Television

Once more into the wasteland, dear viewers

MARTIN KNELMAN September 20 1976
Television

Once more into the wasteland, dear viewers

MARTIN KNELMAN September 20 1976

Once more into the wasteland, dear viewers

Television

The great annual rite happens every fall. An orgy of selling ideas, testing pilots, psyching out the audience, juggling schedules, copying winners, burying the dead and doctoring the wounded all comes to a head in one frantic week at the end of September when the three major U.S. networks hit the airwaves with their fall lineup. Careers are made and unmade by even a fraction of a percentage point in the Nielsen ratings. Besides jobs and egos, what’satstake is$2.5 billion in advertising.

This year for the first time in memory, a subdued version of ratings fever has spread across the border to the CBC, where AÍ Johnson, the new man at the top. is putting pressure on his program executives to come up with shows that will be popular with audiences. As a state-subsidized public broadcasting system, the CBC has never been as single-minded in its pursuit of ratings as the U.S. commercial networks. But Johnson perceives a more significant ratings battle than the one between one show

and another. In his view, the fight that counts is to get viewers to watch Canadian shows rather than American shows.

The most audacious gamble the CBC is taking is in the expansion of network programming past the eleven o’clock national news with a five-nights-a-week late-night talk-and-variety show, 90 Minutes Live, with Peter Gzowski as host (starting on November 29). The show, which has been in development stages for two years, finally got the go-ahead after local trial runs in Halifax, Vancouver and Winnipeg earler this year. The most lively of the tryouts proved a late-night show can help create a distinctively Canadian popular culture, but no one knows yet whether Gzowski can hold a big audience without being as shallow as an imitation Johnny Carson. At a cost of more than one million dollars, the show is a coup for CBC current affairs chief Peter Herrndorf, who also has the fifth estate returning for its second season and two short series for the fall: a turgid four-

parter on the history of aviation in Canada, called Flight: The Passionate Affair, with flying buff Patrick Watson as host; and 13 half-hours on the life and times of John G. Diefenbaker, starting October 20.

But the heat is really on just now in the drama department, where John Hirsch barely had time to settle into his office after being lured away from the theatre before he was being assailed by head office for low ratings. Consequently there will be fewer productions from the underground theatre and more emphasis on popular action shows. Faced with the dilemma of being asked to compete with American network shows without anything like American budgets, Hirsch has come up with the solution of co-productions such as The Man Inside (September 25), the CBC’S first madefor-TV movie, a slightly better-than-routine police drama for which Hirsch obtained some U.S. financing in exchange for U.S. distribution rights.

As well, Hirsch has lined up a new series magic printing. TYiet the scene.

of the hour-long journalistic dramas he developed in the second half of last season. Pennies For My Chocolate, based on a story by Toronto author Margaret Bigson Gilboord and directed by Claude Jutra, one of several directors Hirsch has recruited from the Quebec cinema, turned out so well that it was expanded into a 90minute special. The season’s drama specials get off to a rousing start with Sarah (October 6) featuring an unforgettable performance by Zoe Caldwell as that legendary eccentric of the stage, Sarah Bernhardt. But there has been friction behind the scenes over a low'-budget mini-series called Royal Suite, whose installments are linked, like those of Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite, by the fact that they all take place in the same hotel room.

Over at CTV, the private network, there’s very little adventurous new programming and a continued reliance on shows imported from the U.S. networks. But one titillating item in the fall lineup is the David Steinberg show, a half-hour variety show on Friday nights for which the nervy Jewish comic from North Winnipeg, who once got the Smothers Brothers sacked from CBS for carrying his Biblical satire, has finally been lured back to Canada. • .

The launching of the new season in Canada is a gentlemanly affair compared to the hysterical, cutthroat ambience of the U.S. networks, where the competition has become livelier in the wake of ABC’S stunning

surge late last season. For years the pattern had been the same: CBS ahead of NBC by a nose and ABC bringing up the rear. Then last year ABC not only strengthened its performance but in the second half of the season pulled ahead of NBC and eventually, for 11 giddy weeks, took first place away from CBS.

Serializations of popular novels have been standard fare in England for years, but the concept has just become a hot item to U.S. networks following ABC’S success last spring with Rich Man, Poor Man. The fall lineup includes not only Book II of the Irwin Shaw novel (Tuesdays, on ABC) but also Gibbsville, based on a John O’Hara story about a town in Pennsylvania, and Bestsellers, an anthology of serialized novels, both on NBC.

Several of the 25 new' weekly series are spin-offs from hit movies, including Serpico( Fridays, NBC)about the cop who blew the lid off'corruption in the New York police department. But the most entertaining of the new situation comedies is Alice (Wednesdays, CBS), based on the movie A lice Doesn ’t Live Here Any More, about a 35-year-old widow on the road with her 12-year-old son, waiting on tables at a hash house and trying to get work as a singer.

Norman Lear, the most successful of all sit-com creators, has All’s Fair (Mondays, CBS), a slick but strained contrivance with Richard Crenna as a right-wing Washington political columnist having a stormy affair with Bernadette Peters as a left-wing photographer, and The Nancy Walker Show (Thursdays, ABC), which is saved by the amiable personality of the veteran comedienne in the role of a brassy talent agent.

One of the few emerging star personalities of the season is Jim Bouton, playing more or less himself in Ball Four (Wednesdays, CBS), based on his own racy book about off-field life in major-league baseball. As usual, there are some duds, including the gimmicky Holmes And Yoyo (Saturdays, ABC), a police comedy about a detective whose partner is a robot, and The Tony Randall Show (Thursdays, ABC), a cloying thing about a widower judge and his two adorable children.

The most panic-struck network this fall is unquestionably NBC, desperate to reverse last year’s slide for its fiftieth anniversary season, NBC is banking heavily on an anti-series concept of super specials, most notably a 90-minute blank in the Sunday night schedule for a number of extravaganzas grouped under the title of The Big Event. With the weakest lineup of regular shows among the three networks, NBC is also counting on movie blockbusters, including the TV premiere of Gone With The Wind. Since the movie lineup also includes Earthquake and A irport 1975, it seems clear that NBC is hoping to use disaster movies to stave off actual disaster. In TV land, disaster doesn’t mean fire or flood. It means coming in third in the Nielsen ratings.

MARTIN KNELMAN