May 4, 2019

This week in TV Guide: May 2, 1981

Care for some charasmatic newsmen? Gerald M. Goldhaber's article on the most popular TV newsmen confirms what we've always been told: Walter Cronkite has the most charisma.

Goldhaber is Chairman of the Communication Department at The State University of New York at Buffalo. He's also president of the New York research firm McLuhan, Goldhaber, Williams, Inc., which was founded by Marshall McLuhan. All this means that Goldhaber likely knows what he's talking about. The study suggests three distinct kinds of charismatic personalities: the "hero," an idealized person who is what we wish we were; the "antihero," seen as "the common man," someone that we're comfortable with; and the "mystic," someone who's unusual, different, strange or unpredictable. Other qualities taken into consideration include appearance, sexuality, message similarity, actions, and imagery.

As I mentioned, Cronkite comes out on top, even though he's no longer anchoring the CBS Evening News: his 43 antihero charisma rating far outdistances NBC's Roger Mudd at 31, and John Chancellor at 29. Dan Rather, who's inherited Cronkite's spot behind the anchor desk, scores 41, but none comes from the antihero category; Rather scores 34 under hero, and 7 under mystic. A telling anecdote comes from Art Buchwald, who mentions that, "I remember once, when the astronauts were in trouble and I was worried, my wife said, 'Don't worry: Walter will solve the problem.' Twenty minutes later, Walter came back on the air. . . and fixed it. Dan Rather will never be able to do anything like that." That's it in a nutshell.

My preferred anchor, Frank Reynolds of ABC, ranks third with a total score of 33 (13 hero, 20 antihero); his co-anchors Max Robinson (12/19=31) and Peter Jennings (17/5/5=27) rank fifth and seventh overall. I'd argue that in another twenty or so years, Jennings would rank at the top of the list, don't you think? Using the same criteria, Good Morning America's David Hartman is the ideal morning show host, with an antihero rating of 33.

According to Goldhaber, the study suggests that NBC should put Mudd behind the anchor desk when Chancellor retires and use Tom Brokaw in the field; that Reynolds should be less aggressive and that Robinson and Jennings would make better reporters; and that CBS may just want to reconsider Dan Rather as an anchor unless he can rid himself of the hero mold (he never does)—otherwise the network might be better off moving Charles Kuralt from mornings to evenings. Wouldn't all that have been interesting?

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On the cover this week are the hosts of one of television's more surprising hits of recent years: Cathy Lee Crosby, the one-time professional tennis player, failed Wonder Woman and B-movie actress, perennial game-show celebrity and B-grade singer John Davidson, and hall-of-fame quarterback and B-grade TV personality Fran Tarkenton. What's really incredible about their show, That's Incredible!, is that in its first season (of four), the show finished #3 in the Nielsens.

That's Incredible! isn't exactly a reality show, not in the way we think of them today, anyway. It's closer to shows like Ripley's Believe it or Not! or, back in the old days, You Asked For It. I suppose you could also compare it to something like America's Funniest Home Videos, in that the hosts really don't do a whole lot more than introduce videos. Time called it "the most sadistic show on television," and for every segment that focused on something that was a real accomplishment, a medical or technological advancement, there was a clip of a man catching a bullet in his teeth.

So why was it popular? It's only a theory, mind you, but the show's first and most successful season was 1979-80. The country was in a malaise, the economy was a mess, and we were apparently too inept to free the hostages in Iran. There was, for those of us alive at the time, a feeling of great impotency, as if the United States couldn't do anything right anymore. Under those circumstances, it's perhaps understandable that people wanted to watch a show that didn't require much from them, that consisted of people actually accomplishing things, even if it was just catching a bullet in your teeth. A feature on cryogenic corneal reshaping through lathe keratomileusis might have been enough to remind people that we could get something right at least once in a while.  As I say, it's just a theory.

Either that, or it was Cathy Lee Crosby.

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On Saturday at 4:00 p.m. CT, ABC brings us the 107th running of the Kentucky Derby, live from Churchill Downs. The broadcast's only an hour long, compared to the virtually all-day coverage that NBC foists on us nowadays*, but that's plenty of time to cover the excitement as Pleasant Colony holds off Woodchopper to win by less than a length. Colony will go on to win the Preakness two weeks later and then, with Triple Crown excitement building, finishes third in the Belmont. As I recall, there wasn't as much excitement about a possible Triple Crown winner back in 1981. After all, following the great Secretariat's victory in 1973, Seattle Slew had taken the Crown in 1977, and Affirmed the very next year. In fact, Spectacular Bid had fallen just short in 1979, so at this point the question wasn't whether not the Triple Crown would be won, but whether or not this year's Derby winner would fail to win it. Who could possibly have known that Affirmed's 1978 triumph would be the last time for almost 40 years?

*Which is still double the 30 minutes that CBS often offered when it carried the Triple Crown races.

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By 1981, the TV Teletype—which once graced both the beginning and end of the shiny section—has been reduced to one single page, encompassing news from both New York and Hollywood. There's not much here that's newsworthy, but I do see a note that in June, "NBC will telecast five pilot episodes of "Wedding Day," a daytime series in which real couples get married, for better or for worse, on TV." Sounds like something you'd see on E! or Bravo nowadays, no? Also in the Teletype is a story about Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence and Ken Berry getting together for "Eunice," a spinoff of the bit from Burnett's variety show. That, of course, becomes Mama's Family.

Long Live Betamax!
In the "TV Q&A" feature, a questioner asks why TV sound can't be broadcast in stereo. The answer—it can! It's already being done in Japan, and should be making its way here within the next few years. Wonder what they'd think of surround sound? There's also a question from someone who'd recorded a number of tapes on Betamax and wondered if it would be compatible with VHS, and another from someone concerned that their new cable box meant they couldn't use the remote control from their television. A lot of this is probably gibberish to younger readers, but for people of my age these were real problems—and it makes me feel old. Again.

A rising star of the '80s is future Oscar nominee Mare Winningham, who appears this week in the TV-movie Freedom, in which she plays a rebellious 15-year-old runaway. This comes on the heels of her performance as a runaway teen-age hooker in Off the Minnesota Strip in 1980, and Operation Runaway, in which she played, well, a runaway. Typecasting, anyone? Unlike many profiles from TV Guide, Winningham actually does fulfill her potential, with a long and successful career in both TV and movies.

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So what's on tap for viewing this week? Well, on Saturday night at 7:00 p.m., ABC has a special two-hour Love Boat, featuring "top fashion designers": Geoffrey Beene! Halston! Bob Mackie! Gloria Vanderbilt! Compared to the guest cast that week (including Morgan Brittany, Jayne Kennedy, McLean Stevenson and Robert Vaughn), it might have been the first time the designers were bigger stars than the celebrities. Oh well, I'm sure a fun time was had by all.

If  you wanted to catch all of Love Boat, you would have been forced to pass up NBC's Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters, which also starts at 7:00. I'm not a country music fan, so I really have no idea how well-known Barbara Mandrell is today, but back in the early '80s she was a big name. Blonde, cute, with a good-enough voice, and two equally cute sisters; not a bad combination for a show that ran for a couple of years. You also would have missed Channel 9's airing of the syndicated Hee Haw, not to mention the show that followed it at 8:00 p.m., Dolly.* You would have been good to see Lawrence Welk at 6:00 p.m,, though, so there is that. And then don't forget ABC's Fantasy Island at 9:00 p.m., with an all-star cast—Cleavon Little, Joe Namath, Christopher Connelly, Trish Stewart.  I mean, they're stars. Right?

*One guess as to who that would have been. Or perhaps two, if you get my drift.

A quick look at the rest of the week's "highlights":

Sunday: CBS has a pretty strong lineup, which kicks off with 60 Minutes, followed by Archie Bunker's Place, One Day at a Time, Alice, The Jeffersons and Trapper John, M.D. All of those shows made a nice little profit for CBS. But my choice would have been PBS' Meeting of Minds, the marvelous Steve Allen program in which historic figures from the past (played by actors) "sit down" to discuss the issues of the day. This week's discussion looks promising: economist Adam Smith (Sandy Kenyon), birth-control (and eugenics) advocate Margaret Sanger (Jayne Meadows, Allen's wife), and Gandhi (Al Mancini). Again, back to a time when good conversation was actually considered entertainment.

Monday: Take your pick; it's the aforementioned That's Incredible! on ABC, or Little House on the Prairie on NBC. If you like your drama straight up, there's M*A*S*H (still) and Lou Grant on CBS.

Tuesday: It's ABC's version of CBS' famed Saturday-night Murderers' Row of the 1970s, with Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Three's Company, Too Close for Comfort and Hart to Hart. I'd imagine a lot of networks would love to have that lineup as well.* But for other choices, there's always Hill Street Blues on NBC, or the made-for-TV flick Broken Promise on CBS.

*Topic for another day: could we postulate that this is ABC's signature lineup of all time, to compete with that CBS Saturday night schedule (All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart and Carol Burnett) and NBC's Must-See Thursday of the 90s (anchored by Friends, Frazier and ER, along with, variously, Will and Grace, Suddenly Susan and others)? Might make for an interesting discussion.

Wednesday: A fleeting reminder of the glory that once was Hallmark Hall of Fame, as PBS' single season of the long-running series presents Charles Durning in the one-man play "Casey Stengel." I don't think Durning looked anything like Stengel, but he was brilliant in the role. That year was a very good one for Hall of Fame; in addition to "Stengel," there was another one-man performance, with Roy Dotrice as "Mr. Lincoln," and Jane Alexander and Edward Hermann teaming up for "Dear Liar." If you're not a fan, you're probably watching Real People, Diff'rent Strokes and The Facts of Life on NBC.

Thursday: Heavy hitters, indeed: The Waltons and Magnum, P.I. on CBS, Mork & Mindy, Barney Miller and Taxi on ABC, and part one of the murder-of-the-week telemovie The People vs. Jean Harris on NBC. Jean Harris, you may recall, was accused and convicted of the murder of her lover Dr. Herman Tarnower, author of the famed "Scarsdale Diet." Think Atkins, but with violence.

Friday: I'd think the night would have been dominated by CBS' twin-bill of Dukes of Hazzard and Dallas.Tonight's Dallas episode is a repeat of the season premier, which opened with J.R.'s crumpled body being discovered. That's right, it's the "Who Shot J.R.?" season! What's particularly interesting about this is that Friday, nowadays considered something of a TV graveyard, was anything but back in 1981. ABC sought to siphon off some of that Dallas audience with a brand new Battle of the Network Stars, and NBC gave us the shocking verdict in the conclusion of The People vs. Jean Harris.

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Also on Friday night is a program I have fond memories of. Actually, "program" might be a misnomer, but I'm not sure what you'd call it. Not a series, nor a miniseries, because it's not scripted drama. I suppose you might think of it as reality programming, but it doesn't exploit anyone. No, I guess there's really no way to describe the spectacle that was "Action Auction."

The Auction was the principal fundraiser for KTCA, Minneapolis' public broadcasting station. It was a delightfully scatterbrained week or so of broadcasting that preempted Channel 2's prime time schedule and, on the last night of the auction, would stretch into the the early hours of the next morning. I first became acquainted with it in 1971 or '72, when the broadcast came live from the Garden Court of Southdale Center. The Garden Court was the center atrium of the three-story mall, and people were able to stand at the railings and watch the show while the mall was open.

You might think that this would be pretty dry programming, but you'd be wrong. For one thing, celebrities from all the other Twin Cities stations would appear to do some time as a guest auctioneer (KTCA wasn't seen as competition at the time, and appearing on it was more like a civic duty). There were also some fantastic items being auctioned off—from a popcorn wagon that became a staple during summers on the Nicollet Mall, to lunch with movie star Cary Grant.* And it wasn't just a spectator sport, of course; anyone could call up and bid on an item, and anyone who's attended a benefit featuring a silent auction knows that some of those items are pretty good.

*Grant, a member of the board of Faberge, was in St. Paul often for board meetings, and was apparently a big supporter of public broadcasting.

The best part of the auction was the final Saturday, which would start at 4:00 p.m. and would end—well, whenever the last item had been sold. In the year I'm thinking of, the year of the Southdale broadcast, that hour came at 6:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, and there was a wonderful shot on TV of the sun rising through the clear windows that lined the Garden Court. Watching the auction was a lot like watching a telethon, and as midnight came and went, as 2:00 a.m. came and went, the on-air personalities would get loopier and loopier.  (The closest I've seen  to it was the 1987 Islanders-Capitals four-overtime playoff game, which ended around 1:00 a.m. CT and at one point featured announcers Mike Emrick and Bill Clement on camera with their neckties tied around their foreheads like headbands while Clement did impressions of John Wayne.)

There was something delightfully amateurish about Action Auction, and as KTCA became more professional and more polished, the auction started to lose its appeal. Eventually it became a dry affair, more reminiscent of a pledge break than live anarchy; I don't remember when KTCA finally discontinued it, but it would be great if they brought it back one more time—in its goofiest version, of course. TV  


  1. Eunice was a made-for-TV movie that aired in 1982, and preceded the Mama's Family series. Berry plays a completely different character in the former.

  2. CBS aired a new (not rerun) episode of MASH this week, "The Life You Save", which had Dr. Winchester becoming very disturbed & introspective about life when a bullet went through his cap, narrowly missing his head. This was the latest in a tv season when CBS ever aired M*A*S*H, as it had been postponed from its original air date of Mar. 30, 1981, due to the assassination attempt on President Reagan on that earlier date.

    I remember seeing Nashville's version of "Action Auction" around this time as well. The network affiliates not only lent their personalities to the local PBS station, they also each preempted an hour of their networks' programming (Each affiliate took a different night and had its personalities on that night.) to carry the auction as well.

  3. Barbara Mandrell retired from performing several years ago, but she's in the Country Music Hall of Fame. I consider one of my life's greatest achievements is getting to meet and chat with all 3 Mandrell sisters (took me 30 years to get to Irlene but it finally happened a few months ago).

  4. I think about that "definitive" line-up thing a lot. Unfortunately, with NBC's 90's Thursdays there was always one dud somewhere in there. The Single Guy, or Hope & Gloria or what have you. The closest was 1994 when it was Mad About You, Friends, Seinfeld, Madman of the People & ER.

    FOX's best is my personal favorite, 2000's Futurama/King of the Hill/The Simpsons/Malcom in the Middle/X-Files.

  5. Mandrell admitted that while her show was a hit, she had to end it because of the stress it took to tape and tour (see "Hitting the Wall" in "Get to the Heart," her biography written by George Vescey).

    One hour for one race, while this year's coverage was over 5 hours and 15 minutes for five races, which includes the one-turn dirt mile race that at one time was part of the previous week's coverage of Derby prep races, and two races that hadn't existed then because Churchill Downs did not have a turf course until 1987, when the Breeders' Cup forced the creation of a turf course and new paddock area. In the early days of the Turf Classic, for example, the race was only fed to OTB outlets, then aired on ESPN in pre-race coverage, before moving to NBC as part of the five-hour Derby coverage.

    In a way, today's coverage pays homage to what actually happens when you walk into the track itself since no ticketgoer would pay to watch two minutes but would rather watch most of the 13 r aces on the card. Five NBC-televised races means move coverage towards the Breeders' Cup horses that will likely be looking at the Turf itself.

    As for the controversy, one needed only to note in May 1981, the Indianapolis 500 at the end of the month would be controversial in its own way. Bobby Unser passing during the safety car period was called only during post-production, and ABC was found to have hyped it up during post-production since the commentary was recorded in an Indianapolis television studio, which was different than CBS' Daytona 500 coverage at the time, when Squier and Hobbs (actually, Hobbs admitted, the job was to have been Graham Hill's, but when Hill died in a late 1975 plane crash, Hobbs was hired for the 1976 USGP West; that later led to Daytona in 1979) called the action, it was live from the Daytona tower. The race went to a jury.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!