Wednesday, January 28, 2009

NBC Highlights - Peacock Envy

There was something magical about television before cable and vcr/dvr. I believe NBC coined the term “Must See TV” or “Appointment” television. LIke on Thursday nights with Cosby and Cheers. That’s when you must actually watch a show when it is broadcast or be banished to the world of a second rerun during the seasons run. In the late 70’s, NBC had something called “The Big Event”, a primetime block of two hours once a week, which could encompass a variety show, a sporting event, unsold pilots, or large anti-drug extravaganzas produced by major movie studios (I’m talking about you, Evans).

The three main networks gained their identity this way. There was no cross-broadcasting of shows with sister cable stations. Season one or two didn’t end up on DVD before the season was even over. You could actually read the credits at the end of a show with no advertising crowding out the name of the wardrobe person.

Those “identities” manifested themselves in my TV addicted days and each network had a feel to it. A look. CBS was course but clear. ABC was smooth and sometimes had double images. NBC was very smooth and bold.

Here are my fond NBC memories through the years:

**The Macy’s Parade was a commercial event yet not too commercial. The balloons and Ed McMahon. The bad Broadway showcases in front of the main doors of Macy’s. The tie-ins to holiday programming.

**Variety. NBC always had interesting programming. Dean Martin’s celebrity roasts were a highlight, from the MGM Grand in Vegas. The psychedelic Laugh-In went over my head. The incredible Flip Wilson. The 70s had some very short runs of a few memorable variety series: Dick Van Dyke in ’76 with a young Andy Kaufman; the infamous Pink Lady and Jeff (noted as one of the worst programs in history--look it up); Mac Davis (that’s right!); and animators Hanna Barbera had a show called “Happy Hour” with marionettes. And this is where Bob Hope would plop his specials, getting cornier by the year.

**Sitcoms. Friday nights belonged to Sanford and Son. Followed by Chico and the Man. CBS and ABC owned the sitcom world in the 70’s so there weren’t too many but the few were very memorable. Didn’t last long and obscure as hell: Norman Lear’s “The Dumplings” about fat people in love; Danny Thomas wearing a bad wig in “The Practice”; Brian Keith in Hawaii in “Little People”; Don Rickles in the Navy “CPO Sharkey” (a favorite); sci-fi spoof “Quark”; Sanford spin-off “Grady; an MTM-produced sitcom starring Bob Crane as an ad-executive father.(not long before he was killed); McLean Stevenson’s first solo outing after leaving MASH (bad move); Joe Namath in “Waverly Wonders”; Jim Belushi in “Who’s Watching the Kids?” set in the showrooms of Las Vegas; and David Brenner as a hairdresser in “Snip”. “Snip” never aired but it was hyped so much in ’76 I felt it had.

Late night:
Two words: Johnny Carson. You felt like you were in the studio.
Three more words: It’s Saturday Night. That’s the way Chevy Chase would introduce the show after a “fall”. I can remember watching live the first season. I think Robert Klein hosted the first one I saw. There is no way to describe the feel of those early SNL years. It looked dingy and felt like a hangover and was so new and daring. Hosts like Ron Nessen, Carter’s press secretary. Buck Henry, Steve Martin, Elliot Gould, Candice Bergen (who loved Belushi’s antics). Akryoyd’s Tom Snyder and Laraine Newman’s waif. Acerbic Jane Curtin and the brilliant Gilda Radner. Bill Murray taking over for Chevy and the comedy team of Al Franken and Tom Davis. Oh, and Andy Kaufman and Muppets!
Oh, yeah, Tom Snyder on Tomorrow Show after Carson.
When Lorne Michaels left SNL after the fifth year I lost interest. But, SCTV was broadcast Friday nights and I was introduced to an odd group from Canada, the incredible skits with Bob and Doug; Count Floyd, Edith Prickley, Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis as Bob Hope and Woody Allen, anything Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara did. Heaven with a slightly off-kilter laughtrack.


The Today Show before heading to school. Jane Pauley in a ponytail, Tom Brokaw, Bryant Gumbel, Willard Scott, and Gene Shalit. And that theme. The very cool and relaxed riff on the “peacock” chord. Always a great lead-in to the Thanksgiving parade.
Hollywood Squares. Need I say more?
The first Letterman show. A ninety-minute talk/comedy show that was on after Today Show. Lasted a couple of months. I think Dave has people excommunicated for mentioning it.

**Saturday Mornings belonged to the Pink Panther in all his incarnations. And one season, he shared the show with this crazy comedian called Lenny Schultz and the Ritz Puppets. The Inspector. Ant and the Aardvark.
Remember Pink himself exiting the sports car in Burbank?

**More Saturday Morning notes:
A childrens version of Hollywood Squares where celebrities dressed up as storybook characters.
Rebroadcasts of Underdog and The Jetsons. One season of each was originally produced and they ran forever!
The beginnings of really wacked out LSD-inspired fun for kids in ’68 and ’69: The Banana Splits, HR Pufnstuf, and The Bugaloos.
I particularly remember loving the ’72 lineup with The Barkleys, The Houndcats, The Roman Holidays and the ORIGINAL Sealab 2020.
Great live-actions series: Land of the Lost, Sigmund and Sea Monsters, Run Joe Run.
The animated Star Trek.
Inch High Private Eye, Butch Cassidy, Wheelie, and CB Bears.
In ’76, there was a lineup of live-action sitcoms produced by the guys that brought you “Love American Style”:
“McDuff, the Talking Dog”, “Monster Squad” and my favorite, “Big John-Little John”.
Godzilla’s Power Hour and Yogi’s Space Race in ’78.
Reruns of Space Ghost, Frankenstein Jr. and Jonny Quest. Yea!

Right before the 80’s, NBC really bit it when Fred Silverman moved over as programmer from his success at ABC. Prime-time was a wasteland. It was bad tv at it’s best: Supertrain, Number 96, Sheriff Lobo, Here’s Boomer. The only redeeming show was “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century”. Thanks to a new lineup of comedies spawned from “Diff’rent Strokes” the ratings started picking up. (I must admit to watching the first couple of years of “Stroke’s spin-off Facts of Life as I was hot for snotty Blair. Always liked the snobby girls in high school)

Then: something amazing happened:

“Hill Street Blues”…..My first few years in college were with NBC. “Hill Street” was amazing as was “St. Elsewhere” (featuring Denzel himself). Then came “Cheers” on Thursday night. Dave had his late-night show after Carson and those early years of Letterman felt like the early years of SNL: raw and fuzzy. Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo were the only reason to watch SNL these years.

The remainder of the 80’s basically involved sporadic viewing of the new Thursday night power lineup of Cosby, Family Ties and Cheers. And Golden Girls on Saturday night (when I was home, OK?). And the incredible Hartman-Carvey-Hooks years on SNL.

Epilogue: NBC continued to be my most watched network, mostly on Thursday nights: Seinfeld, Mad About You, Newsradio, Just Shoot Me. I stuck with the entire runs of Friends, Frasier, and (still, aaaahg), ER. (Like a bad heroin addiction).

Today, I still go there on Thursdays for The Office and 30 Rock. And struggle through the now sold-out SNL that caters to Lorne Michael’s political whims.

But that’s another post.

Here’s to the peacock!

1 comment:

  1. That's funny, you mentioning the certain "feel" that different networks had. I could always tell what network was on just by looking at it -- something that's gone away after the switch to digital channels. For me, CBS was the blue network -- their channels were always crisp and cool-looking (and this would occur in 2-3 different towns, so I don't think it was just reception). ABC invariably was kind of fuzzy, and NBC was bright and tended to the yellow end of the spectrum.