Tuesday, April 07, 2009

1972 – The TV Guide Fall Preview

There are those who say that 1939 was Hollywood's "greatest year" or its "golden year." I know; I bought the book, Hollywood's Golden Year: 1939. It's not a thesis that I'm entirely willing to accept because it is my belief that there have been other years – before and after 1939 – when Hollywood achieved artistic and commercial high points. Similarly I don't wish to suggest that any given year was "TV's Golden Year" but I would suggest that if someone were to come up with a list of "Greatest Seasons," 1972-73 would be very near the top. Even some of the failures were in their own way brilliant. With the possible exception of NBC, 1972 was a hell of a good year for just about everyone, in particular the viewers.

Let's take a look at the network with the biggest problems first. On the surface it didn't look as though NBC was having problems. They debuted five new series in 1972 compared to seven each for CBS and ABC. The problem was that of the new shows only two stuck, and both of them needed major surgery to stay in the line-up. In addition three series that started the season ended their seasons in January 1973. One of these was Rod Serling's Night Gallery. By this point Serling had essentially disowned the series because his contributions were being ignored and his complaints to producer Jack Laird were essentially being ignored. By the final season Serling was so dissatisfied that he labelled the show "Mannix in a cemetery." The situation with Bonanza was even worse and very similar to what happened with Petticoat Junction. The death of Dan Blocker after the 1971-72 season seriously damaged the dynamics of the show – which had suffered a significant ratings loss the season before – and competition from the new CBS series Maude were enough to kill it. As for The Bold Ones, the shows fourth season retained only the New Doctors segment after going to two segments the previous season. It also lost John Saxon as one of the characters, who was "replaced" by Robert Walden (yeah, not really much of a replacement). It ran sixteen episodes and I'm going to suggest that maybe the quality of the scripts was hurt by having to have new scripts every week rather than every other week (or every third week in the first two seasons). Me, I preferred the episodes with Burl Ives and company.

As for the new shows that NBC had that season, the only two shows that got a second season were The Little People with Brian Keith and Shelley Fabares, and the Wednesday Mystery Movie. In The Little People Keith play a pediatrician working with his daughter in a practice in Hawaii. The show was a comedy and did well enough in the ratings to get renewed. However when the show was renewed the decision was made to add a couple of new characters, a child-hating and very proper doctor, played by Roger Bowen, and the woman who owned the clinic – and much of Hawaii – played by Nancy Kulp. This changed the focus from the relationship between the two doctors and their patients (and the patients' parents) to the conflicts between the adults. (They also changed the name of the show in that season to The Brian Keith Show) further distancing itself from the original intent of the series. The Wednesday Mystery Movie was an attempt to expand the Mystery Movie franchise. The original group of shows – Columbo, McCloud, and MacMillan & Wife – were moved to Sunday night. They were supplemented by a fourth show, Hec Ramsey which starred Richard Boone as a former gunfighter and lawman (who in one episode claimed that he once worked under the name Paladin) who had left the west to study modern (for 1900) methods of detection, stuff we now call forensics. The show lasted two seasons and died not because of poor ratings but because star Richard Boone had disagreements with the studio (that doesn't seem to be an uncommon thing with Richard Boone). The Wednesday Mystery Movie was entirely new. It featured three shows; Cool Millions with James Farentino as a globe-trotting private detective who charges a million dollars to take a case (back when a million dollars was big bucks), Madigan with Richard Widmark recreating his role from the 1968 movie of the same name (although in the movie, Madigan dies at the end), and Banacek with George Peppard as freelance insurance investigator out to stick it to the insurance company that his father had worked at for years before. Banacek ran for two years and was picked up for a third...until Peppard quit to keep his ex-wife Elizabeth Ashley from taking a large percentage of his income in her divorce settlement.

As for the rest of the NBC shows, Banyon, was 1930s period piece starring Robert Forster as the title character and '30s movie star Joan Blondell as the owner of a secretarial school that provides Banyon with office employees. The show ran fifteen episodes. The other two NBC shows lasted a full season but while Search – about a high tech detective agency that constantly monitors its operatives – and the anthology Ghost Story (renamed Circle of Fear at the same time that it dropped host Sebastian Cabot) but weren't popular enough to pick up.

NBC also had one show that didn't make it beyond the 1972-73 season, but that was because it had literally run its course. That was America: A Personal History of the United States, writer-broadcaster Alistair Cooke's love letter to his adopted homeland which alternated with the NBC news show NBC Reports. Today no commercial network would put a show like America on; it would be relegated to PBS or to some cable network (after all opponents of PBS constantly say that cable can and will do everything that PBS does). In 1972-73 not only was it a popular success, it won the Emmy for the Outstanding New Series beating The Julie Andrews Hour, M*A*S*H, Kung Fu, Maude, and The Waltons, and was actually nominated in the Golden Globes as Best TV Show – Drama.

Over at ABC, the network unveiled some impressive new shows. In what may be one of the earliest examples of placing a show as a lead-in because of the gender of fans it would attract, the network put the male oriented cop show The Rookies as the lead in for Monday Night Football. The show fit the standard formula of a group of young people, three (male) rookie cops of various backgrounds (Georg Stanford Brown, Michael Ontkean and Sam Melville), being mentored by an older superior officer, played by Gerald S. O'Laughlin. Kate Jackson played the lone woman in the regular cast, a nurse married to Melville's character (years later he played her ex-husband in Scarecrow & Mrs. King). Another highly successful show for ABC was Streets of San Francisco the entire cast of which consisted of a former and a future acting Oscar winner. Karl Malden (Streetcar Named Desire) played Lieutenant Mike Stone, a veteran of over 20 years on the San Francisco PD while his partner, Steve Keller, was played by Michael Douglas (Wall Street). Keller was college educated but had no experience as a cop. Stone was (yet again) a mentor for the younger cop.

The third huge success for ABC was Kung Fu. Supposedly the show was based on a concept created by actor Bruce Lee (this is according to Lee's wife Linda who claimed that Warner Brothers stole the idea) and Lee had been considered for the part of Kwai Chang Caine – the producers decided that they needed someone "serene" for the role and that the only reason Lee was considered for the part was because the network wanted someone more muscular. The producers claimed that they wanted David Carradine of the role of Caine from the beginning even though he wasn't Asian (which stirred quite a bit of controversy in the Asian American acting community). At the time Carradine was in the middle of what can probably be called his "hippie phase" so the part of Caine seemed to be a perfect fit for him. The show was a perfect fit for the early 1970s with its mix of social responsibility, spirituality, Buddhist thought, and pacifism (at least until forced into action).

Kung Fu was initially scheduled to run once a month, alternating with ABC's other western Alias Smith & Jones on Saturday nights. However, the ABC line-up underwent a major reshuffle when the third hour of the Saturday night line-up, the paranormal thriller Sixth Sense died. Alias Smith & Jones was also dropped and Kung Fu and Streets of San Francisco moving to Thursday night in the second and third hours of primetime respectively. Owen Marshall: Counsellor At Law moved to Wednesday night while The Julie Andrews Hour (a variety show that was a major break for impressionist Rich Little) moved to the second hour of Saturdays replacing Kung Fu. The Men, a wheel show featuring Assignment: Vienna (Robert Conrad as an undercover spy in Vienna), Jigsaw (James Wainwright as a cop who chafes at standard police procedures but is effective in finding the missing persons he seeks), and The Delphi Bureau (Laurence Luckinbill as a counter-espionage agent with a photographic memory) moved to the third hour of Saturday nights. Both The Julie Andrews Hour and The Men were cancelled at the end of the season. The other new show cancelled at the end of the season was The Paul Lynde Show, in which Lynde played a family man who had to deal with his wife and two daughters as well as his eldest daughter's new husband Howie, the bane of Paul's existence.

The other ABC show to survive the season was Temperatures Rising, produced by William Asher.It probably shouldn't have survived given what happened to it. In the first season the show starred James Whitmore as the chief of staff at Capitol General Hospital in Washington, with Cleavon Little as Dr. Jerry Nolan, a resident who is also the hospital's chief "operator" (if there was a card game or a wheelchair race in the hospital, his character knew about it). Reportedly the public disliked Whitmore but liked the show and liked Lynde but hated his series so Whitmore was dumped – along with everyone else in the first season cast except Little – and Lynde and a new cast (including Mister John Dehner) were inserted. The result was a mess. Lynde's character, Paul Mercy, was thoroughly dislikeable but not as unpleasant as his invalid mother who bought the hospital. The series was cancelled and then revived, with the mother character dumped and replaced with a previously unknown sister played by Alice Ghostley. Of course, both Lynde and Ghostley were veterans of Asher's previous hit for ABC, Bewitched.

Of course it was CBS that had the greatest success in the 1972-73 TV season. Consider the CBS shows that debuted that year – M*A*S*H, Maude, The Waltons, and the Bob Newhart Show. Even when they failed something good came out of it. Consider the network's only mid-season cancellations of the year; Anna And The King starring Yul Brynner and Samantha Eggar in a non-musical (and allegedly a sit-com!) version of The King And I, and The Sandy Duncan Show which was an attempt to revive Duncan's earlier series Funny Face (which ended when Duncan was hospitalised due to cancer which took the sight in one eye). Both aired on Sunday nights along with M*A*S*H, The New Dick Van Dyke Show, and Mannix. When they cancelled the shows, CBS moved The New Dick Van Dyke Show from 9 p.m. Eastern to 7:30 p.m., shifted Mannix to 8:30 and added Buddy Ebsen's return to TV as a dramatic actor, Barnaby Jones. The show, which had ties to another CBS detective series Cannon, ran for a more than respectable eight years.

I don't think that much has to be said about most of the successful CBS shows in the 1972-73 season. Each of them achieved an iconic status. Who can forget Maude, the "liberal" spin-off of All In The Family where the lead character was the much married, opinionated, liberated force of nature who just happened to be the cousin of Archie Bunker's wife Edith. Then there was The Bob Newhart Show, which wasn't as politically opinionated as All In The Family or Maude but which meshed beautifully with its lead-in The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Both shows managed a near perfect blend of their respective characters' work and domestic lives, filled in each case with interesting and quirky characters in both areas. And of course what can really needs to be said about M*A*S*H, the comedy with dramatic overtones set during the Korean War but really an allegory for Vietnam and the illogic of the military in general. M*A*S*H was one of the most honoured and respected TV shows ever even as it metamorphosed with the various cast changes over the years. Certainly the M*A*S*H that debuted in 1972 was far different from the show that ended its run in 1983, with the regular characters becoming increasingly realistic in tone, and the storylines becoming increasingly dramatic. And, I suppose, with the network becoming increasingly aware that they didn't have an "ordinary" sitcom on their hands (as we'll see in the 1973 season this realization took a while to dawn on them).

Then of course there was The Waltons. It may seem a bit surprising that CBS began airing a new rural series just two seasons after the great "Rural Purge" but I suspect that there were reasons for the network putting it on the air. I have a theory that its period setting allowed it to focus on what today would probably be called "traditional family values"; the children are polite and responsible and obviously don't become involved in drugs or protests, they respected their parents and their elders and the whole family eats dinner together every night. Might I suggest that the material is the sort of thing that would appeal to the Nixonian "silent majority?" At the same time of course writer Earl Hamner Jr. was able to develop storylines that related to the issues of the day. In its own way, The Waltons examined women's rights, race, addiction (in the form of alcoholism) and other issues that people could relate to. And perhaps the most impressive thing about the show is the way that its success seems to have come as a surprise. The 1972 TV Guide Fall Preview issue says the following about The Waltons: "They're descended from pioneer stock and they'll need all the strength they can muster – they're up against Flip Wilson and The Mod Squad." In fact it was those two shows that needed the strength; The Mod Squad was cancelled at the end of the 1972-73 season, while The Flip Wilson Show was cancelled the next season.

CBS cancelled two of its new shows at the end of the season. One was the low rated New Bill Cosby Show which, along with the fifth season of The Doris Day Show, hadn't been able to thrive opposite Monday Night Football. The other show was Bridget Loves Bernie which occupied the Saturday time slot between All In The Family and Mary Tyler Moore. The show was a variant on the 1922 play Abie's Irish Rose, which had been made into a movie twice and even been a radio series from 1942-1944, and dealt with a young Jewish cab driver and writer (David Birney) who married a wealthy Catholic girl (Meredith Baxter). The format is an old one that has been adapted to other situations over the years (the Canadian series Excuse My French dealt with a poor Quebecois girl who married the son of a wealthy Anglophone businessman and had to deal with both of their families; Dharma & Greg was about the son of a wealthy conservative family who married the daughter of unreformed hippies). Bridget Loves Bernie has the distinction of being the highest rated series ever cancelled by any American network. According to the 1972-73 ratings list on the Classic TV Hits website the show finished fifth overall with an average 15.681 million viewers, which means that it finished ahead of The Mary Tyler Moore Show which had an estimated audience of 15.293 million viewers. One suggestion is that the writers ran out of ideas after the first season, but it's generally accepted that CBS cancelled the show because of hate mail and protests from opponents of inter-religious marriage, supposedly various Jewish groups. However, at the time CBS denied the allegation. According to Robert Metz's CBS: Reflections In A Bloodshot Eye Mike Dann claimed that "though the ratings were good they weren't good enough. The show caused a "hammock effect" on the Saturday-night schedule. Sandwiched between Family which drew 46 million homes and The Mary Tyler Moore Show which drew 41 million, Bridget Loves Bernie only managed to attract 31 million." This assertion in particular seems erroneous (to say the least) given the data listed both by Classic TV Hits and The Complete Directory To Prime Time Network And Cable Shows 1946-Present. The story of protests by people who vehemently objected to the show seems most plausible. Whatever the truth, the cancellation of Bridget Loves Bernie, together with mid-season moves that moved the aging Mission: Impossible (which would be cancelled at the end of the season) from Saturday to Friday (for Sonny & Cher) and The Carol Burnett Show from Thursday (where it's time slot was occupied by Sonny & Cher) would set up one of the greatest nights of TV ever, the CBS Saturday night line-up of All In The Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Carol Burnett Show.

(I'm still doing a bit of research on a couple of replacements for cancelled shows in the season. I need the show that filled the 8:30-9 p.m. slot on ABC and the two hours between 8 and 10 p.m. on Tuesday night on NBC. Help would be appreciated.) (Update: I found the ABC 8:30-9 show. It was A Touch Of Grace starring Shirley Booth, J. Pat O'Malley and Marian Mercer. I still need the NBC show(s).)

Below is the 1972 ABC Fall Preview in three parts. Sorry, no TV criticism from President Nixon this time.