This fall in New York, where the Nielsen rating is a super deity and television merely king, the three American networks are like penitents offering up ever more absurd sacrifices in their quest for the final state of grace: number one in the ratings. In this, surely the most competitive television season ever, violence is out, sex is in and the mini-series is back in full force. In Canada, as the U.S. network publicists delight in pointing out, there are no Nielsen homes. Thank God for that. We get our share of drivel—the René Simard Show promises to be dreadful and the new CBC sitcom. Custard Pie, is appallingly trite. But recently we had the absorbing Bethune starring the enigmatic Donald Sutherland, and among the scheduled “Superspecials” on CBC is one, The World Of Wizards (October 8) that is quite magical. At least here, programming isn’t totally at the mercy of a computer printout.
ABC, the traditional third network, is the new season’s American favorite and you can be sure they mean to stay there. That’s why they’ve dropped Soap, a sexy, trashy new sitcom, into their prime time schedule and why they threw Washington: Behind Closed Doors, the 12-hour recycling of Watergate inspired by John Ehrlichman’s novel, The Company, on the air last month in a cocky preseason gamble. In a world where networks are webs and programs are stunts, Washington was to be un grand spectacle. It didn’t work, NBC and CBS threw away their premiere schedules and launched a barrage of specials— sometimes as many as two a night—to beat off the ABC competition.
When the numbers men had finished counting, ABC was still number one—by .8 of a rating. They had spent $7.5 million on the mini-series, another million promoting it, and, like each of the other networks, sacrificed $15 million in advertising revenue by selling space for commercials at preseason rates. Clearly, the order of the day at ABC is victory at any price. At CBS and NBC the battle plan is identical and the two networks are stumbling over each other to avoid the ignominy of finishing third, NBC has already fired president Robert T. Howard and president Robert Wussler’s job at CBS is clearly on the line. Each web is avidly eyeing the ratings, preparing backup series that can be slotted into the schedules at the drop of a percentage point, and planning specials, events, and mini-series designed to out-stunt the competition. Among them: six Laugh In specials, a sixpart dramatization of Harold Robbin’s novel 79Park Avenue, The Godfather Saga
(parts one and two plus additional footage) and an animated version of the Hobbit.
There are 21 new series this season plus four that have been revamped by the introduction of a new character. Here are some of the highlights:
• When Redd Foxx starred in NBC’s Sanford And Son he complained bitterly that his dressing room had no window. ABC, which stole him away this season, has given him that and more: an hour-long variety show—The Redd Foxx Show (Thursdays)—that is clever, funny and topical. NBC has been left with a gaping hole which hasn’t been plugged by The Richard Pryor Show (Tuesdays) or Sanford Arms (Fridays), a trite attempt to explain away Foxx’s defection while recycling the old set and some of the cast, most notably LaWanda Page who plays Esther. Unfortunately she is funnier in her guest appear-
anees on The Redd Foxx Show. Pryor seems determined to give the haggard NBC even more grief than Foxx. He delights in jokes and routines so alarmingly tasteless and racist that they wouldn’t be tolerated if Pryor were a white comedian.
• Now that The Mary Tyler Moore Show is happily earning residuals, the expected spin-offs from the original series are appearing. Wisecracking Rhoda is back (CBS, Sundays) minus husband Joe, but with the dubious solace of her interfering mother, played by veteran comedian Nancy Walker. Betty White has her own series— The Betty White Show (CBS, Mondays)about a middle-aged actress making a television comeback in a series directed by her ex-husband. The rancor between husband and wife (says Betty, “The most romantic thing he ever said to me in five years of marriage was, ‘Am I too heavy for you?’ ”) and the digs at CBS keep the show skipping along.
• In another retread, Lou Grant (Ed Asner), after being fired as news directorvof the Minneapolis TV station, and having lost 40 pounds, lands a job as city editor of the Los Angeles Tribune. Lou Grant (CBS, Tuesday) isn’t meant to be funny and it isn’t. Nor is it very good. Even before the first commercial Grant is battling with the Tribune's publisher, a tough-minded lady who wants to print nice news, and her spineless, over-mortgaged managing editor. Lou always wins. I liked him better when he was fat and fallible.
• The only new police show is CHiPS (NBC, Thursdays) an acronym for California Highway Patrol. It’s full of motorcycles, fast cars, sun and male bonding. Star Erik Estrada (“Ponch”) is gorgeous and has a smile so dazzling that he should wear his sunglasses on his teeth. He is sure to be a star but the show never gets out of first gear.
• Television knew about kids and science fiction before the movies invented Star
Wars. Besides such returning shows as The Bionic Woman (NBC, Saturdays) and the Six Million Dollar Man (ABC, Sundays), the saga of the water-breathing, webbedfingered The Man From Atlantis (ABC, Thursdays) and The New Adventures Of Wonder Woman (CBS, Fridays) have been extended to full seasons. The big, totally new series is Logan’s Run (CBS, Fridays) sort of a sci-fi Fugitive. In this one, Logan 5 and friend Jessica are escapees from the Domed City, a controlled environment metropolis where life (literally) ends at 30. They are searching for a refuge on the outside named Sanctuary, all the while being pursued by Sandmen, policemen from the Domed City. One thing is certain: the chase will last all season. The plot is predictable, but the setting (Washington, DC, 200 years after a nuclear war) and the gadgets (including an android who could well be the Dr. Spock of the Seventies) are diverting.
The most noticeable and disturbing phenomenon this television season is the tendency to parade chauvinism, racism and prejudice under the guise of “humor” and “satire.” Norman Lear is probably more responsible for this trend than anybody else. He bought the rights in the early 1970s to a British series named Till Death Us Do Part, revamped it and introduced that lovable bigot Archie Bunker to the small screen. The theory was that Archie’s prejudices would be confronted and exploded by the sympathetic characters around him. That was 100 shows ago. A ll in The Family (CBS, Sundays) is still funny, audiences still love it—CBS recently ran a special one-hour salute to the Bunker family—and, yes, Archie is as prejudiced as ever. But the series has given rise to several pale imitations, shows that treat social problems as fodder for joke mills. Both last season’s Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and All That Glitters (in which women are executives and men are housewives) were tacky late-night examples.
The logical climax to this humor of exploitation is Soap, the Learish sitcom from ABC (Tuesdays). It’s about two sisters, rich Jessica Tate and middle class Mary Campbell, and the innumerable problems faced by their families. Among them : Jessica and her daughter Corinne are both sleeping with the local tennis pro; Mary’s husband is impotent; Danny, her son, is an appren-
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