Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Fred Silverman, Nancy Walker, and Scooby Doo

I was just reading about Fred Silverman. He was an influential programmer and innovator for network tv in the 60's and 70's. His career highlights seem to greatly influence the elements of programming that meant the most to me.

Silverman started programming for CBS in the mid-60's. He brought all of the superhero shows to Saturday Morning. All the cartoon product tie-ins which have been so prevalent in childrens programming really started with this guy. Yes, there were sponsorships by toy companies and cereals in the early 60's but Silverman really got the whole programming block concept going on Saturday mornings. So, not only did he greenlight Space Ghost, Frankenstein Jr., Herculoids, and the Wacky Races but he was responsible for bringing one of the most popular characters in the history of animation to audiences: Scooby Doo. Scooby started a whole decade of meddling, crime-fighting teenagers with goofy animal buddies. He also brought back the Flintstones in new episodes with a teenage Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm.

When he began programming prime time, he was responsible for the "rural purge". He cancelled every show with a tree in it, regardless of the ratings. So "Beverly Hillbillies", "Mayberry RFD", "Green Acres" and "Hee Haw" were axed. Silverman decided to cater to the new baby boomers with a much more sophisticated brand of sitcom. Thus was born "Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "All in the Family".
Basically, he was responsible for making CBS the Tiffany Network. At this time, the quality of programming was unmatched (to this day, in my opinion). The Lear and MTM labels flourished in the early 70's. Also, "Sonny and Cher", "Good Times", "Bob Newhart Show" and "The Waltons" became sensations.

Then ABC grabbed him in '75. Now Silverman became responsible for what became, for me as a young male, paradise. He made ABC a powerhouse with the "jiggle TV" concept. He put "Happy Days" in front of a howling studio audience. Now, he did for Garry Marshall and his stable of comedies what he did for Lear and MTM on CBS. The Fonzie phenomenon started a trend of shows devoted to sex symbols and wet t-shirts. Along for the ride, some stars were made: Farrah ("Charlie's Angels), Travolta ("Welcome Back, Kotter"), Suzanne Somers ("Three's Company"), Robert Blake ("Baretta"), Donny and Marie, "Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island". He brought "Roots" to TV, starting the trend of miniseries. Oh, and "Battle of the Network Stars". Well, the latter seems more like an entry in his next chapter. He also brought Scooby Doo to ABC with all these huge Saturday morning blocks with Laff-a-Lympics, Scrappy Doo, Dynomutt, and Scooby Dum. Velma even looked a little hotter.

Prime Time sex stars olympics:

Scooby's olympics:

Quicky, it is interesting to point out that Silverman also really capitalized on the spin-off phenomenon. On CBS there were the All in the Family offspring: "Maude", "The Jeffersons", "Good Times". And the MTM children: "Rhoda", "Phyllis". On ABC, "Happy Days" bred "Laverne and Shirley" and "Mork and Mindy".

He also must have really liked Nancy Walker. She played Rosie in the paper towel commercials, remember? Well, she rose to fame and won Emmy nods for playing Rhoda's mother on MTM and "Rhoda". When Silverman moved to ABC, Lear created a show for her on that network aptly titled, "The Nancy Walker Show" (she played a Hollywood talent agent). That was cancelled very quickly in the fall of '76 and she starred in "Blansky's Beauties", a very strained spinoff of "Happy Days". She ran a showgirl chorus line in a Vegas casino in the fifties...I think Chachi worked with her. She ended up back with Rhoda on CBS. Funny, she worked with all the big sitcom producers in the 70's at one time or another.

Back to Silverman. After his phenomenal success at ABC, NBC made him president and CEO. Can he pull off a hat trick? Well, while ABC continued to titillate and CBS went back to huge audiences by going back to the country ("Dukes of Hazzard" "Flo", "Dallas"), NBC refused to escape from its seventies doldrums. So Silverman tried a Love Boat type show called "Supertrain". Flop. A quality Larry Gelbart-scripted dramedy called "United States". Flop. HIs own cornpone country show spinoff, "Sheriff Lobo". Sort of flopped. He brought back his favorite family, The Flintstones, in prime time. Flop. He brought back friendly animals, "Here's Boomer". Flop.
He brought back the only hit character NBC had in his own show, Fred Sanford himself. Flop. He created a weekly "Big Event" which could be anything. Flop. His main success at this time was a new family of sitcoms derived from "Diff'rent Strokes" ("Facts of Life" and, oooof, "Hello Larry"). But he woudn't let us down. Before he left NBC, he brought us "Hill Street Blues". When David Letterman failed in his morning show, Silverman kept him at the network until he launched the now legendary late late night show after Carson. Whereas launching the eighties with Bochco inspired dramedies and Letterman lunacy leaves a wonderful legacy, he also left us with "The Smurfs" and started reality tv with "Real People". Ouch.

Well, my fondest memories of TV in my favorite TV years were thanks to this guy. Tiffany TV, T and A TV, and NBCTNT TV. Yes, I have fond memories of the bad NBC years. That's just me. The Flintstones, Scooby Doo, McLean Stevenson, and Nancy Walker all thank you.

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