Children in the United States watch an average of about four hours of television every day of the year. Formerly a moderate viewer, I have watched little in the past six months. But in preparation for a column in What is to be done?, and not, as some have suggested, a desire for self-abuse, I sat in front of America's favorite plaything from 7 to 11 p.m. Monday. My recollections of those four hours follow.
Since the winter of 1976, ABC has dominated television entertainment and sports. In an effort to establish ratings superiority in news, ABC asked the mastermind of its sports operations, Roone Arledge, to take over as news president. His contribution is the network's evening news program--ABC World News Tonight.
The show's gimmick is its three anchormen, Frank Reynolds in Washington, Peter Jennings in Europe (Monday night it was London) and Max Robinson in Chicago (Monday night he did not appear). They anchor the broadcast because, as the advertisements put it, they are where the news is being made. The multi-anchor system attempts to capitalize on the television audience's presumed inability to concentrate on one subject at a time. The constant motion, supposedly, generates pace and action. The idea is a waste--anchormen rarely leave their offices, and their sole purpose is to introduce the film segments and provide a stable rhythm. The triple anchor system created visual anarchy which prevented a clear flow and added nothing in the bargain. The disconcerting lack of a focus did not, however, obscure a fine report by Richard Mayk on the Democratic primary for mayor.
At 7:30 came Chicago's The $1.98 Beauty Show on channel ten, WJAR in Providence, R.I. To say that this program is a spin-off of The Gong Show might tell you something, but not enough. An announcer says at the beginning that the show "is a search for the most beautiful girl in the world." Rip Taylor, a manic comedian, of no recognizable talent, hosts this obscenity in which six women, all of whom possess significantly less talent than Taylor, publicly humiliate themselves for a half-hour until a panel of "celebrities" (Edward Winter, Fred Travelena and "Dr." Joyce Brothers) judges one of them the winner. The winner receives, you guessed it, $1.98 in cash. About half the contest consists of Taylor's puerile remarks about the contestants. In the remainder, the "talent" competition, one contestant's act was to spit at the audience for about two minutes. You think that's bad--she won.
One contestant's act was to spit at the audience for about two minutes. You think that's bad--she won.
After two years at CBS, where he grew increasingly frustrated with his infrequent access to prime time, Bill Moyers has returned to public television to resume Bill Moyers Journal. On Monday night, he profiled Wallace DeBaw, a hypnotist from Colorado. His show never seemed to decide what it was all about--several very long (especially for only a half-hour program) scenes between DeBaw and his patients revealed little. The show shifted gears to a discussion with several hemophiliacs about how hypnotism had helped them. Moyers has enormous talents as a writer and interviewer, but he made little use of them in Monday's effort. He is, nevertheless, always worth watching.
"I have a very strong feeling that we have to elevate the medium," William S. Paley, chairman of the board of CBS, said in an interview published this week in Newsweek. Flatbush premiered Monday at 8:30 p.m. on channel seven in an effort, I suppose, to reassure the viewers that they need not fear any elevation of the precious lack of quality on television. This program seemed somehow even more offensive than The $1.98 Beauty Show because it came from a network with a history of excellence and pretensions of continued quality. An inept rip-off of Saturday Night Fever, Flatbush deals with the childish and unfunny activities of several New York teenagers portrayed by actors, who are, without exception, headed for other careers. They pretend they are in Brooklyn while they are, in fact, cavorting on a miserably constructed set in Los Angeles. A mindless and seemingly endless chase scene concluded this monstrosity, which, incidentally, received the perfectly respectable rating of 15.6 and 23 per cent of the audience.
At nine, I took in an old CBS favorite, MASH, which, unfortunately is now showing its age. The plot, stretched thinly to cover the endless series of wisecracks from the ever-genial Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda), concerned the creation of an independent state in the camp saloon. MASH has developed a company, much like that of the lamented Mary Tyler Moore Show, which can sustain an occasional weak plot. After Flatbush, even mere competency would seem like The Tempest.
WKRP in Cincinnati, also on CBS, was the pleasant surprise of the night. The idiosyncratic crew of a fledgling radio station in the Midwest struggle to prosper in the competitive and loony radio business. Well-paced and actually funny at times, WKRP benefits enormously from an engaging small cast. But like all situation comedies, the show's writing will provide the true test of whether it can survive. Howard Hesseman, the Martin Mull look-alike who plays D.J. Dr. Johnny Fever, radiates good-natured egomania and could become a real star.
Under the aegis of programming whiz Fred Silverman, NBC has promised, with great fanfare, to improve its original programming. At ten, I caught a pilot of Mrs. Columbo, a detective series about the wife of the character Peter Falk played. So much for originality. The story, however, was a moderately entertaining formula television mystery--just substitute a new title character and rearrange a few details, and it would have been Barnaby Jones or McCloud.
Kate Mulgrew, an accomplished actress in commercials (if such a thing is possible) played Mrs. Columbo.
Monday evening provided a characteristic look at television today. In news, comedy and drama, the medium continues to seek forms that will consistently please its mass audience. Real quality, never in abundant supply on the tube, now seems more scarce than ever. If something worth watching worms its way between the $1.98's and the Flatbushes, I'll give a holler.