May 25, 2019

This week in TV Guide: May 21, 1977

The Quiz Show Scandal, you may recall, had to do with public deception. Television viewers were tricked into thinking that a contest between two people, a battle of knowledge, was legitimate—on the level. It was not. As far as we know, however, no viewers were damaged by the deception; there's no record of anyone losing thousands of dollars betting on the outcome of the latest Van Doren-Stempel showdown. And since the American television viewers of the 1950s weren't a bunch of snowflakes, they emerged from the scandal more cynical, less willing to believe it what they saw on the tube, but otherwise more or less intact. You wouldn't have known that from the reaction, though: the Congressional investigation, the indictments, the shaming. Oh, the humanity. It was one of the great scandals of the time, a Turning Point in American culture—you know, the proverbial "we'll never see things in quite the same way again."

Anyway, we're now flashing ahead about 20 years, to something I saw at the time, and completely forgot about, until now. It was the odd era of the Heavyweight Championship of Tennis, and it's the subject of not one, but two pieces in this week's issue.

The Heavyweight Championship of Tennis series goes back to the Wild West days of the sport, which at the time lacked a true season-ending measurement of determining the year’s number one. Owing to the nature of the various tours in existence back then, it was quite possible that the world’s best players might not ever face each other outside of the four Grand Slam tournaments*, which resulted in this made-for-TV extravaganza, something more like boxing than tennis (coincidentally, at a time when both sports were much higher in the public’s consciousness than they are today), with gunslingers facing off against each other outside the boundaries of regular tournaments.

*Even with the vagaries of tournament tennis, having the top players meet in the Majors was no sure thing; Wimbledon suffered through a men’s boycott in 1973, and the French Open banned the participation of “contract” players who had signed with the new World Team Tennis league. There's no percentage in going into the politics around all this.

The answer to this was the Heavyweight Championship, a series of "winner-take-all" matches for tennis supremacy, aired by CBS, pitting the reigning champion and consensus #1 player in the world, the odious Jimmy Connors, against a variety of challengers—or contenders, if we're continuing with the boxing analogy. Over a two-year period, Connors takes on (and wins) matches against Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Manuel Orantes, and Ille Nastase, held in such exotic places as the sports pavilion at Caesars Palace. (Yet another boxing hotspot!) There’s only one problem with this, and surprisingly enough it doesn’t come from any of the tennis authorities itself, but from the Federal Government.

That problem: the matches were not winner-take-all, and CBS knew that was the case. Oops.

Connors (L), Nastase (R): both boors
Unlike the quiz shows, the matches weren’t actually rigged. Nonetheless, as Richard K. Doan points out in the Doan Report, the advertising for them was clearly deceptive; Connors’ match against Nastase on March 5, for example, was allegedly for a winner-take-all pot of $250,000, when in reality Connors was guaranteed $500,000, win or lose, and Nastase would get $150,000. According to series promoter Bill Riordan, "The reason the public was told that there was no more than $250,000 at stake was that CBS told me it would be immoral if it was any higher." I know, that's kind of quaint in an era when a golfer can make $10 million for winning a major championship, but this is forty years ago we're talking about.

It all comes to a head at the start of the Connors-Nastase match, when announcer Pat Summerall cited the $250,000 winner-take-all stakes. CBS Sports VP Barry Frank, hearing the claim (it's nice to know he watches his network's presentations), ordered Summerall not to repeat it, but never called for a retraction or correction. A network spokesman claims that the network could not announce the true split because "they did not know how Riordan had doled out the prize money"—implying, of course, that they knew all along there would be a division between the players.

In November, the House Communications Subcommittee holds that CBS did indeed engage in deceptive practices, saying that the network deliberately intended to mislead the public, and calling their conduct "inexcusable." The Federal Communications Commission, adding insult to injury, intends to investigate whether CBS has violated the Communications Act. And if this isn't bad enough, in January 1978, the International Tennis Federation accuses CBS of deceptive practices in billing an upcoming four-man event between the winners of the Grand Slam tournaments as the "Grand Slam of Tennis," charging that the title will "mislead the American public and do harm to the credibility of the sport," and that CBS's actions, if unchecked, will "cheapen the title 'Grand Slam' and destroy one of the game's great traditions." Not only that, they continue to run commercials listing U.S. Open champ Guillermo Villas as one of the participants, despite him having pulled out due to injury several days previous. Does this network not learn?

This week's As We See It is devoted to the tennis fraud as well. The Editors note that tennis seems susceptible to this kind of thing, often paying appearance fees to players for competing in tournaments, regardless of how they perform. The problem, according to the editorial, is that television money has popularized sports to an extent that borders on corruption. The money leads to problems, "not the least of which are under-the-table deals to hoodwink the suckers (viewers) into thinking there's a real prize at stake, as in the case of the Connors-Nastase payoff." (Shades of the quiz shows...)

The Editors are about as unimpressed with Connors and Nastase as I was, back then. "Connors and Nastase, whose God-given talents could help them set an example of clean living and exemplary conduct for the youth of our time, are a couple of vulgar characters who all too frequently are an embarrassment to the game. To have their arrogance and disdain for the public compounded by a conscienceless promoter and a shameless network sports department is a truly disgusting development." Yet another testament to the power of television.

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It must be truth or dare week at TV Guide. Next up, there’s an interesting exchange of opinions in this week’s Letters section, responding to an article by Frank Walton from the April 23 edition, in which Walton criticizes the accuracy of NBC’s Baa Baa Black Sheep (aka Black Sheep Squadron), a series based on the real-life World War II exploits of Gregory "Pappy" Boyington and his famed squadron called the "Black Sheep." (They wanted to be known as "Boyington's Bastards," but the military put the kibosh on that.) Walton, the squadron’s Air Combat Intelligence Officer, sharply disputed the image of the pilots (several of whom he quoted in his article) as “a collection of misfits and screwballs,” and casts a dark eye at what the self-aggrandizement of both Boyington and the actor who plays him, Robert Conrad.

Pappy Boyington with Robert Conrad
The first letter comes from none other than Pappy Boyington himself, who accuses Walton of engaging in “more fiction and downright falsehoods than does the dramatization he is criticizing,” and says that Walton “is not a pilot and hasn’t the slightest knowledge of how a combat pilot thinks.” He’s joined in this criticism by the show’s creator, Stephen J. Cannell, who says that Walton “is anxious about the fiction in the series because he is obviously a man with no knowledge about television or storytelling or 8 o’clock violence on TV which would make the kind of documentary story he wants unacceptable to network censors.” And a neutral observer, A.T. LaRoche (Navy retired), asks why Walton sees fit to criticize the show, since “Hogan’s Heroes, McHale’s Navy, etc. are also made for entertainment of the TV-viewing public and are not factual.” That last letter prompts a tart response from the Editor (probably Merrill Panitt), who replies that it does matter, “Because ‘Hogan’ and ‘McHale’ never lived. Gregory “Pappy” Boyington did—and does.”

Now, Cannell (who, you might notice, doesn’t dispute the central tenet of Walton’s article) is probably right in pointing out that any television series designed to entertain is bound to have “a high degree of fiction” in it. But let's take a closer look at what Walton actually wrote in that article. Whereas the series portrays the Black Sheep as "a group of green, inexperienced 18- and 19-year-old kids," in fact the youngest member of the squad was 21—there were no teenagers. Nor were they lacking in experience; nearly a third had completed at least one tour in the South Pacific, and between them they had 16 Japanese kills to their credit—and that's before they joined the Black Sheep.

Boyington portrays the squad in interviews as men who "had nothing to lose, those Black Sheep. They knew if they distinguished themselves, they might get off with easier sentences." Conrad, in a talk show interview promoting the series, added that "All these guys had failed in everything they'd ever done. None of them could make it on their own." In fact, writes Walton, "not a single member of the squadron" was facing, or had ever faced, any kind of disciplinary action. Nor did they engage in the kinds of brawls frequently portrayed in the series.

Eight of the Black Sheep remained in the Marines after the war, all retiring as colonels. As for those who returned to civilian life, seven become owners or presidents of businesses; two are elected mayors of their cities; three are lawyers; seven are directors, executive directors or managers of companies and firms. At a reunion in Hawaii with nearly two dozen members of the squadron, Boyington left with no doubt as to how the men felt about how they were portrayed in the series. Even though he serves as technical adviser to the series, he admitted that he couldn't explain how or why they had been played as misfits and screwballs.

The series only runs for a year and a half, hardly long enough for this to become one of the big controversies in television history. There is, to my ears, something about Walton’s article that rings true, just as the protestations , Boyington and Cannell ring false. Of course we all know that compromises are made when a true story is brought to the small screen; nevertheless, as Walton points out, the "real facts" of the squadron's accomplishments would have made a story of high adventure. Having settled on a narrative, though, Cannell chose to play it through to the end, regardless of how inconvenient the truth might be.

Boyington, who won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his accomplishments, led a very colorful and controversial life both during and after the war, going through multiple marriages and divorces, enduring financial difficulties, and battling both alcoholism and lung cancer—cancer arrested by the squad's former flight surgeon, one of the "misfits." Frank Walton goes on to write a well-received book, Once They Were Eagles: The Men of the Black Sheep Squadron, which he says is the true story of the men from the Black Sheep Squadron, and their own heroic accomplishments. It is published in 1986, two years before Pappy Boyington dies.

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On weeks when we can, we'll match up two of the biggest rock shows of the '70s, NBC's The Midnight Special and the syndicated Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, and see who's better, who's best.

Kirshner: Al Stewart, Chubby Checker, the Bay City Rollers, Queen, Blondie, the Babys, comic Rick Podell and the Mime Company.

Special: In performance: guest host Neil Sedaka, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Helen Reddy, the Captain & Tennille, Thelma Houston, and Kim Carnes.

Plenty of hits to choose from between these two shows, no doubt about it. I grant Neil Sedaka's talent as a songwriter, but I don't like Judy Collins, I don't like Joan Baez, I don't like Helen Reddy, and I don't like the Captain and Tennille. (Personal opinions only; YMMV) That seems to make the choice pretty simple, doesn't it? But I will add that I like Al Stewart, Chubby Checker is a throwback to the old days, and Queen is, well, Queen. That alone is good enough to make Kirschner this week's winner.

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Good grief, I've spent a lot of space already on not very much. Let's take a quick look at the rest of the week while we have time.

On Saturday, Kentucky Derby winner Seattle Slew tries to make it two in a row (and succeeds) in the Preakness Stakes (2:00 p.m. PT, CBS). The Slew will go on to become horse racing's tenth Triple Crown winner. On Sunday at 8:00 p.m. PT, CBS presents the first of consecutive nights of big movies, the kind that networks don't run anymore (not that they show any theatrical movies anymore) with a single-night showing of Ben-Hur, the winner of 11 Oscars including Best Picture; its running time of three-and-a-half hours is accomplished by shaving 40 minutes off. They wouldn't cut out the chariot race, would they? (Now that's a real winner-take-all match!)  The following night, CBS comes back with Hello, Dolly!, starring Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau. (8:00 p.m., Monday) On Tuesday, gossip columnist and occasional What's My Line? panelist Aileen Mehle, better known as Suzy Knickerbocker (or just plain Suzy), hosts an hour-long profile of two giants of their professions: Frank Sinatra and Muhammad Ali. (10:00 p.m., NBC) Earlier in the evening, Henry Winkler makes a crossover appearance as The Fonz on Laverne & Shirley (8:30 p.m., ABC)

David Frost's one-on-one interviews with Richard Nixon come to a conclusion Wednesday (9:30 p.m., syndicated) as the former president reflects on his final days in office, and other events of his presidency. (The Doan Report notes that Frost has agreed to an additional episode consisting of material not previously used, sometime in the fall.) On Thursday, Anthony Hopkins gives a brilliant performance as Bruno Hauptmann in a repeat of the three-hour TV-movie, The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case (8:00 p.m., NBC) Opposite it at 9:30 p.m., an ABC News Special presents Barbara Walters interviewing Cuban leader Fidel Castro. And speaking of Lindbergh, on Friday, Eric Sevareid interviews Charles Lindbergh's widow Anne Morrow Lindbergh, a noted writer and poet in her own right. (8:00 p.m., PBS) The Apollo 8 astronauts, the night before their historic flight to the moon, met with Lindbergh, the Lone Eagle. Said Lindbergh, "In the first second of your flight tomorrow, you'll burn 10 times more fuel than I did all the way to Paris." His death, only three years ago, is recent history indeed, and the end of the era of aviation pioneers. TV  

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