May 6, 2023

This week in TV Guide: May 3, 1980

Now, you and I both know that I’m not the biggest fan of 1980s television, and, looking at the TV Guide from the week I turned 20, I have to admit there’s something depressing about the thought that the golden years of my television viewing were already done. It’s not true, of course; between classes and term papers and the like, I probably watched as much television in 1980 as in any other year. And, when one looks at it from the perspective of 43 years later, it can’t be that I’m stuck pining for the good old days; the 1980 probably were the good old days for a significant portion of those of you reading right now.

I suppose there are several factors involved in all this, and again, this is a case where your mileage may vary. Politically, the 1980s were a great triumph for me, but looking back, the “greed is good” mentality that permeated so much of American business should have been a tip-off as to what lay ahead. Drugs were everywhere, not that they weren’t in the 1960s and 70s, but in the 1980s you had Nancy Reagan and the War on Drugs, and “very special episodes,” and look how well that worked.

In television, the dominant programs in the year-end ratings were sitcoms; according to this week’s Doan Report, six of the top 10 shows for the 1979-80 season fell in that category: Three’s Company was #2, M*A*S*H #4, Alice #5, Flo #7, The Jeffersons #8, and One Day at a Time #10. (The Dukes of Hazzard, which someone described as a live-action comic book, comes in at #9.)* It would be unkind and unfair to say that these sitcoms were necessarily any worse than those of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, but I’m not sure how well they’ve aged. Again, given that sitcoms aren’t my favorite genre, I’m probably not the best authority on this, but they don’t seem to me as clever or witty as those of some other years.

*60 Minutes was the top-rated show of the season and Dallas #6, meaning CBS had eight of the top ten rated shows for the year. The two exceptions: Three's Company and That's Incredible! 

Television also became obsessed with sex, or maybe I should say “sex” since it was really all quite mild compared to what goes nowadays, but the obsession with “jiggle TV” and tight t-shirts and what was or was not appropriate during the “family viewing hour” made TV Guide and other publications wonder if sex on TV had gone too far. This week’s As We See It takes up that very point, looking at the “sleazy soap opera” Prisoner: Cell Block H, an Australian import. The show is, as you might expect, about women in prison, and while it’s probably much, much, much less graphic than Orange is the New Black, it still includes “A murderer, a convicted prostitute who has an affair with the jail’s electrician, an ugly lesbian. a former cook who poisoned her employers and a kidnaper who swears she didn’t try to bury an infant alive.”

The problem isn’t necessarily the content, although Merritt Pannet observes that “It’s hard enough to believe that adult viewers really want a series that panders to the shabbiest, most sadistic tastes.” No, the point is that this “junk,” presumably intended for late-night viewing, is being shown as early as 5:00 p.m. in Philadelphia, where kids can watch it before dinner, “thus losing their appetites but gaining a whole new appreciation of life in the gutter.” (The station manager says he scheduled it as a lead-in to boost ratings for the 5:30 newscast.) In Minneapolis, it’s on at 6:30 p.m., right after the local news. In L.A., it’s on at 8:00 p.m.: Slime Time, if you will. Concludes Pannet, “Television should serve the widest vagaries of American tastes—the widest , not the lowest This ugly, tasteless series should be shipped back where it came from and buried—Down Under.”

Remember, this kind of accusation is nothing new (although the sexual component of it is); just ask Newton Minow. The Beverly Hillbillies was long derided as leading the way in pandering to the lowest common denominator. And it’s not just sitcoms to blame; Richard Doan reports a controversy over CBS’s recent prestige movie Gauguin the Savage almost didn’t make it to the air because of a nude scene involving a woman posing for Gauguin. “She kept swatting flies off her breast,” a CBS official said, “and she kept jiggling, three times. We felt once was enough to make the point.” The producer, Bob Wood (former president of CBS) said that the real problem wasn’t the bare breast. “Breasts don’t mean anything to the networks,” he said. “It’s the nipples they’re worried about. The girl was slapping herself and her nipple was showing.” (I can’t believe I’m typing this.) Wood won, and the scene was shown as filmed. Says the CBS official, “I guess you’d have to say the scene was very National Geographic. Brown skin is OK to show, but white wouldn’t be.” Cringeworthy, but also probably true.

Perhaps I was destined to be a curmudgeon; maybe I already was one by the time I was 20. I don’t know, and I’d rather not revisit the scene to consider it; once was enough. But I also don't mean to paint with the broadest brush; there's a lot to like about 1980s television, and some of your favorite shows probably come from that decade. And let's not be in a bad mood about this week’s issue—we still have plenty to look forward to, so let's go find it!

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One advantage this week is that it's the start of the May sweeps, complete with all its "intense ratings competition." It begins on Saturday; the day of the week that nobody cares about nowadays has a packed lineup, starting with Ann-Margret in a rare 90-minute variety special (9:30 p.m. ET, ABC), with a guest star roster that features—well, you can read it for yourself there. Personally, I don't think Ann-Margret needs any help filling 90 minutes, but whatever. Besides the usual comedy skits, the special includes a pair of production numbers, and a trio of comedy-drama vignettes that remind us she has some acting chops as well. (You can see one of those here.) 

That special rounds out an ABC lineup that started with a 90-minute Love Boat (8:00 p.m.) with its own all-star cast: Helen Hayes, Maurice Evans, James MacArthur, Larry Wilcox, Catherine Bach, and Christopher Norris. What do the other two networks have to counter this? On NBC, BJ and the Bear (8:00 p.m.) is followed by part two of the blockbuster The Towering Inferno (9:00 p.m.), with "the greatest cast ever assembled!" Allowing for the usual hype, it is a pretty good cast: Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Robert Wagner, William Holden, Fred Astaire, O.J. Simpson, Susan Blakely, Faye Dunaway, Richard Chamberlain, and Robert Vaughn. Is it, as the ad proclaims, "the most extraordinary suspense thriller of all time," or is it for, as Judith Crist pronounces, "fire buffs"? You be the judge. CBS offers The Tim Conway Comedy Hour at 8:00 p.m. (guest star Helen Reddy), followed by the fifth showing of John Wayne's Rio Lobo. Something for everyone, don't you think?

Sunday's movie special is a repeat showing of Oh, God! (9:00 p.m., NBC), with George Burns as the Almighty, and John Denver as his messenger. Judith Crist ranks it "top of the week's theatrical repeats," providing "irreestible entertainment for all ages." Opposite that, John Ritter hosts his own comedy special on ABC (10:00 p.m.), with his Three's Company co-stars Joyce DeWitt and Suzanne Somers, plus David Doyle, Howard Hesseman, and Vincent Price. 

Monday continues our bevy of sweeps specials, with one of those "very special" episodes we all know and love. This one is on Little House on the Prairie (8:00 p.m., NBC), as Laura gets engaged to Almanzo Wilder. That's followed by the TV premiere of the charming Breaking Away (9:00 p.m., NBC), winner of an Oscar for Original Screenplay just two weeks prior. Crist notes that it's likely a winner for some kind of record in "theater-to-television transitions," and praises it as the "feel-terrific" movie of the year. Crist also likes the ABC TV-movie Off the Minnesota Strip (9:00 p.m.), a "probing, unsparing story" of a young girl (Mare Winningham), a runaway from Minnesota, who falls into the clutches of a pimp, and the troubles she encounters in trying to return to her former life. Crist calls it "an uncomprising story, honest and compassionate, devoid of sentimentality—and unforgettable." (Fortunately, we left Minnesota a less dramatic way.) Even PBS gets into the sweeps act, as Life From Lincoln Center pays tribute to John Huston. Film clips of Huston's movies are combined with scenes of his occasional acting appearances, inclulding his Oscar-nominated role in The Cardinal, and he's feted by Richard Burton, Lauren Bacall, Jack Nicholson, and Jose Ferrer.

Tuesday, NBC's failed attempt to revive the variety series, The Big Show (9:00 p.m.), boasts it's biggest show of all, with a two-hour extravaganza featuring Gene Kelly and Nancy Walker as hosts, and guests Debby Boone. Sherman Hemsley, Mel Tillis. Georgia Engel, opera tenor Placido Domingo, ice dancers Kriztina Regoczy and Andras Sallay, juggler Picasso, and comics Sean Morey. Monteith and Rand, and the Two Ronnies. How do you think this matches up with our Sullivan/Palace shows? Meanwhile, ABC offers its Murderers' Row lineup of Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Three's Company, Taxi, and Hart to Hart. Not bad, eh?

Wednesday, CBS devotes its entire prime-time to The Memory of Eva Ryker (8:00 p.m.), a three-hour made-for-TV movie produced by Irwin Allen and starring Natalie Wood, with Robert Foxworth, Roddy McDowall, Bradford Dillman, Jean Pierre Aumont, and Ralph Bellamy. Will Wood recall her repressed memories of what happened all those years ago when her mother died onboard a luxury liner sunk by the Nazis? Crist describes it as a "preposterous meodrama" that provides "mindless but engrossing entertainment" and advises us "not to reason—just to wallow." Can't do better than that, I guess.

Thursday, CBS has its own 90-minute special, Johnny Cash: the First 25 Years (9:30 p.m., CBS), a star-studded celebration of the country star's career. He's joined by June Carter Cash, Jack Clement, Larry Gatlin, Tom T. Hall. Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Carl Perkins, and the Statler Brothers. I don't know; 90 minutes somehow just doesn't seem like enough time for a show like this; whether or not you like country music (and I don't, particularly), this special has a whole sweeps month's worth of legends. Opposite Johnny, it's part 1 of "the shocking new version of the movie classic," King Kong (8:00 p.m., NBC), with Jessica Lang as the object of Kong's affection. Crist: it "updates and vulgarizes it" for those who've seen the original, and provides "dumb entertainment" for those who aren't. One thing it has over the original is the World Trade Center, and those same towers also feature in the opening of Barney Miller (9:00 p.m., ABC), and this seriocomic episode focuses on Barney's failure, once again, to get a promotion to Deputy Inspector. Regardless of what you think of the movie, or Barney Miller, those views of the Twin Towers still get to you, even all these years later.

The week wraps up with one of those Rona Barrett specials—remember her? She was one of Hollywood's best-known gossip columnists prior to a very ill-fated team-up with Tom Snyder when NBC expanded Tomorrow to 90 minutes; she's still around, although she retired from the media in 1991. Anyway, she used to host the kinds of shows that Barbara Walters went on to make her perview, and tonight's special, "That's My Mom!" (Friday, 8:00 p.m., ABC) presents Bo Derek, Larry Hagman, Kristy McNichol, Kenny Rogers, and their mothers. Probably not all at the same time. ABC follows it up with one of those made-for-TV movies that must make you wince: The Love Tapes (9:00 p.m.), "a hilarious mix 'n match when six singles go hunting for mates using the latest thing in dating services...their videotaped auditions as lovers!" It stars—no, I'm not even going to go into that; if you're interested, you can look it up. NBC finishes up King Kong, and follows it with part two of another two-parter, The Curse of King Tut's Tomb (10:00 p.m.), with Robin Ellis, Raymond Burr, Eva Marie Saint, and—Tom Baker? Yes, it's none other than the Fourth Doctor, and that alone might have made it the show to watch tonight.

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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: Guest performers include Kool & the Gang. Lou Rawls, the Captain & Tennille and Rose Royce. Music: "Too Hot." "Ladies Night."

Special: Gladys Knight & the Pips celebrate their 27th anniversary with Michael Jackson. Billy Preston and Syreeta. Also: clips of Seals & Crofts and the Pretenders; the top-10 countdown; and a comedy segment.

I haven't forgotten about this feature! You'd expect music shows to mirror the state of the culture, and this week these shows do a perfect job. But whose music is more timeless? Well, 27 years is a long time to be around, and Gladys Knight and the Pips didn't stop there. Michael Jackson is still hot, and Seals & Crofts and the Pretenders are too much for the Kirshner crew to overcome. This week Special Pips the competition.

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There's no question that television has changed since the 1980s, and one of the most visible signs of that change is the number of people who've cut the cord, or quit watching television altogether. In this era of video-on-demand, one of the only types of programming that still keeps people hooked on cable and can attract a live audience is sports. Ah, but such was not always the case. Witness basketball and hockey.

CBS has the rights to the NBA finals, starting Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles as the Lakers take on the Philadelphia 76ers. That second game, though—well, let's just say that if you live on the East Coast, I hope you don't have to get an early start the next day, because game two of the series begins at 11:30 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday. I don't even think the game's being shown live; CBS has had a habit this last few years of showing playoff games on a tape-delay basis because their primetime ratings were so low, so my suspicion is that the game actually started around 10:00 p.m., with the CBS affiliate in Philadelphia allowed to carry it live. The same thing probably would have happened for game three, except the network convinced the NBA to schedule games three and four on Saturday and Sunday. Nowadays, teams rarely play back-to-back games even during the regular season, let alone the finals.

Hockey isn't in much better shape; right now, the NHL has no national television contract in the United States, so Stanley Cup playoff games are being shown on a syndicated basis. The NHL hasn't arrived at the final round yet, so there's only one game being televised each week, and that game can be seen,  tape-delayed, on WXIX, Channel 19 in Cincinnati, at 11:00 p.m. Incidentally, game six of the Stanley Cup Final, between the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders, does get a network airing, Saturday afternoon May 24, on CBS. That winds up being the final game, with the Islanders winning four games to two. If the Flyers had won? Game seven would have been played sometime during the week, and who knows if that would have been carried by any network?

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When I'm looking through issues from this era, I'll occasionally see an independent station with a schedule of black-and-white series—The Untouchables, The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, etc.—and I'll think to myself, "That's a great retro lineup!" But it's important to remember that most of these shows only aired twenty or so years earlier; think Friends or Home Improvement or N.Y.P.D. Blue by comparison. We don't think of those as coming from another time and likely people in the 1980s didn't look at those shows the same way, either. (The only distinguishing characteristic they had was that they were shown in black-and-white, and we know there are some people who simply won't watch a B&W show or movie, no matter what. Those people are known as "stupid," but we're not here to talk about them right now.)

I bring this up because this week Barbara and Joe Saltzman have an article about why some of television's top shows thrive in syndication, while others don't, and you might be surprised to find out which classics don't make the cut. 

For example, none of you will be caught off guard to find that I Love Lucy is the most successful syndcated series in the history of television. The Brady Bunch, Gilligan's Island (a surprise, considering there are only 98 episodes), The Flintstones, Bewitched, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Twilight Zone, and Get Smart also fall into the successful category.

But Leave It to Beaver? That started out hot, but by 1980 it's losing its popularity. The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres failed to meet expectations, as did The Fugitive and The Doris Day Show. "A half hour is easy to watch and not as big a time commitment," says Steven Orr of 20th Century-Fox; the exceptions have been shows with mass appeal like Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, and Bonanza, or cult faves such as The Avengers, The Prisoner (especially on public broadcasting channels), Alfred Hitchcock, and Mission: Impossible. Not so for Marcus Welby, M.D. 

Among recent additions to the syndication market, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Happy Days, Welcome Back, Kotter, Sanford and Sone, and Laverne & Shirley have been tops, with the latter breaking records for syndication fees—$61,000 per episode, which entitles the bearer to seven runs within five years. (Which raises the question: what are fees like today? When you look at half-hour sitcoms that run two or even four episodes per day, a station can run through 100 episodes in as little as five weeks, which means at least seven runs per year. Can we say oversaturated?)

I'm not sure this question is even pertinent today; anyone who streams content knows there are entire stations dedicated to showing nothing but episodes of your favorite show: 

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Finally, what would sweeps week be without the Battle of the Network Stars?

Battle of the Network Stars (Sunday, 8:00 p.m., ABC) may well have been the first program that fell into the category of "Trashsports," which Merriam-Webster defines as "an exhibition of sports events which is held solely for the purpose of being televised and in which the participants are celebrities." The concept was simple: stars from each of the three networks competing in various sporting events. Obviously, many of the celebrities in these shows had at least some athleticism, and some of them were quite good. It didn't hurt, however, if you looked great in bathing suits and tight t-shirts. (Rest assured that with celebrities like Farrah Fawcett, Victoria Principal, and Lynda Carter, the jiggle quotient was high no matter how athletic they were; there were a few Brutis Beefcakes on the male side as well.)

The original Battle of the Network Stars ran twice a year from 1976 to 1988 on ABC, and almost always aired, as is the case here, during sweeps. Someone once described it as reality television before reality television existed; it was a rare chance to see celebrities off-script and away from the set, and it made them somehow seem more human and unguarded. Having Howard Cosell as the host gave it some sports credibility, although many hard-core sports fans found the whole exercise offensive—hence, the moniker "Trashsports." I fall into that category; I've never seen anything more than a handful of clips, and even as a television historian I'm not embarrassed by that admission. True, it first started while I was still stuck in the World's Worst Town™, but I refuse to use that as an excuse. It's just the kind of show that it would never occur to me to watch. I never watched Superstars either; for me back then, sports was serious business. (If I hadn't had early classes the next day, I would have been up watching those midnight NBA games.) 

There was a 2017 revival of the concept as a weekly show (forgetting the maxim that less is more), but it didn't last very long. In a way, Battle of the Network Stars, like so much of the 1980s, is an idea that's past its time. With programs like Dancing With the Stars, we're already accustomed to the celebrity as fish-out-of-water, while the opioid-like effects of reality television have made us cynical about anything represented as unscripted and candid. Although it would have hardly seemed that way at the time, I suppose there was something more innocent about the 1980s; forty years later, we're not apt to see that innocence again. TV  


  1. It's worth noting that the Doan Report's Top 10 list was the impetus for Al Franken's notorious "Limo for a Lame-o" commentary on SNL's 'Weekend Update' five days later. Speaking of which, has the appeal of Battle of the Network Stars ever been summed up better than their hilarious faux promo for "Network Battle of the T's and A's" ("The biggest stars, with the biggest T's, and the nicest A's!").

    1. And remember SCTV's "Battle of the PBS Stars" - who can forget the fight between Julia Child and Mr. Rogers?

  2. Oh man...Prisoner Cell Block H! I haven't thought of that in years! I caught it from Detroit's famed indie, WKBD, Channel 50 (they always had the best syndicated shows). They ran it at 11:00pm (more fun that way--had to be cool watching it so the folks wouldn't know you were up so late). I remember it being quite violent and "adult" compared to anything from basic network TV. A very cool intro for me into the Australian New Wave, before I routinely caught things like Breaker Morant and Mad Max at our dear departed art house.
    As for Battle of the Network Stars, I encourage you to check out whole episodes if you can find them. You haven't lived until you see the real, actual psychosis known as Robert Conrad make jokes about the Holocaust, lighting up a Malboro, before goading Gabe Kaplan into a footrace...and losing. Scripted? No way. You can watch it like the Zapruder film--it's endlessly fascinating (I think I just found my next review subject this month...).

  3. Another thing that week was Bill Cullen hosting two shows on NBC. Filling in for Allen Ludden on Password Plus and fronting his own Chain Reaction.

    1. As I mentioned to someone else, Bill Cullen was the renaissance man of game show hosts!


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!