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  


  1. To Whomever Finds This:

    In re Valley Of The Dolls "1980":
    In the first line, substitute Lisa Hartman for Jean Simmons.
    Or if you prefer, substitute Susan Hayward for Patty Duke.
    Or if you're a dweeb like me, use all four characters and be done with it.
    This has been a public service announcement.

  2. I think even today, if something like the Sadat assassination broke around 7 A.M. eastern time, the "big three" broadcast networks would still probably mount several hours of nonstop news coverage.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!