Friday, December 31, 2010

On The Third Day Of Christmas

On the third day of Christmas, my true love – Television – gave to me… three reality show moments.

I’m still behind but this post and the next one should be quickies, so I’ll catch up a bit.
My friends in the blogging field, notably Ivan Shreve and “Toby” O’Brien have accused me at times of knowing far more about reality TV than is entirely healthy, an accusation to which I say HA! and HA! anew. The truth is that I watch a few reality shows. I watch the ones I like, which are generally reality-competition shows that aren’t talent shows or shows about dating. I really think that I am rather selective in the shows that I watch. I normally watch Big Brother, Survivor, Hell’s Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares, Celebrity Apprentice (not the non-Celebrity version mind), Dancing With The Stars and of course the greatest reality-competition series of them all, The Amazing Race. Not that many at all really, and I’ve never lowered myself to the point where I watch The Bachelor The Bachelorette, or Biggest Loser. And Jersey Shore, or the Real Housewives franchise? Fuhgeddaboudit.

Inevitably reality-competitions shows attract “big” personalities, for good or for ill. Part of the reason for doing a show like this is that you have something of an exhibitionist streak, either emotionally or physically; you want people watching you and you don’t care that much what they see. Reality competition shows also generate situations where things go wrong or people do things that embarrass themselves because it seemed like a good idea at the time. So here are three of my favourites from the past year.

1. Bristol Palin in a Gorilla Monkey Monkee suit
The Fall season of Dancing With The Stars featured Bristol Palin, the daughter of former Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin (and somewhat infamous in her own right for being pregnant out of wedlock during her mother’s campaign). Controversy seemed to follow young Bristol as far more talented dancers than her were eliminated. In fact, one of the options for this slot was the elimination of fourth place finisher Brandy; Derek Hough’s jaw literally drops when he hears the news. The other notable event in that season was when 76 year-old Florence Henderson “whipped out the girls” (fortunately encased in a suitable for TV bra) in the piece before she did the Tango to the theme from The Brady Bunch. Those of us who saw it can’t forget it…no matter how hard we try. Bristol Palin’s success was almost certainly a by-product of her mother being a favourite of Tea Party supporters (they try to deny it by claiming that Bristol’s dancing improved during the course of the show – and it’s true, but given that she started with no skills improvement was to be expected; she was still a bad dancer, just not as bad a bad dancer). Possibly the nadir of Palin’s dancing career on the show was “TV Theme week” in which the teams danced to TV show themes (well duh). Palin and her dance partner Mark Balas got the theme from The Monkees. And for some reason Mark thought that dressing up might help. As you can see here, it really didn’t, though the judges were kind.

2. Quitters on Survivor: Nicaragua
Survivor usually deals up more than its fair share of drama. During the “Heroes vs. Villains” season in the spring we had the confrontation between Rob Mariano (Boston Rob), who I consider to be one of the best strategists that Survivor has ever seen – and also the only person in Survivor history to actually make fire by literally rubbing two stick together – against Russell, the immunity idol magnet who had come second the previous season and actually tried to buy the title of Sole Survivor in the reunion show. Rob saw right through Russell and twice had a plan to get him out, only have Russell stay because he was able to persuade two of Rob’s allies to vote against their own best interests. Still, Survivor: Nicaragua brought us a villain almost as bad as Russell: Naonka Mixon. Naonka literally wrestled a woman with one leg to the ground to get a clue to the hidden immunity idol, and implied that she might throw the woman’s prosthetic leg into the fire while she slept. She stole food from her team and hid it, and then when Kelly B – the woman with the artificial leg – found out about it she first shared food with her and then got the other members of her tribe to put more blame onto Kelly for not immediately ratting Naonka out than on herself for actually stealing the food. Naonka went through the whole game as the Queen Witch Bitch of Nicaragua. Until she decided that she was too cold and too wet and quit.along with Kelly Shin – known on the show as “Purple Kelly”… when you actually saw her on the show which wasn’t always that often. But she after she announced her desire to quit (but before it was accepted – the show wanted to give both women a chance to change their minds), Naonka had one more bit of “witch-bitchery” about her. She was on the winning team of a “reward” challenge (some reward – they got to see a sneak preview of the new Jack Black movie Gulliver’s Travels) however they were offered a chance to get some extra supplies if one of the winning team opted not to go on the reward. Since there had been a fire at the camp that destroyed their tarp, and virtually all of their food, someone would be sitting out the reward… but it wouldn’t be Naonka. Despite the fact that she knew she wasn’t going to change her mind, Naonka was determined to get every reward she was “entitled” to. Which led to the Tribal Council seen in this clip. The other players, both still active and on the jury were dumbfounded that after thirty days in the jungle and with just ten days left in the shooting schedule, these two would quit without any injury or medical problem. As for host Jeff Probst, well he seems to have a hard time keeping his anger at these two quitters at bay. Jeff doesn’t like quitters on his show. To make matters worse, despite not being voted off, Naonka and Purple Kelly became part of the jury, and this time there was nothing anyone could do to keep it from happening. However a new rule, announced at the show’s reunion episode, will give producers the option of not allowing quitters to participate in the jury at the discretion of the producers.

3. Claire and the Watermelon on The Amazing Race
The biggest reality incident of the year came in the first episode of The Amazing Race. GemsTV home shopping hosts Brook Roberts (the blonde) and Claire Champlin (the brunette) were in England where their Roadblock task (one which has to be done by only one of the team and can’t be switched; that’s important in this case as you’ll see) was to use an overgrown slingshot to knock down a suit of armour. With a watermelon. Seems simple enough right? And for most of the people who were on the show it was. Not for Claire. As you’ll see in the video the watermelon had a mind, and a sense of direction, all its own. The result was shocking to say the least, to the point where the jugglers and acrobats, hired to provide “Local Colour” dropped out of “Local Colour” mode and rand over to see if she was alright. Needless to say, the video went viral. The original CBS release (which I’m showing here; be advised, there is a short commercial at the start) has had over 2.2 million hits, and various other versions have had between 100,000 and 1.5 million hits. There’s even a guy who claims that it was all a fake. But would you really trust a guy in bug glasses?

Thursday, December 30, 2010

On The Second Day Of Christmas

On the second day of Christmas, my true love – Television – gave to me... two departing executives.

In this case I'm speaking of The CW's Dawn Ostroff who recently resigned as the networks President of Entertainment, and Jeff Zucker who was fired as President of NBC Universal in September.

dawn-ostroffI really don't know that much about Dawn Ostroff. Most of the programs that the network airs aren't directed to a person of my age and gender. This is quite deliberate, a policy that Ostroff who has headed the Programming Department at The CW since the network was created has championed. The CW's focus on the "young female" (teens and early 20s) focus means that the network has the youngest audience on TV. This allows the network to claim victory with small audiences by claiming that they're successful in reaching their target audience and going after advertisers who are trying to reach that market. Still there have been missteps and casualties both in the transition from the two networks which made up The CW, UPN and The WB, and in the subsequent period. The CW is the only network without any sitcoms. The WB had a fairly well regarded set of Friday night sitcoms which included their highest rated show of all at the time, Reba. The Friday night comedy block was dumped because one of the things that UPN brought into the merger was WWE's Friday Night Smackdown which was that network's biggest draw (some might say their only draw). Ostroff initially cancelled Reba when the two networks merged, on the grounds that it didn't fit with the demographic that the network was aiming for, however the show was given a 13 episode order just before Upfronts in May 2006, largely on the grounds that more episodes to allow the show to be syndicated. Brought on to replace one of the of the two new series to debut during the first season of the new network, it became one of the top rated shows on the new network. There were reports that the show would be given a full season order but the show was completed its thirteen episodes and was cancelled. The last sitcoms on The CW were Everybody Hates Chris and The Game in the 2008-09 season. Ostroff also had major problems on Sunday nights after Seventh Heaven left the night in the 2006-07 season. Ostroff was at the helm when The CW decided to farm out their entire Sunday night schedule to an independent producer named Media Rights Capital. The arrangement fell apart within a few weeks of the shows debuting with MRC cancelling their shows and The CW cancelling their deal with the content provider. The CW limped through that season with a combination of reruns of the cancelled CBS series Jericho and movies and hasn't programmed the night since. The network also has an ongoing problem in finding a program to follow their only continuing reality series, America's Next Top Model. Ostroff will be leaving the network to spend more time with her family.

zucker4 But of course the real target of this post is former NBC Universal President and CEO Jeff Zucker, also known as the man who was fired up. He started his NBC career as field producer at Today in 1989, became the show's Executive Producer in 1992, was named President of NBC Entertainment in 2000, President of the NBC in 2004 (giving him responsibility not only for NBC but also NBC-Universal's other TV properties including Sci-Fi, Trio, and USA Network), CEO of NBC in 2005, and President and CEO of NBC Universal in 2007. In fact his progress was only halted by two things: there was nowhere higher at NBC Universal to go, and then the company was sold to Comcast. Comcast was not as enamoured of Zucker's record as his former bosses at General Electric were. In September 2010 Zucker was fired and replaced with Comcast COO Steve Burke. 

Zucker was a case of a man who had been promoted far above his level of incompetence. His history as Entertainment President is illustrative of this. His programming strategy seems to have consisted of throwing large amounts of money at established hits – most notably Friends – without giving the opportunity for new shows to develop to their full potential. When Friends finally left the air it was Zucker who came up with the "brilliant" idea of taking the least interesting character on that show, Matt LeBlanc's character Joey Trebiani – and building a show around him. Despite dismal ratings Joey stayed on the air for two agonising years. Meanwhile older shows were being buffeted in the ratings by fresher competition and the new shows that Zucker and his successors Kevin Reilly and Ben Silverman were rolling out were underperforming. The Reilly period did produce some good shows, a few of which are still on the air. Among the Reilly shows were 30 Rock and Chuck, and Reilly was also a vocal supporter of keeping The Office despite low initial ratings. In fact Reilly's contract was extended in February 2007. And then he was forced out of the company in May 2007, largely as a result of Zucker's machinations. Silverman's period as Entertainment President was an unmitigated series of disasters, both in terms of programming and his own behaviour. Silverman brought in shows that were totally out of step with what viewers of the broadcast were watching. His one season in full control of the network included shows like Crusoe, and Kings, and he was also responsible for the reimagining of Knight Rider and the American version of Kath & Kim. Zucker was also responsible for the whole Leno-O'Brien debacle. In 2004 he negotiated the contract that would keep Jay Leno as host of the Tonight Show until 2009 only, at which point he would be replaced with Conan O'Brien. As the time for the change grew nearer, Leno's ratings on the Tonight Show were incredibly strong. In an effort to keep Leno on the network and keep him from competing with Conan on a different night, NBC offered Leno the third hour of primetime five nights a week. The result was a disaster for Leno, NBC's primetime lineup (several third hour shows were moved to the second hour, and Southland, a show which was totally unsuited to the second hour was cancelled only to be picked up by the TNT cable network), and the Tonight Show franchise. The network's response was to buy Conan out of his contract, restore Leno to the Tonight Show and scrambled to find shows to hold down the third hour. 

I have spent a lot of time discussing some of the statements of Jeff Zucker over the years until it got to be a bit boring. My particular favourites were those times when Zucker set himself up as a wannabe Nostradamus, but turned out to be more of a Jeanne Dixon, without Dixon's ability to occasionally get something right.
  • In October 2006, Zucker stated that NBC would no longer air scripted programming in the 8 p.m. time slot. According to a TVSquad article at the time: "Zucker says that advertisers just won't pay enough money during the 8 pm time slot to cover the costs of comedies and dramas. Instead, the network will air game shows and reality shows during that hour." That prediction, which was never fully enacted, saw the rise and overexposure of Deal Or No Deal, and lasted almost two seasons.
  • In January 2008, during the Writers Strike, Zucker announced that Network Upfronts were a dying institution and NBC wouldn't be doing one: "Things like that are all vestiges of an era that's gone by and won't return." In another statement he said, "When people say the upfront, there are two things: One is the dog-and-pony show at Radio City and the second is the way we sell the inventory," Zucker said. "The way that we sell the inventory in an upfront selling period is not going to change. Whether we still need to do the dog-and-pony show is completely under review here and you can look for an announcement on that from us very soon."
  • The decision to dispense with the Upfront process barely lasted as long as it took to say it, although what they did do was different from what the other networks announced, according to Media Daily News: "Breaking from the usual announcement of programming for the September-to-May season, NBC will instead lay out its prime-time schedule for the full 52 weeks ahead in April. Then it will hold smaller client meetings in New York, with the heads of NBC's entertainment operations, Ben Silverman and Marc Graboff, meeting with advertisers to discuss marketing opportunities for that 52-week lineup. Next, NBCU's sales team will fan out to New York, Los Angeles and Chicago for further meetings about the schedule and advertiser opportunities. Then comes the May 12 "spotlight event." The location will be announced later. NBCU said the "spotlight" will focus on more than just NBC proper to include the range of other assets that advertisers can buy throughout NBCU."
  • At about the same time, Zucker was telling the world that Pilots weren't needed. In a speech at NATPE, Zucker stated: "Broadcasters can no longer spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year on pilots that don't see the light of day or on upfront presentations or on deals that don't pay off. And we can't ignore international opportunities, VOD (video-on-demand) or the Web....It's not about making less programs; it's about making less waste....NBC will order fewer pilots and start ordering more projects straight to series – 'those that our executives really believe in' – similar to the model for reality shows." That may explain what happened during the one season that Ben Silverman programmed for the network. In the end, NBC went back to pilots.
  • Shortly before NBC finalized the deal to bring Jay Leno to primetime, Zucker mused about the possibility of turning either Saturday nights or the third hour of primetime over to the affiliates. According to him, "putting scripted programming on during the third hour of primetime is part of a broken programming model." Once the decision was made to put Leno into the third hour time slot he stated that "advertisers will respect the network based not on ratings but on corporate profitability." Leno flopped in the third hour and as a result NBC went back to the business of programming the third hour of primetime with scripted series.
Maybe one last statement is worth considering. While being interviewed by PBS's Charlie Rose in January 2010, Zucker responded to Rose's statement that, "NBC is in shambles" by denying it. According to Zucker, "NBC Entertainment is responsible for 5% of the bottom line and 95% of its perception," and that he (Zucker) kept his job because the company was successful despite the failures of the entertainment division. Zucker forgot – if he'd ever known, which is doubtful – the idea of the "clean window train." In the days when people travelled more extensively by train than they do today, the railroads spent a great deal of time and money on their most important passenger trains. In fact they spent money disproportionately with the percentage of revenue that the passenger service brought in compared with the freight service. The railroad presidents knew or believed that the passenger train was the part of the operation that the public saw; it was the window through which the public, including people who shipped goods by train, perceived the railroads and so it needed to be a "clean" window. Zucker might have been right that NBC's Entertainment division represented only 5% of the company's bottom line, but he forgot that it ws ninety-five percent of what shaped the public, and the advertisers', perception of the company. Zucker's previous employers – General Electric – might have been focused more on the bottom line than on perception, but the new owners of the network weren't blinded to the value of how the network is perceived. And that probably explains why he's now out of a job.

Monday, December 27, 2010

On The First Day Of Christmas

On the first day of Christmas my true love – Television – gave to massive line-up change.

For those of you who don't know – which may be a lot of you since I haven't done one of these in a couple of years – this little exercise is by way of an 'end of the year review/look forward at the coming year with increasing trepidation' series of articles. Now I'm going to be up front with you; I don't know if I've got twelve of these in me, and as it stands I'm really starting late. That's what stopped me last year; I had some ideas of what I wanted to write about but I kept putting thing of and putting them off until putting anything out there wouldn't have worked. The year before I just got sick. Well I'm feeling okay this year (knock wood or a computer generated facsimile) but I'm still procrastinating so as I say, we'll see how far this gets. Already I'm a day behind, so that's not a particularly hopeful sign.

One other thing; I'm using the idea of the song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, as the basis for this. You may think that it's late to do that, but it's only slightly late. The tradition of the Twelve Days of Christmas, as reflected in the song, refers to "Christmastide," the period between Christmas day and the Epiphany on January 6th. The Christmas celebrations are meant to end on January 5th, the eve of The Epiphany. Among the many traditions surrounding this period is that Christmas decorations are meant to be taken down on January 6th. Of course like many of traditions surrounding the season, this traditions surrounding the Twelve Days Of Christmas have eroded or changed. My brother for one tosses out the Christmas tree just as soon as is practical (though what his new wife will think of that policy is going to be interesting). As for me, I start my personal Twelve Days of Christmas on Boxing Day (aka December 26th aka the Feast of Stephen that they sing about in Good King Wenceslas) because like most of you I am too full of "fine provender" on Christmas to do just about anything let alone be creative, and because I am not one of those fools who leaves his home on Christmas night to stand outside a store to take a chance at buying something I really don't need at a bargain price. Okay there was the time that I bought my first DVD player but that's all. So now, on with the show.

As I said at the beginning, my first topic in what will hopefully be a twelve day series is a massive line-up change. Current received "wisdom" is that you don't move an established show from its established time slot...ever. This is presumably on the assumption that the TV viewer is stupid and will never find his or her show again if it moves to an unfamiliar time slot. This notion would probably have come as a shock to someone like Bill Paley and his assorted TV presidents over the years as well as other network CEOs and president, who moved shows around like chess pieces to fill holes and tried to exploit weakness with strength. Gilligan's Island had three different time slots during its three seasons: Saturday 8:30-9 (Season 1), Thursday 8-8:30 (Season 2) and Monday 7:30-8 (Season 3). The fourth season that didn't happen would have been the first time that the show stayed in its time slot. M*A*S*H had six different time slots in its eleven year run. In twelve seasons the original Hawaii Five-0 was seen in eight different time slots and moved during the season four times. But today the belief is that moving an established show to a new time slot is the kiss of death for that series, particularly if the show is older and particularly if the move is to a night or a time slot where the show is doing poorly.

Which is what makes the changes that Les Moonves and his team at CBS so surprising. After cancelling Cold Case, New Adventures of Old Christine, Accidentally On Purpose, Numb3rs, Miami Medical, Gary Unmarried and Ghost Whisperer, CBS unveiled the shows that they would be moving. These included CSI: Miami, moving from Monday to Sunday, CSI New York, moving from Wednesday to Friday, The Big Bang Theory, moving from Monday to Thursday and Survivor, moving from Thursday to Wednesday. This was a huge series of moves. Each of these shows were among the top twenty-five most watched network shows in the 2009-10 season. With the exception of The Big Bang Theory (which was usually up against Dancing With The Stars) each show won its time slot.

So how has it worked out? Well, it's a bit of a mixed bag. In this chart I compare the Yearly Ratings for the moved shows with the Ratings for the week of November 15-20, the last week before the US Thanksgiving holiday. (It might be more accurate to compare the ratings for the comparable week in 2009, but the Yearly rating is easier to get.)

ShowOriginal Time Slot2009-10 Yearly RatingsPositionCurrent Time SlotRating Week of November 15-20Position
CSI: MiamiMonday 10-1112.653 million24Sunday 10-1110.44 million25
Big Bang TheoryMonday 9:30-1014.14 million12Thursday 8-8:3013.09 million12
CSI: New YorkWednesday 10-1112.662 million23Friday 9-1010.24 million27
SurvivorThursday 8-912.469 million25Wednesday 8-912.01 million17

As you can see viewership for each of the shows that moved was down. On the other hand each of the shows is winning its time slot. Three of the four shows are in the top 25, while the fourth show is in the top 30. Another way of looking at this is by comparing the performance of the various shows in their time periods from last year and on night during the specified time this year. Again, I am using the week of November 15-20 for the 2010-11 data.

Time Slot
2009-10 Show
2009-10 Audience
2010-11 Show
2010-11 Audience
Monday 10-11
CSI: Miami
12.653 million
Hawaii Five-0
10.34 million
Monday 9:30-10
Big Bang Theory
14.14 million
Mike & Molly
12.15 million
Wednesday 10-11
CSI: New York
12.662 million
The Defenders
9.43 million
Thursday 8-9
12.469 Million
Big Bang Theory
$#*! My Dad Says
13.09 million
10.13 million
Sunday 10-11
Cold Case
9.86 million
CSI: Miami
10.44 million
Friday 9-10
7.79 million
CSI: New York
10.24 million
Wednesday 8-9
N. A. of Old Christine
Gary Unmarried
Accidentally On Purpose
6.7 million
6.65 million
5.5 million
12.01 Million

 As we can see it's something of a mixed bag. In all cases the relocated shows are outperforming the shows that were in their new time slots last year. Even Big Bang Theory is doing better than Survivor did in the previous year, although the overall rating is down from last year because the second half of the hour isn't performing as well as the first half hour. On the other hand all of the relocated series are down from their last season number: CSI: Miami down 2.2 million; Big Bang Theory down 1.05 million, CSI: New York down 2.4 million, Survivor down 450,000. On the other hand, when you look at the time slots – excluding the Thursday 8-9 period of course – you can see that the new shows aren't performing as well as the shows that they replaced: Hawaii Five-0 down 2.31 million from last year with CSI: Miami; Mike & Molly down 1.99 million from Big Bang Theory last year; The Defenders down 3.23 million from CSI: New York. Nevertheless, the swap has to be regarded as a qualified success, when you consider that Hawaii Five-0 is the most popular new drama on the air. Maybe expectations need to be tempered somewhat.

One thing that may be worth looking at is whether this sort of thing would work for any network besides CBS? It's a question worth considering. CBS has a distinct advantage over the other four broadcast networks in that they have – in Baseball terms – a deeper bench than any of the others networks. Last season CBS cancelled show which, had they been on any other network, would have had ratings that guaranteed renewal. Even the weakest of the new CBS shows in this chart – The Defenders – won its time slot most weeks. And the changes haven't stopped. The Defenders will be moved permanently to Friday night replacing Medium and will in turn be replaced with new series Chaos at the beginning of April. Blue Bloods will be given four weeks in The Defenders' Wednesday slot before being replaced in that time slot with the Criminal Minds spin-off Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior. Established series Rules of Engagement will be replacing $#*! My Dad Says on Thursday night with new series Mad Love replacing it on Monday night.

I think that it may be that CBS is able to pull off something like the massive shift of established shows that they made this season because of the depth they have in good shows. Sure, we're seeing other networks switching shows around now, at mid-season, but the whole thing smacks of desperation. NBC will have a full night of comedies on Thursday nights starting in February. Has any network every tried that when the third hour was not some sort of hour-long dramedy? ABC will be following suit in April with the added element of desperation being that one of the half-hours is going to be repeats of Modern Family, new episodes of which will be shown about an hour and a half earlier. FOX will be moving Fringe to Friday night, but that's part of their only real tactical move this year, which is putting American Idol on Wednesday night to confront Survivor, beyond which Fringe hasn't been doing well on Thursday night despite being paired with Bones. I've been told that we are likely to see about four hours of CBS shows cancelled at the end of this season despite the fact that the network is in a dominant position in terms of winning time slots and nights with both new and established shows. The reason is, logically, that this is the way that the network refreshes itself, the way that it stays on top. A network is, I suppose a beast like a shark which has to keep moving to stay alive. It is perhaps something that one of the people featured in my "Second Day of Christmas" post should have paid attention to when he was in charge of a network.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Saturday Nights 1959-60

It's been a while since I've done one of these, in no small part because I was kind of short on inspiration in terms of finding a day and a year for one. But Christmas is on a Saturday this year, and the abiding image on this blog is my profile photo. The picture, as I think I explained at some point, dates back to a Christmas in either 1959 or 1960. For the purpose of this I'm going with 1959, for no reason except that I'm pretty sure that it was 1959, and even if it wasn't there was some pretty good TV on Saturday night in 1959. At least there was on one of the American networks.

Today we think of Saturday nights as the biggest wasteland on TV. FOX is the only network that puts any new shows on the night, and that's COPS and America's Most Wanted. Some networks put movies on the night; others relegate "encore" performances of episodes of shows – and not always the same show from week to week. And of course when a network has a show that died and they want to burn off the episodes they do it on Saturday night. About the only thing that really draws an audience – besides COPS and America's Most Wanted – are sports events, particularly big college football games. In Canada things are getting to be almost as bad, but to a large degree that's because of our broadcast regulations and the desire of Canadian private networks to get the greatest ad coverage possible. Because the American networks aren't airing new shows on Saturdays, Canadian networks – which normally have the cable companies substitute their shows and commercials over American shows that air at the same time ("Simsub" in Canadian broadcast speak) they don't program "big" shows on Saturdays. Of course the fact that CBC is showing Hockey Night In Canada on Saturday night doesn't encourage putting big shows on that night either.

It wasn't always that way of course (well except for the part about Hockey Night in Canada). I've often cited the CBS Saturday line-up for the 1973-74 season as being the greatest line-up for any American network ever, and I stand by that, but that doesn't mean that there haven't been other great Saturday nights in the history of TV. The 1959-60 season was one of those.

Let's start with ABC, which was the smallest and brokest (most broke?) of the three networks. For them this was pretty much a music and variety night with only one scripted program in the mix. Still, it wasn`t a bad night of TV for them. Starting off the night was Dick Clark`s Saturday Night Beechnut Show, although it was also known as The Dick Clark Show. The half-hour series, produced out of the Little Theater in New York ran for two and a half years, from February 1958 to September 1960. In the show`s 136 episodes (it ran continually for those two and a half years – there were no real "seasons") nearly 100 different acts appeared on the show, which blurred the definitions of genre. Among the performers were Jackie Wilson, Bobby Rydell (the two most frequent guests – 14 shows each) Frankie Avalon, Bobby Darrin, Dion & the Belmonts, Neil Sedaka, Anita Bryant, Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash, Litle Anthony & The Imperials, Frankie Lymon, Sam Cooke, Johnny Horton, and Andy Williams, just to name a few. The clip I have for this show features The Crests, singing Six Nights A Week. Following Dick Clark was John Gunther's High Road, a series of travelogues hosted by John Gunther, an American journalist and writer whose work focused on international politics and leaders. (This is the only one of the ABC shows that I can't find a clip for). Gunther's show was followed by the only scripted series that ABC had on the night, a little offering known as Leave It To Beaver about the misadventures of a young boy and his friends, family, and Eddie Haskell. I mean how else can you describe that show, one of the most fondly remembered of the family comedies of the 1950s. Following "The Beav" was The Lawrence Welk Show sponsored (if you can't tell) by Sinclair Oil. While we tend to think of Lawrence Welk in connection with the accordion, and his show as somewhat corny (certainly we did at the time), I think it might be time to re-evaluate Welk and his orchestra and certainly the pre-syndication version of his show. He certainly seems to have had at least some contemporary music on. This clip, from 1961 features guitarist Neil Levang, who was with Welk from 1959 to the end of the syndicated TV show, playing Ghost Riders In The Sky, with vocal back-up from the Lennon Sisters. Rounding out the night was Jubilee USA which was originally known as Ozark Jubilee. Hosted by Red Foley (who my good friend Ivan Shreve will probably point out was the original host of the radio show Avalon Time which was the big launching pad for Red Skelton), the series was one of the first country music shows on national TV. Broadcast from Springfield Missouri, the show had a regular musical cast that included Porter Waggoner, Sonny James, Webb Pierce, and Leroy van Dyke, while virtually every country music act of the time made an appearance on the show. Carl Perkins debuted Blue Suede Shoes on Ozark Jubilee before the song was recorded by Elvis Presley. Perhaps the greatest discovery the show made was an eleven year-old singer from Georgia named Brenda Lee. In this clip from 1958, guitar god Chet Atkins is introduced by Red Foley.

The NBC line-up has given me a bit of a problem. Two of the five shows on the night have no episodes posted on YouTube... or anywhere else as far as I can tell. Nevertheless it was not a bad night of TV. Leading off the night was the saga of a wealthy ranch family headed by a tough patriarchal Nevada in the 1860s. The show was Bonanza, and along with Gunsmoke was one of the iconic shows of the late 1950s to the early 1970s, and still has one of the best remembered theme songs. Canadian Lorne Greene (he was known as "The Voice Of Doom" during his time as the news reader for CBC Radio News during World War II), played Ben Cartwright, while his sons were played by Pernell Roberts, Dan Blocker and (then) teen heart-throb Michael Landon (I Was A Teen Aged Werewolf). Bonanza was one of the essential parts of my childhood. It aired here on Sunday night after Ed Sullivan, and my routine as a child was to have my bath then watch Sullivan and Bonanza. One thing that I didn't notice until seeing the show in reruns years later was just how funny many of the episodes were. Not every episode was filled with high drama, and the episode that I have a clip from here is prrof of that. Following Bonanza was something called The Man And The Challenge starring George Nader as a research scientist working for the US government, testing people and equipment in extreme situations. The show was produced by Ivan Tors who is (justly) more famous for series like Flipper, Daktari, and Cowboy In Africa. That was followed by The Deputy which starred Henry Fonda – some of the time – and Allen Case. Fonda played Marshall Simon Fry while Case played his deputy, Clay McCord, a shopkeeper who was reluctant to to use a gun. Fonda's schedule provided a problem for series creator Norman Lear. His scenes for an entire season were shot all at one so that he would be available for films. It was the same routine that Fred McMurray used when he was doing My Three Sons, but in this show it apparently led to some problems as there was a definite difference between episodes where Fonda appeared and those where Case was on his own. Following The Deputy was Five Fingers, another show that I have been unable to find a clip of. The series, which starred David Hedison, Luciana Paluzzi and Paul Burke, was loosely based on the 1952 movie of the same name. In this case "loosely based" translates to "taking the name and the most basic premise." The movie was set during World War II and dramatized the story of the German spy Cicero, who while working as the valet to the British ambassador in Turkey was able to take secret documents from the ambassador's private safe. In the series Hedison was a Cold War American agent who worked as a theatrical booking agent in Europe and posed as a Communist to gain information on party activities. The series ran for sixteen episodes before being cancelled (while they were shooting the seventeenth episode), and several well known names appeared in the show, including Eva Gabor, Edgar Bergen, Jack Warden, Peter Lorre and Alan Young (together in one episode) and Martin Balsam. The final show in NBC's line-up for the night was It Could Be You. This game show ran primarily in the daytime on NBC between 1956 and 1961, but also had a night time version on several occasions, notably in the 1958-59 and 1959-60 seasons. The show usually focussed on the embarrassing moments in the selected contestants' (most of them women, at least in the daytime show) lives. The prizes awarded were often humorous, related to the embarrassing incidents. I have no idea of whether the clip seen here came from the daytime or the night time show.

While CBS's Saturday night during the 1973-74 was probably the best night of television that the broadcast networks every put together, they didn't do too bad a job with the 1959-60 season. CBS had three of the top five shows, for of the top ten shows and five of the top twenty-five shows on that particular Saturday night. From just about any perspective that's pretty impressive. The network led off the night with the tenth highest rated show of the season, Perry Mason. Starring Raymond Burr as the lawyer who never lost a case (well almost never) the show had an outstanding support team that included Barbara Hale as Mason's secretary (and unstated love interest; there was definitely unresolved sexual tension there) Della Street, and William Hopper as Mason's personal investigator Paul Drake. On the other side were William Tallman as Hamilton Burger (and to this day I'm surprised that no one to my knowledge ever called him "Ham Burger") and Ray Collins as crusty and dedicated police Lieutenant Tragg. Burr, an experienced radio and film actor who usually played the villain in movies (notably in Hitchcock's Rear Window) was the perfect pick to play Mason. He had a commanding but cultured voice that convinced viewers that he knew what he was talking about. His size also made him convincing in physical scenes. Burr became Mason in the minds of just about anyone who ever saw the series and it may explain why a later attempt to revive the show failed. Monte Markham was no Raymond Burr. Following Perry Mason was the first season of Wanted: Dead Or Alive which finished ninth in the ratings that year. Starring a young (28 year old) Steve McQueen in his breakout role, the series followed bounty hunter Josh Randall on his adventures. McQueen's Randall was a Confederate veteran who was usually well liked by the peace officers he dealt with. He was well spoken and is described in some references as having a soft heart, sometimes giving his reward money to the needy or helping those that he was tracking down if he was convinced that they were wrongly accused, all done with the aid of his "Mare's Leg," a specially cut down Winchester Model 1892. McQueen would say of the series, "Three hard mother-grabbin' years, but I learned my trade and it gave me discipline." The clip here is from the pilot for the show and includes Michael Landon in the sort of role he had before he found Bonanza – a very angry young man. Following Wanted: Dead Or Alive was Mr. Lucky, a loose adaptation of the Cary Grant movie of the same name. John Vivyan starred as the title character who rwhile Ross Martin played his friend Andamo. "Mr. Lucky" (the only name he was given in the series although in the movie the character was named Joe Adams) and Andamo ran floating casino (the Fortuna II) off the coast of an American city, after being forced to leave Andamo's home country with just the shirts on their backs. The series was directed by Blake Edwards – indeed the character of Andamo was supposedly spun off from his other big series Peter Gunn – and the theme was done by his longtime collaborator Henry Mancini. The show finished tied for 21st in the ratings... and was cancelled. Unfortunately the show was sponsored in its only season by Lever Brothers, which objected to gambling as a main point of the show. The show ceased to be about a gambling ship and instead the Fortuna II became a floating restaurant. At the end of the season Lever Brothers and the show's alternate sponsor, Brown & Williamson Tobacco, pulled their sponsorship of the show and the network was unable to find replacement sponsors and so cancelled the show. Following Mr. Lucky was Have Gun Will Travel starring Richard Boone as the hired gun known as Paladin. Paladin was a study in contrasts. He was erudite and urbane – one might even call him something of a dandy – in the part of his life that he spent at San Francisco's Carlton Hotel. However, when someone contacted him for a job outside of the city he became tough as nails and able to trade blows, or bullets with whatever he came up against. The urbanity wasn't skin-deep, it was simply pushed into the background when he was working. Have Gun Will Travel ran for six years, and had a remarkably small cast, just Boone and Kam Tong, playing the hotel bellhop known to Paladin and the other patrons of the hotel as Hey Boy (though his real name was revealed at one point to be Kim Chan). Each episode was populated by a cast of guest characters – for example this clip features Werner Klemperer. Following Have Gun Will Travel was another Western, although calling Gunsmoke "another Western" is damning it with very faint praise. Probably the greatest show of the genre – certainly the longest lasting at twenty seasons and a total of 635 episodes (233 half-hours and 402 hour long episodes) – Gunsmoke was a series that showed remarkable stability while at the same time changing significantly. And I'm not just talking about the cast here, although there was truly remarkable stability where the cast was concerned. Of the four principal cast members in 1955 when the show debuted, two were gone when the show wrapped its final episode in 1975; Dennis Weaver, who left in 1964 and Amanda Blake who left the year before the show ended. While the streets of Dodge City didn't change much, the sort of stories that were being told did, to accommodate the changes in attitudes towards violence and social conditions over the years, and to deal with star James Arness's health issues (caused by wounds suffered during World War II). The final CBS show on Saturday nights in 1959 was a detective show, Markham, starring Ray Milland. Milland played Roy Markham, a successful attorney who became a private detective. Because he had been a successful lawyer he was able to pick and choose cases at his discretion, and was able to tailor his fees to suit the client, ranging from large sums for wealthy and corporate clients to nothing for those of limited means. When the show began Markham had an assistant, John Riggs (Simon Scott), but the character was quickly written out. The show lasted one season. In fact none of the shows that occupied the last half hour of the schedule in the 1959-60 season returned in the 1960-61 season.

These days Saturday night is regarded as a great wasteland by the broadcast networks; a desert where they dare not tread with any new shows because, of course, people will not watch them there. It is difficult to believe that there was a time when networks actively programmed the night. The last hold-out – besides FOX – pulled out of the night in 2004 when CBS replaced the revived Star Search, Hack and The District with reruns and 48 Hours Mysteries, and in Television six years is regarded as ancient history. That there was a time when the top shows on all of TV were broadcast on Saturday nights must be regarded by programmers today as a combination of heresy and apocrypha. But for most of the medium's existence Saturday nights were a vital and important night of TV when great shows – shows that we remember fifty years after they aired – were staples of the night. Maybe it's because those days were a time when networks weren't fixated with the concept of demographics, or maybe it was that people didn't go out as much then. All I know is that there was a time when great TV on Saturday nights wasn't an oxymoron, it was expected.