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Old February 11th, 2013, 01:00 AM
Brainbin Brainbin is offline
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Jockeying For Position (1978-79)

Every day, I thank God for my movie studio.

– Charles Bluhdorn, Head of Gulf+Western Industries (owner of Paramount Pictures), April 4, 1978 [1]

It had been a long time in coming, but the industry was still abuzz with the formal re-teaming of Lucille Ball and her one-time protégée, Carol Burnett. The latter’s variety show, a bulwark of the genre for over a decade, had come to an end in 1978. However, both she and her husband, Joe Hamilton, sought to land on their feet, and they were agreed that the ideal way to do so was to find a new vehicle for her many talents. By the end of the show’s run, a number of its sketches had become popular, but none more so than “The Family”, which starred Burnett as Eunice Harper Wilkins [2] and Vicki Lawrence as her grumpy, wisecracking “Mama”. In early sketches, prior to his departure from the series, Harvey Korman had played Ed Wilkins, Eunice’s husband; the two were subsequently divorced in the later sketches. Tim Conway and, later, Dick Van Dyke, generally played associates of Ed’s, but they were of lesser importance to the sketches, however much Conway in particular attempted to derail them with his raucous ad libbing. The other Harper children, particularly Roddy McDowall as Philip and Betty White as Ellen, appeared frequently, despite those actors having other regular series commitments at the time (with Planet of the Apes and Mary Tyler Moore, respectively). As the 1978-79 season commenced, both McDowall and White were out of work; their shows having also come to an end. The stars, it seemed, had truly aligned. The VP Production for Desilu, Brandon Tartikoff, seemed to like the idea of producing a
“Family” spinoff. [3]

The name of this prospective series was changed to Eunice, as “The Family” was deemed too similar to the contemporary domestic drama series, Family. Burnett, Lawrence, McDowall, and White were all tapped to star, with Korman agreeing to make occasional appearances – he would also direct for the series, alongside Desilu mainstay Leonard Nimoy, who appreciated the decision to continue with a stage-play approach to the material. Fred Silverman at ABC – who, per the agreement with the studio, was given right of first refusal over all Desilu projects – had no interest in the pilot; but it went over very well at NBC, where it was quickly sold and would premiere in the following season, just in time to replace The Questor Tapes on the studio roster. Gene Roddenberry, that show’s creator and executive producer, had naturally been given a fair shake at making another pitch, but his one half-baked idea was dismissed by Tartikoff as “ripping off an episode from The Twilight Zone, just with funnier-looking aliens”; the executive countered with a suggestion for a “Fort Apache in space” concept instead. [4] Roddenberry then spent the rest of the season working on it. Meanwhile, while her new show was in development, Burnett appeared on The Muppet Show; she had been a fan ever since it had first premiered. [5] Apart from Questor, Desilu continued to see remarkable success, with their three marquee shows (Rock Around the Clock, Three’s Company, and The Muppet Show) all remaining in the Top 10, lengthening a remarkable streak for the studio. However, Rock fell out of the #1 spot after three consecutive seasons, having been displaced by the nigh-unstoppable breakaway hit Richard Pryor Show.


Pryor and the Muppets were the two highest-rated variety shows on American television, despite neither really being a proper example of the genre. However, the casts and crews of the two programs enjoyed a friendly rivalry that started during this season; The Muppet Show had cast the first stone when, after the raucous character of Animal engaged in some particularly outrageous antics during a sketch, Kermit the Frog memorably chastised him with “Who do you think you are, Robin Williams?” From that point forward, the game was afoot. Among the more prominent recurring characters on the second season of Pryor, created in response to this one-off gag, were a group of puppets described, variously, as the “Muffets”, the “Moppets”, and the “Mullets”; fittingly, their hairstyles were increasingly ridiculous (which doubled as a send-up of the notorious coifs which so defined late-1970s fashion); the Muppets in turn retaliated by featuring some particularly cheaply-made puppets, with the
“real” Muppets behooving them to “get back to the Pryor show”. But it was no surprise that the Muppets had name-checked Williams specifically, despite Pryor quite literally being the nominal star of the show. The anarchic, hyperactive Williams was a natural attention-grabber, with only Pryor himself seeming able to match his intensity. It was more than likely that both of these gentlemen were only able to achieve their onscreen temperaments with… chemical assistance. The otherwise quite able supporting cast were largely left in the dust of the two male leads; most of them, to their credit, handled this sidelining with consummate professionalism, which was in many ways more than could be said for either Pryor or Williams.

Paramount Television, much as had been the case at the dawn of the decade, was seeing most of its big premieres fly increasingly under the radar. Though not for lack of trying; the muse of the studio, Mary Tyler Moore, quite infamously attempted to make lightning strike twice when she branched into starring in an ill-fated variety program named Mary; her sweetness and wholesomeness stood out like a sore thumb against the mounting irreverence of the competition, and her show crashed and burned, becoming one of the signature flops of the season. More embarrassingly, on a personal note, it also served to end the practice of nicknaming Paramount Television “the House that Mary Built”, an obvious aping of the popular nickname for Desilu at the time (which was, itself, fading out of fashion as the dominance of those shows produced by Have Gun – Will Travel writers was coming to an end). Perhaps the relative anonymity secured by the other Paramount show to premiere in the 1978-79 season was more desirable for the studio. WMTM in Cincinnati [6] was devised by Hugh Wilson, who based the premise – a new station manager hired to run an over-the-hill radio station – on his own experiences working in that medium. The titular WMTM station played “beautiful music”, one of the defining popular genres of the 1970s, perhaps unfairly maligned in certain corners; however, the format was changed to rock-and-roll at the insistence of the new manager. This allowed the show to play hit songs of the genre, more-or-less on demand; in an uncharacteristic act of foresight, studio executives made sure to licence the rights to these songs in perpetuity, inspired by Desilu and their consistent track record in syndication and, more recently, in their pioneering CED venture with RCA. [7] WMTM failed to clear the Top 30 for the season, but ratings with those precious and valuable demographics who did watch were more just about sufficient to justify continued production; this despite the fact that many higher-ups at Paramount were not particularly fond of the series.

Meanwhile, Taxi Drivers continued to draw critical plaudits on par with the most beloved exemplars from the studio’s roster of character sitcoms, despite just barely managing to place within the Top 30 for the season. As with WMTM, though, it was especially popular with the right kinds of viewers, despite its overall limited success. As far as established hits went, the irrepressible Rhoda remained in the Top 10, with Valerie Harper, the show’s star, becoming the highest-paid actor (male or female) on television. (It helped on that score that Carroll O’Connor, the previous record-holder for Those Were the Days, had seen his show end in the previous season). Her one-time Mary Tyler Moore co-star Ed Asner continued to hold down his own fort, with Lou Grant maintaining respectable ratings, much on par with those once held by its mother series. Despite their shared origins, the odds of a crossover happening between the two programs were virtually nil – it was hard to find two shows in the Paramount stable that were more divergent, despite their shared success. It wasn’t a whole lot, but it was all that Paramount Television had to offer. Tentative plans to air some form of continuation to Journey of the Force, perhaps in the form of a holiday special, were nixed by none other than George Lucas, who refused to condone such a blatant cash grab as long as none of said cash would be filling his coffers. Despite the triumphant example of the Star Trek miniseries in the previous season, Paramount could offer no rebuttal. Charles Bluhdorn wasn’t seen to mind too much, however, having largely written off his television division as unprofitable – quite literally, in fact. The Journey of the Force revenues had to be frittered away somewhere.

Speaking of Carol Burnett and of Those Were the Days, Penny Marshall, who had played Gloria Bunker-Higgins in the latter show, had decided to start her own production company, Lucky Penny Productions. She used it to pitch her own sitcom – with the help of some scribes formerly in the employ of Tandem Productions, particularly their token woman writer, Linda Bloodworth [8] – which would feature Marshall as a blue-collar worker, a single, mature woman making an honest living in a traditionally male occupation. Marshall was particularly interested in directing for the series, as well as starring in it; she had never gotten the opportunity to do so on Those Were the Days, which she often derisively described as a “boys’ club”. Carroll O’Connor himself, in later years, would admit that they really had no idea what to make of women’s issues, choosing to focus on racial and class-based topics instead, and largely deferring to Marshall (and later Bloodworth). Her new show was due to premiere in the following season.

The 1978-79 season largely saw the decline of variety programming outside of the (parodical) Muppet Show and (the sketch-comedy-oriented) Richard Pryor; “traditional” shows were virtually moribund, even notwithstanding the example of Mary. Donny and Marie, a breakout hit not two years before, would not see the end of the season; the heartthrob lead, Donny Osmond, had married young (as was the wont of Mormon faithful), which had catastrophic effects on the female viewing audience of his program. And just as a marriage had hobbled the success of one variety show, divorce had hobbled the success of another; in earlier years, The Sonny and Cher Show had proven utterly unable to survive the dissolution of the union between its stars, with abortive attempts at revivals (which Cher, rather than Sonny, headlined) going nowhere fast.

It was fast becoming clear as the 1970s drew to a close that the one producer whose destiny would be firmly tied to (and, consequently, left behind in) that decade was Norman Lear. His Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman parody had gone off the air, leaving him with only two shows – Moving on Up and One Day at a Time – still running. Despite their topical premises – nouveau riche black family and single mother raising her children, respectively – the overall execution was generally apolitical; Moving on Up star Sherman Hemsley was increasingly disdainful of his character’s racism and felt that it should have faded after constant exposure to the mixed-race couple that were his son’s in-laws. Meanwhile, One Day at a Time found the cast hijacked by the presence of a kooky comic relief handyman character, who quickly became a breakout hit with the audience; the single mother was also sidelined by her attractive young daughters, who became very popular with young male viewers, for all the obvious reasons.

Despite the ultimate failure of Mary Hartman, fellow soap opera parody Soap continued to remain in the Top 30. In fact, the genre was catching on so insidiously that producers began to develop serious soap operas to debut on primetime television in the coming seasons. Indeed, even those shows that were not explicitly melodramatic did not shy away from the frothy, the sublime, and the ridiculous. Muted realism was on the way out, much as it had driven the madcap, surreal, and escapist shows of the late-1960s out of the picture beforehand. In fact, it was not the least bit surprising that the more lighthearted programming of yesteryear could recapture the popular imagination, considering that so many 1960s classics remained on the airwaves, in syndication. Desilu SEVP Herbert F. Solow was heard to remark that, as far he was concerned, in many ways it was “still the 1960s” – Star Trek was ubiquitous in syndication, and Mission: Impossible was only rare by comparison with its sister series. The many shows produced at Desilu by other companies – The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Hogan’s Heroes among them – were also mainstays of the airwaves.

Overall, ABC remained the ratings champion once again in the 1978-79 season, with fifteen shows in the Top 30, good for fully half of the roster. The Alphabet Network also managed to pull off this feat within the Top 10, with five shows on that list. In second place was NBC, with an equitable ten shows in the Top 30; the Peacock Network also hit at par in the Top 10, with three shows there, including The Richard Pryor Show at #1. Finally, CBS continued to lag behind, this season falling to a precariously low position; only five of their shows appeared in the Top 30, though they repeated their feat from the previous season in securing two spots in the Top 10 – in fact, they were the very same shows
: 60 Minutes and Rhoda. In fact, the Top 10 proved surprisingly static in general; not a single new show joined the upper echelon this season. [9]

At the Emmy Awards that year, Taxi Drivers surprisingly won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series; most observers had expected Captain Miller (which pulled in much better ratings, and was about as critically acclaimed) to repeat. Then again, the Emmys were known for their patronage of quality shows with problematic ratings; that ceremony, perhaps more than any other single source, had helped rescue Those Were the Days from oblivion in its infancy. Miller, meanwhile, was allowed a very fine consolation prize of Outstanding Lead Actor for its star, Hal Linden. Soap also won two acting Emmys: Lead Actress went to Katherine Helmond and Supporting Actor to Robert Guillaume. The two actors, who were good friends in real life, memorably embraced backstage as they held their awards; the picture would headline the entertainment section in most newspapers the following morning, with Baba Wawa on the Today Show describing it as “a heartwarming moment”. Outstanding Drama Series was awarded to Lou Grant, in a double-whammy for Paramount; the star, Ed Asner, won for Outstanding Lead Actor. Outstanding Variety Series, obviously, went to The Richard Pryor Show; Robin Williams also won an Emmy for his performance on the program. Williams, a notorious ad-libber, courted controversy when, accepting his award, he asked if the Academy was planning to give him one for his “writing” as well. (They weren’t.) [10] His remarks stirred their fair share of ire from the higher-ups, but in many ways, the studios had bigger fish to fry…

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[1] The night before, Journey of the Force won Best Picture, the second for the studio in the 1970s (after Chinatown). For contextual reference: Bluhdorn is quoted as saying this largely in response to the disappointing performance of the television division of his company, which, recall, he had to build from scratch.

[2] The name “Higgins” was used IOTL for Michael and Gloria on Those Were the Days, another CBS show. Wilkins was chosen instead; it shared a similarity with that of another Burnett character, Mrs. Wiggins (as Higgins obviously did and does), while at the same time being different enough from the already-used name on the other show.

[3] IOTL, “The Family” sketches did spin-off into a reasonably popular sitcom called Mama’s Family, though Vicki Lawrence’s character of “Mama” Thelma Harper was the star, and Carol Burnett’s Eunice appeared in only a handful of episodes (all before the show was initially cancelled, and later revived in first-run syndication); this was because of the acrimonious divorce taking place contemporaneously between Burnett and her then-husband, Joe Hamilton, who received the rights to the “Family” characters and situations. However, prior to the launch of Mama’s Family in 1982, Burnett had attempted to launch her own take on the characters, which was somewhat truer to the original sketches; this didn’t get any farther than a one-off special, entitled Eunice, which aired in 1981. As far as I know, this special was never repeated, nor released on home video – but fortunately, some enterprising viewer used one of his newfangled VTR machines to record the whole thing and, as of this writing, it is available on YouTube.

[4] This half-baked idea would indeed develop into the first of Roddenberry’s two OTL posthumous series, Earth: Final Conflict. Meanwhile, “Fort Apache in space” was a term used (by analogy with the famous “Wagon Train to the Stars”) to describe an OTL spinoff of Star Trek which was set almost exclusively at a space station (later seasons did feature a starship on which some actual trekking was done); it may not surprise you to learn that Tartikoff himself was involved with the development of that series.

[5] Burnett also appeared on an episode of The Muppet Show in 1980 IOTL, which won an Emmy for its writing.

[6] IOTL, the show was known as WKRP in Cincinnati – MTM (named, of course, after Mary Tyler Moore) comes from name of the studio which produced it, which obviously does not exist ITTL, allowing those letters to be used here instead. For those who are unaware, the first letter, the W, is standard in all television and radio call signs in the United States, east of the Mississippi River (K is used west of it), though there are exceptions. Most stations use four letters, though a few have three instead.

[7] Yes, this means that WMTM, and all future shows with a reliance on copyrighted music, will be able to retain the originally-used recordings on home video.

[8] Bloodworth (later, Bloodworth-Thomason) got her big break IOTL writing for M*A*S*H, which never became a television series ITTL; therefore, she decided to hitch her wagon to the Tandem stable, fulfilling much the same role on the writing staff there that she did on M*A*S*H (avid fans of that show may notice a complete turnaround in the character of Hot-Lips; she is largely responsible). IOTL, she went on to create Designing Women, and her company produced several other programs of the early 1990s.

[9] IOTL, ABC had a whopping 17 shows in the Top 30 (of which an even more impressive seven finished within the Top 10); CBS had nine shows in the Top 30, and the remaining three in the Top 10; and NBC managed to maintain a mere four slots in the Top 30. Their highest-rated show was Little House on the Prairie, at #14. The #1 show on the air was Laverne and Shirley, on ABC, for the second consecutive season.

[10] Those wins IOTL which did match those of TTL were as follows: Carroll O’Connor won for Lead Actor in a Comedy Series (for All in the Family); Ruth Gordon won for Lead Actress in a Comedy Series (for Taxi); Ron Leibman won for
Lead Actor in a Drama Series (for Kaz); Outstanding Variety Series went to Steve and Eydie Celebrate Irving Berlin (what can I say? The category was largely adrift by this point IOTL); and Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program, which went to Robin Williams ITTL, was not awarded that year (nor until 1984, in fact) IOTL. Prior to 1979, the category was split according to gender, ITTL and IOTL.

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Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to our final full cycle of the 1970s! It seems that I describe virtually every season as one of transition – such is the case in a fluid medium like television. It may be hard to believe in our age of instant gratification and information moving at the speed of light, but once upon a time, television was the most topical medium available; with the technological advances that will make themselves known in the coming years, that will become even more apparent.

These coming updates are going to be… denser than in cycles past, part of the reason why this overview seems far more laden with foreshadowing and tantalizing hints than usual. I must admit, it brings me a great deal of relief, because when I first started writing this timeline, lo those many moons ago, I was worried that I might run out of topics to discuss by the time we got here. On the contrary, now I’m hoping to find room for it all! But worry not; I’ll manage
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