October 18, 2014

This week in TV Guide: October 17, 1981

The cover story for this week's issue is the World Series, which kicks off Tuesday night on ABC.  It's difficult to work up much enthusiasm for the 1981 baseball season; a players' strike cancels nearly 40% of the games and splits the season into two halves, resulting in a second layer of playoffs that somehow manages to exclude the two teams that finished with the best winning percentages in the National League (Cincinnati and St. Louis).  TV Guide refers to it as "baseball's longest - and shortest - season," and no wonder - this year's Series, should it go the full seven, won't end until October 28.  Just imagine!

In the event, the Series pits the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers for the eleventh time.  The Yanks are favored and win the first two games before the Dodgers come storming back to win the last four, taking the Series right there at Yankee Stadium.  What I remember most about this game (back in the day when I actually watched baseball) is that, with the Dodgers holding a decisive 9-2 lead, Yankee Stadium had emptied to probably half-capacity by the final out.  So much for those games where the home fans stick around until the bitter end to offer their congratulations to their guys for a good effort.


Eleven days before the publication date of this issue, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated, putting the little-known Vice President Hosni Mubarak in charge.  TV Update details the difficulties television news had in covering the story.   It was early morning in the United States when the fatal attack took place, and the first reports were sketchy - for some time, it was said that Sadat had been unhurt, then only that he had been shot, before the truth of the situation was finally learned.  Adding to the difficulties for the networks, the Egyptian government immediately shut down all television transmissions, meaning that U.S. correspondents couldn't transmit their footage back to New York.

In these pre-cable news days, the networks stayed with their coverage for most of the day, finally being able to air pictures around 2pm Eastern - vivid pictures that left the anchors grasping for words,  and showing the viewers the full horror of the event. Up until then, the networks filled the time with speculation on what had happened (the presumption that Sadat was dead, but no official word for several hours) and interviews with Middle East experts.

We look back at history and identify black periods - 1968, for example, when Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated within two months or so.  That was bad - but so was 1981.  In the span of seven months, from March 30 to October 6, the news had been dominated by three major shootings - assassination attempts against President Reagan and Pope John Paul II, and the successful attempt against Sadat.  As someone who watched all three of them on television, I can attest that those days were madness indeed.


Jeff Prugh's lead article talks about yet another bleak news story of 1981, the culmination of the search for the Atlanta child killer and the question as to whether television news paid too much attention to the case - or too little.  The cases dated back to 1979, when the first of 28 murders of young blacks, all but two of them male and all but five minors, took place.  In 1981 Wayne Williams was arrested for the murders, and subsequently convicted of two of them.

*The case continues to generate controversy.  Note that the facts and figures cited are from the article itself; I haven't presumed to add additional information from more recent sources.

On the one hand, much of the coverage was sensational.  ABC, more aggressive than the other two networks, at first reports that Williams will be charged with as many as 18 of the murders; not long after that, Williams is released from custody.  And both networks and local affiliates go overboard covering the funerals, for example; one cameraman actually jumped on top of a coffin.  One observer likened the coverage to a circus, with psychics offering help, Guardian Angels patrolling the streets, well-meaning people wearing green ribbons, and even a benefit concert by Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. At the same time, there is (at least at first) a distinct lack of desire to closely scrutinize the competence of the police investigation, and Prugh notes that until 1981, much of white Atlanta wasn't even aware that anything unusual was going on at all.  As one reporter notes, it's difficult to know how to cover such a story, whether to keep the public informed on all details, or to keep certain aspects of the case secret at the request of the police: "You want to be a responsible journalist and tell people what is going on.  But then again, you want to do what a good citizen would do."

It's the eternal dilemma that plagues television news to this day, the combination of sensationalism and shallowness.  Most people would probably think that, in this day of 24/7 news, television has become even more sensational and shallow, and I wouldn't disagree with that.  Prugh points out that not all television coverage falls into this category; in-depth reporting on CBS' Sunday Morning and 60 Minutes, ABC's Nightline and PBS' MacNeil/Lehrer Report is of a high quality.  But at the end of the day, there have been four additional murders committed since Williams' arrest.  Nobody seems to notice, but in Atlanta there are many who suspect the story isn't really over after all.


Enough of the historical analysis - let's take a look at what's on TV this week, shall we?

Saturday:  ABC's Wide World of Sports presents a replay of the Sugar Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns welterweight title fight, which had been shown in theaters September 16.  Leonard wins the showdown via 14th round TKO.  I wouldn't have watched this: I admit that I never liked Sugar Ray Leonard, but saw him as a showboat and a phony.

I wouldn't have watched ABC's prime-time schedule either.  Back then the networks had actual series on, rather than the mix of sports and reruns that dominate Saturday nights.  But ABC's schedule would have made me look for something else in a hurry, probably the North Stars - Penguins game on Channel 9.  It stars with a special 90-minute Love Boat trip to "the starlit Caribbean," followed by a special 90-minute Fantasy Island as "the Devil battles for Mr. Roarke's soul."  Each show is loaded with B-level stars and ABC featured players.


Sunday:  Sunday Night Football wasn't a regular feature in 1981, but this week there's a special Sunday night edition of Monday Night Football (got all that?) featuring the Los Angeles Rams and the Dallas Cowboys, from Irving - just a few miles from where I now live, in fact.  It goes up against CBS' all-star Sunday lineup: 60 Minutes, Archie Bunker's Place, One Day at a Time, Alice, The Jeffersons, and Trapper John, M.D.  Considering that ABC's experiment with Sunday night football didn't last long, I'm willing to bet CBS won the night.

Monday:  Oh boy, dueling Monday night movies!  On CBS it's Valley of the Dolls 1981 (Part I),* starring Catherine Hicks, Jean Simmons and Veronica Hamel.  Our Judith Crist calls it "just another trash-wallow - second-hand and fifth-rate."  On the other hand, NBC has More American Grafitti, with much of the original cast but little of the original charm; Crist calls it "exploitative rather than nostalgic."

*Not to be confused with 1970's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which starred Dolly Read - who, as our commentators Mike and Ray pointed out last week, was the second wife of comedian Dick Martin.  I love all these tangential connections, don't you?

Tuesday:  As I mentioned at the top, it's the first game of the World Series on ABC.  CBS has part two of the aforementioned Valley of the Dolls 1981.  NBC has a "comedy" called The Day the Women Got Even, which Crist says is "feeble" and "wastes women and men alike."

Wednesday:  If Game 2 of the Fall Classic isn't to your liking, the best program is probably PBS' The Hunter and the Hunted, which profiles Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal and his search for the infamous Josef Mengele.

Thursday:  It's back to ABC, where Mork & Mindy are on their honeymoon, with the teaser of "next week's astonishing news: Mork's pregnant!"  On NBC, Bob Hope hosts a gala entertainment show to celebrate the opening of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Joining Hope and the Fords are political satirist Mark Russell, "drunk" comic Foster Brooks, Danny Thomas, Glen Campbell and Sammy Davis Jr.  Oh, and the current First Family, President and Mrs. Reagan.

Friday:  Tonight's best bet comes courtesy of Channel 11, the NBC affiliate.  On NBC's schedule for tonight is the movie Revenge of the Stepford Wives, but Channel 11 has the good taste to preempt this for Francis Ford Coppola's acclaimed thriller The Conversation, starring Gene Hackman as a wiretapper who learns a little too much about the people he's investigating.  The Conversation came out the same year as Coppola's The Godfather Part II, and both movies were nominated for Best Picture Oscars.  I'm not sure but that this is the only time one director has had two movies up for Best Picture at the same time.  Coppola himself was nominated for Best Director only once, for Godfather II.  Quite an accomplishment, wouldn't you say? TV  


  1. The "Sugar" Ray Leonard-Thomas "Hit Man" Hearns fight was also available on a handful of cable systems and over-the-air subscription-TV services (remember that? An obscure UHF channel that around 6 or 7 P.M. at night would show a scrambled picture with a "barker" telling you to call a 1-800 number to subscribe so you can see and hear the program) that had been equipped for "addressability", and as a result, could show the fight to those subscribers who could pay extra for it.

    It was one of the earliest examples of pay-per-view.

    1. I do remember that, now that you mention it! Reminds me of the story about the Mike Tyson - Michael Spinks title fight a few years ago. That was on PPV, but it was the same idea - scrambled signal. Only for some reason this signal didn't scramble. I ran across it accidentally, and just kept it on to see if it ever corrected itself. It didn't, and I wound up being able to watch the whole fight. Unfortunately, that wasn't all that great an accomplishment - the fight only lasted about 90 seconds, as I recall, before Tyson won in a one-punch knockout!

    2. Was it Spectrum. I know in the Twin Cities there was a service called Spectrum for a while and am wondering if this is it.

  2. The ABC experiment with non Monday night football games lasted from 1978-86. There were usually 4 or so a season with Thursday night being the biggest night. These ABC games ended after the 1986 season when the NFL signed the new TV deal which included 8 Sunday night games in the 2nd half of the season on ESPN. However since cable(and later satellite) TV wasn't as wide spread as it is now the NFL required the games to be shown on an over the air channel in the participating teams home market.(and for the home team if the game was sold out) This rule has remained in place to this day for NFL cable broadcasts.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!