September 23, 2020

The "It's About TV" Interview: William Bartlett, author of NBC and 30 Rock: A View from Inside

This latest edition of the "It's About TV" Interview is one that I think you'll really enjoy, as we dip into the history of one of America's greatest television networks and look at a wonderful coffee table book. 

William Bartlett has been with NBC since Seinfeld was in originals and the company consisted of NBC and CNBC. Fresh out of grad school with a PhD in English, he was hired in 1995 as the press department’s editor, where he embarked on a futile effort to get publicists to use the Chicago Manual of Style. After a few months though, he had a lucky break when then-CEO Bob Wright’s speechwriter left the company and Bartlett was tapped to replace him. For the next decade (not counting a short stint as Sumner Redstone’s speechwriter), he worked closely with Wright as the company grew into the diversified media giant it is today. Today, he heads up NBCUniversal’s in-house corporate video production team, which produces videos for clients around the company. He still writes or edits the occasional speech. Most significantly for our purposes today, he serves as NBC’s in-house historian, curating exhibits in the employee commissary and the 30 Rock lobby. To share the company’s enormous legacy more widely, he recently wrote a history book, NBC and 30 Rock: A View from Inside.

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 It's About TV: How do you get what sounds like the coolest job in the world? 

William Bartlett: I went to graduate school, thinking I’d be a college English teacher, and I’ve managed to end up with a job that is probably as close as you can get to being in academia while being in the corporate world. For most of my career my focus has been on executive communications: speeches, op-eds, annual report copy, and so on. But when NBC turned 75 in 2001, we partnered with John Wiley & Sons on a coffee-table book. A book packager was hired to create the book, and I was tasked with being the corporate point person in charge of reviewing and approving all the copy and photos. That taught me a lot about the company’s history, and I ended up not just fact-checking and approving the copy but writing portions of the book myself.

Fast-forward to 2011, when we were acquired by Comcast. In the months leading up to the close of the deal, the incoming CEO, Steve Burke, asked me to put together a fact sheet that employees would get on “day one,” which would explain what the new company consisted of. I agreed that employees wouldn’t necessarily know all the new company’s holdings, but it struck me that they really didn’t know the histories of the three remarkable companies that were now joined together: NBC, Universal, and Comcast. So instead of doing what I’d been asked, I wrote a short book on the history of the three businesses, with the glue holding them together being the fact that all three were founded by visionary outsiders: David Sarnoff (NBC), Carl Laemmle (Universal), and Ralph Roberts (Comcast). I showed it to Steve and he (fortunately for me) loved the idea. The rest is history, you could say. I became the go-to guy for info about NBC’s history, and I started getting more and more history-related assignments, from curating art for the hallways, to building a website, to putting together exhibits.

How did the idea for the book come about?
I didn’t know it at the time, but the seeds for the book were planted in 2012 with the construction of a new commissary for employees in 30 Rock. When it was finished, it was a beautiful, elegant space looking out over the ice-skating rink. But nothing about it said “NBC.” As an employee, you could have just as well been in a cafeteria at a bank headquarters. Steve Burke asked me to come up with a solution to this problem. I did two things: I selected archival black-and-white photos of NBC stars for the walls, and I commandeered two wooden cabinets intended for waste disposal and turned them into cases to hold historical exhibits.

For the next several years, drawing primarily on NBC archives at the Library of Congress and the Wisconsin Historical Society, I researched and curated four exhibits a year for these two cases, changing them every six months. I explored the history of NBC and World War II, the origins of the Tonight Show, the story of David Sarnoff, Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony, the beginning of sports broadcasting – basically, anything that I thought would be interesting to employees and for which I had assets to work with: photos, documents, and physical artifacts.

After doing a few dozen of these exhibits, it struck me that almost every one of them would lend itself to a spread in a coffee-table book. The research was done. The photos and documents largely sourced. I just needed to write the text and add a few chapters to fill some gaps. I thought this would be a book that anyone who took our famous NBC Studios Tour might want to take home as a keepsake, and that in fact would appeal to anyone who was interested in NBC and the history of broadcasting.

One of the many things I most love about the book, going back to that story about the commissary, is how rich the history of NBC is, and how important it is to keep that institutional history alive for people who work there today, to remind them of how special it is to be able to say "I work for NBC." Have you gotten much feedback from employees, comments along the lines of "I didn't know that!"

Yes I have, and it’s been very gratifying. Right before I went to press, I shared page proofs with the CEO (I figured that would be prudent!). He called me the next day and said he thought it was terrific and wanted to know what I thought about printing enough copies so that every New York-based NBCUniversal employee could get one. He thought that the book would do exactly what you just said: make employees feel that they work for a very special company, one that they can be proud to be part of. I thought that was a great idea but told him the money for the extra copies would have to come out of his budget! So last November, more than 5,000 employees arrived at work to find the book on their desks.

Younger readers might think of "30 Rock" as the name of a television show, but I like to think of "30 Rock" as being to television what Yankee Stadium is to baseball. Tell me a little about how 30 Rock came to such prominence.
Financed by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Rockefeller Center was built in the early 1930s as the largest privately-financed construction project in history. As originally conceived, it did not include any broadcast studios. The anchor tenant was intended to be the Metropolitan Opera, which was in dire need of a new theater. The Great Depression scotched those plans, however, and Rockefeller needed a new tenant. Coincidentally, RCA – then a booming technology company – needed more space and agreed to come on board and design studio facilities for its broadcasting subsidiary, NBC. The building’s address was 30 Rockefeller Plaza, but it was commonly known as “Radio City.” When it opened in 1933, it included among its many studios the then-largest broadcast studio in the world, Studio 8H, now famous as the home of Saturday Night Live. Over the years, more quality radio and TV programming has originated from this building than any broadcast facility in the world.

The readership here is obviously one that understands the importance of television’s past, not only in terms of history, but for the sheer enjoyment value. We both know, though, that there are younger people out there who, once they see something in black and white, just shut it down completely. What would you say to them about why they should be interested in this, and what they’re missing?
I would encourage any young person who is a fan of late-night comedy such as SNL to check out Sid Caesar and his Show of Shows, and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, both on NBC. Two very different shows; both enormously influential. I would hope that a young audience could notice the writing of the Caesar show, and Sid’s timing. The man was a genius. And as for Laugh-In, well, Lorne Michaels was one of the writers. There’s a direct connection between that show and Saturday Night Live.
What would you consider some of the most significant moments in the network’s history?
A rare photo of Texaco Star Theater being shot
Well, given that NBC was the first national broadcaster, dating back to 1926, there are a lot of big moments. Here are a few that come to mind. On Christmas Day of 1937, Arturo Toscanini made his debut as the maestro of the NBC Symphony. Broadcast live from Studio 8H in Rockefeller Center, this was the first of nearly 500 concerts over the next 17 years, which for the first time made classical music accessible to a middle-class audience of millions. This was a seismic shift from its role as a rarified art form enjoyed primarily in concert halls by the well-to-do. A decade later, I would say the launch of two early TV programs, Howdy Doody on December 17, 1947, and Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater on June 8, 1948, both had the effect of selling lots of TV sets and paving the way for television to be a truly mass medium. Next, the debut of three programs that are still with us today and have had an enormous impact on our lives for generations now: Today (January 14, 1952), The Tonight Show (September 27, 1954), and Saturday Night Live (October 11, 1975). With the exception of Tonight, which was broadcast from Burbank from 1972 until 2014, all five of these shows have originated from 30 Rock for most of their runs. One final moment I’ll mention was more accurately three days rather than a moment: the work of NBC and the other networks covering the national trauma of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. NBC News broadcast nonstop, commercial-free, for 71 hours. There were moments when 9 out of 10 television sets in the nation were tuned in to network television. This was a tragic time during which television served the nation as a unifying force in a way that was unprecedented and certainly never to be repeated.

Did you run across anything in your research that surprised you, one of those moments when you found yourself thinking, "I had no idea!"
Sure, here is my favorite discovery from my research. I tell the short version of this story in the book. Here’s the full story. When I joined the company in 1995, I met a talented on-air promo producer named Skip Stuart. His office was adorned with many odd things, including a small, rather ugly green upright piano. The story he told me about it was that back in the radio days, it belonged to a now-nameless executive and it at one time was adorned with the signatures of celebrities. Then, after a wild party on Skip’s floor in the late seventies or eighties, a cleaning crew was brought in and one of the cleaners scrubbed all the signatures off the piano, after which the piano was put in the freight elevator bank for disposal. Skip, being Skip, salvaged it and put it in his office. When he retired in 2012, I inherited the piano. I knew nothing about it except what Skip had told me, but that was enough for me to want to hang on to it. Then, shortly after that, my department moved floors and I left the piano behind, in a storage closet. I told my contact in the facilities department to let me know if the piano became an issue. Sure enough, I eventually got a call from him, who explained that they really needed the space taken up by the piano and would it be okay if they disposed of it. As much as it pained me, since I didn’t know the full story behind the piano, I couldn’t justify keeping it and gave him the go-ahead to throw it out.
A few years after that, I was doing research on Bertha Brainard, NBC’s leading female executive in the early days of the company. I was reading a profile on Bertha in the August 1942 NBC employee newsletter, and I ran across this sentence: “A tiny upright piano in her office is decorated with the signatures of celebrities—all of whom Miss Brainard has met in her program-building and program-selling tasks in the past two decades.”
My heart skipped a beat and sunk at the same time. One, it hit me that Skip’s piano was surely Bertha’s piano. Two, I remembered giving the go-ahead for it to be thrown away! I rushed from my office on the 25th floor down to the storage closet on 10. And … yes! The piano was still there! Facilities had failed to follow through, and I couldn’t have been more thankful.
Although I had no doubt that this was indeed Bertha’s piano, I felt solid proof would be good. A check of NBC’s photo archive database revealed the existence of a folder labeled “Bertha’s Piano.” I had that folder retrieved from storage and the contents scanned and sent to me. A perfect match! Even better, on the photo, you could make out the many of the signatures on the piano! Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Jerome Kern, Mary Pickford, Babe Ruth, Ed Sullivan, and on and on.
I had a piece of NBC history, and now I knew the story behind it. I had the piano moved to my office, cleaned it off, and contacted a Saturday Night Live producer who I knew to be a history buff. My pitch: Put the piano at the entrance of Studio 8H and invite every guest host and musical guest to sign it, thus reviving the tradition Bertha began in the first years of NBC. Lorne Michaels gave his blessing to my scheme, and for the last two seasons the piano has been slowly filling up with signatures of the celebrities of our age.

Were there other stories or figures that you weren't able to get to in this printing that you're considering adding if there's a second printing?
Oh, for sure. Remember that the conceit of the book is to deal only with NBC’s activities within 30 Rock. Obviously, there are many stories to tell about NBC’s time producing shows from the studios in Burbank. But as far as activities in 30 Rock go, Tom Snyder and his late-night show Tomorrow, which debuted in 1973, certainly deserves a spot in the second edition. (The show flip-flopped between Burbank and New York but aired from 30 Rock for four or five years.) Radio program Monitor, which was yet another one of Pat Weaver’s programming innovations, deserves space as well. It launched in 1955 and at the beginning aired for 40 hours every weekend. I would also like to say more about how innovative the NBC Studios and the building that housed them were. There had never been anything like it. When the NBC tours began, the first stop was the air-conditioning unit on the tenth floor, where the guests would marvel at the 54 dials on the giant control panel as the page informed them that the “mammoth plant circulates 23,000,000 cubic feet of air every hour completely changing the air once every eight minutes” (I’m quoting the 1933 NBC Tour script).
Television has obviously changed a great deal through the decades, from rabbit ears to cable and satellite and now streaming, but it still is, after all, television. What are some of the constants that you see running through NBC’s history from then to now?
One obvious constant is advertising. NBC is still a broadcaster, even if relatively few people receive the broadcast signal through the air, the old-fashioned way. And that means it’s an ad-supported medium, even if we are now offering a ton of content through Peacock (our new streaming service) with an ad-free option. And, even if an enormous amount of viewing is time-shifted, we still do offer a schedule, whereby you know that if you tune in at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, you’re going to see the same show that aired at that same time the previous week and the following week. (Well, this isn’t entirely true but it’s more true than not, still!) The other constant is implied in the word “broad-caster.” Just as was the case in the early days of television, NBC wants to attract a broad audience, not just a niche. That’s what cable is for! Again, this is less true now than ten or twenty years ago, but it is still part of our legacy and ingrained in the thinking of our programmers. Come back to me with this question in another ten years, though!
If there’s one moment from NBC’s history that you could bring back for present-day viewers, what would it be, and why? 

I think I’d go back to the fall of 1948 when the entire country (or those homes with televisions) was captivated by a madcap comedian named Milton Berle and his show, Texaco Star Theater, broadcast on NBC Tuesday evenings at 8 p.m. There were nights when 95% of the nation’s TV sets were tuned to the man dubbed “Mr. Television.” Today, it is hard for us to imagine the nation’s collective attention being drawn to one TV program. An astonishing thought for us indeed. How fun would it be to recreate that! Apparently, Milton’s popularity was such that he disrupted the nation’s waterworks. In Detroit, officials were mystified by the sudden drop in the city’s reservoir levels just after 9 p.m. on Tuesday nights, until they figured out that the entire city waited until after Texaco Star Theater ended to use the bathroom, and they all flushed at once! I think the closest we’ve been to replicating this situation in recent years would be in the mid-1990s with the popularity of NBC’s “Must-See TV” Thursday night lineup.

NBC’s had a great run of success that’s continued to this very day; are there one or two series from the last few years, or something that’s even on right now, that you think would be at home with the very best that the network’s had to offer?
Sure, I think The Office was brilliant and certainly holds up against the best that NBC has ever put on the air. And I know I have mentioned Saturday Night Live. Granted, not every sketch works. But think about this: The show premiered in 1975 and today, 45 years later, it is still relevant, with moments of brilliance. That’s extraordinary.

You’ve got a time machine that can take you back to any program that’s ever aired on NBC. You’re there on the set. You can talk to anyone on the cast, or any member of the crew. Where do you go, what do you do, and why?  

Fred Coe in the control room
Great question. So many possible answers. But I think I’d pick Studio 8G on May 24, 1953. “Marty” is about to air, live, an episode of Goodyear Television Playhouse and perhaps the high-water mark of the (first) Golden Age of television. Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand are in their dressing rooms. But I’m more interested in talking to the producer Fred Coe, hearing him explain how he figured out how to exploit the possibilities of the TV camera in ways that had never been envisioned. Delbert Mann, the director, is on set as well, reviewing last-minute script changes with Paddy Chayefsky. The atmosphere must have been electric. Here’s a quote from Rod Steiger that I used in my book, in the chapter on the Golden Age: “You had one shot. The pressure was hideous. You had to be a masochist to do it.” I would get such a kick out of being there to see it unfold.

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Wasn't that fun? I'd like to thank William for his time, and especially his most gracious patience in putting up with an interviewer who was shoehorning him in-between starting a new job and moving to a new home. Many programming directors would have put me on hiatus long ago. I'd also like to thank our mutual friend, the mighty Jodie Peeler, for helping to arrange this interview; you're undefeated once again! Since we completed our interview, William has told me that his last day at NBC will be October 16, ending a 25-year career there. (I can't imagine what it must be like to spend 25 years at one place; I've had trouble lately making it to 25 months.) 

If you want to purchase a copy of NBC and 30 Rock: A View from Inside—and let me say here that I cannot recommend this book strongly enough (full disclosure: I was provided with a copy of the book for my review)—you can purchase it at the NBC Store website. It is one of the rare coffee table books where the text more than lives up to the pictures. Remember, the holidays aren't that far away; a copy of  NBC and 30 Rock coupled with, say, The Electronic Mirror, would be a great gift for that classic TV fan you know, even if it happens to be you.  TV  

September 21, 2020

What's on TV? Monday, September 20, 1971

Tonight's a landmark in the history of televised sports. No, it's not the inaugural season of Monday Night Football; that was last year. It's close, though: for the second season debut, Frank Gifford replaces Keith Jackson as play-by-play announcer, a move that has twin rammifications. In joining Howard Cosell and Don Meredith, Gifford helps form one of the most memorable broadcasting teams in television sports history, one that would earn the praise and ire of millions around the country. They helped turn Monday Night Football from a mere football game to an event, a colossal Roman circus that inspired such activities as barroom contests to throw bricks through televisions when the trio appeared on the screen. More sedate, but perhaps more significant, Jackson moved from the NFL to college football, in the process becoming one of the greatest big-game announces in television history. On such a historic night as this, everything else pales in comparison, right? This week's issue covers the Philadelphia-New York City area.

September 19, 2020

This week in TV Guide: September 18, 1971

In the era which we call B.C.—that is, Before Cable—movies on television were a Big Deal. A Very Big Deal, in fact. They were, and had been for years, a staple of local television, and in the late 1950s ABC had experimented with a couple of movie packages consisting of pre-1950 movies or movies from England, but when NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies debuted in 1961, it represented a masssive change. Now, for the first time, movies that had been in theaters after 1950 could be seen in the comfort of your very own living room. Some of them were even in color, and all of them were shown in a time slot of at least two hours, meaning they didn't have to be hacked to death first. I explain all this for those of your out there, primarily younger readers, who may not be able to imagine a time when people like me got excited about watching movies on TV that were interrupted at regular intervals for commercials and had often been edited for time or content (or both). What can I say? Thinks were simpler then.

This is all a lead-in to one of this week's cover stories, Al Morgan's look at the men who decide what movies we see on TV. Their names are Barry Diller, Larry White and Mike Marden. They work for the three networks, and as Morgan writes, "Far beyond the dreams of any statesman, they can unite the country: unite it in rooting home the hero in a chariot race or unite it breathing heavily in the Burton-Taylor boudoir."*

*Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. They were an item once.

It's true: some bombs
cost nets as much as $300K
They all agree that things have changed dramatically over the years. In television's early days, the networks would bid against each other for movies, with the price for a single movie jumping "from less than $200,000 to more than a million." With that kind of price war, something had to change; enter the "film package." Distributors would put together a package of as many as 40 movies; the catch was that in order to buy the really good ones, you also had to take the, let's say, less desirable ones. (Kind of like cable television packages, come to think of it.) For example, there's the one CBS bought several years ago. It included hits like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Night of the Iguana, The Sandpiper, North by Northwest, and an Elvis movie. It also included "gems" like Your Cheatin' Heart (George Hamilton as Hank Williams), Hold On! (starring Herman's Hermits), and The Alphabet Murders (Tony Randall trying to play Hercule Poirot). As Mike Marden says, "In those days, our rule of thumb was 'You got 'em, you play 'em.' Today the public won't sit still for a bad movie, a really bad movie." He adds that it's more of a buyer's market today, that the days "when the networks bought anything that moved and talked" are long since over. 

Everyone agrees that NBC has the largest film library; "We haven't bought a package in two years," Larry Wilson says, and when they do, "we look at them on an individual basis. They are offered to us. We buy or we don't buy." ABC's library isn't bad either; Diller says the inventory is big enough that the network could program until 1975 without buying anything more. Diller is especially proud of the network's recent deal for two playings of Cleopatra for more than $4 million. He's also pleased with his purchase of the John Wayne Western The Sons of Katie Elder. "Wayne is pure gold to us," he says. CBS describes it's situation as "comfortable"; Marden says, "I haven't even bought many individual pictures lately." His most recent gems: Ben-Hur and A Streetcar Named Desire.

Scheduling movies is a real chess game for these men. A well-timed movie can take the edge off of a series premiere or other special program. A two-part movie not only doubles the potential ratings bonanza (two nights instead of one!), it also justifies the expense of purchasing that movie (Cleopatra supposedly cost ABC $4 million). This very week, CBS is premiering Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? in the old Ed Sullivan timespot to try and retain Ed's loyal audience. Summer nights make the perfect time for dumping those dogs that you had to purchase in order to get the movies you really wanted. And a blockbuster can help improve ratings for local affiliates, thereby earning loyal and undying gratitude. 

Star power is a big part of making investments pay off. John Wayne is "pure gold" not only for ABC, but CBS as well, and you have to think NBC's feeling pretty good about this week's two-part running of The Alamo. But there's one thing the networks haven't gotten into yet: foreign films. Only ABC has taken a chance: having previously shown A Man and a Woman as a kind of test, Barry Diller went ahead this year and bought Z, Costa-Gavras's political thriller that was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. It's an important movie, Diller says; "I hope people will watch it, but it's a movie that should be seen." I guess if we really want foreign films, we'll just have to wait for TCM.

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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. 

The subject of Cleveland Amory's column this week is not a show. Rather, one could say that his focus is on the show within the show. It's the phenomenon known as the VIV—the Very Important Voice—and it's the latest fad in the advertising genre known as the television commercial. It's become so big, in fact, that according to Cleve there's at least one agency in Hollywood that works on nothing but voice talent for commercials. "Last year," says agency owner Charles Stern, "performers on shows earned $35,000,000. Performers on commercials earned over $65,000,000." Well, he's got me convinced; where do you line up for this kind of gig?

Nowadays everyone's doing it: J.D. Cannon for Piels, Jose Ferrer for Schlitz, Lloyd Nolan for Ford, Greg Morris for Datsun, Jack Kelly for Contac, David Wayne for American Airlines, Orson Welles for Eastern Airlines. As a matter of fact, Amory says, when Orson Welles took over Eastern from Alexander Scourby, "it was almost as much of a cause célèbre as when Robert Lansing was replaced from Twelve O'clock High or when Martin Landau and Barbara Bain were replaced in Mission: Impossible." And while big names like Jim Backus, Chuck Connors and Vincent Price are easily recognizable voices, Amory pays particular attention to the voice of a man he calls "unknown": Paul Frees.

Paul Frees is in fact a relative unknown when it comes to his face, but as a voice talent he has become one of the most famous of all time, rivaled today perhaps only by Mel Blanc and Daws Butler. You probably know him for his cartoon voices: Boris Badenov on Rocky and Bullwinkle, Inspector Fenwick on Dudley Do-Right, Burgermeister Meisterburger in Santa Claus is Comin' to Town, and a host of other roles for Jay Ward, Rankin/Bass, and others. He's also done voiceover work on movies from The Manchurian Candidate to Patton, and often worked as a sound-alike for none other than Orson Welles. Amory says that he can do anybody—James Stewart, Jack Benny—better than they can. He regularly earnes over $250,000 a year. For that kind of money, I'd be only too glad to be an unknown, too.

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There's a lesson to be taken somewhere from ABC's Wednesday night schedule. At first glance, you can see why the network would be excited about it; the star-studded lineup features returning series with Elizabeth Montgomery (Bewitched), Bill Bixby (The Courtship of Eddie's Father), Henry Fonda (The Smith Family), and new shows starring Shirley MacLaine (Shirley's World) and Anthony Quinn (The Man and The City). As I said, a lot of star wattage. There's only one problem: by the end of the 1971-72 TV season, none of them will be left on the network's schedule. What happened?

In the case of Bewitched, it's a bit misleading; the show had been a hit for ABC for eight seasons, going back to 1964, and had Montgomery wanted, it probably could have continued for another season or two.* Eddie's Father was a success as well, if not as successful as Bewitched; it ran for three seasons, which today would qualify it as an unmitigated smash. But The Smith Family, the third of the returning shows, only produced 39 episodes over a season-and-a-half, and neither Shirley's World nor Man and The City managed a second season. Hardly what one might expect from a lineup featuring multiple Emmy and Oscar winners. As for what happened, I have a theory, although that's all it is. Briefly, it could be descriped thus: there are stars, and then there are stars.

*Elizabeth Montgomery was understandably tired of the role after such a long run; in addition, she and husband (and Bewitched producer William Asher) were in the process of divorcing.

Elizabeth Montgomery and Bill Bixby were estabalished TV stars, Montgomery through Bewitched and Bixby with My Favorite Martian and Eddie's Father; they also featured in several TV movies over the years. They'd built up a rapport with viewers, who'd become comfortable with welcoming them into their living rooms each week. Fonda, MacLaine and Quinn, on the other hand, had made their fame on the big screen. Only Fonda had helmed a TV series before, The Deputy (1959-61), and in that one he'd usually played a secondary role. MacLaine and Quinn, on the other hand, were part of an inflow of movie stars into television for the 1971 season, one that included Jimmy Stewart, Glenn Ford, and Yul Brynner. TV Guide, in surveying the damage the following year, will suggest that television executives may have been so concerned about attracting big stars that they neglected to give them strong vehicles for their talents. Only Glenn Ford, in the Western-cop show Cade's County, had a series that matched up well with the star's image, and it's probably no coincidence that Cade's County was the only series of the bunch to be renewed for a second season.

In the intervening years, the crossover from movies to television and back has become more common, thanks mostly to prestige shows on cable outlets. Still, it's hard to imagine a network today trying to build a successful lineup around the star system. 

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It's the second (!) season opener for All in the Family (Saturday, 8:00 p.m. ET; and they said it would never last), with the Bunkers having to deal with the aftermath of deadbeat cousin Oscar, who comes to visit and—well, becomes just dead Oscar. That's followed at 8:30 p.m. by the debut of Funny Face, starring Sandy Duncan, who's this week's cover star. The network really believed in Sandy, really wanted this series to work, but after a few weeks Duncan undergoes surgery for a tumor behind her left eye, and the show essentially goes on hiatus for the rest of the season. It will return next year, retooled as The Sandy Duncan Show, but the show itself is never as talented as she is. At 9:00 p.m., NBC Saturday Night at the Movies has one of those blockbusters we talked about earier, part one of The Alamo, with John Wayne as producer and director, as well as playing Davy Crockett. We also get an all-star cast including Richard Widmark as Jim Bowie, Richard Boone as Sam Houston, Laurence Harvey as William Travis, and Chill Wills in an Oscar-nominated turn as Beekeeper. Part two airs Monday, same Batjac-time, same Batjac-channel.* And at 10:00 p.m. on ABC, it's the debut of the British-import series The Persuaders!, with Tony Curtis and Roger Moore wonderful as two multimillionaire playboys who become crimefighters in their spare time.

*Batjac being the name of John Wayne's production company.

As I alluded to earlier, The Ed Sullivan Show has taken its last bows, replaced by the new CBS Sunday Night Movie (7:30 p.m.), starting off with 1967's Best Picture nominee Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, Spencer Tracy's last movie, co-starring Oscar winner Katharine Hepburn and Sidney Poitier. Crist has mixed feelings about this one; the performances of the three leads "are lovely to behold," but as for the movie itself, its thesis that "interracial marriage among the rich and successful is permissible provided the couple leaves for Africa by midnight" is "nothing less than vomitous." There's also The Duke again, this time with Robert Mitchum in El Dorado (9:00 p.m., ABC), although Crist says that both the movie and its stars are "hobbling around on crutches." Maybe you're better off with the premiere of The Jimmy Stewart Show (8:30 p.m., NBC), the star's first television series; it's also the first and only time Stewart ever allowed himself to be billed as "Jimmy" rather than "James." He gets that billing for 24 episodes.

It's the season premiere of Monday Night Football this week, with Minnesota taking on Detroit (9:00 p.m., ABC). We'll have more about that in Monday's TV listing. Meanwhile, Billy DeWolfe returns as a guest star on The Doris Day Show (9:30 p.m., CBS), Charles Nelson Reilly joins the cast of Hershel Bernardi's sitcom Arnie (10:30 p.m., CBS), and Joan Rivers is the guest host on The Tonight Show (11:30 p.m., NBC). On Tuesday, it's the fifth-season opener for Ironside (7:30 p.m., NBC), with "an exciting new star," James Olson, playing a contract killer. Olson had actually been around for some time, doing a lot of television, as well as cheesy movies like Moon Zero Two, and very good movies like The Andromeda Strain and Rachel, Rachei. That's followed by the debut of Sarge (8:30 p.m, NBC), starring George Kennedy as a former policeman turned priest, who deals with a dying man (Jack Albertson) looking to even the score with a mobster. If you're looking for something a little less intense, Glen Campbell has a pretty good guest lineup (7:30 p.m., CBS), with Bob Hope, Dionne Warwicke, and the Smothers Brothers.

We've already looked at ABC's Wednesday lineup, but there's more to the evening's entertainment. For one thing, it's the second-season debut of McCloud on the NBC Mystery Movie (8:30 p.m.) Like you, I remember the Mystery Movie mostly from Sunday nights, but it actually started out on Wednesday. (And McCloud got its start as part of Four-In-One, where it rotated with San Francisco International Airport, Night Gallery and The Psychiatrist.) Meanwhile, the program description claims that singer Steve Lawrence is making his TV dramatic debut as am ambitious surgeon in Medical Center (9:00 p.m., CBS), but we all know that his real TV dramatic debut was in Rod Serling's fantasy drama Carol for Another Christmas back in 1964. All they had to do was ask me; I would have told them. And at 10:00 p.m., it's none other than the aforementioned Night Gallery on NBC.

Thursday features a couple more new series on ABC, beginning at 9:00 p.m. with James Franciscus as the blind detective Longstreet, followed at 10:00 p.m. by Arthur Hill as Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law. And on WKBS, the independent station in Philadelphia, it's a delightful episode of It Takes a Thief (9:00 p.m.), with a guest appearance by Fred Astaire as Alexander Mundy's father Alister.  I always enjoyed the episodes with him. Finally, on Friday, it's Group W's Norman Corwin Presents (10:30 p.m., KYW). Corwin, one of the great writers from the Golden Age of Radio, hosted this half-hour anthology series during the 1971-72 season; tonight's episode, which he also wrote, is "Odyssey in Progress," a musical fantasy about a boy searching through space for his dead dog.

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Let's see, what else have we got in the headlines? Richard K. Doan reports on the late-nite turmoil at CBS, where Merv Griffin wants out of his contract so he can return to syndication with Metromedia (where he'll be a daytime show in many markets). CBS will be happy to him go, but then who would replace him? There are rumors; Sonny and Cher (!) were a hit in their summer series, so they've been mentioned, as has Bill Cosby, but the suits don't think either of these choices would be the right one. As it turns out, they wound up replacing Merv with movies and reruns, and didn't dip their toes into the talk show wars until they gave Pat Sajak a shot in 1989. Just think, though, if either of those options had come to pass. I could see Cosby as a talk show host, but Sonny and Cher? Ah, for someone to write an alternative history on that.

The New York Teletype says that Burt Reynolds, who most recently appeared on the small screen in Dan August, is going to take a detour to star in the big-screen version of poet James Dickey's novel Deliverance, along with Jon Voight. I wonder how that'll turn out for Burt? In Hollywood, the talk is about ABC's upcoming telemovie The Kolchak Tapes, currently filming in Las Vegas; it's a vampire epic starring Darren McGavin and Carol Lynley. I wonder if the network has any idea what a hit they'll have on their hands? There's also a report that Sterling Silliphant is working on a pilot for his old Route 66 star George Maharis. Needless to say. . .

Pat Morrow is this week's starlet, who asked herself, following five years as Rita Jacks on Peyton Place, "What did I want to do with the rest of my life?" The answer, at least for the time being, go to law school. She's just finished her first year at Glendale College of Law; her goal is to "defend poor people—people who can't afford to pay the fees of lawyers like my father [a corporate lawyer]." Not like the law shows on television, though, because "these shows have very little reality and no resemblance to the truth about the law and how it operates—in or out of the courtroom." She's had it with acting—"Maybe for some women it would be a good life. Not for me. I'll never go back to television." Not, at least, until next year, when she reprises her role as Rita on Return to Peyton Place until 1974. She does graduate from Glendale, though. TV  

September 18, 2020

Around the dial

It was a big deal, believe me, when Mary Tyler Moore moved into our neighborhood. Minnesotans have something of a native inferiority complex, and when it was announced that The Mary Tyler Moore Show would be set in Minneapolis, it gave all of us the feeling that we belonged, that, like her, we'd finally made it. That was 50 years ago, and Once Upon a Screen celebrates the occasion with a fond look back at Mary Richards and her wacky friends.

At Garroway at Large, Jodie shares another wonderful story of Dave and his son, and the wonders and charms that happen when you "get lost." I could go for some of that right about now myself.

Wednesday I took time out to remember the great Diana Rigg. David does the same at Comfort TV, and shares how he once saw her in person performing in the West End in London. What a treat that must have been!

Kevin Dobson died this week; depending on your genre, you remember him either from Knots Landing or Kojak; he was equally talented in both. At A Shroud of Thoughts, Terence looks back at the career of this versatile actor.

Television's New Frontier: the 1960s travels to 1962 and the tales of America's favorite talking horse, Mister Ed. Included is a look at how the show abandoned the intelligent storytelling of the first season in favor of easy laughs and celebrity appearances.

Over the years, I've developed a real appreciation for Dick Powell, particularly his transformation from song-and-dance man to hardboiled noir star. At Those Were the Days, it's a fond look at Powell and his wife, the equally well-known actress June Allyson. What a pleasant way to end this week's look at the blogosphere. TV  

September 16, 2020

Diana Rigg, R.I.P.

At my age, it doesn’t take much to feel old, some days more than others. A lithe young woman in a black leather catsuit stirs the blood (especially one holding a gun), and when that young woman dies, aged 82, it serves as a reminder that the pot doesn’t require much more stirring before it’s finished.

If you’re of that age, you remember that catsuit, and Diana Rigg, the young woman who wore it, from The Avengers. You also probably remember her from the James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. If you’re of a different age, the first thing you think of might be Game of Thrones, or perhaps a stage show you’d seen her in (such as Medea, for which she won a Tony in 1994), or any one of countless movies, television shows, or productions in which she appeared over a remarkable career. The point is, you remembered.

The outpouring of memories immediately following the announcement of her death was, in fact, remarkable. It seems as if everyone had a favorite moment, mostly from either The Avengers or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (after all, who else can lay claim to having been the one and only “Mrs. James Bond”?), but by no means all. There was, for example, her appearance in the Hallmark Hall of Fame version of Witness for the Prosecution, in which she held her own in the role made famous by Marlene Dietrich. Or perhaps you remembered her wonderful turn in Paddy Chayefsky’s wicked The Hospital, a portrayal laced with both absurd humor and pathos. You might have recalled her performance in Mother Love, or the way she played Mrs. Danvers in a TV adaptation of Rebecca; speaking of which, she was a wonderful host of PBS’s Mystery! for many years, taking over from Vincent Price, and that’s no mean feat. She was an acclaimed stage actress, in the classics but also more contemporary fare; in addition to her Tony for Medea, she was nominated three other times. People who saw her perform in person didn’t forget it. She even appeared, with her daughter Rachael Sterling, on Doctor Who, and if that doesn’t seal the deal, nothing does. Her fans, her admirers, those who had enjoyed her work: all spoke of her with affection, appreciation that so many of her performances are available on video, and a little bit of sorrow.

Returning to this idea of age, of an era having passed: in that picture on top, she’s almost painfully young, isn’t she? Young, and breathtaking. No matter your age, it makes you wonder if you were ever that young, and I don’t think that I was. (I’d better start trying to make up for lost time.) Samuel West, who co-starred with her in the remake of All Creatures Great and Small, said: "Doesn't really make sense to think of her having died. She generally lived the hell out of everyone." She lived the hell out of her career, that’s for sure, and that’s something we’ll never forget. TV  

September 14, 2020

What's on TV? Wednesday, September 14, 1977

Despite the fact I was still living in the World's Worst Town™ when this issue of TV Guide came out, I have a fondness for this time. For one thing, it was the start of my senior year in high school, which meant I only had one year left before being released out into the general population; for another, it was the year in which cable TV would finally come to the area. We were exposed to Channels 2, 4, 9 and 11 (KCMT had territorial claims to NBC), and when it hit in December, I felt like a prisoner being released from solitary confinement, blinking my eyes at the sudden appearance of the sun. I mention this only because I still recall my delight at getting to see some of these shows, such as Tom & Jerry (3:30 p.m., WTCN). It wasn't that I was such a big Tom and Jerry fan; it was just so—different from what I was used to seeing. Remember, to a man in the desert, even warm water is refreshing. In case you can't tell, we're in the Twin Cities this week.

September 12, 2020

This week in TV Guide: September 10, 1977

I don't know when the last time was that we looked at a Fall Preview edition. (It certainly would have been at least a year ago, for obvious reasons.) I don't have that many of them considering all the issues I've done here, probably because they tend to be more expensive than the normal weekly issue. But this one only cost a buck, and so here we are with a week full of premieres, specials, awards shows, and all other kinds of folderol.

Let's start with a look at the new shows, many of which premiere this week. It's probably a good thing to mention them here, because in the intervening 43 years some of then have barely been mentioned since. For instance, Monday gives us Lucan, the wolf boy played by Kevin Brophy, which airs only 11 times, although to be fair it was irregularly scheduled over a 16-month period. It shares a timespot on ABC with The San Pedro Beach Bums; they only manage ten episodes, even serving as lead-in for Monday Night Football. They're joined in failure by CBS's Young Dan'l Boone; even Rick Moses can't lead that show to the promised land opposite NBC's powerhouse Little House on the Prairie, lasting a mere four episodes. Don't worry, Dan'l; things get better when you grow up to be Fess Parker. The Betty White Show features a memorable lead in a memorable parody of an existing series (a police show called "Undercover Woman") but lasts only 14 weeks. And don't forget Rafferty, with Patrick McGoohan as a no-nonsense doctor who practices on CBS for 13 weeks. That's only one night out of seven; can there be much hope for the rest of the week?

Tuesday gives us a pair of dramas, The Fitzpatricks on CBS and Mulligan's Stew on NBC, the former runs for 13 episodes, the latter for only six. Rod Taylor stars in NBC's The Oregon Trail, which airs only six of its 13; that's followed by Big Hawaii with Cliff Potts, which manages to see nine of its 13 make it to the screen. Tony Roberts and Squire Fridell team up as laywers Rosetti and Ryan, but they can't appeal their six-episode cancellation with NBC. Redd Foxx ditched Sanford and Son in favor of an ABC variety show that doesn't last more than a month; meanwhile, at the retooled Sanford Arms, only half of its eight episodes see the light of day. Logan's Run, based on the sci-fi classic, runs out of steam after 14 Friday nights on CBS. And Saturday's responsible for We've Got Each Other, which is a nice thought, but what they really need is an audience, which they don't got, departing the mortal coils of CBS after 13 weeks. Lisa Hartman's Bewitched sequel Tabitha, like Lucan an irregularly-scheduled series, makes it through 11 episodes. The CBS sitcom On Our Own sounds as if it should be an abject failure, but to its great credit it survives the entire season.

After all that, you'd probably be justified in wondering whether this season produces any success stories, but let me assure you there are indeed. While We've Got Each Other might not have been a success, a glamorous, romantic cruise ship called The Love Boat  certainly was, running nine seasons plus a few specials, and those wacky highway patrolmen Jon and Ponch at CHiPs had a very successful six seasons. Soap, which debuts on Tuesday nights opposite CBS's One Day at a Time, runs for four heralded seasons; Carter Country, named after the new president, takes advantage of small-town Georgia for two seasons; Operation Petticoat, which at least has Jamie Lee Curtis for its inaugural season, also makes it to season two. And while The Man From Atlantis followed up four successful telefilms with a mere 13-week run, it's still fondly remembered by many sci-fi fans.

And then there's one of the best-remembered of the new series, which is also one of the most spectacular failures of the year. Why anyone at NBC would think that The Richard Pryor Show was a good idea is beyond me. Don't misunderstand; Pryor was one of the hottest comics around back then (no pun intended) and I always enjoyed him, but while five or ten minutes of Pryor on the Sullivan or Carson shows was hilarious, someone had to be on a bad trip to think you could give the edgy comedian an hour-long show and not run into 1977-type censorship controversies. The show started with an emasculation joke that I thought was kind of funny, but it's kind of hard to build a show around what you can't do. Today, things would be different; I suspect a Pryor show would be a big hit, especially on one of the cable networks. I don't blame Pryor for this; did NBC know what they were getting themselves into?

Courtesy of RwTd09's YouTube channel, here's a video review of all 22 shows of the new season, which should prove I'm not making these up.

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Specials dominate the week's programming, starting with Saturday's Miss America Pageant (9:00 p.m. CT), broadcast on CBS for the first time since 1965. Phyllis George, Miss America 1971 and co-host of CBS's The NFL Today (fancy that!) joins Bert Parks in crowning Miss Ohio, Susan Perkins, as Miss America 1978. NBC, the spurned suitor of the pageant, counters with a Saturday Night at the Movies presentation of Dirty Harry, much more my style.

Sunday—well, Sunday seems to be nothing but specials, starting at 6:00 p.m. on WTCN with the final episode of Nixon: For the Record, the former president's series of interviews with David Frost. In this conversation, the two discuss the infamous 18½ gap in the White House tapes, Nixon's relationship with cabinet officers including Henry Kissinger and John Mitchell, the historic trip to China, and Nixon's last day in office. On the other hand, if you prefer fantasy to fact, then you'll want to follow this up with the dramatic conclusion of Washington: Behind Closed Doors (8:00 p.m., ABC), based on the best-seller by former Nixon henchman John Erlichman, starring Jason Robards as Richard Monchton as Richard Nixon, and co-starring every Hollywood actor looking for work, including Cliff Robertson, Stefanie Powers, Robert Vaughn, John Houseman, Barry Nelson, Andy Griffith, Harold Gould, and more. As I recall, Behind Closed Doors was ABC's first major miniseries after Roots, at a time when the miniseries was premium television, an invitation to print money. It aired, a la Roots, for six consecutive nights, but it sorely lacked the acclaim of the former.

To see the culmination of that acclaim, tune to NBC at the same time for the Emmy Awards, hosted by Robert Blake and Angie Dickinson. The Emmys were originally scheduled to air on May 15, in their traditional end-of-the-TV-season slot, but were delayed for four months due to an internecine dispute between the New York and Hollywood branches of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. The show has continued in September ever since, but to me it makes a lot more sense to be shown when it did. Anyway, Roots comes to the show with an unprecedented 37 nominations, including all the nominees in the convoluted "Outstanding Lead Actor for a Single Appearance in a Drama or Comedy Series" category, and most of the nominees in the other miniseries categories. It wins six, including "Outstanding Limited Series." Again, if you're not interested in either political soap operas or awards shows, you might check out The Duke in Cahill, U.S. Marshal on CBS. And if the Emmys aren't enough for you, the third (and final) Rock Music Awards air on Thursday (8:00 p.m., ABC), with Peter Frampton and Cher doing the hosting duties.

Of course, what would a week of specials be like without the always-popular "making-of" documentary? In the days before DVDs and their extra features, these would pop up from time to time on the networks, especially when they had to do with movies that wouldn't be on TV for awhile. Hey, gotta find some way to capitalize on them, right? On Sunday at 8:00 p.m., CBS goes in-depth with a look at The Making of "The Deep" and the challenges of underwater filming. On Friday at 7:00 p.m., it's ABC's turn, witgh The Making of "Star Wars," "as told by C3PO and R2D2." It promises "incredible secrets," and who am I to argue with that? In case you're curious, and I was (either that, or I'm just trying to fill up the page), neither of these movies, when they finally made it to TV, were shown on the networks that broadcast these specials. The Deep eventually aired on ABC (with additional footage), and Star Wars was shown on CBS, after having made the run of cable and pay-TV.

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We've got two of them on tap here, and Sports are big in this week's prime time scene as well. The NFL has yet to expand to 16 games, so their season doesn't kick off until next week; ABC fills the Monday Night Football gap with a season-opening clash between UCLA and Houston, live from the Astrodome (8:00 p.m.). It's a grim start to a grim season for UCLA; they lose this game 17-13, and wind up having to forfeit their seven victories after the season due to having used ineligible players. Tuesday and Wednesday, we have an unprecedented six hours of boxing, starting Tuesday on CBS (7:00 p.m.), with "Night of the Champions," headlined by Carlos Palomino defending his WBC Welterweight title, Danny Lopez defending his WBC Featherweight title, and the fifth professional fight for future heavyweight champion Michael Spinks. The next night at the same time, NBC counters with "A Night With the Heavyweights," featuring six of the world's top-10 heavyweights, including Ken Norton (#1), Jimmy Young (#2), Ron Lyle (#3), future champion Larry Holmes (#6), Howard Smith (#8, not to be confused with the newsman) and Lorenzo Zanon (#10). Even in the glory days of televised boxing, back in the 1950s and early 1960s, there were never back-to-back nights like this. (In case you're wondering, ABC isn't left out; Alfredo Escalera defends his WBC Junior-Lightweight crown on Wide World of Sports Saturday at 1:00 p.m. As I said, quite a week.)

A couple of other events round out the sports week; Notre Dame takes on the defending national champion Pitt Panthers in the season debut of ABC's college football (Saturday, 2:30 p.m.). The Fighting Irish win 19-9, on the way to winning the national championship themselves. The U.S. Open tennis championships finish up in New York, with the woman's final (won by Chris Evert) on Saturday (11:00 a.m., CBS), and Guillermo Vilas upsetting Jimmy Connors in the men's final (Sunday, 11:00 a.m., same network). It's not only the end of this year's tournament, it's the end of an era: after this year, the Open moves from Forest Hills to a monstrosity of a stadium in Flushing Meadow. The Minnesota Twins are along for the ride, with a trio of games against the Chicago White Sox that nobody cares about.

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I don't want you to think that everything this week is a special, but there are some returning shows with season premieres that you might think special. For instance, Happy Days (Tuesday, 7:00 p.m., ABC) expands to an hour as Fonzie heads to Hollywood, with the rest of the gang in tow; Cheryl Ladd makes her debut as the newest of Charlie's Angels (Wednesday, 8:00 p.m., ABC); Fish disappears on his retirement day at Barney Miller (Thursday, 8:00 p.m., ABC); and Wonder Woman expands to 90 minutes to celebrate its move to a contemporary timeframe and a new network (CBS, Friday, 7:00 p.m.). On The Rockford Files fourth-season opener (Friday, 8:00 p.m., NBC), James Garner's old Maverick buddy, Jack Kelly, joins in the fun when Rockford becomes the victim of identity theft. That's followed by Quincy at 9:00 p.m., and as the ad says, "The doctor is never at a loss for clues. . . or clients." And that's one of the problems I always had with Quincy: a coroner's clients are all dead. He's not a private detective!

We may not have the "NBC Week" of the old days, but the Saturday morning kids' lineup debuts on all three networks, and let's see what we've got. There are still a few old favorites around, like The Pink Panther, Superfriends, Archie, Scooby Doo and a new version of Mr. Magoo, but it's not the Saturday morning I remember growing up to.

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Finally, TV Guide's publisher, Walter H. Annenberg, has an article with a provocative title that seems particularly apropos for our times. It's called "The Cult of Vulnerability Endagers the United States," and it's about the need to recognize the dangers that America faces from abroad, but there are a couple of sentences that really seem to leap out. The "cult of vulnerability," according to Annenberg, looks to reduce defense spending and "sap our political strength to further their muddled ideas of social progress." Annenberg describes it as "a cult that has low regard for American traditions, that invariably criticizes our Government and our economic system," and that their attitudes are "broadcast by radio and television, printed by newspapers and magazines, believed by all too many citizens who are willing to let others think for them." Annenberg quotes historian Henry Steele Commager (who's written for TV Guide in the past) that "It is surprising we should be skeptical of a society that achieved a larger degree of political and social democracy, constitutional order, effective limits on the pretensions of government, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, civil liberties, popular education and material well-being than any other on the globe."

To this, Annenberg says, "We can, while honoring our traditions and taking pride in our Nation's achievements, still recognize our failings and strive to correct them in an intelligent, responsible manner. We can, if we look to the past to give us confidence in the future, eliminate the inequalities that remain in our society and pursue solutions to the other problems that face us." Annenberg doesn't deny that problems exist, but that the solution is to reform things, not replace them. And in the face of threats from foreign powers, he wonders why we don't hear more about them on the network news. "Can they be too busy blaiming blackout looting on flaws in our society, or condemning the CIA for errors long since corrected?" Annenberg concludes with an ominous caution. "The cult, the manner of thinking that finds nothing right about our society and nothing wrong about helping unfriendly countries gain real or potential power over us is strongest in the area where it can do the most harm—in broadcast and print journalism." I won't trot out that old line about how the more things change, but as the pages of TV Guide frequently remind us time and again, we seem to face the same problems over and over, without ever learning. Rita Mae Brown called that the definition of insanity. Perhaps it's just business as usual. TV  

September 11, 2020

Around the dial

This week's Hitchcock Project at bare•bones e-zine is the kind I really like, not that I don't like them all, but Jack prefaces his episode description by putting it into historical context—what was happening in the country at the time the episode was originally broadcast. It informs how the viewer of the time would have watched it, and by pointing this out, Jack helps us to appreciate the episode even more. That episode, by the way, is Harold Swanton's "Bang, You're Dead," from October 1961, directed by Hitch himself.

At Classic Film & TV Cafe, Rick takes us on another of his "Seven Things to Know About" features; this week's honoree is the popular Karen Valentine, who was a very busy actress through the 1980s, but will always remain best-known and loved for her role in Room 222.

The comic strip "Blondie" is turning 90, and Once Upon a Screen celebrates the anniversary by looking at the history of the strip, the long-running movie series, the less well-known radio series, and the two unsuccessful attempts to bring the Bumsteads to television.

Jodie's reached a milestone at Garroway at Large: she's concluded her search for clippings about the Master Communicator. The number tops out at over 3,000 (and that's just through Dave's death) and now it comes time to put those clippings to work in telling the story of Dave's life.

At A Shroud of Thoughts, Terence pays tribute to the great Diana Rigg, who died yesterday at 82. I'll have my own thoughts on that next Wednesday.

Howard Duff is terrific in the Twilight Zone episode "A World of Difference," and at Shadow & Substance, Paul looks at the two interpretations of this story of a man's dual identity, and how it fits into the Serling portfolio.

Finally, today is September 11, and 19 years ago it was one of the worst days in American history, one of those occasions when anyone who was alive remembers where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. Most of us were gathered around the television watching the unbelievable unfold, and the sight of those two towers coming down is something that can't be forgotten. The thought that people in their early twenties don't have any memory of it is sobering. It also makes me feel old—but then, what doesn't? Anyway, take a moment when you have time today to reflect on September 11, 2001, and how it changed the world. Even after 19 years, it remains a day of profound sadness. TV  

September 9, 2020

The life and death of the greatest radio program

Why, you may ask, am I reviewing a book about classic radio on a blog devoted to classic television? Aside from the obvious connection between the two media, it's absolutely necessary for one to understand the role that television played in the creation of Monitor, the NBC radio program that ran for nearly 20 years from 1955 to 1975.

By the mid-50s, it was clear that television had forever changed the way network radio functioned. Most of radio's brightest stars and programs had already transitioned from radio to television (or were in the process of doing so), and the advertising dollars were following. It was pretty clear to most people that if something wasn't done, and soon, network radio could well cease to exist. This is where Pat Weaver comes in, and where Dennis Hart's engrossing story begins.

Monitor: The Inside Story of Network Radio's Greatest Program, by Dennis Hart, iUniverse, Inc., 270 pages, $21.95

Weaver, of course, was the L'enfant terrible of early television; as president of NBC, he'd created everything from the Today and Tonight shows to the concept of the TV special, or "spectacular." His idea to save network radio was equally audacious: a continuous, 40-hour program running from Saturday morning to Sunday midnight, featuring some of the biggest names in entertainment presenting literally everything: news, sports, comedy, live concerts, interviews with celebrities, recorded music, and remote reports from around the world—in other words, a show that would become known for "going places and doing things." Weaver described his baby as a "kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria," but settled on a much simpler name: Monitor.

As Hart points out, this was an incredibly risky move: by putting all its eggs in one basket, large though that basket might be, NBC was literally staking its future on Monitor. If the show failed to attract advertisers and listeners, the network would likely go under. The fact that it didn't, that Monitor became an epic adventure that would run from the last of the big bands through Vietnam and Watergate and acid rock, was a testimony not only to Weaver's vision but to the talents of the producers and directors, writers, technicians, and personalities that helped assemble the mammoth show each week. And it is this story that Hart brings so wonderfully to life.

Dave Garroway, the first "communicator"
The list of people who appeared on Monitor over the years reads like something of a who's who of the entertainment world. The list of hosts alone (or "communicators," as they were initially called) would have been enough: the very first voice of Monitor, Dave Garroway; newsmen such as Frank McGee, David Brinkley and Frank Blair; television personalities from Ed McMahon and Hugh Downs to Gene Rayburn and Art Fleming; DJs such as Big Wilson, Wolfman Jack and Don Imus; and actors whom one wouldn't picture as radio hosts: David Wayne, Barry Nelson, James Daly and Tony Randall, all of whom helped create a conversational intimacy with the listener that made everyone feel as if they were part of an extended family.

There were comedy stars as well: Bob and Ray (who initially were to be on call throughout the weekend, ready to fill in on a moment's notice should a technical glitch prevent a particular report from being broadcast), Nichols and May, Jonathan Winters, Ernie Kovacs and more. Feature presentations and reviews throughout the weekend were provided by names like Arlene Francis, Betty Furness, Gene Shalit and Dr. Joyce Brothers. And no overview of Monitor would be complete without the immortal "Miss Monitor," played by Tedi Thurman, the sexy, alluring voice who read the national weather while romantic music played in the background.

The program itself was a true magazine, covering it all: breaking news, in-progress sports reports, live big band and jazz concerts, interviews with celebrities and newsmakers, features on all aspects of life and the latest in popular culture. It's a rich, colorful history, and Dennis Hart takes full advantage of it. He was fortunate enough to connect with and interview many of Monitor's key people while they were still living, collecting insightful (and often hilarious) stories from those both in front of the mic and behind the control room glass, assembling them in a way that gives the reader a real picture (so to speak) of what made Monitor such a special show. He also does a good job of placing Monitor's role in radio's rich history, particularly the bold advertising timeshares with affiliates that allowed the show to thrive well into the '60s.

In fact, though, some of the most interesting segments of Hart's story come from the anecdotes provided by those who listened to the shows, both adults and those who grew up with Monitor as a regular weekend ritual. Nobody expected to listen to the entire show, and that was the point: it was always there, ready whenever you happened to tune in to it. Monitor took full advantage of growing American mobility to position itself as the listener's friend, whether you were at the beach, driving in the car, working in the garage or basement, or just spending time with friends. There's one scene in particular, in which a listener describes the effect of walking down the street, hearing Monitor coming continuously from every house along the block, that illustrates just how much we've lost in our headlong rush to embrace the world of individuality and fragmented demographics.

Nothing lasts forever, though, and such was the case with Monitor, which eventually fell victim to a number of circumstances, most of all the desire of big-market affiliates to control their own commercial and broadcasting time. When Monitor went off the air, in 1975, there were still over 120 stations, but hardly any were in the major markets. And if there's any criticism of Hart's book, it's in his description of Monitor's downfall; chapter after chapter discusses the program's success in terms of stars, segments, features and the like, so the story of its demise (a gradual reduction in hours from 40 to a mere 12, plus 9 hours of repeats; loss of stations, advertising schemes with affiliates that cannibalized the show's flow and hastened its death) comes as something of a shock, with little foreshadowing provided to give it context. It also serves to somewhat diminish the show's remarkably long run; without the twists, turns and surprises that surrounded the show's existence, one feels less the weight of the show's passing years, and its ability (or inability, as in the case of popular music) to change with the times.

That's a minor quibble, to be sure, in this fascinating book. I have to admit that I have no memories of Monitor myself, although I must have just missed being aware of it, for I still have a great fondness for the all-news format that replaced it (NBC's News and Information Service, whose slogan was, "All News, All Day, Every Day"). Or perhaps Monitor had already disappeared from the airwaves where I lived back then. All the more reason, then, for this book (and the companion website, to which new soundchecks are constantly being added), to introduce those of us without memories to the remarkable show that was Monitor. For those fans of old time radio programs, the claim that Monitor was network radio's "greatest program" might seem a bit spurious, or at least somewhat grandiose.

But a 40-hour program that was born of desperation, a program that helped save an entire network for twenty years, a program that went around the world and broadcast anything and everything that was worth broadcasting, all without losing a sense of fun and wonder: well, that makes it pretty great in my book. TV