March 6, 2021

This week in TV Guide: March 8, 1980

nd you thought that your TV set was only good for watching TV shows. Silly you! This week Tom Zito takes a look, 1980s-style, at how a television can work with a home computer to do a whole variety of things: play video games, do your income tax, or learn a foreign language. It's all thanks to "preprogrammed personal computers" that invaded our stores last Christmas, and it has the potential to turn your TV screen into "the standard display unit for a thinking, speaking, remembering, interactive electronic brain that makes the computer Hal in the film 2001 seem not so far-fetched after all."

The new age of personal computing, and the simplicity with which they work (just pop in the right cartridge!) could make them, Zito thinks, "as popular as food processors and pocket calculators." Last year, Radio Shack sold 100,000 home computers that required programming, and California's Apple Computer sold $100 million worth of programmable units. The game changer, though, came when Mattel, Atari and Texas Instruments introduced computers that had already been preprogrammed, which "eliminated the onerous task of keyboarding a program into the system"

To demonstrate the possibilities, Zito describes the baseball fan settling down for a game, even in the middle of December. "Hook the $280 Mattel Intellivision unit up to the TV antenna, slip in the $30 baseball cartridge and the home team runs out of the dugout. The pitcher warms up and the players toss the ball around the inflied. The solid smack of ash meeting cowhide sounds as the first batter connects with the ball and hustles down to first, where an electronic ump rules on the play--shouting 'You're out!' if appropriate" (An Xbox or PlayStation, with less sophisticated graphics!)

"We purposely avoided calling our system a computer," explains Mattel's Jeff Rochlis. "That's been a word with negative connotations. This is a device that will entertain the kids and be a learning aid." In other words, a computer. While some of the systems interface with the television screen ("We laready see some conflict with TV viewing in our consumer testing," Rochlis says), TI and Radio Shack use separat monitors; the resolution is better, but you can't watch TV through them. Telephone-interface devices are available (for between $200 and $390) to allow users to connect with other computers and databases, and disc drives, which increase memory, are available for between $500 and $700. 

The sky's the limit, according to Apple's Phil Roybal. "What we can do now is staggering to most people. And yet the home computer is in its infancy." Creativity, he says, is what will make people buy computers. "They'll be astounded at what they can do right at home on their TV screen, and that may give broadcast television a good run for the money."

This is, in a way, a seminal cultural moment. We’re beginning to see the displacement of television as the primary mode of household entertainment—more specifically, we’re seeing live television programming become less important. It will continue to mount: people use their televisions to play video games, to watch recorded programs, to watch cable programs, to cut the cord and watch programs on-demand. Eventually, we'll see computers—including our phones—come to equal, if not surpass, television as a visual source of entertainment: we play the games, we watch the shows, we do our shopping.

I'm not sure what Phil Roybal might have been anticipating, but "astounded" is a pretty good word for what's come to pass, at least in the eyes of someone who's lived through the whole era. 

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This week we're looking at the New Hampshire Edition of TV Guide, and having lived in Maine for a few years in the early 1990s, I've got more than a passing acquaintance with several of the stations in this issue. Take WENH, the PBS affiliate in Durham, New Hampshire, for example. Despite its location, its signal was beamed into parts of Vermont, Massachusetts and Maine, including Portland, where we lived. I always found WENH to have one of the more interesting and creative schedules among PBS stations; since it was seen in so many different areas with PBS affiliates of their own, they carried a lot of programs that didn't always appear on the national schedule, or were broadcast on other dates and times. 

Here's one example: on Wednesday night at 8:00 p.m., following the latest Jacques Cousteau documentary (a constant over the years in these issues, don't you think?), WENH has TV: The Fabulous 50s, a 90-minute retrospective on "television's golden age" with sketches from Milton Berle, Ernie Kovacs, Jackie Gleason and Art Carney, and clips from shows like The Untouchables, Gunsmoke, I Love Lucy, Frank Sinatra and Paul Newman in a musical version of Our Town on Producers' Showcase An all-star list of hosts—Lucille Ball, Red Skelton, Mary Martin, Dinah Shore, Michael Landon and David Janssen—share their memories from those days.

What you have to remember about these pre-VCR/DVD and YouTube years is that compilation retrospectives like this were often the only chance viewers had to see many of these programs from the 1950s. For every Twilight Zone, I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners, which seem never to have been out of circulation, there were probably ten others that were seldom seen in syndication by the 1980s, including classics like The Fugitive and The Untouchables. (Hour-long shows never did do well in syndication.) PBS was about the only place you could see Ernie Kovacs, or some of the early anthology dramas. I was always a sucker for shows like these, going back to the anniversary specials that each of the networks did in the late 1970s, and I'd have to think that I watched this (I'm sure KTCA in the Twin Cites must have shown it), but I confess to having no memory of it. 

It's easy to complain about those favorite programs that haven't yet made it to DVD or streaming (or the gray market), and I do as much of it as anyone. Back in 1980, though, we all would have been astonished to have these shows available to watch any time we wanted, thanks in no small part to the technology we talked about at the top of the page. Not bad, huh?

Speaking of video, TV Guide's resident technical expert, David Lachenbruch answers questions about TV technology once a month, and this month a letter writer asks, "Will the networks ever release videocassetts or videodiscs of some of their old classic shows?" After pondering the question, Lachenbruch says it's possible. "As the number of video players grows, we're likely to see some albums of alltime television favorites, but they're more likely to be issued by producers and packagers, since the networks rarely own the copyrights on programs they broadcast." Some British shows have made it to tape already, along with highlights of major news events, and owners of programs "see their old products as potential goldmines and are exploring potential home-video release." I wonder if he ever imagined. . .

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While we're on the subject of PBS, perhaps the best entertainment of the week is the network's two-part biography of Fred Astaire. Part one, Fred Astaire: Puttin' on His Top Hat (airing Saturday and Sunday on various affiliates) focuses mainly on Astaire's movies with his longtime partner Ginger Rogers, and includes clips of famous dance routines from Flying Down to Rio, The Gay Divorcee, Gtop Hat, Follow the Fleet, Swing Time, Shall We Dance, and Carefree

That's followed on Monday by Fred Astaire: Change Partners & Dance, which features some of Astaire's other partners, including Rita Hayworth, Betty Hutton, Leslie Caron and Barrie Chase, and includes comments from luminaries such as Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, and Rudolf Nureyev. Both parts are narrated by Joanne Woodward. 

As for the great man himself, "I can dance, but I don't want to," he tells TV Guide's Ellen Torgerson Shaw. It's not as if he doesn't keep busy; he spends time at the track, doing crossword puzzles, and writing songs, and is a daily devotee of As the World Turns and The Guiding Light, a habit he picked up from his mom. He still does TV on occasion, and he appears occasionally on The Tonight Show. He's more or less indifferent to his fame; he doesn't own copies of any of his movies (although he has "hours of dance on film."), and one gets the idea that he's slightly uncomfortable with it all. "It's nice when people like what I've done," he says. "I accept it with appreciation. But no, I don't love it. It's not my nature. All I ever did was to want to make good, not come up empty."

Is there anyone today with the elegance of Fred Astaire? I mean, he doesn't walk across the stage as much as he does glide; the man could make breathing into an art form.  

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On weeks when we can, we'll match up two of the biggest rock shows of the era, NBC's The Midnight Special and the syndicated Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, and see who's better, who's best.

Kirshner: Music by KISS, Gloria Gaynor and New England; comedy by Roger & Roger.

Special: Andy Gibb (host), Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Queen, Paul Warren & Explorer.

We may be short on descriptions this week, but we're long on content. Gloria Gaynor's the epitome of disco, and KISS—well, KISS is still going strong today. But Midnight Special has, quite literally, a hall of fame show tonight (plus its own disco Gibb), and there's really nothing Kirshner can do about it. His show will survive, but Special breaks his heart with the win.

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We've got some new shows debuting this week, and some of these ring absolutely no bell at all. For instance, take When the Whistle Blows, an hour-long sitcom that premieres this Friday at 8:00 p.m. on ABC. Dolph Sweet, who will have much more success next season in Gimme a Break!, stars in this story of construction workers "and their search for fun both on and off the job." It sticks around for ten episodes. I don't think I've ever heard of it; is it just me? (Maybe I don't remember it because of the show it's up against, Here's Boomer, premiering at the same time on NBC. Or maybe not.)

Tuesday night sees the debut of United States (10:30 p.m., NBC), one of the more interesting experiments in what would come to be known as the "dramedy." United States stars Beau Bridges and Helen Shaver, and focuses on the everyday trials and tribulations of a married couple (the title refers not to the name of the country but to the state of two people being united in marriage), and featured neither a laugh track nor background music. I actually do remember this series; even saw an episode of it, I think; I'd have had to look fast, since it ran for only seven episodes. Some people thought it was just ahead of its time, and that may be true, since both thirtysomething and Gilmore Girls took aspects of the show and put it to better use. In my trusty Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, Brooks and Marsh call it "tedious, boring and didactic," while another critic called the stars' characters "surprisingly unlikable." That's about how I remember it.

A couple of shows that aren't new but are making their season debuts are From Here to Eternity (Monday at 9:00 p.m. and another episode Wednesday at 10:00 p.m., NBC), a spinoff of last season's successful miniseries that returns William Devane but not Natalie Wood (Barbara Hershey instead); and The Facts of Life (Wednesday, 9:30 p.m., NBC), a spinoff from Diff'rent Strokes that stars Charlotte Rae, Lisa Whelchel, Kim Fields, Mindy Cohn and Nancy McKeon. Eternity's run is somewhat less than eternal; it won't last the year. The Facts of Life, on the other hand, lasts until May 1988, and when it leaves the air it's as one of the longest-running and most-beloved sitcoms of the decade, and that's a fact.

One show that isn't new but is equally short-lived is Pink Lady and Jeff (Friday, 9:00 p.m, NBC), and while I never saw it, I certainly remember it—you know, in the same way you remember the Titanic, the Hindenberg, the Edsel. The show features the Japanese singing duo Pink Lady, who were very successful in their home country but were hampered in their attempts to make it big here by the fact they couldn't speak English, and comedian Jeff Altman, who could speak English and served as the host of the show. If you remember me writing about the 60s show Jimmy Durante Presents the Lennon Sisters, that was a better fit than this. Pink Lady didn't do much for the legacy of Fred Silverman, that's for sure. 

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Finally, a look at the show that symbolizes the 1980s better than anything else.

Dallas premiered in April 1978, a little under two years ago, and by the time it leaves the air in 1991, it will be have become one of the most iconic programs in television history, credited by some Dallasites with helping to finally rehabilitate the city's image following the assassination of JFK (along with the Dallas Cowboys, that is); later this year, the answer to "Who Shot J.R.?" will be, to the time, the most-watched television episode in history.

That's due in no small part to J.R. Ewing himself, Larry Hagman, who loves playing the bad guy. He calls J.R. a "miserable crud," and proudly tells Dwight Whitney, "I love him. I really do." The fact that such an evil, ruthless, unlikable character could become a folk hero is a testimonial to the actor's inherent likability, and he's grateful to the show for saving his career from underwhelming roles in B-grade shows and movies; in his most successful previous series, I Dream of Jeannie, he was overshadowed by co-star Barbara Eden (he was on-screen 80 per cent of the time, mostly to set up the punchline for Eden, who would breeze in and out of the scene; "He got lost in the shuffle."), not unlike the way he'd been overshadowed in his personal life by his famous mother, Mary Martin. When he accepted the role of J.R., his other choice was a sitcom called The Waverly Wonders, "I didn't find it humorous," he says. The role eventually went to Joe Namath. It didn't last long.

He took to the role instantly. He was from Texas. His father, a small-town Texas lawyer, represented oil interests. He understood these people, what made them tick, and he knew he could make the show work. The final offer from the producers was "insulting," but he was willing to live with it. And the rest is history. 

His castmates recognize him as the best actor on the show. He analyzes the script thoroughly, adjusts the dialogue to give the cadence more of a Texas flow, substitutes gestures and expressions for lines when he can. The show, in its second season, is a massive hit. He's made peace with his past, and with his mother's fame, and he brings a joyfulness to J.R. Ewing while the writers give him ever more outrageous storylines. Yes, life is good for Larry Hagman. "You seldom get a hit of this magnitude in your life. I've had two," he tells Whitney. "I'm not rich yet. I just think I'm ready."

And that's a good a way to finish this look at the 1980s, with a show that epitomizes the '80s better than anything.  TV  


  1. Robert Wagner, who worked with Astaire on IT TAKES A THIEF, said of him during an episode of HART TO HART "He doesn't just run into his closet and come out looking that way"

    Paul Duca

  2. What was Richard Nixon's new approach to presidential debates?

    1. Thanks for asking--I wish I'd had more room to get into it on Saturday. Basically, he wanted to see the candidates debate each other directly, without moderators or questioners, and allowing them to question each other. He thought that in each debate, a certain amount of time should be devoted to various topics--for example, 15 minutes on foreign policy, 15 minutes on arms control, 15 minutes on the Middle East, etc.

      He was particularly critical of the format that existed then and still exists today: "With that kind of format, all that the television debate indicates is how a President will handle press conferences." The format demands their answers are reduced to a "brief, and frankly, almost vapid way."

      It's hard to argue with that.

  3. I have the vaguest of memories of 'When the Whistle Blows'. The guy in the t-shirt that says 'Hunk'(that was his name on the show) was Tim Rossovitch, a former NFL player who died last year. I was 6 when this show was on, and probably only watched because it was on at 8, with a bedtime of about 8:30.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!