Monday, February 16, 2009

CBS Highlights - Has Tiffany Tarnished?

Of the three major networks, I would have to say that CBS had the most impact on me in the 70s. I rarely watched the network after the early 80’s.

In the 50’s and 60’s CBS consistently carried the highest rated programs. CBS seemed to be the “authority” with Walter Cronkite himself helming the evening news.

Although ratings were great and credibility was unparalleled, the programming tended to get a bit, shall we say, low-brow in the late sixties. My vague memories of the sad final color years of the Mayberry saga, continued Hooterville inanity (of course, “Green Acres” was always spot on vaudeville), “Hogan’s Heroes”, and “Family Affair” were supplanted by Fred Silverman’s new reality. The new programming chief made it a point to cancel every program with a tree (read “rural”) and change the dynamic of network television.

So at this time we have witnessed the birth of the “Tiffany Network”. This label was mostly associated with the Saturday night lineups of the time. Oddly, the “perfect” lineup was just one season, 1973-1974. Permutations of this lineup occurred during most of the seventies keeping the label intact. That ’73 lineup was “All in the Family”, “M*A*S*H”, “Mary Tyler Moore Show”, “Bob Newhart Show” , and “Carol Burnett Show”. “M*A*S*H” would end up moving around more than these other programs and “The Jeffersons” would be a staple of the night later on in the decade.

Holdovers from the sixties still anchored the network. Monday nights with “Here’s Lucy”, “Doris Day Show”, “Gunsmoke”, and “Medical Center”. Thursday nights with “The Waltons” gave lie to the “deforestation” theory, but, thanks to the quality and warmth, it held it’s own.

But back to Tiffany. CBS was the first to try new things, to expand the consciousness of TV so to speak. Through sitcoms. The huge stool of boldness and freshness had three legs: Norman Lear, Mary Tyler Moore, and a bunch of doctors in the Korean War.

Norman Lear: “All In the Family” started it all. It was daring, political, profane (for the time), hilarious, racy, raunchy, and a number one hit for five or so years. The first “water cooler” show. The first videotaped situation comedy. It felt like you were watching a stage play. The audience was part of the show. The feel and tone was much like the British sitcoms Lear used as a template for so many programs. Also “Maude”, “Good Times”, “The Jeffersons”, and “One Day at a Time”. These shows all taught me values about society and influenced me. I watched them religiously. “One Day” got me through puberty thanks to Valerie Bertinelli. These shows have all been analyzed ad nauseum. Let me bring up one: “All’s Fair”. Lear’s political sitcom had Richard Crenna and Bernadette Peters battling it out in DC as a conservative columnist and liberal photographer respectively. Michael Keaton was the president’s joke writer, Manny Fox. Lear was way ahead of his time.

Mary Tyler Moore. Probably the greatest sitcom of all time. Her stable of comedies was defined by slick production values, incredible acting and writing, and timeless stories and situations. “Mary Tyler Moore Show” was followed by “Bob Newhart Show”, “Rhoda”, “Phyllis”, “Doc”, “Tony Randall Show”, “Bettty White Show”, and “WKRP In Cincinnati”. As well as the dramatic “Lou Grant” and “White Shadow”.

M*A*S*H. Eleven years on CBS. Only the first three with Henry Blake and Trapper John were funny. So much has been written about this show, I’ll just say, yes, it became a Monday night ritual until it’s incredibly top rated finale in 1983. Plus Trapper had his own drama, “Trapper John MD” with a different actor; and the actor that played Trapper originally had a new sitcom based on a different movie, still playing a doctor in “House Calls”. Got it?

Other prime time highlights:

The variety programs: Along with Carol Burnett on Saturday nights, we had Sonny and Cher, we had Tony Orlando and Dawn, we had the Hudson Brothers, and we even had Shields and Yarnell (mimes, yes you heard me right).
The crime shows. Besides Hawaii Five-O ,Mannix, and Kojak most of these were produced by Quinn Martin: Barnaby Jones and Cannon being the most memorable. Switch with Eddie Albert and Robert Wagner was also a treat. The themes to these shows were so cool as well.

The Peanuts gang, Rudolph and other Rankin Bass puppet creations, live dramas and comedies reminiscent of the golden age (I remember this great one about a Christmas tree with Jason Robards, and Jackie Gleason reunions )

Daytimes were fun when I stayed home sick from school. Along with All in the Family stripped reruns, you had the raunchy fun of Match Game and Tattletales, and the antiseptic fun of The Price is Right.

Captain Kangaroo would send me off for the day when I wasn’t sick.

CBS Saturday mornings was the birthplace of Scooby Doo and all his early incantations such as “The Movies”. CBS was home to all the Archie variations. Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. Wacky Races and all the derivative shows: Dastardly & Muttley and Penelope Pitstop. Harlem Globetrotters. Hair Bear Bunch. Pebbles and Bamm Bamm as teenagers and The Flintstones in middle age. Live-action variety shows with The Hudson Brothers (again!) and the REAL Harlem Globetrotters.

The cartoon house Filmation produced many live action shows which defined Saturday mornings for me mid-decade: Shazam!, Isis!, The Ghost Busters (probably one of my favorite unsung shows of all time), Ark II.

And remember, CBS, home of 60 Minutes, produced short news segments during the Saturday morning lineups called In the News. Now THAT’S class.

Back to primetime. As the seventies wore on, CBS reverted back to its rural roots with major hits: Alice (and spin-off Flo - “Kiss mah Grits!), Dukes of Hazzard (and spin-off Enos), and Dallas (and spin-off Knot’s Landing). With the exceptions of any variation on the Bob Newhart phenomenon over the next two decades (“Newhart”, “Bob”, “George and Leo”), I rarely watched what would become “America’s Network”. Well, I watched “Walker Texas Ranger” ‘cause I was on it once, but enough about that.

Actually the CBS arc is quite interesting when you compare it to today’s political discourse . Seems CBS became very “Blue State” and urban during the “Tiffany” years and then reverted back to “Red State” to become “America’s Network”. Now, with all the CSI shows, it’s “Dead State”, I guess. Ah, we have our memories.

See you next with ABC.

1 comment:

  1. This is an interesting read for me as I grew up in Germany and came to the States when all these shows were in reruns (1981).

    I enjoy your comments on this piece of American entertainment history.