Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Okay, so I've finished scanning the 1969 TV Guide Fall Preview (very frustrating – the scanner or the program conked out when I was halfway through and I had to start all over again) and I've done up an Excel spreadsheet for my own convenience to track the shows through the year. Where the problem lies is with mid-season replacements. I've managed to work out all of them except for two hour-long time slots, and I need some help:

  • When the ABC Wednesday Night Movie moved to Monday night one hour of it was replaced with The Johnny Cash Show, but what series followed Johnny Cash at 10 p.m. Eastern?
  • What replaced the Glenn Campbell Goodtime Hour on Wednesday nights at 7:30 Eastern when Glenn's show moved to Sunday night at 9 to replace The Leslie Uggams Show?

If you know the answers please contact me by e-mail. There's a no-prize waiting for you.

Updated: Okay, I've found the Wednesday night show on CBS, but I'm still looking for the name of the Wednesday night show at 10 p.m. on ABC.

Monday, February 23, 2009

It Really WAS A Wonderful Night For Oscar

I know. I'm as shocked as anyone.

Look, there's a dirty little secret about the Oscar broadcasts. They always run between three and a half and four hours. ABC – and in Canada CTV – can tell you that it's going to run three hours but the fact is that they know, and we know, and they know we know, that the show is going to run over that by between thirty and sixty minutes and there is not a damned thing anyone can do about it and they know because they've tried. Everybody knows about the "get off the damned stage" music that starts up at 45 seconds and doesn't stop unless Julia Roberts tells the conductor to put down that damned stick, but does anyone remember when they offered a prize – sorry "special gift pack" – to the winner who gave the shortest speech? And still no one came close to Joe Pesci's speech when he won for Best Supporting Actor for Goodfellas – he said two words: "Thank you." Remember the year when some rocket scientist at ABC or the Academy came up with the idea of presenting the awards for some of the categories to the winners as they sat in their seats. Group all of the winners in a category like Best Animated Short Subject together in the back part of the room and send the presenter out with a hand-held mike to give them the award so they didn't waste time walking up the aisle to the plaudits of their peers. It went over like the proverbial lead balloon and they didn't do that again.

No, that was not the dirty little secret about the Oscars. Like I say everyone knows that they always run between three and a half and four hours. The dirty little secret is that it doesn't always seem that long. Einstein once famously explained relativity by saying, "When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute and it's longer than any hour." Well, when the Oscars have the right host and the right blend of presenters four hours can go by without feeling any longer than oh, two hours forty five. On the other hand if things aren't right they can have the awards flying off the stage – or out of the aisles (because that show with the presenters going out into the back of the auditorium was one of the worst) to the point where they look like they may actually come closer to the actual time that ABC has scheduled for the awards than a half hour overrun, and the event will not only feel interminable but stink like a pile of freshly laid manure. Sunday's Oscar broadcast not only managed to come in at three and a half hours but it felt shorter – a lot shorter.

There were a lot of reasons for this. It wasn't really the absence of production numbers. Say what you want, Hugh Jackman's introductory musical bit was a production number, and so was the tribute to musicals, and so was that business with the best song category medley. But those musical number didn't drag the way so many of them have in the past. In fact that was the thing about the whole Oscar broadcast last night – it didn't drag, but rather ticked over like a nicely made Swiss watch. Jackman was the perfect host, if for no other reason that you really didn’t see him that much. What's more they threw in innovative ideas. There wasn't the usual business of stars walking out to present one or two awards. No, they came out, or were already out and ready to present... and present... and present... and in the case of Will Smith, present. More than two awards presented by one person – what a concept! (Of course that is at least partially to do with problems that the Academy had in getting presenters. According to Nikki Finke some stars refused the opportunity to present awards for a variety of reasons. George Clooney was visiting Darfur; Kate Winslet said she'd be too nervous to present; Nicole Kidman refused to go on without the "right" hairdresser – who they apparently found – Jack Nicholson was just being Jack. The only good excuse was Clooney's – helping victims of genocide in the Sudan trumps Hollywood Phonies every time in my book – but surely he could have set a different departure date, since it's not like the date of the Oscars is unknown.)

Another bit of brilliance was the decision to use five previous winners in the acting categories to present those Oscars. This was a major break with precedent that usually has those awards presented by the previous year's winner in the opposite category – last year's Best Actor presents this year's Best Actress for example – and Finke reported that a lot of that had to do with the Academy thinking that last year's winners weren't "big enough" to do it on their own (not to mention not American enough), although they would be allowed to actually read the name of the winner. As it happens Javier Bardem and Daniel Day-Lewis didn't even bother to show up. Whatever the reasoning, and whether you felt that the introductions that the presenters gave to the nominees they were assigned to praise was fitting or like what you'd hear at a Rotarian "Man of the Year" luncheon, you have to admit that it worked.

And speaking of winners, did you happen to notice the significant absence of "get off the damned stage" music. There was a little of it early on, but somewhere along the line someone came up with the realization that they weren't going to be running too long and told the conductor to "put down that damned stick" – well at least as long as no one abused the privilege...and amazingly no one did. Hearing all of what the winners had to say, whether it was heart-felt or – more often than not – banal was a bit of a high point for me. Other high points included Steve Martin and Tina Fey and the presentation of the Screenplay awards. Not only was the idea of reading the stage direction in the screenplays an original way of presenting the material but using Martin and Fey – two actors who can write. Or is it two writers who can act – to present was beautiful. There bit about the "religion we just created" was beautifully quirky and they carried it off. In terms of speeches, there were a number of noteworthy moments. In short-form speech-making there was Kunio Kato in the Animated Short Subject category, whose English isn`t the best, throwing in the only Japanese that he's sure the people at the Kodak and the TV audience would know: "Domo arrigato Mister Roboto." In long-form speech-making the choice was more difficult. On the one hand there was Sean Penn calling the Academy "commie lovin' homo sons 'a' guns" for giving him the Oscar, admitting that he isn't always the easiest person to deal with, and then praising his competitor in the category Mickey Roarke for his comeback. On the other hand you had Dustin Lance Black talking about the importance of Harvey Milk's story, both as a personal inspiration whose story, "gave me hope that I could live my life openly as who I am ,and maybe one day even fall in love and get married" and as a step in the area of Gay rights: "If Harvey had not been taken from us, he'd want me to say, 'God does love you. You will have equal rights federally among this great nation of ours.'" If I had to choose it would be Blacks speech for the simple reason I think that Sean Penn should at the very least have mentioned his wife, Robin Wright Penn, in his acceptance speech. In the area of pure Oscar exuberance there was Danny Boyle literally bouncing on the stage – because he promised his daughters years before that if he ever won he'd be like Tigger and bounce in happiness. And of course what could be more memorable than everyone from Slumdog Millionaire gathering on stage when the movie won as Best Picture. That's the sort of thing you see at the Emmys but rarely at the Oscars.

As for bad moments, yeah there were those too, but most of what I want to focus on were idiotic moves by the producers. ABC, was it really necessary to cut away to Brad and Angelina while Jennifer Anniston was presenting the Animation Awards? And the Best Song medley idea is high on the list of bad ideas. I mean seriously, you had two songs from the same film and stuck the song from Wall-E in the middle? It was a musical jumble and totally sapped the individuality of the three songs. No wonder Peter Gabriel didn't want to participate in this travesty. As for the clips packages, they were a total loss in my mind, with a special acknowledgement to the comedy clips featuring Seth Rogen and James Franco in their Pineapple Express characters. That one in particular was abysmally bad. I wasn't too happy with the way that Will Smith introduced the "action movie" clips either – "You know, movies people actually go to see." Maybe so Will, but popularity doesn't necessarily signal quality; Hollywood makes a lot of crap that people go to see – including some of your movies. In fact, when it came to the clips, the producers should probably have ditched the clips packages entirely and actually shown us scenes from the movies that were nominated. Then too, they could have ditched the generic music that was used to play the winners up on stage and actually use music from their films...but they didn't. And then there was Ben Stiller, channelling Joaquin Phoenix. I didn't get it, though that may have had a lot to do with my trying to install Kubuntu on my #2 computer and missing the intro...but probably not since a lot of people found that bit to be nearly unwatchable.

On the whole, the 81st Academy Awards were exactly what an awards show should be. They were the length they should have been but it felt like they were zipping along so that it feland it didn't feel like they were either throwing gimmicks at us for the sake of throwing gimmicks or that they were dropping stuff on the fly to make the time come out right. The pace of the show was perfect even if elements within it were poorly thought out or executed. Contrast what you watched last night with last September's Emmy Awards. That show was exactly three hours long in part because they were cutting material like crazy as the night wore on, so that the introductions to the most important categories consisted of the presenter reading off the names, but the pacing was so badly off that it felt like five or six hours. For whatever strengths they may have had, the Emmys were dull and leaden and boring (but so were the 80th Oscars). For whatever faults they may have had the 81st Oscars were bright and breezy and fun. And that, my friends, makes all the difference in the world.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

1971 TV Guide Fall Preview – The Comments

I don't really know what I had planned for these retrospective pieces about the TV Guide Fall Previews but this one at least drew a sufficient number of comments that I thought I could wring a second posting out of responding to the comments so here goes.

First up we have this from my good friend Ivan G. Shreve:

The New Dick Van Dyke Show managed to hang on for three seasons. In its last season, Van Dyke's character got a gig on a soap opera and with the exception of Lange, the supporting cast were pretty much scrapped and replaced with new faces.

As tragic as this may seem, I also remember being a fan of
The Chicago Teddy Bears. You're right about John Banner, he was the best thing on it.

Me: You're right about The New Dick Van Dyke Show. It did in fact run for three years rather than two. My memory problem on this show stems from the radical change in the show between the second and third seasons. As a result, in my mind – after 38 years of not really thinking about the show – the first and second seasons were condensed into a single season. The change in the show was really quite radical after all, going from a local talk show host in Phoenix to a soap opera actor in Los Angeles. What I do recall is that the Los Angeles season was far less enjoyable, for me at least, than the first two.

Looking at the Wikipedia article on the show, after writing the article I discovered a number of interesting things about things behind the scenes at the show. The show had drawn good ratings in the first season where it followed The Mary Tyler Moore Show but they were apparently lower than other shows on the night so the network moved it to Sunday night where it was placed between the revived Sandy Duncan Show and Mannix. The other shows on the night were Anna And The King with Samantha Eggar and Yul Brynner, and a little show called M*A*S*H. It wasn't exactly a strong night for CBS and ratings for The New Dick Van Dyke Show were worse than the previous season, low enough that under normal circumstances the show would have been cancelled. However, in order to lure Dick Van Dyke back to TV, CBS had given him a guaranteed three year contract, so instead of cancelling the show CBS totally recast the show except for Van Dyke, Hope Lange and Angela Powell (who played their daughter). Reportedly the ratings for the third season improved, but there was tension on the set. Carl Reiner, who had been reunited with Van Dyke as one of the writers on the show wrote an episode in which the daughter entered her parent's bedroom to find them making love. The network decided that such a story line was "incompatible with Van Dyke's family-friendly image." Reiner cried hypocrisy – after all CBS was airing All In The Family (starring Reiner's son Rob of course) – and vowed never to work for CBS again. The network was willing to renew the show but between Reiner quitting the show and his desire to get away from Los Angeles and back to Arizona, Dick Van Dyke refused to do a fourth season.

The Chicago Teddy Bears married a terrible idea with what mass of badly miscast actors. I mean really – Dean Jones as the owner of a speakeasy? John Banner as the uncle of both Jones and Art Metrano? The show was just barely funny even if you were just into your teens. I can hardly imagine an adult watching this – even a nostalgic adult almost forty years later.

Next up we have this snippet from Todd, who did a blog with the American TV Guide website until they discontinued those:

Gunsmoke and Bonanza were not the "only westerns left". Alias Smith and Jones was entering its second season.

Me: You're right of course. In my own defense, Alias Smith and Jones never aired in my (one station) part of Canada, so I've never actually seen the show, and the only time I think it ever came to my notice during the time it was running was when Peter Duel committed suicide. Now that's pretty morbid.

Next up this from Jeff Kingston Pierce, who is the publisher of The Rap Sheet blog:

What an absolutely fabulous idea! My own TV Guide collection begins in 1972, and I periodically feel the need to revisit some of my favorite old shows. 1971 was the year before I really became interested in U.S. network television (I was a bit young before that), but I remember fondly the NBC Mystery Movie, Longstreet, and Nichols (all the episodes of which I managed to acquire last year). I very much look forward to further installments of your blog series.

Me: First, let me just say how much I envy you the complete collection of Nichols. Like I said, my first big "TV crush" was on Margot Kidder in the low cut blouses that she wore from time to time on that show. Dare I say that those blouses made a lot out of a little?

One of the things that I dislike about the subsequent repackagings of the shows from the NBC Mystery Theater is the fact that they cut the Henry Mancini created theme. It was one of two that Mancini did that season – the other being the theme from Cade's County. In fact I have both on an album that Manicini released about that time. (You haven't lived till you've heard Mancini's instrumental version of the theme from Shaft!) Both themes were heavily reliant on Mancini fiddling around with an early model Moog synthesizer. I have a special fondness for the Cade's County theme myself (to the point where I'll probably embed a YouTube video of the theme music at the end of this post, and the Mystery Movie theme as well) as well as for the series. While it tended to be a bit pedestrian in terms of the sort of crimes being dealt with, the setting is unique and I suspect that our mutual friend Bill Crider might appreciate at least the concept.

With regard to the Mystery Movie format, each of the series had its own charms, whether it was the breezy sexy relationship between Stuart and Sally Macmillan that was reminiscent of Nick & Nora Charles, the fish out of water antics of Sam McCloud always accompanied by the hot-headed reactions of Chief Clifford (particularly when McCloud saves the day), or the apparently bumbling but actually brilliant Lieutenant Columbo. I think my favourite was always the MacMillan & Wife episodes because of the playfully sexy relationship between husband and wife, but really I loved them all.

Longstreet is another series that I have very fond although mostly vague memories of. The idea of a blind detective may seem a bit absurd today – after all look at the reaction to Blind Justice, the Stephen Bochco series that replaced NYPD Blue but didn't last too long. Back in 1971 when you had detectives combating various infirmities it seemed less absurd. The show was a cut above much of what was on the air at the time but had the bad fortune to be on ABC and the equally bad fortune to be running against Nichols and the CBS Tuesday Night Movie. It's not too surprising that about the only clips from the series I can find online are related to the appearances of Bruce Lee on the series, particularly the episode The Way Of The Intercepting Fist. For that reason – and probably that reason alone – the show is probably more likely to get a DVD release than most of the class of 1971. In fact there are DVDs out there; an authorized Japanese set and a rather expensive Region 0 set of "dubious" provenance. In fact, maybe they're the same disks – oh Ivan!

Next a brief comment from our friend Linda, who does the Yet Another Journal blog and a whole lot of others:

I'm surprised you didn't mention the Prime Time Access Rule, which began that year.

Me: I sort of, kind of did in a roundabout sort of way. I wrote, "In the United States the FCC required the networks to give an hour of what had previously been defined as primetime back to the local stations. The intention had been for the local stations to do their own local programming but what really happened was the birth of the syndication market – and not coincidentally a boost for the Canadian producers." That would be the Prime Time Access Rule, and as I said, for a time it represented a boon for Canadian producers and Canada's CTV network, who were able to defray the costs of shows that were classified as Canadian by selling them as part of syndication packages. The problem that I had was that while I was aware that the rule existed, the 1971 TV Guide didn't actually name it. Here's what the editorial from that issue says: "Perhaps the most important factor shaping the new season is the FCC rule cutting networks from three-and-a-half to three hours of prime-time programming each evening. This rule has sent stations scurrying to find material to fill the gap – and many of the shows they found are brand-new." There's no explanation of the actual name of the rule, although the impact is eminently clear. Incidentally, the Prime Time Access Rule was dropped in 1995, but the networks have not tried to reclaim the time, perhaps knowing that the stations that they don't actually owned themselves would laugh in their faces if they tried. This should serve as a cautionary note to any network boss (say Jeff Zucker) who even contemplates the idea of giving an hour a night or even a full day back to the affiliates – once you lose it you aren't going to get it back.

Finally we have the following from Mike Doran:

I have at least one copy of every TV GUIDE Fall Preview from the first one in 1953 up to the present day (Chicago editions mostly). They didn't start doing write-ups for individual shows until about 1959 or 60 - I'll have to go home and check for sure. Anyway, this is a whiz-bang idea; I'm looking forward to more.

Me: I envy you that collection. I'd love to see some of those early issues, particularly from the 1960s. I also envy the fact that you aren't surrounded by people saying "That's old, get rid of it," or "You don't use that anymore, get rid of it," or "The dog's tail tore the cover off of that one? Well throw it away." I just heard the last one about twenty minutes ago. And heaven forbid that they find out how much some copies sell for on eBay – it's all "Well why don't you sell it and get rid of it." People, at least the one's around me, understand collecting stamps or coins but apparently not collecting – or just keeping – old TV Guides.

My collection is hardly in the best shape. In fact I did have to throw away my first TV Guide – the 1966 edition with The Green Hornet, The Time Tunnels, Mission Impossible, Girl From U.N.C.L.E., The Monkees, and a little show called Star Trek (Spock was described as having "Beatle bangs") – simply because it was far too damaged from repeated reading, being looked at, general abuse in storage, and just being on the sort of paper that these magazines were printed on. Several of my issues don't have covers. And a number of them suffer from being in the hands of someone wasn't collecting when he (I) got them and did things like marking off shows that had been cancelled.

This problem of damage is a major reason why I am scanning the issues and burning them to DVD. Even though the OCR software that came with my All-In-One printer can provide some really funky results, it's still going to cut down on the number of times I'm going to open up those old magazines and make it much easier for me to find specific commentary from specific years. Right now I'm thinking about scanning and writing about one issue every two weeks, with (hopefully) a post like this one in the alternating weeks. That should make this a year-long project. A couple of disclaimers though. First, there are a few issues that I'm missing because I wasn't able to get the issue before they disappeared from the stores (I was never a subscriber). Second, after 1977 I'm dealing with the Canadian version of the magazine. That was the year that Walter Annenberg's Triangle Publications was forced by the Canadian government to sell the magazine or include more Canadian content – Annenberg sold. Initially there wasn't much difference between the US and Canadian versions beyond some Canadian shows and schedules showing up in the main part of the magazine. By the 1990s though there seems to be a total disconnect between the two magazines to the point where nothing in the two magazines was the same, even the actual format. The Canadian edition of TV Guide ceased publication in October 2006.

Next week: 1969, the year of Marcus Welby, The Brady Bunch, and a little known show that was about twenty years before its time.

Meanwhile here's Henry Mancini's Cade's County theme from what appears to be a French dub of the show (which is titled Sam Cade for the French audience).

And here's Mancini's NBC Mystery Movie theme from the second season, when Universal decided to expand the rotation to four sets of characters and added Hec Ramsey (with Richard Boone). When I get to 1972 I have some rather interesting thoughts on Hec Ramsey.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Was America Ready For The Digital Transition?

I know that the digital transition didn't occur this past Tuesday, but it was intended to, and in fact 421 stations did switch off the analog service and went digital, although many retained what was known as "nightlight" service (allowing the stations to maintain an analog service to "inform unprepared viewers of the new transition date, or for emergency situations such as severe weather." This is in addition to the 190 stations that had made the switch before the original February 17th deadline. (This latter group includes all of the stations in the state of Hawaii which switched on January 15th to allow the dismantling of the analog transmission towers on Maui's Mt. Haleakala before the beginning of the nesting season for the endangered Hawaiian Petrel.) None of the stations that made the transition on or before February 17th was owned and operated by the four major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, or FOX-Newscorp) as well as Telemundo, and the Gannett, Meredith, and Hearst-Argyle Groups (except for three Hearst-Argyle stations in Hawaii) which have stated that they will maintain their analog services until the June 12th deadline. The final total of 641 stations represents 36% of the stations in the United States. The question is whether the change in deadline was necessary.

The answer is probably. Nielsen Media Research has been polling on the question of consumer readiness for the digital transition since December 2008. They released their most recent results on February 18th of a poll completed on February 15th, two days before the original transition date. At that time 4.4% of American households – over 5 million – were described as "totally unprepared" for the transition. This is a significant improvement over the number prepared from December 2008 and indeed over the January 18th poll – the first for which I have the number of actual households rather than percentages. It does however represent a significant number of households.


% Unprepared


December 21, 2008



January 18, 2009


6.5 million

February 1, 2009


5.8 million

February 15, 2009


5 million +

Nielsen also provided percentages for various demographics: White, African-American, Hispanic, Asian, homes where the head of household was under 35, and homes where the head of household was over 55. The last two are of particular interest. Leo Laporte, who I consider to be my technology guru, suggested in one of his podcasts that in terms of age the greatest number of unprepared households would come from the over 55 demographic, and quite frankly he and some of his colleagues made some rather cutting comments about how these people would think that they had digital TVs because instead of having a dial on their sets they had push-buttons and LEDs to tell them the channel number. In fact the single group with the greatest preparedness for the Digital Transition was households where the Head of Household was over 55.


Dec. 21, 2008

Jan. 16, 2009

Feb. 1, 2009

Feb. 15, 2009

Change Dec. 21-Feb. 15

























Under 35






Over 55






Perhaps the answer to this seeming anomaly lies in the area that Nielsen studious avoided polling on – Income Levels. If we can safely assume that older Americans are more likely to be more affluent and have greater disposable incomes, while younger Americans – regardless of race – are less affluent, then it follows that they are both the group most likely to delay the purchase of a digital converter and the group most likely to need the financial assistance provided by the TV Converter Box Coupon Program, and therein lies a major problem.

If there is one aspect to the problems with the digital transition that can fairly be laid at the feet of the Bush Administration it is the Coupon Program. Administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) the initial funding for the program was $890 million, to be paid from the estimated $20 billion that the sale of spectrum following the conversion would bring in. According to Wikipedia this money was sufficient for 22,250,000 of the $40 coupons. The option existed to expand the fund to a total of $1.34 billion (33,500,000 coupons) if necessary. This was a fraction of the total number of households in the US (112 million). Since the act establishing the coupon program allowed each household to apply for two coupons, the expanded funding was sufficient to supply 16.75 million households, or just over a tenth of the households in the United States. Given that, while the act stated that "eligible U.S. households" could obtain the coupons it did almost nothing to define the term "eligible," this seems like a gross underestimation of demand. Which, as it turned out, it was. In December FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell advised, "those who don't need the government subsidy not to wait on that process before purchasing a converter box for themselves or as a gift for someone else. During the weeks it takes for the government to process coupon requests, you will lose precious time to hook up the box, check antenna connections, and start enjoying free digital broadcast TV right away." It was, to say the least, an ineffective plea. On January 4, 2009 the $1.34 billion funding ceiling for the Coupon Program was reached.

The demand probably shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone, particularly given the current economic downturn. According to a Nielsen Media Research survey taken in August 2008, 25% of affected viewers (by which I assume they meant those without cable or satellite service who own TVs) intended to opt for the converters. By November 2008 this had increased to 38.3%. Complicating things was the problem of the 90 day usability period of the Coupons which were only usable through brick & mortar and authorised telephone retailers. Once the funding ceiling was reached new coupons could only be issued once outstanding coupons had either been used or had expired. The American Recovery And Reinvestment Act, signed into law on February 17th provides a further $650 million for the Coupon Program. Still it is not certain when additional coupons will be issued to those people who are on the waiting list for coupons – one estimate suggests that the new coupons won't be available until April.

Another problem is availability of the converter boxes. It is estimated that the currently available stocks of boxes will be exhausted by March 2009. In early February the Consumer Electronics Association estimated that there are between 3 and 6 million boxes available while Nielsen estimated that there were 5.8 million completely unready households in the United States, and that each household has an average of 2.8 televisions, meaning that there is a demand for over 16 million boxes. Manufacturers had apparently shut down production lines for the converter boxes, but restarted production when reports of the delay in the conversion began circulating. New supplies of converters are expected to become available in April.

If I were to make a prediction today about how things will progress over the next month or so, I would suggest a further major decrease in the percentage of people who are completely unready now that a large number of stations have actually switched off their analog broadcasts. Call it a "warning shot across their bows." Before this the transition was theoretical; with stations – including networks affiliates – actually making the conversion it suddenly becomes quite real. It is entirely possible, maybe even likely, that people who were waiting for their Converter Box Coupons will bite the bullet and buy at least one converter box at full price just so they can keep full service. That said, I am fully convinced that the delay was largely justified. Assuming an average four persons per household, that five million household figure represents 20 million people. That may be a small percentage of the total US population but it is still significant.

As for the Digital Transition in Canada, which is scheduled to occur on August 31, 2011, I am more than slightly pessimistic. My concern isn't too much about the consumer for a couple of reasons. First, since Canada is such a small market and so close to the United States, replacement of TV sets is almost certainly to be with Digital capable sets – TVs that can receive both the current NTSC service and the digital ATSC service. Second, Canada is amongst the most cable and satellite connected nations in the world. Arguably the percentage of "totally unprepared" households in Canada is quite low. No, my major concern is with the broadcasters and to a lesser extent the regulators. Until 2007 the transition to digital broadcasting was left almost entirely to the networks to decide – the intention was to leave it market driven. However what that has meant is that to this point only a handful of locations have actually made any progress towards conversion. Currently the three main Canadian networks (CBC, CTV, and Global) only provide the option of full service in Toronto and Vancouver, although service from one or another of the stations (usually the CBC) is available in a number of other cities. Most recently the CTV station in Calgary began broadcasting digitally in HD. Beyond that however there seems to be no movement in terms of making the transition. According to an article in the Toronto Star CTRC Chairman Konrad von Finckenstein rebuked broadcasters last year over the lack of progress in digital conversion and said that, "so far, the industry has not shown the sense of urgency that I think is called for right now." In the current economic climate, which sees Canwest-Global – the parent company of the Global network – faced with massive debt, it is expected that the industry will lobby the government to delay the transition. Moreover, the government has indicated that currently at least they have no plans to establish a subsidy plan similar to the American coupon system to aid consumers in preparing for the transition. I believe that by 2011 a high percentage of Canadians will be ready for our digital transition; I just don't know whether Canadian broadcasters will be.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

1971 – The TV Guide Fall Preview

A few weeks ago I had the idea of scanning my collection of TV Guide Fall Preview editions into searchable PDF files. Some of the issues are rather fragile or otherwise difficult to handle. My initial plan was to scan them randomly however I've taken the time to sort them, and except for a couple that were previously misplaced I'll now be scanning them (and writing about them here) in chronological order.

Well the biggest trend in the 1971-72 season was the sudden appearance of a large number of movie stars doing series. No fewer than three Oscar winners and three nominees (one of whom would later win an Oscar) were given series... and not one of those shows would get a second season. These included Oscar winners Jimmy Stewart, Anthony Quinn, and George Kennedy and nominees Rupert Crosse, Tony Curtis and Shirley MacLaine. Glenn Ford also got a series as did Rock Hudson. Hudson was the only one of the season's movie stars whose show MacMillan And Wife got picked up for a second season. Hudson's charm translated well to television, although I think it helped that he was working in a ninety minute film format with high production values and plenty of time to get things right, since the series rotated MacMillan and Wife with the Dennis Weaver series McCloud (which had actually debuted the season before as part of another anthology) and what turned out to be the biggest hit of the bunch, rumpled detective Columbo starring Peter Falk. It also didn't hurt that Hudson was working with TV veterans Susan St. James (as his sexy wife) and Nancy Walker.

In the 1971 Fall Preview TV Guide noted that, "Never before have the networks gone into a season with so few holdovers from the previous year." There was a good reason for that – the 1971-72 season had seen the completion of Fred Silverman's "rural purge" at CBS. Gone were The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Mayberry RFD, The Jim Nabors Hour, and Hee Haw. The only rural themed shows remaining were Gunsmoke and The Glenn Campbell Goodtime Hour. Also dumped (unceremoniously thanks to rising costs and an older skewing audience) was The Ed Sullivan Show which had been a fixture on CBS practically since the network had begun – it had been on since 1948. By themselves the CBS cancellations represented three and a half hours of programming gone – more than a full night for CBS since the FCC had taken an hour of primetime from the three networks and handed it back to the local stations. Unfortunately most of what replaced the memorable CBS rural line-up was cancelled – a lot of it within thirteen weeks. These days people remember The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Mayberry RFD and have little or no memory of Cade's County, The New Dick Van Dyke Show, Bearcats! or The Chicago Teddy Bears (although perversely Bearcats!, which ran thirteen episodes, has a longer Wikipedia entry than Cannon which ran five.

Only three of the new shows that debuted in the fall of 1971 lasted more than two seasons. Besides the aforementioned NBC Mystery Movie (the rotation of Columbo, McCloud and MacMillan And Wife) the successes were Owen Marshall: Counsellor at Law which ran for three seasons, and the William Conrad series Cannon which lasted five seasons but was only cancelled because Conrad himself got tire of doing it. Cannon is probably a type of show that modern producers would alternately love to put in their line-up and be scared to death of. The show had a single regular – Conrad – with absolutely no supporting cast. And unlike Columbo, which also had a single regular character (if you don't count Lt. Columbo's dog who showed up occasionally) this show was done on a weekly basis. It certainly cut down on the amount you pay actors, but it did make the producers highly dependent on a single person who could not be replaced.

In terms of what sort of shows were popular, in terms of dramas, cops and private eyes were in, westerns were out. There were arguably only two shows that could arguably described as traditional westerns and that's stretching the definition of "traditional" to the limit. They were Nichols on NBC which starred James Garner as a reluctant sheriff in a 1914 Arizona town named after his family, and the aforementioned Bearcats! which starred Dennis Cole and Rod Taylor as a pair of soldiers of fortune travelling around the west in the show's real star, a Stutz Bearcat (replica) in 1914. The only other westerns left were Bonanza and Gunsmoke. As for private eyes and cops this was the era of the so-called "defective detective." There was Frank Cannon, who was unrepentantly fat (he was also a gourmet cook), Robert Ironside who was in a wheelchair, and Samuel Cavanaugh (George Kennedy) in Sarge who was a Catholic priest. My favourite of the "defective detectives" was Mike Longstreet in Longstreet. In this series James Franciscus played an insurance investigator who was blinded in an explosion that killed his wife. Being blind may have kept him from carrying a gun (I think) but it didn't stop him from becoming a martial arts expert with some tutoring from his antique dealer friend Li Tsung, played by Bruce Lee. In the "difficult to categorize" area there was The Persuaders on ABC, which was a co-production with Lew Grade's ATV, starring Tony Curtis and Roger Moore as a mismatched pair of wealthy playboys manipulated into solving crimes.

In a different take on the Cop genre you had Cade's County with Glenn Ford. This was a sort of modern western, with Ford playing a sheriff in New Mexico (or Arizona or California – it's never made clear where Madrid County is) who patrols in a jeep rather than on horseback. It did feature Edgar Buchanan (Uncle Joe from Petticoat Junction) as his right hand man. In a more traditional vein there was David Jansen in O'Hara: US Treasury. The show, from Jack Webb starred Jansen as an agent of the US Treasury Department, although which law enforcement organization within the Treasury Department he worked for is not absolutely clear; one week the cases were the sort of thing the Secret Service dealt with, the next week it might be an Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms case or a Customs Department case. The same year, Webb produced a short lived series called The DA starring Robert Conrad. The show featured the investigation and trial of a new case every week...in a half hour format! The show did poorly in part because a number of NBC stations refused to carry it, apparently because it was up against ABC's Brady Bunch, and it was eventually replaced with Sanford And Son.

There were no new variety series in the 1971 fall preview, but there were a lot of new sitcoms. Dick Van Dyke returned to TV in The New Dick Van Dyke Show. Dick played a local talk show host in Phoenix (where the series was also shot - Van Dyke was living there at the time) with Hope Lange playing his wife. The series aired immediately before the show that starred his previous TV wife, Mary Tyler Moore. The New Dick Van Dyke Show was actually one of the more timeless concepts – it could be put on the air today with not much retooling (although the networks might object to the fact that Van Dyke and Lange weren't in their twenty or thirty somethings. Some of the other sitcom ideas just wouldn't fly today. There was Bobby Sherman and Wes Stern as struggling songwriters in a Partridge Family spin-off called Getting Together; Don Adams and Rupert Crosse as a pair of accident prone detectives in The Partners, and Jimmy Stewart as a college professor with an eight year-old son and an eight-year old grandson ("Now you know what's meant by an absent-minded professor."). There was also an hour-long sketch comedyA couple of shows are of particular interest in the area of dumb ideas. Dean Jones starred with Art Metrano, Huntz Hall (from the Bowery Boys movies) and John Banner in The Chicago Teddy Bears. The series was a comedy about speak-easies in the 1920s – the best thing about it was John Banner. The other show was The Good Life which starred a post-Jeannie Larry Hagman and a young Donna Mills as a middle class couple who escaped the rat race by becoming the butler and maid in the home of a clueless rich man's (David Wayne). Years later, when Hagman was playing J.R. Ewing on Dallas and Donna Mills showed up on Knott's Landing, their characters met and had a one night stand. There was also an hour-long sketch comedy show called The Funny Side, hosted by Gene Kelly (yes the dancer) which looked at potential issues in a marriage from the perspective of five stereotypical couples; a wealthy couple, a blue collar couple, a black couple, an elderly couple and a teenage couple). It was essentially a take-off of Love, American Style but ran for less than three months.

The show that preceded Van Dyke's series may have the saddest fate of any of the 1971 series. That was Funny Face, which starred Sandy Duncan as a part-time commercial actress who was studying to become a teacher. The series was doing very well in the ratings when Duncan was diagnosed with a tumor that was affecting her vision. The show was pulled from the CBS line-up when Duncan had to have surgery (which cost her the sight in one eye although contrary to popular belief the eye wasn't removed). The next year she was given a new show – The Sandy Duncan Show – which bombed in the ratings.

Canadian TV wasn't given much attention from TV Guide during this period. The Canadian version of the magazine was owned by the American parent company, Triangle Publications, until January 1977, and Canadian shows were only discussed as an afterthought in the local programming pages. This was interesting because there were a couple of regulatory changes that would have an impact on Canadian TV. In the United States the FCC required the networks to give an hour of what had previously been defined as primetime back to the local stations. The intention had been for the local stations to do their own local programming but what really happened was the birth of the syndication market – and not coincidentally a boost for the Canadian producers. At the same time the regulatory authority in Canada, the Canadian Radio-Television Commission (CRTC) required Canadian stations to maintain a 60% Canadian content. Of course the regulations had some holes that you could drive a truck through. One of these was co-productions. Canadian producers could take on a foreign partner – usually American – and produce shows in Canada that would count as Canadian even if there was minimal participation of Canadian actors, writers or directors. The combination of these two sets of regulations meant that several Canadian made shows that were on the CTV network schedule (at the time CBC didn't need co-productions to make their 60% requirement), including Simon Locke M.D., Story Theatre, and Rollin' On The River (a variety show featuring Kenny Rogers And The First Edition) were all syndicated into the US.

One of the fun things about looking at these old issues of TV Guide is the opportunity to see people who would become TV or movie stars in very early roles. The 1971 issue is rather sparse in this respect. The Funny Side was an early appearance for both Cindy Williams and John Amos. Eilliams appeared as one half of the teenage couple with Michael Lembeck, while Amos was the male in the black couple with Teresa Graves (who had debuted on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In and would later go on to star in Get Christie Love). Nichols was one of the earliest part in American TV for a very young Margot Kidder (it was also the role that made Kidder my first real TV crush – the character had a tendency to wear low-cut barmaid blouses). As I mentioned, Longstreet had Bruce Lee in his last American role before he emigrated to Hong Kong and his too brief stardom in martial arts movies there.

On the whole, despite the number of new series that appeared in the fall of 1971, the shows that started the year were pretty weak. Sarge, The Persuaders, Getting Together, The Partners, The Good Life, The Funny Side, Shirley's World, The Man And The City, Bearcats!, Chicago Teddy Bears, and The D.A. were all gone by the end of January 1972. A few of the shows that replaced them became major hits. Those included Emergency, Sonny & Cher, and Sanford & Son. The 1971-72 TV season wasn't one of the medium's greatest, but it had its moments.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Okay You Whedonistas!



Second hour of primetime!


Be there!

(This message is brought to you by the part of me that is an undiluted Joss Whedon fanboy. This will of course have as little bearing as I can possibly manage when it comes time for me to write a review of the show, but just so you know, there may be some leakage. I can't be totally dispassionate about everything.)

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Fourth Anniversary Of This Madness

I really hadn't planned to commemorate the beginning of this blog this year, but Jace over at Televisionary posted about the third anniversary of his blog and, well I decided that I might as well bring this up.

Today – February 8th – is the fourth anniversary of this blog. According to Wikipedia suitable gifts for the fourth anniversary are linen or silk (traditional) or electrical appliances. If you feel the necessity to send gifts in these categories, an up-converting DVD player or a laptop would probably qualify as an electrical appliance. Of course, if you have access to a female celebrity's silk undies....

But seriously folks, it was four years ago that I started this blog after years of hanging around at rec.arts.tv and discussing TV with a variety of people, not all of whom I agreed with. There were other newsgroups too, focussed on specific TV shows, including The West Wing (where discussions often descended into the politics with absolutely no linkage to the show), Due South (a warm little community that carried on far longer than the show), CSI, and of course The Amazing Race (where I did weekly recaps). I eventually started a blog that shared a title with my old Diplomacy zine, Making Love In A Canoe – and no, the title had nothing at all to do with Monty Python's Flying Circus (back when I was doing the zine, someone actually made that comment; it was apparently related to a sketch about American beer in their stage show – make up your own lines) – it was actually based on Pierre Berton's definition of a Canadian as someone who can make love in a canoe. That first blog was a general interest thing where I would hold out my opinions on various subjects including history and politics.

The trouble was that I kept wanting to write about TV and didn't think that my readership – whatever that readership may have been – would want to wade through the TV stuff to get to the "important" subjects. So I decided to start a blog entirely about TV. Pretty soon Making Love In A Canoe fell by the wayside and I eventually discontinued it. Well after all, one should write about what one loves. In a fit of what I thought was originality I named the new blog I Am A Child Of Television ... and immediately found out that Blogger doesn't exactly care if the name of a new blog is original, because Tony Figueroa already had a zine named Child Of Television – and a pretty good one at that.

Over the past four years this blog has evolved, as is the way of such things. Ideas have come and gone. Some of those never got beyond the dream stage; I've thought about podcasting, and about doing some sort of scheduled video presentation. They're good ideas, and others have done them, but they aren't something I feel confident in trying to pull off – a podcast featuring me going on and on about TV would not be a good thing. Other ideas have come and gone, and may come again. I did "Short Takes" about entertainment news, comments about the week's TV shows released on DVD, and my weekly PTC columns (the latter will be back but I've kind of temporarily burned out my ardour for the fight). These are good ideas, and I may revisit them in time, but "Short Takes" died because I thought others were covering the ground, and the DVD release posts died because I couldn't get them done in a timely manner.

Frustrations. I have a number of those. I get frustrated when I encounter real writers block. I get frustrated when I have trouble putting what I want to say into words and either miss the window of opportunity for writing about a show or can't get an article out that I think would be important. I have a huge worry about the state of television in Canada, where the vast majority of private stations are controlled not by local owners with local concerns who are actually doing programming in the local interest, but by a handful (three in fact: CTV Globemedia, Canwest Global, and Rogers Media) of mega-corporations based in Toronto, and there has never been government regulations to stop much more than one network owning more than one station in a city (so they company creates a second network. See E! and the A television system.). It's a cautionary tale particularly for Americans, and we're likely heading for a huge crash – Canwest-Global has a huge debt and is trying to sell its second network – but I find it hard to put into words and harder still to imagine anyone being interested in it even inside Canada let alone the world. I find it frustrating when I don't miss reviewing a show either because it's gone before I can get to it or because I fall into a viewing habit and that show isn't included – Pushing Daisies springs to mind immediately. I find it frustrating that it is very easy to write about shows that I really really love or really really hate but it's hard to write about shows that don't reach either of the extremes. I was extremely frustrated in trying to write a review of Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip. I was a show that I liked, but kept finding fault in because it came from Aaron Sorkin and it didn't measure up to most of his previous work either in TV or the movies. In retrospect – particularly given the stuff that has appeared on TV since, like Bionic Woman and Knight Rider – I find the show to be an undiscovered masterpiece that received nowhere near the respect it deserved.

That of course points out the biggest frustration that I have with writing about TV and that is TV itself. The American broadcast networks (and you will of course have noted that I mostly write about American broadcast TV – see my sense of inadequacy below) are getting worse not better. They are retreating from the daring and cutting edge towards the safe and predictable. There isn't a broadcast network today that would take on the headaches of an NYPD Blue, and I don't believe that most networks would take a chance with something like The West Wing. Thanks to the Writers Strike and the recession we may be leaving an era where network weasels cancel shows after two or three episodes – or at least banish them to Saturday night – but the combination of fears of FCC fines prompted by pressure groups like the PTC, and worries about being stuck with shows that are going to get killed in the ratings means that the broadcast networks are less and less likely to push the envelope when it comes to new shows. So they stick with procedurals (for our purposes defined as "television series which rely on an episodic format that does not require the viewer to have seen previous episodes")
rather than more continuity heavy fare, and they stick with cops, lawyers and doctors, rather than finding new areas of dramatic tension. Ironically the most daring of the networks right now may be NBC. Who else would try a series about a spy with a split personality (My Own Worst Enemy), a show about Robinson Crusoe set in the period (Crusoe), and a modern take on the story of King Saul and David (the upcoming Kings), not to mention a Texas high school football team and a Zen cop (Friday Night Lights and Life respectively)? Too bad the first two stank, the third probably isn't much better, and the other two are probably going to get cancelled because as good – great even – as they are they don't get the ratings they deserve.

I mentioned inadequacies and it's not just the normal ones, like seeing the men in porn (most men know exactly what I'm talking about, and those who don't either haven't seen porn or should be in it). No my sense of inadequacy in terms of writing about television comes from one area. I have essentially forced myself into the ghetto of reviewing broadcast television because I don't see most of the cable shows in Canada. Deadwood and Rome both aired uncut on the History Channel, at least a year after they had been cancelled by HBO. In fact even basic cable series can only be seen on the premium channels. I'd love to write about The Closer, Sons of Anarchy,
Crash or Skins, or just about anything from HBO or Showtime in the US, but they aren't available on the channels that I pay for. It becomes particularly frustrating when someone doing publicity for a show does promotion for a show that sounds like something that I'd love to write about but which is of no use to me because I know that I won't see the show for a year or two, if at all. Another source of inadequacy is the whole thing about screeners and press kits. It just points out how small a fish in how big a pond I am. I would love to be able to write reviews at a certain amount of leisure and still have them come out on time and with a more complete view of what the show is going to be. Oh well, a man in the desert can dream of water can't he.

Four years into this whole adventure of writing about TV as an amateur critic and the thrill hasn't entirely gone out of the gig. Sure there are times when I feel like it's a massive drag and I'd be better off doing just about anything else, but the truth is that despite all the frustrations and reinforced sense of inadequacy, the old fashioned irritation at bad series concepts, the (to me) idiotic decisions that networks make, and the sense that the part of the medium of television that is accessible to most people is not what it can and should be, I'm having a great time writing about TV and can't honestly think of anything I'd rather do to pass the time. Call it a hobby, call it an avocation, call it an obsession, I'm having FUN!