- The Wasteland:
Television is a gold goose that lays scrambled eggs;
and it is futile and probably fatal to beat it for not laying caviar.
When people argue over the quality of television programming, both sides — it’s addictive crap v. underappreciated populist art — seem to forget one of the essentials about commercial TV. By definition, it is not a public service. It is not commercial TV’s job to enlighten, inform, educate, elevate, inspire, or offer insight. Frankly, it’s not even commercial TV’s job to entertain. Bottom line: its purpose is simply to deliver as many sets of eyes to advertisers as possible. As it happens, it tends to do this by offering various forms of entertainment, and occasionally by offering content that does enlighten, inform, etc., but a cynic would make the point that if TV could do the same job televising fish aimlessly swimming around an aquarium, it would (actually, there was something close — the old DuMont network poked a camera out a window overlooking New York City’s Madison Avenue while an off-screen voice recited poetry over the pictures, and called it Window On the World).
This isn’t because the people who run TV networks are cheap or crass (whether they are or not, well, that’s another argument). In fact, over the history of the medium, there have been network chiefs — like William Paley who headed CBS from its inception into the 1980s, and NBC chieftain in the 1980s Grant Tinker — who felt obligated to make their networks earn their money by offering as much high quality programming as they felt their networks could afford and their audiences could digest. For many years — decades, actually — quality programming was so much a part of the CBS reputation that the network was often referred to as, “the Tiffany network.” But, whether a network boss was — or is — a pure mercenary or a starry-eyed idealist about programming, all network honchos were — and still are — in the same boat.
Because TV networks broadcast over the public airwaves, the FCC keeps telling them that they have a certain amount of responsibility to the public, but be that as it may, these are still companies just like General Motors and IBM: they’re in business to make money. When they don’t make money, the stockholders and investors and board members get mad and dump the old management and then hire new managers who say they’ll make sure the company makes money, and if they don’t, they get dumped.
Commercial television has always operated on a very simple cause-and-effect principal: what makes money is putting on shows that people watch. To make a lot of money, you put on shows a lot of people will watch. Good, bad, or indifferent, and despite the legitimate squawking of TV critics and FCC guardians like Newton Minow, a lot of what has filled the network airwaves is there not solely because some tasteless network programmer put it on, but because that’s what people watched. In bulk. And often with a certain amount of enthusiasm (Whaddaya think of that, Newt?).
In the early days of commercial television, TV was something of an elitist medium — although producer Gerald Abrams might argue with the word “elitist”: “You have to remember that in the 50s, most people in American didn’t even have TV! I’m not saying it was elitist to own one, but having a TV was not a given then the way it is now.”
And understandably so, considering how much money it cost to buy one. In the late 1940s, a set could go for $150.00 or so which, figuring for inflation, would be the modern-day equivalent of somewhere around $1000 today. That In mind, it’s no surprise that in 1948, the year people usually consider the start of the modern broadcast era, there were only 500,000 sets in use in the entire United States, and by 1950, the total was still less than four million — only about 9% of American homes — with most of those sets located in major urban areas. Early programmers found themselves looking at an audience that was primarily upscale, urban, well-educated. That explains a lot of the top-end programming from those years. Josh Sapan, CEO and President of AMC Networks, characterizes the era as a “…sort of early adolescence (with) a lot of experimentation.” The hallmarks of TV’s first decade were, “Great drama, quiz shows, and shows (adapted) from the radio.”
The “great drama” included the best remembered programming cornerstone of the early 1950s; the drama anthologies like The U.S. Steel Hour, Philco Playhouse, Playhouse 90, and a host of others, many of which were telecast live. These intelligent, literate stories became dramatic benchmarks that TV critics still use to measure the rise and fall of program quality.
Even when programming began to diversify into more generally popular forms, like Westerns and game shows, programmers still had an eye on that upscale urban audience. A series like Gunsmoke packed in enough character-driven drama to be commended for its adult stories, while including enough galloping horses, punch-outs and shoot-’em-ups to keep almost everybody not interested in high drama happy.
Perhaps the measure of the kind of program quality on the nets in those days is the high caliber talents who came out of TV to go on to bigger things. There were directors like John Frankenheimer (who went on to make, among other feature films, The Manchurian Candidate , The Birdman of Alcatraz ), Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton , Planet of the Apes ), Sam Peckinpah (Ride the High Country , The Wild Bunch ), Blake Edwards (the Pink Panther movies), George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid , The Sting ), Ralph Nelson (Lilies of the Field ), Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde , Little Big Man ), and Sidney Lumet (Serpico , Dog Day Afternoon ).
Performers who paid some of their early dues on TV included Paul Newman, Rod Steiger, Dustin Hoffman, Shirley Knight, Cliff Robertson, Jack Lemmon, George Peppard, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes, Tuesday Weld, Jack Palance, Sally Kellerman, Robert Redford, Martin Sheen, Warren Beatty, Robert Duvall, Nancy Marchand, Lee Marvin, James Coburn, Dennis Hopper, Steve McQueen, and Clint Eastwood.
And there were the writers: Rod Serling (Seven Days in May , Planet of the Apes), Sterling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night ), Paddy Chayefsky (Altered States , Network ).
It is perhaps another measure of the strength of some of these writers that their most notable TV work was considered worth amplifying and turning into material for the big screen. Making the trip from small to big screen were, among others, Serling’s Requiem For a Heavyweight (1962), Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men (1957), J. P. Miller’s The Days of Wine and Roses (1962), Tom Gries’ Will Penny (1968, based on his TV script, “Line Camp” for the series The Westerner), and Chayefsky’s Marty, the big screen version of which won the 1955 Oscar for Best Picture.
In 1950, there were almost a dozen thirty- and sixty-minute anthologies on the air, each presenting a play a week. Two were among the Top Ten series of the year. But, despite critical applause and their reputation as the cream of television, anthologies’ rankings went down as the number of TVs sold went up. By 1955, two out of three households had a TV set and anthologies had forever dropped out of the Top Ten. By 1960, when almost everybody had a TV, only three were still on the air.
Sponsors wanted programming that provided them with the widest possible audience for their advertising messages. Network programmers worked to deliver it to them. The increasing complaint among observers was that, as a result, TV programming became increasingly homogenized and escapist. In other words (or rather, in a word): blah. The 1950s were a time when the seasonal Top Twenty shows regularly included the sitcom, a format that would be the backbone of TV programming seemingly forever. In the ’50s such top-rated programs included I Love Lucy, December Bride, Father Knows Best, The Danny Thomas Show, The Life of Riley, Our Miss Brooks, and The Gale Storm Show. Whatever their relative merits, and some were better than others, these were hardly shows that plugged into the complexities and problems of what we like to refer to as, “The Real World.”
In the hunt for programming that worked, TV producers became notoriously imitative. Ernie Kovacks, a noted TV comedian of the day, put it this way: “There’s a standard formula for success in the entertainment medium, and that is: Beat it to death if it succeeds.”
Take what happened with Warner Brothers for example. Like all of the big movie studios, Warners had been seriously hurt by television. At the end of World War II, 80 million people were going to the movies every week. By 1960, only 43.5 million were still going to the movies weekly, and the number was still heading south. So, to compensate, Warners decided to get into TV production. They sold off their pre-1948 film library to finance the venture and by the time they hit their ’50s TV production peak, they were supplying one-third of prime time programming. The relevant point here is how much alike some of these Warners shows wound up looking.
There was 77 Sunset Strip (hip young private eyes working in L.A.), Surfside 6 (hip young private eyes working out of Miami Beach), Hawiian Eye (hip young private eyes working out of Honolulu), Bourbon Street Beat (hip young private eyes in New Orleans), and The Roaring Twenties (hip young investigative reporters working out of New York City in the ’20s). If they all sound a little similar, trust me as someone who grew up watching them: they were! And not just a little.
Not that there weren’t exceptions. The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis was pretty hip for its time in its look at high school teens. The series was noted for its touch of glib sophistication in the humor, a certain surreal quality to the hapless Dobie punctuating each episode by speaking directly to the audience in the shadow of Rodin’s “The Thinker” statue, and a “relevant” edge in that Dobie was the product of very working class parents instead of the picture-perfect suburbanites of Father Knows Best or Ozzie and Harriet (where, despite living in a very nice house in a very nice part of a very nice town, the family had no visible means of support — Ozzie seemed to hang around the house in his sweater all day every day). There was also the classic The Honeymooners which presented a tenement couple living in a barren walk-up with few prospects for improvement. They squabbled, fought, yelled, dreamed and failed; very much against the grain of where most 1950s series TV was going.
Producer Gerry Abrams remembers the bad and the good: “TV was all black and white in the ’50s, so besides just watching test patterns (I kid you not), people watched roller derbies (the women were the best!), and wrestling with stars such as Argentina Rocca and Gorgeous George (but also) a brand new show from NBC called The Today Show. You also had Your Show of Shows starring Sid Caesar with writers like Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, Mel Brooks, and Carl Reiner. Not bad, huh?”
Josh Sapan remembers another bit of late ’50s/early ’60s gold, one that still holds up rather spectacularly over a half-century later: “The one that stands out for me, head and shoulders above the others, is The Twilight Zone. The Rod Serling intro, which should have comforted kids by acknowledging that (the show) was made up, made (its) possibility seem more real. The characters and story were dominant v. the sci fi (elements), and the pace, casting, and directing were so different (from other shows of the time). He (Serling) was an early TV auteur, and, I think, the full package.”
Still, for the most part, America on television was suburban, comfortably middle class, and socially untroubled. Oh, and it was also generally, invariably, ideally white.
African Americans rarely appeared on early TV. Amos and Andy, adapted from the radio series, featured a nearly all-black cast but was soon cancelled in controversy over the depictions of its black characters. Blacks and whites enjoyed listening to Nat King Cole’s records, but his 1956-57 variety show was cancelled after a year of being unable to attract viewers or sponsors. Beulah was a reasonably popular series but hardly heralded equality among the races with its African American lead a maid for a white family.
Black Americans on TV were so singular, that the most singular thing about the blacks that appeared on two of producer Nat Hiken’s series’ — The Phil Silvers Show and Car 54 — was how unsingular they were presented. The parts were on par with those of most of the white supporting players and no big deal was made of their presence; they were simply “one of the guys.” Wow. Imagine that.
Emmy-winning writer/producer/director Bill Persky gives some idea of how sensitive networks could be over the most innocuous inclusion of race. In the early ’60s, Persky joined the writing stable of the hit sitcom, The Dick Van Dyke Show. According to Persky, a 1963 episode — “That’s My Boy” — sent CBS execs into conniptions. In the episode, Rob Petrie (Van Dyke) is convinced that after his wife, Laura (Mary Tyler Moore), has had a baby, the hospital gave them the wrong baby to bring home. Rob calls up the other father, has him come over to his house to confront him with his suspicions. Door bell rings, Rob opens the door and standing there is black actor Greg Morris.
“In 1963, the racial situation in the country was starting to boil over,” Persky remembers, “and making it a source of comedy was unheard of.” According to Persky, It was only series creator/producer Carl Reiner’s threat to take the story of CBS’ objecting to the episode to the press that pushed the net to cave.
“The reaction to (the episode) was amazing, and the show became a classic because it, in a small way, broke the fever that was burning up the country.”
Generally, what TV fed throughout its adolescence was a sense of peace, prosperity, and comforting uniformity which was as distorted a view of The Real World as you could have while sober. This was, after all, the decade of the Korean War, Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communist “witch hunts,” court-ordered desegregation, the revolution in Cuba, and the Kefauver hearings on organized crime.
The peaceful surface of TV-America was broken only on rare occasions. TV and radio journalist Ed Murrow tackled the McCarthy issue twice on his See It Now documentary series, and both the McCarthy/Army hearings and the Kefauver hearings were covered by television. Still, their overall impact on TV content was nil. Father continued to know best, the sheriff always got his man, and love won out in the end. The Real World received only cursory coverage on the evening news which was then only a 15-minute broadcast.
It remained for other mediums to grapple with the big issues of the day. Tennessee Williams took on America’s passions and mental foibles, and Arthur Miller exposed the failings of the American Dream on stage. On the movie screen, Pork Chop Hill (1959) was one of a number of grim films about Korea, while Edge of the City (1957) tackled racism, On the Waterfront (1954) exposed corruption in the labor unions, The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) frankly depicted narcotics addiction, and the explosion of film noir thrillers like Kiss Me Deadly (1955) reveled in post-World War II disillusionment and paranoia.
What people wanted in their living rooms was reassurance and TV gave it to them. If sponsors and programmers were pumping out the pap, well, nobody was making the millions watch. In fact, if the ratings are any judge, all those shows Newton Minow was dissing were being watched quite avidly.
Consider these Top Five lists from the 1950s:
1. Texaco Star Theater (variety)
2. Fireside Theatre (drama anthology)
3. Philco TV Playhouse (drama anthology)
4. Your Show of Shows (variety)
5. The Colgate Comedy Hour (variety)
1. Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts (variety)
2. Texaco Star Theater
3. I Love Lucy (sitcom)
4. The Red Skelton Show (variety)
5. The Colgate Comedy Hour
1. I Love Lucy
2. Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts
3. Arthur Godfrey and His Friends (variety – old Arthur was the only guy to have two top shows on the nets at the same time!)
4. Dragnet (police drama)
5. Texaco Star Theater
1. I Love Lucy
3. Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts
4. You Bet Your Life (game show)
5. The Milton Berle Show (this used to be Texaco Star Theater)
1. I Love Lucy
2. The Jackie Gleason Show (variety)
4. You Bet Your Life
5. The Toast of the Town (variety)
1. The $64,000 Question (game show)
2. I Love Lucy
3. The Ed Sullivan Show (this used to be
The Toast of the Town)
4. Disneyland (family anthology)
5. The Jack Benny Show (sitcom)
1. I Love Lucy
2. The Ed Sullivan Show
3. General Electric Theater (drama anthology)
4. The $64,000 Question
5. December Bride (sitcom)
1. Gunsmoke (Western)
2. The Danny Thomas Show (sitcom)
3. Tales of Wells Fargo (Western)
4. Have Gun Will Travel (Western)
5. I’ve Got a Secret (game show)
2. Wagon Train (Western)
3. Have Gun Will Travel
4. The Rifleman (Western)
5. The Danny Thomas Show
2. Wagon Train
3. Have Gun Will Travel
4. The Danny Thomas Show
5. The Red Skelton Show
Maybe it was precisely all those complexities of the real world that made people relish simplistic solutions, sparking an explosion of cops, private eyes, and cowboys on TV in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. Dragnet, M Squad, Racket Squad, Highway Patrol, Have Gun Will Travel, Cheyenne, Gunsmoke, Yancy Derringer, Bonanza, and more, all depicted simply-defined problems quickly resolved, more often than not, with a well-placed gunshot or right hook. The simple life of the saddle tramp seemed especially endearing at one point; in 1958, there were 30 Westerns stampeding across the tube, and twelve were in the Top Twenty.
The critics moaned about the monotony of it all. Comedians made jokes about how you couldn’t change channels without finding horses and saloons. Were audiences watching simply because there was nothing else on?
In a 1963 study on audience attitudes conducted by Gary Steiner, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, when asked, “What are some of your favorite programs — those you watch regularly or whenever you get a chance?,” the top choice from twelve categories was, “Action — Westerns, crime, adventure.” “Comedy/Variety” was just a few percentage points behind. “Regular news” was a distant sixth, “Heavy drama” a more distant eighth. When asked to respond with more general categories — “Light entertainment,” “Heavy entertainment,” “News,” “Information & public affairs,” and “All others,” 82% ticked off “Light entertainment” as their first choice for viewing.
Ed Murrow’s acclaimed documentary series, See It Now lasted three years in prime time, but his celebrity interview series Person to Person (a predecessor and weekly version of Barbara Walter’s celeb chats) ran for eight years. See It Now got bumped from prime time in 1955 in favor of far more popular The $64,000 Question. That says something about audience tastes right there.
Quiz and game shows fed the same sort of desire for good feelings and an American ideal. In the late 1950s, they fueled the dream of easy prosperity, offering a short cut of prize money to take a lucky few to the comfortable suburbs where Ozzie lived with Harriet. A game show held a place in the Top Ten every year of the 1950s. In 1955, there were three game shows in the Top Ten, with The $64,000 Question being the most popular show on all of TV for the season. Quiz shows were so big with audiences at the time, that the producers of some of them rigged the competitions so they’d be sure that the contestants most popular with the public won.
The social and international problems of the 1950s paled next to the comparatively cataclysmic upheavals of the 1960s. The decade began with the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Cuban missile crisis, a heated nuclear arms race, and went on to the tragedies of the Kennedy assassinations, Vietnam, the murder of Martin Luther King. There were college takeovers by students, urban riots, violent pro- and anti-war demonstrations, Women’s Lib, Black Power, the Stonewall riots, and the “police riot” in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic convention.
Discontent, despair, and cynicism kicked off a streak of disturbing big screen movies throughout the decade including the likes of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), The Manchurian Candidate, Fail Safe (1964), Bonnie and Clyde, In the Heat of the Night, The Sand Pebbles (1966), Point Blank (1967), Dirty Harry (1971), The Wild Bunch, and Midnight Cowboy (1969). Along with their darkening attitude, the movies had also acquired more graphic violence, sex, and “adult” language.
And on television?
In the era of disillusionment with Vietnam, war was still defined on TV in traditional, heroic World War II terms through series’ like Twelve O’Clock High, Gallant Men, and the long-running Combat. If family and societal values were being fought over — literally — in the streets, the families on The Beverly Hillbillies, Mr. Ed, and The Donna Reed Show all seemed to be getting along fine. And there were still all those gosh-darned cowboys: Wagon Train, Gunsmoke, Rawhide, The Virginian, The Big Valley, The High Chaparral, and the unending Bonanza.
Those shows that did try to bring an honest, gritty edge to the airwaves were usually met with critical kudos and a short life. East Side, West Side, featuring George C. Scott as a New York City social worker, lasted one season; Slattery’s People was a political drama featuring Richard Crenna as the minority leader in an unnamed state legislature which lasted one and a half seasons; David Susskind produced N.Y.P.D., a frank look at the city’s police with scripts often based on real cases that folded after two seasons.
Preferred were programs the networks concocted that took the troubling issues of the day and delivered them in an untroubling manner. The Mod Squad featured a trio of hippy types but showed them fighting for the status quo; Mission: Impossible had the government’s dirty tricks department furthering the cause of good and right in a series that ran for seven years; Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In tempered the edge of its topical, political, and sexual humor with vaudeville shtick and bikini-clad go-go girls for seven seasons.
On the issue of race, the status quo finally started to give ground although at a snail’s pace. The impulse to change usually came from below, from determined producers, rather than through a mandate from the nets.
In 1963, producers of the sci fi anthology The Outer Limits cast black actor Hari Rhodes in a supporting part. ABC objected on the grounds that the script had not specified the part called for a black. Producer Joseph Stefano’s reply was to pen in the word “black” on the script.
A few years later, the networks were still queasy treading on such new ground. Take what happened on a third season episode of Star Trek entitled, “Plato’s Stepchildren.” Par for the show, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and several of his officers, including Lieutenant Uhura (African American Nichelle Nichols) got themselves captured by a nasty superior race of aliens. Well, these “stepchildren” had super mental powers, and one of the ways they decided to amuse themselves was to mess with Kirk’s mind and make him kiss Uhura. What the aliens didn’t care about was that this would be the first kiss across the color line on TV.
If the aliens didn’t mind, NBC did. The way Ms. Nichols told it to David Gerrold in his book, The World of Star Trek, while the net was gutsy enough to allow the kiss, the on-camera compensation had to be that Kirk couldn’t look too thrilled at it. “We played too hard against it,” Nichols told Gerrold. “(Shatner) fought it as if he didn’t want to kiss me.” Afterwards, Nichols said, the mail came in to the show in buckets essentially saying that the good captain had to be out of his planet-hopping mind to fight kissing such an attractive woman.
Still, there were more positive signs. One of the ballsiest moves came from producer Sheldon Leonard. Leonard had begun in Hollywood as an actor. “Sheldon played every Damon Runyon character ever put on screen,” says Bill Persky who worked for Leonard’s production company on The Dick Van Dyke Show. “He was a Bronx guy who spoke out the side of his mouth, but it was always straight talk, and from years in the business and his innate intelligence, the information was always solid.” In 1965, Leonard went full-force at TV’s color line with the globe-trotting espionage series I Spy, casting Bill Cosby as the first black lead on a dramatic series, a role which earned the actor/comedian three Emmys.
Though popular with critics and audiences, I Spy converted neither network wariness nor audience prejudices overnight. Throughout its run, I Spy was banned from a number of southern TV stations, and it wouldn’t be until 1968 before another black performer top-lined a network show, this one the bland but nevertheless groundbreaking sitcom Julia, starring Diahann Carroll.
Bill Persky managed to break some ground of his own on another front with That Girl, a series he created with his partner Sam Denoff, which debuted in 1966. Starring Marlo Thomas as a young wannabe actress trying to make it in New York, That Girl was something of a precursor — even, arguably, an ancestor — to HBO’s hit, Sex and the City, which wouldn’t come along for another three decades. “(That Girl) was the first time a young woman was the star of the show and didn’t have to be living with or working for a dominant male character. (The character of Ann Marie) wanted to be her own person, and had a dream which no one could discourage or take away. She would take any job, face any adversity, and never be stopped.
“(The show) had such great impact on young girls in their teens who, until then, hadn’t thought there were options beyond getting married and being a mother. Marlo was a feminist before there was even a word for them.”
The landmark series most critics generally credit with bringing TV into a realistic present day was producer Norman Lear’s All in the Family, which debuted in 1971. Carroll O’Connor played a lower middle-class blue collar guy, an ill-informed, narrow-minded bigot who wasn’t shy about sharing his rather nasty opinions. The series put the topic of prejudice and just about every other social and political ill out in the open and became a long-running success in the process. It launched an era Josh Sapan describes as TV’s “early adulthood and…the beginning of some socially impactful TV.”
In the years that followed, the taboo against relevant subjects seemed to fade, and so did color lines. All in the Family and Dawn were all highly popular shows with minority casts or leads. Ensemble casts now always found room to diversify the age, race, and gender of their troupes. Cop sitcom Barney Miller, for example, began its long run with a cast that included the proverbial young hot-headed cop, the proverbial wise elder cop, a Latino cop, a black cop, and an Asian cop, all under the command of their Jewish captain. Sexism, rape, racial equality, mental illness, homosexuality: bit by bit, it all came out into the open as well. This age of television glasnost would prompt something of a second golden age for the medium, with such pinnacles as the miniseries’ Roots and Holocaust.
Still, television hadn’t necessarily gotten better on the whole. The Top Ten lists remained dominated by “safer” programs. Take a look at the Top Ten from each year starting with All in the Family’s first season to the year it finally got knocked out of first place by flyweight Happy Days:
1. All in the Family
2. The Flip Wilson Show (variety)
3. Marcus Welby, M.D. (medical drama)
5. ABC Movie of the Week (weekly made-for-TV
6. Sanford and Son (sitcom)
7. Mannix (private eye drama)
8. Funny Face (sitcom)
9. Adam-12 (police drama)
10. The Mary Tyler Moore Show (sitcom)
1. All in the Family
2. Sanford and Son
3. Hawaii Five-O (police drama)
4. Maude (sitcom)
5. Bridget Loves Bernie (sitcom)
6. The NBC Mystery Movie (three series alternating
in the same time slot: McCloud, Columbo, and
MacMillan and Wife)
7. The Mary Tyler Moore Show
9. The Wonderful World of Disney (family anthology)
10. Ironside (police drama)
1. All in the Family
2. The Waltons (family drama)
3. Sanford and Son
4. M*A*S*H (sitcom)
5. Hawaii Five-O
7. Kojak (police drama)
8. The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour (variety)
9. The Mary Tyler Moore Show
10. Cannon (private eye drama)
1. All in the Family
2. Sanford and Son
3. Chico and the Man (sitcom)
4. The Jeffersons (sitcom)
6. Rhoda (sitcom)
7. Good Times (sitcom)
8. The Waltons
10. Hawaii Five-O
1. All in the Family
2. Rich Man, Poor Man (dramatic mini-series)
3. Laverne & Shirley (sitcom)
5. The Bionic Woman (action/adventure)
6. Phyllis (sitcom)
7. Sanford and Son
9. The Six Million Dollar Man (action/adventure)
10. ABC Monday Night Movie (theatrical movie)
1. Happy Days (sitcom)
2. Laverne & Shirley
3. ABC Monday Night Movie
5. Charlie’s Angels (private eye/adventure)
6. The Big Event (various specials)
7. The Six Million Dollar Man
8. ABC Monday Night Movie
9. Barretta (police drama)
10. One Day At a Time (sitcom)
What had changed was the audience. The first generation of television children was growing up and they were becoming the major target of advertisers. Increasingly out of touch with the values of their parents, this new generation of viewer looked for something different on TV from what their parents watched. You could deal with previously taboo topics, but at the same time, the status quo continued to be reinforced. The Top Ten lists show that younger viewers didn’t want too much too different. Cop shows made the cut; Westerns didn’t (by 1974, not a single Western was on the air and they have appeared only sporadically since).
And the medium certainly hadn’t gotten any more altruistic. The move into more honest and relevant programming showed itself just as dedicated to the goals of commercial TV — trading big viewership for big advertising dollars — as any other programming wave.
Once All in the Family clicked, TV went into its stock imitative mode copying what worked and dishing it back out in slightly altered form. All in the Family had a lower middle-class white family debating the relevant issues of the day. Good Times, a spin-off based on a character introduced on …Family, featured a poor, urban black family debating the relevant issues of the day. Another …Family character was spun off into the series Maude, about an upper middle-class suburban family debating the relevant issues of the day, while The Jeffersons, also born of …Family, were an upwardly mobile black family debating the relevant issues of the day.
As audience research grew more sophisticated, the nets realized that it wasn’t always enough to have high ratings; they had to be the right kind of ratings. The nasty word “demographics” became increasingly heard, meaning the make-up of TV’s audience broken down by age, gender, income, etc. Demographic studies could tell what programs appealed to what segment of the American public, and sometimes the demographic nature of an audience offset the size of the rating.
At about the same time that CBS launched All in the Family, the network cleaned house on its schedule, dumping a number of series with solid ratings. Rural comedies including The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres, as well as the country/western version of Laugh-In — Hee-Haw – were swept out because advertisers didn’t think they appealed to the urban audiences where the Big Money was. Also out were network milestones like The Jackie Gleason Show, Red Skelton’s 20-year veteran variety show, and another 20-year trooper, the long-running Gunsmoke. The ratings were still good, but CBS felt that as the shows had grown older, so had their audiences, and advertisers were not putting their prime dollars behind reaching a gray-haired market.
NBC, on the other hand, scrapped the low-rated Star Trek despite its cultish appeal and an enormous letter-writing campaign from its fans. NBC thought the Star Trek audience was too young to be of interest to big advertisers.
One of the few times a network acted without regard to business goals was the cancellation of the Top Twenty The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. The reason? CBS was uncomfortable with the topical humor on the show and was uncomfortable with the brothers’ cracks about the government, Vietnam, social unrest, sex, religion, etc. Exit: The Smothers Brothers.
Deeper into the 1970s, the average TV viewer seemed to tire of dealing with the issues of the day. John and Joan Average didn’t want to worry about the state of the world, or even that of the U.S. of A. Topicality had had its day. Now came what many industry observers referred to as The Silly Season.
This was the era of Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Mork and Mindy, The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Three’s Company, Charlie’s Angels.
These programs came by way of ABC chief programmer Fred Silverman. At CBS, in a similar position, Silverman had steered the network into the All in the Family days of relevant, edgy programming. Now at ABC, he laid out a new strategy of fluff, fantasy, and broad comedy. TV critics might have moaned about the endless parade of empty-headed entertainment dancing across their screens, but nevertheless, Silverman’s strategy made ABC Number One among the networks for the first time in its history.
After the ’70s came the ’80s and a whole different brand of fantasy and fluff. This was the decade of the prime time soap operas, when the top shows included Dallas, Dynasty, Falconcrest and Knott’s Landing.
As negative as all this is sounding, the point here is not to say that during all those years television had been pumping out ton after ton of lousy and/or flyweight and/or exploitative programming. It did, but there were also a number of very good programs done, even during the height of the silly season. The very same network that was up to its ears in fluff also launched the highly respected Barney Miller the year after Happy Days hit the air. Some lasted (Barney Miller ran for seven season), and some didn’t.
And television did experiment. Gerry Abrams remembers ABC “…trying to learn how to produce this new thing called ABC Movie of the Week (sort of an updated version of the old anthology dramas of the 1950s)…if you had a good idea and had some talent to deliver, you generally could get things made, even if it wasn’t based on a book or any published material.” Installments included The Night Stalker (1972) which, for years, was one of the highest-rated non-sports TV offerings ever, and a little ditty about a killer truck called Duel (1971, the first feature by a young wannabe auteur named Steven Spielberg. Some MOTW’s were admirably daring, like That Certain Summer (1972), the first TV movie to portray homosexuality in a sympathetic fashion, and of which Los Angeles Times critic Charles Champlin wrote, “…a film whichh would do honor to any size screen.”
Every now and then, TV dared to push the boundaries on content and presentation a little bit, particularly after it began losing larger and larger audience numbers to cable (we’ll come back to that point later). Hill Street Blues, for example, took the idea of continuing story lines from soap operas and adapted it to an upscale, adult police drama. Law & Order fragmented the usual one-hour dramatic format into two parts; the first half-hour of the show depicting police investigating a crime, the second half dedicated to the district attorneys who prosecuted it. Miami Vice adapted the high-tone visual flavor of MTV to another police series. The Simpsons became TV’s first prime time hit cartoon series since The Flintstones in the 1960s, only this time the humor was based on ruthless lampoons of other sitcoms as well as society at large and even itself. The Addams Family exploded sitcom conventions with outrageous black humor. Another sitcom that tried to expand the boundaries of the sitcom genre was NBC’s My World and Welcome to It. The show tried to take the sitcom form to a new plane by having its lead character, loosely based on humorist James Thurber, interact with his own fantasies many of which were presented in a mix of live-action and animation.
There were also a lot of experiments that didn’t fly. NBC gave producer George Schlatter a shot at another comic coup after he delivered the hit Laugh-In. The result was a half-hour show of skit comedy hosted by a computer, and which pushed — and many felt stepped over — the borders of good taste. The show lasted exactly one telecast.
ABC bravely aired the made-for-TV movie The Day After which dramatized the nuking of the U.S. at a time when people feared nuclear war was not only a real possibility, but maybe even inevitable. Although it was the highest-rated made-for-TV movie ever made up to that time, ABC took a financial bath. Few advertisers wanted to promote their products during a film that spent three hours depicting the human race dying slowly and miserably. The film was never re-run on the network.
The late 1980s saw the debuts of several “dramadies,” a new form of half-hour show that tried to blend drama with the components of the situation comedy. Despite often garnering critical acclaim, none of them — Slap Maxwell, Hooperman, or The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd went more than a couple of seasons (although …Molly Dodd moved to the Lifetime basic cable channel with new episodes and continued its run for several more seasons).
The point that is being made is that most of the program formats we know today — like the sitcom, the hour drama, the cop show — were in place and well dug in by the 1970s. Most attempts to try something new and different cost the networks audience and money. By and large, the ratings indicated that what the bulk audience wanted to see was more of what they’d already seen, maybe with some tweaks and a new spin. Viewers were comfortable with the familiar, and the familiar was programming that was largely lightweight, socially irrelevant, and morally simplistic. For the crabby critic, the only break in the monotony was in movies on TV.
There had always been theatrical movies on TV. The film studios had unloaded a lot of their old and low-grade product on local broadcasters back in the 1950s. But the studios were loath to release anything recent. They were in no mood to provide what would be a considerable asset to the new, competing medium.
TV had hurt the studios in a big way with weekly attendance dropping by the millions each year. The problem wasn’t that those moviegoers were going somewhere else. The problem was that, thanks to TV, they weren’t going anywhere. Why drag yourself out to the movies when you could find a whole night of free entertainment in your very own living room? The movie industry was so angry with television that it did schoolyard-spiteful things like putting it in movie star contracts that the stars couldn’t appear on TV shows, or forbidding TV sets to show up in their movies.
By the end of commercial TV’s first decade, the studios realized television was here to stay and there was no sense ignoring it. As a matter of fact, they might as well try to make a few bucks off it and in more ways than just making shows for it. In the fall of 1961, NBC launched Saturday Night at the Movies, and selling recent movies to TV — and TV’s running of recent movies — became a big business. Where before getting top-grade titles out of the movie industry had been like getting blood out of a rock, now network buys of “A” movies meant regular big paydays for the studios.
Throughout the decade, theatrical movies became an increasingly important part of network schedules. Each summer the nets would beat their drums about all the great theatrical movies they’d be presenting the following season. By 1970, six nights out of seven had a network movie presentation. In the 1970s, movie nights were regularly featured among Top Twenty ratings lists.
While movies on TV broke up the humdrum quality of a lot of TV programming, they had their downsides, too. As the content of movies got stronger and stronger (offering moviegoers what they couldn’t get on TV was the movie industry’s strategy for competing with the small screen; this meant things like wide-screen projection and stereo sound as well as sex, violence and dirty words), the nets were forced to trim films for their presentation on TV. Nets would either cut the offending footage entirely, or the studio would have actors re-record (or loop) their dialogue, so that viewers watching the movie would see an actor’s lips say, “I’ll chase that dirty bastard to the ends of the earth and shoot him down like the filthy sonofabitch he is!,” but they’d hear, “I’ll chase that dirty bum to the ends of the earth and shoot him down like the filthy nasty man he is!” As the studios became increasingly concerned about the needs of TV, they would sometimes shoot alternate footage to replace material that TV wouldn’t air.
Depending on the movie, sometimes the cuts were so extensive that you were left wondering why the network had even bothered buying the film in the first place. The network version of Sam Peckinpah’s ultra-violent landmark Western The Wild Bunch was so chopped up that parts of the movie didn’t even make sense. One TV critic, looking at the network-butchered version of Midnight Cowboy, re-christened the film, 11:30 Cowboy.
Broadcasters were also not averse to cutting a movie simply to make it fit into a certain time slot. Along the same lines, they might time compress a film either to make it fit in a given slot, or to make more room for commercials (movies normally run at 24 frames per second; when time compressing a film, the movie might be run at 25 frames per second, or 26, 27, as fast as the programmer thought it could go without noticeably distorting movement or sound). On a two-hour movie, time compression could shave a few minutes off the running time of a film.
Also, movie screens being larger than TV screens meant small details in movies would often get lost on TV. And, as wide-screen film processes became more popular, the rectangular shape of a wide-screen film made a poor fit for the square shape of a TV screen. Depending on which wide-screen process was used, TV viewers of that film could be missing from a third to a half of the full movie picture frame.
Broadcasters used several techniques to jam wide-screen movies on TV. The most commonly used was pan and scan. What happens here is that when the movie was being transferred to videotape, the TV lens used to record the film was moved around the movie frame to find that part of the frame where the most important action is taking place.
All in all, TV by the 1970s — for all the progress and maturing it had experienced since its first years — still left the picky TV critic with a lot to crab about. The critic could look at the upcoming fall season and moan about how he/she’d felt she/he’d already seen all this stuff before. He/she could turn to a movie, only to crab about how the broadcasters were always cutting off the sides of the picture, and/or how they were cutting out all the good parts, and especially how they kept breaking up the dramatic flow every 13-1/2 minutes for their lousy, noisy commercials.
What would really make TV crabs crabby was it didn’t look like they had a lot of alternatives.
Maybe not a lot, but there were some.
NEXT WEEK: Greener Grass
- Bill Mesce