April 30, 2016

This week in TV Guide: May 4, 1957

If you've been a longtime reader of the blog, you might remember that in the very early days, I did a piece that looked at two of the whiz kids of 1950s quiz shows, wondering what had happened to them.

One of them, science expert Robert Strom, is on the cover this week, along with The $64,000 Question host Hal March, and in the accompanying article we learn more about this "fantabulous 10-year-old" who at press time had already won $192,000. He comes across as a pretty normal boy, albeit one with an incredible gift. And it's not just rote memory we're talking about; as his father, a science expert himself, says, "Robert is the first contestant to really think on that show." Lest you chalk this down to parental pride, it is true that Robert has to calculate and think through many of his answers - one time, it took him a grand total of 15 seconds to come up with the right one.*

*"They showed me an equatorially mounted telescope with its hour angle set at two hours east and its declination set at zero degrees. I had to tell what point in the sky I'd be looking at on March 19 at a local time of 10:08 p.m., and a sidereal time of 10 hours." Piece of cake, right?

To show you how little things really change, there's another article by an educator on how to tell if your child is gifted. I don't know whether or not this is designed to help figure out if you have another Robert Strom on your hands, or at least someone capable of bringing home a hundred thousand or so, but to that extent it really is similar to reality television, isn't it? Figuring out how to make money off your child by entering her in a beauty pageant, or coming up with some odd characteristic that a show can be built around?

Note that I'm not suggesting this is what Robert Strom's parents did; by the tone of the article, they seem like dedicated parents who aren't looking to exploit their son's intelligence. His mother even says that they would have turned down the chance to be on TV except that gifted children so often feel ignored by others. It's more the headline on the cover that leads me to that observation. It's like, "A Guide on How to Find a Quiz Kid and Be Profitable (all in one easy step)."

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Here are the rest of the headlines:

Speaking of quiz shows, on Sunday afternoon Charles Van Doren hosts a Project 20 documentary on the history of Austria, paralleling the nation's recent past with scenes from Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio. That opera, with its theme of heroism in the struggle for freedom and justice, was very popular particularly during World War II, when it was seen to mirror the struggle for freedom against Nazi Germany. An epic story by an epic composer.

There's also an interesting article this week about Pauline Frederick, NBC's United Nations correspondent, one of the pioneers of women in broadcast journalism. I've mentioned her before as the host of NBC's daytime series of specials for women, talking about vital social issues of the day. In case you're wondering how she felt about that kind of show, she'll set you straight: "Even when I had to talk about fashion, I always kidded it along. I think news is universal and should be given the emphasis it deserves as news."

As for the future of women in news, Frederick is confident, but doesn't kid herself that things will be easy. She also has an interesting viewpoint on it all: "Some of the blame may lie with us women. If we are to end the segregation of the sexes we must, as women, stop thinking of ourselves as something special. We must ask no quarter. When that happens, man may regard us as equals. You see, the problem is not one of competition. As women, we have always worked with men."  

It's long before the days of The Hollywood Palace, but we'll put Ed Sullivan's show up this week against that of his direct rival, Steve Allen. You can see what Ed has to offer by scrolling further down, but Steve has a top lineup of his own, with actor Orson Welles, singer Jill Corey, and the sensational Will Mastin Trio starring Sammy Davis Jr. I don't have a clip from that show, but here are Sammy and the Will Mastin Trio from a couple of years before, in 1954.

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This Saturday being the first Saturday in May, that can mean only one thing: the Kentucky Derby.

It's on CBS, as will be the case for quite a few more years, and - unlike today's marathon coverage - starts at 5:00 ET with a Derby Preview, followed at 5:15 with the race itself, running for thirty minutes before returning programming to local stations. In the 1950s, horse racing is still a big sport, and the 1957 Derby is one of the most famous of all time, as the great jockey Bill Shoemaker makes a rare mistake, briefly standing at the sixteenth pole on his mount, Gallant Man, after taking a narrow lead over Iron Liege. The error, brief though it may have been, proves costly, as Iron Liege, ridden by Bill Hartack, regains the lead and narrowly wins the race. You can see it here if you're interested.

As far as the rest of Saturday goes, you have your pick of baseball games: the Milwaukee Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates on NBC, the Cincinnati Redlegs and New York Giants on CBS, and the Boston Red Sox vs. the Cleveland Indians on the Bosox network of stations.

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You might recall that a while back we took a look at what was on the top rated shows in the Fort Worth area as of March, 1959. Well, we're at it again this week, only the city in question is Boston, and the ratings are as of March, 1957. The ratings service in this case is American Research Bureau.

1. You Bet Your Life (NBC)
Thursday, 8:00pm ET
54.0 percent of all televisions tuned in

There's no listing for the show this week, no surprise since it's ostensibly a quiz show, but we can probably assume this means there were no big-name guest stars appearing.

2. (Tie) The Ed Sullivan Show (CBS)
Sunday, 8:00pm
Ed's guests tonight are singer Johnnie Ray; Walter Pidgeon, star of the current Broadway comedy "The Happiest Millionaire"; James Melton, singer; Judge Dewey "Pigmeat" Markham and Company, comedians; the Vagabonds, instrumental and comedy group; Allen and De Wood, comedy team; Martha Ann Bentley, toe-dancer; singer James Melton and his violinettes; Judy Scott, pop singer; Robert Strom, young quiz winner and science expert; and the Corps De Ballet of the Ballet Russe De Monte Carlo.

2. (Tie) I've Got a Secret (CBS)
Wednesday, 9:30pm
Movie actor Adolphe Menjou brings a secret to the panelists.

4. I Love Lucy (CBS)
Monday, 9:00pm
Lucy plunges into civic affairs in a big way when the community of Westport, Conn., plans to establish a monument to its Revolutionary War heroes.

5. The Jane Wyman Show (NBC)
Tuesday, 9:00pm
Jane Wyman stars in "Night of Terror." A woman driving alone through a lonely stretch of desert stops at a small cafe. There she learns of a maniac at large in the area who preys on people who travel alone.

6. Alfred Hitchcock Presents (CBS)
Sunday, 9:30pm
"The Hands of Mr. Ottermole." Fog, a mysterious strangler and an inquisitive reporter confound an English policy sergeant. Working under cover of impenetrable fog, the murderer claims one of the sergeant's policemen as another of his many victims.

7. Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts (CBS)
Monday, 8:30pm
No listing for the week. Again, there probably isn't anyone notable on the show, and it's pretty much what you'd expect each week.

8. The West Point Story (CBS)
Friday, 8:00pm
"Dragoon Patrol." Tonight's story is set at West Point in 1871. First Classman William Purdom disagrees with Maj. Watts' statement that no man is expendable in battle.

9. (Tie) G.E. Theater (CBS) 
Sunday, 9:00pm
Ray Milland stars in and directs "Angel of Wrath." After he has invested in a publishing firm, a Broadway star is shocked to learn that it prints unsavory literature. He becomes involved in an argument with the publisher, and strikes the man. Convinced he is guilty of murder, the star does not know what to do. Should he confess and bring scandal upon himself and his family, or should he run away?

10. The Millionaire (CBS)
Wednesday, 9:00pm
"The Chris Daniels Story." A horse trainer falls in love with the boss's daughter. After he's fired he receives Michael Anthony's check and decides to start his own stable in an effort to win his girl.

And there you have it. Even though this is two years prior to the Fort Worth listing we saw, I think we can still draw a number of conclusions about the differences between the two markets. First of all, you'll notice that there are no Westerns in the top ten in Boston, despite Gunsmoke being the #7 show nationally (the only Western in the top ten; it will be the next couple of seasons that will see Westerns dominate the ratings).

As far as comparisons to the nation's TV viewing, while Fort Worth viewers had seven of the top ten national shows on their viewing list, Boston can only boast of five in the top ten: Lucy, Sullivan, G.E. Theater, Hitchcock and Secret. I don't think that means Bostonians aren't in step with the rest of the country (Talent Scouts, for example, was just outside the top ten at #12, and The Millionaire checked in at #13), but it does that tastes change from place to place.

Sometime we'll do this with the national ratings and see what the U.S.A. is watching.

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Finally, here's a recipe for you - it's a "late, late snack for the late, late show."


April 29, 2016

Around the dial

Another week, as they say, another collection of gems from the classic television blogosphere. And if someone hasn't said that, they should.

While looking something up, I came across this very good 2007 interview with George Maharis from Route 66 News, in which he talks some about his experiences on Route 66, what made the show successful, and why it wasn't quite the same after he left.

It's military sitcom week at the AV Club, and we get a look at a couple classics that transcend their settings: the hilarious Phil Silvers Show, with the wonderful Ernie Bilko pulling a con on everyone, and the sublime final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, where our heroes learn what paying the ultimate price means, and what it's all about.

I thought this was such a good piece from David at Comfort TV on people who look at his DVD collection and ask him if he's really watched them all. I have to admit that in my own case, the answer would be "no," but when I look at the state of today's television, I have no doubts that I'll wind up running out of DVDs to watch before I run out of time.

At Vote for Bob Crane, Carol has 20 things we didn't know about Bob Crane. I have to admit knowing some of them, but then I've read the book - and you should too!

Martin Grams talks about old-time radio (OTR), a foray we've taken from time to time here, with another of the shows that made the transition from radio to television, albeit briefly: Gangbusters. I have to admit I never warmed to this show either on radio or TV, but that's probably just me. By the way, Gangbusters was a top-ten hit on TV, alternating weekly with Dragnet, but only lasted one season - apparently, it was never intended as anything but a stopgap until enough Dragnet episodes had been made for that series to run weekly.

Tomorrow we'll be talking about the highest-rated programs as part of the TV Guide review, but TV Obscurities looks at the shows that were in the bottom 10 of the ratings in October, 1987. How many of these shows do you remember? I recall a couple of them, and actually enjoyed Max Headroom (which may have just been ahead of its time), but I daresay most of them earned their position. TV  

April 27, 2016

Early television: good or bad?

My friend Steve forwarded something to me the other day; he thought it might be worthy of discussion on the blog, and after thinking about it for awhile I think it's right. It's an exchange from an interview with Patton Oswalt (who's sadly in the news for other reasons these past days), and it pertains to the heritage, the legacy of classic television:

Question: I’d like to give you three options: Do you think the Internet is going to become more and more of a hellscape until it self-combusts, do you think we’re headed toward it becoming even worse and more and more annoying, or do you think people eventually get better?

Patton Oswalt: See, initially, I was in the whole “Oh, this will become and remain an even worse and worse and worse hellscape” camp. But then I was reading about the early years of TV — it was awful, it was so bad what television started out as — and then, luckily, more and more artisans began to be drawn toward it and it got better. So I think that right now, the Internet is sort of in its DuMont [Television] Network stage of development, and it will get better.

Unfortunately, we’re seeing the early crappy years. I mean, obviously there are glimmers of intelligence out there.. but, you know, the infant form of anything is going to be a lot of, uh, I guess, chaff if you will, and it’ll get better and better. So we’re here for the chaff years.

Now that's food for thought, isn't it? It's a question with, at heart, a provocative premise. I've been involved in more than one discussion on the "Golden Age of Television,", and it's reasonable to conclude that everything wasn't golden back then, no more so than during the age of Pericles. For every triumph such as Playhouse 90 (and that had its share of lemons as well), there were shows that just don't deserve the time of day.

What comes next might seem as if I'm ragging on Patton Oswalt a little bit, and that really isn't the case. At first blush some of what he says sounds elitist, or dismissive of classic TV, but I'm not convinced he meant all that, or that he intended to paint with a broad brush. Any man who knows about DuMont is not a fool when it comes to early TV history. But what he's done here is open the door to endlessly entertaining topics of discussion: is TV better now than it was then? Is it better to have more explicit shows, or ones that leave something to the imagination? Are we better off looking at shows as pure entertainment, or should they have societal value as well? And what about shows that advocate one point of view or another?

Oswalt's right, I think, to the extent that in the original days of television, anything went because you'd throw just about anything on the screen just to have something on, and a lot of that could be pretty bad. Of course, DuMont had a brief but noteworthy history - as the always-reliable Wikipedia puts it,

DuMont was the first network to broadcast a film production for TV: Talk Fast, Mister, produced by RKO in 1944. DuMont also aired the first TV situation comedy, Mary Kay and Johnny*, as well as the first network-televised soap opera, Faraway Hill. Cavalcade of Stars, a variety show hosted by Jackie Gleason, was the birthplace of The Honeymooners (Gleason took his variety show to CBS in 1952, but filmed the "Classic 39" Honeymooners episodes at DuMont's Adelphi Theater studio in 1955-56). Bishop Fulton J. Sheen's devotional program Life Is Worth Living went up against Milton Berle in many cities, and was the first show to compete successfully in the ratings against "Mr. Television". In 1952, Sheen won an Emmy Award for "Most Outstanding Personality"
*Also, as I recall, the first program to show a married couple sharing the same bed.

In addition, The Original Amateur Hour, The Ernie Kovacs Show and Captain Video were programs that first aired on DuMont. It's true that some of these shows were crude in comparison to today's smooth productions, while others were limited by the technological issues of the day. Some of them had particularly bad storylines and iffy acting - I've seen some of Captain Video, and it can make you cringe. When Oswalt critiques those early days, is that the kind of thing he's discussing? I suspect so. On the other hand, Amateur Hour (and talent shows of the time by Arthur Godfrey and Lawrence Welk) was really nothing more than the American Idol of its day, minus all the flash and glitz; that's an example of a show where the looks have changed in comparison to today's efforts, but at heart all talent shows are the same.

Does Oswalt mean that the content of the shows back then suffers compared to today? Interesting question. I'll admit that watching someone play the accordion or sing a corny song can look pretty hokey, but that relates more to the popular culture of the time than anything else. Is that what Oswalt is saying, that the pop culture of today is superior to what it was back then? I hope not, because if he is, I'd have to disagree. Strongly.

What about the subject matter of those shows? Many of them concerned domestic family life. Is that part of it? Well into the '60s, TV produced series from Donna Reed and Father Knows Best to Leave it to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet. The intelligentsia tend to roll their collective eyes at them nowadays, talking about the fanciful portrayal of a time that never really was. Is that what Oswalt is saying here, that these shows were successful, well-acted and written, but that the content is too simplistic, not cool enough for today's audiences?

What about educational and cultural television? The early years of TV had classical works of drama and music, and public broadcasting started out as a truly eclectic mix of education, rather than a warehouse for British drama. And dating back to the very beginning, the pioneers of television worried about their responsibility to present such programming to the audience, and whether or not ratings should enter the discussion. Does Oswalt consider that time to be part of the good time for TV, or not?

And then there's drama, and when it comes to that there is some true brilliance that literally does date back to television's infancy. Studio One debuted in 1948; the Hallmark Hall of Fame in 1951, the aforementioned Playhouse 90 in 1956. Gunsmoke, an adult Western that often raised provocative questions about society and its mores, premiered in 1955; Naked City, one of the first police dramas to introduce social relevance as well as gunplay, started in 1958; Route 66, which often presents a vivid picture of American life of the time, debuted in 1960. The Defenders, one of the most provocative of the legal dramas, came along in 1961. Most if not all of these shows were known for the richness of the writing as well as the strength of the acting and directing talent.

Are these the artisans that Oswalt refers to?We've talked about the era of live television recently, to the effect that the loss of live TV meant the loss of an entire genre of programming. Would he consider these shows to be from those "early days" because of their lack of polish, the rough edges and errors that were not uncommon in live TV? Or would he point to the writers, people like Serling and Chayefsky and Rose who were legitimately recognized as artisans in their own time, and cite this as evidence of television's positive evolution? Is this when it got better, the days when drama was considered a writer's medium? Or is it when television began to tackle complex and controversial issues, ranging from abortion to equal rights to war? Do those kind of issues constitute the entrance of the artisan? Does he think that talent began with Aaron Sorkin? I doubt it, but it's just kind of fun to throw a snarky comment like that in there.

As I said, the whole thing is fun, because it gets people to really talk about TV and what's it's about. Are the heavily-serialized shows of the last fifteen years or so, the "new" Golden Age, better than the dramas of the '50s and early '60s, many of which tackled heavy issues without resort to sensationalism? Was St. Elsewhere better than Ben Casey? How do they compare to ER? And what about Naked City vs Hill Street Blues?

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this discussion is the part we haven't touched on at all: Oswalt's comparison of today's internet to those early days of television, with the presumption that the internet will evolve into a more mature product, as he believes television has. I'm not sure about that; if you were to tell me that the quality of the internet product will continue to follow the same arc as television programming, I don't know if I'd laugh or cry.

I think Oswalt's comments open the door, and I think this gives us the opportunity to defend classic television, to point out both its strengths and flaws, and to look at TV's role in the wider culture. I'm sure everyone's got opinions on these questions - I know I've got mine, but how about yours?

April 25, 2016

What's on TV? Wednesday, May 1, 1968

After a fairly lengthy break, we're back in the Twin Cities this week, and I for one am grateful for being able to look at the listings without needing a magnifying glass. There were interesting programs scattered throughout this week, most of which you read about on Saturday. Here's a look at what Wednesday had to offer.

April 23, 2016

This week in TV Guide: April 27, 1968

No big features this week, so we'll just start in and see what comes up.

We begin with Melvin Durslag surveying a troubling trend in sports - the possibly of labor disputes. "Player unions are flexing their muscles, threatening management with just about everything, including strikes." There's no doubt that professional athletes are receiving more money than ever before (baseball's minimum wage has just been increased from $7000 to $10,000), but with this security, players "are coming to assert themselves in the establishment of ground rules in their crafts." A strike just before the start of last year's NBA playoffs was narrowly averted, golf pros threatened to pull away from the PGA and run their tour themselves, and unions are demanding a say in everything from the annual schedules to air travel (they want only first class) to the abolishing of the dreaded "reserve clause."

Jack Kent Cooke, owner of the NHL's Los Angeles Kings, explains that rising TV exposure plays a major role, making instant heroes out of athletes and increasing their perceived value. In addition, the stupidity of some owners, throwing ridiculous sums of money after stars, has poisoned the well, so to speak, for everyone. The creation of the American Basketball Association has introduced the specter of bidding wars for the best talent, and the problem is sure to crop up with other leagues as well.

Not surprisingly, the players counter that the owners can't exactly plead poverty. If payrolls have expanded, the value of teams has as well, increasing by three or four times over the last decade. Having been treated as indentured servants for so many years, the players are eager to get their slice of the pie, rubbing the owners' noses in it while they're at it.

Looking at this from nearly 50 years' distance, it's amusing how naive this sounds. It was amazing that the Cleveland Browns were worth $12 million in 1968; today's most valuable franchises, the Dallas Cowboys and New York Yankees, are now worth over $3 billion. Every professional sports league has undergone multiple work stoppages, with both the World Series and an entire NHL season cancelled in the process, and multiple seasons shortened due to games missed. The minimum salary in baseball, an astounding $10,000 in 1968, is now $500,000. TV contributes so much money to the process that it's incredible anyone can disagree over it.

One thing's for sure, though. Melvin Durslag predicted that over the next few years, "the liveliest shows in sports could be quite removed from the field," and he was right.

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As the regular television season winds down, Cleveland Amory presents his year-end awards, The Amorys. In a change from years past, and due to popular demand, this year's awards feature not only the "best" performances and shows of the year, but the "worst" as well. This is a recipe for fun if ever there was one. Herewith, some of the winners - and losers.

Best Dramatic Series: Ironside. Honorable Mention: Insight.
Best Comedy Series: The Flying Nun. Honorable Mention: Get Smart.
Best Variety Series: The Smothers Brothers Show. Honorable Mention: Laugh-In.
Best Drama Series: CBS Playhouse. Honorable Mention: NET Playhouse.*
Best Late-Night Show: The Joey Bishop Show. Honorable Mention: Les Crane (syndicated).
Best Educational Show: The French Chef. Honorable Mention: Book Beat.

*See, Amory gets it. He uses "Drama" vs. "Dramatic" to distinguish between the two different styles we discussed on Saturday and Wednesday of last week.

Best Dramatic Actor: Raymond Burr (Ironside). Honorable Mention: Ron Harper (Garrison's Gorillas).
Best Dramatic Actress: Barbara Bain (Mission: Impossible). Honorable Mention: Barbara Anderson (Ironside)
Best Comedian: Jonathan Winters. Honorable Mention: Tommy Smothers.
Award for All-Around Merit: Robert Culp and Bill Cosby (I Spy)

Worst Dramatic Series: The Guns of Will Sonnett. Honorable Mention: Cimarron Strip.
Worst Comedy Series: He & She. Honorable Mention: Good Morning World
Worst Variety Series: Operation: Entertainment. Honorable Mention: The Jerry Lewis Show.
Worst Late-Night Show: The Joe Pyne Show. Honorable Mention: The Weather
Worst Dramatic Actor: Gentle Ben (Gentle Ben). Honorable Mention: Maya (Maya).

And finally,
Worst Critic: Results suppressed in the interests of national unity.

These are always fun, and in a couple of weeks we'll be seeing the responses in the Letters to the Editor section. I do know that Amory took a lot of flack from readers for giving He & She a bad review earlier in the year, so I suspect we'll be hearing more of the same from the letter writers. But as Amory would always say, don't show me letters - show me viewers.

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No "Sullivan vs. The Palace" this week, even though we're in the right era, because The Hollywood Palace is preempted, whether locally or by the network I'm not sure, for a "Doc Evans" jazz session featuring Harry Blons, Geraldine Mullaney, Eddie Tolk, Don Thompson and Jim Morton. Given that virtually all the musicians were from Minnesota, I'm guessing it could have been a local production.

Ed quite likely would have won the week though, with guests like Ella Fitzgerald; actor Richard Harris; comedians George Carlin, Milt Kamen and Stiller and Meara; the Doodletown Pipers; Korean violinist Kyung Wha Chung; and illusionist Richiardi. A strong lineup, particularly at the top.

As far as other variety shows, the lineup begins Saturday night on CBS with The Jackie Gleason Show, with guests Milton "I used to be Mr. Television!" Berle, Frank Gorshin, Vikki Carr, and Sammy Kaye and his orchestra. Andy Williams is on Sunday night on NBC with the horrific-sounding "The H. Andrew Williams Kaleidoscope Co." featuring pop stars Simon and Garfunkel, Cass Elliott, Ray Charles and Burt Bacharach. The picture of Andy shows him wearing a neckerchief with a wild pattern. Fans of the guests (and I know you're out there) will forgive me if I'm underwhelmed. Earlier in the night, over on CBS, the Smothers Brothers have Carl Reiner, Hamilton Camp, Jennie Smith and the Happenings.

Leslie Uggams, who's featured on this week's cover, welcomes Robert Morse, Noel Harrison and the Young Rascals as guests on her ABC special Wednesday night. And Dean Martin's Thursday NBC show has comedians Buddy Hackett, Minnie Pearl and David Steinberg, and singer Rosemary Clooney.

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Some notable programs this week, headed by a rare Hallmark Hall of Fame comedy, "The Admirable Crichton," on NBC Thursday night, written by J.M. Barrie (author of Peter Pan) and starring the husband-and-wife team of Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna, best known for their roles in the movie Born Free.

I'll be covering this in more detail in Monday's piece, but Wednesday night's highlight, in addition to the Leslie Uggams special, ABC presents a commercial-free showing of the 1957 movie Paths of Glory, starring Kirk Douglas, written and directed by Stanley Kubrick.

A CBS news special on Tuesday raises, I think, a question for our times. It's called "The Trial Lawyers," hosted by Harry Reasoner. The topic is "the fiction of presumed innocence," featuring five of the most prominent trial lawyers in the world: F. Lee Bailey, Melvin Belli, Percy Foreman, Louis Nizer and Edward Bennett Williams.*

*But where's the world's greatest trial lawyer - Perry Mason?

I think there's also an interesting program on Danny Thomas' Monday night anthology series on NBC, "The Measure of a Man," starring Richard Kiley as a West Virginia coal miner, illiterate, unskilled, middle aged, who's lost his job due to technology and now has to find work in a hostile employment environment.

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This week's sports lineup is quiet, and expected. NBC's Saturday Game of the Week is Baltimore at Boston, ABC's Wide World of Sports features Indy car racing from Trenton, the North American Gymnastics Championship, and a preview of tonight's WBA heavyweight title fight between Jerry Quarry and Jimmy Ellis. CBS' Saturday afternoon entry is the season opener of the old North American Soccer League, a contest pitting the St. Louis Stars and the Kansas City Spurs.

A programming note on Sunday alerts us of the possibility of an NBA finals game on ABC, and indeed there is one. It's Game 4, and the Los Angeles Lakers' 119-105 victory over the Boston Celtics ties their series at 2-2. Alas for the Lakers, it's their last gasp - the Celts win the next two games, the last by 15 points, to take yet another NBA championship.

The Stanley Cup playoffs are in full swing, and CBS covers Game 5 of the Eastern Division Finals, with the Montreal Canadians defeating the Chicago Black Hawks 4-3 in overtime to win the Eastern title, en route to defeating the St. Louis Blues to take yet another Stanley Cup. (Note a trend here?)

ABC Sunday entry is the final round of the inaugural Byron Nelson Classic from Preston Trails Golf Club right here in Dallas, named after the legendary golfer and won by Miller Barber.

And a sports-related note: Rafer Johnson, former gold medalist in the Decathlon and current sportscaster on KNBC in Los Angeles, will not be violating equal-time standards by continuing to appear on TV while being part of Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign. Sadly, this is only an issue for six more weeks; he and football star Roosevelt Grier are the two men who tackle Sirhan Sirhan after Sirhan fatally shoots RFK.

◊ ◊ ◊

Finally, the Letters section provides us with the line of the week, perhaps the line of the year. It refers to the recent departure of Diana Rigg, the delectable crime fighter Mrs. Emma Peel, from The Avengers, Speaking of Patrick Macnee's character John Steed, M. Goetz of Jersey City, New Jersey simply writes, "I bet John Steed Mrs. Emma Peel." I couldn't have put it any better. TV  

April 22, 2016

Around the dial

A very enjoyable spin around the classic television blogosphere awaits, so let's get right to it, shall we?

Here's a great reminder from The Broadcasting Archives at the University of Maryland - a book depicting television as "The Magic Window." It's amazing how quickly we come to take something for granted, isn't it?

One of the recurring characters in Hogan's Heroes was Tiger, the beautiful underground agent. At Vote For Bob Crane, Carol has a nice piece on the actress playing Tiger, Arlene Martel, who had some very interesting insights into Bob Crane's true character.

Whether old television series or sporting events of the past, it drives me crazy that so much of our TV heritage has been lost due to tapes being lost or simply destroyed. Cult TV Blog gives us another example of what we're missing in his discussion of the lost Avengers series one episode "Nightmare."

In the category of "the more things change, the more they stay the same," Lincoln X-ray Ida takes a look at a 1971 episode of Adam-12 entitled "The Militants." The quality of the episode is debatable; it's relevance to today's headlines isn't.

Speaking of episode recaps (and Adam-12!), Recap Retro recaps one of The Twilight Zone's early, disturbing episodes - "The Mirror," starring the lovely Vera Miles and Sgt. Pete Malloy himself, Martin Milner. A great recap of a sinister story, indeed.

In yet another reminder of the staying power of classic television - and my irritation at cable systems that don't broadcast digital subchannels - Television Obscurities looks at getTV's new weekday lineup. They're not all winners, but shows such as The Jimmy Stewart Show don't get much airplay anymore, and any reminder is a good one.

Finally, at Those Were the Days, it's the cover of the April 21, 1956 issue of TV Guide, one of many issues I don't have. It features a very young Nanette Fabray, as well as a reminder of how real life intrudes, with Fred Allen's final interview, a reminder that Allen had died on March 17. TV  

April 20, 2016

When television was live—and living

You'll recall that in Saturday's review of TV Guide's top shows of all time, I mentioned in passing the thought that anthology series such as Playhouse 90 should perhaps have had their own category, rather than being lumped in with the rest of TV's dramatic series.

I wrote that primarily because I thought there was a distinct difference between an anthology, in which different actors and actresses tell different stories each week, and a "orthodox" series in which regulars tell a continuing story that may or may not also be serialized. However, there's another reason to think of anthology shows as their own genre, as noted in the book Fifties Television, written by William Boddy—for the most part, at least in the '50s, they were live.

Today, aside from sports and breaking news, there's very little live television, aside from the occasional network musical or other big event. In TV's early days, however, many shows were live—not only the anthologies, but series television as well. I think it was I Love Lucy that finally turned the trend once and for all, but I could be wrong about that.

So why do we think live television is special, worthy of being considered its own genre? Let's start with a definition of live television, one that goes beyond the obvious, that the show is happening as it's broadcast. Just what does that mean, and why is it relevant? Jack Gould, the television critic for The New York Times, wrote in 1956 that

Alone of the mass media, it removes from an audience's consciousness the factors of time and distance. . . . Live television . .  bridges the gap instantly and unites the individual at home with the event afar. The viewer has a change to be in two places at once. Physically, he may be at his own hearthside but intellectually, and above all, emotionally, he is at the cameraman's side.

Gould's point, Boddy continues, is that "both the player in the studios and the audience at home have an intrinsic awareness of being in each other's presence." Who knew interactive television went all the way back to the '50s?

Seriously, though, I think there's a real point to be made here. Boddy goes on to quote Gil Seldes, one of television's early pioneers:

The essence of television techniques is their contribution to the sense of immediacy. . . . The tension that suffuses the atmosphere of a live production is a special thing to which audiences respond; they feel that what they see and hear is happening in the present and therefore more real than anything taken and cut and dried which has the feel of the past.

Here we begin to get to the heart of it. There's a natural tendency to think of live programming not just as quaint, but as necessitated simply because video tape had not yet come into vogue. As we know, one of the main advantages to using tape (or film) is the ability to edit out rough spots, to do repeated takes of a scene until it comes out just right, and to preserve the performance for repeated viewings; therefore, pursuing this line of reasoning, we think of a recorded performance as something desirable, in that it gives us the best possible production. But is this always the case? And is it even desirable to have a presentation that's that spot-on? Seldes, as we have read, thinks not.

Gould, in a 1952* article entitled "A Plea for Live Video," describes the benefits of live programming as opposed to recorded, saying that a live broadcast contains a "sense of depth and trueness" which recorded programs cannot match. Carrying it through to the 1956 piece referenced above, Gould states unequivocally that "In their blind pursuit of artificial perfectionism, the TV film producers compromise the one vital element that endows the home screen with its own intangible excitement: humanness. Their error is to try to tinker with reality, to improve upon it to a point where it is no longer real."

*In 1952, more than 80% of all television shows were broadcast live.

We shouldn't be surprised by Gould's insistence on the humanness of television - after all, we say the same things about movies and music. We compare"human" epics such as Lawrence of Arabia and Ben Hur with SFX-driven spectacles such as Titanic and The Lord of the Rings, and even though we're impressed by the artistry and incredible technology of the latter, we also acknowledge that it just doesn't seem quite "real." We hear people talk about the crackle and imperfection of phonograph records, but at the same time we understand that digital music, despite its superior sound, is "sterile." It's the same thing.

We already know that television is the most intimate of mediums; as Seldes puts it, "Every television program is in a sense an invasion; you turn on your television set and someone comes into your living room." The magic of live television was that there was that interaction between actor and viewer. For those acting in a live production, there was a constant awareness of the audience "out there," that they were seeing your movements and hearing your words at virtually the same time as you were making them. For the actor, the camera was not the important thing; that performance was being delivered for the viewer, out there in the great darkness beyond the lens. Writer Donald Curtis put it well when he wrote that "There is no place for acting here. He must 'be' what he represents. . . . The television camera goes inside of an actor's mind and soul, and sends the receiving set exactly what it sees there."

"Requiem for a Heavyweight", 1955
For the viewer's part, having invited the actors into the living room, attention must be paid. It is more like going to a Broadway theater and watching a stage play than it is going to a movie theater and watching a movie. They know that what they are seeing is real, genuine, not a product of special effects or clever editing, but the actor's actual performance. Furthermore, they know that millions of others are sharing this experience at the exact time. It becomes fodder around the water cooler the next day, or at the dinner table that night with friends. Gore Vidal, who wrote 70 TV plays in the '50s, said "If you did a good show on 'Philco' [Television Playhouse, one of the prestige dramas], you would walk down the street the next morning and hear people talking about your play."

There's something very ironic about all this, although it isn't apparent right away. But think about it: the crucial elements of live television could be boiled down to three: the actor, performing for the viewer; the director, broadcasting what is taking place in front of him and not from the editing room later on; and the viewer, sharing the experience with cast, crew and other viewers.Today, our technology has managed to eliminate all of this: the actor plays to the camera, as he must, and often finds him or herself performing in front of a green screen, imagining what will be edited in afterward. The director relies on computer programmers as much as, if not more than, live acting; even with an animated feature like Toy Story, the end product, although the result of human work, doesn't feel quite as human as it would have been if it were hand drawn. The viewer can watch all of this whenever and however he or she pleases—on a television, phone or computer screen, as it happens or recorded to watch later, one episode at a time or all at once. It's the very opposite of the experience produced by live television.

Lest you think that we're just talking about the aesthetic component of live television, there were also many who felt the subject matter itself was influenced by the format. The divide between live and prerecorded television came to be seen as the difference between the "New York" and "Hollywood" schools. Live television, with its basis in the Broadway stage, tended to emphasize character development, whereas the Hollywood school, born of the motion picture industry, made plot the key element. Seldes felt that character-driven programming was more appropriate for television, where the "casual environment and attitudes of viewers" detracted from complex plot structures.

Such character dramas were perfect for live television, with its intimate relationship between performer and viewer, and the stripped-down, basic staging required by the small confines of the TV studio. In the meantime, Hollywood was busy producing half-hour action dramas, many of which starred either policemen or cowboys; many critics felt, as did Vance Bourjaily, that "the half-hour show is too brief, and it is interrupted by a commercial too soon after it begins, to be anything but a hook, a gimmick and a resolution." Gould said it "inevitably puts a premium on the contrived plot and on action for its own sake." The hour-long live drama was a writer's medium, and the writers were the stars: Rod Serling, Reginald Rose and Paddy Chayefsky were among the best and the best-known. As long as they continued to work in New York, the Hollywood school was left with weaker scripts; the emphasis on half-hour programs followed.

Times changed, of course, as did finances. Most of the prestigious live dramas were underwritten by sponsor dollars: Philco, Kraft, Hallmark, Westinghouse, and others. As the sponsor's role receded following the quiz show scandals, the networks gained control and based their decisions increasingly on the bottom line. Serling, fed up with interference from both network and sponsor, moved to a genre that required recording, while Chayefsky and others (including Serling) moved increasingly to movies. Talent began to shift from the East Coast to the West, movie studios started to work with television rather than against it, viewer tastes changed. It's hard to see live drama, or live television of any kind, returning to TV unless it's a special event.

However, there's more than enough reason to look at live television as a genre in and of itself. It required different production values, different styles of acting, different types of stories. TV Guide, which played such a role in the advocacy of quality television—including live drama—should have known better than to put Playhouse 90 in the same category as St. Elsewhere. To compare live TV to recorded programs is foolish; they're like apples and oranges. It may be long gone, but the era of live television was a unique and glorious, moment in history, and its memory lingers on long after the tape machines took over the control room. TV  

April 18, 2016

What's on TV? Sunday, April 18, 1993

One of the many irritants from TV Guides of this era is the small, cramped print necessitated by the growing number of channels and the 24/7 programming. Of course, this is exacerbated in this case by the sheer number of stations in the Los Angeles area; in order to fit everything in this week's feature, I had to omit several stations from Anaheim and other areas. I can only imagine how much trouble older readers must have had finding their favorites, if in fact they had any. Let's see what we can find.

April 16, 2016

This week in TV Guide: April 17, 1993

This week's TV Guide comes to you courtesy of Steve Harris from the In Other Words site, who has written so many of the devastatingly funny "This Just In" pieces over there. It was part of a small lot of TV Guides which he graciously gave me for Christmas this past year, issues you'll be seeing pop up from time to time in this space.

It's an interesting issue, and this is going to be an interesting look at it; I'm not sure we're even going to dip into the programming until Monday. That's because this is the 40th Anniversary Issue, and as you can tell from the cover, we're going to be reading about TV Guide's choices as the All-Time Best TV.* Ratings like this are ultimately pointless (one man's trash is another man's treasure, after all, and as the Editors themselves point out, "most of the fun is in the argument"), but they're usually fun to look at. Let's see if that's the case this time as well.

*I can't imagine writing this phrase without using Capital Letters.

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The shows are separated into categories: sitcoms, family shows, cop shows, Westerns and the like, and winners are chosen for the decades of the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s and overall. Some of the choices, which must have seemed so progressive at the time, are probably going to be quite dated now, while others are going to be a testimony to how cultures change over time. Let's start, as an example, with sitcoms. The best sitcom of the '50s is no surprise: I Love Lucy. Probably not much disagreement there. For the '60s, the winner is The Dick Van Dyke Show, the '70s is M*A*S*H, the '80s is Cheers, and the All-Time Best* is M*A*S*H. What does this mean?

*There are those Capital Letters again.

The justification for selecting M*A*S*H as the all-time best is that it did what only the greatest comedies do: "mix hilarity and tragedy, often in equal measure." I'm not sure I agree with this - the definition, I mean. Yes, many comedies introduce an element of drama from time to time, but I disagree strongly with the assertion that this is a requirement of classic comedy. The editors acknowledge that M*A*S*H's politics could occasionally be heavy-handed, but "never at the expense of laughter or character," and I'm not sure I agree with that either. The politics of M*A*S*H, while ostensibly referring to the Korean War, was often meant as an allegory for Vietnam - but by this time, much of it has become dated, not to mention simplistic, and its cast members seem even more sanctimonious and pushy than they did back then. Perhaps the editors could have created a category for Best Dramedy, where M*A*S*H could have competed against Thirtysomething and SportsNight.

Another characteristic of classic comedy is its timelessness, and that's something that one can genuinely question about M*A*S*H. Let's put it this way: if you were to introduce this show to an audience today, one that lies outside of the demographic most preoccupied with Vietnam, would they find it funny in the same way they do Lucy or Andy Griffith or Leave it to Beaver, or even Frazier and Seinfeld, if you want to project into the future? I'm not sure they would, because those other shows, although rooted in a specific time period, often draw their humor from situations that are timeless and jokes that are often funny regardless of their setting. Much of M*A*S*H's humor may fall into that category (after all, authority will always be the butt of the joke), but I don't think you can say the same for its politics, and for that reason M*A*S*H, like another contender from the era, All in the Family, is too much of its time to be considered timeless.

My own personal choice in this category, not surprisingly to regular readers, is Hogan's Heroes, which combines a modicum of slapstick with some very clever "caper" plotting that also happens to be very funny. There's a certain gravitas about the mission of the Heroes that doesn't exist on, for example, McHale's Navy, and from time to time you're reminded that their missions do, in fact, often involve killing. The complaints about bad taste fall on deaf ears in this household, and most of the situations that form the basis for the comedy do seem, to me at least, to be universal in a way that they aren't in M*A*S*H. This is just one man's opinion; however, remember that the one man happens to be the owner of this blog.

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Best Drama? Your winners by decade are Playhouse 90, The Fugitive, Upstairs, Downstairs, and St. Elsewhere, and even before I turned the page I knew St. Elsewhere would be the winner, because it came from the '80s, which at the time was considered another Golden Age, and it was the most recent in people's minds.

Here, my complaint revolves around methodology. Some people might consider Hill Street Blues, the winner of Best Cop Show, as the best dramatic series of all time. Ah, but Hill Street is a genre show, albeit one that transcends the normal lines that separate a genre series from a regular drama. Others might suggest that The Waltons, a nominee for Best Family Show, should be considered for this category. For that matter, St. Elsewhere could be considered a genre show itself, a medical drama. But wait - there isn't a category for best Medical Drama. Could it be because there aren't really any medical dramas on television at the time, before ER and Chicago Hope and House? Can we even say that St. Elsewhere would be the best medical drama if that category existed? After all, Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare took on some weighty issues for the time.

I think this is a terribly weak choice: of the shows listed, I'd probably go with The Fugitive, although Playhouse 90 is a strong contender. The problem with Playhouse 90, in my mind, is that it was an anthology; as such, without a regular cast, you don't have to consider things such as character development and continuing storyline. It probably should have gone in a category for Best Anthology, but said category does not exist. Meanwhile, The Fugitive could just as easily have been put in the cop show category since its protagonist spends his time trying to avoid capture by - you guessed it - a cop. Upstairs, Downstairs could just as easily be put in the Best Nighttime Soap category (not that there's anything wrong with that), but if you're going to consider it as among the best, then let's look at the series that was the best Masterpiece Theatre had to offer: I, Claudius. Or was that too much of a soap? And what about The Prisoner, one of the most provocative series of all time? It isn't even mentioned in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy category. What about The Defenders, a show of exceedingly high quality, or Perry Mason, a series with high entertainment value? What about Mission: Impossible, which doesn't seem to fit into any category?

The bottom line here is that the categories themselves are useless - unless there's something that makes a series unique (and I'd allow that science fiction can fall into that description, as well as the anthology series, and today's reality shows), a drama is a drama and a comedy is a comedy. To paraphrase the editors, a classic television series transcends simple classification; just as Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe transcended genre fiction to be considered mainstream literature, the best series, regardless of the field in which they take place, are dramas (or comedies) first and foremost. Dragnet, one of the decade winners in the Best Cop category, is fine as a genre show, but it doesn't reach the level of another decade winner, Naked City, which is not a police drama at all, but a drama about men who happen to be policemen. See the difference?

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There are a few other bones to pick as well.

I mentioned Best Family Show above, but I'll say again that I think this kind of segregation cheapens the quality of these shows. The Waltons not a drama series? Leave it to Beaver and The Donna Reed Show classified as "family" shows and not sitcoms? It's almost as if the editors are embarrassed by them, giving them a special category rather than letting them compete with the "big boys." And speaking of embarrassment, I wonder how they'd feel about their all-time winner in this category, The Cosby Show? They might like to forget it, but Cosby was the biggest hit of the day. Why isn't this a sitcom, unless you want to define them as containing jokes about sex and other bodily functions?

I also mentioned Hill Street Blues winning Best Cop Show, but how can you compare cops on the beat to homicide detective Columbo (winner of the '60s)? Dragnet is a worthy winner for the '50s, but if you want cops, why not choose the crew of Naked City, a much better show than Hill Street, at least in my opinion. Still, if this issue had come out today, the choices probably would have been one of the Law & Order versions, or one of the NCIS versions, so I suppose we have to be grateful for small favors.

Johnny Carson is named best Nighttime Talk Show host, defeating Steve Allen, Jack Paar and David Letterman. No surprise, and I don't think you can really argue with it. Paar is more my taste, but between Johnny's staying power and the memorable moments from interviews, comedy skits and impromptu bits (thrown any tomahawks lately?), it's hard to dispute him as the king. And to think so many from today's generation have no clue who he is.

The Ed Sullivan Show wins for Best Variety Show, beating out Laugh-In, Saturday Night Live and The Tracey Ullman Show, and I'll admit I'm kind of surprised by this. I'd have thought they might go with SNL, based on its "groundbreaking" reputation, but Sullivan's show offered, as the editors point out, "all-encompassing variety," a program "that offered everything from dramatic readings to dancing bears, from opera buffo to Topo Gigio, from The Doors to Dinah Shore." As I pointed out here, it was influential in ways Sullivan himself couldn't have anticipated.

Howard Cosell is named Best Sportscaster, but he wasn't really a sportscaster in the sense that Vin Scully or Keith Jackson or Brent Musberger are; he was a sports commentator, or even better a sports personality. Yes, he did boxing and was very good at it (although not better than Don Dunphy), and he is absolutely one of the most important figures in television. But he doesn't belong in the same category with Red Barber, the voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers, or Jim McKay, host of Wide World of Sports, or even the young Bob Costas (who actually did more than pontificate back then), the other three nominees. Here, a little bit more distinction in categories would actually have been useful.

The Simpsons is the winner for Best Cartoon (what we'd call Best Animated Series today), but I think that really belongs in the sitcom classification, where it would probably have beaten M*A*S*H. It beats out Gumby (which wasn't a cartoon at all), The Bullwinkle Show (which wasn't a kids show at all), and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (which has suddenly become very awkward). I'm surprised, considering its longevity and popularity, that The Flintstones doesn't make the list.

I'm even more surprised - make that appalled - that Captain Kangaroo doesn't make the list of Best Kids' Show. Yes to Howdy Doody for the '50s and Sesame Street for the '70s, but Walt Disney instead of the Captain for the '60s? Disney's appeal crossed over to adults as well as children, and when you're talking about a "kids' show," you can't possibly compare "The Love Bug" and "Davy Crockett" (popular though they were) to Mr. Green Jeans talking about nature, the Captain introducing kids to the wonders of books through reading, or the various animal guests. As for the show of the '80s, ABC's Afterschool Specials, again - it's not a weekly series. Isn't this just apples and oranges? By the way, Sesame Street wins - no surprise.

For best Sci-Fi Show, I would have chosen Doctor Who, but at the time the British import hadn't gone mainstream, though it still had an enormous cult following in this country. Star Trek: TOS is the winner here, over The Twilight Zone (again, I'm not sure they really fit in the same category), Mork & Mindy (?), and Star Trek: TNG.

The original version of Jeopardy!, with Art Fleming, takes the Best Game Show category, and I'm not going to disagree with that - it's much better, in my opinion, than the Alex Trebek-helmed version. What's My Line?, the '50s choice, would have been mine as well, but it's not really a game show in the same sense as Jeopardy! or the other winners, Password and Wheel of Fortune.

Best News Show: 60 Minutes, over See It Now, The Huntley-Brinkley Report (which, I can't stress enough, was NBC's frigging evening news program, not in the same category at all) and Nightline. If you're talking about news magazines, sure, 60 Minutes - but if you're introducing Huntley-Brinkley, why not The MacNeil/Lehrer Report?

Best Morning Show: The Today Show, and I'm all right with that if you're talking about the '50s and '60s, as they do here. Good Morning America is the '70s choice, and CBS News Sunday Morning wins the '80s. It just goes to show how weak the entire weekday-morning lineup is.

Best Daytime Soap is General Hospital. Best Evening Soap is Dallas. I won't quarrel with either. Best Daytime Talk Show Host is Oprah Winfrey, and I think that choice, though regrettable, was inevitable. Arthur Godfrey's '50s show and Merv Griffin's '60s daytime show were in the mix, as well as Phil Donohue in the '70s; I prefer Merv's evening/late night show, for the same reasons they chose his '60s program - Merv as host was "a literate, intelligent one who didn't shrink from cerebral or controversial guests." And in that vein, don't forget that Dick Cavett started out as a daytime host as well, with ABC's This Morning.

Best Western Show: Gunsmoke, over Maverick ('50s) and Bonanza ('60s). Sure, although I think Gunsmoke is better placed in the '60s than '70s, but they had to have something for the '70s, since they couldn't come up with anything for the '80s (for the simple reason that there wasn't anything. For a genre that, at one time, dominated the TV airwaves, it's too bad TV Guide's format is so limiting - it leaves out a program such as Have Gun - Will Travel, a very complex program.

I'm not even bothering with the Best Actor and Actress categories, since I think the Best Show categories have created enough of a mess, but if you're curious the comedy awards went to Jackie Gleason and Lucille Ball (but wait a minute! The Honeymooners wasn't even a choice for sitcoms, and The Jackie Gleason Show didn't make it for variety show!), and the drama award winners were James Garner (who's magnificent forte is really the lighthearted drama) and Tyne Daly (whose Cagney & Lacey doesn't have the staying power needed to be voted best anything, I'd submit). Best Newscaster is Walter Cronkite, and my favorite, the non-nominated David Brinkley, wouldn't have stood a chance.

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And there you have it. I'm sure I've probably slammed some of your favorite shows, and if I have, I hope you'll forgive me. This is, after all, One Man's Opinion, and even if - as I mentioned earlier - that man happens to run this site, my opinions should be taken for what they're worth.

On the other hand, I think my opinions are as valid as anyone else's, certainly as much so as the editors of TV Guide, compared to whom I think I've shown more discernment and taste, as well as a greater sense of historicity, and I won't back down from that assertion.

However, what I'd like as much as anything is to hear your opinions. Keep in mind that this was written in 1993, so some of your favorites (especially from the cable boom) weren't anticipated, but otherwise, have at it - with either TV Guide, or me, or both! TV  

April 15, 2016

Around the dial

I remember, back in the days when one really had to frequent stores specializing in fantasy and/or British TV, reading about The Tomorrow People. I've never seen an episode. Cult TV Blog tells how it took two tries for him to become hooked on the series.

Spin and Marty - where have I heard those names before? That's it - The Mickey Mouse Club. I remember watching what must have been reruns of those when I was little, having the ears and the watch and the Colorforms kit, but I hadn't thought to read more into them than that until reading David's latest at Comfort TV, wherein he asks if they might have something of value for millennials.

For some reason I've seen a number of things about Glen Campbell's variety show from the '60s - maybe it's because of the singer's poor health, maybe it's just nostalgia for a simpler time. For Joanna at Christmas TV History, it's an occasion to recall the 1969 Christmas episode with Andy Griffith, Cher and Paul Lynde (as a stressed-out Santa). Perhaps I ought to watch it this Christmas?

We haven't looked in on Classic TV Showbiz lately, but this week's entry is a good one - a clip from Match Game host Gene Rayburn sitting in for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. I loved the whole concepts of guest hosts on talk shows, because some of them were so unlikely to think of, but were very successful. I wouldn't have imagined Rayburn in the chair, but I wouldn't have imagined what a successful host he was of NBC's Monitor radio program either.

It's time for a new entry on Television's New Frontier: the 1960s, and this one is about one of my favorite shows, The Untouchables. It's a good review of the 1961 season, particularly good when it comes to running down the distinguished list of guest stars: not only the great Bruce Gordon as Frank Nitti, but Oscar Beregi, Neville Brand (as Al Capone), Rip Torn, Gavin McLeod (!), Brian Keith and Joan Blondell. That's just for starters; the show was gifted with a brilliant list of guest.

In the latest look at "The Hitchcock Project," bare-bones e-zine reviews the clever Robert C. Dennis-scripted story "Together," which aired on Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1958. Having seen this episode on DVD a few weeks ago, I can second Jack's analysis of the story as "an outstanding short film, where a strong, tight script, clever direction and fine acing combine to present a story of suspense." If you have the chance to see it, do so; if not, this will convince you why you should. TV  

April 12, 2016

What's on TV? Tuesday, April 10, 1956

We're back home in Dallas-Fort Worth this week, and this is the kind of day I enjoy looking at on occasion. Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary; in every sense this is a typical day of American television in 1956.

One think to which I'll call your attention is NBC's evening news program hosted by John Cameron Swayzee. It's popularly known as the Camel News Caravan, and that's how I've listed it here, but this is an alternate-sponsor program, with Plymouth being the other sponsor. Based on the information I've found, I'm guessing that this was a Camel night, but I'm open to correction. Don't you find the show's title interesting, though? No different than other programs of the era, to be sure, but this is the news, after all.  For a few years, The Huntley-Brinkley Report was presented without commercials, so as not to compromise the newscast's integrity. Can you imagine, today, a sponsor's name as part of the newscast? I mean, we all know that the networks are in the pockets of big business, but that would be ridiculous!

April 9, 2016

This week in TV Guide: April 7, 1956

There's nothing terribly earth-shattering about this week's issue, so let's do what I like to do most when I've got a new issue of TV Guide - just skip around and see what's what.

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For example, two new soap operas premiered last week on CBS, and they're unusual in that they run for 30 minutes, rather than the traditional 15-minute format (a carryover from radio; you notice a lot of shows fit into that category). You might have heard of them: As the World Turns and The Edge of Night. Incidentally, The Edge of Night started out as "the daytime version of Perry Mason," with Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner writing it, but the notoriously temperamental Gardner pulls out due to "creative differences,"* and the character of the heroic lawyer is changed from Mason to Mike Karr, played by John Larkin, who played Mason on the radio.

*According to the always-reliable Wikipedia, those differences include Mason having a regular girlfriend, which throws into question that intriguing relationship with his secretary, Della Street. That's something Gardner, who jealously guarded Mason's image, would never agree to.

Speaking of the great lawyer, there's an interesting item in this week's Hollywood Teletype: "If everybody can agree on the contracts, Fred MacMurray will wind up as lawyer Perry Mason in the new CBS hour-long detective series." Color me naïve, but I've never heard anything to suggest that producers were that close to hiring MacMurray. I'd read that he was one of those "considered but rejected" (Efrem Zimbalist Jr. being another), and I've seen the screen test William Hopper took for the role before he was chosen as Paul Drake, but most of the stories I've read over the years talk of Raymond Burr being Gardner's choice. I wonder if Gardner vetoed MacMurray as Mason - that wouldn't surprise me a bit. I like Fred MacMurray a lot, but he's not Perry Mason.

In the New York version of the Teletype, we read that Dinah Shore may be dumping her twice-weekly 15-minute show (which airs Tuesday and Thursday evenings on NBC, filling the remainder of the half hour occupied by John Cameron Swayzee's News Caravan) in favor of an hour-long Tuesday night show. Dinah's been doing the quarter-hour show since 1951, but she figures now may be the time to expand. Another idea: keeping the current show, and adding a number of hour-long specials in addition. As it turns out, nothing could be finah than Dinah at an hour: The Dinah Shore Chevy Show starts up this October, and runs until 1963, and her rendition of "See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet" becomes a part of pop culture lore.

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Let's make sure we take care of the cover stories. First, we'll go down south to Nashville, and visit the Grand Ole Opry. The Opry is already an American institution, having started in 1925, and what's surprising about its transition to television is not that it's happened, but that it took this long. The 1955-56 fall season brought about the premiere of the Opry on ABC, where once a month it substitutes for Ozark Jubilee, another Country-Western program, and in rural areas (which, remember, make up a much larger part of America in 1956 than they do today), it is absolutely slaughtering the competition, Perry Como and Jackie Gleason.

This week's article takes a kind of quaint approach to the whole thing, pointing out that these Country stars are just as business-savvy as anyone - hardly surprising considering how successful the Grand Ole Opry has been over the years; and when you think of how big Country music has become as a business, I think it shows these "hayseeds" have always been pretty shrewd business people.

The cover picture of Garry Moore, host of the quiz show I've Got a Secret, along with the show's two female panelists of the time, Jayne Meadows and Faye Emerson (much better looking than the male panelists, Bill Cullen and Henry Morgan) doesn't really have anything to do with the inside story. That's about the "secret" files of I've Got a Secret, which aren't really that secret. What is a secret, or at least something many of you might not have known, is that IGAS was created by Allan Sherman, the singer-comedian who was Weird Al before Weird Al, best-known for the hit single "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah." This week Sherman talks about some of the up to 4,000 secrets he receives each week - people with 12 toes or 13 fingers or no eyebrows, but also people with relatives who came to America on the Mayflower or shook hands with Abraham Lincoln, a man who went over Niagara Falls in a rubber ball and lived to tell about it, the first man to cash a Social Security check, or the woman who won the first Miss America pageant. By the way, Sherman says, if you have 40 toes he'll take you, but if it's only 12, don't bother.

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Gordon Sinclair, the legendary Canadian journalist who in 1973 will become famous south of the border for his editorial on behalf of America at a time when the rest of the world is taking potshots at her, writes this week about the state of Canadian television. Television in Canada is "green," as it was in America a few years before, and "there's no doubt that the future is just as bright" as in America, but you'll have to excuse Canadians if their shows are still a little rough around the edges. "Our scripts are pedestrian, our crews are inexperienced and our directors seem hesitant to direct. Or even to suggest to performers older than themselves how to play a scene better."

Canadians produce 38 hours of network television each week, ranking third behind Hollywood and New York. Canadians have produced stars of American television, including Lorne Greene, Gisele MacKenzie and Barry Morse. Canadian shows have their share of curvy females, including Joan Fairfax and Shirley Harmer. But American television is still more popular than many home-grown shows; Robert Montgomery Presents is particularly successful. Sinclair suggests Canadian television will one day thrive - after all, even the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the government-run entity that "frowns on press agentry and commercial exploitation" hasn't been able to completely subdue the spirit of Canadian TV.

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There's some real star power in this week's shows. On Saturday night's Ford Star Jubilee (CBS), Orson Welles and Betty Grable make rare television appearances in the comedy "Twentieth Century," written by the famed Broadway duo of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Welles would come to do a lot of television in the last couple of decades of his life - remember those cheesy appearances on the Dean Martin roasts and the commercials for Paul Masson wine? ("We will sell no wine before its time.") - but in 1956 he was still a star, known for The War of the Worlds and Citizen Kane and The Third Man, and still two years away from his noir classic Touch of Evil. Ah, one has to pay the bills, however, and Welles was always looking for money for his latest projects, many of which sadly never came to fruition. As he once famously said, "I hate television. I hate it as much as peanuts. But I can't stop eating peanuts."*

*By the way, if you're interested in absorbing article on Welles, check out this New Yorker piece by Alex Ross from last year. It truly seems as if Orson Welles could only have been a character concocted in an Orson Welles movie.

On Sunday afternoon the American composer Norman Dello Joio premieres his opera "The Trial at Rouen" on NBC Opera Theatre. It's Dello Joio's second crack at rendering an operatic version of the story of Joan of Arc. His first, "The Triumph of St. Joan," premiered in 1950, but Dello Joio was never happy with it, and eventually reworked the story (but neither the music nor the libretto) into the 75-minute opera (plus commercials) that you'd be seeing on television. There's yet a third version to come, however, as Dello Joio will add some of the music from the 1950 version to the 1956 version while creating some new scenes and expanding on others, resulting in the 1959 version, also called "The Triumph of St. Joan." Many of the critics of the time will consider it to be the best of the three versions of the story.

Sunday night CBS' G.E. Theater presents Judy Garland in an informal one-woman show, performing a half-hour of songs she's never before done in public, and backed by pianist Leonard Pennario and choreographer Peter Gennaro (who did Annie, West Side Story and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, among other Broadway hits). It's introduced by G.E. host Ronald Reagan.

If you happen to own the boxed set of Studio One episodes that came out a few years ago, you'll have seen the Rod Serling political drama "The Arena," airing Monday night on CBS, with Wendell Corey as an ambitious young senator dealing with the legacy (and feuds) of his father. You might also know that this is substandard Serling, one of the episodes that helped drive him to create The Twilight Zone. The problem, as he writes in his 1957 collection of television plays Patterns: Four Television Plays With The Author’s Personal Commentaries, is not a new one: interference from the network and sponsors. His reaction, however, shows us the direction he is already considering going:

I was not permitted to have my Senators discuss any current or pressing problem. To talk of tariff was to align oneself with the Republicans; to talk of labor was to suggest control by the Democrats. To say a single thing germane to the current political scene was absolutely prohibited. So on television in April 1956, several million viewers got a definitive picture of television’s concept of politics and the way government is run. They were treated to an incredible display on the floor of The United States Senate of groups of Senators shouting, gesticulating and talking in hieroglyphics about make-believe issues, using invented terminology, in a kind of prolonged, unbelievable double-talk… In retrospect, I probably would have had a much more adult play had I made it science fiction, put it in the year 2057, and peopled the Senate with robots. This would probably have been more reasonable and no less dramatically incisive.

I suspect this episode was included in the DVD collection because 1) it was Serling, and 2) it was in fairly good condition. There are certainly better episodes that could have been chosen.

There's not too much of note on Tuesday, but there is a note on CBS' $64,000 Question that "As of the 43rd show, emcee Hal March has given out $544,608 and nine luxury automobiles." On Wednesday Imogene Coca, the female side of the team that made Your Show of Shows such a success, makes her dramatic television debut in CBS' U.S. Steel Hour. Thursday we see another of those shows that we likely won't see today, The All-American Homemaker of Tomorrow show, sponsored by Betty Crocker, with the aforementioned Hal March on hand to crown the winner (or whatever they do). No word on whether or not this program continues today. The week concludes Friday with Edward R. Murrow interviewing pollster George Gallup on Person to Person, about the exotic art of measuring public opinion. It was probably just as accurate then as it is today.

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Finally, there's a small ad on the bottom of Wednesday's listings referring to the social event of the year, perhaps the television event of the year, with the provocative question: "How much will you see?"

That event is the marriage of the Academy Award-winning actress Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier of Monaco, and everybody who's anybody will be heading over there to cover it. At the end of this week's What's My Line?, John Daly mentions that both Dorothy Kilgallen and Arlene Francis will be in Monaco to cover the wedding (Dorothy for the New York Journal American, Arlene for her Home show on NBC), and a worldwide audience estimated at 30 million tunes in for the formal ceremony on April 19.

It's an interesting mix of attendees; with Rainier as a head of state, a vast assemblage of diplomats and other heads of state are present, while Grace's status as Hollywood royalty attracts such luminaries as Cary Grant (who costarred with her in the Monaco-based To Catch a Thief), David Niven, Gloria Swanson, Ava Gardner and Aristotle Onassis, and her wedding dress is designed by MGM's Helen Rose.* In essence, this is Charles and Di before Charles and Di.

*According to the always-reliable Wikipedia, this dress was the inspiration for that worn by Kate Middleton for her wedding to Prince William.

There are actually two marriage ceremonies; the first, a civil ceremony required by law, was held on April 18, while the Catholic Nuptial Mass, the televised event, was held the following day at St. Nicholas Cathedral. I'm not sure about the answer to TV Guide's question of how much viewers will see, but here's a look at what the shouting was all about.