  It likely wasn't anywhere near as revealing as Henry Bushin's recent tell-all; that notwithstanding, I'd imagine Johnny probably didn't appreciate this book.

Anyway, the Teletype describes two groups of stars: those who aren't invited on the show "because [Carson] doesn't care for and can't communicate with" them, including Charo, Rip Taylor, Dick Shawn, Jack Carter, the Hudson Brothers, and "any gossip columnist."  On the other hand, there are those who refuse to work with Carson, such as Larry Hagman, Van Johnson, Shirley Bassey and Tennessee Ernie Ford.  Interesting - I can remember seeing Charo and Taylor on Carson's show multiple times, which means either that I'd seen them before this book came out and Johnny got sick of them, or they appeared after the book came out because Johnny thought ratings were more important.  Either way, it's an interesting insight into Carson's prickly personality. TV  

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