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  


  1. Nothing like seeing a guide from the late '70's to remind us of how we miss review's of Guides from the '60's.

    Two impressive things:

    1. Even though Alexandria, MN was the worst town in the world (TM), somehow you got PBS programming.

    2. In the midst of SCTV-satire worthy Made for TV Movies, "Scenes from A Marriage" was shown. In the 1990's I borrowed the title when I made an instructional video for the health dept I worked for entitled, "Scenes From A Restaurant Inspection" starring some of our health inspectors, one posing as a substandard restaurant owner.

    Sorry, should have been a third item...THE poster...

  2. While I didn't watch "KISS Meets the Phantom" myself, it apparently ended up being highly influential just a few days later on Halloween. My neighbor friend (I went out trick-or-treating with him & his brother.) went as Gene Simmons (I don't think he'd ever heard of KISS before that movie.), and I went trick-or-treating for the last time that year, since I was a 13-year-old 8th grader. At my school at least 2 boys (in lower grades) also decided to dress as Gene Simmons, and I imagine 1000s of other boys all over the US did as well.

  3. Five years later, SCTV did indeed present "Scenes From An Idiot's Marriage", featuring Martin Short's oft-used Jerry Lewis impression. Even worked in Lewis' "Typewriter" bit!

  4. "Scenes from an Idiot's Marriage" was one of Martin Short's greatest SCTV bits...Bergman meets Lewis...Sven Gundenblum....

  5. ABC had a bunch of regional games that Saturday, with Minnesota most likely seeing Purdue at Iowa.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!