Monday, June 22, 2015

US Television in 1978: The Good, the Bad, and...

I'll stick mostly to national programming here, even if (since I lived in the Boston suburb of Londonderry, NH in 1978) there were some definitely local bright spots on the schedules, such as Club 44, a "nightclub" variety show on WGBX, Channel 44, PBS powerhouse WGBH 2's little sibling; it grew so popular that GBH snatched it away, dulled it down, and retitled it The Club. 

I'm also not too sure how widely distributed was the Janus Film Collection package WGBH ran under a PBS Theater banner (Janus had long since relocated to NYC, and would eventually spawn the Criterion Collection laserdisc and dvd label, but cofounder Cyrus Harvey was still running a Harvard Square cinema)...I suspect it was strictly local. 

Kaiser Broadcasting gave up the ghost in 1977, selling most of their stations to their Chicago-based minority-interest partner, though their attempts at even a limited network slate were by then down to the national version of The Lou Gordon Program interview series and the Creature Double-Feature package Saturday afternoons on their Boston and Philadelphia stations; newly solo owners and successors Field Communications continued not to run the latter on their Chicago, Detroit or San Francisco properties. (Kaiser hadn't done anything else as elaborate as their chainwide purchase of the  syndicated weekdaily/nightly, well-received but undercapitalized series Della, a chat/variety show starring Della Reese, since its 1969-70 run)(though the Kaiser group were the first to discover the ratings pull of syndicated repeats of Star Trek in weekday afternoon timeslots, in the earliest 1970s, helping Paramount and a budding fannish subculture enormously) (Field's most elaborate efforts were in a few series of original and newly imported kids' programming, later on).

For some reason, this ?archive copy? footage is in black and white, while Della was taped and shown in color: War, with Eric Burdon, is featured:

But a recent post, featuring TV Guide pages from 1978, on Retrospace drew some attention to that year, and I was certainly reminded of a lot of the worst (and often most popular) national programming...and also some good to excellent stuff that has slipped into obscurity, very much including some of PBS's best series of the time...and such others as Second City Television, recently highlighted here.

SCTV does Ingmar Bergman:
1. Scenes from an Idiot's Marriage

2. Whispers of the Wolf

Fall 1978 on CBS featured the final seasons of the diminished All in the Family and Rhoda.  M*A*S*H was also not quite up to what it had been, but Lou Grant and The Paper Chase were doing good work; rather less impressive except for their juxtaposition were the Friday night offers of The New Adventures of Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk (almost a pity we didn't see an early DC/Marvel video crossover). The White Shadow was first telecast that season,  but more importantly for me, so was WKRP in Cincinnati. Emmy-winning Kaz may've been the best series I've not seen from CBS this year; The American Girls probably was less interesting, as apparently a Lou Grant-flavored Charlie's Angels60 Minutes was coming into its own, even if, as Deanne Stillman pointed out, most of their exposés were of easy targets; CBS Reports was still doing interesting hours irregularly.

In fact, this excerpt suggests The American Girls was even more inane than Charlie's Angels; the similarly short-lived CBS hourlong stewardess sitcom Flying High was about as bad, but with a laugh-track, to judge by online evidence.

("De Duva": the Bergman parody mentioned below.)

PBS had some weekly series I tried not to miss this season, such as the International Animation Festival hosted by Jean Marsh, paired with the relatively new Sneak Previews (the first national Siskel and Ebert film-review series) and a short-film showcase hour I'm still looking for details about (including its title--I was particularly happified by a parody they ran of  Ingmar Bergman's films such as The Seventh Seal, wherein Death challenges others to a game of badminton).  PBS's notable dramatic anthology series in the late '70s was Visions, which might be the most unfairly obscure of the sequence of anthologies KCET produced or co-produced for the network in the first couple of decades of PBS (it followed Hollywood Television Theatre--overlapping a bit--and preceded American Playhouse and the brilliant sitcom anthology Trying Times); I would catch these more assiduously than I would Masterpiece Theatre (and that it featured episodes written by, for example, Jean Shepard and Cormac McCarthy in rapid succession certainly says something).  Of course, there were other anthologies as well, such as The American Short Story (visible on Amazon Prime Video, though they don't have them all and they don't make it easy to find all they have) and repeats of the NET Playhouse (a carryover from National Educational Television, the predecessor network to PBS). I was already a big fan of Nova and the PBS run of the irregular National Geographic specials (though I was surprised how much less I liked The Cousteau Odyssey than I had the earlier ABC series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, both essentially NatGeo spinoffs) and would catch The Dick Cavett Show fairly frequently. 

The Boston-based syndicators to public stations, the Eastern Educational Network, hadn't become American Public Television yet, but they (and BBC's Lionheart office) continued to offer such BBC programming as Monty Python's Flying Circus, Doctor Who and Wodehouse Playhouse and such ITV series I liked as No, Honestly, the latter two starring the married couple Pauline Collins and John Alderton (and the last a kind of UK variation on He and She, the former rather unsurprisingly P. G. Wodehouse dramatizations). I believe, without certainty, that EEN also syndicated the late 1970s package of The Prisoner to US stations, with a (Canadian?) post-episode discussion segment to help make a 56-minute running time for non-commercial airing (as distinct from D. Scott Apel's mid 1980s presentations for PBS affiliate KTEH). And, from SECA (not yet NETA), Firing Line had a certain attraction, particularly when I liked the guest or, as when William F. Buckley debated Ronald Reagan in 1979 respectively for and against returning the Canal Zone to Panama, I could agree with Buckley (Reagan's glare of pure hatred at Buckley when the latter gloatingly made a telling point certainly stuck with me). 

The late 1970s was not quite the hotbed of first-run commercial syndication that the latter 1950s and early 1960s had been (thanks to Ziv TV, NTA and many others), or the latter 1980s into the 1990s would be, but aside from the continuing run of SCTV mentioned above, 1978 saw the last new episodes of America 2-Nite (which in its first summer season the previous year had been Fernwood 2-Nite) and Forever Fernwood (the continuation of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman after Louise Lasser flaked out and quit the series). The linked talk-show and soap-opera parodies were often great fun (Norman Lear's science-fictional soap/sitcom All That Glitters had died a quick death in 1977). A bit more sober, The Wild, Wild World of Animals also wrapped up that year, a consistently good nature documentary series, narrated by William Conrad and produced and distributed by Time/Life--much better than most such series, before or since. Though I've never been a football fan, I would happily catch the NFL Films occasional syndicated documentaries of this period...they were very well-produced and -written.

NBC was struggling horribly in 1978, as Fred Silverman had spectacularly failed to replicate his success as chief of programming at CBS, then ABC, earlier in the decade. Aside from fine legacy programming such as The Rockford Files and Saturday Night Live there was little worth looking at on the network; the series I completely missed on NBC this season I might've enjoyed was The Eddie Capra Mysteries, which repurposed unproduced scripts written for the too-quickly cancelled Ellery Queen series of several years earlier. One I did mildly enjoy was Cliffhangers, which offered somewhat updated approaches to movie serials over its brief run. Aside from the rather duller primetime form of the fine formerly late-night newsmagazine Weekend, there was almost nothing else I watched nor wanted to on NBC among weekly series.

ABC was luxuriating in the success of some of the most aggressively stupid series of the decade, though of course Roots the previous year had indicated that good television could do even better for them. So, to keep a hand in, they also ran Barney Miller (though Dan Savage has a point when he notes how casually they dealt in some pernicious stereotyping) and added Soap (more absurdist, but ditto). For whatever reason, Family never did much for me (I found it blandly pleasant, rather like CBS's Thursday line-up of the fading The Waltons, Hawaii Five-0 and Barnaby Jones). Angie struck me as slightly better, but not so much I needed to see every episode.

And then there were the Atrocious ones...10 of my least favored series ever were on this season:

Three's Company
What's Happening!!
The Ropers (spun off from Three's Company)
Battlestar Galactica (the unoriginal)
Welcome Back, Kotter (standing in for all the other series that also started tolerably, or even better than that,  and just kept tumbling into sewers...of course, some just start bad and stay bad, but perhaps they're usually less enervating. Happy Days was another which had a decent first season and change, and quickly became unwatchable after that.)

The Dukes of Hazzard
People (based on the magazine, notable for harassing Greta Garbo)

Real People  (Supertrain was to be more pitied than censured.)

In Search of...
(...which was notable for how good its music could be, versus how awful everything else about it was [the Retrospace article mentions the spun-off Hee-Haw Honeys, which I managed to miss entirely and no doubt on purpose]. This was a pretty good era for musical programming, even if jazz wasn't too well represented compared to either the '60s or the '80s, and before and since. PBS had Great Performances (which even had a bit of drama in its mix), Live from Lincoln  Center, Austin City Limits and Soundstage (and it still has all four, if only sporadically the last); NBC had The Midnight Special; ABC had had In Concert; Don Kirshner's Rock Concert was was the still occasionally new The Lawrence Welk Show, though that was less likely to be my music...likewise The Porter Wagoner Show, particularly since Dolly Parton was long gone.)


pattinase (abbott) said...

Wow. TV has improved.

Unknown said...

As Patti says, TV has improved, but I still miss the old days.

James Reasoner said...

While I agree that THREE'S COMPANY wasn't very good, I still have a stubborn fondness for it because it was one of the series my wife and I watched when we were first married. HAPPY DAYS I enjoyed most of the way through, until Ron Howard left. The others you mention not liking, yeah, we're pretty much in agreement.

Todd Mason said...

I could never tolerate the We're Idiots Laughing at Those idiots default of particularly the bad sitcoms I cite (and HEE-HAW)...what's more, US tv would get worse in the early '80a before taking an uptick as a few more attempts at intelligent series were rewarded.

Yes, as goofy or self-important as what I saw last night could be, yes, tv averages much better now (the HBO slate, where THE BRINK seems pat, but the best of the three new dramatic series, even given the fine Rachel McAdams in the new season of TRUE DETECTIVE, and WGN's SALEM and AMC's HALT AND CATCH FIRE).

Todd Mason said...

There is something to be said for a 1969 jam on "Bright Lights, Big City" between Della Reese and War with Eric Burdon, though. There's always something to miss.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

I actually remember a lot of these from when I was briefly living in the UK - certainly watched MARSH, RHODA, HULK and WONDER WOMAN (and I think DUKES OF HAZARD) but only started watchign LOU GRANT a bit later. I loved SOAP - can;t imagine now what I thought it meant to a 10-year-old but I thought it was very funny though I must have missed most fot he jokes (still remember Robert urich getting shot on the shower - but then came back in VEGA$!)

Todd Mason said...

Yeah, Vega$ ran about the same time as Soap...not subtle, the latter, but pretty clever as I remember it (age 14).

Yvette said...

I absolutely HATED Three's Company. One of those shows that is so appallingly bad that it almost defies reason. In fact, it's popularity defied reason. I remember thinking - when I watched the pilot - well, this won't last three weeks. BOY, was I wrong!

I loved SOAP and WONDER WOMAN and BARNEY MILLER and MARY HARTMAN, MARY HARTMAN which I thought at the time was cutting edge. :)

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Apologies for the insane number of typos even by my standards - was really typing on the fly there - not literally, but frankly ... I quite like the idea of a show called MARSH, about a New Zealand author of boring mysteries probably ...

Todd Mason said...

Sergio...picking on Ngaio is hardly gentlemanly...or at least nigh on un-Chrisie-an...

Well, Yvette, if a sitcom sniggered about sex while ensuring no one had any, apparently that was reassuring to large segments of the audience at the time. Though WHAT'S HAPPENING!! did its level best to be as aggressively bad...while being based on a not-bad film, COOLEY HIGH (or, at least, I liked the film back when and thoroughly hated the series). And MARY HARTMAN squared was indeed pushing some envelopes...or cutting them open...

Elgin Bleecker said...

Todd – Your post really takes me back. I recall watching THE WHITE SHADOW every week. And POLICE STORY, a good, anthology series from Joseph Wambaugh, was still on in 1978.

Todd Mason said...

I liked POLICE STORY, too...but it, like THE BOB NEWHART SHOW of the 1970s (as opposed to that of the '60s) and THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW, wrapped up in Spring 1978...which, to keep things arguably reasonable, I cut off from primary consideration here. THE TONY RANDALL SHOW wasn't too shabby, either. (And, for what little it's worth, Bob Newhart and Carol Burnett were cohosts of THE ENTERTAINERS for a season in the mid-late '60s.)