June 30, 2023

Around the dial

It looks like someone didn't get the lesson in school about never sitting too close to the television set. Remember how they used to tell us it would ruin our eyes? They never said anything about it runing our mind. At any rate, your mind will only be enhanced by today's offerings. 

First off, in case you haven't seen this (I retweeted it earlier this week), you have to see this very smart, hilarious video by Rachel Lichtman of "Programme 4," the funniest network that never was, this side of SCTV. "Pinpoint parody," one viewer called it; I settled for "Sheer genius." Either way, you can see it here.

Next is Classic Film & TV Café, where Rick reviews Saddle the Wind, a 1958 movie written by Rod Serling, someone we generally associate with television. But this big screen movie, with a big-name cast including Robert Taylor, Julie London, and John Cassavetes, is well worth your time despite its flaws.

At Comfort TV, David returns to the concept of "Terrible Shows I Liked," or, in this case, would have liked: Dick Tracy, a 1967 pilot for a proposed series that never came to pass. It was produced by William Dozier, the brain behind TV's Batman, and would have been in much the same vein (even including Batman vet Victor Buono as Mr. Memory); it's too bad nothing came of it. 

There's a new subject in the Hitchcock Project at bare•bones e-zine: Charlotte Armstrong, who penned the fifth-season story "Across the Threshold," a tight little mystery with a twist ending, starring George Grizzard, Barbara Bel Geddes, and Patricia Collinge. A worthy addition to the Hitchcock collection.

At Cult TV Blog, John continues his series on the American Dream as seen in The X-Files, and I hope you've been keeping up with it, because it's the kind of thing that's going to make you think, something I thoroughly enjoy. I particularly like this entry, because it's excursions into capitalist wealth, Watergate, and allegory make some very good points.

You won't be surprised to know that I'm typing this on Thursday evening; as much as I love you all, I'm not getting up at 6 AM Friday morning to get this ready. And Thursday is the 45th anniversary of the murder of Hogan's Heroes star Bob Crane. Bob Crane: Life & Legacy remembers the event, and reminds us there was much more to him than some would have you believe.

The Broadcast Archives does some remembering as well, of Sonny Fox, best-known for hosting the children's show Wonderama, but responsible for much more, including the book But You Made the Front Page!, published in 2012. Ah, the stories he had to share.

It's never too early to start thinking about Christmas, especially if the name of your website is Christmas TV History, and this week Joanna announces her plans for this year's Christmas in July. I can promise you'll want to keep up with this!

At The View from the Junkyard, Roger and Mike put their minds to the wonderful Avengers episode "The Girl from AUNTIE," which of course has nothing to do with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. beyond the title. But it's The Avengers, right? And Steed is the centerpiece of the story. What more do you need?

One of the most controversial, as well as most influential, television programs of the 1970s was the PBS docuseries An American Family, which aired 50 years ago this year. I wrote about it a few years ago, and this week Travalanche looks back at the series and how it influenced television for decades to come.

Television's New Frontier: the 1960s looks at the medical series The Eleventh Hour, starring Wendell Corey and Jack Ging. Those of you following along here know that this has been one of my favorite series of recent years, and this gives you a good look at the 1962 episodes. Why WB never released the second season of this series—well, we probably know why, but I'd snap it up in a second.

I told you this would be an educational week, didn't I? TV  

June 28, 2023

The enduring popularity of Lawrence Welk

Here’s a question for you, how does Lawrence Welk do it? How does he remain popular when, according to popular thought, his audience should have died off a long time ago?

When I was a kid, my grandparents watched Lawrence Welk. I saw enough of it that I knew who all the key players were (Myron Floren, Bobby & Cissy, Norma Zimmer, et al) but I didn’t really pay much attention to it, and for a good reason: it wasn’t my kind of music. Lawrence Welk was for old people and squares; everyone said so.

Fast forward to today. After being cancelled by ABC, Welk continued in first-run syndication until 1982, and in 1987 reruns began showing on PBS; many PBS stations still carry it today. We are now the age that our parents and grandparents were when they watched Welk. And yet the Welk show obviously remains popular. My first question, because there’s going to be more than one, is this: where did that audience come from?

If they’re the children and grandchildren of the show’s original audience, that means more of them actually watched Lawrence Welk than was thought at the time, and they watch it today either because they enjoyed it then, or because it brings back happy memories of the past. On the other hand, if Lawrence Welk really is for old people, does that mean we have some kind of genetic predisposition, that when we reach a certain age a genome kicks in and we suddenly start craving champagne music played on an accordion? (Just look at Weird Al.)

The reason I ask this first question is because some traditional forms of entertainment—classical music and opera, live theater, black-and-white television shows and movies—are said to suffer from an ageing audience, one that isn’t regenerating itself. Those involved in the arts, for example, are often wringing their hands wondering how to attract younger audiences; and the production of classic television on DVD has slowed to a trickle because, we are told, the audience for such shows is dying out.

This leads to my second question: how does Lawrence Welk manage not only to retain his audience, but to perennially rebuild it, especially among viewers who aren’t supposed to find Welk and his music appealing? The man has, after all, been dead since 1992, so it’s not as if he’s suddenly become hip like Betty White. Not only that, we’re coming up on a generation of viewers who may not have the same memories of watching the original show with their family. Which means you’ve got a whole lot of kids who were weaned listening to the Stones singing “Satisfaction” who now seem to find their own satisfaction when Norma Zimmer and Jimmy Roberts sing “Drifting and Dreaming,” a song that was written in 1925, almost 40 years before the Stones even formed.

Which brings me to my third question: if Welk was (and is) able to do it, why aren’t any of these others able to do it? Certainly there must have been kids who grew up with their mom or dad listening to the Metropolitan Opera on the radio. Why didn’t this get passed down the same way Lawrence Welk was? And as far as those old TV shows, there are plenty of fans who became fans because they watched reruns on TV years and years after they were originally broadcast. Why does this audience not keep replicating itself?

    Myron Floren
As I was typing this, I started thinking of possible answers to my own questions. Welk was always considered family entertainment, and the almost-universal breakdown of the family might suggest that Welk is over-represented, that he continues to exist precisely because those who like him come from families that remained intact and kept passing him down from generation to generation. It’s just a theory, mind you, but whenever you watch one of those concerts shown during PBS pledge drives, you notice that audience is almost always made up of the same people who watched these acts when they were a going concern. Could it be that these groups aren’t genetically inherited by future generations in the same way that Lawrence Welk is? It could even be that fans of those groups didn’t have children, or didn’t have as many, meaning that the possibility for future growth via genetics was limited from the very start.

It’s easy to look at all of this tongue-in-cheek, of course, and the idea of there being a genetic predisposition to watching Lawrence Welk at a certain age is, I suppose, as absurd as anything Samuel Beckett would come up with. But there’s a dimension to this story about which I’m quite serious, and I’m still looking for answers. Why does Lawrence Welk continue to be popular, generation after generation, when so few other cultural icons do? What did he do right that these arts organizations do wrong? Is it all in the marketing, is there a demographic component to it, or is there something about champagne music that is inherent in people, that we search for whether we realize it or not—the Comfort TV that my friend David Hofstede writes about?

If you’re looking to me to provide the answer, I can’t. It’s entirely possible that I’ve made such a hash out of explaining this that nobody could conceivably answer it. And the fact is that I never was much of a fan of Welk and his style of music. But I do watch his Christmas shows every December, and maybe, since that’s the time of year that most lends itself to sentimentality, I have my own memories that I’m looking to relive. One thing’s for sure, though, and that’s that I would hate to live in a world in which there wasn’t room for Lawrence Welk and his brand of entertainment. The day that happens, there really won’t be much left to look back at. TV  

June 26, 2023

What's on TV? Thursday, June 26, 1980

Speaking of classics, as we often do here since this is a classic TV website, one of the all-time sitcom classics airs at 11:30 on WXIX: the Chuckles the Clown episode of Mary Tyler Moore. It doesn't get much better than that. And look at the listings between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m., at how many black and white shows stations are showing. Not all of them, mind, but many of them. That's how I learned about the classics when I was a tot, and I'm sure many of you were the same. The listings, by the way, are from the Kentucky edition.

June 24, 2023

This week in TV Guide: June 21, 1980

Some things never change, it seems. If you've watched a DVD any time in the last—well, however long it's been that DVDs have been around—you've seen that warning from the Federal Bureal of Investigation that piracy is a crime. I'm not sure that it's much of a deterrent, but it's there. Before there were DVDs, there were video tapes, and while there are many differences between the two, there's one thing they've always had in common: piracy. And if you don't believe me, believe Neil Hickey, who opens his article with a story of 400 FBI agents descending "like Visigoths" on 30 businesses in ten states last February 14. (And Happy Valentine's Day to you, too!) It was the result of two and a half years of undercover work penetrating organized crime's entrance into the piracy business. (I wonder if they ever pirated copies of The Untouchables?)

The fact that the Mob is now formally involved in the video business shows how lucrative video piracy has become, and how much of a threat it is to the movie business. The Motion Picture Association of America estimates that "hundreds of millions of dollars a year" are siphoned off from movie companies by video pirates, whether crime kingpins or small-time freelancers. At one New York City location, "lawmen found 22 video-tape machines grinding out copies of Kramer vs. Kramer around the clock." Well, no accounting for taste. But other bootlegging hits include Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Star Wars, Superman, Pincchio, and Bambi. Anyone with a VCR can copy and duplicate movies that run uncut on networks such as HBO. Investigations into video piracy have now involved more than 80 countries, with the FBI, Interpol, and Scotland Yard all playing their roles. Perhaps most galling of all, no less than Fidel Castro boasts that he sees pirated tapes "at the same time they open in U.S. theaters." Saudi Arabia, where movie theaters are banned by law, is a particularly fertile ground for pirate-video sales.

So then, as now, video piracy is a problem. It often involves several crimes, in fact, from copyright law to mail fraud, falsifying export documents, income-tax evasion, and interstate transportation of stolen property. But people are willing to engage in it because they have the means to do it, and the demand from consumers provides them with the motive.It costs plenty to prosecute, but the industry is willing to do it because of its "tremendous concern" about piracy cutting into its profits. The solution, if it truly exists, is a drastic one: releasing all future movies to the home-video market at the same time they're released to theaters. "It would mean that new movies would be available for home use, legally and at reasonable prices, the same day they hit the movie houses." It might well succeed in driving the Mob out of the piracy business, but it would also overturn "the whole economic base on which the movie business was founded more than 75 years ago—namely, that movies are for exhibition to audiences, not for sale to individuals."  20th Century-Fox says that in the next couple of years, it plans to do exactly that. 

Well, as far as I know, that didn't happen (except for the virus period when Warner Bros. released their movies simultaneously on HBO Max).  But now that the time between movie release and home appearance (whether on physical media or streaming) is so short, one wonders about the motives of today's pirates. Part of it is availability: movies and television series that haven't been commercially released or are out of print force those who seek them to the underground gray market, where copyright is freely violated. For some, it's probably fun, a game of "beat the man." And there's a complex relationship between piracy and the industry; the Harvard Business Review reports that piracy "can actually boost sales of some digital products by increasing word-of-mouth and overall market awareness." The biggest reason, though, is probably cost; priates may sell their product at reduced prices, or, in some cases, release it for free. And at that, we shouldn't be surprised. We're so reluctant to sacrifice for anything, to pay the price—why should this be any different?

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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: Performers include Jimmy Messina, the Spinners, Michael Nesmith and comedy act the Rick & Ruby Show. Musical selections include “You Need a Man," “Do You Want to Dance?” "Nobody but You.”

Special: Ambrosia (hosts), Peter Townshend, Rocky Burnette, and film clips of Paul McCartney, the Pretenders and Gerry Rafferty. Also featured: the top-10 countdown. Highlights include "Biggest Part of Me" (Ambrosia), "Rough Boys" (Peter), "Tired of Toein' the Line" (Rocky), "Coming Up" (Paul).

Well, this week is interesting. Rather than who's better, who's best, maybe we should be looking at who's left: Pete Townshend without The Who, Jim Messina without Kenny Loggins, Mike Nesmith without The Monkees, and Paul McCartney without Wings. But even without The Who, I think any program featuring Townshend is going to automatically start with an advantage, and even though McCartney, the Pretenders, and Rafferty are on film, I think they're more than enough to edge out Kirshner. This week, Special takes the price.

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In last Saturday's issue (June 18, 1966), I highlighted a couple of specials that were, in my opinion, really specials—one-woman shows by Peggy Lee and Lena Horne. There was nothing fancy about them, just an hour of hits each, by two great singers showcasing their talents. This Monday, we have a special that demonstrates everything that's wrong about the genre in the 1970s and 1980s, and why the descriptions sound as if they were parodies from SCTV. It's Debby Boone in, of course, her "very first knock-'em-out variety special," The Same Old Brand New Me (9:00 p.m., NBC), with special guest stars Bob Hope, Gene Kelly, Greg Evigan, and Jose Ferrer. The first problem is that it is a "variety" show, which means you're going to have those painful comedy sketches that really aren't very funny. Also, there's no synergy in the guest lineup; it's all paint-by-numbers casting—Greg Evigan as the obligatory NBC star appearing on an NBC show, Jose Ferrer because Debby's his daughter-in-law; and Bob Hope because, well, he'll appear on anything these days. (I haven't quite figured out where Gene Kelly fits in.) But do the pieces really mesh

Understand that this isn't meant to be a slam on Debby Boone, who might be the nicest person in God's creation. But at this point she's had one hit, 1977's "You Light Up My Life," and by this time she's moved to the country music genre. It's quite conceivable that she just doesn't have a body of work strong enough to support a one-hour special. And if that's the case, then this isn't really all that special, is it? It's more like an opportunity for a few celebrities to pick up some extra cash and get a little screen time. And when your show sounds like an SCTV bit but isn't, then you're in trouble. (By the way, I've got Andrea Martin as Debby, Dave Thomas as Hope, John Candy as Ferrer, Rick Moranis as Evigan, and Joe Flaherty as Kelly. But there has to be a cameo somewhere by Bobby Bittman.)

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Ah, it's always good to air out the spleen a little, isn't it? But here's something else that's on NBC this Monday, one that's likely to be remembered a little longer than Debby Boone's first special. It's the debut of everyone's favorite gap-toothed comedian, David Letterman, and his late, lamented morning show. (Monday-Friday, 10:00 a.m., NBC) Being that it premiered during the summer, I was able to watch the first few months while I was off from college; it was a very funny, very creative program, not at all comparable to today's daytime chatfests. (I especially enjoyed Edwin Newman's news updates!) It was, more than anything, a throwback to Dick Cavett's late-1960s morning program on ABC, with some of Ernie Kovacs's morning show in television's earlier days. 

And like those outings, it was probably too different, too innovative, for a daytime audience; it only lasted four months before leaving the schedule. At that point, I thought NBC's best move would be to move SCTV to a regular Friday night slot (in place of The Midnight Special), and turn Saturday late night into Saturday Night Live with David Letterman; it would have been a massive upgrade over the disaster SNL had become. I still think it would have been a good idea; Letterman could have remade that show, which I haven't watched in decades, into something special. The stars that SNL has produced over those years would easily have fit in as part of Letterman's regular cast. But then, as has often been proven the case, what do I know? 

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Your reminder that this is an election year comes on Saturday, with "It's a Great Night, America" (10:30 p.m., CBS), sponsored by the Republican National Committee, with Pat Boone (father of the aforementioned Debby) and Tanya Tucker, and featuring appearances by Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Howard Baker. At this point, with the GOP convention next month, Reagan has long had the nomination wrapped up, so in essence this is a vice-presidential audition for two of the leading contenders, Bush and Baker. And since we were talking about Saturday Night Live just a moment ago, this week's episode is a rerun from January, with Teri Garr as an Iowa housewife being wooed by presidential candidates. The B-52's are the musical guest.

Sunday, it's the network television debut of 1968's Romeo and Juliet (9:00 p.m., ABC), with Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey starring, and Franco Zeffirelli directing. The movie, which was nominated for Best Picture, was in the headlines earlier this year for the wrong reasons, is a reminder that movies didn't always debut a couple of weeks after they left the theaters; in this case, it was twelve years from big screen to small.

If I've discouraged you from watching the Debby Boone special on Monday, just hang on for an hour, because it's followed by Tom Snyder's Celebrity Spotlight (10:00 p.m., NBC), and while I don't usually pay much attention to these celebrity interviews, this one could be more interesting: in addition to standard stars like Carroll O'Connor, Erik Estrada, and Priscilla Presley, Tom sits down to talk with James Cagney and his upcoming role in Ragtime—his first movie in 19 years.

One of my favorite shows is Police Squad!, so it should come as no surprise to you that one of my favorite movies is Airplane, the disaster spoof made by the same crew—Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker. On Tuesday, Merv Griffin devotes his show to actors from the movie, including Robert Hays, Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. (9:00 p.m., WXIX, Cincinnati) I hope Leslie Nielsen was with them!

Wednesday, it's the drama Wilson's Reward, adapted from the short story by W. Somerset Maugham, starring Sandy Dennis, Gerald S. O'Loughlin, and Fred Morsell, and directed by Patrick O'Neal. (10:00 p.m., syndicated) Ted Morgan, author of the recently published biography Maugham, authors this week's "Background" story, providing a brief but frank look at the remarkable career of the man who became "the most popular English writer since Dickens." I really enjoyed those Background articles; they gave a program like this the context that made it that much more enjoyable, and encouraged you to read more about it, to coin a phrase.

On Thursday, the best choice remains Barney Miller (9:00 p.m., ABC), which features the case of a woman who claims that her husband has been replaced by a clone. What do you want to bet that Steve Landesberg's Dietrich gets assigned to that one? That's followed by Nobody's Perfect (8:30 p.m., ABC), in which Ron Moody plays a Scotland Yard inspector attached to the San Francisco Police Department. Ron Moody is a fine actor; he received a Best Actor nomination for Oliver! in 1968 (the same year as Romeo and Juliet!), but don't you think this "fish-out-of-water" police schtick was already old by 1980? 

Friday's recommendation is the late night movie In Cold Blood (3:15 a.m., WAVE, Louisville), based on the gripping true story (well, sort-of true) by Truman Capote. The movie features stark black-and-white cinematography, much of which was shot on location in Holcomb, Kansas (including the murder home); intense performances by the young Robert Blake and Scott Wilson; and an outstanding job by Richard Brooks, who was justifiably nominated both for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. I will admit, however, that this may not be the best movie to watch if you're susceptible to hearing sounds in your house, and I mean that as a compliment. 

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MST3K alert: Revenge of the Creature
(1955) "In this first sequel to The Creature from the Black Lagoon, the amphibious 'gill man' wreaks havoc in Florida. Clete: John Agar. Helen: Lori Nelson. Joe: John Bromfield." (Saturday, 8:00 p.m., WDRB, Louisville). One of MST3K's favorite whipping boys, John Agar (aka Mr. Shirley Temple) is out-acted by the great Ricou Browning, and Lori Nelson takes the place of Julie Adams. There's a reason why this movie, and not the original, is on MST3K. On the other hand, we're introduced to Professor Bobo and The Nanites, so how bad can it be? Or is that just a rhetorical question?

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Finally, this week's variation on the old "if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it" question: if you're a member of an Olympics team and you don't go to the Olympics, does it really count?

As everyone knew by now, the United States had determined to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, over the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. (Ironic, isn't it, how history keeps coming around to bite you in the behind? Ironic also that we've never bothered to boycott the Olympics in China.) So, even though our athletic heroes won't be getting the chance to compete for the gold, they're being given the full exposure this weekend with live primetime coverage of the U.S. Olympic Boxing Trials from Atlanta (Saturday, 8:00 p.m., NBC), and the track and field, yachting, road cycling, canoeing and kayaking, and pentathlon trials on Sunday afternoon (3:00 p.m,. NBC). Then, on Monday, the U.S. Olympic basketball team takes on a group of NBA stars from Indianapolis (9:00 p.m., syndicated). The U.S. hoopsters include Mark Aguirre, Sam Bowie and Isiah Thomas, while the NBA team is led by Artis Gilmore, Magic Johnson, and Bob Lanier. (The U.S. team won, by the way, 82-76.)

The ad above is almost a parody of itself. "They Trained Four Years! Now This Is Their Moment!" Their moment for, what exactly? What is the glory of being selected for an Olympic Team that isn't going to compete in the Olympics? How do you represent your country in what essentially becomes an intramural competition? I've come to have mixed feelings about this, as I have so many things in the past few years; just as I supported American involvement in Vietnam for years after the fact, I supported the Olympic boycott at the time. But did the Olympic boycott serve any real purpose; did it hurt anyone other than the athletes themselves? And talk about irony; just as we took the place of the French in Indochina, we wound up taking the place of the Soviets in Afghanistan. 

Now I find myself, in both cases, wondering what the hell good any of it did. And I'm afraid that's a question a mere television historian can't answer. TV  

June 23, 2023

Around the dial

We'll start this week on a self-serving note; my latest appearance on the Dan Schneider Video Interview is up. We're talking about the original Mission: Impossible: why it's a terrific show, why it's a problematic show, and why you should watch it. I hope you do check out the video (as well as the rest of Dan's interviews). Let me know what I'm doing right, and what I need to improve. 

at Cult TV Blog, where John is beginning a series of posts about The X-Files and the American Dream—specifically, how the show overlays the American Dream with "a dystopian scenario of government corruption, interference, violence, experimentation, and is largely a delusional front to what is portrayed as a controlling despotic country." Needless to say, I'm interested in this kind of thing, considering the scope of my "Descent into Hell" series, so I'll be following this closely.

From the website of the Brownstone Institute, Thomas Harrington writes about "those silly dads on TV" —a situation that's existed since virtually the beginning of the medium—and why this isn't particularly good for our culture.

At The View from the Junkyard, there's the usual Avengers post (which I'm always going to read), but also "Agenda for Murder," a fine episode of the rebooted Columbo featuring the third appearance of Patrick McGoohan as a killer, who is almost—but, of course, not quite—a match for the wiley detective.

There's a nice piece at Travalanche about Bud Collyer, whom most classic TV aficionado recognize from hosting a variety of game shows (most notably To Tell the Truth), as well as voicing Superman on the radio adventures and animated cartoons. There's more to him, as you'll see here.

At A Shroud of Thoughts, Terence notes the 75th anniversary of The Ed Sullivan Show, one of the great shows in televisison history. As you know from my Sullivan vs. Palace TV Guide feature, I'm vested in Ed's place in pop culture history, and glad those performances continue to be available for viewing. 

A good week; as I've said in the past, what we lack in quantity we make up in quality. TV  

June 21, 2023

The Descent into Hell: "The Year of the Sex Olympics" (1968)

[Aldous] Huxley and [George] Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. . . What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

—Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

In the future, there will be two classes: the High-Drives, an elite few who control the government and media; and the Low-Drives, the masses who comprise an overwhelming of the population. This is a stark future; fears of overpopulation abound, nourishment comes from protein sticks, the population lives in sterile accommodations isolated from nature, and while those things that bring pain and unhappiness have been eliminated, so have those that produce joy and pleasure. People speak a form of Pidgin English stripped to its bare essentials—perhaps from a lifetime of texting?—and many words no longer exist. To keep the Low-Drives pacified, they are fed a mind-numbing diet of banal television with the emphasis on pornography, brought to them by a sole network known only as Output.

The time, we are told in an onscreen graphic, is "sooner than you think." But we know what year it is. It is "The Year of the Sex Olympics." 


Intertwined arms and legs, a man and woman making out. Yes! This is what we've tuned in for. The attractive young couple are warming up, so to speak, for tonight's broadcast of Sportsex

Stand by, studio. Cut to the control room. 

A camera focuses on a lethargic group, waiting to be entertained. The music rises, and Misch (Vickery Turner), the attractive young presenter, introduces the next show, SportSex, "tonight and every night." "Tonight we've got lots of real talent for you so keep your eyes with us," Misch tells the television audience. One pair of contestants are billed as "winners of the Karma Sutra Prize last year." "Remember, all scores in this special new sex series counts towards the Sex Olympics. Maybe tonight's winners will make it."

While Midge does the play-by-play, the others in the room—Nat Mender (Tony Vogel), his assistant Lasar Opie (a very young Brian Cox, evil as ever), and the Coordinator, Ugo Priest (Leonard Rossiter, later to be known for The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin) look on. They are the High-Drives, the media executives who program what the masses—the Low-Drives—watch. Under them, television has become a delivery system of mindless, meaningless "reality" shows which they are fed hour after hour, day after day. The programs have resulted in what Ugo calls a "vicarious society" of calm, complacent Low-Drives, devoid of anger and aggression (or any other significant emotion), content to experience life through what they see on the screen, rather than through any activity of their own.

How did things get to this point? As Ugo explains it, the world had been overcome by a continuous and growing tension: war and riots and other kinds of crises. And with it came an explosion of people, and fears of overpopulation. "I remember the old slogan, 'Fight fire with fire, sex with sex.'" As tensions rose, so did the population, with concurrent problems such as food shortages, riots, wars, and restless, rebellious masses.

And then came The Big Breakthrough, when they discovered that they could control the emotions of the masses through a steady diet of television appealing to the lowest common denominator, particularly pornography. Apathy Control, they call it. By feeding them a continuous diet of porn—shows such as Artsex and Sportsex—the Low-Drives remain pacified, learning to "make due with that in place of the real thing, take all experiences secondhand, just sit watching calmly and quietly." As Nat says, "They gotta feel, 'I cannot do like that, not even try. Sex is not to do. Sex is to watch.' That's what they gotta feel, so they watch." Other competitions, such as The Hungry Angry Show (two contestants hurling pureed foods at each other in a glass enclosure) are designed to gross out the masses, to turn them away from food, so they won't complain about the shortages.

The success of these programs is measured through the Audience Sampler, a kind of perpetual focus group that is visible to the personnel in Output on a dedicated monitor. At any given time, they're able to look at the screen and see how the Audience Sampler reacts to the programming. Laughter, approval, or engagement of any kind are signs of success, while expressions registering boredom or apathy are cause for alarm. Laughter is the "perfect minimal stimulant," Ugo says, explaining what makes these reality shows work. "They say it's not happened to me so they glad. So they laugh." He calls it the "fruit skin": "You see somebody fall in fruits and you laugh it didn't happen to you. That's the idea." Adds Lasar, the audience enjoy pain and suffering because 'it not happen to them'."

Nat is troubled by things other than the ratings of his shows, though. Unlike Low-Drives, High-Drives are permitted to have sex, but long-term relationships are discouraged in favor of transient hookups. Nat, however, has maintained a connection with his former lover Deanie Webb (Susan Neve), a fellow High Drive who works on Artsex, and with whom he has a daughter, Keten (Lesley Roach). Deanie tells Nat that Keten has had a metabolic test. "She's a clever kid, Nat says, got two High-Drive parents." But, Deanie says, the tests suggest she might be Low-Drive. Nat is stunned, and worried; if she's sent out there to live with the rest of the Low-Drives "It all goes on my record and your record too. What about that?" And if that happens, "they start a recap, a lot all your past checks. Genetic feedback, they name it."

There's also a young man, Kin Hodder (Martin Potter) who works with Deanie on Artsex (and, it's implied, is her current lover). Kin is a "drape artist" on the show, but he wants more. In his spare time he creates works of art with whatever material he can get. And, like so many artists, he wants to provoke a reaction from the people who see his art. "I want tension!" he tells them. "I want to show them. To them out there, to the whole world. I want to make them see, I want them to hurt!" Deanie hopes Nat can help Kin, discourage him, since Kin's job is to "quiet down the whole world all the time." Nat isn't so sure, though; all this has sparked something inside him, and his mind starts to question things.

Kin, in fact, becomes the catalyst for everything that follows. First, he flashes one of his portraits on the screen, setting off a crisis in Output. "Look at that. Rating’s still upset after 20 hours. I got a real upset," Ugo says. "It was a dirty thing to throw that at a quiet, cozy audience, right in the middle of another section." Nat denies that he had anything to do with it, but admits he's fascinated by Kin's art. "I saw them all. We not got words of them, Coordinator. Maybe you got some. Old days words."

"Yeah, I got some," Ugo rants. "Filthy, disgusting, offensive, loathsome, foul, disturbing, and they all add up to one word. The worst word of the lot. Tension."

Brian Cox and Leonard Rossiter, up to no good    
Shortly afterward, Kin interrupts a broadcast of Sportsex, clinging to a rope hanging from the rafters of the studio. He has his pictures with him, and he's going to try and show them; he can be heard shouting, "You're gonna see my pictures! You gotta understand! Look, they hurt, you've gotta see them!" He loses his grip on the rope and falls to his death. As the camera zooms in on his twisted, lifeless body, we can hear the audience laughing animatedly, tears running down their cheeks even as the blood runs out of Hodder's mouth.

"You know," Ugo says, "I think we just found the fruit skin."

Following the show, Deanie is disgusted and disillusioned by what happened, and wants to know where the pictures Kin had with him have gotten to. "Gone," Ugo replies. "Disposed." When Deanie protests that they were "what he made," Ugo counters that "What he made, Deanie, what he give us here today, was this breakthrough. Our job is to act on it." Apathy Control is boffo over what happened. "Look at those ratings! Toughest in six months."

"So what we do?" Nat says cynically. "Kill someone every night? They soon get fed with that."

They discuss how they can duplicate the audience excitement going forward. "Old days, the world was totally randomized, all life," Lasar muses.

"True," Ugo says. “Nobody knew what had happened next.”

Nat starts to think out loud. "Suppose," he says, "you got just a few people to live like old days, and watch them to make a show." As he speaks, he gets more excited. "Nobody ever tell them what to do. Nobody come near. Make their own food. Get things they need."

"No help at all?" Ugo asks.

"No," Nat says. The participants will be left on their own. They could get sick, even die. "That’d be the show."

"Who'd you get to do it?" Lasar wonders.

During this time, Deanie has been thinking about her anger over what happened to Kin, and her concern about Keten being a Low-Drive. Suddenly, she speaks up. "I do it," she says.

Nat looks at her in surprise, then nods his head in agreement. So will he.


Well. My apologies to those of you who saw the title and thought you were getting something else. On the other hand, this is a family website, after all. Also, it's 1968, and even though this is British television, they're not that far advanced from us. At any rate, aside from one tasteful nude (and seen from the side, at that), we've seen all we're going to see of sex in "The Year of the Sex Olympics."

Speaking of sex, though, worrying about overpopulation was quite the fad in the mid-60s (and continues to this day), thanks in part to the book The Population Bomb, published in 1968—the same year as "The Year of the Sex Olympics"—by Paul Ehrlich (a perennial doomsayer; besides overpopulation, he's also issued apocalyptic warnings about environmentalism, climate change, disease, and, for all I know, Girl Scout cookies, none of which have come true) and Anne Howard Ehrlich. While the use of pornography as a form of both birth control and dehumanization was not, at least as far as I know, one of Ehrlich's suggestions, it was, in fact, another prescient warning in "Sex Olympics."

For some time, researchers have linked pornography intake to decreased sex drive. A particularly appalling study by the Naval Medical Center of San Diego finds disturbing, if unsurprising, correlations between Internet pornography and low sexual desire. "When a user has conditioned his sexual arousal to Internet pornography," the report states, "sex with desired real partners may register as 'not meeting expectations'." The study goes on to suggest that "the younger the age at which men first began regular use of Internet pornography, and the greater their preference for it over partnered sex, the less enjoyment they report from partnered sex, and the higher their current Internet pornography use."

The key word here, I think, is "conditioned," for just as the subjects of the NMC study had conditioned their sexual arousal to porn, the world of the Sex Olympics has conditioned viewers to prefer porn to actual sex. When Ugo uses the word "pornography" in conversation, Nat doesn't even know what the word means. And why should he? Pornography denotes an abnormality, a taboo, a negative connotation. And in a world without taboos, without restrictions, what does one need with such a word? It is, after all, just sex—no differentiation required.

Chesterton famously said that "When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything." And so it is here. Anything goes—as long as it keeps the audience's interest. It is, as Ugo says, "the sheer power of watching."


The arrangements have been made, and the place has been chosen: "We ran over two thousand islands," Ugo tells Nat and Deanie. "This one came out best."* It's not too warm or easy, not too cold or harsh. The land can be used for growing crops, and fish are available from the nearby ocean. They'll be given enough food to start them off, seed for growing, warm clothing to protect them from the cold, and instructions on how to live. Their cabin has been prepared and wired for the cameras.

*The real-life Isle of Man, though the show doesn't identify it as such.   

At first Keten is reluctant to accompany Nat and Deanie; Nat has been a stranger to her during her life, and she's afraid she'd being taken to live with the Low-Drives, but Deanie reassures her that the three of them are going to live together; "We be something called a family," she tells her. "You and me and Nat Mender. We go a long way."

Nat's former assistant Lasar Opie is the producer "It goes out on a special channel, non-stop," he tells them. "We call it The Live-Life Show."

"We see you all the time," Ugo adds, "but you'll not see us."

Ugo warns them that it won't be easy; they may think they're escaping their problems, but they'll encounter others in their place. "Listen," he asks Nat. "You hear?" When Nat tells him he doesn't hear anything, Ugo tells him that's the point. "You don't hear it because you never not heard it, and the standard smell you don't smell it, but out there it's terrible. Know what I did? I cried. Sat and cried for that smell and noise from the shelter."

And so, with a musical fanfare, The Live-Life Show begins. A helicopter swoops in to give the viewers a look at where Nat, Deanie, and Keten will be living. Lasar and Ugo watch expectantly in Control. The three enter the house. The helicopter leaves them alone.

Nat, Deanie and Keten
Keten is immediately disoriented; she has never seen the outdoors before, and can't understand. She thinks the snow is grass, and that the window is a television screen. "Look at the screen. Mini screen. They all funny." Nat explains to her that it's not a screen; that everything she's seeing out there is real. But he doesn't have the words to tell her what to call them. "Sort of holes to look out. They called—I don't know."

They listen to recorded instructions on such simple tasks as how to start a fire and keep it burning; Deanie reaches out to touch the flame, then jerks back in pain, but she reassures Nat that it doesn't hurt much. In Control, Lasar and Ugo look on with satisfaction. "The ratings are good," Lasar says. "Once she touch the flame."

Ugo sits back, pleased. "Yes, I think we really got a show."

As life continues on the island, Nat, Deanie, and Keten continue to wonder at what they experience: the noise of the wind outside, the water running down toward the ocean, plants beginning to grow. They stand at the edge of a cliff, small in significance compared to nature, looking out at the ocean as gulls fly overhead. And then, returning to their home, they find, to their amazement, two people waiting inside for them: a darkly sinister man named Grels (George Murcell) and his woman, Betty (Hira Talfrey). This was definitely not part of the deal.

Grels explains that he and Betty live on the other side of the island, and that they saw Nat, Deanie, and Katan arrive. Introductions are exchanged, and Grels offers to help them get gull eggs and fish, and to climb down the rocks to get crabs. After they leave, Nat, feeling deceived by the presence of others on the island, shouts at the camera. "You in Output! Lasar Opie. Anybody. We made a deal! You trick on this I do it too. I can smash this unit, stop the show. Now! You hear?"

In Control, Ugo looks at Lasar with a puzzled expression. "Who this man Grels?"

Lasar hands him a file, which Ugo scans. As he finishes, he looks back at Lasar. "We made a deal," he reminds him. "No interference."

"No interference," Lasar tells him confidently. "Just a bit of scene-setting." When Ugo asks him if that's all he's done, Lasar shrugs. "It's a show. Something's got to happen."

The next day, Deanie confides to Nat that she's sure they're being watched, and not just by the television audience. Someone is out there, she says. "Moving across and then back. Not the sheep." Not only that, but Katyn has a wound from falling against a wall while she was playing outside. "It was all open. I got some things some thread to fasten it together what do you think?"

Too much is happening. First, the two strangers, then the possibility they're being watched, and now Katyn's hurt herself. Nat snaps, and smashes the television camera. Lasar switches to a secondary camera, one they hadn't told Nat and Deanie about. "If he finds the others our head is going to hurt." Ugo warns.

"They think the show's over," Lasar says knowingly. "Now it gets real super king, Coordinator. The audience," he adds. "They did laugh."

The next morning Deanie opens the door and screams—Grels is sitting there in the doorway. He tells them that Betty is gone. "Maybe she fell down the rocks," he tells them. "You can easy fall down the rocks." Neither Deanie nor Nat are convinced, though; both agree that Grels is somehow responsible for Betty's disappearance, and they become increasingly uneasy about him. And for good reason; unknown to them, Grels is a psycho killer who murdered his girl 12 years ago and was put in exile as punishment. His inclusion on the island is Lasar's "super king" surprise.

Meanwhile, Keten's wound has become swollen and infected; Deanie blames Nat for having smashed the camera—otherwise, he could have asked Output for help. "If you let them watch and see in the answers and they gotta help. But you bust it. You did it. You did it! You you you did it!" Of course, in Output they can see what's going on. "In old days," Lasar says to Ugo, "I think they called that despair. Right?" Keten's continuing deterioration has raised the ratings even more, and Lasar blandly notes, "We've seen fear and anger, worry and pain and so on. Soon I think one called grief."

By morning, Keten is dead. Nat sits despondently, looking at her doll. "Her closest thing. I gotta look at this a lot. Until I get the feel she had and maybe I get what was in her head." Deanie embraces him, and assures him they will have more children. In Output, Lasar looks approvingly at the audience laughing uproariously at the action. "You look happy, my pals!" he says to the screen.

Ugo looks at him angrily. "Why you do this? Why?"

"Do?" Lasar responds. "That's what they need. What they want. What they gotta have."

Now, we see Nat and Deanie burying Keten; Nat puts a crude marker at the head of the grave. As they stand there silently, the wind blowing, they hear something, a tumble of rock, a crunch of stone. Someone is there. Nat takes the ax while Deanie makes her way back to the house. As she enters, she lets out a scream, then the door shuts behind her. Grels was inside, waiting for her.

Nat races back to the house, while Deanie's screams fill the air. In Output, Lasar and Ugo watch intently, while the audience in Apathy Control laughs uncontrollably, tears running down their cheeks. Nat finally breaks down the door, sees Grels assaulting Deanie, and pulls him off and savagely beats him to a bloody pulp, dead. He then kneels down and takes Deanie's dead body in his arms. Holding her, he screams in agony.

In Output, the mood is triumphant. Everyone is cheering, shaking Lasar's hand and clapping him on the back, and the audience is ecstatic. As Lasar accepts the plaudits of the crowd, Ugo looks on in horror at what has happened—broken by Lasar, broken by what has happened. "Look at him!" he shouts into the din of the celebration, unheard by the others. "He's alive! He's alive!" Even though Lasar has manipulated everything to crush Nat, he has managed to survive.

As the coverage concludes, we hear the announcer's voiceover. "So ends the first edition of our new show, The Live-Life Show. Soon be others, bobbies and curries, soon be more for you. And now over to Sportsex to see trials of new talent for this year's Sex Olympics."


Nigel Kneale was already one of British television's most prolific writers when he wrote "The Year of the Sex Olympics." His best-known works, popular to this day, are probably his science fiction serials featuring the heroic scientist Professor Bernard Quatermass, who helped save Earth from various alien threats. In his obituary of Kneale, the writer and actor Mark Gatiss described him as "the man who saw tomorrow," while Hammer Film Productions, for which Kneale worked several times, called him "one of the most influential writers of the 20th century."

You might recognize Kneale's name from elsewhere in this series; back in 1954, Kneale had written the teleplay for the BBC's adaptation of Orwell's 1984; as one critic noted, there is an obvious direct line of descent from 1984 to "The Year of the Sex Olympics." (I'd like to think that, privately, Kneale thought of "Sex Olympics" as taking place in 1984; it was, after all, an Olympic year.) He'd also done (never-produced) adaptations of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and William Golding's Lord of the Flies, so temperamentally, he was well-suited to write a story like this.

Kneale had an animus for aspects of the counterculture that makes "The Year of the Sex Olympics" a good match with Marya Mannes' They. "I didn't like the Sixties at all because of the whole thing of 'let it all hang out' and let's stop thinking, which was the all too frequent theme of the Sixties which I hated." Of the permissive, taboo-free hippy subculture, he said, "Inhibitions are like the bones in a creature. You pull all the bones out and you get a floppy jelly."

The play aired on BBC2 on July 29, 1968. Although reviews were favorable—Sean Day-Lewis*, writing in The Daily Telegraph, praised "Sex Olympics" as a "highly original play written with great force and making as many valid points about the dangers of the future as any science fiction I can remember—including 1984!"—it was less successful with the 1.5 million viewers who watched it that night, many of whom found it "impenetrable."

*Daniel Day-Lewis’s half-brother.

Impenetrable—that's an interesting word to use when describing "Sex Olympics," don't you think? It must be far less impenetrable to us today, for we live in the future which that foretold; we're more likely to think of it as "far-reaching" or "prophetic." But can you actually appreciate something as truly prophetic while you're watching it, or does it only attain that status after history has proven it right? And if that is the case—if you need distance to be able to appreciate it—then how could it not be impenetrable to most viewers? As Bishop Fulton Sheen once said, "men do not want to believe their own times are wicked." In their willful ignorance, they reject the clouds signaling the coming storm; they are "unconscious of the destructive processes going on." The shock of "Sex Olympics" on first viewing is that it presents such a grotesque vision of the future as to be unthinkable; the shock of viewing it today is that it's all come true.


When Mark Gatiss saw the reality show Big Brother for the first time, he shouted, "Don't they know what they're doing? It's 'The Year of the Sex Olympics'!" He meant it as a takedown of Big Brother, while praising Kneale for his foresight; in doing so, Gatiss pointed out the obvious: "Yesterday's satire is today's reality. Or today's reality TV."

In Kneale's vision, reality television is the ultimate form of Lowest Common Denominator programming, intended to pacify the population, to provide them with a "vicarious society"—one in which, in Ugo's words, "the audience would make due with that in place of the real thing, take all experiences secondhand, just sit watching calmly and quietly." They would derive their amusement, their entertainment, from the foibles and troubles of others, taking satisfaction that it wasn't happening to them, debasing themselves through their passive acceptance of the humiliation of others.

Now, the idea of using mass media to keep the populace distracted and submissive isn't a new one; Juvenal used the phrase "bread and circuses" in 100 B.C. As Neil Postman notes in Amusing Ourselves to Death, "Tyrants of all varieties have always known about the value of providing the masses with amusements as a means of pacifying discontent. But most of them could not have even hoped for a situation in which the Masses would ignore that which does not amuse."

In "Sex Olympics," the vehicle used to measure such amusement is Apathy Control, and one of the most powerful moments occurs when the artist Kin Harder falls to his death near the end of part one. The image of Harder's twisted, bleeding body, juxtaposed with the laughter from the audience. Ugo immediately understands this as another Great Breakthrough, the "fruit slip" moment they needed to engage the audience. “You heard it. The classic laugh. The fruit skin. Did not expect it. It happened. I'm glad it's not them. Jumbo relief. Jumbo laugh in all areas."

In other words, it's the horror of cashing in on other people's misery, whether it be the Audience Sampler howling with delight, or the mercenary High-Drives willing to exploit that misery in order to further pacify the masses. But what does it say about the masses who so willingly accept this form of entertainment, who find their pleasure in the pain of others? What does it say about us?

First, and most obvious, it says that we can be a cruel and heartless bunch. As Lasar Opie notes, the audience enjoy pain and suffering because "it not happen to them." We hardly need to be reminded of that, though; most of us experience it often enough every day. There's something else, though, something more subtle and more sinister: the complacence that results from such pacification. "The perfect dictatorship," Aldous Huxley wrote in 1931, "would have the appearance of a democracy, but would basically be a prison without walls in which the prisoners would not even dream of escaping. It would be a system of slavery where, through consumption and entertainment, the slaves would love their servitudes."


How many times in this series we've encountered the word, and how much trouble we've seen as a result of it: Fear of invasion from outer space ("The Architects of Fear"), fear of the unknown ("The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street"), fear of individuality ("Number 12 Looks Just Like You"), and fear of free thinking ("The Obsolete Man"). Who knows if any of the fears in "The Year of the Sex Olympics" are genuine, or if they're all part of some gigantic PSYOP being perpetrated by someone pulling all the strings, something to distract you from what's really going on, while the powerful get more powerful. What we do know is that fear is at the heart of everything that happens; it motivates every action, drives every response, and can be summed up with one word: tension.

Kin Hodder strives to reach people through his pictures, to make them think, "make them hurt." But that can't be allowed, that would cause tension and we all know what that means. Nat struggles to find the words to explain to Ugo what he sees in Kin's pictures; "Where they go, coordinator? Why they go, all those words?" And Ugo tells him where they went. "People didn't need them, Nat. They got out of having the thoughts and the words went too." Bad thoughts, don't you see? Tension.

We know that wars no longer exist in this world; Nat doesn't even know what the word means, and Ugo has to explain it to him. "A war is a kind of tension," like riots and other crises. But now things are different, Ugo says with satisfaction. "Everything got tried then, bombs and books and prayers, and love, the last of the politics. It all added up to tension." And so the tension had to be diffused, the audience needed to be cooled. "No more tensions, nothing, just cool," Ugo says. "It's what the world needed. Just to call a big halt. No more progress. It was done kindly, not by lasering fetuses, chemical conditioning, electrodes, no, none of that. It was no threats. No, no, just by gentle discouragement. It's meant to cancel. Another world, having a rest, Nat. All of them out there waiting. You know what they are? A huge reservoir of genes. Huge genetic stockpile just waiting until it's safe to go on again."

Just waiting until it's safe again, to "give humanity a chance to survive a million years, to draw level with the least successful dinosaurs." But who decides such things? The experts, the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, the World Economic Forum? The presidents, the prime ministers, the governors? The billionaires, the corporate leaders of Big Business, Big Pharma, Big Media, deciding what you see and hear and consume? For they are the ones who are today's High-Drives, and let's be honest: what motive do they have to ease up on the fear, to tell that it's safe again?

And what do the High-Drives fear? The ultimate: the loss of power. It's never specified what percentage of the population consists of High-Drives, but we can tell it's a fairly small number. Let's say—just for the sake of argument, you understand—that the High-Drives make up one percent. Easy enough to remember. That leaves 99 percent of the population, and it's easy enough to keep them pacified with their television, right? After all, the Low-Drives don't make the rules, don't change things, don't decide what's what. The very meaning of the word prohibits it.

"The Year of the Sex Olympics" is a horrifying vision of the future, and a depressing one; depressing because so much of it has already come true. If you need further evidence, look at the passivity with which we accepted the restrictions of freedom in 2021 and 2022. Hell, some of us even wanted to go further! And yet we gave in, without a fight. We were too busy sitting "calmly and quietly," enjoying our screen addictions, investing in our reality television, monitoring what other people could or could not say, dehumanizing ourselves without them doing it to us.

Huxley understood that slavery is the very essence of passivity. And pacified people don't create problems, do they? TV  

June 19, 2023

What's on TV? Sunday, June 19, 1966

As we read about on Saturday, ABC will be carrying live coverage of the conclusion to the 24 Hours of Le Mans this morning; Wide World of Sports ran from 1961 to 1998, and was one of television's essential programs during that time. CBS's version of Wide World, CBS Sports Spectacular, actually began a year earlier, in 1960; it's still kind of on TV, mostly on CBS Sports Network. NBC had a weekly sports anthology series as well, NBC Sports in Action (noon, KRCR), which ran in 1964 and 1965, and was hosted by Jim Simpson and Bill Cullen. (yes, that Bill Cullen; the man could do everything!) While it wasn't as successful as the other two, I'm willing to be that it was the only one to carry the World Octopus-Wrestling Championship, from Puget Sound, Washington. Yes, octupus wrestling was a thing back then—who knew? (I hope Bill Cullen covered it.) Seriously, this is the kind of information that could give you serious cred on trivia night at the local bar. And once again, you have TV Guide, specifically the Northern California edition, to thank for it.

June 17, 2023

This week in TV Guide: June 18, 1966

Odds are, you've never heard of Pippa Passes, Kentucky, in eastern Knott County. Its population in 1990 was 195, and I'd imagine it wasn't much different back in 1966, when it makes its one and (to my knowledge, at least) only starring appearance in TV Guide. It is, according to Edward Morris, assistant professor of English at Alice Lloyd College, "one of the most isolated and culturally deprived areas in America. It has no locally published newspaper, no radio station, no bookstore, no indoor theater, no tavern, not even a bowling alley. Some of its narrow valleys are so rugged that mail has to be taken in on muleback." Up until a few years ago, there was "no significant contact" between eastern Kentucky and the world beyond; "The scattered area newspapers and radio stations devoted themselves almost exclusively to local matters. Salaries were so low that teachers from other parts of the country generally were unwilling to come here. Those who did were often faced with such suspicion and resistance that they left or adopted the local attitudes."

And then something happened. Television came to town, via a community antenna system. Because of it, says Morris, "TV is doing more to educate the people about the realities of modern life than all the teachers have ever done."

One of the first things to notice, according to Morris, is how easy it was for television to become a part of the local environmnt. "[T]elevision, unlike the typical outsider, did not criticize, did not demand, did not so obviously condescend. Seeing no overt threat to their old ways of life, the people succumbed to this pleasant intruder. And the first thing one knew, square dancing was out and frugging was in."

TV has taught the residents of Pippa Passes about more than dancing, though. "They have learned through newscasts and 'specials' that poverty is no more common to them than it is to the Harlem slum-dweller, that their substandard educational system has its counterparts in other states, and that their ballads are at once the prized obsession of the scraggly folksinger and the urbane musicologist." They no longer look with suspicion upon government workers engaging in the "war on poverty" (well, they might regret that later), and their children are exposed to things they've never had the chance to contemplate. Sea Hunt provides them with their first glimpse of a body of water they couldn't jump across. One girl, seeing Grant Wood's "American Gothic" for the first time, cried, "Look! New Country Corn Flakes!" "One would be hard-pressed," says Morris, "to imagine a more delightful, if elementary, introduction to art." 

  Edgle Sloan, a resident of Pippa Passes, patches the
   lead-in wire which brings television into his home.
Morris recounts how, thanks to the World War II espionage show Blue Light, he can now talk to students about Hitler "with reasonable assurance that students can identify him by decade and nationality." Thanks to sitcoms like The Donna Reed Show, "they are being exposed to better grammar and vocabulary than is commonly used in their homes and public schools." They've learned to ask more critical questions about issues like Vietnam than their fathers and grandfathers might have, and don't look to the war as "an escape exit." 

It's particularly interesting when Morris engages in a conversation with a senior citizen, a man who could barely sign his own name, who wondered if the space program was "tampering with the will of the Almighty." "Before I could protest my ignorance of theological niceties, he rambled into such a minutely detailed account of our most recent space shot and its consequent evils that he sounded for the world like Jules Bergman with a drawl." (Notice how all the shows he mentions are on ABC? That must be the affiliate they have access to.) There's also the housewife who, thanks to television, has been introduced to labor-saving products that have "revolutionized" her household routine. 

There are, Morris says, many places like Pippa Passes, places "where most viewers do not belong to book clubs, have never had the chance to visit museums or art galleries, are not totally convinced of the efficacy of regular tooth-brushing and are not aware that uncritical enjoyment is a cultural sin." For all the criticism of television, much of it valid, it has literally opened a window to the world for people who live in areas like this. It is, in its way, a miracle—but it comes with its own sober reminder. Writing in this week's As We See It editorial, Merrill Panitt, reflecting on the Pippa Passes story and how TV has changed the lives of its residents, reminds the television industry that "The men and women responsible for the programs beamed to Pippa Passes—and to the rest of the world—are, in a way, playing God. It is not a role to be taken lightly."

l  l  l

During the 60s, the Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace were the premiere variety shows on television. Whenever they appear in TV Guide together, we'll match them up and see who has the best lineup.

Sullivan: Ed’s guests on this show, originally telecast from Hollywood last October, are Helen Hayes; Duke Ellington and his band; the Smothers Brothers, comedy folk singers; Herman’s Hermits, rock ‘n’ rollers; comics Myron Cohen and Richard Pryor; the Manuela Vargas Ballet Troupe, flamenco dancers; rock ‘n’ roll singer Marvin Gaye; and the Hardy Family, acrobatic tumblers.  

Palace: Host Bing Crosby introduces singer-actress Tammy Grimes; musical-comedy star Nanette Fabray, who joins Bing for a humorous history of duets; British satirist David Frost; comic Jackie Mason; comedy pantomimist Cully Richards; and the Harris Nelson family, who play unusual musical instruments.  

Usually, Bing's presence gives Palace a pretty good chance of winning. Usually, but not always. I enjoy Jackie Mason, but neither Tammy Grimes, Nanette Fabray, or David Frost do anything for me. (I don't know about the Harris Nelson family, although it does remind me of a Rowan and Marting bit. Dan: "I have a brother who plays the piano by ear." Dick: "That's nothing. I have an uncle who fiddles with his navel.") Even that joke, lame though it may be, can't elevate Palace over a lineup that starts with Helen Hayes and Duke Ellington, and includes Herman's Hermits, Richard Pryor, and Marvin Gaye. This week belongs to Sullivan, and that's no joke.

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Throughout the 60s and early 70s, TV Guide's weekly reviews were written by the witty and acerbic Cleveland Amory. Whenever we get the chance, we'll look at Cleve's latest take on the shows of the era. 

This week, Cleveland Amory presents us with a two-part column, beginning with his presentation of the Amorys, his end-of-season awards for the best performances on television. Several of our favorits are among the winners: Patrick McGoohan (Secret Agent) and Diana Rigg (The Avengers) as best actor and actress, respectively, in a drama, and Dean Martin as best performer in a variety series. Hard to complain about those, or most of the rest—although I do have to quibble about Jonathan Harris, of Lost in Space, beating out The Fugitive's Barry Morse for best supporting actor. (Best supporting actress is Joanna Barnes of Trials of O'Brien; best actress in a comedy is Bewitched's Elizabeth Montgomery; and best actor in a comedy goes to Don Adams in Get Smart.)

Cleve dismissed those awards in a single paragraph, as I've just done here; the bulk of the column goes to second thoughts on other shows from the season, including some that claimed awards of a lesser kind, such as Emmys and Peabodys. He's confused as to the four Emmys won by The Dick Van Dyke Show; "honestly, we would have asked for at least four of its old awards back." Barbra Streisand's Peabody ("for heaven's sake") also puzzled Cleve, but it was for her first of her two specials last season; "By the time of the second even the Peabodys, presumably, had had it." He also has his doubts on the Peabody that went to CBS's "National Drivers Test." "Frankly, we found this year’s so-called audience-participation shows better not only with no audio, but also with no video." Shows like this, which encourage viewers to take the test along with everyone else, made Amory "a testy case indeed." The best specials, winners of the Amorys as well as the Peabodys, go to the National Geographic series of documentaries, with honorable mentions to, among others, Jack Paar's "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House."

Finally, Amory has some harsh words for the way TV news handles controversial subjects: "it leans over backward until its head touches its foot, which is by that time in its mouth." One two-part segment on the CBS Evening News on the subject of pet-stealing for research laboratories is a good example; "After weeks of work, it came up with a show that was so confused it was meaningless." Walter Cronkite, Amory winner for best newsman, deserved better. Thinking of all the lawsuits news organizations have encountered over the years for bias in their documentaries, I'm thinking that the viewer deserves better as well.

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There are some truly notable events in the world of sports this week which deserve more attention than usual. beginning with ABC's coverage of the the U.S. Open Golf Championship from the Olympic Club in San Francisco (Saturday and Sunday, 3:00 p.m. PT; Monday, 1:00 p.m.). 

Casper (R) consoles Palmer   
As ABC's cameras pick up the action on the closing holes of Sunday's final round, Arnold Palmer holds a seven-shot lead over his nearest competitor, Billy Casper. With only nine holes remaining and victory all but certain, Palmer decides to attack Ben Hogan's 72-hole record score for the Open. And that's when things begin to unravel quicker than an Arsenal supporter's scarf—Palmer bogies five of those final nine holes, while Casper makes clutch birdies on 15 and 16; after Palmer's bogey on 17, the two men are tied, forcing an 18-hole playoff on Monday. In the playoff, Palmer opens up an early two-shot lead, but after 12 holes the two are tied, and Casper's birdie on 13 is the beginning of the end. Palmer's double-bogey on 16 seals his fate, and Casper wins by four shots. It's one of the most memorable U.S. Opens, and one of golf's most famous blown leads; Palmer is gracious in defeat, acknowledging that his quest for the record ultimately cost him the tournament, but it should be noted that Casper recorded under-par scores in four of his five rounds, and without his three birdies on Sunday's back nine, Palmer still would have hung on for victory. You can see it all, as it happened, here.

That's followed, at least on the West Coast, by Wide World of Sports and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, live via Early Bird satellite (Saturday, 5:00 p.m., tape-delayed from the live broadcast earlier in the day), with Charlie Brockman announcing, joined by American driver and former World Champion Phil Hill, who provides insight between stints in the race. Le Mans has even more significance than usual due to the battle between Ford and Ferrari; after a failed attempt to purchase Ferrari in 1963, followed by an unsuccessful debut at Le Mans in 1964, Henry Ford II turned to designer Carroll Shelby and driver Ken Miles to manage the GT program. This year, Ford is determined to take the top spot, and interest is fueled, so to speak, by ABC's live Saturday telecast of the seventh hour, followed by live coverage of Sunday's conclusion, from 7:30—8:10 a.m. PT. (You can see a portion of the telecast here.) And this time Ford comes through, taking the top three spots. It's not quite free from controversy though; in an attempt to showcase their dominance, Ford has the #1 car, which has led most of the race, slow up so that the #2 Ford can cross the finish line in tandem with it. However, becuase the #2 car had started farther back in the field, it is awarded the victory due to having travelled the longest distance. Ah, rules.

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It's been a pretty eventful issue so far, and we've barely scratched the surface of the week's programming. Let's rectify that, starting with a late-Saturday movie doubleheader that requires you to make a choice. On one hand, you have The Spirit of St. Louis (11:00 p.m., KCRA), with Jimmy Stewart as Charles Lindbergh. It's a pretty entertaining movie, once you look beyond the fact that Stewart is way too old to be playing Lucky Lindy; above all, it remind you of what a titanic accomplishment Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic really was, and how that collective spirit of adventure seems to be missing in today's world. If you want to go in the other direction, there's No Way Out (11:20 p.m., KPIX); the listing includes only Richard Widmark and Linda Darnell, but KPIX's ad gives top billing to Sidney Poitier, who plays a doctor treating vile racist Widmark. I seem to recall reading that Widmark became physically ill at having to say some of the racial slurs to Poitier and apologized to him profusely, even though it was in the script, because he found it so distateful. 

Sunday gives us a snapshot of life in these United States; civil rights activists Stokely Carmichael and James Meredith are the guests on Face the Nation (8:30 a.m., CBS) and Meet the Press (1:00 p.m, NBC), and Robert Abernathy hosts a 90-minute look at Senate hearings of air pollution (1:30 p.m., NBC). Meanwhile, there are several reports on Vietnam, from ABC Scope (noon, KOVR; 2:30 p.m., KRCR) to a Vietnam Review (5:00 p.m., KRON and KRCR), and The Frank McGee Report (6:00 p.m., NBC) measures European reaction to U.S. policy. Lest we forget the ongoing moon program, CBS presents a special, hosted by Charles Kuralt, on the unmanned Surveyor probe that landed on the moon June 2 (6:00 p.m.).

Most of the week's regular fare consists of reruns, although I've Got a Secret begins its 15th season Monday night (8:00 p.m., CBS) with Steve Allen hosting Henry Morgan, Bess Myerson, Bill Cullen, and Betsy Palmer. Meanwhile, The Avengers (10:00 p.m., ABC) also has a first-run episode, with Steed and Mrs. Peel investigating the case of an economist murdered by a bow-and-arrow. On Tuesday, "live from the beach of Santa Cruz," KSBW presents the annual Miss California Parade, the prelude to the pageant over the weekend, featuring contestants, bands, and floats. (7:00 p.m.) At 10:00 p.m., it's another Vietnam special, this time the CBS News Special "Eric Sevareid's Personal Report," which continues the growing drumbeat against the war. It's probably more pleasing to watch an hour of Peggy Lee singing her favorite songs on Something Special. (10:00 p.m., KSTV) 

Wednesday's Batman rerun (7:30 p.m., ABC) is part of one the Caped Crusaders' clash against Zelda the Great (Anne Baxter), and Rob recalls how, during his Army days, he nearly lost Laura in a raffle on The Dick Van Dyke Show (9:30 p.m., CBS). I wonder what Cleveland Amory thought of this episode, since he apparently didn't dig the show's four Emmys. Musically, Lena Horne has her own one-hour, one-woman show (9:00 p.m., KTVU), which I think I'd choose over Peggy Lee—but then, who am I to judge? On Thursday, two Soviet cosmonauts land on Gilligan's Island (8:00 p.m., CBS), but rest assured this won't increase the castaways' chances for rescue. And while Laugh-In isn't a thing yet, that doesn't mean Rowan and Martin aren't; their summer replacement for Dean Martin continues, with a focus on the series regulars, including Lainie Kazan, Judi Rolin, and Dom De Luise. (10:00 p.m., NBC) 

Friday, The Flintstones do one of their occasional pop culture parodies, this time of the fellow-ABC program Shindig, with that show's host Jimmy O'Neill voicing Shinrock's host, Jimmy O'Neilstone. The Beau Brummels provide the entertainment. (7:30 p.m., ABC) Mr. Television himself, Milton Berle, is the guest on Sing Along with Mitch (8:30 p.m., NBC), as he reminisces about his long career in show biz. And if you had any doubts about Gomer Pyle, USMC's status as a fantasy, look no further then this rerun, as Sgt. Carter tries to get Gomer out of his hair by ordering him to take a furlough. More likely he would have ordered him deployed to Vietnam, and it probably wouldn't have made any difference in the outcome. (9:00 p.m., CBS)

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A little industry update for you: The Teletype reports that Robert Lansing, formerly on 12 O'clock High, will be starring in the new fall series The Man Who Never Was, which I briefly covered here. ABC has more plans for upcoming shows; the network "may put on a new daytimer, The Newlywed Game, near the end of summer." 

And we're accustomed to hearing (and voicing) complaints about television's influence on sports, but Henry Harding's On the Record points out how TV's reach extends off the playing fields as well: because of the length of CBS's contract with the NFL and NBC's with the AFL, the two leagues will not merge into a unified league until 1970, even though the agreement to merge has already been reached. It would have been too complicated, Harding notes, to consolidate before then. Also to be determined: who's going to televise the first "world championship" game next January. (Answer: both of them.) However, says Harding, even after the merger, the new league will continue the two-network policy. (How many networks is the NFL on now? How deep is the ocean, how high is the sky?) 

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MST3K alert: The Black Scorpion
(1957). While investigating a recently formed volcano in Mexico, two geologists encounter a prehistoric scorpion which had been freed from its underground habitat. Richard Denning, Mara Corday. (Saturday, 1:00 p.m., KNTV) Richard Denning, after solving mysteries with his wife on Mr. and Mrs. North, but before being elected governor of Hawaii (even though we all know Steve McGarrett really ran the state), had time to hunt down giant scorpions. If you've seen the MST3K take, you'll agree with me that they should have left Juanito down in that cavern. TV