Monday, March 02, 2009

1969 – The TV Guide Fall Preview

1969 was a year of upheaval in many areas, but for the most part TV wasn't one of them. At least it wasn't in a business sense. In one way TV had a stability back then that we haven't seen in years. Shows were cancelled, but if you look at the history of the shows that were dropped in the 1969-70 season you will find that the bulk of them ran for a full season. Only five shows were cancelled at midseason and four of them were on one network – ABC. That doesn't mean that there wasn't upheaval. While only five shows were cancelled both CBS and ABC engaged in a process that most people would consider murderous to shows today, changing a show's timeslot at mid-season. And they didn't just swap new shows with each other; in a number of cases they moved established shows to fill holes in the line-up. It actually worked in one case.

Looking exclusively at the numbers of shows that were on in the Fall of 1969, one might be excused for thinking that television was intended as a delivery system for sitcoms and variety show. There were fourteen variety shows on the air including four new hours featuring Andy Williams, Jimmy Durante, Jim Nabors and Leslie Uggams. There were also two sketch comedy shows. There were also twenty-five sitcoms, eight of which were new. There were seven westerns (and this is stretching the definition of "western" to include shows like Daniel Boone and Here Come The Brides), but nothing new. As for the genre that would dominate the 1970s and beyond, the cop or detective series, there were only eight of those – none of them new either. A "wheel" series – a show that rotated several unrelated dramas – included a cop series as well as a medical drama (one of three that debuted in 1969) and the only lawyer show of the year. And then there were shows that didn't really fit into any conventional genre. Predictably several of these were on the weakest of the big three networks, ABC.

To be sure there were some notable shows, and I'll get to them shortly, but as is often the case failures can be more interesting than success. And that was the case with ABC's Monday night schedule. There were four shows, the most conventional of which was the only real success, the sketch comedy Love American Style. The rest of the line-up was full of show that can best be described as before their time. Take Harold Robbins' Survivors for example. The show was an adaptation of Robbins' novel of the same name featuring the lifestyle of the rich and famous. The producers said in the TV Guide preview, "Our stories are about human beings who have the same kind of problems as you or I." That is they're the sort of problems you have if you're a woman with an illegitimate teenage son that you have to protect from your world, a philandering embezzler husband, a playboy half-brother, and a tyrannical but dying father. The show had a star-studded cast – Lana Turner, Ralph Bellamy, George Hamilton, Jan-Michael Vincent (billed by TV Guide as Michael Vincent), and Rossano Brazzi. In other words it was a night time soap; not the first – that was probably ABC's own Peyton Place – but it did set a model for shows like Dallas, Falcon Crest, and Dynasty. The show was massively expensive and did poorly in the ratings. And while someone writing for IMDB claims that the show was meant to be the first "mini-series" there's no real indication that it was meant to last just a single season. As it stands the show didn't even last that long, disappearing after fifteen episodes.

And let's see if this sounds familiar. In explaining how The Music Scene would work as a modern take on Your Hit Parade, the producers explained that they would "build up a bank of pretaped performances by artists whose records appeared to be heading toward the top of the charts. The five days before air time, the get a peek at Billboard's latest rankings, pull out appropriate tapes and create a balanced show – a mixture of rock, country-and-western, jazz, ballads, folk etc." Sure sounds to me like ABC (re)invented the music video and a prototype of MTV a dozen years before MTV. The list of acts that appeared on The Music Scene included The Beatles, James Brown, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Three Dog Night, Janis Joplin, Smokey Roninson and the Miracles, Sly & the Family Stone, Isaac Hayes, and Stevie Wonder. The show was an odd length – 45 minutes – and was paired with another 45 minute show called The New People, the premise of which might also sound familiar: a planeload of young people crash on a remote Pacific Island. The chances of rescue are almost nil so they have to build a new society. Fortunately the island has a full complement of houses and supplies – it had been built as the site for a possible above ground nuclear test but never used. Gee, doesn't that sound familiar. Neither show drew a large audience (by the standards of the day: the debut episodes of The Music Scene and The New People had ratings of under 14.0 in the Fast Nationals according to the TV Obscurities article on the show – executives today would kill their own mothers for those sorts of numbers) and The Music Scene was probably not helped by the fact that the networks were more concerned with the size of the mass audience than they were with the make-up or demographics of the audience. Both shows were cancelled at the mid-season mark along with a third new series, a TV version of Mr. Deeds Goes To Town starring Monte Markham and Pat Harington, and ABC venerable variety show Hollywood Palace. The other networks didn't face such obvious problems, but then again they weren't being as daring in programming. The only show that either of the other two networks cancelled at the midseason point was The Leslie Uggams Show which was the first hour long variety show to be hosted by an African-American. It only lasted ten episodes.

The networks reacted to the cancellation of these shows in a way that would surprise people today – the moved established shows. Today this sort of thing would be regarded with horror by fans. Conventional wisdom is that moving a series to a new night at any time let alone during the season is not unlike getting a kiss from a Mafia Don – you won't survive – but it was what was done in 1969. ABC moved It Takes A Thief and the Wednesday Night Movie to Monday night (the latter show got a name change of course). The only survivor of the Monday night line-up, Love American Style replaced Jimmy Durante Presents The Lennon Sisters which in turn moved to replace Hollywood Palace (which in turn followed Lawrence Welk, the show where the Lennon Sisters originally debuted). To replace the Wednesday Night Movie ABC revived a series that had run the previous summer – The Johnny Cash Show. The Flying Nun moved to replace Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, and was in turn replaced by Nanny And The Professor. I haven't been able to identify the show that followed Johnny Cash, or what went into the time slot vacated by It Takes a Thief. Over at CBS the time slot after Ed Sullivan, which had been held down by The Leslie Uggams Show became the new home of The Glenn Campbell Goodtime Hour, while Campbell's old time was taken over by a new series called Hee Haw, which everybody hated, except of course the public (or at least that part of the public that the critics disliked).

The successful dramas that debuted in 1969 seem to have one thing in common. That is a mentor-protégé relationship. In ABC's Marcus Welby M.D. the mentor was the title character, a caring general practitioner who works out of his home and actually made house calls (!), while his protégé was, at least initially, a hot-headed young doctor who would prefer to be a neurologist and has nothing but scorn for general practice... but needs the money. In time Welby, played by Robert Young, and Steven Kiley, played by James Brolin, would develop a relationship more closely approaching a father and son. On Medical Center from CBS the mentor was Dr. Paul Lochner, played by James Daly (today probably better known as the father of Tyne and Tim Daly), while the protégé was Dr. Joe Gannon, played by Chad Everett (the role would later provide Everett with a famous commercial tagline: "I'm not a doctor, but I played one on TV."). Both series ran from 1969 to 1976. Somewhat less successful in terms of longevity were two of the components in the NBC "wheel" series The Bold Ones, but both The Doctors and The Lawyers featured the mentor-protégé model with a bit of a twist – two protégés. In The New Doctors the mentoring was done by E.G. Marshall as Dr. David Craig, head of the Craig Institute of New Medicine. His protégés were researcher Dr. Paul Hunter (David Hartman) and chief of surgery Dr. Ted Stuart (John Saxon). In The Lawyers the mentor was respected lawyer Walter Nicholls (Burl Ives) who brings younger lawyers Brian and Neil Darrell (Joseph Campanella and James Farentino respectively) in as partners. The third part of the wheel in the first season was The Protectors, which starred Hari Rhodes (from Daktari) as liberal District Attorney William Washburn who has run-ins with conservative Deputy Police Chief Sam Danforth (played by Leslie Nielsen back in the days when no one thought of him as a comedic actor). While The New Doctors would run for four years (though Saxon dropped out after the third season and was replaced with Robert Walden), and The Lawyers would run for three, The Protectors only got a single season. It was replaced in the 1970-71 season by The Senator, starring Hal Holbrook as Senator Hayes Stowe, which won five Emmys and was nominated for four more – none of which helped to extend its life.

The other drama that debuted in 1969 and lasted more than two seasons was something of an oddity from today's point of view. It was the half-hour drama Room 222 starring Lloyd Haynes, Denise Nicholas, Michael Constantine and Karen Valentine as teachers at a Los Angeles high school. Haynes played history teacher Pete Dixon, while Nicholls played his girlfriend Liz McIntyre, the school's guidance counsellor. Constantine played the school's well liked if long-suffering principal Seymour Kaufman, and Valentine played Alice, a young English teacher. There were a number of recurring student characters as well as a number of actors who made guest appearances on the show and would later go on to fame, including Bruno Kirby, Cindy Williams, Teri Garr, Rob Reiner, Anthony Geary, Richard Dreyfuss, Chuck Norris, Kurt Russell, and Mark Hamill. The show lasted for five seasons, despite nearly being cancelled after its first – apparently ABC relented when the show was nominated for five Emmy Awards and won three including Emmys for Constantine and Valentine as Supporting Actor and Actress in a Comedy and the now vanished category of Outstanding New Series. In the Fall Preview issue TV Guide raved about the show saying, " this half hour comedy-drama the life he leads has the feel of reality despite scripts that are shrewdly calculated to entertain. It shows up in things like the refreshingly natural man-woman relationship of Pete and Liz McIntyre."

Of course comedy, and in particular situation comedy, was the life blood of TV in the late 1960s. In all honesty 1969 was not a good year for sitcoms. Of eight introduced, only two ran for more than two season. These were The Courtship Of Eddie's Father which ran three seasons and appears to have ended primarily because of a dispute between star Bill Bixby and director and co-star James Komack about the direction the series was taking (this seems to be a running theme with Komack; both Gabe Kaplan and Marcia Strassman have spoken of a difficult relationship with Komack on Welcome Back Kotter where he apparently played the actors off against each other), and The Brady Bunch which ran for five, and of course lives on in perpetual reruns. Sketch comedy Love American Style ran for four and a half season and was the only show from ABC's Monday line-up to not only survive for more than half a season but to thrive. ABC's mid-season replacement Nanny And The Professor managed 54 episodes, being cancelled halfway through its second season. Sketch comedy Hee-Haw was also cancelled by CBS after its second season, but got the ultimate revenge by running for 21 more years in syndication. One show that ran only two year was The Bill Cosby Show, his first solo effort, after being teamed with Robert Culp in I Spy. Cosby played high school basketball coach Chet Kincaid. The situations on the show rotated around his work as a teacher and his dealings with his family. One rather unique feature of the show was that it didn't feature a laugh track. I was a big fan of Bill Cosby when this show came out, in part of course because of I Spy but primarily because of his records, which were everywhere, and of course from his appearances on various variety shows. In my opinion Cosby's 1969 show had a lot in common with his stand-up act, and I don't think that extensive use of a laugh track wouldn't have done a service to the show.

Besides Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, the two sitcoms that didn't last out the year were both from NBC: Debbie Reynolds Show, and My World And Welcome To It. The two shows couldn't have been more different. Debbie Reynolds's series was a standard domestic comedy with a very familiar hook to most episodes. A bored housewife desperately wants to break into her husband's line of work, a process which usually involves harebrained schemes involving the lead character and her best friend – or in this case her sister – much to the distress of both of their husbands. It sounds exactly like I Love Lucy, which is no real surprise since the show was created by Jess Openheimer who also created I Love Lucy (and before that Lucille Ball's radio show My Favourite Husband). The other show couldn't have been more different. It was My World And Welcome To It starring William Windom in a role based on James Thurber. Indeed Thurber's writings provided the plot for many of the stories on the series while his cartoons were the basis for a number of fantasy sequences. These were animated by the DePatie-Freleng animation studio, then most famous for the opening credits of the Pink Panther movies. The series was perhaps too innovative for 1969.

Of the four variety series introduced in 1969, the successes were The Jim Nabors Hour on CBS, and The Andy Williams Show on NBC. The Nabors show, which also featured his Gomer Pyle USMC co-stars Ronny Schell and Frank Sutton, was built on Nabors's singing and comedy skills. In 1971 it was a victim of the CBS "rural purge," presumably because of Nabors's Alabama accent and the fact that he had starred on Gomer Pyle and before that The Andy Griffith Show (I'm being facetious; the reason that was cited for much of the rural purge was that the shows either weren't doing well in the overall ratings – most of the "rural purge" shows had fallen below 30th in the ratings – or the fact that they did not draw the "youth" demographic, which seems to have been the case with Nabors, whose show was 29th in the annual ratings). The Andy Williams Show was a return to TV for the extremely relaxed Mr. Williams who had headlined a weekly series for NBC from 1962 to 1967. Indeed Brooks and Marsh in their Complete Directory To Prime Time Network And Cable Shows 1946-Present don't split this show off from the older show (or from the two summer series he did for ABC and CBS in 1958 and 1959). Certainly TV Guide treated the show as a new one (not that I could tell when I saw it never having knowingly seen the original). The magazine pumped up the wide range of the guests and even stated that one episode "paired Lawrence Welk with Tiny Tim." That might have been something to see. Then again it couldn't have been much stranger than some of the things on the show, like "the Walking Suitcase," or "The Cookie Mooching Bear." The Andy Williams Show also ran from 1969-71 but in his case he seems to have jumped rather than having been pushed, preferring occasional specials (most famously at Christmas) to the weekly grind of a series. The best of the variety shows was probably the replacement series, The Johnny Cash Show simply because it was less a variety show and more a pure music show with a genuine passion for country music.

The 1969-70 season was the beginning of a transition in TV. The westerns were nearly gone – CBS would cancel Lancer at the end of the season, leaving only three in the line-up for 1970-71 when no new shows in the genre were announced. Some fondly remembered comedies would also leave the air: Get Smart (which had been picked up by CBS for the less than highly regarded fifth season, which saw the birth of Max and 99's twins), I Dream of Jeannie, The Flying Nun, and The Ghost & Mrs. Muir. And in truth little of substance would come out of the season. After all the show we remember most from the year is the story of a lovely lady who was bringing up three very lovely girls and a man named Brady who was busy with three boys of his own.

As a special bonus I've got a playlist set up featuring ABC's 1969 Fall Preview Show. It's probably has the best clips from The Music Scene (although it focuses on the comedy group The Committee – including Howard Hesseman and Peter Bonerz – rather than the music), The New People and the other 1969 new ABC shows that didn't last long. By the way, they're wrong about The Ghost & Mrs Muir – it debuted in the 1968 season.


Anonymous said...

Lydia was the star of mwawt it. It was the best most intelligent show ever on tv and my neadertal folks would let me watch because it was too weird like witchcraft wonder i'm like this. Oh lydia oh lydia, have you met lydia...

Doris said...

Love American Style was on the Friday night line up not the Monday night line up.

Brent McKee said...

Doris, I have the 1969 TV Guide Fall preview issue here in front of me, and it clearly states that Love American Style was originally on Monday night, following The Survivors on ABC. It moved to Friday nights in January 1970 after the rest of ABC's Monday night line-up was cancelled according to The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows.