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Old August 16th, 2012, 11:00 PM
Brainbin Brainbin is online now
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Lonely At The Top (1975-76)

February 27, 1976

It was early evening at Desilu Productions, and a time to kick back and relax. Active production on their roster of programming had been completed for another season, and would not resume until May, marking the beginning of their “summer vacation”, such as it was. Other branches of the studio, however, including the Post-Production house, would remain in business, but none of these were under the purview of Robert H. Justman, Vice-President of Production.

“All the filming done on yet another season,” he said, as he ate dinner with his two immediate superiors, Lucille Ball and Herbert F. Solow, in the Desilu commissary.

“It’ll be a lot quieter around here with all the actors, technicians, camera crews, and pyrotechnics guys gone,” said Ball. “That’s really good work, though, Bobby. How many years has it been now?”

“Five,” he and Solow replied in unison.

“Five years,” she repeated. “That’s a pretty decent chunk of time in our line of work.”

“It sure is,” he said. “And I’ve been meaning to talk to the two of you about that.”

Ball and Solow exchanged knowing glances.

“Working here has been a great opportunity for me, and I’m really proud to have helped Desilu reach such great heights these last few years; but this line of work, overseeing and underwriting… it’s not my passion. I miss being the driving force behind a show, working in the belly of the beast. I really think I should be going back to that.”

“Well, I can’t say I’m surprised,” Ball finally said, after the news had taken some time to sink in with both of his dining companions. “You’ve been a valuable asset to our team, Bobby, but you’ve gotta do what you wanna do. And you can’t let putting off a decision like that tear you apart. Look at me, I was juggling acting in my own sitcom and running this studio at the same time for a few years there… it’s a good thing I was younger then, because looking back, it was just crazy.”

“Crazy isn’t a strong enough word for it,” Solow chimed in.

“Well then, what would you call it, Herbie?” Ball replied, laughing. “Loony? Screwy? Zany? Because it was all of those things, and so much more.”

Solow laughed too, before turning to Justman. “I know you’ve been itching to get back into active production, Bob. We’re going to miss you helping us hold down the fort, but you have to do what you love. That’s what we’re both doing, and you deserve the same.”

“Well, of course I’ll stay until you find a suitable replacement for the position,” Justman assured them. “And I still intend to oversee the production of the I Love Lucy special. I know better than to turn down the chance to be a part of history.”

“Says the man who produced Star Trek for five years,” Ball retorted. “Trust me, Bobby, you’re already in the history books at this studio. I swear that show still brings in more money than I Love Lucy ever did. Y
’know, maybe sometime, we oughta do something about that…”

“One big idea at a time, Lucy,” Solow said, gently. “First we need to find Bob’s replacement. And he might have chosen the best possible time to quit on us, because I’ve heard about somebody promising who might be willing to take the job with the right amount of coaxing…”

---

In many respects, it was a quiet season for Desilu Productions – their ambitious plans for an I Love Lucy 25th Anniversary Special (which had been green-lit by CBS, and would even air on the actual anniversary date of October 15, 1976) had largely precluded the opportunity to scout for and develop pilots, so the studio had only four shows remaining on the air in the 1975-76 season; in a triumph of quality over quantity, all four cleared the Top 30, with two – Rock Around the Clock and The Muppet Show, both on ABC – reaching the Top 10. Indeed, in a singular triumph for the studio, Rock Around the Clock reached #1 overall for the season [1], dethroning Sanford and Son, and serving as one of the crowning achievements of the retro nostalgia trend: the most popular show on the air in 1975 was one that took place in 1955, cementing in the popular imagination the idea that nostalgia was in fact relative, not absolute, and always projected two decades behind whatever vantage point was chosen.

But when it came to crowning achievements and retro nostalgia, another rousing success was none other than the King of Rock-and-Roll himself, Elvis Presley. Ever since what had become known as his Comeback Special in late 1968, his career had been moving from strength to strength. The personal image of Elvis as a family man, with his young wife Priscilla, and their two children – daughter Lisa Marie, and son Jesse Garon [2] – contrasted delightfully with his increasingly sexualized stage persona and song choices. Elvis, like Desilu, had staked his claim on quality over quantity. He had parted ways with his longtime manager Colonel Tom Parker in 1973, and under new manager Tom Hulett, he was performing international tours for the first time in his career; travelling to Europe, Australia, South America, Japan, and (controversially) Saudi-Arabia, whose oil sheiks had apparently made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. [3] He also accepted an offer to appear as the male lead in a remake of A Star Is Born, opposite Barbra Streisand, embarking on the “serious” acting career he had always craved. And then there was television, the medium that had revitalized his career (and, fittingly, had helped to launch it back in the 1950s). His two children, both of whom adored Sesame Street, no doubt played a part in his decision to appear on the show in 1974, performing “Promised Land”, and making the acquaintance of Jim Henson and Frank Oz in the process (both Lisa Marie and Jesse could be seen on the sidelines watching their father perform in the episode).

It was as a result of this appearance that Elvis and Desilu came together, when Henson and Oz invited the King to appear on The Muppet Show in its second season. Hulett wasn’t sure what to make of the offer; it was the kind of “silly” gig that Col. Parker would have signed his client up to in a jiffy, which was already enough to give him pause – but at the same time, it was (improbably enough) now the highest-rated variety show on television, and it was even catching on with foreign audiences; much to the pleasure of Desilu, who were happy to have another licence to print money. As Elvis was now touring worldwide, the appeal of being seen on television worldwide was obvious. The King thus consented to appear, and performed three songs: “Burning Love” (with Miss Piggy), “Teddy Bear” (with Fozzie Bear), and “Jailhouse Rock” (with most of the Muppet repertory). The decision to perform two of his standards, balanced by only one recent hit, was justified by the popular revival of his 1950s-era music; indeed, it would begin to see regular airplay on Rock Around the Clock as soon as it became feasible to do so (as the series moved into 1956, the year of “Heartbreak Hotel”). Needless to say, this provided a further financial boon to the King’s career, as well as his popularity, and his television appearances certainly didn’t hurt on that score. The Elvis Presley episode of The Muppet Show, the highest-rated in its history, aired on February 22, 1976. Any lingering reticence on the part of actors or singers to appear on the program vanished overnight.

The influence of retro nostalgia even percolated into shows with modern settings. A classic example of the needs of network executives conflicting with the pitches made by writers was the curious case of Welcome Back, Kotter, which was based on the youth of its star and co-creator, Gabe Kaplan. During its development, MGM had re-released its seminal rebellious youth film Blackboard Jungle, which had performed very well at the box office – well enough to convince executives at NBC (who were already feeling the heat from having cancelled The Bill Cosby Show, which was also about a “hip, young” educator) to tailor Kotter to fit that paradigm. [4] The group of remedial students whose destinies Kotter would shepherd would be led by a young, black “ringleader” similar to Sidney Poitier’s character in The Blackboard Jungle. Eventually chosen after an exhaustive talent search was 21-year-old Denzel Washington, who idolized Poitier. [5] The two actors were similar in a number of ways – both were poised, passionate, and classically handsome – though Washington was capable of surprising deviousness as well, which producers eagerly utilized to their advantage. As seemed to be an emerging theme among inter-generational series in the era, the show revolved around both lead characters attempting to improve each other, and – at the same time – improve themselves.

The cop show genre, though relatively inauspicious in comparison to the
“important” shows of the era, proved insidious. The big new show in the genre for that season was the more buddy comedy-influenced Starsky & Hutch – which, oddly enough, heavily bucked the retro nostalgia trend and instead focused on trying its best to follow modern-day fashions and styles as slavishly as possible – which, naturally, dated it very quickly. The cop shows also finally found themselves with a distaff counterpart in Police Woman, which acquired a fan in very high places – none other than Gerald R. Ford, Speaker of the House of Representatives, who made sure to get all House business over and done with early enough on Friday nights to get home in time to watch the show. Whatever his motivations, his wife Betty, for her part, seemed to take it all in good humour. [6] Meanwhile, Norman Lear and his Tandem Productions continued to insist on hard-hitting, modern, relevant programming; even though escapism was rapidly triumphing over realism, and there was fear that he would oversaturate the market for such, all by himself. Nonetheless, One Day At A Time, which tackled single-motherhood, premiered in this season, and continued the Tandem hot streak by finishing within the Top 30, as all of their other shows did, with the notable exception of Maude. [7] Thus ended the supremacy of Norman Lear, who (with his characteristic self-righteousness) spoke openly against the newly-enthroned Desilu, whose two most popular shows were (in his words) a throwback and a trifle. When his sour-grapes critique was met with strong backlash within the industry, he backpedaled and claimed that he admired the progressiveness of the Desilu roster as a whole, but the damage was done. His partnership with Bud Yorkin – the creative core of Tandem – would dissolve before the end of the year. [8]

Those Were the Days was unquestionably suffering from the imposition of the Family Viewing Hour, which had forced it to move to 9:00 on a different night, and consequently saw it falling out of the Top 10. The cast did their best to take this in stride, even recording a spoof version of their theme song in which they lampooned the envelope-pushing changes to television programming in the last few years; contrasting it pointedly against the more “wholesome” shows still on the air. [9] Meanwhile, Paramount Television chose a relatively safe, conservative means of expansion, spinning off the character of Phyllis Lindstrom (played by Oscar-winner Cloris Leachman) from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, as they had done for Rhoda the year before. Technically, this tied the studio (who now had four shows on the air, The Odd Couple having been cancelled at the end of the previous season) with Desilu in terms of Top 30 success, with four shows apiece; but on average, the Desilu shows ranked higher. Certainly, this rivalry appealed to the trade papers, who never failed to note that the two studios were located right next-door to each other; the rather obscure bit of trivia that Charles Bluhdorn had once offered to buy Desilu resurfaced at this time, fueling speculation as to what this hypothetical “super-Paramount” might have looked like (though some dismissed this as a pointless exercise).

A landmark innovation of television presentation was achieved during this season, when the mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man debuted. Although it had definite precursors, such as QB VII from the previous season, as well as transatlantic counterparts (known in the UK as
“serials”, and having aired there since the 1950s), Rich Man, Poor Man was the first that caught the attention of executives and programmers, as it had done spectacularly well in the only metric that “mattered” – the ratings. It had finished at #2 overall for the entire season, behind only Rock Around the Clock, and ahead of Sanford and Son. It capped a remarkable renaissance for the Alphabet Network, which now had five Top 10 shows, as many as the other two networks combined; though all three had tied with ten shows in the Top 30. [10] ABC also had only the second #1 series in their history, following the one-year blip of Marcus Welby, M.D.; and Rock Around the Clock would prove to have a great deal more staying power. However, and despite their arguable first-place status, they were not without their blunders: two key figures from the sports division of the network, producer Roone Arledge and commentator Howard Cosell, put their talents to use in an altogether disastrous project called Saturday Night Live. Neither of these two accomplished gentlemen had any experience in the comedy/variety format of this new series, and it showed. Though it was cancelled, they were soon able to dust themselves off, and get back into an arena where they could really shine.

At the Emmy Awards that year, all three major series repeated their wins in their respective categories: Mary Tyler Moore for Comedy, Police Story for Drama, and The Muppet Show for Variety. Indeed, there was a great deal of repetition in many of the major categories: Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for Milton Berle in Chico and the Man; Valerie Harper in Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for Rhoda (beating out both of her former co-stars, Mary Tyler Moore and Cloris Leachman, for their respective shows); and, controversially, Ted Knight in Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series, when the buzz had revolved around hot newcomer Denzel Washington for his breakthrough performance in Welcome Back, Kotter. It was theorized that he had split the “tough guy” vote with Micky Dolenz for Rock Around the Clock, allowing Knight to come up the middle in his very different, and far more broad, performance as news anchor Ted Baxter in The Mary Tyler Moore Show. On the other hand, Elvis Presley won his very first Emmy for his performance in The Muppet Show. The smash Rich Man, Poor Man won the Emmy for Outstanding Limited Series, against minimal opposition. [11]

And at the end of the day (quite literally), NBC was doing well enough to play hardball with Johnny Carson, host of The Tonight Show, when his contract was due for renegotiation in 1975. Carson had wanted to end the “Best of Carson” compilations that were airing on the network during late nights on weekends, so that they could instead be aired during weekday late nights, which would then allow him to take those days off. [12] NBC flatly refused; not only would that necessitate the creation of a late-night weekend variety program in place of those reruns, but it would have them competing against Dick Cavett on ABC and Merv Griffin on CBS with them as well. [13] Though Carson was beating the two of them quite handily, they were still holding their own, especially with niche audiences (Cavett attracted a more highbrow, intellectual crowd; Griffin was warm and genial in contrast to Carson’s more smarmy, detached persona). Eventually, a compromise was reached: in addition to a hefty raise, Carson was granted syndication and distribution rights of The Tonight Show through his production company, and was guaranteed at least one night per week off in his contract. [14] That day quickly became established as Monday (leading to one of his most famous catchphrases, I don’t work on Mondays”), and a small, rotating group of guest hosts would soon becomes fixtures on those nights. Within the late-night business, Monday acquired the nickname “Merv-day” or “Mon-Dick”, as Tonight Show viewers were much more likely to watch one of the other two hosts on that night. It was certainly a far more eventful night than Saturday


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[1] All in the Family finished at #1 for the fifth (and final) consecutive season IOTL. Sanford and Son ranked at #7, and Happy Days ranked at #11.

[2] Elvis had just one child IOTL. The Mini-Boom has he and Priscilla say – you guessed it – “let’s have one more”, and their son is named for his stillborn uncle.

[3] The King held onto the Colonel until his death in 1977 IOTL; however, there were many opportunities for that partnership to fracture from about 1973 on. ITTL, since Elvis is still married to Priscilla, she bolsters his inner resolve and an arrangement is made in which Col. Parker is put out to pasture (his silence arranged through a mutual agreement, as the new manager was smart enough to dig up dirt on his predecessor’s citizenship status and military service); since the Colonel was the primary roadblock against international touring and the movie gig IOTL, these are both able to happen ITTL, allowing Elvis to become one of the first past-his-prime musicians to sustain himself through international tours (many others would follow, as they did IOTL), which also keeps his name in the paper (and allows him to be billed over La Streisand in A Star is Born).

[4] IOTL, ABC aired the show; NBC buys it up instead, because it fits their
“image” (think Sanford and Chico) better. The success of the Blackboard Jungle re-release ITTL convinces executives to rip it off, and among the pitches they’ve been given, the Gabe Kaplan sitcom fits best. In effect, he’s having his own show ripped out from under him.

[5] The casting of the
“Sweathog” student characters was more ensemble-oriented IOTL, though John Travolta (who was not cast ITTL) quickly emerged as the breakout star.

[6] Ford was just as big a fan of Police Woman during his OTL Presidency – he once rescheduled a press conference so that he wouldn’t miss an episode.

[7] Yes, every Tandem show finished in the Top 30 IOTL, including Maude at #4 (it helped that All In The Family was its lead-in).

[8] Lear and Yorkin ended their partnership at around the same time IOTL, due to what appears to have been “creative differences”.

[9] The OTL cast members did the exact same thing, creating a spoof “theme song” which was never aired; you can find a fan-edited “intro” based on it right here.

[10] IOTL, ABC had five shows in the Top 10 and thirteen in the Top 30, putting them at a virtual draw with CBS, which had four shows in the Top 10 and fourteen in the Top 30. This left NBC with only one show (Sanford and Son) in the Top 10 and a mere three in the Top 30 (one of which, Police Woman, was at #30 exactly). Thus, ITTL, NBC is doing much better (despite still technically being in third place overall). This means that they are far less motivated to protect their few hits (because they have more of them), and they are also less desperate and therefore less likely to take chances on wild gambles, as they did at about this time IOTL.

[11] IOTL, the award for Outstanding Variety Series went to
NBC’s Saturday Night, with Chevy Chase winning (instead of Elvis) for the same program. Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series went to Jack Albertson, playing the analogous role to Berle; Lead Actress went to Mary Tyler Moore. Outstanding Limited Series was awarded to Upstairs, Downstairs as part of Masterpiece Theatre; as that analogous program is a continuing comedy series, it was not nominated ITTL, allowing Rich Man, Poor Man to win instead.

[12] IOTL, NBC accepted this arrangement (in desperation, as Carson had threatened to walk to one of the other two networks if his demands went unmet, and the network had very few other hits in this era), resulting in network executive Dick Ebersol deciding to recruit Canadian writer-producer Lorne Michaels to develop an avant-garde comedy/variety program called NBC
’s Saturday Night, renamed Saturday Night Live in 1977. That program will never exist ITTL.

[13] By this point IOTL, both Cavett and Griffin were largely disaffiliated with those respective networks; however, since NBC is spending more resources on other departments, this gives them an edge to remain just competitive enough to solidify their presence on the late-night lineup alongside Carson.

[14] Most of these contractual arrangements were agreed upon in 1980 IOTL; however, Carson has to concede two key perks: his show still airs regular episodes five days a week (even if he is present for only four of them) and he is still on for ninety minutes as opposed to one hour.

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One of the quieter overview updates so far, but I like to think that what I
ve given with one hand, I’ve now taken away with the other. I’ve said it before and now I’ll say it again: television is a zero-sum industry. And yes, as always, I’m laying the groundwork for future updates – indeed, in the very near future in some cases!
__________________
The Turtledove Award-Winning That Wacky Redhead: Big Dreams Have Big Consequences!

Find out more on the Alternate History Wiki or TV Tropes

Last edited by Brainbin; August 17th, 2012 at 01:00 PM..
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