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 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.

1 comment:

Garth , formerly of Izar said...

The Persuaders and The Partners actually lasted a full season.