December 31, 2016

This week in TV Guide: December 30, 1967

Many people awaken on New Year's morning with two thoughts on their minds: 1) how do I get rid of the headache from this hangover? and 2) I hope this year will be better than last year. Those who awoke on Monday, January 1, 1968 with such hopes for the new year might have had an even worse headache had they known what the year had in store for them, and they probably would have turned around and gone back to bed, hoping that when they next awoke it might be 1969. Had they stuck with it though the day, however, they might have found it pretty entertaining.

It actually begins on Sunday night, New Year's Eve, when - in the days before Dick Clark's New Year's Rocking Eve - your television entertainment options were slightly more limited. CBS presents the only network fare, the traditional ringing in of the new year with Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians playing the sweetest music this side of Heaven, live from the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. Guy's guests are Margaret Whiting, Jean-Paul Vignon and the Kane Triplets: definitely a program for a very specific age demographic. WTCN, the independent station, offers a pleasant alternative at 10:0 p.m. CT: an hour of songs by Lena Horne, taped in London. And KMSP, the ABC affiliate, broadcasts a Twin Cities tradition, a three-hour musical New Year's Eve service from Soul's Harbor mission in downtown Minneapolis. Here's a sample of what it sounded like.

New Year's Day opens with parades galore: the Cotton Bowl Parade from Dallas, starting at 9:30 a.m. on CBS and hosted by Jack Linkletter and Marilyn Van Derbur. Meanwhile, at the same time NBC shows highlights of Saturday* night's King Orange Jamboree Parade in Miami, with Raymond Burr and Anita Bryant. At 10:30 a.m., it's the granddaddy of all parades, the Tournament of Roses; this year's theme is "The Wonderful World of Adventure," and the Grand Marshal is none other than Illinois Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen, a great statesman currently basking in the unexpected fame from his hit spoken-word recordings.

*Not surprisingly, the parade - like the Rose Parade was moved when the holiday fell on Sunday.

Following the parade, at 12:45 p.m., it's something for everyone - as long as you like football. On CBS, it's the Cotton Bowl, with unranked Texas A&M, the Southwest Conference champion (despite an overall record of 6-4-0) upsetting #8 Alabama 20-16. Meanwhile, NBC has its "football widowmaker" tripleheader, starting with the Sugar Bowl, pitting #6 Wyoming, the nation's only major undefeated team, going on hostile turf against LSU (a team that had finished sixth in the SEC) and suffering their first loss, 20-13. That's followed at 3:45 p.m. by the Rose Bowl, pitting national champion* USC against the country's Cinderella team, #4 Indiana, a tough game won by USC 14-3. The highlight of the day, however, was the Orange Bowl at 6:45 p.m., as #2 Tennessee took on #3 Oklahoma, a thrilling game that saw Oklahoma race out to a big lead before holding off a furious Tennessee comeback. The Volunteers missed a last-second field goal, and the Sooners held on to win, 24-22.

*The next year, the writers would begin choosing the champion after the bowl games.

If you weren't in the mood for pigskin, ABC did have some alternatives for you. For example, there's the debut of The Baby Game at 1:30 p.m., in which "Couples test their knowledge of child behavior," predicting how their children will react in certain situations. If you don't believe me (it was, after all, created by Chuck Barris), here's proof, including commercials:

The show only runs 25 minutes; at 1:55 it's the five-minute Children's Doctor, with Dr. Lendon Smith. Nice tie-in.

Nowadays, the networks probably opt for reruns on New Year's Day, as they do throughout the holiday season, but almost all of the series episodes airing opposite football are first-run, another interesting difference between now and then. I know series generally had more episodes back then as opposed to now, which means they didn't have to run as many repeats, but I have another theory, which is that back in the late '60s, television was still enough of an "event" that when families and friends got together during the holidays, they still viewed sitting around the television set as group entertainment.

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During the 60s, the Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace were the premiere variety shows on television. Whenever they appear in TV Guide together, we'll match them up and see who has the best lineup..

Sullivan: Guests include singers Miriam Makeba, Vikki Carr, Gianna d'Angelo, and Jay and the Techniques; impressionist George Kirby; drummer Buddy Rich and his orchestra; accordionist Dick Contino; comedian Rodney Dangerfield; juggler Montego; and puppet Topo Gigio.

Palace: Hostess Phyllis Diller presents singer Johnnie Ray, Robert Vaughn, singer-ventriloquist Shari Lewis (and Lambchop), comic Charlie Manna, and the singing Sandpipers.

This strikes me at first glance as kind of a meh week. Not terrible, but not great either. In cases like this, it's likely the supporting players who'll make the difference, and in this case you have to look at Ed's - Buddy Rich, whom I always liked, George Kirby, who's always good, and Rodney Dangerfield, who's frequently very funny. Against them, I don't think the Man from U.N.C.L.E., the crying singer, and Fang's worst nightmare can compete. It's not a landslide victory, but Sullivan takes the win nonetheless.

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Throughout the 60s and early 70s, TV Guide's reviews were written by the witty and acerbic Cleveland Amory. Whenever we get the chance, we'll look at Cleve's latest take on the series of the era. 

This week Cleveland Amory gives us a bit of a twist, reviewing NET's Omnibus-like show PBL, which stands for Public Broadcasting Laboratory.

We'll note right away that Amory thinks the show's terrific, primarily because there's nothing quite like it anywhere else. Billed as public broadcasting's first live network news program, the show offers a little bit of everything, from interviews with political leaders to comedy spoofs of TV commercials to debates on the issues of the day to excerpts of dramatic plays. (I wonder if adding this cross of Saturday Night Life and Great Performances would do anything for Scott Pelley's ratings?) Particularly interesting is a segment that appeared on the third program, which Amory calls "the greatest single interview we have ever seen," that being between veteran Washington columnist Walter Lippmann and young people. The highlight came when one of them asked Lippman if these were the worst times he'd seen. "Yes," Lippman replied, "but not in the sense I fear the bomb. It's because of the disintegration of hope and morality." Sounds familiar, don't you think?

If you haven't heard of PBL before now, and I suspect you might not have (I'm only familiar with it from having seen it in TV Guide; I don't recall ever having watched an episode), one of the reasons might have to do with Amory's closing paragraph, in which he sounds a warning about the future. Seems as if PBL's "board" wants to "exert more control" over the program, produced by Av Westin and hosted by Edward P. Morgan (both formerly of ABC). "We can think of no worse news!" Amory sighs. "Imagine 'control' exerted by a board of 12 - four of whom are Columbia professors and one a contributing editor of Harper's magazine. And none of them, we'll wager, has seen a full two hours of television since the Army-McCarthy hearings [in 1954 - MH]. To this board we say leave this fine program alone. Hands off PBL." Whether for that or other reasons, PBL managed but a two-year run, ending in 1969.

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It is indeed a big week for football. In addition to the New Year's Day festivities, both professional leagues settle their championships on New Year's Eve. It begins at 1:00 p.m. on CBS, where the Dallas Cowboys travel to Green Bay to take on the Packers for the NFL Championship in one of the most famous football games ever played. It's called "The Ice Bowl," and as the game starts the temperature hovers at a numbing -15⁰; the wind chill has dropped to -50⁰ by the time Packers quarterback Bart Starr sneaks the ball across the frozen goal line with 13 seconds to play to give Green Bay a 21-17 victory and their third consecutive championship.

Meanwhile, the temperature's nearly 60 degrees higher in Oakland, where at 3:30 p.m. on NBC the Raiders play the Houston Oilers for the AFL title and a trip to the second Super Bowl against the Packers. This game has none of the high drama that accompanied the NFL game, as Oakland storms to a 40-7 victory over Houston. Two weeks later, on January 14, the Packers dominate the Raiders 33-14 to win that second Super Bowl.

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With the new year comes television's second season, when the 13-week wonders of the fall give way to new hopefuls, most of which will meet similar fates. Even though the month just started, we can already see some of the changes the networks have in mind - for example, next week ABC moves The Invaders from it's current time spot of Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. to make way for the debut of It Takes a Thief, starring Robert Wagner. The Invaders will now be seen at 9:00 p.m. Tuesday, allowing The Hollywood Palace to return to its old 8:30 p.m. Saturday spot. The loser in all of this: The Iron Horse, starring Dale Robertson, which airs for the last time next Saturday.

ABC's Wednesday night lineup is facing changes as well. Custer, which has previously occupied the 6:30 p.m. time spot, has already, as TV Guide puts it, "gone off the air." This week's replacement is a special, Mr. Dickens of London, with the acclaimed British actor Sir Michael Redgrave, and directed by former Fugitive co-star Barry Morse. It's being repeated, even though it was just run on December 12 - that airing was partially pre-empted because of a speech by President Johnson. (Probably on Vietnam.) Next week, The Avengers fills the time spot.

Friday night also has changes in store. NBC gets into the act; after January 5 Accidental Family disappears (and that's no accident), its place taken by a nighttime version of The Hollywood Squares. And this week's one new show debuts: it's Operation: Entertainment, a kind of domestic Bob Hope tour, in which entertainers travel to various military bases throughout the United States. Maybe they wanted to reach the troops before Vietnam made them too cynical, I don't know. Anyway, this airs on ABC from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m., having replaced the Western series Hondo.

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Speaking of new programs, I think it's fair to suggest that the As We See It editorial might strike a few nerves, even today. The topic is television series based on feature films, and it's a trend that doesn't appear to be going away any time soon despite, as Merrill Panitt points out, the failure of Mister Roberts, Shane, The Rounders, The Man Who Never Was, Flipper, 12 O'Clock High, The Wackiest Ship in the Army, Please Don't Eat the Daisies, and The Long, Hot, Summer, not to mention the cancellation of formerly successful series such as Dr. Kildare and The Farmer's Daughter. Did the network programmers give up after this track record? "They did not," Panitt says. "Not the ingenious, farsighted, dedicated thinkers who decide what viewers will see. Undaunted by their bombs and near-misses, they keep coming like - as Hank Grant of The Hollywood Reporter puts it - "kamikaze pilots avenging their fallen comrades."

The result, as soon as next year, could be series based on The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, The Courtship of Eddie's Father, The Little Kidnappers, Anatomy of a Murder, "and - a real stroke of genius - Blondie." At least three of those concepts did indeed come to fruition, though none of them were huge hits. It's a trend that hasn't gone away, though nowadays it's just as often movies that are being adapted from television shows. If they're not adapting comic books, that is.

What to say about such creativity? "Only in television are they resourceful enough to take a situation barely heavy enough to sustain an 80- or 90-minute movie and stretch it into several dozen 30- or 60-minute episodes. It takes experience. It takes know-how. It takes inspiration. . . .The new ideas flow like glue. In Alaska."

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More things in this issue that we could write about this week, but I think I'll wrap it up with Robert Musel's article on the oddities of British TV. For example, they have a sitcom about a bigot - can you believe it? You'd better, because that sitcom, Til Death Us Do Part, will be showing up on your TV screens in about three years, renamed All in the Family.

We could just assume that the entire article revolves around this, and chuckle about how they had no idea, but there's more to this review of television across the pond, and we might be surprised by some of the other series they're showing over there. For example, Rainbow City, a drama about a young lawyer practicing in Birmingham, England, his wife, and their small son. The lawyer happens to be black, his wife is white. It would have been impossible to air a program like that in the United States; it was tough enough getting Southern theaters to show Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Speaking of which, the BBC uses Rainbow City as protection against attacks because of their variety show, the award-winning Black and White Minstrel Show. Throw in the commercial broadcaster ITV and Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width, a comedy about an Irish-Catholic trouser-maker and a Jewish jacket-maker, and you get the picture.

There's also a program that I think would do quite well over here, Talkback, in which viewers are given a chance "to voice their criticisms and complaints in face-to-face confrontation with performers, writers, producers." Throw in newscasters, and I think you've got a deal. Interestingly enough, the article doesn't reference two of the best-known British series of the time, the soap opera Coronation Street and the time-traveling science fiction series Doctor Who. Coronation Street had already been on the air for seven years at the time, and still goes strong today. Doctor Who had been on for four years, and had already survived the extraordinary act of replacing the lead actor, not by killing him off or recasting with a lookalike, but by something they called "regeneration." Doctor Who is still on as well, having regenerated itself after a hiatus, and is now on Doctor Number 12 (or 13 if you're a true Whovian, but who's counting?).

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As for those other stories we didn't get to? Maybe we'll revisit them next year or something. Speaking of which, this is in fact the last blog post of 2016, and I hope you enjoyed the year as much as I did. I hope also to see you back here in a couple of days, by which time it will already be 2017!

And unlike our fictional friend we referred to at the beginning of this piece, let's hope that 2017 is, in fact, a better year for all of us. Happy New Year! TV  

December 30, 2016

Around the dial

For the last time this year, let's take a look and see what the blogosphere has to offer.

Some lists this week – first, top-ten post lists at bare-bones e-zine and Classic Film and TV Café. It gives you a chance to catch up on these really fine blogs if you missed the posts the first time, and maybe you’ll become a regular reader of them in the future, if you’re not already. Continuing with lists, David is up to the 1980s in Comfort TV’s list of the ten funniest sitcom episodes by date.

Some Polish American Guy reminiscences on Battle of the Network Stars #2, over at the Eventually Supertrain podcast. I have to admit, though, I actually prefer this version:

At Vote for Bob Crane, Carol makes a good point as to why we shouldn’t be so negative about 2016. She mentions having made new friends this year – funny; that’s one of the highlights of my year as well!

Silver Scenes has a very nice story about Alfred Burt, a name you might not recognize. Each year Burt would write a Christmas carol, which he would then include in his cards to friends. One of which, “Some Children See Him,” can be seen here. Again, I’ve learned something new!

If you happen to read this before the weekend is done, The Twilight Zone Vortex has a very helpful guide to the episodes being shown on Syfy’s annual TZ New Year’s Marathon.

I don’t know much about Brighton, other than that I read a blog written by a priest there, and I once saw on a documentary that Brighton has a lot of cats. Now, thanks to Cult TV Blog, I also know that Brighton is the setting for the fourth series Public Eye episode “Welcome to Brighton?”

Television Obscurities has the type of post I love reading – a look back at the Christmas Day television schedules from 40, 50 and 70 years ago. I tell you, I never get tired of this kind of thing.

Not an update per se, but the television director Ralph Senensky has a wonderful blog, Ralph's Cinema Trek, in which he shares candid observations and inside stories about the many classic TV episodes he’s directed. If you have nothing to do for a few hours, I can promise you won’t be bored reading about Ralph’s life and times.

And with that, I think we’ll call it a wrap for today. If I’ve overlooked anything good, you know you can find all these sites (and more!) on the sidebar, which I encourage you to frequent frequently. (An accurate, if inelegantly put, statement.) Tune in on Saturday as we ring out the old year with a bang – or at least a good TV Guide. TV  

December 28, 2016

WCCO's Miracle on 9th Street, 1974 - local programming the way it should be

I've continually written, at this time of year, about how Christmas is not just a day but a season, twelve days* that run to the Feast of the Epiphany. Therefore, it's entirely appropriate to look at a Christmas program today. Not just any Christmas program, though - I think this one is a special one.

*That start on Christmas Day.

You've probably seen me refer in the past, directly or through the program listings, to Dave Moore, the legendary anchorman for WCCO, Channel 4 in the Twin Cities from 1957 to 1991. For many years, he also hosted a program, the Peabody-award winning Moore on Sunday, which was a kind of local 60 Minutes, providing the kind of in-depth reporting and commentary that we often say we want from our local stations yet seldom watch.

In addition to being a newsman, Moore was also an amateur actor, occasionally appearing in local theaters. He usually expressed his natural haminess through The Bedtime Nooz, his satirical news spoof that ran late Saturday nights during the '60s and early '70s. However, on December 22, 1974, Moore on Sunday presented something quite extraordinary for a local public-affairs program - an original comedy-drama entitled Miracle on 9th Street.

Miracle on 9th Street (named after the then-location of WCCO's studios, the former Radio City Theater) displays the satire typical of The Bedtime Nooz, criticizing the commercialism of Christmas (including the station's own role in it), with wonderful over-the-top performances by weatherman Bud Kraehling as the evil toy manufacturer, Ron Meshbesher, one of the Twin Cities' most prominent and flamboyant attorneys, playing himself as Kris Kringle's defense attorney, and real-life members of WCCO's news team (reporter Rod Challenger, commentator Al Austin, and station manager Sherm Headley). It's filled with inside jokes aimed at Minnesotans of the era, but the gist of the story is as timeless as the movie it spoofs, Miracle on 34th Street. Most of all, it's Moore's portrayal of Kris Kringle, a mix of off-the-wall comedy and poignant warmth, that carries the day.

Perhaps Miracle on 9th Street is "too local" to resound with viewers unfamiliar with the Twin Cities, and certainly a good deal of the humor comes from seeing personalities well-known to Twin Cities TV viewers. Looking back on it, though, how cool is this? It's one reason why WCCO has always been seen held in such high regard, not only in the Twin Cities but nationally as well. Did other local stations put on these kinds of productions? Did local news personalities ever appear on TV in any roles other than kids'-show and late-night movie hosts?

I often complain about how local television has dropped the ball when it comes to original programming - not just public affairs, but game shows, talk shows, even local movie hosts.  No matter how you look at it, whether as a biting comedy or a nostalgic look back at one's hometown, Miracle on 9th Street is something special. (And it isn't even the only time WCCO did something like this; check out One Who Stole at Christmas from 1982 and The Gift of the Magi from 1984.) Can you imagine a local television station doing such a production today?

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This is probably as good a time as any for a brief note on the upcoming year. I don't generally talk about myself on this blog - it's not a diary, after all, but a site dealing with classic television, and most of the personal glimpses you get of me come from my own interaction with the shows and times about which I write.

However, as those of you on my personal Facebook account know, my wife and I are both currently unemployed, as a result of which we are returning to our roots in Minneapolis-St. Paul. The move will occur no later than mid-March; sooner, depending on my success at getting a job up there. This likely means a few changes for 2017. I don't anticipate seeing any major changes to the blog, but between working temp jobs, looking for a full-time job, packing to move (and then unpacking), and then moving literally from the bottom of the country to the top of it, I'm going to be a bit busy for the next few months.

What does this mean? Well, I'm trying to write in advance as many blog pieces as I can in order to keep the content coming, but I may not always be as present in the comments section as I would like to be (and I'm already bad at that). With a dramatic reduction in income, I've slashed the budget for "new" TV Guides, so you may see more reruns and "second-looks" than I'd prefer. I've also talked about my TV book, which I hoped to publish in 2017, in time to make a presentation on it at the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention. As of now, that ain't gonna happen - I think it's better to plan on the book for 2018, and if it comes out earlier than that, it's a bonus. When I've got the time to get back to work on it, I'll let you know.

All of this is an explanation, not an excuse. If for any reason I need to make more substantial changes (temporary, of course), you'll know about it. Hopefully, if things go the way I hope they will, you shouldn't notice any difference at all. And as I inculcate myself back into the Twin Cities scene, you might see me doing more pieces like this one, talking about the Minneapolis I grew up in and am now returning to. It's a bitter end to 2016, but a promising one as well - we're going back where we belong, and only better times are ahead. You can bet we'll be sharing those better times together!

December 26, 2016

What's on TV? Sunday, December 25, 1966

Happy Boxing Day! It isn't often that us Americans get the day off, but when Christmas falls on a Sunday, as it did yesterday, today becomes the legal holiday. I don't know what you're planning on, but I intend to be in front of the TV watching the English Premier League and their annual Boxing Day matches.

You won't find the Premier League, or any other soccer, on tap for Christmas 1966, but there's plenty more to choose from. As always on occasions such as this, I'm grateful to be able to turn to a Twin Cities TV Guide, since I would have had such an issue in our home (though not the physical one I'm looking at now; who knows where the original wound up?), and would have watched some of these very programs. Let's see what they are.

December 24, 2016

This week in TV Guide: December 24, 1966

Looking at it in retrospect, I can't imagine anything more exciting for a kid than having Christmas Eve on a Saturday. I mean, Saturday is already the best day of the kid week, and adding Christmas Eve to the mix - in our family, Christmas Eve was the big night, when we had our tree (except for the presents that Santa brought for the next morning), and the relatives all came to visit - well, I don't see how the excitement level could possibly get any higher.*

*Upon mature reflection, having Christmas Day fall on Sunday means that we get Monday off from work, and to people of our age, that's perhaps even more exciting.

As is often the case even today, the day builds up to the excitement, staring in the morning. Remember Davey and Goliath, the clay-animation religious show produced by the Lutheran Church? The obligatory Christmas episode in which our heroes "learn something about Christmas" is shown Saturday morning at 7:30 a.m. CT on KSTP, opposite the second half of Captain Kangaroo on WCCO, when the Captain reads Clement Moore's "The Night Before Christmas." At 2:30 p.m., KSTP has a half-hour concert of Christmas music by the U.S. Naval Academy Glee Club, and at 5;30 p.m. KMSP carries a live Christmas concert from the Apollo Club

At 6:30 p.m. it's Jackie Gleason's Christmas Eve show, which features Gleason as his Poor Soul character dreaming his way into a fairy tale fantasy, meeting Art Carney as Old King Cole, Sheila MacRae as the Old Woman in the Shoe, and Jane Kean as the princess rescued from the dragon. Lawrence Welk's Yuletide show is on ABC at 7:30 p.m., as the Maestro's family makes their TV debut along with the rest of his Music Makers. And speaking of debuts, The Hollywood Palace features Bing Crosby and his second family on TV for the first time (see below for more).

At 10:00 p.m. WTCN airs the classic Crosby movie Holiday Inn, with Fred Astaire. It's a perfect time to show the movie on Christmas Eve, and it leads into the late-night music and church services. The Saturday night best-of Tonight Show is preempted, as it always is on Christmas Eve, for Heart of Christmas, 45 minutes of holiday music presided over by Tonight's music director, Skitch Henderson. No video of that, but if you want to get an idea of the spirit of the show, here's the first part of the 1984 broadcast, by which time Doc Severinsen had taken over the hosting duties. On CBS, the Tucson Boys Choir does the musical honors, with a program entitled "Let the Desert Be Joyful."

CBS carries a Christmas Eve Methodist church service at 11:00 p.m., and it's certainly a sign of the '60s. Rather than the dignified sacred music of the past, "Folk singer Lee Chandler and jazz saxophonist Frank Foster join the congregation in the 'Celebration of the Birth of Love.' " NBC's coverage of the Midnight Mass from St. Patrick's in New York may no longer be in Latin, but it still has at least some of the trappings of the High Mass of the past, as does the Mass at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C., telecast on ABC. It's a cultural touchpoint, though, a moment when we're most definitely in the '60s rather than the '50s.

Christmas morning begins with Berlioz's famed oratorio L'Enfance du Christ at 9:00 a.m. on CBS, featuring singers from the Metropolitan Opera along with the Camarata Singers and the John Butler Dancers. At 10:00 a.m., NBC telecasts the Christmas Lessons and Carols live from the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and at noon ABC Scope looks at Vietnam vets returning home for the holidays.

At 3:00 p.m., ABC's Saga of Western Man repeats a broadcast from earlier in the month, "Christ is Born," produced by John Secondari and narrated by Secondari and John Huston. Here's a look at the opening of the much-acclaimed program.

At 5:00 p.m. CBS presents a documentary on "Christmas in Spanish Harlem," hosted by Charles Kuralt, and NBC's Bell Telephone Hour has "Christmas Through the Ages," with singers Sherrill Milnes and Gianna d'Angelo, and hosted by Florence Henderson, while at 5:30 p.m. WTCN has a live broadcast of the Twin Cities Figure Skating Club's annual Christmas Ice Show, hosted by the beloved children's show hosts Casey and Roundhouse. At 6:00 p.m., ABC reruns the delightful musical The Dangerous Christmas of Red Riding Hood with Cyril Ritchard, Liza Minnelli, Vic Damone, and The Animals. And while NBC's Bonanza airs a Christmas episode with Wayne Newton (!) at 8:00 p.m., Garry Moore closes the musical festivities on CBS, with Buddy Rich and his orchestra, and Mel Tormé, singing - what else? - "The Christmas Song." A fitting end to a blessed day.

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During the 60s, the Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace were the premiere variety shows on television. Whenever they appear in TV Guide together, we'll match them up and see who has the best lineup..

Sullivan: From the Krone Circus Arena in Munich, West Germany, Ed is the ringmaster for a taped sequel to his circus show of last Christmas, featuring circus acts from all over Europe.

Palace: Bing, Kathryn, Harry, Mary Frances and Nathaniel Crosby make their family TV debut on this Christmas Eve program, with guests Kate Smith; comic Bob Newhart; dancer Cyd Charisse; the Kuban Cossacks, Ukranian dancers; Rene and His Puppets; Murillo, a tight-rope walker; and Excess Baggage, a dog act.

Ordinarily I might say this week's listing depends a lot on whether or not you like circuses, but come one - Bing freaking Crosby and his family on Christmas Eve. His guests aren't bad either, but even without them, The Palace win this week is a no-contest.

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Throughout the 60s and early 70s, TV Guide's reviews were written by the witty and acerbic Cleveland Amory. Whenever we get the chance, we'll look at Cleve's latest take on the series of the era. 

Cleveland Amory's bulls-eye comes to rest this week on the new CBS sitcom Family Affair. And what does he think? "'This show was created,' a CBS release stated, 'by the executive producer and producer, respectively, of My Three Sons.' So much for that. All right, now for the two or three readers, respectively, whom we still have with us, let us say that contrary to the prevailing network thinking, we do not agree that one of the most hysterically funny ideas ever conceived for a comedy is the story of a bachelor with children." In case you're not quite sure yet where he stands, we'll add this: "[W]e outrightly challenge the belief that such a program can be guaranteed by a laugh track which greets every greeting with a guffaw, every gesture or grimace with a belly laugh and every old joke with a clap of thunder."

It's all too bad, because Brian Keith deserves so much more, based on how he "copes with the disasters around him with extraordinary good grace and at times even genuine touchingness." Sebastian Cabot, as his valet French, is "a man who serves not only in the spirit of his part but also of all those in television who only stand and wait for better scripts." The failure, Amory declares, is primarily, but not entirely, the responsibility of the three children, Kathy Garver, Johnnie Whitaker, and Anissa Jones. However, he adds quickly, they are not solely responsible for "making Family Affair the appalling thing it is."  For the truth of the matter is that "the writers have given them so much idiotic dialog and the directors so much obvious business that the whole thing ends up as a team effort - one which, at its depths, manages to achieve the impossible. It makes you look forward to the laugh track.

Amory clearly has his curmudgeon act going this week, for there are many who count themselves even today as fans of Family Affair and remember the show (which ran for five seasons!) with real fondness. And of course we should also recall that Amory often enjoyed poking and prodding the tiger in the cage. Perhaps, in his eyes, the series will grow as it ages into its niche, and a subsequent review will be more positive. Or it could be that he simply decided it was about time to, in the parlance of the times, sock it to one of these series. Maybe he just woke up in a bad mood. I myself have to admit that I'm not a fan of the show, although neither do I bear it any animus, especially after seeing the charming Kathy Garver at this year's Mid Atlantic Nostalgia Convention. Nonetheless, it's hard to disagree with Amory's conclusion that it's time for a Christmas truce, one in which "all networks would agree not to put any situation comedy on the air unless it has (a) a good idea, (b) a good script and (c) such a good idea and script that it can be recognized without a laugh track. From his lips to God's ears.

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From time to time I like to take a look at the world of sports, but there's not much to be had in that area this week. Oh, the Sun Bowl is on Christmas Eve (Wyoming vs. Florida State), and there are college all-star games on Saturday and Monday, but that's about it, and it provides us with yet another abject lesson in how, for all that  "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose," sometimes things really have changed.

I mean, c'mon, this is the week between Christmas and New Year's. Where are the bowl games? This year, there are twenty-three - count 'em, 23 - bowl games played on the six days from December 26 to December 31. Compare that to 1966, when the total number of bowls was nine. That year, four of the games (including the Sun Bowl) were played prior to Christmas, two (the Gator and Cotton Bowls) were played on New Year's Eve, and the big three (Sugar, Rose, Orange) were contested on January 2.*

*Contrary to those without historical perspective, it is not the case that in years where New Year's Day falls on a Sunday, the bowl games are moved to Monday in order to avoid a conflict with pro football. The tradition dates all the way back to the early years of the 20th century, long before the NFL was a twinkle in anyone's eye, back when sporting events were seldom held on Sundays. The Rose Bowl created the precedent for moving the game (and parade) to Monday in such cases, and it's remained since. (Even the Indy 500 used to do that.) By the time it got to the point where the NFL season stretched to January 1, the tradition was more or less set in stone. So there.

You'll notice there aren't even any pro games this week, and certainly not on Christmas Day. The NFL is in its open week between the end of the regular season and the Championship game on New Year's Day, and a note in Monday's program listings informs us that if a tiebreaker game is required to settle the AFL's Eastern Division title, it will be played Monday at noon. No football on Christmas, either, you see.

My gosh, without football whatever did people watch that week?

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Well, unlike nowadays where you can drive around late on Christmas night and see discarded evergreens waiting to be picked up by the trashman, in 1966 Christmas didn't end on December 25, or December 26 for that matter. On Monday evening, KTCA, the educational station, presents Holiday Festival, a program of seasonal music; additional episodes of Holiday Festival run on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights at 10:00 p.m. On Thursday evening The New Twin City Federal Hour, on the independent WTCN, carries The Nutcracker, the Christmas favorite, danced by the San Francisco Ballet.

The ads continue in the seasonal spirit, as these from Contac and Canadian Lord Calvert indicate.

Widely different products, but fun, don't you think?

Then there's the staple of the year end, the news year-end-in-review program. CBS has theirs on Sunday afternoon (there being no football to show), while ABC's is Wednesday at 9:00 p.m. CT, and NBC's is at 8:30 p.m. the following evening. Show you how quickly things could change back then, NBC tapes their show earlier that evening. And what were the major stories in 1966? Well, international affairs dominate the scene. Vietnam is front and center, of course, but there's also the growing rift between the Soviet Union and Communist China, and there are the continuing repercussions in the West regarding France's withdrawal from NATO. Domestically, racial unrest continues, as James Meredith is shot in Mississippi, and riots occur in Chicago and Cleveland. The GOP wins big in the midterm elections, with Richard Nixon playing a key role campaigning for Republicans around the country, and racking up IOUs for a prospective presidential bid in 1968. Of course, the space race is out of this world, amid rising anticipation of Apollo 1's launch in just two months.

And some things are just fun. On Saturday, The Skipper, also known as Alan Hale, makes a rare dramatic appearance on Gunsmoke. Monday night, The Monkees are caught up in the search for "The Maltese Vulture," The dignified Michael Rennie, as the Sandman, teams up with the dangerous Julie Newmar as Catwoman to torment Gotham City on Wednesday and Thursday's episodes of Batman. Frank Sinatra plays a priest to Fred MacMurray's worldly press agent in The Miracle of the Bells, the late-night Wednesday movie on WTCN. Bob Newhart, who's very funny in that Hollywood Palace episode on Saturday, is probably equally funny on Dean Martin's show Thursday, while Nancy Sinatra makes her dramatic television debut as Coco Cool on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Friday, and our time-traveling heroes on The Time Tunnel wind up in Nottingham Forest trying to prevent King John from foiling the signing of the Magna Carta.

I think there's more than enough there to watch without football, don't you?

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We're told, in Leslie Raddatz's article, that we ought to come back in ten years to check on this week's starlet, Linda Evans, one of the co-stars of ABC's The Big Valley. She doesn't really want to be a star, she says, but "under the blonde prettiness and behind the blue eyes is a drive - a consuming interest in her work - that belies her words." If you'd come back in those ten years, in 1976, you would have found that she'd continued to work in television, made some movies, and appeared nude in Playboy. You also would have had no idea that she was about to explode as one of the biggest stars on television, in ABC's Dynasty.

It's too bad Raddatz limited his futuristic outlook to ten years; he concludes his profile by saying that "Ten years from now she will be in her mid-30's. She will still be pretty - the fine bone structure inherited from her Norwegian forebears assures that - but she will have learned a lot that she doesn't know now. She may be married, divorced, disillusioned, or any combination of the three. She will either be a star or not. She could make quite a story." If you'd just said fifteen years, Leslie, you would have had quite a story, indeed.

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If you're reading this on the day of publication, it's Saturday - Christmas Eve, 2016. And it gives me a final opportunity to wish you and yours a happy Christmas, with my thanks as always for choosing to spend some of your valuable time here. I hope your day is very merry indeed. TV  

December 23, 2016

Around the dial

Christmas may be just around the corner, but that doesn't mean things are letting up here—in fact, we've got as many classic TV goodies as there are presents wrapped under the tree.

If you find an Amazon gift certificate in your Christmas sock this year, you might want to consider spending it on my friend Amanda Reyes' new book, Are You In the House Alone? And that's only the beginning of the news for the busy blogger from Made For TV Mayhem. Way to go, Amanda!

A while back I wrote about the provocative Hitchcock episode "The Thirty-First of February." This week, bare-bones e-zine takes a closer look at the episode, and the Julian Symons novel on which it's based.

If you know the great actress Agnes Moorhead only from her recurring role on Bewitched, you don't really know her. Good thing Silver Scenes has come along with a thorough rundown on her "magnificent" career.

If you're a sports TV nerd like me, you're probably going to be interested in Classic TV Sports' latest, a rundown on the rare occasions when a network's #1 announcing crew does the first game of a Sunday doubleheader - as far back as I can remember, it's always been the second game that the lead crew does.

What's this? A second mention of Made For TV Mayhem? You bet, when it's Christmas TV History's Joanna Wilson appearing on the Made for TV Mayhem podcast, talking about - what else - Christmas shows. You don't want to miss this!

David Hofstede is up to the '70s in his Comfort TV rundown of the ten funniest sitcom episodes by decade. Hint: if you're looking for Chuckles the Clown, you won't be disappointed. And speaking of rundowns, The Twilight Zone Vortex gives us the 411 on the Zone's Christmas episodes.

Have you ever felt like there's no place to hide? I've been having that very feeling lately, so much so that - well, that's another story for another time. As for this story, it's called No Hiding Place, and Cult TV Blog tells us about one of the most popular British TV series of the 50s and 60s. Does this go on my shopping list?

I just checked this out this week, and you'll want to as well - Classic Television Showbiz links to Steve Allen's Christmas episode from his 1961 talk show. Some parts are more entertaining than others (I never liked the Smothers Brothers, for example), but the bit with Steve trying to play Santa without benefit of his glasses is worth the price of admission (so to speak).

If you think you know about obscure television, don't try to match wits with Television Obscurities. (There's a good reason the blog's named that way.) This week, a truly obscure series: Manhattan Safari, from New York's WNBT - in 1941! TV  

December 21, 2016

Yes, Virginia can be seen on TV

This is one of those clips that I love running across - living history that transcends the years. It's from Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall oF December 21, 1960, and Perry's guest is Virginia Douglas, who was called Virginia O'Hanlon when, on September 21, 1897, the New York Sun printed her letter to the editor asking whether or not there was a Santa Claus.

Virginia Douglas on The Perry Como Show 12-21... by jim-allen-jr

Virginia Douglas was eight years old when she wrote that letter to the Sun, and 63 years later here she is on television, telling Perry Como about how that letter gave the editor, Francis Pharcellus Church, the opportunity to write one of the most famous editorials in the history of American journalism. The editorial ran on page seven of that day's issue, below an advertisement for "the newly invented 'chainless bicycle,'" i.e. the motorcycle. According to the always-reliable Wikipedia, Church's editorial remains "the most reprinted editorial in any newspaper in the English language."

The story of "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" is a cherished part of American folklore, taking its place in history along with Paul Revere's Midnight Ride, the Gunfight at the OK Corral, Lindberg's flight across the Atlantic, and other events that they probably don't teach in school anymore. Despite the evidence to the contrary, some people might doubt there ever was a Virginia, but now you know better. After all, you couldn't show it on TV if it weren't true, right?

December 19, 2016

What's on TV? Friday, December 23, 1955

Today's listing is in answer to a special request, something I'd like to do more of here. On Saturday, one of our commentators asked to see the listing for this day, as it was his or her birthday. I tried but failed to track down a Boston guide on short notice; hopefully this edition from the Twin Cities will do. At least it isn't The World's Worst Town™. Happy Birthday - I hope you enjoy it!

These listings are perhaps both the shortest and the longest programming listing you're likely to see here. Short, because the Twin Cities has but four stations; one for each network, plus one independent. Long, because of the plethora of 15- and 30-minute programs that abound during the broadcast day. The quarter-hour program, particularly the soap opera, is a carryover from the days of radio - which, in 1955, is still very much a going concern - NBC's acclaimed Monitor, for example, premieres earlier in the year - but the handwriting is on the wall.

December 17, 2016

This week in TV Guide: December 17, 1955

This is one of my oldest TV Guides, and one of the reasons I'm so fond of it is this week's cover story, in which Robert Montgomery says TV ain't what it used to be.

We read that and we laugh. In 1955 television has been around for less than ten years, although it's been around longer than we think, and from today's perspective we look back at the years that are affectionately called Golden, and we wonder what Robert Montgomery can possibly be thinking of.

He knows of what he speaks, though. Montgomery is truly one of the pioneers of television, "the first top name movie personality to enter TV full-scale," as host and occasional star of Robert Montgomery Presents, a show which premiered in January, 1950. It is, therefore, winding up its sixth year on TV, and if there is anyone with the right to say "TV's not what it used to be," it's him. His memories constitute an encyclopedia of what can go wrong on live television (the only kind, back then): an actor who muffs his lines, forcing his co-stars to ad-lib for 10 minutes before he gets back on track; a ladder left on stage by a sloppy stagehand, requiring the cast to dodge around it for the entire act, until the next commercial; Montgomery himself muffing an interview with actress Teresa Wright, repeatedly calling her "Martha" instead.

With the logistics involved in early television, it's a wonder any of these shows ever got on the air. "We produced our show at 67th St. and Central Park West," Montgomery says; "our music came from Rockefeller Center, half a mile away; the commercials came in from Columbus Circle. We figured we were lucky if we got them all on the air the same night." Cameras quit working, lights burn out, actors freeze - and yet the only time the show failed to make it to airtime, it was because of a studio strike. Compared to those early days, the show today is "as slick and smooth as the wax made by one of its sponsors." And we'd probably consider it primitive.

Montgomery is definitely a populist when it comes to programming - "Let's let the audiences - and not just the critics - decide what's good and what's bad on TV," he says. And for the most part, there aren't any problems that a few good scripts won't cure. In other words, this is television - thus has it been, thus shall it be.

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With one week to go before Christmas, I'll bet we can find some shows on TV - what do you think? Why yes! This is the week that many series have their Christmas episodes, and we'll run by some of them along the way.

Few entertainers are more associated with Christmas than Perry Como, thanks to his '70s-era specials from all over the world. In 1955 Perry has his own weekly program on NBC, and since next Saturday is Christmas Eve, I'm betting that's when all the holiday trimmings come out. Even so, he manages to work in a couple of Yuletide songs this week: "The Christmas Song" and "Jingle Bells." Doesn't get much better than that.

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that not every program has to be Christmas-themed in order to be the kind of special that's only shown at special times of the year. Just check out this ad for Saturday's Ford Star Jubilee, on CBS, with Eddie Fisher, Red Skelton, and Ella Fitzgerald. (Oh, and Nat King Cole makes an appearance, too.) There are a couple of Christmas pieces in the 90-minute program, but for the most part, it's just songs. And I'll bet it was a pretty good show, too. It does prove one thing, though: if it's near Christmas and you're showing a special, just throw some decorations on the ads. It never fails.

Sunday is where it really starts to look a lot like Christmas, starting with the afternoon program Wide Wide World at 3:00 p.m. CT on NBC. During the 90-minute program, host Dave Garroway takes us around the world to see how different cultures celebrate the season, including choirboys singing hymns in Quebec and New York, decorations at the Tropicana night club in Havana, the Posada Christmas processing in Mexico, and decorated department store windows in New York, Dallas, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Washington.* A little after an hour into the program, they'll cut away for live coverage of President Eisenhower lighting the White House Christmas tree, from his home in Gettysburg.

*Do they still do that nowadays? Do they still have department stores nowadays?

At 8:00 p.m., the husband-and-wife team of Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy star in the Goodyear Television Playhouse production of "Christmas 'til Closing," which ponders the question of "whether the Yule season's emphasis has not become far more material than spiritual." In a twist, it's the couple's children, not the parents, who wonder if there's too much of a fuss being made over it all.

The Today show spends the entire week before Christmas touring various churches, most of which will have their choirs performing appropriate pieces. Garry Moore's CBS morning show has the spirit as well, featuring Christmas-themed entertainment all week, including an appearance by the famous Trapp Family Singers (The Sound of Music) on Monday. And on NBC's Home, host Arlene Francis tours the department store windows along 5th Avenue in New York. Voice of Firestone's Christmas program is Monday night (7:30 p.m., ABC), with opera star Eleanor Steber joining the Firestone orchestra for a predominantly classical Christmas.

On Tuesday Dinah Shore sings "White Christmas" on her 15-minute program that precedes the NBC evening news program, while on CBS Red Skelton celebrates the season with his traditional Freddie the Freeloader skit, in which the tramp tries to get arrested so that he can spend the night in a nice warm jail cell. And speaking of jail cells, DuPont Cavalcade Theater tells a tale of Christmas in a POW camp. Later that night, on Steve Allen's Tonight, an extraordinary program featuring survivors from the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. They're appearing with Walter Lord, whose universally acclaimed book A Night to Remember, written this very year, was predominantly responsible for the resurgence of interest in the disaster - although, as the 1953 movie with Barbara Stanwyck demonstrates, it never completely went away. Think about it, though: it had only been 43 years since the disaster (which would be like 1973 to us), so it wouldn't have been all that remarkable to have had survivors still living. And technology, the great god that failed everyone in the design of the ship, leaving them alone and isolated in the darkness, is what makes it possible for viewers to see them on television this night.

Bing Crosby's brother Bob hosts his own music program afternoons at 2:30 p.m. CT on CBS. He's been playing Christmas music all week, and Wednesday is no exception, including one of his brother's favorites - "Christmas in Killarney." Howdy Doody's celebrating Christmas this week as well, and this afternoon he takes the NBC cameras to Santa's workshop at the North Pole. Santa's also part of The Mickey Mouse Club on ABC, in the cartoon "Midnight in the Toy Shop," and the Mousketeers also see a film on Christmas around the world. MGM Parade, about which more later, has clips from some of the studio's holiday offerings, and Father Knows Best, Kraft Television Theater, Studio 57, Waterfront, and The Millionaire have Yuletide-themed episodes of their own.

On Thursday it's one of the most famous of all traditional Christmas episodes, Dragnet's "The Big Little Jesus" (left) at 8:00 p.m. on NBC, as Friday and Smith investigate the theft of the Child from a church Nativity. Babies are also the theme on tonight's episode of Climax (CBS, 7:30 p.m.), which tells the true story of a 12-year old orphan who spends Christmas Eve finding homes for his five younger brothers and sisters. Brandon de Wilde, Barbara Hale and Joan Evans star. Before that, Bob Cummings plays his own grandfather in an episode of his show (CBS, 7:00 p.m.) called "Grandpa's Christmas Visit." Even Johnny Carson gets into the act, on his CBS variety show (9:00 p.m.), where a fairy godfather grants him three holiday wishes.

By the time we get to Friday, practically everybody's doing Christmas: Rin Tin Tin, Ozzie and Harriet, and The Patti Page Show on ABC; Mama, Our Miss Brooks, Crusader, and Playhouse of Stars on CBS; and The Big Story on NBC. I particularly like the Patti Page touch; her program ends at 11:30 p.m. out East, just a half-hour before midnight rings in Christmas Eve.

And of course, this doesn't include all the other episodic series, Burns and Allen, Medic, and the like, that have their Christmas-themed stories. Yes, it's true that at Christmastime, everything comes to a halt.

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There's an interesting article by Dan Jenkins (not the sportswriter) about how, in the wake of Walt Disney's spectacular television success, the rest of Hollywood finds this TV business isn't as easy as it looks.

Take Warner Bros.'s foray into the small screen. They've got a series called Warner Brothers Presents, featuring a rotating trio of shows, each of which runs for 45 minutes, followed by a nine-minute "behind the scenes" film "designed to sell Warner Brothers pictures." Of the three - Kings Row, Casablanca, and Cheyenne - only the third, with Clint Walker in the lead role, will have any staying power. However, it won't be long before WB gets it figured out, and their cookie-cutter style of replicating successful shows - for example, 77 Sunset Strip, Bourbon Street Beat, Hawaiian Eye, and Surfside 6 - prove successful, even though many critics accuse Warners of sacrificing quality in the process.

20th Century Fox, long before they it starts its own network, makes its first stride with The 20th Century Fox Hour which, like Warner Brothers, features a nine-minute behind-the-scenes piece to accompany its anthology format. It alternates every week on CBS with The United States Steel Hour, and while the series isn't bad, it lags behind both boxing and This Is Your Life in its time period. A similar series, M-G-M Parade (which you can see occasionally on Saturday mornings on TCM), has been a disappointment for that studio. In fact, even Alfred Hitchcock Presents has fallen short of "setting the TV audience on its ear," although it winds up being one of the most venerable, and loved, of mystery series.

One of the problems, says an ad executive, is that studios have yet to figure out that television isn't the movies. Says another executive, "Wed' like to pitch in with our own people who know television" in order to improve the quality of the shows. In fact, Otto Lang, executive producer of The 20th Century Fox Hour, acknowledges that "We have a lot to learn, I guess," and M-G-M's executive producer Les Petersen points out some of the differences the studio has already learned. "A hilarious scene from a movie is suddenly not very funny when seen by just two or three people in a living room," which has led them to experiment with the use of a laugh track. They're also not sure how to lead into and out of commercials, since those aren't found on the big screen, but he knows they'll figure it out - eventually.

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TV Teletype has some fun items for us to look at this week.

For instance, we get the scoop that "Twelve Angry Men," the award-winning Studio One presentation from last year, is headed for the big screen. Henry Fonda's going to play the lead role, which Bob Cummings played on TV. I seem to recall that movie was pretty good...

And then there's this note that "TV actor PAUL NEWMAN, who played the part of a prize fighter in Playwrights 56's 'The Battler,' has won the big role in MGM's Somebody Up There Likes Me, the Rocky Graziano biography." That Newman fellow turned out to make the transition to movies without too much trouble...

In an effort to get consumers interested in color TV, CBS-Columbia is offering up to $400 for New Yorkers who want to exchange their B&W sets for an $895 color set. They say they'll expand the promotion nationwide if it's successful, but I think this color TV business is just a fad...

Finally, CBS is trying to pep up its Morning Show, competing against NBC's Today, by sending its host "on quickie weekend trips to foreign cities," where he'll shoot films that can be shown on the show when he returns the next Monday. The host is a guy named Dick Van Dyke - wonder what happened to him?...

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Last but not least, As We See It has yet another story for its collection of "doctors who blame television for practically anything." In this case the doctor is Salmon Halpern, who says that "children who watch television while lying on a rug may contract an 'allergic' type of cold." He doesn't recommend, for example, that parents tell their children to get up off the floor; rather, he recommends spraying the rugs with a special solution. Methinks that the doctor might well have some kind of financial interest in that special solution, but who am I to judge?

Merrill Panitt compares Dr. Halpern to "the dentist who said children's teeth get out of whack because they lean on their chins while watching TV, the chiropractor who insists TV causes back trouble because people slump in their chairs before TV screens and the doctor who blames TV for obesity because viewers keep nibbling at snacks." These videochondricacs, as Panitt calls them, probably won't be satisfied until they've "blamed television for scurvy; that is, scurvy in children who refuse to touch food except the cereal advertised on television."

Now, I've grown up as a child of television; TV and I have been constant companions as long as I can remember. I do have allergies, although they owe more to cats than watching TV; the fillings in my otherwise excellent teeth are more the result of failing to brush than leaning on my chin; and the only way in which my chronic back problems could be related to television would be if I twisted my back reaching for the remote. I will allow as to how my weight is higher than it should; but since I can watch television on my iPhone while working out, it's probably laziness more than TV that keeps me from getting in better shape.

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It's Christmas next week - bet there'll be some special content just waiting for you! TV  

December 14, 2016

Remember when - $995.00 for a VCR, 1977

Although to be fair, this isn't just a VCR - no, it's got a 24-hour timer, so you can record your favorite shows whenever you want! (As long as it's not more than 24 hours from now.) Just take a look at that digital clock!

After so many years of talk about the ability of the average person to record a television show, the VCR is now a reality. But there's so much more - record one show while watching another! Produce your own home sound movies! You can even use it to monitor the baby's room! And it's BETA, so you know it will never go out of style.

I wonder if, back in 1977, people had any idea how this would revolutionize the television experience? Not the VCR itself, as anyone who ever walked into someone's home and saw the blinking clock can attest. No, the VCR was just a waystation, the first, on a journey that would include the DVD player, the DVR (with the ability to pause and replay live television), watching TV on your computer, watching TV on your phone, going from renting a VHS cassette to streaming online video, and the list goes on. Perhaps its most significant impact was what it did to viewing habits: thanks to the VCR and its successors, we no longer have shared experiences; we don't watch shows at the same time, we binge watch entire seasons at one sitting - we have, in fact, become very much a separated people.

All this is true, and yet I can't tell you how grateful I am for this technology. (Even though I wrote an entire story trying to explain it.) I'm old enough to remember before VCRs even existed, and the idea you could watch a program you'd missed, or watch it over again - well, there are no words.

Considering how much a top-of-the-line blu-ray player costs today, considering how much a DVR cost as recently as a few years ago, a thousand dollars for a pioneer machine like this, one that even seems a bit crude, makes you laugh. And yet, if people back then had known the revolution it would have spawn, things they couldn't even imagine - well, they probably would have considered it cheap at double the price.

December 12, 2016

What's on TV? Monday, December 12, 1977

This week we're in the Baltimore-Washington area; as I wrote on Saturday, there are some Christmas programs tonight, but not many; I wanted to try and present a more representative example of Monday night programming, so it's only CBS preempting their first hour of prime time. Logan's Run. To be frank, I don't think anyone really noticed.

December 10, 2016

This week in TV Guide: December 10, 1977

Steady now, everyone. Before you get too excited, this week's cover story does not go into explicit detail on lewd and salacious scenes being trimmed for home consumption. There's no discussion about how much bare skin is appropriate, or whether or not a thrust under the sheets is acceptable. In observing the actions of CBS's Office of Program Practices, Eric Levin finds that the actual job of network censor is far more dry, and far less fascinating, than we at home might think.

What do we know about network censors? Well, if the team at CBS is any indication, they wear beards, they don't wear ties, they're relaxed, and they laugh a lot. They also spend a lot of time reviewing banal lines such as the following:

In the first script, a convict being taken to jail in leg irons tells his captor to go get a good meal and afterward pick him up, waiting at the roadside. "You can't miss me," he says. "I'll be the one with the dangling cuff." "And that ain't all," the cop quips. This, the group agreed, was a lewd reference to the convict's sexual organ. Not much had to be said. Here is the sum of it:

"Page five. Is it just my dirty mind?"

"No, we couldn't figure anything else that would be dangling."

"OK, that's going, going, gone."

Next, they looked at a scene in which several characters are discussing the remote possibility of an earthquake when suddenly the ground begins to shake. When the tremor passes, one man says to another, who has frozen in his tracks, "I thought you had to go to the bathroom." He responds, "I just did."

There was one sentence spoken about this line. "That's a little more bathroom than we want to go."

Other lines involve jokes about rape and prostitution, which they deem "not a valid source of humor." Adds one team member, "You make the jokes, you diminish the seriousness of the issue."

One problem, department director Jim Revard points out, is that "A lot of the producers seem to think their show is the only one on the air." It's true; "the department is responsible for the integrity of everything that appears on CBS, except news. Everything else, down to and including commercials." While one show might be able to get away with one joke about a hooker, say, if you multiply that joke by the number of shows on the network, all of a sudden CBS would be literally swimming in hooker jokes. It's also true that not all shows are judged the same; take the aforementioned hooker joke. If multiple shows do come up with similar angles, "we will often decide to give it to the show where we think it is most appropriate or natural, or where we have the most faith that the writers and directors will handle it well."

Violence is the other prime area of concern for Program Practices, and here it's typical to see a lot of give-and-take. A producer submitting a script with four acts of violence might be asked to "lose" one of them; if the plot makes that impossible, then they might have the next episode go lighter on violence. Even this counting system is going the way of the passenger pigeon, being retained only for the network's established action/adventure series, according to VP Van Gordon Sauter (future head of CBS News*). "It's misleading. It equates a pie in the face with a slap in the face with a bullet in the face. It's too inflexible." What's important, he says, is not the count, but the "overall tone of the program."

*And, in the small world that it is, brother-in-law of California Governor Jerry Brown.

When asked what the ideal qualifications for a censor are, director Paul Bogrow says the most important is intelligence. Zealous, supercharged prudes are rejected immediately,. "We don't want anyone who is eager to go out swinging a club on behalf of some personal, absolute moral standard," he says.

I'm sure there must still be network censors around today, and while I suspect their jobs are just as dry as they were back in 1977, it's a good bet that there are some dramatic differences as well. The allowable degree of permissiveness is far greater now than it was then, and they're probably being asked to make judgments that would have been unthinkable 40 years ago. Still, although it may be a dirty job (no pun intended), someone still has to do it.


This week's editorial, "As We See It," consists of a guest column written by the late Bing Crosby for his friend, columnist James Bacon, shortly before his death. It seems to tie in nicely with the week's cover story, in that Crosby writes about the state of television today.

"I was laid up for five or six weeks lately - hospitalized - and, of course, I saw lots and lots of TV. It became apparent to me that very slowly and very subtly writers and producers are working in nudity, permissiveness, irresponsibility, profanity, scenes of semiexplicit sex, provocative dialogue, smutty innuendos and situations into their shows. Moral responsibility is almost indiscernible."

The First Amendment doesn't apply in cases like this, Crosby says. "A citizen can say or do anything he wants out on the street unless he breaks the law, but he shouldn't be allowed to come into a man's house and fill his TV set with prurient material." Crosby's fear is for the effect such programming will have on children, who are susceptible to "anything they see in a film done by attractive, famous people."

He then makes a point that I bring up here, a political point. Crosby, as you may know, was politically a liberal, a supporter of FDR, a fervent proponent of equality. As a Catholic, he was educated by the Jesuits, not the most conservative of Catholic orders.* And yet what follows would undeniably be classified as right-wing in today's culture wars, perhaps even categorized as hate speech. "I happen to believe that the family is the basis for a strong society," Crosby writes. "A good strong society makes for a good strong community, and you get enough good strong communities and you've got a strong nation."

*As we see with the current pope.

Many people, when they find out I write about television and its relationship to culture, ask me about what I see as the eternal chicken-egg question: does culture influence what we see on TV, or does TV shape what we see in culture? Crosby's conclusion is as good an answer to that as anything. When he raised all of these concerns with a TV executive, the man replied, "We're only depicting life as it is." Says Crosby, "I fear that they are depicting life as it is going to be if they are not diverted."


There are only 15 days until Christmas as the week begins, which means the holiday programming season is in full swing - in fact, it's probably starting to wind down by the end of the week. What good is a Christmas program, after all, if it's too late to purchase the products being advertised on it?

Ah, that was cynical, wasn't it?

On Saturday, CBS hauls out two of it's venerable traditions, the animated specials How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Frosty the Snowman, beginning at 8:00 p.m. ET. It simply would not be December without them, even though I'm not exactly sure who broadcasts them nowadays.

Saturday's highlight is ABC's broadcast of Rudolph's Shiny New Year, which strictly speaking isn't a Christmas program at all, even if Billie Richards is back to reprise her role as the voice of Rudolph. In fact, it's all about Rudolph's search for Happy, the Baby New Year - and if this sounds a little lame to you, keep in mind that it's the best ABC can do, seeing as how CBS has the rights to the original Rudolph, which was broadcast last week. That's followed by the made-for-TV premiere of It Happened One Christmas, a retelling of the It's a Wonderful Life story with the sexes flipped. Marlo Thomas stars in the Jimmy Stewart role, with Cloris Leachman as her guardian angel, and since the original movie isn't a favorite of mine to begin with, it sounds perfectly dreadful to me. The only exception is the casting of Orson Welles as Potter - inspired, to say the least, as long as Welles brings as much enthusiasm to the role as he does when he's hawking Paul Masson wine.

Perhaps the quintessential Christmas cartoon, A Charlie Brown Christmas, takes center stage on Monday. (8:00 p.m., CBS) My ardor for Charles Schulz and the Peanuts gang has faded somewhat over the years, but no matter how many times I see this cartoon, I never get tired of it. It's followed by 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, a cartoon narrated by Joel Grey, featuring the mice who weren't stirring in Clement Moore's poem. Meanwhile, the independent WDCA runs one of the more underrated Christmas movies, The Bishop's Wife, with Cary Grant oozing charm as an angel sent to help out the harrassed bishop David Nivel (who's almost as thick-headed as George Bailey, truth be told), and the bishop's wife, Loretta Young. Watch for a scene-stealing performance by Monty Woolley. NBC counters with Sunshine Christmas, a TV-move based on the 1975 series of the same name, starring Cliff DeYoung.

WDCA is back at 9:00 p.m. on Tuesday with my favorite Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street. You can read why I feel this way here; be sure to also read this, where I show what happens when the movies intersect with real life. And Wednesday's highlight is Perry Como's annual Christmas show (10:00 p.m., ABC); this year, the globe-trotting star does an "Olde English Christmas" with Petula Clark, Leo Sayer, Olympic figure skater John Curry, and the Boys Choir of St. Paul's Cathedral. However, in order to get to Perry, you'll first have to sit through the Bradford clan in the two-hour Eight is Enough Christmas special. You might be all right with that, though.

On Thursday, The Waltons, Welcome Back Kotter, and Jackie Gleason (on WBAL) all have Christmas-themed episodes, and Friday rounds out the week with Mikhail Baryshnokov's staging of The Nutcracker at 8:00 p.m. on PBS, going head-to-head with the Hallmark Hall of Fame's annual Christmas appearance - this time, "Have I Got a Christmas for You," the story of how members of a synagogue volunteer to fill in at jobs for Christians who would otherwise have to work on Christmas Eve. It stars Milton Berle, Harold Gould, Jim Backus, Adrienne Barbeau, Sheree North, and Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows, and compared to some of their more recent showings it sounds rather charming. CBS responds with a movie of its own, House Without a Christmas Tree, starring Jason Robards and Mildred Natwick, and sounds a bit too precious for my taste.


I mentioned a few movies above, but I really have to share with you Judith Crist's take on the week's major features, and she's in rare form this week. Take, for example, her review of W.C. Fields and Me (Saturday, NBC), the 1976 movie based on the book by Fields' mistress Carlotta Monti, and starring Rod Steiger as Fields, with Valerie Perrine as Carlotta. "The result," says Crist, "is a silly fiction," in which "Steiger emerges as 10th-rate Rich Little, with makeup - of the death-mask-and-Pan-Cake variety - that makes him look like an aged Van Johnson with a clown nose. Not only is the real Fields available to us on film, but also the facts of his life are better than any fiction the exploitation boys might concoct. The one they've come up with is a stupid and pointless slander."

Up next: "Stupidity is the hallmark of 1976's The Next Man (Wednesday, CBS), a Sean Connery thriller in which the erstwhile James Bond plays a Saudi Arabian (with a Scottish brogue!) who's signed a mutual assistance pact with Israel. The powers-that-be want him dead because of this, and dispatch an international hit woman, "a Bryn Mawr grad, a ruthless killer and a sexpot. Corneila Sharpe is the last, all right, though her nude scenes, alas, will be cut. Everything else in this mindless mess should have been." Ouch.

Then, there's The Golden Voyage of Sinbad from 1974 (Friday, ABC), a movie "that should be run on Saturday mornings for the little ones." Morning, because if you run it in the evening, not even Ray Harryhausen's special effects will keep them awake. "And the wisdom of the sages, including 'Trust in Allah but tie up your camel,' is highly missable."

The good news is that she had nothing bad to say about either It Happened One Christmas or Sunshine Christmas. Possible reason: they were unavailable for preview.


Edith Efron has a News Watch feature this week that was probably controversial then, and in light of this year's presidential campaign, would surely be so now. Her target: "the liberal feminist fiction of the Helpless Wife," and how nobody on television is challenging this absurd claptrap.

What Efron notes is the epidemic of abused women striking back at the men abusing them, in most cases their husbands. She draws a distinction between the Helpless Wife and the other favorite of news, talk shows and dramas: the rape victim. "Women assaulted by rapists are helpless and unwilling victims of male abuse," she says. "But wives of brutal husbands are not helpless and unwilling victims - they are voluntary victims."

All of them live in houses with front doors. They can walk out those doors at any moment. If they lack friends, family and funds, if they have children, and if, to boot, they are total incompetents, they can go to charities or welfare agencies, any one of which is preferable to being routinely beaten to a bloody pulp. But such women have not walked out their front doors. They've clung to the male brutes like limpets, often for years, consenting to bestial abuse, concealing it, lying about it. They've covered up appalling cruelty to children. They complicity of such women in their own victimization, their genuine guilt, is enormous. But on the "reality" shows I've seen, that point is not made.

That's a very stern indictment. Efron goes on to discuss the psychology of women in this situation, many of whom suffer from a fear of independence, of standing on their own two feet. Anything, including brutal assault, is preferable to that. The problem, she writes, is that only once has she seen this portrayed on television - in the drama Family. It never comes up in any of those "serious" programs, and there's a good reason why. "The liberal feminists want us to believe that the land is burstling with oppressed females who cannot help themselves and need huge new social programs and bureaucracies that the feminists, of course, will run. Whenever such a campaign is on, TV becomes the megaphone."

Efron recalls a recent Phil Donahue show in which a woman who had been abused by her husband for years - had even left him, only to return - had finally had enough, whereupon she burned her husband to death. At this revelation, "the audience of middle-class Philadelphia ladies gave her an explosive hand of applause." Even Donahue seemed taken aback by this, reminding that audience that they were applauding murder, at which a second ovation resulted. "Not only did they applaud murder, but they were hostile to the very notion that the woman had ever had any conscious choice or responsibility in the matter."

This idea, she stresses, is incredibly offensive and derogatory to women, suggesting that they are incapable of independent thought, unable to take any form of proactive action, save when they're pushed beyond the point of no return, and Efron wonders if they're being programmed, in a sense, to behave that way. "However wretched 'battered wives' may be, that has not been an act of compassion but an act of corruption. And signs of that corruption are now showing up in the culture."

It is time, Efron concludes, for TV to "make immaculately clear the difference between an authentic feminine victim of male oppression and a woman who has cooperated every step of the way in her own victimization." To deny that there is such a thing as female responsibility, she says, "is to dehumanize women."

I'm sure that today Edith Efron would be pilloried on college campuses as a self-loathing woman guilty of hate speech. That's only one reason I doubt we'd ever read anything like this in TV Guide today.


I realize, friends, that you might be tired of politics. It seems as if that's all we've lived with these last few months, and with Christmas almost upon us, you probably think it's time to give it a rest. As you know, I try not to dip into politics too much here, and when I do I usually give you forewarning.

I thought this issue was different, because in Crosby's editorial, Levin's article about censorship, and Efron's essay, we see a kind of issue-wide theme being developed, one that's more important than the weekly programming. In addition, all three of these articles touch on issues that remain part of the political dialogue today. In looking at them, we see how things change, and how they stay the same; I sometimes use this phrase in jest, but not here. This is a time capsule issue in a way, because it shows us with specificity what the issues of the time were, and how people thought about them back then. With our perspective, we can see how things have evolved - or devolved - since then. TV