May 28, 2022

This week in TV Guide: May 31, 1980




True story: back when I was hosting a political talk show on public access television back in the 1990s, I had this great idea to try and measure how many people were watching the show. It wasn't a very good show, sandwiched as it was between two other political shows on Monday nights, all of which ran for 30 minutes (I used to joke that the time period ought to be called the "Narcolepsy 90," on the grounds that nobody would be awake by the time the third show had ended), but we did have our moments, and this surely would have been one of them.

The idea, and I'm not sure why we never did it, was that the show would open with our usual opening credits, but that instead of our regular, public domain theme, we'd play the extended version of Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," which runs 17 minutes, while the title slide remained up the entire time. When the song finally ended, nearly 20 minutes into the show, the picture would fade to me, whereupon I would introduce my guest as if nothing had happened, and then promptly apologize that we had run out of time, tell the audience that we'd see them again next week, and roll the closing credits.* My thought was that, five or so minutes into this, people might start to wonder what was going on, and by the 15-minute mark, they might be convinced that something was seriously wrong, and would call the station to find out what was going on. Since nobody bothered to measure ratings for shows like ours, it might at least give us a vague idea of how many viewers we had, or at least how many were invested in the show as more than background noise for their pets while they were out.

*The idea progressed enough that I actually considered whether to let the guest in on the joke, or to spring it on him unawares, and then explain everything afterward. 

Even though that show never came off, it wouldn't have been out of place in the wacky world of public access television, as this week's article by Don Kowet points out. Take, for example, Dick Roffman's show on public access Channel J in New York City. On Dick Roffman & Friends, "a roomful of preening vanity-press authors and tin-eared Carusos spring through 15-seconds-of-glory TV spots. The oblivious Roffman shuffles some papers on his desk. He reads a magazine. One night a poet tried to recite more than his one allotted stanza. Outraged, Roffman leaped up and shoved the babbling bard off the stage." Now that's my kind of guy.

Some of the shows are borderline pornographic; "performers on all three public channels are allowed to commit almost any sexual act, and they often do. They can utter anything except outright criminal libel." Some are, arguably, even more disgusting; one show broadcast, on Christmas Day, a loop of "an 'artist' walking up to a little dog and actually shooting it dead in cold blood." Some preach their own version of the Gospel; one invented "a trinity in which she, New York TV-nostalgia-king Joe Franklin and the Mafia competed for control of her soul." 

But most are simply eccentric. On Mondo Bozo, star Kathy O'Connell tries to enroll viewers in her write-in campaign to become Queen of Holland. Her qualifications? "I saw both versions of 'Hans Brinker, Or, The Silver Skates'.") On The Grube Tube, Steve Grub talks to telephone callers while his phone number flashes on the screen, accompanied by the message, "Steve needs a woman now!" Adrian Stokes, host of New York Live, Jim Chladek, a former ABC programming executive, says there are eight different reasons why people want to host a public-access show: "Some do it for vanity, some for instant ego gratification. How many reasons is that? Only one? I'll have to call you later with the other seven." 

Some access shows have higher goals than that; Nick Yanni's Tomorrow's Television Tonight hopes to, in the host's words, "prove that you don't need such glossy production values to create a show." Yanni, a TV critic for the New York Post, gives a weekly review of what's happening in the city's TV, art and theater. His guest list—Joan Fontaine, Steve Allen, Hugh Downs and Stockard Channing among them—pays testimony to the respect with which Yanni's show is held.

I never had a guest list like that, but I think that by the time my show went off the air, we had developed a certain élan in the way we spoofed local and national politics. (E.g.: "We show how the soundtrack to Hogan's Heroes matches up exactly with the picture on C-SPAN.") Perhaps, if we'd stuck with it another twenty years or so, we might even have made it to cable.

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Whenever 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 Rufus and Chaka Khan, Squeeze, Tanya Tucker and Rupert Holmes; comedy by Jimmie Walker and Dick Lord.

Special: Hostess Dolly Parton welcomes Paul McCartney & Wings, Crystal Gayle, Alice Cooper, Rita Coolidge, Frankie Valli, Chuck Mangione, Yvonne Elliman and a salute to Queen. 

It's possible that some of you might find the real winner of the week to be ABC's sketch comedy show Fridays, which has Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as musical guests (minority report: Randy Newman on Saturday Night Live), but in the world of big-name talent, this week's Special is special, boasting five Rock Hall of Fame enshrinees. How can you go against that? Special wins the week.

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I appreciate Joseph Finnigan's turn of phrase in this week's TV Update, in which he describes NBC as having a "death grip" on third place in the ratings. But as we all know, when you've got nothing left in the bank, you go double or nothing, and that's what network president Fred Silverman has done with his decision to open the season with the 12-part Shogun, broadcast over six consecutive nights. Of course, if everyone had known what a ratings blockbuster Shogun would be—it gives NBC its highest weekly Nielsen ratings ever, and the average rating for the miniseries is the second highest in TV history (following Roots, of course)—Silverman probably would have been given no credit at all. The question, however, is this: will Shogun save the network? Well, at the end of the season, NBC has but six of the nation's 30 highest rated shows, and its top series (Little House on the Prairie) comes in tenth. By the following year, the man with the golden touch is gone.

The new season will also see The Tonight Show cut from 90 minutes to an hour, at Johnny Carson's request, and plans to fill the gap by expanding Tom Snyder's Tomorrow show to 90 minutes. This move is, I think, a mistake for both shows: cutting Tonight effectively changes the character of the show from one in which guests sit on the couch and chat with each other, to a series of one-on-one interviews (most of which sound rehearsed) and no interaction whatsoever. For Tomorrow, the addition of Rona Barrett as co-host is an unmitigated disaster, and instead of Snyder's often incisive interviews, Tomorrow becomes a bloated shadow of its former self.

The fall season will be affected by an actors strike that runs three months and results in a boycott of the Emmy awards, but that's not the strike that TV Guide's talking about this week. No, the program listings carry the warning that a baseball strike could result in the preemption of regularly scheduled games, to be replaced by baseball-themed programming. In fact, the strike ran from April 1 to 8, and while it cancelled the end of spring training, it didn't affect the regular season at all, so I'm not quite sure why it's popping up in TV Guide nearly two months later. Each of these events is a kind of shape of things to come, though; the Writers Guild of America goes on strike for three months in 1981, forcing a delay in the fall season; while baseball suffers through yet another strike, this one running from June 12 to August 9, resulting in a split-season that sees the two teams with the best records in the National League, the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals, out of the expanded playoffs altogether.

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Jeff Greenfield, who's better-known as a political commentator, weighs in on the future of the sitcom in part two of a series asking the question "Are Sitcoms Getting Better or Worse?" According to Greenfield, the sitcom is at a crossroads: "It has been liberated from the frozen stereotypes of bumbling fathers, scatterbrained wives, and the unrelenting sugarcoated cheeriness of a fantasy world where the most serious problems are what Mom will do with the burned roast, now that the boss is coming over for dinner, and whether Sis will get Chuck to take her to the prom if she's still wearing her braces." 

Notwithstanding that these were real questions for many real families in America, it's clear that the sitcom has moved into a new world. But, according to Greenfield, "the no-holds-barred spirit of the early '70s, exemplified by Norman Lear's All in the Family and Maude has faded." While characters have matured beyond the one-dimensional stereotype of the 1950s and '60s, they have "less curiosity about the world around them." Rather than race, poverty and war, characters now deal with more personal issues: marriage and divorce, for example, or dealing with handicaps. 

Another trend that Greenfield sees is the "dramedy," seen in shows from United States (which I looked at here) and Eight is Enough to Trapper John, M.D. However, Grant Tinker of MTM doesn't see this as a winning formula for primetime. "I don't think of drama with comedy as serious—there's nothing encouraging." Echos Gene Reynolds of Lou Grant, a show which arguably began as a comedy-drama before moving solidly into the drama arena, "The ratings are good, but I think it's a terrible hybrid. Comedy just doesn't stretch easily into an hour, because you have to get too heavy for the story and that fights the comedy." 

Greenfield discusses other factors that could play a role. Network scheduling, for instance. "You have to look at needs and timeslots," former ABC VP Bridget Potter tells him. "If ABC needs more new 8 o'clock shows, for example, that means appealing more to kinds and teen-agers—and they like strong, broad, physical comedy. If you're looking to later times, that means more 'adult' themes and characters." And then there's the growing competition posed by cable (both basic and pay) and home entertainment systems. "At the least, the uncensored language and material now available to more than six million pay-cable subscribers will almost certainly make networks a little less cautious about what can be done in broadcasting." 

It is, Greenfield concludes, up to a variety of factors. Will audiences stick with "the cheap laugh and the tight-T-shirt-and-shorts humor," or will they opt for something more subtle. And will the networks allow shows the time to develop, especially ones with "more complicated characters and ideas" that viewers have to get used to? The future contains no special "kind" of comedy, he says, "just a lot of it."

How do you think that trend has played out 42 years later? Streaming programs and video games are indeed competition, and prestige cable overwhelms programming on the networks. Many of the most prestigious programs contain major elements of both comedy and drama. And sitcoms tackle both social issues and taboo topics, although one could argue that there's nothing taboo anymore. Have they changed for the better, or the worse?

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Coming attractions:
I think Jeff Greenfield's appeared on there a time or two.

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The rerun season is in full swing, and one of this week's highlights is Goldie & Liza Together (Saturday, 7:00 p.m. CT, CBS), a stylish variety hour, produced by George Schlatter, that includes both production numbers and a dramatic sketch that allows the two Oscar winners to show off their acting chops. 

On Sunday, it's time for yet another failed Andy Griffith attempt to recapture his previous magic: The Yeagers (6:00 p.m., ABC), in which Griffith plays the owner of a mining-and-lumber company in the Pacific Northwest. Not only do I not remember this series, I'm not at all sure that I ever heard of it. No wonder; as I check on it, it ran for exactly two episodes. Matlock can't come too soon for him.

Phyl and Mikhy
(Monday, 7:30 p.m., CBS) proves that NBC isn't the only network hurt by the Olympic boycott. The show's premise is that a 19-year-old American track star (Murphy Cross) falls in love with a 22-year-old Russian decathlete (Rick Lohman), and of course part of the comedy is supposed to come from the opposites-attract nature of their relationship, played out against the backdrop of the Moscow Olympics. Unfortunately, by the time the series debuts, the U.S. has already announced they're not going to Moscow, which renders the whole concept kind of hollow. Six episodes and out; Soviet characters aren't selling any sitcom in 1980.

One of the reasons NBC continues to have that "death grip" on last place might be shows like The Big Show (Tuesday, 8:00 p.m.), which tries to revive the big-name variety show, years after the genre started to slide. The show has a 90-minute timeslot, and this week's episode features Flip Wilson and Sarah Purcell as hosts, with Diahann Caroll, champion skaters Peggy Fleming and Robin Cousins, Peaches and Herb, flamenco dancer Jose Molina, Barbi Benton, comedian Ronnie Corbett, song impressionists Roger and Roger, the West Point Glee Club, the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and puppeteer Bruce Schwartz. It's an admirable effort, but what is it they say about putting good wine in bad wineskins? The June 3 broadcast is the show's eleventh and last. If you're interested in politics, it's also Super Tuesday, the final primaries of the election season. Doesn't change a thing; Reagan and Carter are still the ones.

The Daytime Emmy Awards are, appropriately, being broadcast in daytime (Wednesday, 1:30 p.m., NBC), with Ed McMahon, Susan Seaforth Hayes and Beverlee McKinsey doing the honors from New York. In case you're wondering, the big winners are Guiding Light, Hollywood Squares, The $20,000 Pyramid, Sesame Street, Douglass Watson and Judith Light for Best Actor and Actress, and Peter Marshall for best game show host. In primetime, CBS shows that they haven't quite got the superhero thing down, or maybe it's just ahead of its time, with part one of the two-part Captain America (7:00 p.m.), starring Reb Brown as the good Captain. MST3K fans might well remember him as the hero of the Space Mutiny, as Dave Ryder, or Slab Bulkhead, "Bolt Vanderhuge, Hack Blowfist, or whatever name you might want to choose. Judith Crist calls it "strictly for kiddies and motorcycle freaks," and calls Brown "a wooden hero."

Thursday features a rerun of a touching tribute to the late Jack Soo on Barney Miller (8:00 p.m., ABC). Later on, a Dallas rerun (9:00 p.m., CBS) provides a look at things to come (at least when it was originally aired), as Val and Gary Ewing remarry and move to the Southern California town of Knots Landing. Knots debuted at the end of last year, and ran to 1993—but, of course, that's another story. 

Finally, it's TGIF, and here's a look at what I might well have watched on a Friday night: 7:00 p.m., Washington Week in Review; 7:30 p.m., Wall $treet Week; 8:00 p.m., Free to Choose (all PBS); and 9:00 p.m., an NBC Reports look at whether there's a better way for political parties to choose their presidential nominees. And you wonder why I wound up on public access. TV  

3 comments:

  1. Hey Mitchell, this comment has nothing to do with this issue of TV Guide in particular, but within the prior couple of weeks in May 1980 a couple of TV-related sports events took place that certainly reflects how different NBA and NHL coverage was viewed back then. First, CBS televised on tape delay on a Friday night at 11:30 p.m. in the East the sixth and what turned to be the deciding game of the NBA finals when Magic and the Lakers beat the Sixers behind Magic's 42 points. And then eight days later I think, CBS carved out time on Saturday afternoon to televise live what turned out to be the clinching game in the Stanley Cup finals as the Islanders beat the Flyers in overtime in Game 6 to start their four-year dynasty. I can still see Bob Nystrom scoring the winning goal. Again, think about that. NBA Finals on tape delay and Stanley Cup Finals live on a Saturday afternoon. Things would be so much different for both leagues on TV within a few short years.

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    1. Boy, I do remember those days. In fact, I can remember back to when I lived in Minneapolis and the Stanley Cup final between Montreal and Boston was in syndication, and it was being shown on our local PBS affiliate. In Minnesota! That had to be the height of the depths.

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  2. Very, very impressed by your planned experiment. Our masters will be contacting you shortly about your next assignment.

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