Sunday, March 15, 2009

1970 – The TV Guide Fall Preview

Ah the 1970-71 Television season. Who knew in September of that year that you would turn into the first shot of a revolution that would sweep TV. The 1970-71 season would see television icons, that had been around practically since the beginning of the medium swept away and a new generation of shows become famous. Looking back, many would hale it as the beginning of new greatness; others – notably the Parents Television Council – would say that it marked the end of Television as a family friendly entertainment medium and the beginning of its descent into the pit of evil and decadence that it has become. But we'll get to that shortly.

To understand some of what would happen by the end of the 1970-71 season one first has to first deal with the events at the end of the 1969-70 season. At CBS Petticoat Junction had been cancelled after an attempt to replace Bea Benaderet, who had died during the 1968-69 season, with June Lockhart as a maternal figure – well really an older sister – had resulted in a serious decline in ratings. At the same time CBS cancelled two variety shows, The Jackie Gleason Show and The Red Skelton Show. Gleason had been with CBS Television since 1952 while Skelton had been with the network since 1953. The reason given for the cancellation of both shows was that they weren't appealing to younger audiences, and in Skelton's case a contract that promised annual salary increases. While Gleason would remain under contract with CBS until the mid-1970s Skelton would defect back to NBC, where he had his first TV show back in 1951. To say the least, the half-hour format of the new show didn't work. The 1969-70 season had also seen the decline of Mike Dann and his programming philosophy which regarded any audience as being acceptable regardless of age, and the full ascendance of network president Robert Wood who was an early believer in demographics and in particular the importance of the 18-49 year-old audience.

For CBS the beginnings of the 1970-71 season seemed relatively innocuous. With the demise of Petticoat Junction, Paul Henning's other "Hooterville" based series Green Acres was moved to Tuesday night between Beverly Hillbillies and Hee-Haw. Replacing Green Acres on Saturday was the Herschel Bernardi sitcom Arnie about a working class guy – the foreman on a loading dock – who suddenly is promoted to the executive suite as a corporate vice-president. His aristocratic, if somewhat dense, boss was portrayed by Roger Bowen who would had just finished playing Colonel Henry Blake in the movie M*A*S*H. The show that replaced Petticoat Junction starred a familiar face in a not so familiar role – Mary Tyler Moore. The Mary Tyler Moore Show (though technically the title card didn't include either the words "The" or "Show") may not have seemed particularly subversive at the time it debuted, but it really was. Mary was a single woman in the city (the city being the relatively benign Minneapolis rather than "wicked" New York or Los Angeles) who was actively in the work force, and not just as a secretary either. Mary at least titularly was an executive – associate producer of the evening news – even if the job paid less than being a secretary. Moreover, while she dated there was no regular man in her life, and for nearly all of the show's run there wasn't one. Of course TV Guide didn't entirely get the point; in their commentary about the show the magazine said, "She [Mary Tyler Moore] plays Mary Richards, 30-ish, unmarried and getting a little desperate about it." Trouble is that the show never really made a point of showing Mary as being desperate to get married. What it did show, admittedly rather timidly compared to series that followed in the next few years, was a woman who used birth control (in one episode she had to get her "pills" from her dresser) and occasionally stayed out overnight with men. In just about every respect, Mary Richards was a liberated woman. But Mary, subtly subversive though she was, may have been the first shot in the revolution to come but the big blow wouldn't come until the midseason replacements started rolling out.

Of course there were other trends and other networks. The "youth movement" – as in don't trust anyone over 30, or in TV terms anyone playing anyone over 30 – was continuing apace, as was the "mentoring" trend that I noted in the 1969 Preview. "Relevant" shows were the rage, although TV's notion of relevant wasn't entirely grounded in what was really relevant at the time. In the 1970 season you had two shows with young lawyers working on cases for people who couldn't afford lawyers. The ABC series was called, with one of those great leaps of imagination that TV was and still is famous for, The Young Lawyers. The one on CBS was more imaginatively named Storefront Lawyers, because they didn't work out of a conventional office but – surprise surprise – out of a storefront – much of the time. Actually there was a bit of deception going on here; the young lawyers in The Young Lawyers weren't actually lawyers, they were law students because in some states law students can go into court and try cases under the supervision of an experienced lawyer – or so said TV Guide. In this case the not quite lawyers – played by Judy Pace and Zalman King (who is best known today as a producer and director of sex-driven material as 9 ½ Weeks, Wild Orchid, Delta of Venus, and Red Shoes Diaries) were mentored by an experienced lawyer played by Lee J. Cobb. The characters in The Storefront Lawyers, led by Robert Foxworth provided legal services from the offices of Neighborhood Legal Services, which Foxworth's character created after he quit his job at a Great Big Law Firm. In the second half of the show's single season he went back to the job at the Great Big Law Firm, and took his younger associates with him.

Medical dramas were also big this year, with the emphasis still on being "relevant." Actually there was one relatively conventional medical drama, The Interns. The show, which was on CBS, featured a collection of young doctors including Christopher Stone and Mike Farrell (who would be playing another doctor in a few years in a much more successful show), all under the tutelage of Dr. Peter Goldstone (Broderick Crawford). The show played strongly to specific "types" including the married one, the woman (who faced hurdles because she was a woman) and the Black one (who faced problems with racism), so I suppose this qualifies under the rubric of "relevant." At one season this show lasted longer than the other two medical dramas of the year. Matt Lincoln, on ABC, starred Vince Edwards (formerly Dr. Ben Casey) as a psychiatrist who ran a free walk-in mental health clinic and teen help line in addition to his regular practices which was paying for all of this. It lasted thirteen episodes.

The third medical series, on NBC, was called The Psychiatrist and starred Roy Thinnes. It ran for six episodes but that was because it was part of another of those "wheel" series that were popular in the late '60s and early '70s (which is why I've separated it from the other medical shows). This one was called Four In One, and logically enough featured four different storylines. The difference was that in this one the series didn't rotate from week to week. Instead each one aired six one hour episodes in a row and then turned the time slot over to the next series. The other three were San Francisco International Airport, featuring Lloyd Bridges as the airport manager (but unlike his role in Airplane! this role was played totally seriously), McCloud featuring Dennis Weaver, and Night Gallery, created by Rod Serling. The latter two series continued on of course, with McCloud becoming part of the NBC Mystery Movie and being expanded to the familiar ninety minute format, while Night Gallery ran as a regular series that ran for two more seasons, one in the hour-long format and one in a half-hour format.

Besides Mary Tyler Moore and Vince Edward, several other iconic TV veterans were coming back to TV in new shows. Danny Thomas attempted to revive his old Make Room For Daddy series as Make Room For Granddaddy with most of the original cast – Marjorie Lord, Rusty Hamer, Angela Cartwright and Hans Conreid – supplemented by Stanley Myron Handelman and Rosey Grier. In the news series, done for ABC, Danny and his wife were taking care of their grandson while daughter Terry and her soldier husband were overseas. The show lasted one season. Two guys whose original series debuted on the original Make Room For Daddy also had shows in the 1970-71 season: Andy Griffith and Don Knotts. Griffith actually had two very different shows for CBS that season. The Headmaster was a "relevant" drama with Griffith dealing with problems as the headmaster in a high class boarding school. It ran thirteen episodes and was cancelled. Griffith came back almost immediately with The New Andy Griffith Show, a comedy in which he played a man who had worked in state government until the mayor of his old home town retired and he went back to fill the position. The show was only slightly more successful than The Headmaster. Don Knotts had better success with his self-titled NBC variety series – it ran for 26 episodes. And of course there was Tim Conway. Conway and his McHale's Navy colleague Joe Flynn had a failed mid-season replacement series in the 1969-70 season, but Conway was back in September 1970 with a variety series for CBS. It suffered the same fate as his other series before and after; gone in 13 weeks, but one member of the cast, Sally Struthers, was headed for something much much bigger.

Two of the most successful series to debut in the Fall of 1970, besides the Mary Tyler Moore Show were The Flip Wilson Show and The Partridge Family. Flip Wilson's series for NBC was an almost instant hit, becoming the second most watched show in the U.S. for the first two seasons of its run and spawned such catch-phrases as, "The Devil made me do it," and of course – as every Geek and Nerd knows – "What you see is what you get," both delivered by Wilson in drag as his character Geraldine Jones. Even the staging of the show was innovative, with the show being done in a "theatre-in-the-round" set-up. ABC's The Partridge Family wasn't anywhere near as innovative. It owed a lot more to The Monkees and The Brady Bunch than to any innovative thinking. But it worked, and in an odd sort of way it would mark the trail for the sort of youth oriented escapist fare that would vault ABC into a leading position in the second half of the 1970s. It wasn't "relevant" and it wasn't hip; in fact it was almost exactly the opposite, uninterested in the latest trends in the real world and old fashioned enough in its set-up that it didn't disturb too many people. Another big hit was one of two adaptations of a Broadway play and later movie that ABC had, The Odd Couple with Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. Oh yeah, and ABC also had its biggest hit ever, with a show called Monday Night Football.

Inevitably there were cancellations during the season. As was common in this period the greatest number of failures came from ABC. They lost The Young Rebels, a series set around British-occupied Philadelphia during the American Revolution but naturally having deliberate echoes to the "young rebels" of 1970 (the show starred Louis Gossett Jr., with a very full head of hair), Silent Force (a half hour drama), Barefoot In The Park (the other TV adaptation of a Broadway play, this one with most of the cast being African American (it was cancelled when star Scoey Mitchell was fired by the producers); and The Immortal (about a man whose blood contained antibodies capable of curing any disease and a billionaire who wanted it – and the man whose body made it – all for himself). NBC dropped Bracken's World, which had barely survived the previous season; and Nancy, a comedy about the daughter of the (unseen) President of the United States who marries a veterinarian. But it was CBS that had the biggest line-up change. When the network cancelled the ailing Governor And JJ, which had debuted the previous season, In January 1971, they moved To Rome With Love from Tuesday night after Hee-Haw (and The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres) into the Wednesday night slot. The show they put after Hee-Haw (and The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres) was called All In The Family.

I can't imagine what it must have been like on January 12, 1970 when people finished watching Roy Clark and the rest of the Hee-Haw gang with their corn-pone humour and were confronted – because that's the only word that fits – with Archie Bunker talking about "Micks," "Polacks," "Hebes," "Spics," and so on. And truth be told the show was not a huge hit initially. In fact it finished 34th in the ratings for the year, and probably if anyone but Robert Wood had been in charge of the CBS Television Network it would have been cancelled for just that reason. But Wood had a vision for the network that included shows like All In The Family and most emphatically did not include Hee-Haw or the rest. All In The Family was a bombshell, the biggest shot so far of the programming revolution that had first popped up with The Mary Tyler Moore Show. While shows like Storefront Lawyers played at being "relevant", All In The Family took on the issues of the day head on. The show talked about the Vietnam War, racial inequality, protests, rape, abortion, gay rights and a host of other issues. It was mentioned in the Watergate Tapes – Nixon hated the younger people but liked that Archie got dressed up to write a letter to him – and was a sensation in the media. Laura Hobson, author of Gentleman's Agreement even commented that the epithets in the show were mild by comparison with the words used in the real world. And over time an odd thing happened; Archie Bunker himself became popular. It was probably inevitable that older viewers regarded Archie as being closer to them, particularly if they were blue-collar workers like Archie. Of course it didn't hurt that the character of Michael Stivic (Rob Reiner) was, quite frankly, something of a pompous ass. For all of his faults Archie (played by Carroll O'Connor) loved his wife (Maureen Stapleton) even as she exasperated him, and adored his "little goil" Gloria (Sally Struthers) and thought that Mike wasn't good enough for her. It was undoubtedly unintended but CBS had a show that was attractive to younger and older viewers for entirely different reasons.

The net results of the successes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and the critical success of All In The Family were inevitable with someone like Robert Woods in charge of CBS. Rural shows and older skewing shows were out once and for all. As Pat Butram, who played Mr. Haney on Green Acres put it, "It was the year CBS killed everything with a tree in it." And the so-called "Rural Purge" wasn't just restricted to rural shows, or just to CBS. CBS cancelled Hogan's Heroes, Mayberry RFD, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Hee-Haw, To Rome With Love, The Jim Nabors Hour, and The New Andy Grifith Show. ABC dumped The Johnny Cash Show. NBC dropped two of their three remaining westerns, Men From Shiloh (which had been The Virginian until the 1970-71 season) and The High Chaparral (which was particularly popular around Saskatoon because one of the series stars, Cameron Mitchell, had ties to the city; his first wife Johanna, was the daughter of a very prominent local businessman and even after their divorce maintained close ties to the city), as well as Don Knotts's variety series.

And yes, I have left some shows out, because some of the biggest casualties in the Rural Purge weren't rural shows but shows that were closely tied with the beginnings of TV. ABC dropped The Lawrence Welk Show (debuted on ABC in 1955 but had begun on KTLA Los Angeles in 1951) as well as Make Room For Granddaddy, the revival of Make Room For Daddy (which ran from 1953-1964); NBC dropped the half-hour Red Skelton Show (Red had debuted on NBC in 1951, moved to CBS in 1953, and back to NBC in 1970), and the venerable Kraft Music Hall (debuted on TV in 1958 after starting on radio in 1933). And CBS got rid of the oldest of them all, The Ed Sullivan Show which had debuted in June 1948 as Toast of the Town. With the exception of Gunsmoke (debuted on TV in 1955) and Bonanza (debuted in 1959), every show with ties to the first full decade of television in America was gone. And if the Parents Television Council today complains that the debut of All In The Family marks the beginning of TV's descent into the gutter of sex and depravity – as one writer on their website claimed a few months ago – it is probably more accurate to say that All In The Family, and to some extent The Mary Tyler Moore Show ushered in a new sort of realism and true relevance that had never been a part of TV before.

(For those of you who are interested, I am missing details for replacement shows for the following timeslots in the 1970-71 season:

  • ABC: Sunday 7:30-8, Thursday 10:30-11, Saturday 8:30-11.
  • CBS: Sunday 10-11.
  • NBC: Friday 10-11, Saturday 8:30-9.)

Let's take a look at the ABC Fall Preview Show narrated by William Schallert (these seem to be the most common ones on YouTube, and thanks to bobtwcatlanta for posting so many of these).

As a bonus we have a YouTube clip of Richard Nixon talking about Homosexuality and All In The Family from May 13, 1971.

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