February 8, 2020

This week in TV Guide: February 10, 1973

On January 28, 1962, NBC broadcast a White Paper called "The Battle of Newburgh," Newburgh being "a tiny, declining upstate New York city." The story that emerged was of a town run by a city manager, Joseph Mitchell, who had launched a "crackdown on chislers," which among other things denied welfare benefits to unwed mothers who continued having children, provided free bus tickets to send welfare recipients back to their home states, placed all able-bodied welfare recipients on the city's work crews and required welfare recipients to register at the police station." Jack Gould, the influential New York Times columnist, called it a "scorching indictment" of Newburgh's policies. And, eleven years later, residents claim the city still suffers from the effects of its night on national television.

I don't bring this up to discuss whether or not Newburgh's policies were correct (although I can't believe anyone named Mitchell could be that bad). No, what I find interesting about this is how different things might be if it happened today.

I'm thinking specifically about a couple of instances, although there are more. In 1982, nine years after this article appeared, former U.S. Army Chief of Staff General William Westmoreland brought a $120 million libel suit against CBS over a CBS Reports documentary entitled The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception. The documentary, which aired on January 23, 1982—five days short of 20 years after the original broadcast of "The Battle of Newburgh"—claimed that "Westmoreland had contributed to the public reaction to Tet by manipulating intelligence about enemy strength in order to create the impression of progress." Westmoreland countered that there had been no political motivation behind the intelligence reports. The case went to trial in 1984, and the following year, with jury watchers predicting Westmoreland would lose, the two sides settled out of court. You can read more about Westmoreland v. CBS here.

The second case this calls to mind happened in 1992, when two producers for ABC News went undercover at Food Lion grocery stories in the Carolinas. (Full disclosure: we shopped at Food Lion the year we lived in Raleigh. Not that it comes into play here.) The report that emerged from this undercover work, which aired on the network's Prime Time Life (remember that?) alleged that "Food Lion’s meat department at those stores required employees to engage in unsafe, unhealthy or illegal practices, including selling old meat that was washed with bleach to kill odor, selling cheese that had been gnawed by rats and working off the time clock." As part of the report, the network used hidden camera footage taken by the reporters. Food Lion sued in July, 1995, arguing that ABC used "illegal newsgathering methods." including falsifying information on the producers' job applications, to obtain their information. This case also went to trial, and in December 1996 a jury ruled in favor of Food Lion, awarding the grocery chain $5.5 million in punitive damages for fraud. It all wound up in the U.S. Court of Appeals, where the fraud claim and damage award was overturned; however, they also ruled that the ABC reporters trespassed in that they didn't have permission to videotape secretly. That case you can read about here if you're so inclined.

As I said, there are other cases; the always-reliable Wikipedia mentions General Motors' successful objection to an NBC report in 1993 (NBC fired the news director and reporter and publicly apologized); Philip Morris's lawsuit against ABC in 1994 (settled out of court); and Brown & Williamson's threat to sue CBS over a planned interview with whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (CBS pulled the segment, but the movie version did earn Russell Crowe an Oscar nomination). The point I'm making here is that, in another day and time, Newburgh probably would have hauled NBC into court. I'm thinking specifically of this quote from George F. McKneally, former mayor of Newburgh, who says of writer-director Arthur Zegart (who'd become a good friend during the making of the report), "Zegart warned me the White Paper on Newburgh would not be particularly helpful for Newburgh or anyone who would be appearing in it. Zegart told me that NBC had made most of the people look like bad guys, so he decided to leave me out of the show." Now wouldn't that have looked good in a court document? Zegart, of course, denies he said that, but this probably would be best left for lawyers (and a jury?) to decide. Then, of course, there's the power of social media, alternative media, Fox News ("it's not uncommon," writes author Michael Krawetz, "to hear about 'those Communists who run ABC, NBC and CBS back in New York City.'")—well, as I've said so often, the possibilities really do write themselves, don't they? Yes, times—and news gathering—really have changed since then, haven't they?

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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. 

Friends, you're going to have to help me out a bit this week. The subject is M*A*S*H, in its first season, which Cleveland Amory, our man in action, says, "was one of those movies that was adjusted a bit much for television. So instead they made it into a television series, the idea apparently being that what will corrupt us if we see it once will not corrupt us if we see it every week. They've got a point, too. Anyone who sees this program every week is, from a corruption standpoint, around the bend." He praises good performances, especially from Alan Alda, McLean Stevenson, and Gary Burgoff. You'll notice that he does not praise the writing and plots; while the doctors toss off joke after joke while "hacking away" on anesthetized patients, "[t]he rest of us do not have the advantage of being anesthetized." He also looks askance on what we would see as the sexual harassment of the nurses by our heroes.

As for the plots—well, "[o]ne plot begins with Hawkeye acting strangely, another with Radar acting strangely, a third with Colonel Blake acting strangely. That produces, you see, a lot of suspense. Acting strangely is very hard to diagnose here." There's also a tendency to rely on chloroform as a plot mechanism, e.g. Hawkeye and Trapper John putting it in Major Burns' after-shave. It is, Cleve seems to be telling us, the only way in which we can sit through the outrageous developments that confront us in every episode.

And this is where I need your help. Obviously, I'm not unaware of M*A*S*H (Amory adds that when it comes to shows with asterisks in their titles, "[p]roceed at your own risk—or, in this case, at your own risque."), and it's not as if I've never seen an episode of it. I know that it's really an allegory for Vietnam, and that over the years the show became increasingly serious, until it becomes what we'd today think of as a dramedy. I never liked it, though, never—not the show, nor the smarmy Alda (a younger version of Robert Vaughn) nor, later on, the equally off-putting Mike Farrell, so I'm not in a position to be objective here. Was the early series really, as Amory suggests, tough to watch? Was the humor of suspect taste, and did it improve in future seasons when it became more serious and character-driven? Or was it better when it took itself less seriously, when it was content to simply be a comedy rather than to try and take itself so very seriously? I don't know, through there are strong opinions on both sides. Here's your chance to have your say on the matter.

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Let's take a really deep dive into the week's programming and see what we come up with.

Don't "strain" yourself, James Olson.
Saturday's highlight is the television premiere of director Robert Wise's literate science-fiction thriller The Andromeda Strain (NBC, 9:00 p.m. ET). Judith Crist praises the qualities of the movie that I like myself: "its propinquity to fact rather than fantasy; its consistency of theme without the usual sex-schmaltz trappings that so often reduce sci-fi to soap opera or slickery; its high-class production values; and its terrible significance in relation to the truths of germ warfare and miltaristic puropse in space exploration." It's a faithful adaptation of Michael Crichton's "chilling and complex best-seller," with Arthur Hill very good as the lead scientist, and James Olson in an extremely effective turn against type as one of the good guys.

If sci-fi's a little plebeian for your taste, you'll probably want to go to Jean Cocteau's bizarre, wildly imaginative "fairy tale for adults," 1946's Beauty and the Beast (8:00 p.m., PBS). which Crist calls "an exquisite realization of the children's fairy tale that all ages can savor on a variety of levels." And if you happen to be living in Philadelphia this week, you've got a late-night choice: The Innocents (11:30 p.m., WPHI), a very creepy adaptation of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, with Deborah Kerr. At the same time, on WCAU, Jason Robards is Al Capone to Ralph Meeker's Bugs Moran, in The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, which for the genre is a pretty good movie. It just goes to show that Saturday really is movie night, isn't it?

On Sunday, CBS gets down with the star-studded Duke Ellington . . . We Love You Madly (9:00 p.m.), a brilliant tribute to the jazz great, with a glittering lineup including Count Basie, Ray Charles, Sammy Davis Jr., Louis Bellson, Roberta Flack, Aretha Franklin, Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee, Chicago, Billy Eckstine, Paula Kelly, and Joe Williams. Later, it's the premiere of a Jack Webb series that, frankly, I don't remember. It's called Escape (10:00 p.m., NBC), and it's a four-episode anthology series about "people caught in life-and-death situations." It's on right after Columbo, and we were living in the World's Worst Town™—is it possible that KCMT didn't carry it? After all, they used to show Sanford and Son on Sunday nights to show Lawrence Welk, so anything could happen. But that's getting beyond the point, isn't it? We were talking about Escape, and tonight Ed Nelson is a World War II submarine captain being hunted by a Japanese destroyer. At 10:30 p.m., a time that the nets ceded back to the locals, WOR has the syndicated revival of This Is Your Life with Mrs. Spencer Tracy as the surprise subject. (I'll bet Katharine Hepburn isn't one of the guests.) There's another episode of TIYL on earlier in the day where the subject is Anne Baxter; I don't know about you, but I think there was something more interesting about it back in its original run, when it was live and TV Guide didn't list who the honoree would be.

Does Ed Nelson look like a talk-show host to you?
Monday's Laugh-In has a pretty good guest lineup (NBC, 8:00 p.m.), with Ernest Borgnine in a Sherlock Holmes spoof (he's Watson; don't ask me who's playing the lead), plus appearances by John Wayne, Don Rickles, Arthur Godfrey, and Slappy White. And no, Hogan's Goat (8:00 p.m., PBS) isn't a story about Sergeant Carter forgetting to set the timers for the bombs on the Adolf Hitler Bridge—instead, it's a television adaptation of William Alfred's 1965 play about Irish-American politics in late-1800s Brooklyn, starring Robert Foxworth and Faye Dunaway. And you remember Ed Nelson as captain of that sub? Well, he must have made good on that escape, because he's playing a radio talk-show host whose wife is murdered in Tenafly (NBC, 9:00 p.m.), the pilot for the private detective series starring James McEachin. I always liked McEachin's character; there was, in fact, something very likable about both him and his character, and the show was created by Columbo's Levinson and Link; too bad there were only four other episodes as part of one of NBC's Mystery Movie nights. For something completely different, go to NET Opera Thetare (PBS, 9:00 p.m.), and Thomas Pasatieri's rending opera The Trial of Mary Lincoln, based on her 1875 insanity trial. Mezzo Eliane Bonazzi stars as the widowed First Lady, with Wayne Turnage as her son Robert, the plaintiff.

Just between you and me, I've got a great idea for a movie—let's take a guy, say, William Shatner, and put him in an airplane flying at 37,000 feet, see? And something weird happens on that plane, see? Strange voices, strong winds, funny things, you know what I mean? Waddya think? (Pause) You mean it's already been done? With Shatner? No problem! We'll just change a few things in the script, have it be some supernatural thing in the cargo hold instead of a gremlin on the plane's wing, throw in anyone who's been on the last ten years (Roy Thinnes, Chuck Connors, Lyn Loring, Buddy Ebsen, Tammy Grimes, Jane Merrow, Paul Winfield, Will Hutchins, France Nuyen), and call it The Horror at 37,000 Feet (Tuesday, 9:30 p.m., CBS). What more can you ask for? Per Judith Crist, it was unavailable for preview.

Wednesday is St. Valentine's Day, which I guess explains the Jason Robards movie on Saturday, and what could be more fitting than the lineup on The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour (8:00 p.m., CBS): Joe Namath, a dozen Playboy centerfold playmates, and a cameo appearance by their boss, Hugh Hefner. No? OK, let's go back to the movies; how about Sammy Davis Jr. as "a bumbling disciple from hell" trying to lure Jack Klugman to the land of fire and brimstone in Poor Devil (NBC, 8:30 p.m.) As was the case with Horror at 37.000 Feet, this was unavailable for preview, and, speaking as a fan of Sammy, it's probably for the best. The late movie on ABC's Wide World of Mystery (11:30 p.m.) is The Screaming Skull, with David McCallum in "an eerie tale about a murderer whose victim (his wife) returns to avenge her death. Dick Cavett's wife Carrie Nye plays the wronged woman. Though there are differences in the plot, it has at least a passing resemblance to another Screaming Skull, made in 1958, known and loved from MST3K.

An American Family continues Thursday on PBS (9:00 p.m.), and, according to The Doan Report, Dick Cavett will be devoting his entire February 20 show to an interview with the now-divorced Louds and their five children, to try and figure out why a family would choose to lay bare their lives on national television. And PBS can use all the publicity it can get; Doan also reports that President Nixon has slashed the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's $70 million request in half, leaving the funding level as it has been for the past two years. Too early to tell what the effect will be on the CPB, but the worst-case scenario is that "the money crimp might force CPB to wipe out the PBS network."

Come Friday, we've got a little In Concert vs. The Midnight Special action going. In Concert (11:30 p.m., ABC) has the Hollies, Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina, and Billy Preston, while The Midnight Special (1:00 a.m., NBC) counters with Mac Davis as host, and guests Helen Reddy, the Hollies, Waylon Jennings, Billy Preston, and Billy Paul. Now, I think you can see where this is going, so let's think about it for a minute: both programs have the Hollies (performing different songs; "Amazing Grace" and "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" on Concert; "Magic Woman Touch" on Special), and both have Billy Preston ("Blackbird" and "Outa-Space" on both, plus "That's the Way God Planned It" on Concert). That leaves us with Loggins and Messina vs. Mac Davis, Waylon, Billy Paul, and Helen Reddy. Even with the numerical advantage that Special has, we'll have to go with In Concert this week. Or you could skip them both and watch Monterey Pop, which follows In Concert on WABC; that features a few stars of its own, including Jimi Hendrix. If your taste runs more to the classics, then you can't go wrong with Bogie and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (11:30 p.m., WNEW).

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In an otherwise uneventful sports week, there's one event that I think deserves to be singled out. This weekend NBC carries the final two rounds of the Bob Hope Desert Classic (Saturday and Sunday, 5:00 p.m.) from Palm Springs. It's one of the most popular tournaments of the year, with a cast of celebrities that might rival that Duke Ellington special. But that's not what's noteworthy about this tournament. No, even though the Hope isn't a major championship, neither I (watching on television) nor anyone else watching the tournament will ever forget it. The tournament is won by Arnold Palmer, shooting a 3-under-par 69 in the final round to edge Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller by two strokes. The win breaks a two-year victory drought for Palmer, who last won at the 1971 Westchester Classic, and it is the 62nd and final regular tour victory of The King's illustrious career. It is, indeed, a hell of a day.

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Things being what they are nowadays, I suppose pornography is as good a way as any to end this week's issue. What am I talking about with that provocative statement? Well, don't blame me; it's all the fault of CITY-TV, the small-budget, community-oriented UHF station operating out of Toronto. Jack Batten tells us the story of how this cable station (which is still around, and isn't so small anymore) has created a niche for itself with its avant-garde programming: there's Free for All, "a live, two-hour show on Sunday nights that invites anyone with a beef or a cause to air it in the Hyde Park soapbox style"*; The Money Game, a nightly investments show; Greed, a live Saturday night amateur talent show; and a full two and a half hours of news and public affairs every night in prime time from 8:00 to 10:30 p.m.

*Sounds a little like the inspiration for Johnny LaRue's Street Beef, doesn't it?

And then there's the late night movie show on Fridays. It's called The Baby Blue Movie, and its fair includes I Am Curious (Yellow) and All the Loving Couples—unedited and uncensored. "When we cooked up the idea of running restricted movies," says the station's managing director, Moses Znaimer, "we figured it as a loss leader something that'd attract attention to us but wouldn't necessarily make money because advertisers would hardly want to be associated with the smut." But, surprise! The Baby Blue Movie is the station's most popular program, and ad space is so hot that the stations can force sponsors to advertise on weaker programs in order to get on the movie.*

*Commercials in a pornographic movie? Commercium interruptus, I suppose.

As for how the station was able to get the movies past the censors, that's another story. "The head of Morality phones us the day before we went on the air," the station's lawyer, Jerry Grafstein, says. "He sounded very heavy, very threatening, and he told us he didn't like what he'd heard about our plans for the Baby Blue." The station cut 100 seconds from I Am Curious (Yellow) ("I thought it was tragic to interfere with a director's work that way," Granstein comments, "but our backs were against the wall.") The station heard nothing from the police department's Morality Squad. Later, they ran the movie again, with the cuts restored. Still later, there was the movie How to Succeed with Sex (directed by MST3K fave Bert I. Gordon), which Grafstein describes as "real hard-core pornography"—crickets. "We're beginning to feel safe," he says.

So viewers love it, advertisers love it, and the Morality Squad doesn't seem to care. In fact, there's only one group out there that seems upset about The Baby Blue Movie: bowling-alley operators. "They're mad because on Friday nights their customers are packing it in early to get home for the Baby Blue." TV  

12 comments:

  1. This is a matter of opinion, of course, but the film, MASH, was one of the first dark humored, sardonic films that skewered military bureaucracy, SE Asian wars and as a result, helped me grow my appreciation for wit and dark humor as a 17 year old who was headed for the draft lottery a year later. That summer, MASH would be run as a double feature at drive-ins with the movie "Patton." If your purpose was to actually go to the drive-ins and watch the movies, it was about 5 hours of some mind-bending, creative work. (Note: Not the favorite of my then girlfriend who dutifully sat through both with me...we'd already seen "Love Story" three times by that time in the Summer of '70 so fair was fair).

    Fast forward to the TV debut of "MASH" in September 1971. Having mostly different characters than the film (clearly not as strong in my opinion), it became a hit 70's 1/2 hour CBS show that routinely poked at the horrors of war but without the dark irony of the film. Basically, it was a way for CBS to capitalize on the popularity of the movie with a toned-down version that relied on silly gags and Alda's quick but pithy comebacks, usually directed at the Army.

    Two points: 1) the show was not even close to the film in terms of depth or quality and, 2) who said that CBS had an anti-war bias??? Depicting war in a more sanitized manner than the film version in order to meet TV standards cheapened the novel, the movie and made CBS millions.

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    1. Very good on the "anti-war" point. Triggers a memory of the controversy over the CBS Playhouse "The Final War of Olly Winter," with Ivan Dixon. I'll have to write about that sometime.

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  2. I have heard that CITY-TV WAS the model for SCTV...the timing is right. Can't remember the source but, like the infamous Christmas Eve miracle crane shot, it' s out there somewhere..

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  3. ...after all it started its broadcasting life on Channel 79...that's a punchline in itself...

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    1. Today, CITY broadcasts on "mapped" Channel 57. It had been on RF Channel; 57 in it's later analog years.

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  4. MASH's biggest problem in season 1 was a bad time slot, opposite the first'The FBI' and second half of 'Disney'. The second was having too many supporting characters. Both problems were addressed before season 2, when CBS moved the show to Saturdays between All in the Family and Mary Tyler Moore. Paring down the cast, and eliminating some of the doctor-nurse escapades,gave the more familiar characters room to develop.
    Many fans prefer the first 4 or 5 years,when the show was more comedic, but even the later years have their highlights, Mike Farrell notwithstanding.

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    1. Good point on the scheduling - even though I didn't watch it, I always remember it as being part of that killer Saturday night schedule that CBS had. Back when people stayed home on Saturdays to watch TV.

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  5. The later seasons of "M*A*S*H" definitely have the feeling of Alan Alda's influence, as if he was wanting to make sure the show made Very Important points, and the earnestness cost it some comedic value. There are moments when it is profound in a good way (and can be downright moving), but there are also times you want to say "look, we get it. War is awful."

    I first became aware of the show when it was on Monday nights, counter-programming "Monday Night Football," and perhaps the more dramatic "family" take was a way of getting that counter-audience. I've personally never had an issue with the series at any point at its run, although the later seasons with which I'm more familiar can get sort of soapboxy and out-of-gas, and the early episodes interest me because I wasn't old enough to have seen them first-run and the show's tone is so different.

    I keep hoping Santa will someday deliver me a Chapman crane with a shiny TK-44 atop. Because I *need* that crane shot.

    (By the way, "Garroway At Large" is still alive; it's just been a casualty of too many tasks and too few hours. New content coming soon. I hope.)

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    1. Crane shots make all the difference, don't they? Especially when you're trying to capture Polynesiantown. Thanks for the insight on M*A*S*H; looking forward to the return of Dave.

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  6. The first three seasons of MASH (the McLean Stevenson years) are the funniest of the run. Especially in the first season, there's a kind of what-the-hell transgressiveness (is that a word?) that was rare in 1972, although it's toned down quite a bit in the second and third years. (To credit Amory, the sexism of some of the season 1 to 3 episodes looks especially blatant now.)

    The next two seasons (after the arrival of Harry Morgan and Mike Farrell but before the departure of Larry Linville) are the best balanced between the serious and the comedic. The remaining seasons (after the arrival of David Ogden Stiers) vary wildly. When they were just trying to be funny, the show was often just fine. But too many of the episodes in which they make Big Statements are close to unwatchable now. (It pains me greatly to say that several of the most egregiously unwatchable episodes came during the years that the esteemed Ken Levine and David Isaacs were running the show.)

    By the last couple of seasons, MASH had begun repeating itself, although any show that runs so long is going to end up doing that. And don't get me started on the final episode, which left me fulminating at the TV on the night it aired. It's everything that was terrible about MASH blown up to epic length. I can't imagine sitting through it today, even 37 years later.

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    1. Good analysis on this - thanks! And good point about a long-running show repeating itself. Some shows don't know when to call it quits.

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!