May 23, 2015

This week in TV Guide: May 24, 1980

In the mid-60s, when I was but a wee lad, there were few sporting events that were quite as mysterious as the Indianapolis 500.  For one thing, it was always held on Memorial Day, which back then meant May 30, so it was one of the few events to take place in the middle of the week.  Because of the length of the race, it started in the morning for those of us in the Central time zone and points west.  And there was no live home television, which meant that if you were curious about the race, there were two ways to follow it: listen to the live radio broadcast, or go to a movie theater and pay a few bucks to watch the closed circuit telecast.  Otherwise, your best bet was to catch about 40 minutes of highlights the next week on Wide World of Sports.

The difficulties would be worth it though, because the Indianapolis 500 was the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.  Many drivers and car owners would work the entire year in hopes of making the pilgrimage to Indianapolis for a shot at qualifying for the race.  On race day itself, over 200,000 fans would cram into the old Speedway to spend about four hours or so watching the cars whiz around the oval at increasingly faster speeds, driven by men who freely risked their lives for a chance at the first-prize trophy.  More often than not, at least one driver wouldn't make it to try again the next day.

By 1980, things had changed. Memorial Day was now the fourth Monday in May, and the race itself, which in the past had been held every day of the week but Sunday*, was now scheduled specifically on Sunday, with Monday as a backup in case of rain.  There was still no live TV coverage (although the radio broadcast remained, as it does to this day) but instead of having to wait until the following Saturday for Wide World, race fans could see a same-day telecast that night on ABC.  Not everything had changed, though, for the Indianapolis 500 was still the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, not to mention the biggest sporting event of the week, and fans and drivers alike still circled the entire month of May on their calendars, for there was no greater prize in racing than Indianapolis.

*The race was treated much the same way as the New Year's Day bowl games; when Memorial Day fell on a Sunday, the race was moved to Monday.  When Memorial Day was transferred to a Monday, the 500 was moved first to Saturday, then Memorial Day Monday itself, before settling in with the current Sunday/Monday schedule.

The 1980 broadcast of the 500 was held on Sunday, May 25, with Jim McKay and former world champion Jackie Stewart in the broadcast booth.  For the first time, ABC's same-day coverage had been expanded to three hours, all the better to present complete coverage of what was sure to be a battle for the ages.  No less than seven former champions were in the field, including A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Al and Bobby Unser, Gordon Johncock, defending champion Rick Mears, and two-time winner and pole sitter Johnny Rutherford.  Twenty-nine other drivers would try and fail to qualify.  A crowd estimated at 300,000 filled the Brickyard to watch Rutherford turn in a dominant performance, beating future champion Tom Sneva by nearly a half-minute to become the sixth three-time Indy 500 champion.

I mention all this detail for a couple of reasons.  First, I've always been a racing fan, and as I pointed out in this article last year, Indianapolis always held a special place in my heart.  I was one of those who would sit for four hours listening to the radio broadcast, imagining the action taking place hundreds of miles away, then spending two or three hours watching the highlights even though I already knew who'd won.

The second reason is that anyone under the age of, say, 30, might have a hard time appreciating just how big Indy once was.  With the exception of the 500, Indycar racing has all but disappeared from the American consciousness, and empty seats at the 500 itself, once unthinkable, are now commonplace.  NASCAR is the king of the American racing hill, and drivers such as Jimmy Johnson and Jeff Gordon, who would have been natural Indy drivers at one time, typify the talent which has been lost.  Whereas 100 drivers would battle for the 33 prize spots in the 500 back in the day, race organizers now struggle to even attract 33.  They're somehow able to do it every year (this year there were 34 trying to make the field) but one of these days they're bound to fall short.

It's true that things are constantly changing; nothing lasts forever, after all, but the changes can sometimes be cruel.  The mystery of the Indianapolis 500 has long since disappeared, along with much of the glamour and excitement, and almost all of what made it unique.  Today it's just one more sporting event on a Sunday that's crammed with sports from early morning until late at night.  It's not even the biggest race of the day, let alone the year; Formula 1 fans point to the glamorous Grand Prix of Monaco, which NBC covers at 6:30 am, while NASCAR fans wait for their longest race of the year, the Coke 600, on Fox later in the afternoon.  The Indianapolis 500 is nothing more than the centerpiece of a racing series that hardly anyone cares about anymore; I don't even bother watching it anymore, live or on tape.  There's just too much to do, too much life to live, to spend four hours you'll never get back watching a race that no longer makes the heart beat faster.  That's life, and maybe it's progress as well, but that doesn't mean it's anything to celebrate.


It's possible that another reason for the length of the preceding is TV Guide fatigue, but I think the most likely reason is that I'm not getting much inspiration from this issue.  I've complained about the '80s before, although I think it's good to dip into the decade once in a while and see what's going on, but there doesn't seem to be a lot attracting me here.  As an example of what we have to work with, witness the four shows NBC has just cancelled, and the five that are being introduced as replacements.

Going from the schedule are United States, the Larry Gelbart dramedy starring Beau Bridges and Helen Shaver that probably would have done much better a decade later; Hello, Larry, the latest bomb in the television career of McLean Stevenson; and The Best of Saturday Night Live, which has "filler" written all over it.  As for the new shows, four of them probably won't ring many more bells: Harper Valley, P.T.A., starring Barbara Eden, which somehow managed to last for 30 episodes; Flamingo Road, a Dallas wannabee with Howard Duff, Stella Stevens, Morgan Fairchild and Mark Harmon which outdid Harper Valley by eight episodes; Thursday Games, a reality-based sports series that eventually made it to the schedule as Games People Play and survived barely a season; and Speak Up, America, a Real World spinoff that featured Marjoe Gortner as one of the stars, which was also was a one-and-done series.

Oh, the fifth series that I mentioned?  That one might be more familiar to you.  It's a gritty police comedy-drama called Hill Street Blues.


Two shows on this week provide a stark look at the times - in fact, although they're not very good, they wouldn't make any sense at all without understanding the political strife boiling away in the background.

The two are The Golden Moment: An Olympic Love Story, a two-part (Sunday and Monday) TV movie on NBC, and Phyl & Mikhy, a sitcom premiering on CBS Monday night.  What they both have in common (other than being pretty bad) is that they're staged against the backdrop of the Moscow Olympics and they involve romances between American and Russian athletes.  The problem (other than that they're pretty bad) is that the United States isn't going to be taking part in the Moscow Olympics, and therein lies the story.

As has so often been the case in the last four decades or so, this one happens as a result of military action in Afghanistan.  The Soviet incursion into Afghanistan, which began in December 1979 and lasted over nine years, was met with widespread international condemnation, peaking with President Carter's call for a boycott of the Moscow Olympics*, ultimately joined by numerous countries.

*There were many who protested the U.S.S.R. being awarded the Olympics in the first place, given the country's miserable human rights record; nowadays, it seems as if only totalitarian countries have the political clout to put the Games together.

The international ramifications of the boycott can be debated, but one thing beyond debate is the effect it had on movies and series such as the two I mentioned above.  To be blunt, they were gimmicky concept shows whose gimmick was now shot all to hell, leaving their messages of universal understanding and love trumping political differences ringing somewhat hollow.  Of course, if you're like me, with little tolerance for corn like that, you were probably cackling all the way at the irony of it all.  Ain't I a stinker?


Finally, a quick look at some odds and ends.

On Wednesday night NBC celebrates Bob Hope's 77th birthday.  You're probably thinking the same thing I am: 77 isn't a milestone number*, so why is NBC doing this?  I don't know; it might have been an annual tradition by that point, or NBC might not have wanted to take the chance of waiting three years longer.  At any rate, it's another example of a star-studded special filled with the stars of the late '70s; big names for the time to be sure, but not exactly the names one typically associates with Bob Hope - unless you're willing to role play a bit, in which case the show makes perfect sense.  For example, there's Loni Anderson as Dorothy Lamour, Andy Gibb as Bing Crosby, Barbara Mandrell as one of the Andrews Sisters (take your pick), Diana Ross as jazz singer Nancy Wilson, Alan Shepard as Dwight D. Eisenhower and the figure skating team of Babilonia and Gardner as two of the Seven Little Foys.  At least that's the only way I can make sense of it.

*Unless it's followed by the words "Sunset Strip."

Best of the new movies this week, according to Judith Crist, is The Henderson Monster by Ernest Kinoy, starring Jason Miller, Christine Lahti and David Spielberg in a later-day Frankenstein movie dealing with DNA research.  Crist finds it "wonderfully credible" and praises Kinoy's script, "marked with wit, irony and a sophistication rare in TV 'social' drama."  The movie airs Tuesday on CBS.

There is sports other than Indy; NBC carries the U.S. Olympic Trials which, as the network notes, are now all that American athletes have to shoot for.  CBS has live coverage of portions of NASCAR's Coke 600 - then known as the World 600 - on Sports Spectacular; the network isn't quite there as far as showing all 600 miles, the way Fox does today.  And a possible baseball strike is averted at the last minute, making possible the Saturday Game of the Week between the Dodgers and Cubs.

Oh, that cover story about whether or not sitcoms are getting better?  The gist is that they're able to deal with more adult topics than they used to, and that gravitas can tend to increase the number of storylines.  So I guess they're better.

And to round things up, you'll recall that a couple of weeks ago I mentioned TV Guide's defense of the number of hours which Americans spend watching TV.  The idea that the average viewer watches over six hours a day, the editorial remarked, was ridiculous - that may be the number of hours the television is on, but the average individual viewer only watches about two and a half hours.  A year later, with a new survey out by Nielsen, the magazine makes the same argument.  Now, the TV is on for nearly six and a half hours a day, but the amount of time the average individual spends watching it is still lower - although it's risen to over four hours.  Hmm.  I don't know if that's good or bad.  One thing I do know, and agree with, is TV Guide's conclusion that "We don't think the total amount of time spent watching TV is as important as what we choose to watch."  And the what, after all, is what this blog is all about. TV  


  1. Why? Why? Why, indeed?

    - Back in '77, NBC mounted a variety special to celebrate Jimmy Carter's inauguration as President.
    Bob Hope, who though a registered Republican was never really hardline partisan about it, was one of the first on board (a President is a President, after all), and his presence gave the producer an idea:
    Since Bob Hope's birthday was close to Memorial Day (May 29), and since this year it would coincide with the anniversary of the USO, why not make the next scheduled Hope special a combined bash?
    NBC bought, but then the producer doubled down: why not do an annual Hope birthday special?
    His pitch was "to turn Bob Hope's birthday into a national holiday (sort of) with a big variety show in the old style, done on location either in the States or anywhere in the world".
    NBC bought big, and for the next thirteen years, the Bob Hope Birthday Specials were a staple on NBC. The one you're writing about here would have the third in the string; the trip to China was a few years later.
    I learned a lot of this from the producer's autobiography: Inside Inside, by James Lipton.
    Yes, that James Lipton.
    As noted, Lipton produced the Hope shows (in close association with Bob Hope's family) throughout the '80s, into the early '90s, when Hope's health began to fail. By this time Inside The Actor's Studio began to occupy more of Lipton's attention, and Hope's career was winding down, and there you have it.
    (Hey, you're the one who asked ...)

    Off-topic, on the subject of books:
    I'm always getting new ones - and sometimes getting old ones (but they're new to me, so there!).
    This past week, I picked up a couple of biographies of directors who worked for years in both movies and TV.
    William Beaudine - from Silents To Television was written by Beaudine's granddaughter as a labor of love and scholarship - so if you only know the name from Michael Medved's snarky "Golden Turkey" books, you might be surprised by how wide-ranging his career really was.
    Lots of stories, loads of pictures, and way lots of great history.

    Confessions Of A Hollywood Director is the autobiography of Richard L. Bare, whose best-known credit is the entire six-year run of Green Acres, but as with Beaudine, that's only scratching the surface.
    Bare helped to start out the TV operations at both Warners and Disney; he'd started out doing the Joe McDoakes one-reel comedies at WB (available on DVD if you're interested) so they knew he could get a lot on film with short time and money.
    Between pilots and series work, Bare made few features for theatres, but the TV includes Cheyenne, Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, Broken Arrow, lots of others.
    But just the seven stories he did for Twilight Zone are among the best remembered of the whole series (I'll let you look those up for yourself).
    Bare published his book back in 2001*, when he was almost 90; he still had a couple of screenplays he'd written, and wanted to film, but that didn't happen.
    Richard L. Bare died earlier this year, aged 103
    William Beaudine passed in 1970, aged 86.
    They might not have made the AFI's "greatest of all-time" lists, but they're certainly worth some of your time.

    * Look at that - "back in 2001" . Pathetic, isn't it?


  2. Not knowing much about auto racing, why is the Indy 500 still tape delayed? I know none of the NASCAR races are taped. Was that just SOP for races those days?
    I've always wanted to see "United States" (the sitcom). From what you read, it was either the most brilliant thing the sitcom had ever seen or the kind of show that gave "pretentious" a bad name. Anyone watch this when it came out? What was your opinion?

    1. A&E briefly ran United States some years ago - definitely skewed more to the “dramedy” spectrum. Surprisingly it’s not on YouTube

  3. I find it hard to believe the INDY 500 is still blacked out in Indianapolis and has been since 1949!! Here is an interesting story from today's Indianapolis Star Newspaper In Reply to Les above, the race is carried live by ABC

  4. The Indy 500 did not air live until 1986, long after other CART and NASCAR races had moved to live flag-to-flag coverage (the Daytona 500 has been live since 1979 with a Florida blackout in the first contracts with CBS). A blackout is still in effect in the Indianapolis area because of a Speedway agreement with WRTV in order to protect the live gate -- something that needs to be considered for many events, and I said recently college football seriously needs to look at installing a blackout policy if games are not sold out. Why should federal authorities protect broadcasters' right to air events while telling the venues they have no right to protect the live gate?

    All NASCAR Sprint Cup races have been live since the 1996 Indianapolis race. The last scheduled tape delay was the 1993 spring Martinsville race (ESPN taped one April race, typically one serving the Piedmont Triad region, until 8 PM the next night in order to cover the NFL draft.) One of Jeff Gordon's 92 Sprint Cup wins came at the 1996 summer Talladega race (now held in October) that was the last tape-delayed race (the race was broadcast in edited form a week later; a live broadcast was cancelled by rain).

  5. Isn't it about time that the complete run of "Hill Street Blues" be available on DVD already? Arguably the grand daddy of the modern day drama/cop drama deserves to get the DVD treatment that ton of lesser series have received recently.

    (and while they're at it, I want a complete "St. Elsewhere" on DVD as well!)

  6. The place is a little on the pricey side, but boy do you get your money's worth! Our event was as smooth and stress-free as could be. The whole thing at event location rentals was just perfect!


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!