September 18, 2021

This week in TV Guide: September 15, 1979

It's always nice when an issue serves up a softball you can hit out of the park; it saves the effort of trying to figure out what to write about. This is such an issue.

Any article that presupposes to predict the top 15 shows for the coming season, as predicted by Michael Dann—television consultant and former programming head for both CBS and NBC—falls into that category. Keep in mind he's not predicting the most successful new shows of the season, although some rookies might make their way into the list. Nor is he necessarily saying the shows will finish in the order listed, just that these will be the top-15 at the end of 1979*.

*The cutoff date of December is to allow for hit mid-season replacements that Dann would not have been aware of at the time of this writing.

With that proviso, let's see what Dann's list looks like. At the end of this article, we'll look at the actual list and see where he went wrong (and right).
  1. Three's Company (ABC)
  2. Happy Days (ABC)
  3. Laverne & Shirley (ABC)
  4. Mork & Mindy (ABC)
  5. Taxi (ABC)
  6. Eight is Enough (ABC)
  7. 60 Minutes (CBS)
  8. The Associates (ABC)
  9. Barney Miller (ABC)
  10. ABC Sunday Night Movie
  11. Benson (ABC)
  12. M*A*S*H (CBS)
  13. Little House on the Prairie (NBC)
  14. Angie (ABC)
  15. The Love Boat (ABC)
You'll notice one thing straight away; ABC dominates the predicted list, with an even dozen of the 15 shows. CBS has two, while lowly NBC can only offer one. Will that hold true in real life? Stay tuned.

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Cleveland Amory, our regular TV critic, has moved on from his TV Guide gig by 1979, replaced by Robert MacKenzie, and it is to him that the duty falls to review one of ABC's new series, The Ropers, a spin-off from the above-mentioned Three's Company. If you remember Three's Company, do you also remember The Ropers? One was a hit; the other, not so much.

Both shows are similar, MacKenzie notes, in that the general perception is that they're all about sex, even though you never see any, and nobody ever seems to have any. "But viewers seem to love it, for whatever that means about the national psyche." He's ambivalent about the series' two leads, Norman Fell and Audra Lindley; they "can be funny together," but now that they're the focus of the show rather than playing supporting characters to the two girls and a guy, "sometimes there is a twist of cruelty in their exchanges that sets me to wincing when I'm supposed to be chuckling," an observation which I find perceptive.

The Ropers, MacKenzie writes, "is one of numerous comedies now exploring the rather bleak frontiers of innuendo," and adds that "Small kids who watch these shows may be getting their first impressions of sex: as something that makes adults nervous and giggly, that involves underwear in some way; is seldom done and never talked about seriously, but that figures somehow in the reproduction of jokes." Not quite up to vintage Amory perhaps, but not bad at all. And I think this tells us a lot, not only about the state of television in 1979, but today as well. Back then many series chose to deal with fairly serious issues, such as sex, with an adolescent sense of humor that did kids no favors. Today, the same issues are presented with absolutely no holds barred, in all their graphic glory, which does no one any favors. Mackenzie's conclusion about The Ropers: "I know it's cute, but don't ask me to get excited about it."

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Speaking of cute, there's a feature this week on one of the stars of The Dukes of Hazard, Catharine Bach, who seems utterly sanguine about the possibility that "many viewers of The Dukes of Hazard appear to be as interested in her abbreviated outfits as they are in her dramatic status." (No!) "I wouldn't mind that at all," she says. "I'd think it was cute, but people wouldn't turn on the show just because Cathy Bach is wearing a pair of shorts." I'm not sure whether or not she expects us to believe that. . .

PBS is still in the culture business in 1979, and they're proving it on Sunday afternoon (2:30 p.m. CT) with a live telecast of Ponchielli's opera La Gioconda from the San Francisco Opera, featuring an all-star cast including Renata Scotto, Luciano Pavarotti, and Ferruccio Furlanetto. You don't have to be an opera buff to recognize some of the music from La Gioconda; all you have to be is a fan of Allan Sherman's "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah" or remember the dancing hippos in Disney's Fantasia. But just in case you've forgotten, here is "Dance of the Hours" in the context of the opera.

See, I knew it would ring a bell.

Sunday night also presents three potential blockbusters, all going up against each other. On NBC, it's a three-hour Bob Hope special from China (7:00 p.m.), with guests Crystal Gayle, Peaches and Herb, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Shields and Yarnell (who I hear were big stuff in Peking), and Big Bird. That's countered on ABC by the network television premiere of Woody Allen's Oscar-winning Annie Hall (8:00 p.m.), which according to Judith Crist presents in its full glory "the humor and compassion that are peculiarly [Allen's] own, an adult view of the human comedy." To complicate things, CBS gives us Carol Burnett in a rare dramatic role, starring with Keith Michell in The Tenth Month (7:00 p.m.), the story of a divorcee who finds herself pregnant by a married man. Or maybe this doesn't complicate matters; Crist calls it "pat predictability" with Burnett unconvincing in the role, and a host of preposterous plot twists; she adds that "after an hour of this overblown opus you will, in your wisdom, switch to Annie Hall." I'll have more later on the dilemma of having too many good shows on at the same time.

Annie Hall's not the only big-screen smash to make it to television this week, as NBC gives us Coming Home on Monday night (8:00 p.m.), with Oscar-winning turns from Jane Fonda and John Voight, and the same network presenting Semi-Tough the following night (8:00 p.m.); Dan Jenkins' sardonic football satire stars Burt Reynolds, Kris Kristofferson and Jill Clayburgh. I think I might have watched The Eiger Sanction on Saturday night (8:00 p.m.), which is good fun if you like Clint Eastwood tossing people off mountains, which I do.

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The sports season is in full swing, with the baseball pennant races winding down, and both the NFL and college football underway.

The battle for first place is tight in the National League West, and that's where NBC is focusing its Game of the Week cameras, with the Cincinnati Reds taking on the Dodgers in Los Angeles in the prime game (3:15 p.m.) and the Houston Astros visiting the San Francisco Giants in the rain game. At this point, the Reds hold but a half-game lead over the Astros; with the Reds win and Astros loss today, that lead jumps to 1.5 games, which is where it will end when the season concludes on September 30.

Those games are up against ABC's college football, which gives us a classic matchup: Notre Dame vs. Michigan from Ann Arbor (2:15 p.m.). At the time, Notre Dame is ranked #9 in the country, Michigan #6. It's a defensive struggle; the Fighting Irish manage four field goals and upset Michigan, 12-10. Both teams have a down season in 1979, each losing four games, although Michigan's comes in the Gator Bowl, while the 7-4 Irish decline a bowl invite.

On Sunday, the NFL offers a light schedule for fans in the Twin Cities. At 1:00 p.m. the Minnesota Vikings host the Miami Dolphins on NBC; due to the television rules of the time, that meant no other game could be broadcast in that time slot. Since NBC has the doubleheader this week, we're aced out of the second game, and have to rely on CBS's offering of the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys at 3:00 p.m., played in Texas Stadium. For ABC's Monday night's extravaganza, the New York Giants play the Redskins in Washington. (8:00 p.m.)

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Once again, the As We See It editorial takes the side of the viewers, with a problem that would seem almost incomprehensible to anyone in the last couple of generations. It has to do with what happens when two of your favorite shows are on at the same time.

As TV Guide points out, "The comparatively few people who own videocassette recorders for catching one show while watching another may be sanguine about the dilemma of which show to tune in," and I can understand that; we didn't own a VCR at the time, and as I recall they were damn expensive back then. "Audiences have grumbled about this problem for years," that being the habit networks have of scheduling blockbuster specials up against each other, or using a popular show to try and knock down the ratings of a competitor. The networks argue it's nothing more than free enterprise in action, "and may the better show win."

The solution offered by Merrill Panitt (who likely wrote the editorial) sounds like a pipe dream at best: somehow, convince the networks that it's not in the viewers' interest to continue such programming decisions. Panitt cites the example of cooperation between the BBC and Thames TV in England when it was discovered the Beeb was scheduling Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy against Themes' Quatermass miniseries; the two networks got together and agreed to juggle the scheduling so neither show appeared against the other.

The networks, of course, claim this would be seen by the government as collusion, which would violate antitrust laws. The government, naturally, is powerless to force networks to do anything. And so the viewers, as seems always to be the case, are left stuck in the middle, "What ever happened," Panitt concludes, "to 'public interest, convenience and necessity'," all of which broadcasters are supposed to take into consideration.

The ultimate solution, not surprisingly, is also the most American one. If a problem is big enough, and inconveniences enough people, and if finding a solution is profitable enough, someone will figure out a way to find it. In this case, VCRs became more practical and the prices went down. When that wasn't enough—whether they were too hard to program or whatever the reason—TiVO came along. And then it was the cable and satellite providers who developed their own DVRs that could be included in the conversion boxes. Then it was on-demand programming. Now, just about anyone can watch just about anything just about any time they want, whether on a TV, computer, laptop, iPad or phone. It's truly remarkable how far this technology has come in a relatively short time. And I'm left wondering if it would have come this far, or this fast, had the networks found a way to avoid scheduling conflicts, whether or their own or through government intervention of some sort.

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And now let's return to those top 15 shows that Michael Dann had predicted at the beginning of this article. How did he do?

They are, in order:
  1. 60 Minutes (CBS)
  2. Three's Company (ABC)
  3. That's Incredible (ABC)
  4. Alice (CBS)
  5. M*A*S*H (CBS)
  6. Dallas (CBS)
  7. Flo (CBS)
  8. The Jeffersons (CBS)
  9. The Dukes of Hazzard (CBS)
  10. One Day at a Time (CBS)
  11. Archie Bunker's Place (CBS)
  12. Eight is Enough (ABC)
  13. Taxi (ABC)
  14. House Calls (CBS)
  15. Real People (NBC)
It should be noted right off the top that several of these shows shouldn't count, since they were in fact mid-season replacements and weren't available for Dann's predictions. That's Incredible, Flo, and House Calls were brought up during the season but had the staying power to land in the top 15 and remain there. If we were to discount those three series, we could add Little House on the Prairie (NBC) and Happy Days (ABC) to the list. (The third, NBC's CHiPs, had not made Dunn's cut.)

Having said that, Dann's predictions turn out to have been something of a mixed bag. He was outright correct on five shows—seven, if you add in the two I mentioned above. Five more were good enough to finish in the top 30. But what about the three that missed altogether?

The most notable is probably Laverne & Shirley. Dann saw that as a success "in Mork's old time period against the tired Waltons and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century," and called it "an easy big winner." In fact, however, the show was all over ABC's schedule, bounding from its original Thursday timeslot to Mondays at 7:00 p.m., and then Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. It was the only season that the show did not finish in the top 25, and perhaps that was one reason the format was changed the following season, with the show's locale shifted from Milwaukee to Burbank.

As for Angie and The Associates? Critically, The Associates was praised, but Martin Short's first starring turn in a sitcom was pummeled by CBS's One Day at a Time, and even with Mork & Mindy (in its new timeslot) as a lead-in, it lasted for only nine episodes. Mork, which was buried by Archie Bunker's Place, moved back to its old spot (thus pushing out Laverne & Shirley), and The Associates became yet another example of a critical darling that failed to catch on with the audience.

Angie should have done better; it was co-created by Garry Marshall and was sandwiched between Happy Days and The Love Boat. As Dunn says, "everybody knows why" it makes the list. But the show, which was a hit in its first half-season, suffers from the move to the new time slot, and with both Happy Days and The Love Boat down in the ratings (Dann had thought The Love Boat would be "more popular than ever," but its two lead-ins, The Ropers and Detective School were both flops), and with the show losing some of its pizzazz after its romantic conflicts were solved by marriage*, the series was cancelled at the end of the season.

*Gee, who could have imagined that?

What this tells us, as our loyal reader Mike Doran told us once, is that ABC's decision to break up its most popular nights during the week backfired spectacularly. "Splitting up a winning combo on any given night has a long history of backfiring big time, and this season was no exception." And this doesn't even touch on the network moving Fantasy Island to Friday night, separating it from its Saturday running mate, The Love Boat

All-in-all, I suppose we'd have to give Dann a C+ on his predictions. He was right on about half of them, and just missed on a few more. His outright failures were only three, and one of those suffered from a down season. Only two were outright swings-and-misses, and considering the nature of television, I suppose that's to be expected. In other words, his performance was fitting for the season as a whole—average. TV  

1 comment:

  1. I've still never seen an episode of THE DUKES OF HAZZARD, but I've heard/read enough to know that so many people were watching the show for Catherine Bach's short shorts that the shorts were known as "Daisy Dukes".

    As you discussed, ABC's schedule shifting hurt the network's ratings a lot, and ABC wasn't #1 again for a season for a long time afterward.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!