Sunday, April 25, 2010

Weekend Videos – Top Rated Shows 1950-54

I started this the other day and lost my work when Works "ceased to function" when I saved the file... or thought I saved the file.

The inspiration behind this post was something that I saw in Bill Crider's most excellent blog Bill Crider's Pop Culture Magazine. In this particular case the blog entry directed me to an article on, called The Most Overrated Shows On Television. The article has staff members from the blog, cloaked in the protective veil of anonymity ("to protect them from your hateful comments") these people listed eight shows that they consider overrated: Lost, The Office, Weeds, American Idol, NCIS, Glee, Mad Men, and 30 Rock. I won't go into detail about the article, but the quality of the comments ranged from trivial to downright inane (just check out the comments on NCIS which seems to focus more on Pauly Perrette's wardrobe and whether or not Michael Weatherly and Mark Harmon are "hot" as reasons why the show is "overrated." That sort of "reasoning" together with the anonymous nature of the writers devalued the article in my opinion. Still it did serve as inspiration for this article, a look at the highest rated shows of each year from 1950 to today... or at least as close to today as YouTube and copyright restrictions will let me get.

Here's the way I want to work it. I will list the top three shows of each year together with the percentage of the nation's televisions that were tuned to the show. I'll try to post a comment on the shows as well as one or two clips from the show. If clips from the show are unavailable or the show has already been featured on this list then I'll find clips from the next highest show, and so on. The data is taken from The Complete Directory To Prime Time Network And Cable TV Shows.

Texaco Star Theater 61.6%, Fireside Theater 52.6%, Philco TV Playhouse 45.3%.

Texaco Star Theater was of course the show that made Milton Berle into Mr. TV. The show started as a variety series but became increasingly Berle's show. Eventually Berle would leave sponsor Texaco and would star in his own series, The Milton Berle Show which ran until 1956, and retained much the same format as what the Texaco Star Theater had become by the end of his time with the show. These viewership figures show that everybody watched Berle. Fireside Theater was a half-hour drama anthology. Later it would be renamed The Jane Wyman Show after its most famous host. The show ran from 1949 to 1958. Also debuting in 1948 The Philco TV Playhouse was an hour long dramatic anthology series. By 1950 the show had evolved into a mix of adapted and original plays, musicals featuring actors who either were stars or who would become major stars, including Anthony Quinn, Grace Kelly, Paul Newman, Julie Harris and, in the last episode of the series, Sidney Poitier.

Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts 53.8%, Texaco Star Theater 52.0%, I Love Lucy 50.9%

Arthur Godfrey was a long-time radio host who made the transition from radio to television with not one but two variety shows, Arthur Godfrey And His Friends, and this show Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. In 1951-52 both shows were in the top ten in viewership. This really wasn't an amateur show since most of the acts that appeared on the show had some professional experience but needed that "big break." Among the stars "discovered" by Godfrey's Scouts were Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Leslie Uggams, Roy Clark and Patsy Cline. Famously the show passed on a couple of acts that really went somewhere – Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. As for I Love Lucy, well wait for the next clips.

1952-53: I Love Lucy 67.3%, Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts 54.7%, Arthur Godfrey And His Friends 47.1%

What can you say about I Love Lucy? Well how about this; between 1951 when the show debuted and 1957 when the last half-hour episodes were shot it was only out of first place in the ratings twice, once in 1951 and once in 1955 when The $64,000 Question was the hottest show on TV. The show marked the debut of the three camera filming system for comedies (so Desi and Lucy wouldn't have to move to New York to do the show), and while it was not the first series to feature a star having a baby it was the first mainstream series to do so. The spike in viewership in this season is undoubtedly explained by the fact that this season marked the birth of Little Ricky. Arthur Godfrey And His Friends was Godfrey's second series, a music show which featured a variety of acts. This season was the one that featured Julius LaRosa whose firing by Godfrey was a major new story.

I'm also including an in-show performance of Babalu by Desi Arnaz because, well I like it!

1953-54: I Love Lucy 58.8%, Dragnet 53.2%, Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts 54.7%

Dragnet was in its third season and had built its audience significantly from its debut season in 1951-52. While those of us of a "certain age" remember the 1960's incarnation of the series as being unintentionally funny and certainly "square," the 1950s version of the series was the real deal, touching on subjects from gun control, juvenile delinquency and pornography to unwed mothers, child abandonment and pedophilia. The 1950s version of the show really was hard hitting (and I don't just mean the way that Joe Friday dealt with some suspects). Look for Lee Marvin in this one.

I Love Lucy 58.8%, The Jackie Gleason Show 42.4%, Dragnet 53.2%

When most of us think of Jackie Gleason on TV we think of The Honeymooners, but that show only ran for a single season, 1955-56. Before and after that single season of The Honeymooners was The Jackie Gleason Show, a comedy variety series with a heavy emphasis on sketch comedy. Gleason did shorter Honeymooners stories but had a huge number of characters including Reggie van Gleason III, Joe the Bartender, The Poor Soul and a host of others.

I think I'll try to run this format on a monthly basis.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Frustration And Happy Town Swag

Sometimes it... well it doesn't suck to be Canadian but it can be more than a bit frustrating to try to produce this sort of blog when you're a Canadian. Take what happened the other day when I got my Happy Town press package – aka swag – from ABC.

I knew most of the details of what was coming because my good buddy Toby got his a few days before I did. Then again he's in New York and as a result doesn't have to cope with Canada Customs examining packages coming across the border. Still, there's a bit of a thrill in getting something like this, and since this is really the first time that I've received a package like this it was a bit special. The package included a one page newspaper talking about the disappearance of Entertainment Editor and well-known blogger Brent McKee and included a link to the online version of the news story.

Besides the newspaper, the package included this post card featuring scenes from around Haplin Minnesota – known as "Happy Town" to the locals – Miranda Kirby, your full service realtor. There's a certain sinister quality to the picture son the card. Maybe it's the strange colour to the photos, or maybe it's the clouds.

There's also a from Big Dave's Pizza Barn, where the New York style pizzas have an authentic quality: "The best way to do that is to use authentic New York City tap water in the dough – shipped to Haplin direct from New York, twice a week." The list of pizzas is small and rather pedestrian.

But the main feature of the menu is a map of Haplin and the surrounding district.

Next up is a scented candle (with an ABC logo on the top).

Then there's a two sided snow globe. On one side is scene on a lake with the woods behind (it also appears on the post card) and on the other a scene of downtown Haplin, dominated by the Our Daily Bread Factory – "The Bready" to the locals – looming over the town like a somehow sinister industrial-era castle. And there's something else that's a bit sinister on one of the buildings, the sign of the notorious Magic Man.

There's a bag of Our Daily "bread." Apparently it actually contains a T-shirt, but it's packed in there too tightly for me to get it out without damaging the bag.

There's a fridge magnet seemingly advertising a German movie - Die Blaue Tur (The Blue Door) which has the tag line "Betreten auf eigene gefahr" ("Enter at your own risk") - but really advertises the House Of Ushers movie memorabilia store.

Finally there's a coffee mug with the Magic Man's symbol on it.

There was actually one other thing in the package, a sheet of paper with a web address where I could watch the first episode of Happy Town online before the general public. And that's where the frustrations comes in, because when I went to the link I was duly informed that the video was unavailable to me. Because I live in Canada, or at least not in the United States. I mean I know why it happens; someone else owns the rights to Happy Town in Canada and they aren't participating in the ABC promotional campaign. Still would it really have hurt to send out a DVD or even a USB drive with the first episode of the show on it? I promise I won't make illegal copies and sell them on my front lawn

So I won't be able to tell you what I think of Happy Town before the show actually airs. Which I sort of think is unfortunate. Part of the purpose of a media critic is to give potential patrons an informed opinion about a TV show or a movie or a game before the material is released to the general public. The principle, which TV executives are obviously aware of, is that positive comments from critics even if they are bloggers will help to draw viewers to their product. And if critics don't like it, well there is still the chance that it might hit anyway "proving the critics wrong." But that only works if critics are able to see the show before it airs. The problem here is that while I am indeed a Canadian, my blog has an audience that is not exclusively Canadian. In fact according to Google Analytics the majority of the people who visit this blog in the past month came from the United States. The thing about the Internet is that you reach an audience without boundaries, unless of course you are dealing with companies that aren't aware of the fact. I guess what I'm saying is that would it have killed ABC to have included a DVD or a USB drive instead of tantalizing me with a website that I can't use?

As far as the press kit goes, I loved it, maybe because it was my first, or maybe because it seemed like fun. It might even be worth something someday, if Happy Town turns out to be a big hit. It might be worth more if the show has a short run and develops a small but devoted – even rabid – fan following. Will it influence what I write about the show? Well if that was why they sent it out it's a failure because when it comes to reviewing shows, I call them as I see them... when I can see them.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Weekend Videos – Inspiration Is Where You Find It

I have mostly restored my computer after reinstalling Vista (twice – I made a mistake in naming my primary account the first time I reinstalled and my files didn't go to the right place when I restored the back-up) but that doesn't explain why I'm posting this late Sunday-early Monday. No, for that you have to blame lack of inspiration. My first intention was to take inspiration from the song Video Killed The Radio Star; an examination of radio performers whose careers transitioned from what we now refer to as Old Time Radio, and a few who didn't (Fred Allen being the biggest name of all) but quite frankly it just didn't feel right. Next up was the idea of looking at the four Warner Brothers detective shows that debuted at the end of the 1950s – 77 Sunset Strip, Bourbon Street Beat, Hawaiian Eye, and Surfside 6 – inspired by the news that one of the shows likely to be picked up next season is Law & Order LA, because of course law enforcement and prosecution in Los Angeles is so different from law enforcement and prosecution in New York. The idea was of course that this idea of putting basically the same show on with different locations is hardly original with Law & Order or even CSI. The problem was that there is a depressing lack of YouTube clips from most of the shows. There was only a short clip from 77 Sunset Strip that was shown here earlier, three clips from Surfside 6 that features none of the cast members, and a few seconds from Bourbon Street Beat in a compilation of 1959 TV show themes. The only thing that is available in relative abundance is clips from Hawaiian Eye. So that wasn't going to work out.

For a while I thought that I wasn't going to be able to do a video post but then, on Sunday afternoon I came upon this post from Mark Evanier. It references another post from The Mad Blog about an illustration that legendary comic book artist and illustrator Jack Davis had done for NBC to promote their1965 TV season in TV Guide. The work in question was a five part extravaganza (at least) pieced together by the person who posted the image (I have to say that it was badly put together, not only missing the Sunday night shows but also pushing some of the pages together so that it was bard if not impossible to read some of the entries, but that's not the point here). So the obvious answer to my problem was to find material related to the 1965 TV season... like one or more of those network preview shows that the networks always aired at the start of the season. Unfortunately none of those seems to exist. What does exist is the longer than normal for YouTube clip shown here, a preview of NBC's new entertainment shows done for NBC employees and advertising clients, hosted by Don Adams in character as Maxwell Smart. The show is rather funny, in spite of the laugh track, but you can see why it wouldn't be particularly attractive to as a way to introduce the new shows to the general public. It certainly wasn't shot on the best film stock available.

Adams makes a big deal of the fifteen new shows on NBC the most new shows on the network, as Adams puts it, since 1588. I'm not sure that this is something that they really ought to be bragging about since it's indicative of a major problem the season before. And I believe that this would be an accurate assessment. On most nights only one program from the previous season survived from the 1964-65 season. Still the 1965-66 season on NBC would be a turning point of sorts. While most of the shows that Adams enthused about would be gone by the end of the season, there were some stand-outs like Get Smart, The Dean Martin Show, I Dream Of Jeannie, and Run For Your Life. Other shows had long service in reruns. Laredo ran for a long time on the Lonestar cable channel in Canada practically from the beginning of the channel until after most of the other western content was abandoned and the station became Movietime. Even the most monumental failure was memorable, if not necessarily for the right reasons. My Mother the Car is generally regarded as one of the worst shows ever to air... but it ran a full season. In fact the only show that NBC started the 1965 season with that didn't last for a full season was the World War II naval adventure Convoy; it was the last NBC series shot in Black & White (to take advantage of World War II archival footage) and a number of network affiliates refused to air the show.

I have distinct memories of a number of these shows, including some of the more obscure shows that didn't necessarily show up often in syndication. Wackiest Ship In The Army, based on the movie of the same name was a show that I have vague memories of. Although it is generally regarded as a comedy, I remember it as having more than a little bit of a dramatic/adventure edge to it. Certainly it wasn't a "typical" service comedy. Please Don't Eat The Daisies is another show that I have vaguer memories of. I remember it as having been a fairly conventional domestic comedy in a sea of comedies that were filled with gimmicks, like girls who appeared in a puff of smoke. It was pleasant but I can't really say that I remember too much about it beyond the very large dog and the house. On the other hand I do remember Hank, the show about a teenager who was forced to try to support his younger sister through a series of – very – odd jobs but was still determined to get a higher education even if he wasn't registered (or paying) for college classes. For some reason I remember Hank airing as a summer series, but maybe that was how my local station chose to run the show. Whatever the truth was I remember the lengths to which Hank would go to attend classes. There was a warmth to the show as well.

I can't say that I've seen examples of most of the new NBC shows of 1965. I don't recall ever having seen an episode of Run For Your Life despite the fact that the show ran for three seasons. It is as much a mystery to me as the short-lived Convoy or Camp Runamuck. Of course I'm not sure that I've really missed anything by not seeing the TV version of Mister Roberts or The John Forsythe Show (particularly given the way that the show changed at mid-season from a comedy about a career officer inheriting a girls school, to a cut rate spy comedy). On the other hand a somewhat older version of me would have probably appreciated Juliet Prowse, so maybe not seeing Mona McClusky was a bit of a loss.

Anyway here's Don Adams with NBC's 1965 programs.

Update: Here is a much better version of the original Jack Davis artwork that inspire this, complete with the missing Sunday shows.

Friday, April 09, 2010

A Small Warning

Just so that you know, I might not get anything posted this weekend. I do want to write about the new CBS series Miami Medical and of course there's my "Weekend Videos" - though I haven't got anything in mind for this weekend - that should be done, but there are a couple of problems.

First up, I seem to have come down with a spring cold. It's not too bad, but it is slowing me down a bit.

Next - and I promise you this is bigger - I pretty much have to back up everything and reinstall Windows Vista. About ten days to two weeks ago when I was trying to downlod some Windows Updates something went wrong. It said that the download had been successful but when it restarted afterwards the computer wouldn't start. System Startup Repair "fixed" the supposed error - a corrupted file called ntoskrnl.exe. Except that the "fix" only lasted until the next time that the Update - which failed to be properly installed - tried to download... the next day! When I contemplated simply ignoring the problem by upgrading to Windows 7 I was informed that the computer hadn't downloaded SP1, and oh by the way, Microsoft will no longer support copies of Windows Vista that had not had SP1 or SP2 installed. Insert heartily frustrated sigh here!

Anyway this weekend is going to be given over to backing up my data - which I should have been doing more frequently anyway - to my new 1 Terabyte Drive, and then reinstalling Windows. I do not anticipate this being a happy experience.

Oh, and by the way, my brother Greg is getting married this weekend in Wetaskiwin Alberta. I won't be attending - someone has to look after the dog - but our mother is.

Suffice it to say that I probably won't be doing much writing this weekend. I will probably be reserving much of my vocabulary for my other activities this weekend.

Update #1: (12:18 CST/MDT) Backup finished at Midnight local time. It took about eight hours to complete! Not going to do the Windows reinstall until the morning. Fortunately Dell includes an image file of the system as it left the factory so that might make it easier than going completely from scratch. I hope I hope I hope.

For Linda: Truth Is I've never really had problems with Vista except for a few teathing pains, like programs that didn't work with it and for which the manufacturers steadfastly refuse to provide patches. A full Windows 7 Home Premium disk would set me back about $225 Canadian here, and I would still have had to buy the backup drive so reinstalling Vista is the better decision financially (particularly when you check the relative values of our two currencies; why such a huge difference?!).

Update #2: Well, I'm back - still not up to 100%; more like 60% - and there were a few things that went wrong. I had to reinstall a second time on Monday but that was because I screwed up when I set things up the first time. Still need to get the drivers for my monitor, printer, wireless mouse, and a couple of other peripherals installed, and then various programs installed - mostly games on disks, and applications to be downloaded, but it's better than it was before the reinstall.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Sunday Videos – A Sunday In 1957

We lost John Forsythe on Thursday at age 92. That was one hell of a rotten April Fools Joke.

John Forsythe, was born John Freund, in Brooklyn New York, the son of a Wall Street broker. He graduated from high school at age 16 and attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At age 18 he became the public address announcer for the Brooklyn Dodgers. At the suggestion of his father he began an acting career and had some bit parts in films before he joined the Army Air Force in 1943. He appeared in the Army Air Corps show Winged Victory and worked with soldiers who had developed speech problems during their military service. After leaving the service Forsythe became a member of The Actors Studio where members of his class included Marlon Brando and Julie Harris. He also appeared in several Broadway plays including Teahouse Of The August Moon. He appeared in a number of anthology TV shows, and larger roles in movies. He was cast in the lead role of Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry, the first of two appearances in Hitchcock films (the other was 1969's Topaz). The Trouble with Harry was a commercial failure and led to his first TV series, Bachelor Father, which had the distinction of appearing on all three commercial networks in the course of its five year career. In 1965 he appeared in The John Forsythe Show which ran for a single, rather schizophrenic, season (it started as a show about an Army Major who inherits a girls' school, and turned into a comedy spy series along the lines of I Spy). This was followed by a two year run in To Rome With Love. In the 1970s he appeared – or rather didn't appear – in Charlie's Angels as the never seen Charlie Townsend, the boss of Townsend Investigations. Beginning in 1981 he starred in Dynasty as Blake Carrington opposite Linda Evans as his wife Krystle. A dark haired Evans had previously appeared on an episode of Bachelor Father as a high school friend of the niece of Forsythe's character, Bentley Gregg, who had a serious crush on him. In 1992 Forsythe played a US senator in a short lived comedy for NBC called The Powers That Be produced by Norman Lear. While the series lasted less than a year it did feature an outstanding cast including Holland Taylor, Peter McNichol, David Hyde Pierce, and John Gordon-Levitt. Thus Forsythe is one of the few actors who had series in five decades.

While the easy way out would be to put up either clips or scenes from the various series that Forsythe starred in, I thought I'd try something different. One idea that I have been playing with in these Video segments is to take one night in one year and try to put together clips from TV shows on the three networks on that particular night. So, for example, I might pick Tuesday nights in 1966 and find clips for the shows from all three networks on Tuesdays in 1966. I thought I'd use the death of John Forsythe as a jumping off point. There's a bit of a problem with that; while it is easy to find clips of Charlie's Angels and Dynasty, some of the other shows have very little material available to them. I've decided to go with Bachelor Father, as Forsythe's first show. But this has a major problem. The only clip I've been able to find for the show has a couple of serious flaws. First, the only clip I can find comes from a commercial outfit selling DVDs of PD TV shows. The clip cuts off Forsythe's name and despite having a stated running time of 2 minutes suddenly stops showing anything new at about the 0:45 second mark.

Still Sunday nights in 1957 was a dream year for TV. Just look at the CBS line-up. The network started the night with Lassie. Next came The Jack Benny Program which alternated with Bachelor Father (the Benny clip here probably comes from before 1957 but it's a classic). That was followed by The Ed Sullivan Show, which featured a young singer named Presley. This clip was probably ripped from a commercial DVD or video tape but I wanted to actually include a clip from 1957 with Sullivan in it. Next up was GE Theater, hosted by Ronald Reagan. This clip is from a 1956 show featuring Judy Garland (the one clip I managed to find from 1957 had the commercials cut out). Following GE Theater was Alfred Hitchcock Presents. This clip is from the first part of the second season and aired in October 1956. Alfred Hitchcock was followed by a spin-off from a game show. The $64,000 Challenge took winners from The $64,000 Question and had them face challengers in their fields. If one of the contestants failed to answer a question at a specific level was eliminated while the other contestant carried on until they were eliminated. The show ran from 1956-1958 and was killed by the game show scandal. Winding up Sunday night on CBS was one of my favourite panel shows (it's really not fair to call it a game show or a quiz show), What's My Line? hosted by the erudite John Daly and an equally erudite and witty panel. They don't make shows that are this intelligent any more.

For the most part Sunday was variety night for NBC. First up, opposite Lassie, was The Original Amateur Hour featuring Ted Mack. The show was considerably less polished than the closest modern equivalent, America's Got Talent, but that may be part of whatever charm it has. Following The Original Amateur Hour, was an extremely obscure situation comedy called Sally as a department store sales girl who becomes the "lady's companion" of a somewhat daffy wealthy woman on a world tour. Sally was played by Joan Caulfield, while Myrtle Bascomb was played by Marion Lorne. A format change at midseason changed the setting to a department store and added the always dependable Gale Gordon as store manager and co-owner Bascomb Beacher Sr. and Arte Johnson as his bashful son Bascomb Jr. There do not appear to be any clips of Sally available on-line (okay Toby, prove me wrong!). After Sally NBC rolled out the big guns. The Steve Allen Show was the prime time show that Steve Allen did after he left the Tonight Show. Well that's not entirely accurate since when the show started Steve had not yet left the late night show, but was working on cut-back hours. By 1957 he had left late night however and was working his hardest to be NBC answer to Ed Sullivan (literally since Steve was on opposite Sullivan). These two clips are fairly typical of Allen's prime time efforts and features Tom Poston as the straight-laced host, Pat Harrington as the "hipster Lawrence Welk." Louis Nye, and Steve himself. After Steve Allen came the Dinah Shore Chevy Show. The show was a typical variety show with singing and comedy bits. This particular clip doesn't feature Dinah singing "See the USA in a Chevrolet" but it does feature a comedy bit starring Shore and her husband George Montgomery, Ernie Kovacs and his wife Edie Adams, and band leader Louis Prima and his wife, singer Keely Smith. The fast cuts between the three couples is almost as hilarious as Louis losing track of the word play. Finally we have the Loretta Young Show, an anthology drama series hosted by Hollywood star Loretta young. Originally titled Letter To Loretta the original "gimmick" of Young reading a fan letter as a way of introducing the episode's half hour play was dropped after about 13 episodes of the show's first season. What wasn't dropped was Loretta's sweeping, twirling entry through the doors of "her home" in those glamourous – and vaguely preposterous – dresses. The only extensive clips from the show (which show the actual acting) on YouTube are from the 1953 season, so we'll have to content ourselves with a Loretta Young entrance from the 1954-55 season.

ABC was "the third network" and their Sunday line-up showed it. There were only two shows of real note. Leading up opposite Lassie was the show that you would have to describe as the "original reality show," You Asked For It. The format of the show was amazingly simple. Viewers would write in to the show asking to see some sort of action or event and the show would present it. I have a memory of seeing this show as a child, with the show's second host, Smilin' Jack Smith. The clip here isn't dated but it is probably before 1957, which was the original host Art Baker's last year on the show. I picked it because it represented the sort of thing that I remembered the sort of thing that I remember the show doing, although apparently Baker liked to get show business people on the show. You Asked For It was followed by another show that I have very real memories of Maverick. This extended clip features Jack Kelly as Bart Maverick rather than the more popular James Garner. The clip also includes a number of stars from other Warner Brothers series that may or may not have been on ABC. Wait till you see what Edd Byrnes is doing with his comb in this one! The rest of ABC's line-up was a show called Bowling Stars (opposite the last halves of The Ed Sullivan Show and The Steve Allen Show, a public affairs show called Open Hearing up against GE Theater and the first half of the Dinah Shore Chevrolet Show and the half hour All American Football Game Of The Week against Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the second half of Dinah Shore.

Please let me know what you think of this idea. It probably won't be the only way that these Video segments could go but I confess that it's an idea that I'm warming up to.