August 29, 2020

This week in TV Guide: August 30, 1980

In May of 1980, the city of Miami was rocked by three days of rioting, described by Dan Rather as "the Nation's worst outbreak of urban disorder in a single city" since 1967 in Detroit and Newark. The riots broke out after the death of a black man in police custody. Fires burned out of control, looters ran in and out of destroyed stores, police patrolled the streets. Does the story sound familiar yet?

Media critic Edwin Diamond takes a close look at how the networks covered the violence, and concludes: "something was missing from the story." The carefully considered "riot coverage guidelines" used by the networks are necessary, perhaps, but "not sufficient for the reporting assignment at hand"—indeed, perhaps, they "may prevent television from finding the stories beyond the immediate breaking news."

The trigger for the Miami riots was the acquittal of four Dade County police officers in the death of a black salesman, Arthur McDuffie, in a struggle after a high-speed chase. At the height of the violence, Miami mayor Maurice Ferre talked of "two Americas," and was quoted by NBC that "There's no way that those of us who live in air-conditioned comfort with two cars outside and $30,000 boats in this community can live side by side with people who live 10 to a room. . . infested with rats." This was the exception, rather than the rule, to TV's coverage of Miami. Part of the problem was that the riots coincided with the eruption of Mount St. Helens, a story that dominated the news cycle. It was, in the words of ABC World News Tonight anchor Max Robinson ("probably the most prominent black newsman on television") a "safe disaster," one that Diamond describes as "much more confortable for whites to contemplate compared with the human volcano" of Miami. But then, as Diamond points out, network television can't be "too sociological" in its coverage.

Diamond reviews what he calls the "safe, neutral, [and] responsible" provisions of the "riot coverage guidelines." For instance:

  • "Be restrained, neutral and non-committal in your comments and behavior."
  • "Do not describe a disturbance as a 'riot' unless the police or some other respnsible agency or official so designates it. Do not call a disturbance 'racial' until it is officially so described."
  • "Avoid reports about 'crowd gathering' following incidents involving police in known trouble areas and avoid pinpointing sites of growing tension and possible trouble in a city."
  • "Regard with suspician any interviewing of participants during riots. It is questionable whether such interviews serve a valid purpose and they may incite rather than inform."

You get the point. The overall reporting from all three networks was typical, with talks of how white businesses and black consumers were most hurt by the destruction, promises of Federal investigations, and so on. But do they get to the bottom of the story? Says one black journalist, "[I]n all my years in television, I don't recall ever sitting down at a meeting to discuss the different overall perception blacs and whites have of the racial climate in America," while another says, "We need special reports holding up a mirror to white America, but do people want to see that?" Diamond's conclusion is that television desperately needs to engage in coverage which involves "a lot of us—black and white—more deeply in its stories, and allow us to find our reactions to the major continuing American story of our time." And we need to do it "before the fire next time."

Has coverage really changed over these 40 years? Look at this summer, for example.  There was scarcely a whisper visible of the old riot coverage guidelines; oftentimes, reporters not only didn't regard participant comments with suspicion, they took them at face value and became advocates for it. Was reporting "restrained, neutral and non-committal"? My perception is that we're hearing much of the same rhetoric as before, but this time it comes from the media, advocating rather than reporting on the issue, lecturing instead of encouraging open discussion—prohibiting open discussion in many instances. Of course, that's only one way of looking at it, and this is hardly the place to debate the underlying issues. It's just fascinating, as always, to see how seldom things really change—either in America or in television.

t  t  t

So just how smart are these televisions of 1981, anyway? Well, for starters, they've got computers! And keypads have replaced dials! Now you can use your TV's remote to tune your cable stations! And some models even offer stereo sound! Is there no end to this technology?

Yes, this can only mean that it's time for David Lachenbruch and his annual look at the new model TVs. Most of the technological advances discussed in this issue have to do with refining color and adding inputs in the rear of the television for the discerning technophile's VCR or laserdisk. I shouldn't really make fun of this; I was around in these days, and I remember being as impressed as anyone by these advances. But what interests me most about this article is that there's no attempt at forecasting the future, envisioning television screens as large as walls, or anything like that. It would have been fun, as always, to see just how close they came to predicting the future.

In the end, though, it's true that all of these advances have been incorporated into today's televisions as a fundamental part what makes TV work, and without them we probably wouldn't have what we enjoy today.

t  t  t

Herminio Traviesas tells us what it's like to be a network censor, or as the headline puts it, "the thankless task of cleaning up everyone else's act." Traviesas is the former vice president of Broadcast Standards for NBC, which means one of the shows under his purview is Saturday Night Live, enough to give anyone a headache.

It's interesting getting a look at the SNL skits that Traviesas vetoed—for example, the one that made fun of the plight of the Iran hostages, proposed shortly after the militants seized the U.S. Embassy. Or the skit in the wake of the Jim Jones massacre in Guyana, when the show wanted to use it as imagery to represent the large number of shows NBC had just cancelled. That one might make it through today, but I think the hostage bit probably would never have a chance—it's fine to use the historical event in a movie such as Argo, but for humor? Likely not.

Traviesas also tells of a line that he vetoed from the old Laugh-In show, belonging to Henry Gibson's meek pastor, who would have said, "I don't understand members of my flock who on Saturday sow their wild oats and on Sunday pray for crop failure." That one definitely would make it today; in fact, even if Gibson's pastor was a Catholic priest, they'd probably let it go.

Lest you think Traviesas' job was limited to the series that one might expect to be pushing the envelope of good taste, he throws this one in, from The Dean Martin Show. Seems that one year Dean's producer, Greg Garrison, wanted to open every show in a bar. Traviesas explained to him why this couldn't be done: "community standards, the feminist movement, the plight of alcoholics," and so on. That probably wouldn't be an issue today; you'd likely have to glamorize it in a setting other than that of a successful variety show headed by a man known for having a fondness for drink. At any rate, Garrison wasn't having any of it, either. "Last year," he told Traviesas, his voice rising, "you took away the broads. Now you want to take away the booze. What have I got left?"

The show that gave Traviesas the most problems? None other than Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. Johnny would, on occasion, throw out a word that he knew wouldn't make it past the censor, but he used it to get a rise out of the studio audience. He was cool with it being bleeped out of the show. His guests, however, weren't as understanding, as in the case of one who used a word which, interpolating the context of the story Traviesas relates, I would guess was "ass." You hear a lot worse today on family shows, but this one got the boot. (Kind of nice, when you think about it.) Says Traviesas, tongue-in-cheek, "I just made another momentous policy decision for NBC."

t  t  t

That really bad artist's depiction on the cover (not the art, but the colors are all wrong, especially on that Los Angeles Rams uniform) can mean only one thing: time for Melvin Durslag to pick this year's NFL winners. Over the course of the next few weeks, we'll probably run across several Letters to the Editor critiquing Durslag's picks, using the most colorful imagery available to a family magazine. However, we'll just have to make due with comparing his predictions to what really happens.

For instance, Durslag has as his three AFC division winners New England, Pittsburgh and San Diego. That actually sounds as if it would be a good bet today as well, doesn't it? In fact, however, of the three only the Chargers made it to the playoffs; both the Patriots and Steelers had winning records that would probably have gotten them into the playoffs nowadays, but back then there were only three divisions and two wild cards, so New England's 10-6 and Pittsburgh's 9-7 were just not good enough. Over in the NFC, Durslag faired no better. Of his division winners—Philadelphia, Chicago and New Orleans—only the Eagles came out on top (and they'll go all the way to the Super Bowl, before falling to the Oakland Raiders, whom Durslag had finishing third in the AFC West). The Saints, who Durslag saw as a team possibly on the rise, finished with a record of 1-15, the absolute worst in football. They didn't call them the 'Aints for nothing.

Of interest is Durslag's commentary on ABC's Monday Night Football. The franchise is still going strong, with Fran Tarkenton filling in for Don Meredith in nearly half the games. But there are possible cracks in the foundation, mostly pointing back to Howard Cosell. It's true that ad rates for MNF have risen from $65,000 a minute to $230,000 a minute today.* But for the first time the ratings have slipped a little, and CBS Radio, also carrying the games, reported a record audience. Stories are that people watch the picture on ABC but turn down the sound to favor CBS. No such long-term worries, though: MNF (now seen on ESPN) and its progeny,  NBC's Sunday Night Football, continue to rule the ratings roost for their respective networks.

*The prorated figure today is nearly $1.2 million, by contrast.

t  t  t

It's Labor Day Weekend, which back in the day meant only one thing: the Jerry Lewis Telethon. If I can digress for a moment and give a personal opinion, I'm still offended by the way in which the Muscular Dystrophy Association gave Lewis the heave-ho after so many decades of service, making a heretofore unknown disease into one of America's Charities (if that isn't too crass a way of putting it; it isn't meant to be). The MDA Telethon was an institution, and by the time it left the air altogether it had been reduced to little more than an infomercial with a few music videos thrown in. The failure of MDA to disclose the reasons for the change don't say much for the organization's definition of transparency either, enough so that we've stopped giving to them. For all the criticism Jerry Lewis took over the years, there was never a shred of evidence of any financial impropriety, a rarity for any charity nowadays, and given MDA's tight-lipped response, it would cause one to wonder how reputable the agency is in handling its donations with Lewis gone. The sad part of this is that it's the kids, as always, that suffer. I know they have a completely different fundraising model they follow now, and you still see many of the same community groups out their raising funds at this time of the year (firefighters asking you to fill the boot for MDA, etc.), know they're still taking in a lot of money (although I've heard that the conversation rates on pledges is much lower than previously; whether that's an urban myth or not I don't know), but they're not getting any of ours.

Be that as it may, there's no doubt that the show's quality declined over the years, which isn't surprising given the shift in entertainment, away from variety shows and mainstream Vegas entertainers and toward artists that no longer carry the cache in mainstream America. The 1980 lineup features some big names, including Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Liza Minnelli, John and Patty Duke Astin, Johnny and June Carter Cash, Tony Bennett, Paul McCartney, and more. Now, there was an actors strike that year, so it's possible not everyone appeared, but it's still a pretty good lineup. I'm pretty sure I watched the Telethon that year; it might have been one of the last times I decided to make a go of it and watch the whole 21+ hours without sleep. I could do that back in my younger days, you know. The haul that year was $31,103,787.

t  t  t

I realize I've gotten this far, and I really haven't talked a bit about what's on television. Hmm.

Saturday: Not a program, but one of those "Vital Statistics" that TV Guide used to insert into the programming guide to fill space. According to the Screen Actor's Guild, "Although they are a full one-third of this Nation's population, people under the age of 19 make up only one-tenth of television's fictional population." I wonder if that's still true today; it sure seems as if there are more youngsters, or adults playing teens, than there used to be. At least as far as the IQ of today's shows, we can rest assured that teens are well-represented.

Sunday: Here's a program that has a reach far beyond its local roots: Three American Reporters (9:00 p.m., PBS/KAVT), which I suspect was produced by KTCA, the PBS affiliate in Minneapolis-St. Paul. It features, well, three American reporters with Minnesota roots: Harry Reasoner, co-host of 60 Minutes; Harrison Salisbury, the distinguished New York Times correspondent; and Eric Sevareid, CBS commentator. Sailsbury was born in Minneapolis; all three attended high school in the city and went to the University of Minnesota; Reasoner and Sevareid both wrote for Minneapolis newspapers; and Reasoner worked for the precursor to Minneapolis' KMSP, while Sevareid's brother Paul was a news anchor in the city. The program's host is Minneapolis Tribune editor Charles Bailey, who was co-author, with Fletcher Knebel, of the best-seller Seven Days in May. Quite a show, huh? For people who think of Ted Baxter when they hear about Minneapolis news anchors, nothing could be further from the truth; before CBS, Walter Cronkite was offered a job as anchor at WCCO, a station which also produced CBS correspondents Susan Spencer and Tom Fenton, and CNN correspondent Skip Loescher, among others. Cedric Adams was a nationally-known television and newspaper personality, Headline News veteran Don Harrison was previously at KMSP, and the Magers brothers, Ron and Paul, both went on to great success in Chicago and Los Angeles, respectively. The local news situation isn't much anymore, but back in the day Minneapolis-St. Paul produced as many network correspondents as anyone.

Also on Sunday, an episode of William F. Buckley Jr.'s Firing Line (4:00 p.m., PBS) features Buckley's tribute to liberal activist Allard Lowenstein, who'd been murdered five months earlier. I include this because it shows how much politics has changed since the '80s; Lowenstein and Buckley were about as far apart politically as could be. Buckley was the author of the nation's conservative movement, while Lowenstein was a former congressman and head of the radical Americans for Democratic Action. Yet he was also a frequent guest on Firing Line, and the two men maintained a mutual respect despite their political differences. According to Buckley, Lowenstein "spent a praiseworthy and highly unusual amount of time listening to his constituents' complaints and trying to redress their grievances and injustices one-to-one, face-to-face." That, Buckley said, was a reason why he endorsed Lowenstein's reelection effort. Buckley was one of the eulogists at Lowenstein's funeral; here's a clip from the episode of Firing Line in question.

I wonder how many on either the right or left are like Buckley and Lowenstein today?

Monday: It's Labor Day, which means regular programming is subject to change. The Telethon continues on many channels, both independent and network affiliate. The CBS stations are covering the start of the second week of the U.S. Open tennis championship, with the broadcast starting at 11:30 a.m. CT and continuing through to 5:30 p.m., although WCCO bails out at 3:00 p.m. to present The Joker's Wild, followed by The John Davidson Show (talk about an unforced error). Until I started rereading the early '80s issues, I'd completely forgotten that Davidson had taken over for Mike Douglas on the Group W stations. He had the whole format down, from the 90-minute timespot to the celebrity co-host. Davidson didn't have Mike's easy charm or appeal, though, and the show ended after two seasons. I never really liked John Davidson, by the way, either professionally or personally. But then, I'm sure he feels the same way about me.

Labor Day sports include a matinee between the Cubs and Braves, tying up both WGN and WTBS for the afternoon, and a live broadcast of the All American Futurity quarter horse race from Ruidoso Downs, New Mexico. It was billed as the richest event in horse racing, and was broadcast at 7:00 p.m. on KMSP. I always coupled the Futurity with the Telethon back in the day; I didn't consider my marathon TV watching complete unless I was able to make it through the race as well.*

*I was so disappointed the first time I saw the race; it was the first time I'd ever seen a quarter horse race, and I wasn't expecting the even shorter-than-usual event. I remember thinking, "All this for a million bucks?"

Tuesday: It occurs to me that I've neglected to give you the biggest television story of the week, the continuing actors strike, which has indefinitely postponed the start of the new television season. As such, we're stuck with reruns, bad television movies, and reruns of bad television movies. Tonight we get part 1 of the massive war epic Midway (8:00 p.m., NBC); the disease-of-the-week drama "Echoes of a Summer Night" (8:00 p.m., CBS), salvaged by a cast including Richard Harris, Lois Nettleton and Jodie Foster); and reruns of staples like Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley and The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo. And you wonder why I don't spend much time on television of the '80s?

Wednesday: A 90-minute NBC White Paper (8:30 p.m.) looks at the influence of Fidel Castro, "the spiritual godfather of every leftist revolution in Latin America." Back then, the U.S. still fought against Communist insurgents, particularly in this hemisphere. On the flip side, a coterie of stations present night two of telecasts from Billy Graham's crusade in Edmonton.

Thursday: PBS' afternoon talk-show lineup features a couple of episodes worth watching; the late, great Hugh Downs' interview with Peter Pan herself, Mary Martin, and her son, Dallas' own Larry Hagman (2:00 p.m., KTCA). Following that, Dick Cavett talks with the great opera baritone Sherrill Milnes, and there were few better than him.

Friday: The action's all on late-night this time: Bob Hope, Richard Chamberlain and David Bowie are among Johnny's guest on The Tonight Show (10:30 p.m., NBC), while CBS' late night features a classic Steed-Mrs. Peel episode of The Avengers (11:00 p.m.), followed by part 1 of the Charlton Heston-Sophia Loren epic El Cid (12:10 a.m.). And if that isn't enough for you, the classic sci-fi movie The Incredible Shrinking Man airs on WGN at (11;00 p.m.). In a week of reruns, it proves that the classics can still be the best thing on TV. TV  


  1. In the AFC, I agree with Durslag. NE was always a favorite at that time, the Steelers still seemed like a powerhouse (although they were getting old), and the Chargers were the new force in the West.

    For AFC WC's, I would have had the Oilers and Browns, and I would have had San Diego coming out of the AFC (beating the Steelers in a changing of the guard AFC Title Game).

    In the NFC, the Eagles, Bears, and Saints did seem like good picks at the time. The Bears had a good year in 1979 (until they were screwed by the officials in the WC game). The Saints seemed to be close, but in retrospect, it's not surprising that they bombed that year (that loss to Oakland on MNF took the wind out of their sails, and there were rumors of widespread drug abuse).

    Then, there are the Eagles. I probably would have picked them, but I noticed that they seemed to get more than their fair share of calls. In 1980, they needed a no-call on a clear pass interference to beat Dallas in the regular season. If that is called right, the game may have went to OT, and they could have lost. Knowing this, the Eagles may have been the NFC super team (with the Cowboys and Rams as WC's), but I would have had SD winning the Super Bowl.

  2. Through the magic of YouTube, here's Bowie's appearance on the Tonight Show:


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!