October 30, 2019

Pumpkin Bells

One might be tempted to suggest that it doesn't pay to go out of town for a week, because you have to spend that much more time catching up when you return. And there's a lot to be said for that, although in my case, having returned from a week in which I put in 39 hours of overtime (at time-and-a-half!), it actually did pay. the other part of the equation hold's true, though; suddenly, I find myself with a lot to do, and not much time in which to do it. For example, I have a terrific interview with Ed Sullivan's grandson lined up, but it has to wait until next week; you'll be glad you waited, though.

And then there's Halloween, and while it's been a long time since I've gone out for trick or treating, it's still fun seeing the little kids come to the door in their costumes, some of them barely old enough to do anything other than stick their hand out for a piece of candy. Good times, though, because I'm one of those who still believes that Halloween belongs to kids, not adults.

Speaking of which, if you're my age, you probably remember the costumes you wore when you were a kid, with the plastic mask and the smock you pulled over your shirt. A lot of these costumes were TV-related, giving you a chance to look like your favorite cartoon or real-life TV character. These were invariably a disappointment, in part because having the eyes cut out ruined any chance the mask had of looking like the character it was supposed to resemble. Of course, the alternative was to go staggering around and running into trees because you couldn't see where you were going, so there was that.

This costume of Casper the Friendly Ghost is actually pretty good, since he had black eyes to begin with, and it's too dark to see what's behind the holes. Just wait until you put it on, though; your eyes will ruin the whole thing. I think I wore this costume for a couple of years back in the 1960s, which is strange because I don't remember being a big Casper fan.

I don't know if I ever had a Top Cat costume, though I watched him every Saturday morning. The makers apparently weren't very confident that you'd recognize who it was supposed to be, since they felt compelled to put "Top Cat" on the hat, something that never happened on the show. (You can see just enough of the doily underneath to see how disconcerting those eyes were. and now I'll stop talking about that.)

I suspect everyone would recognize Fred Flintstone; that show's never really gone out of style, has it? I watched it growing up, because when you're a kid you'll pretty much watch whatever happens to be one, but it wasn't high on my list. I think I would have been hard up to wear this.

You can see why cartoon characters make good costumes, since it's a lot easier to reproduce the look of a cartoon than a human. I don't think it was necessary to put Yogi's name on the hat; you don't have to be smarter than the average bear to know who it is. For some reason I want to say I had this costume, but I can't be sure anymore. The mind is the first thing to go, you know.

See what I mean about the difficulty reproducing human characters? The description claims that this is Lurch from The Addams Family, and I'm in no position to argue the point. It seems like it would be wasted on someone under seven feet tall, though.

Evidently this, plus a red long-sleeved shirt, is all you need to go as Gilligan, although having the right hair would probably help.

Wearing this is supposed to make you look like Batgirl, but personally, I think having a figure like Yvonne Craig will probably be a whole lot more effective. With or without the mask.

🎃 🎃 🎃

Finally, where would we be without a Pumpkin Carol? Last year I wrote about how Pumpkin Carols were all the thing after the success of It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, so it seems fitting to celebrate Halloween Eve with the classic "Pumpkin Bells."

Dashing through the streets
In our costumes bright and gay
To each house we go
Laughing all the way

Halloween is here,
Making spirits bright
What fun it is to trick-or-treat
And sing pumpkin carols tonight!

Oh, Pumpkin bells, Pumpkin bells
Ringing loud and clear
Oh what fun Great Pumpkin brings
When Halloween is here.

No tricks here, but I'll try to have more treats for you on Friday. Be careful out there tomorrow! TV  

October 28, 2019

What's on TV? Thursday, November 2, 1978

This week's issue takes us to Denver, and the Colorado State Edition (in addition to which we have three stations from Rapid City, South Dakota). Even as late as 1978, we can see how many stations still have multiple affiliations, and in doing so we get a hint of what the most popular shows are. The Waltons, for instance, which plays on KTVS, an ABC/CBS affiliate, and KREX in Grand Junction, which boasts all three networks. And I like how KREX handles the morning: the CBS Morning News, Today, and Good Morning America. Not taking any chances, are they?

October 26, 2019

This week in TV Guide: October 28, 1978

Ispend a good chunk of my free time watching television shows that, in one way or another, would not be possible without the existence of perhaps the greatest non-life-saving invention ever conjured up for home use. It's gone by various names through the years, and nowadays it even exists in a virtual realm, but in the end it all comes back to a machine that does "everything but sell popcorn": the video recorder.

As TV Guide's technology expert David Lachenbruch points out the second generation of VCRs can do amazing things: they "can be programmed for up to a week in advance to turn on and off and change channels," they can "let you watch an hour program in 30 minutes," they can replay in slow motion or over and over again, transfer slides to tape, and even play "thousands of pre-recorded movie cassettes for your home-cinema theater." Prices are down, too: RCA's new model (made by Matsushita), which can record in two speeds (up to four hours on a single tape!), will be retailing for under $1,000—a real bombshell, says Lachenbruch.

If you're my age and still have all your faculties, you probably remember the single most enduring image of the VCR: the flashing digital clock, which meant that the owner didn't know how to set the time. It was really a very simple thing to do; I used to travel to our friends' homes, one after another, and reset the clock, sometimes without them even being aware of it. (Although I never checked back to see what happened after daylight saving time started.) That's why I chuckle a bit at all this new-fangled tech: how are you going to program your VCR to record a show next Tuesday when you can't even set the time? Other people came to the same conclusion, which is how VCR Plus+ came about: a code, unique to a specific show, which could be entered into the VCR, allowing the machine to record the show automatically when it came on. Pretty slick, huh? Eventually, VCRs begat DVRs, and then TIVO came along, and now we're at a point where most of the time you don't record anything to a physical storage device at all; it simply goes into "The Cloud," and remains there for you to watch whenever you want. (Storage times vary by provider, of course.)

A large part of Lachenbruch's article is devoted to home recording, which back then was done not on your phone, but through something called a "camera," which you could then run through your television with the use of a "cord," thereby enabling you to even more easily bore your friends with home movies of your latest vacation. (The porn industry, naturally, would find a more profitable use for the video camera.)

My point in raising this is not to make fun of the period's technology, because it's truly staggering. When one considers that up until a few years ago there were local television stations that couldn't even have record a network feed in color (meaning that any show they recorded for showing at a later time would be seen in black-and-white), the idea that you could not only record a television show and watch it whenever you wanted, but make your own television show if you so desired, and in color, all with a machine that the average American could afford and could keep in their own home—well, that's nothing short of remarkable. Looking back at it from today, when we stream programs to our TVs with wireless technology, when virtually nothing (except for sports) is watched by everyone at the same time, when people can create videos with effects that would put those old television stations to shame, and then air them to the world on YouTube—and when we can watch all this on our phones—well, you would have been more likely to read about this in Popular Science than TV Guide.

Not only has all this changed the way we watch television, it's changed the way we live our lives, and it's changed the culture in which we live. And while not all of it can be traced in a linear line back to the VCR, it is with this machine that some people began to dream of what was possible. Those dreams merged with the dreams of others: the people who came up with the Internet, and laptop computers, and iPhones. Today they've all merged into something of a blur, the phone being the primary device through which everything runs, and there are people who might have predicted that as well. It is, as I said before, staggering. It's come with more than it's share of problems, and some of those problems are threatening to, as the phrase goes, tear apart the very fabric of society, but that's too dark a note to end on. Let's just take a moment to look at this article, from 1978, and not just marvel at how far we've come since then, but to appreciate what an advancement we'd already made.

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And what were people using those VCRs to record back in 1978?

Made-for-TV movies, for one thing. Here's a typical one: KISS Meets the Phantom (Saturday, 7:00 p.m. MT, NBC), in which the iconic rock group tangles with a mad inventor obsessed with destroying the group. The mad inventor? None other than the smarmy Anthony Zerbe, who's a good bet to be playing the villain any time you see his name in the credits. Is this typical? I don't know; on the other hand, this is the same network that will bring you The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island, so, yes, I'd say that at least it's not atypical.

Here's another one, and the title is very typical of TV-movies: How to Pick Up Girls (Friday, 7:00 p.m., ABC), starring Desi Arnaz, Jr., Fred McCarren, Bess Armstrong, Richard Dawson, and Abe Vigoda. As if often the case with the ABC Movie of the Week, though, the movie isn't nearly as bad as the title would suggest; Judith Crist calls it "a charming romantic comedy that glows with the appeal of two attractive young performers [McCarren and Armstrong]" and provides "a bubbling and saucy broth." Crist isn't given to hyperbole with these kinds of movies, so even if it's not your cup of tea, it proves once again that you can't judge a book (or movie) by it's cover.

Crash (Sunday, 8:00 p.m., ABC) is another genre picture, one that never goes out of style: the true-life disaster flick. It's based on the very real December 29, 1972, crash of an Eastern Airlines jet in the Florida Everglades, killing 101 out of 176 passengers and crew. It's got an all-star TV-movie cast, including William Shatner Eddie Albert, Adrienne Barbeau, George Maharis, Ed Nelson, and Gerald S. O'Loughlin. It was the worst single-airplane crash in U.S. history to that time.

Wednesday's TV-flick, Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery (8:00 p.m., NBC) isn't apparently salacious enough to get a big, brassy ad like some others; it stars Louise Fletcher as a woman having affairs with Wayne Rogers and Bert Convy because hubby Robert Reed is a paraplegic, and well, you know. I was going to make a joke about how Reed always gets the short end of something or other, but considering everything we know about him, I decided it would be in poor taste. Besides, I like Reed, an actor who seldom got roles that made the best use of his talent. This was supposed to be a projected series of movies on the Ten Commandments, but as far as we know the only other one that was ever made was Thou Shalt Not Kill. Odd that they didn't start with, for instance, Thou Shalt Not Keep The Sabbath Day Holy, but that might have been kind of a hard premise to sell.

(By the way, always go to Made for TV Mayhem for the 411 on made-for-TV movies. You'll be glad you did.)

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You might have been recording sports, if you had to be away from the tube for awhile. Recording your favorite game is always something of a crapshoot, although, as we know, it was easier to avoid hearing the score back then than it is today.

Anyway, the World Series is over, having ended on October 17—people my age also remember back when the Series ended before Halloween—and so all eyes turn to America's favorite show: Soccer Made in Germany. Well, it's at least America's favorite soccer show in 1978 (certainly the best weekly sports series from PBS other than Bud Greenspan's The Olympiad), and it's still fondly remembered by many soccer fans today. Soccer Made in Germany is an hour of highlights from West Germany's top soccer league, the Bundesliga, focusing mostly on one big match of the week, with play-by-play by the legendary Toby Charles, who remains as beloved by American viewers today as the show. (Someone once remarked that he was so good, he could actually make soccer exciting.) The show airs at different times and on different days of the week, depending on the station; this week's match, Borussia Dortmund vs. FC Kaiserslautern, can be seen on five different stations and four different days. I loved this show, watched it every week; it was a glimmer of hope while living in the World's Worst Town™. What the heck, let's take a look at it and remember the good times!

OK, if soccer isn't America's favorite sport, it must be football—that is, American football, as opposed to the sport that the rest of the world calls football but we call soccer. I don't honestly remember how important the Sunday NFL games are (quickly Googles standings . . .) but I'd say that the day's most important game featured the Broncos and Seahawks (2:00 p.m.,NBC), or perhaps the Jets and Patriots (11:00 a.m., NBC). It would not have been the Redskins and 49ers (11:00 a.m., CBS), who between them will win ten games, eight of them by the Redskins. Monday night's game between the Rams and Falcons (7:00 p.m., ABC) will be a good one; both teams will finish the season with winning records. The college football on Saturday is, as often, TBD, which isn't much fun when you're trying to piece together the day 41 years later.

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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: Exile, The Trammps, Chris Rea, comedian Charlie Hill, Carole Bayer Sager (via video),  UFO (via video).

Special: An oldies show, first seen in 1973, with Jerry Lee Lewis (host), Chubby Checker, Lloyd Price, Del Shannon, Little Anthony and the Imperials, the Shirelles, Freddie Cannon, the Penguins, the Ronettes, the Del Vikings, and Bobby Day.

I imagine some of you might have recorded these shows, since they came on late at night. It's an interesting comparison; I wonder if the Special episode seemed dated, having aired five years before. I also wonder why NBC was showing a five-year-old episode, although the nice thing about an oldies show is that it's never dated, since it was old to begin with. From a historical standpoint there's no question that Special has the edge: virtually every song on the playlist is big. "Great Balls of Fire," "The Twist," "Runaway," "Soldier Boy," "Be My Baby," "Earth Angel." I don't particularly go for this era of music, and even I recognize them all. Kirshner's show is much more topical, with The Trammps doing their big hit, "Disco Inferno," and Chris Rea performing "Fool (If You Think It's Over)." Nonetheless, I don't think you'll blame me if I give Special the nod this week.

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A few other things you might have had on your recorder:
  • At 11:00 p.m. on Saturday, KRMA in Denver has part three of Scenes from a Marriage, Ingmar Bergman's acclaimed 1974 television miniseries, starring Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson. 
  • Throughout the week, the syndicated special Superstars on Stage at the Ohio State Fair features performances by Bob Hope, Donny and Marie, Pat and Debby Boone, Sha Na Na, Charley Pride, the Osmond Brothers, Kenny Rogers, Dottie West, Jimmy Osmond, Tavares, and Eddie Rabbit. Talk about a time capsule, hmm? Dan Rowan and Cheryl Tiegs host; even though I like Dick Martin, Cheryl Tiegs is probably an upgrade, and besides, she's from Minnesota.
  • Since Tuesday is Halloween, it's appropriate that It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is on this Monday, at 7:00 p.m. on CBS. Next to A Charlie Brown Christmas, I've always thought this was the best of the Peanuts specials.
  • On Halloween itself, Louis Jourdan stars as Dracula in Great Performances on PBS. (8:30 p.m.) If you think vampires are sexy today, you need to see Jourdan.
  • CBS's Thursday night special, Cinderella at the Palace, is a variety special from Las Vegas, introducing Marlene Ricci as Cinderella. Not the Cinderella, but the talented young woman from a small town who makes good Cinderella. It's hosted by Gene Kelly, and features performances by Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, Ann-Margret; Paul Anka, Andy Williams, and Sammy Davis, Jr. Ricci doesn't become a household name, but she's good enough to be Sinatra's opening act for 2½ years. 

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Not on TV at all, but in the pages of TV Guide: an ad for the ubiquitous posters that adorn many a teen's bedroom wall. Ann-Margret, Cheryl Ladd (including a giant Ladd measuring 24" x 72"), the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, Richard Hatch, Raquel Welch, Ms. Lynda Carter, Ms. Suzanne Somers—and what's with this "Ms." business? It's not as if you need a clue as to what sex they are, is it?—and, of course, Farrah. Not the poster we all think of, the one in the red swimsuit, but this one, which I've thoughtfully reprinted in color for your edification.

As I say, those posters were definitely signs of the times.

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Finally, one thing you'll definitely not be recording, in all likelihood, is network coverage of the 1978 midterm elections, but that won't prevent all three broadcast networks from preempting their entire primetime lineup to help us watch the vote-counting. According to TV Watch, ABC, home of the multicity World News Tonight, will have Frank Reynolds in New York as be the main anchor, with Lynn Sherr, Louis Harris, and Barbara Walters, while Max Robinson reports from Chicago, and Howard K. Smith in Washington, D.C. Over at NBC, John Chancellor and David Brinkley will man the main desk, as they did in 1976, with help from Tom Brokaw and Jessica Savitch. On CBS, it's Walter Cronkite, as you might expect, with a stellar lineup of correspondents including Harry Reasoner, Roger Mudd, Dan Rather, Lesley Stahl, Eric Sevareid, and Bruce Morton.

In Minnesota, the election was known as the "Minnesota Massacre," with the Republicans roaring to an unprecedented sweep: both U.S. Senate seats (the second seat was up due to Hubert Humphrey's death), the governor's chair, and saw a 2:1 advantage in the State House evaporate completely. I mention this not out of any partisan motive, but for two reasons: first, it was my first time voting, which was tremendously exciting; and second, because this can be seen as a harbinger of things to come in 1980. If you're not sure, ask Jimmy Carter. TV  

October 25, 2019

TV Jibe: Don't forget!

Still out, although depending on when you read this, I may be on the way, or even home by now. That explains why there's no "Around the Dial" this week, which leaves that much more for next week! But in the meantime, I haven't forgotten to leave you with something. Now, don't you forget the important thing in life.


October 23, 2019

The faces of America

I continue to be incommunicado this week*, on assignment for my job. There's nothing secretive about it; it's just that otherwise I might be swamped by requests for autographs and copies of my books, and it's pretty embarrassing when that happens in front of your co-workers.

*True story: during Bill Russell's tenure as coach of the Seattle SuperSonics, the assistant general manager told one of his players, Slick Watts, that Russell was incommunicado, upon which Watts suggested putting in a call to him there.

At any rate, I didn't want to start anything too new, so I thought we'd just revisit something we've looked at before, because it offers such a contrast between then and now. It's one of those "television as a window to the world" moments, although that itself isn't a particularly accurate cliche; with a director's ability to choose what we see with live events, for example, it's more accurate to say that television is window to what someone wants us to see, a window to their worldview. Even so, there are occasions when the sample size is so big, so vast, that it's impossible not to draw conclusions from what you see.

Such a case is a new (to me) video I was watching last week, CBS's coverage of the Sunday of JFK's assassination, including the crowds passing through the Capitol Rotunda, paying their respects to the late president. I've marked off a segment of the network's coverage where the cameras remain focused on the Rotunda scene for about 20 minutes; it's one of several such segments in the video. We're so familiar with those images in general, I think (even you youngsters out there, if any of you read this site), that sometimes, because there's so much to see, we lose track of just what it is that we're actually seeing: the vast panoply of the Rotunda, with John Trumbull's paintings portraying the founding and early history of the United States; the silent crowds passing by the black-shrouded catafalque displaying the flag-draped casket of the president; the honor guard standing at rigid attention. By the time it's over, at 10:00 the next morning, police estimate that over 250,000 will have come through the Rotunda. The networks return to the scene often, between memorial concerts and updates on Oswald's murder and highlights of the day's ceremonies. Commentary is kept to a minimum, the newscasters respecting the moment, sometimes unsure of their own voices. Aside from the natural sound, the only other accompaniment is the classical music being played; a lot of Beethoven, Barber's Adagio, Bach, Wagner, possibly Handel or Mozart. It sounds right. NBC chooses to remain on the air all night, showing the faces of America caught up in the act of being Americans.

Many of the men and women are dressed more formally than they might be today: men in suits and ties, holding their hats; women in dresses and coats, some trimmed with fur or wearing necklaces, others wearing more modest cloth coats. Some of it could be due to it being Sunday; with the massive crowds waiting throughout the day and into the night, many of them probably came to the Capitol right from church. Military men pass by the cameras, saluting smartly at the casket. Other people look as if they're dressed for work; nurses in their uniforms, men wearing jackets, headed for the assembly line or the construction site. Upper class, middle class, working class, all together for the same reason. There are many blacks in the crowd, not surprising considering the demographics of the D.C. area, but also because of their feelings toward a president who supported their civil rights cause; but even so they don't make up the majority of people who appear on our screens. Parents stoop to talk with their small children, pointing at the president's casket, trying to explain what they don't understand themselves. Young people—a lot of young people, but others in the prime of middle age, and seniors as well. They pass beside the casket on each side, two or three wide, silent except for the sound of their footsteps, and then they disappear into the shadows, fleeting silhouettes; the silent Americans.

And now we come to my point, which is this: would we see something like this today? It's inconceivable that all of these people were Kennedy supporters, or had voted for him. Would that be the case today, would people come to pay homage to a president they hadn't voted for? Is it even possible to not hate the president you don't vote for? Would mourners dress the way they did, would they see their clothing as a way of lending a sense of gravitas to the moment? Would blacks and whites mix so freely, united in a singular feeling of grief and sorrow? Would people even shed tears for someone they didn't know and might not have even voted for, simply because it was the president of the United States lying their, removed not by an election but by an act of terror? Would they view an attack against the president as an attack against their country, against themselves? Would this be a moment of mourning, or would it be mere sentimentality, with flowers and stuffed animals piling up against the gates of the White House?

Certainly there were other scenes around the Capitol, and the nation, that night. And yet, no matter where one was, no matter who was directing the shots, I suspect most of these scenes would be the same. Not all, to be sure, because that kind of uniformity of feeling is impossible, even in such circumstances. There were a lot of people who didn't like JFK, who didn't like the Kennedys, period, and not all of them set aside their feelings in a moment of national tragedy. Not every scene was silent and grave; the kids playing in the park as the funeral procession passed, for instance, either didn't know or didn't care what was going on. For some of them, teens perhaps, it was a lark; for others, it was their own way of processing the moment.

Whatever it was, whatever one saw on television, it was a scene from a united nation, a nation with a common history, a shared past, a lived heritage. Whether or not this was the moment that was the beginning of the end, the event that started the slide to where we are today, we don't know; we can't read too much into it, to give it an inflated significance or importance. We do know that this was a turning point in the history of television, a demonstration of the medium's ability to united a nation in a single moment, a single thought. Thanks to television, that moment existed, and still exists today for those who watch it. I defy anyone to do so without retreating into their own thoughts, their own meditations on what it shows us, what we were then, what we are today. TV  

October 21, 2019

What's on TV? Wednesday, October 21, 1981

As you all know by now, I don't venture into the TV Guides of the 1980s very often, but this week's listings offer the perfect opportunity to point out one of the major differences between today's TV and that of the past, even when we're only talking about 40 years ago. (And trust me, 1981 doesn't seem like it was that long ago, but you know what they say about time going by faster as you get older.) Back then, however long ago it was, there was only one network late-night talk show left: Carson had long since vanquished Bishop, Griffin and Cavett, driving the latter two to syndication and PBS, respectively. CBS made a go of it for a long time with their late night reruns and movies, although WCCO never showed them; ABC likewise followed Nightline with reruns, though I don't know if what we see were comes from the network or KSTP. Somehow it all seems much quieter, doesn't it? As for the morning shows, ABC's Good Morning America has taken on NBC's Today; CBS has its morning news, although WCCO never carried that, either. And, as I point out below, they don't even have a good substitute for it.

You're probably guessed that this week's listings are from the Twin Cities. And remember, comment approval may be slow this week while I'm on secret assignment.

October 19, 2019

This week in TV Guide: October 17, 1981

The cover story for this week's issue is the World Series, which kicks off Tuesday night on ABC. It's difficult to work up much enthusiasm for the 1981 baseball season; a players' strike cancels nearly 40% of the games and splits the season into two halves, resulting in a second layer of playoffs that somehow manages to exclude the two teams that finished with the best winning percentages in the National League (Cincinnati and St. Louis). TV Guide refers to it as "baseball's longestand shortest—season" (and dumbest, I'd add) and no wonder; this year's Series, should it go the full seven, won't end until October 28. Just imagine!

In the event, the Series pits the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers for the eleventh time. The favored Yanks are win the first two games before the Dodgers come storming back to win the last four, taking the Series right there at Yankee Stadium. What I remember most about this game (back in the day when I actually watched baseball) is that, with the Dodgers holding a decisive 9-2 lead, Yankee Stadium had emptied to probably half-capacity by the final out. So much for those games where the home fans stick around until the bitter end to offer their congratulations to their guys for a good effort.

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Eleven days before the publication date of this issue, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated, putting the little-known Vice President Hosni Mubarak in charge. TV Update details the difficulties television news had in covering the story, beginning with the time of the attack. It was early morning in the United States when the ambush took place, and the first reports were sketchy—for some time, it was said that Sadat was unhurt, then that he had been shot but would recover, before the truth of the situation was finally learned. Adding to the difficulties for the networks, the Egyptian government immediately shut down all television transmissions, meaning that U.S. correspondents couldn't transmit their footage back to New York.

In these pre-cable news days, the networks stayed with their coverage for most of the day, finally being able to air pictures around 2:00 p.m. Eastern—vivid pictures that left the anchors grasping for words, and showed the viewers the full horror of the event. Up until then, the networks filled the time with speculation on what had happened (the presumption that Sadat was dead, but no official word for several hours) and interviews with Middle East experts.

We look back at history and identify black periods—1968, for example, when Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated within two months. That was bad, but so was 1981. In the span of seven months, from March 30 to October 6, the news had been dominated by three major shootings: assassination attempts against President Reagan and Pope John Paul II, and the successful attempt against Sadat. With both Reagan and John Paul surviving, there was at least reason to believe that Sadat would pull through as well, but his—and our—luck had run out. As someone who watched all three of them on television, I can attest that those days were madness indeed.

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Jeff Prugh's lead article talks about yet another bleak news story of 1981, the culmination of the search for the Atlanta child killer and the question as to whether television news paid too much attention—or too little. The cases dated back to 1979, when the first of 28 murders of young blacks, all but two of them male and all but five minors, took place. In 1981 Wayne Williams was arrested for the murders, and subsequently convicted of two of them.

*The case continues to generate controversy. Note that the facts and figures cited are from the article itself; I haven't presumed to add additional information from more recent sources.

On the one hand, much of the coverage was sensational. ABC, more aggressive than the other two networks, at first reports that Williams will be charged with as many as 18 of the murders; not long after that, Williams is released from custody. And both networks and local affiliates go overboard covering the funerals, for example; one cameraman actually jumped on top of a coffin. One observer likens the coverage to a circus, with psychics offering help, Guardian Angels patrolling the streets, well-meaning people wearing green ribbons, and even a benefit concert by Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. At the same time, there is (at least at first) a distinct lack of desire to closely scrutinize the competence of the police investigation, and Prugh notes that until 1981, much of white Atlanta wasn't even aware that anything unusual was going on at all. As one reporter notes, it's difficult to know how to cover such a story, whether to keep the public informed on all details, or to keep certain aspects of the case secret at the request of the police: "You want to be a responsible journalist and tell people what is going on. But then again, you want to do what a good citizen would do."

It's the eternal dilemma that plagues television news to this day, the combination of sensationalism and shallowness. Most people would probably think that, in this day of 24/7 news, television has become even more sensational and shallow, and I wouldn't disagree with that. Prugh points out that not all television coverage falls into this category; in-depth reporting on CBS' Sunday Morning and 60 Minutes, ABC's Nightline and PBS' MacNeil/Lehrer Report is of a high quality. But at the end of the day, there have been four additional murders committed since Williams' arrest. Nobody seems to notice, but in Atlanta there are many who suspect the story isn't really over after all. Earlier this year (2019, that is), the Netflix series Mindhunter took another look at the case; you can read about it here.

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White House wedding, 1967
Let's stick with the media for a minute. One of the stories from the cover asks what happens "When TV Goes Too Far" in covering the First Family. The writer asking the questions should know; it's Lynda Johnson Robb, daughter of former President Lyndon Johnson and wife of Chuck Robb (currently lieutenant governor of Virginia and less than a month away from being elected governor), and it's her opinion that "TV should allow the First Family some privacy."

Lynda was 19 when her father became president, and she's experienced the "prying eye" of the press. "Of course, the Constitution guarantees a free press," she writes, "but so much that children do is trivial at best and not worthy of national interest." For example, while living in the White House, the press reported on what she and her sister Luci ate, what they wore, what they slept in, how much they weighed. She remembers the story of her sister dancing, and what effect it might have on other of the nation's children: "If Luci can Watusi, then why can't I?"

Things didn't change with her White House wedding. One reporter wanted to know how many raisins were in the wedding cake; the Press Office assigned said reporter to go ahead and count them. On the honeymoon, she jokes that between the Secret Service and media, there were enough people around to field a football team. When Robb left for his tour in Vietnam, they'd been married for less than four months and she was pregnant; with the press around, there was no way to have a private farewell; "[W]ith cameras whirling, I had to set an example and 'deep-breathe' to keep from crying when Chuck departed. After all, there were many other wives and families who were also suffering."

This is not to say that all behavior by the First Family should be off-limits; after all, the First Family welcomes the attention when it's promoting a worthy cause, such as Lady Bird Johnson's campaign for national beautification, or Lynda's own "Reading is Fundamental" projects. And, as she points out in a fairly sentient statement, "I also believe that if the First Family's behavior compromises the President, their conduct should be called into question."

Why are we so interested in the First Family in the First Place? Lynda Bird makes a very interesting point, something that may be far more interesting today than it was when she wrote it in 1981. "Maybe the interest in every detail of White house life is the modern equivalent of yesterday's front-porch or clothesline neighborhood gossip. Most of us live more anonymous lives now, without the closeness of small-town life. We do not know our real neighbors, but through television and the press we feel that we know our famous 'neighbors' who live in the White House." To me, that sounds an awful lot like the kind of live so many live today. Not only do we not know our neighbors today, we don't even know our friends; they all live online. We don't know the closeness of what it means to live with people, or even around people. And so what do we do? We live our lives vicariously, not just through the lifestyles of the rich and famous, but the "real-life" reality stars whom we've made rich and famous by gossiping about them. And when there's no story to be had, no problem: the media simply finds something made-to-order, and blows it up until it's big enough to take on a life of its own. And it seems to always be open season on the First Family, at least this one, no matter who's to blame. I wonder, I just wonder, what Lynda Johnson Robb thinks of it today?

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Enough of the historical analysis—let's take a look at what's on TV this week, shall we?

Saturday: ABC's Wide World of Sports (4:00 p.m. CT) presents a replay of the Sugar Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns welterweight title fight, which had been shown in theaters and on PPV September 16. Leonard wins the showdown via 14th round TKO. That night, ABC unleashes its two biggest hits from a powerhouse Saturday primetime lineup, in a night of special episodes. It stars with a special 90-minute Love Boat trip to "the starlit Caribbean" (7:00 p.m.) followed by a special 90-minute Fantasy Island (8:30 p.m.), as "the Devil battles for Mr. Roarke's soul." Each show is loaded with B-level stars and ABC featured players, and we wouldn't have had them any other way.

Sunday: Sunday Night Football wasn't a regular feature in 1981, but this week there's a special Sunday night edition of Monday Night Football (got all that?) featuring the Los Angeles Rams and the Dallas Cowboys, from Irving. It goes up against CBS' all-star Sunday lineup: 60 Minutes, Archie Bunker's Place, One Day at a Time, Alice, The Jeffersons, and Trapper John, M.D.  Considering that ABC's experiment with Sunday night football didn't last long, I'm willing to bet CBS won the night.

Monday: Oh boy, dueling Monday night movies! On CBS it's part one of the two-part Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls "1981" (8:00 p.m.)starring Catherine Hicks, Lisa Hartman and Veronica Hamel as, respectively, Barbara Parkins, Patty Duke, and Sharon Tate. (I'll stick with the original cast, thank you.) In her review, Judith Crist calls it "just another trash-wallow—second-hand and fifth-rate." If that's a little too much for you, try More American Grafitti (8:00 p.m., NBC), with much of the original cast but little of the original charm; Crist calls it "exploitative rather than nostalgic." Me? I would have voted for Monday Night Football (8:00 p.m., ABC), with the Los Angeles Rams and Dallas Cowboys.

Tuesday: As I mentioned at the top, it's the first game of the World Series on ABC. CBS has part two of the aforementioned Valley of the Dolls 1981 (7:00 p.m.), which I presume is still wallowing in trash. NBC has a "comedy" called The Day the Women Got Even (7:00 p.m.), starring Barbara Rhoades, Georgia Engel, Jo Ann Pflug, Tina Louise, and Julie Hagerty as the women; Crist says this one is "feeble" and "wastes women and men alike." I have to admit, though, that after "trash-wallow" and "exploitative," "feeble" actually doesn't sound that bad.

Wednesday: If Game 2 of the Fall Classic isn't to your liking, the best program is probably The Hunter and the Hunted (8:00 p.m.. PBS), which profiles Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal and his search for the infamous Josef Mengele. I mentioned not long ago that I've had a renewed interest in the German side of World War II thanks to the Nazi documentaries I've been watching on Smithsonian and on Amazon Prime, but I would have been interested in this even back then, thanks to a high school friend who loaned me his copy of Ira Levin's The Boys From Brazil. After you've read that, you can't help but be interested in the real story, I promise.

Thursday: It's back to ABC, where Mork & Mindy (7:00 p.m.) are on their honeymoon, with the teaser of "next week's astonishing news: Mork's pregnant!" Meanwhile, at the same time on NBC, Bob Hope hosts a gala entertainment show to celebrate the opening of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Joining Hope and the Fords are political satirist Mark Russell, "drunk" comic Foster Brooks, Danny Thomas, Glen Campbell and Sammy Davis Jr. Oh, and the current First Family, President and Mrs. Reagan.

Friday: Tonight's best bet comes courtesy of Channel 11, the NBC affiliate. On NBC's schedule for tonight is the movie Revenge of the Stepford Wives, but Channel 11 has the good taste to preempt this for Francis Ford Coppola's acclaimed thriller The Conversation (8:00 p.m.), starring Gene Hackman as a wiretapper who learns a little too much about the people he's investigating.

The Conversation came out the same year as Coppola's The Godfather Part II, and both movies were nominated for Best Picture Oscars. It's one of the few cases in which a director had two of his movies nominated for Best Picture in the same year (Steven Soderbergh had Erin Brockovich and Traffic in 2001, but that's the only other case I can think of). Coppola himself only got one director nomination in 1974, for Godfather II, but all-in-all it wasn't a bad year's work, was it? TV  

October 18, 2019

Around the dial

Just a word that I'll be out most of next week, on assignment for my job. We'll have the usual material while I'm gone, thanks to the wonders of technology, but it does mean that I won't be "live" very often next week. I'm trusting you all to play nice while I'm gone. I'll leave a reminder while I'm gone, because I know what short attention spans people have; by Wednesday, you might have forgotten I said anything about being away.

Now, what was I talking about? That's right, the week in classic TV blogging. Well, let's start with this piece from Carol at Bob Crane: Life and Legacy, which doubles as a reminder of the terrific podcast Flipside: The True Story of Bob Crane (see the sidebar for the link), and gives us a peek at a part of his career that many people forget about: his groundbreaking success in radio.

At Comfort TV, David takes a closer look at a rare beast nowadays, but a staple of the Comfort TV-era: the two-part episode. Some of them contain more padding than Joan Crawford's shoulder pads, but occasionally you'll run across a story that simply couldn't be told in a mere hour.

I've read about the British series Gideon's Way, and I have to confess that every time I run across the title I have to stop myself from confusing it with Gideon's Trumpet, the stirring story behind the landmark Supreme Court case that mandated states must provide an attorney free of charge to any criminal defendant who can't afford one. At any rate, John from Cult TV Blog is here to set me straight this week, with a review of the Gideon's Way episode "The Firebug."

I must admit that it never even occurred to me to think there was a link between Christmas and the horror classic The Curse of the Cat People, which explains why I'm not the Christmas expert here—Joanna is, and she looks at that link this week at Christmas TV History.

Back when television wasn't quite as prestigious as it is today, it was common to see movies adapted into television series; The Farmer's Daughter, for example. Eventually, we came to the point where we had made-for-TV movie adaptations of television series, sometimes as a way to wrap up a storyline, sometimes as a reunion, sometimes just for money. There should be a "don't try this at home" warning that comes with them, though, and if Martin Grams's depiction of the new Banana Splits Movie is any indication, this one should have come before they even considered the idea.

Thanks to MeTV and DVD, I've come to have a great appreciation for The Untouchables, especially any episode featuring Bruce Gordon stealing scenes as Frank Nitti. As we celebrate the 60th anniversary(!) of its premiere, Terence has a good rundown at A Shroud of Thoughts.

Amid the ongoing TV Guide 365 project at Television Obscurities, take a moment to check out the Year in TV Guide look back at the issue of October 14, 1989, with the World Series on the cover. You remember that, don't you? The one interrupted by the earthquake? Let's hope history doesn't repeat itself, eh? TV  

October 16, 2019

Those were the days

Back when I was compiling my Perry Mason collection, long before the series came out on DVD, I couldn't get enough of these things. This ad appeared in the TV Guide we looked at on Saturday.

I didn't get mine at Fotomat (and I didn't pay that much for them, either), but I saved plenty of bucks anyway. They're all gone now, of course, but I had them when I needed them. TV  

October 14, 2019

What's on TV? Saturday, October 12, 1974

Vegas, baby! City of Lights! No, wait—that's Paris, isn't it? Well, we're not in Paris this week, so the Nevada Edition of TV Guide will have to do. (Besides, I don't want to offend Reno, or the other locations in the issue.) As I mentioned on Saturday, today is the first day of the World Series, but because we didn't know at press time what teams would be playing, it doesn't appear anywhere in the listings. Lots of "To Be Announced," though. For the record, the pre-game begins at 12:30 p.m. on NBC, with the actual game starting at 12:45. We also don't know what the college football game of the week is, but if you're in the mood for westerns, science fiction, or country music, you're in luck! And if you're not, there's still plenty to watch.

October 12, 2019

This week in TV Guide: October 12, 1974

You are Frank Sinatra, one of—if not the—biggest names in entertainment. You came out of a two-year retirement last year, you've just recently concluded a massive world tour, and on Sunday night ABC is broadcasting a concert you performed just a few nights ago at Madison Square Garden in New York. You are Frank Sinatra, and your opening act tonight is: Sonny Bono.

Well, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration. Sonny isn't actually in New York City. But The Sonny Comedy Revue (8:00 p.m. PT), his effort to prove that there is indeed life after Cher, kicks off a big night of music for ABC, one that concludes at 10:00 p.m. with Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. And between Sonny and Herb—sounds like a sandwich shop, doesn't it?—is The Main Event. Or rather, SinatraThe Main Event.

It's not just the title that plays off the Garden's storied boxing history; ads portray Sinatra posing like a victorious prize fighter, a towel around his shoulders, hands clasped triumphantly over his head. The stage looks like a boxing ring (minus the ropes), and Sinatra walks through the star-studded crowd to reach it, escorted by his entourage, all to the sounds of Howard Cosell's introduction. We get the message: Sinatra's not just The Chairman, he's the Heavyweight Champion; it's Frank's world, and we just live in it.

It's a great bit of theater, and no wonder—Roone Arledge, ABC's genius master of sports, is producing the special, using 11 cameras "including several hand-held ones" to capture the action. Sinatra sings all his favorites,* backed by Woody Herman and The Young Thundering Herd, and even though he might not be in the best voice on this night, who cares? "The Lady is a Tramp," "My Kind of Town," "I Get a Kick Out of You," "I've Got You Under My Skin," "My Way"—that's what people want to hear.

*Plus a couple of clunkers. "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown"? I mean, it's a great song for Jim Croce, but seriously? Not "New York, New York," thoughit hasn't been written yet.

Oh, and the rest of the night? Well, Sonny's guest stars are Glen Campbell, Twiggy, and The Staple Singers. Herb Alpert has a retooled Tijuana Brass, one that he says is more strongly influenced by jazz. The Muppets are around for some laughs, and Herb's vocalist (and future wife) Lani Hall puts some words to the music. All in all, that's a pretty good night of entertainment.

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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: Bad Company, Rare Earth and Renaissance are guests.

Special: Host Paul Anka welcomes James Brown, Guess Who, Brownesville Station, and the Tymes and Ohio Players soul groups.

This week's Kirshner comes to us Saturday night on KOVR in Sacramento. However, I don't think we have to think about this too much. It's an odd juxtaposition, the two shows this week, especially with Paul Anka, but he's having a career renaissance, so to speak, himself. Add James Brown, and you've got two legends on one stage—and the Guess Who aren't too bad, either. The clock strikes twelve for Kirshner this week; the glass slipper goes to The Midnight Special.

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Throughout the 60s and early 70s, TV Guide's weekly 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.

That's My Mama,
 one of ABC's new sitcoms, has gotten more than its share of attention since its debut. Part of that is because the network put it on a week ahead of its other shows, hoping it would stand out. Well, it worked, but perhaps not the way the network had hoped. It's gotten some pretty negative reviews, and Cleveland Amory says that's too bad, because it's a pretty good show.

It gives us a new comedy setting, Washington, D.C. (this is, remember, in the pre-C-SPAN days, before we knew just how funny a city Washington, D.C. could be), and producers (Allan Blye and Chris Bearde) who have chosen to handle the typical sitcom situations with "taste and even tact," rather than phony farce. And it has a terrific cast, starting with the titular Mama, Theresa Merritt, who defends her turf admirably. It's just as important, however, for her to have a worthy adversary—the success of shows like these invariably depends on the conflict between parent and child, who bicker all the way through but still love each other—and Clifton Davis, as her son, "not only gives his mother as good as he gets, which is plenty, but, miracle of miracles, she doesn't always kick the extra point. Sometimes he does." Throw in a daughter, played by Lynne Moody, who can hold her own against her mother, her brother, and her husband as well; add in a good supporting cast, and you're ahead of the game.

True, the plots often are nothing to write home about; this is a television series, after all, not a house of miracles. Still, there are enough things that stand out to make That's My Mama worth a second look—even a third.

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The World Series begins this weekend, though we don't know who's playing in it since the playoffs ended after press time. (I just looked it up: it's the Oakland A's and Los Angeles Dodgers. Actually, I knew that, but I did look it up just so I could type that last bit honestly.) It's also, if I'm not mistaken, the first all-West Coast series, so the weekend games will all have later start times, since those games are still played in the daytime. Saturday's coverage on NBC starts with a 15-minute pre-game show at 12:30 p.m., while Sunday's game starts at 1:00 pm. In any event, it's all done by the end of the week, with the A's winning their third straight series.

Melvin Durslag, TV Guide's resident sports expert, recently had a conversation with Oakland's owner, the irrepressible (and, some would say, irresponsible) Charles O. Finley. Finley has some, shall we say, interesting ideas about how to make baseball more popular. He suggests making the field more colorful, for example. "We should have the base lines and the bases in bright hues. Who the hell says that white is sacred?" Along those same lines, he'd like to get rid of the white baseball and replace it with an orange one. "Alert Orange," to be precise. He's in favor of a Designated Runner as well as the Designated Hitter. He'd like to see the umpires lose weight and have their own uniforms, instead of the suits that, he says, make them look like "undertakers." And so on.

What would Finley think of baseball today? The game is at a crossroads, with sabermetrics and the increasingly popular theory of "three true outcomes" reducing baseball to a frequently tedious, three-plus hour contest of home runs, walks, and strikeouts. The three-ball walk, which Finley talks about in this article, would certainly be up for discussion. (The automatic intentional walk, which Finley also advocated, has already come to pass.) One of Finley's passions was a pitch clock, forcing the pitcher to throw within 20 seconds; there's been serious talk about this, but it appears that it will be at least 2022 before it's implemented.

And then there's the prime-time World Series game. Finley advocated this long before the the first nighttime Series game was played in 1971, in part because, as Finley said, "Why play some of the games when the kids are in school and the workers are in the factories?" And yet games now run so late into the night (or early morning) that, as one sportswriter put it, an entire generation of school-age kids has grown up never having seen the end of a weeknight Series game. I think Charlie Finley, who for all his eccentricities was essentially a populist, would be horrified at what today's game has done to one of his prize ideas.

What would he do today? I think he might be tempted to sell the team, shake his head, and walk away.

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The first ratings results are in, reports Richard K. Doan, and already it's becoming clear which of this year's shows are hits—and which are bombs. In the latter category, ABC's The New Land, Kodiak, The Texas Wheelers, The Night Stalker, and the aforementioned Sonny Comedy Hour are sure losers, as is CBS's Sons and Daughters. Existing series in trouble include The Six Million Dollar Man, Kung Fu, The Odd Couple, and Adam-12. All is not lost, however, for veterans such as All in the Family, Sanford and Son, and M*A*S*H, which have returned to their winning ways, and newcomers Chico and the Man, Little House on the Prairie, Rhoda, That's My Mama, Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers, and The Rockford Files.

So how did it all turn out? The "experts" were wrong about The Six Million Dollar Man, which kept going successfully until 1978; they also missed the boat on Friends and Lovers, which was cancelled after 15 episodes; I think that was a case where the critics were so in thrall to that show that they didn't want to see the evidence that the rest of the country wasn't that crazy about it.

If, as it seems, Sonny can't cut it without Cher, what about the other way around? CBS has already given Cher a guarantee for a series of her own next year, and she'll have a special in February that might give us an idea of just that series might look like. That lasted two seasons, before a reconciliation with Sonny that lasted a further season. And after that? Well, Cher goes on to the movies, and Sonny to a political career that eventually takes him to Congress. Who'd have thunk it?

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On Monday, ABC News Closeup takes a look at the dangers of playing high-school football in "Danger in Sports: Paying the Price." (10:00 p.m.) It's a particularly prescient topic in 2019, with the heightened awareness we have of head injuries and their long-term effects on the brain, but even in 1974 there were concerns about tactics such as leading with the head when tackling. In 1974 there were an estimated 800,000 injuries playing football each year; today that figure is 1.2 million. The more things change. . .

The World Series resumes on Tuesday, with weekday games beginning at 5:15 on the West Coast, pretty much taking care of NBC's prime-time lineup for the week. Which is just fine, since the night's highlight is the all-time great crime drama Point Blank (8:00 p.m., KTXL), with Lee Marvin outdoing himself as novelist Richard Stark's antihero Parker (renamed Walker in the movie), and a brilliant supporting cast including Angie Dickinson, Keenan Wynn, Carroll O'Connor, and a host of recognizable character actors. It's one of Marvin's greatest roles; although it's the only time he plays the character, you can't go wrong reading any of Stark's* 24 Parker novels.

*Pen name of the celebrated crime novelist Donald E. Westlake.

Occasionally I'll catch an episode of the long-running (1943-55) OTR drama Nick Carter, Master Detective on the SiriusXM Radio Classics channel, but I wasn't aware until now that a 1972 TV-movie version of Nick existed, with Robert Conrad in the role. Wednesday's CBS Late Movie (11:30 p.m.) presents The Adventures of Nick Carter, with Shelley Winters, Broderick Crawford, and Dean Stockwell as the supporting cast.

A couple of interesting programs on Thursday; first, it's an episode of PBS's outstanding sports documentary The Way it Was, hosted by Curt Gowdy (8:00 p.m.). Each week, The Way it Was focused on a great sports event of the past, combining highlights with a panel discussion featuring some of the surviving participants. Tonight it's the 1952 world middleweight championship bout between Rocky Graziano and Sugar Ray Robinson, and it's a tremendously entertaining half-hour. Later, on ABC's Wide World Special (11:30 p.m.), Dick Cavett does a 90-minute interview with Walter Cronkite from Cronkite's home at Martha's Vineyard. Cavett quotes a critic who once said, "Viewers rarely recall and relish a Cronkite statement. They believe it instead."

On Friday, the NBA kicks off a new season as the Golden State Warriors take on the Los Angeles Lakers (8:00 p.m., (KTVU, KTXL). I know it's hard to believe that the start of the season could be this low-key, but back in the pre-cable days, that's the way it is. (To coin a phrase.) Aside from a couple of special occasions, the NBA won't even have a game of the week on network television until January.

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Finally, this week's issue of TV Guide is the first of twelve that will be coming to you over the next year or so courtesy of Alvaro Leos, who graciously loaned these issues to me to use plugging holes in our weekly feature. I'm extremely grateful to him, as well as to all the benefactors who've dipped into their collections over the years to share their knowledge of TV Guide not only with me, but with you, the readers. As always, if you have any issues that you'd like to see on the site, and if you're willing to part company with them for a short time, please drop me an email. Thanks again!

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R.I.P., Valerie Harper. TV