Tonight’s US television… in 1972 

15 November 2017 tbs.pm/14161

It was 1971, and I was on Long Vac from uni. I scrimped from my grant cheque and bought a flight to the USA where I worked for eight weeks as a counselor in a Maine summer camp. The weather was glorious, the scenery idyllic, the campers actually quite tolerable, but I was looking forward to a day off. I hitched to the nearest town, and called into a supermarket for a bite to eat and a can of soda. Waiting in line at the check-out, I spotted a magazine on sale called TVGuide. Thumbing through it – distressing scene alert – I experienced a near-orgasmic reaction!

I had been used to just 3 television stations back in Blighty, but nerd that I was, I nevertheless devoured BBC-1, BBC-2 and ITV schedules in the Radio Times and TVTimes, cross-referencing between different ITV stations. As you did.

Here in my trembling fingers was a listing magazine boasting – well, considerably more than 3 channels. When I returned to Manhattan at the end of the summer, I had to buy a copy of TV Guide for the metropolitan area: Twelve stations! The thrill was almost unbearable.

Barely suppressing memories of that excitement 45 years on, here I am reviewing the USA’s tv program (sic) guide, New York Metropolitan Edition, for November 15, 1972. Fasten your seatbelt, we could be in for a bumpy ride.

Programmes (let’s use Queen’s English spelling, OK?) for New Yorkers start at 6:00 with Sunrise Semester. Except they actually don’t. Channel 3 is WTIC-TV, an out-of-town station – evidenced by the white tv screen containing the channel number – operating from Hartford, Connecticut: it’s a CBS affiliate, not owned by the network. New Yorkers have to wait till 6:20 for local programming on channel 2 (black tv screen symbol) from their CBS station. WCBS-TV is the flagship station for the CBS network, actually owned by CBS, and broadcasting from transmitters on top of the Empire State Building in Manhattan, as most New York media did, and since 9/11, do again.

The battle for early morning viewers in America in the 1970s was a sedate affair by today’s standards. At 7:00, CBS viewers get an hour of CBS News with John Hart, while on channel 4 WNBC-TV launches 2 hours of their famous Today show, hosted by Frank McGee, with contributions from the legendary Barbara Walters. The hot topic for NBC viewers waking up is an interview with Lord Windlesham (really??), minister of state at the Northern Ireland office or “England’s Minister of State” as TV Guide had him – near enough. (Windlesham had worked on This Week for Associated-Rediffusion in its early years and was later chief programme executive for Rediffusion. Small world.) Meanwhile, on the ABC network, WABC-TV, channel 7, counters with A.M. New York.

In years to come, all three major networks would broadcast their morning news programmes coast-to-coast (with versions for viewers west of the Rockies adding material from Los Angeles) with much pizazz and hutzpah but there certainly did not seem to be as much hype then as there is now.

If you didn’t want the network’s version of the news, independents WNEW-TV 5 has cartoons and WOR-TV 9 wakes up at 7:30 with 30 minutes of news followed by Garner Ted Armstrong, a television preacher, evangelising for a similar duration in a paid-for slot. (Armstrong was well-known to UK commercial radio listeners for voicing The World Tomorrow broadcasts.)

Independent WPIX-TV 11 fires up at 7:00 with Your Future is Now, a series offering “instruction in reading comprehension, English grammar and math as part of a high school equivalency program” but with Popeye cartoons 30 minutes later. Phew, for a moment I thought they were going all highbrow. In fairness, though, part of the American dream has always been a desire to better oneself, so adult education will always attract followers.

WNET 13 (Public Broadcasting System) is on air at 7:00 with Maggie and the Beautiful Machine, an exercise and health programme from the much-respected WGBH-TV Boston, and The 51st State, almost certainly a repeat of the previous evening’s broadcast. Thirteen’s website gives a full description of 51st State but in essence it was “probably the first interactive news show: it wanted to involve the viewer. They brought officials and experts into the studio, and the reporters acted as if they were viewers when questioning the guests, asking questions that really challenged them and reflected the concerns of the public. In a 1972 interview, host Patrick Watson said: ‘The 51st State is an opportunity to collaborate with an audience in creating television.’”

Channel 13 then airs Sesame Street at 9:00, the flagship pre-school children’s programme from the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW), a programme that surely needs no further introduction here. Meanwhile, WNYE-TV 25 (also PBS) begins at 9:00 The Electric Company, another CTW programme but one intended for children who had graduated from Sesame Street. Still using sketch comedy to help elementary school children develop their grammar and reading skills, the humour was more mature than that on Sesame Street.

Public television does not have the monopoly of worthy television for children. After an hour of news, at 8:00 CBS viewers (on channel 2 in New York, but also on 3 in Hartford) see Captain Kangaroo. Viewers to NBC’s Connecticut affiliate see the franchised Romper Room, very possibly locally originated.

With the children in school and day-shift workers at their place of work, the television stations can settle into the standard fare of morning television: mainly quiz shows. Joker’s Wild, Price is Right, Gambit, Concentration, Sale of the Century, Hollywood Squares, Jeopardy, Password – many of the shows are familiar to UK viewers, and even more with a slight change of name.

The relationship between a network and their affiliates, at least in the daytime, appears very flexible, so that while WCBS show three game shows in a row from 10:00 – Joker’s Wild, Price is Right and Gambit – their affiliate in Connecticut opts to show a movie. But sometimes the roles are reversed – WABC show a movie from 09:00, while their New Haven, CT, neighbour tries a bit harder with Phil Donahue (an innovatory talk show), Dialing for Dollars – a franchised format local television programme, and 30 minutes of local news… at 11:00, the good people of New Haven must have had quite an appetite for news with their morning coffee!

Dialing for Dollars deserves more description. According to Wikipedia, the programme’s usual format had the host, a local television personality, announce a certain password to viewers at the beginning of the programme (on most stations, “the count and the amount”). He would then randomly select a phone number to call from a bowl or drum, either from those that had been previously submitted by viewers, or by scraps of paper cut from residential telephone directories. Viewers watching the show would know that they were being called, answer the phone with the correct password, and would win a monetary prize. If the viewer did not respond correctly or failed to answer the call altogether, the prize money would continue to increase. The format was franchised nationally as a popular, low-budget way to fill local market airtime, especially in the late mornings.

What’s My Line?, airing at 13:00 on WCBS is also shown at the same time by ABC’s Connecticut affiliate – surely a printer’s mistake! Programmes aren’t shown at the same time on rival networks, are they? But this is a syndicated version of the show, sold to the highest bidder in each area with no regard for network. The original What’s My Line? ran on CBS from 1950 to 1967; after cancellation, the programme returned in syndication as a daily production, running from 1968 to 1975.

The occasional programme may also be aired at different times by neighbouring stations in the same “family” – WNBC run Watch Your Child at 09:30, while their Waterbury, CT, affiliate choose to show it at 13:00.

In the 1970s, lunchtime news is apparently no big deal, even in the largest US cities. There’s no question of rival networks pitching their high profile anchormen (and they were all men) against one another in half-hour slots. CBS 2 and NBC 4 offer 5 minutes of national news (less if adverts encroach into the slot) while ABC 7 doesn’t bother at all.

Then on into “the long, dark teatime of the soul”, aka an afternoon of American soaps. CBS’s As the World Turns vies with NBC’s Days of Our Lives and then ABC’s General Hospital – there may be others I don’t recognise, but… meh! It’s odd that while the genre of soaps – I think they are called “continuing dramas” now – made it successfully across the Atlantic, the actual programmes never did. The Grove Family, Compact, The NewcomersEmergency – Ward 10, Coronation Street, Weavers GreenPobol Y Cwm, Take The High Road… all home-grown. OK, I can hear you shouting Neighbours, Home and Away and Prisoner, all from the Antipodes – maybe Reg Grundy and his associates just tried harder.

While lunchtime news gets little airtime, it’s a different matter by teatime. Every network station has at least 30 minutes of local news (most have an hour), plus 30 minutes of national news with a big name presenter (or two). News is good for ratings, and therefore advertisers flock to buy airtime. Local news panders to the sensational – “If it bleeds, it leads” became the policy of many a station.

Local advertisers include the embarrassing “personality-driven” piece-to-camera pitches by woefully untalented used car salesmen. “Hank’s” inept delivery, set against his tasteless used car lot, epitomises American commerce – and it must sell cars, after all.

Whilst NBC News with John Chancellor is shown at the same time on WNBC and WATR, the Smith/Reasoner team on ABC News appear to deliver the news at 18:30 on WTNH and at 19:00 on WABC – I cannot believe that the flagship station will show a recording of the news, so I conclude that Messrs Smith and Reasoner deliver the news – live – twice. The same on CBS News with Walter Cronkite: 18:30 on WTIC, 19:00 on WCBS. Perhaps the earlier news is used as a “dress rehearsal” – I’m suspect this happens on the BBC News channel to this day.

Interestingly, the three networks pitch their national news head-to-head with their rivals: all of them run their news at 19:00. Prestige matters, even in a sales-driven market like the USA.

Digressing for a moment, I was able to sit in and watch several local television news programmes being put together as I travelled around the USA after my summer camp job in 1971. Sometimes the local news followed the national news. Where that happened, seemingly there was a complete disregard for hitting the next programme start at the correct time. If the local news overran, no problem: the guy on the presentation desk would simply show a caption and run the pre-recorded voice-over announcement: “And now we join our next program, which is already in progress…” Mix to whatever was on the network feed; job done. Clunky though. It would never happen on British television, surely?

Then a game show, and it’s on to the real prime time. Woe betide any station that deviates from their network offering now – this is where the “big guns” are rolled out. CBS offers Carol Burnett (variety), Medical Centre (university campus medical drama) and Cannon (detective drama). NBC counters with Adam-12 (police drama), then a 90-minute Banacek (actually billed as crime drama, in case there was any doubt) and Search (billed as adventure); and ABC fields Jacques Cousteau (nature), Burt Bacharach (music) and Alan King (comedy). The scheduling offers a mixed bag for the viewer who chooses to stay on one channel, while the discerning viewer is given genuine choice across the networks.

The late evening news is really late – no News At Ten for American audiences! But at 23:00, it’s really a half-hearted effort: just local news on the affiliates.

Then American television comes back into its own – with the late night talk show. Ninety minutes of Johnny Carson on NBC, and ninety minutes of Dick Cavett on ABC, pitched head-to-head. It’s a masterstroke of scheduling, extending an appreciable viewing audience through to 01:00 – and the late night shows were often a talking point in the office or on the factory floor the following day.

Intermittently since 1968, Dick Cavett hosted his own talk show, in various formats and on various television and radio networks for forty years: according to Wikipedia, ABC (1968–1974); CBS (1975); PBS (1977–1982); USA Network (1985–1986); ABC (1986–1987); CNBC (1989–1996); Olympia Broadcasting (syndicated radio show, 1985–1989), and Turner Classic Movies (2006–2007).

As a talk show host, Cavett has been noted for his ability to listen to his guests and engage them in intellectual conversation. Clive James described Cavett “as a true sophisticate with a daunting intellectual range” and “the most distinguished talk-show host in America.”

Jack Gould reviewed The Dick Cavett Show some years later in the New York Times: “It was an enchanting show… and the badinage was warm and delightful… a fun night, and to take out of context a line or here or there could not convey the whole. To go to bed with a chuckle provided by gifted and nice people, onstage as off, is review enough.”

NBC’s Tonight was the late-night counterpart to its early-morning show Today. Johnny Carson became the host of Tonight in 1962. While Tonight, under its previous hosts had been successful, Carson’s version eventually did very well in the ratings.

Billy Wilder said of Carson: “By the simple law of survival, Carson is the best. He enchants the invalids and the insomniacs as well as the people who have to get up at dawn. He is the Valium and the Nembutal of a nation. No matter what kind of dead-asses are on the show, he has to make them funny and exciting. He has to be their nurse and their surgeon. He has no conceit. He does his work and he comes prepared. If he’s talking to an author, he has read the book. Even his rehearsed routines sound improvised. He’s the cream of middle-class elegance, yet he’s not a mannequin. He has captivated the American bourgeoisie without ever offending the highbrows, and he has never said anything that wasn’t liberal or progressive. Every night, in front of millions of people, he has to do the salto mortale [a circus parlance for an aerial somersault performed on the tightrope]. What’s more, he does it without a net. No rewrites. No retakes. The jokes must work tonight.”

And so the stations, one by one, sign off for the night, or rather early morning. No 24-hour television on the networks, not yet, not even in “the city that never sleeps” – which was not just a marketing slogan. I remember, in the 1970s, standing in Herald Square, just up the road from the more famous Times Square. At 1am. Soaking up the energy and vibrancy of life in the Big Apple on a balmy, humid night.

The United States then was an exciting, inspirational country, and no more so than in New York City. But in the same way that you grieve for a favourite uncle who suddenly goes off the rails and starts behaving badly, so I stand perplexed and saddened by the America I see today. A television listings guide from the 1970s reminds me of a different USA – yes, there was Vietnam; yes, there was Watergate, and yes, there was appalling racism. But for all that, they were halcyon days, and I doubt that we will return to such an era, not in my lifetime.

You Say

6 responses to this article

Robert Michael Fearn 15 November 2017 at 5:05 pm

#1: When *did* American TV first go 24-hour btw?
#2: I don’t see any mention of any sign-offs, do you?!

Alan Keeling 15 November 2017 at 8:29 pm

If you like vintage TV, there’s plenty of it, both in monochrome & colour, such as the first series of The Avengers with Diana Rigg, I Love Lucy reruns keep on going as does The Munsters & The Andy Griffith Show + Johnny Ringo & Have Gun Will Travel if you like western series. For mystery fans there’s Thriller & Alfred Hitchcock presents, while we can still go forth to The Outer Limits.

Alan Keeling 15 November 2017 at 8:32 pm

Regarding sign-offs, from what I can see, it seems that most stations are 24/7, test patterns were fastly becoming a thing of the past.

David Heathcote 15 November 2017 at 8:46 pm

This sign-off – https://youtu.be/Cnchea6LHN0 – appears to have come from KABC on the West Coast, some time in the mid-1980s.

A comment beneath it suggests the following script as typical: “The time is now 11:00 Eastern Standard Time. This concludes our broadcast day. The transmitters at WXYI are located 2111 Cold Springs Drive, Ann Arbor, Michigan. In accordance with the FCC, our broadcast schedule is available to the public. Join us tomorrow at 6:00am Eastern Standard Time when we resume our standard broadcast day. And now, our national anthem.”

Clearly, the good people of Ann Arbor did not stay up late at night watching television!

Mark Jeffries 15 November 2017 at 9:07 pm

The move to 24 hours began in the 80s with cable channels and was supported by the commercial networks doing all-night rolling news services but didn’t become widespread until the 90s.

As for signoffs, basically if you noticed that there was no programme scheduled after the running time of the previous one (TV Guide only listed running times for programmes an hour or longer), you can assume a signoff, which was usually preceded by an epilogue or station editorial and was just an announcer reading the required script over a slide with the station’s logo–no in-vision continuity, no clocks. Then “The Star-Spangled Banner” in most cases and white noise (no “please unplug your sets” in the U.S.). It looks as though WNEW operated 24 hours and WCBS came very close (with a full-blown closedown around 6 a.m. followed 15 to 20 minutes later by a full-blown startup).

For comparison, here’s what primary PBS station WNET was offering this evening: Following “The 51st State”‘s first run at 2030 was “How Do Your Children Grow?,” a parenting discussion presented by psychologist Eda LaShan which I believe was a WGBH production, followed at 2100 by “Soul!,” WNET’s production for the network of an African-American magazine series, offering an hour of mostly Latin jazz in this episode from Tito Puente and Willie Colon, along with poet Felipe Luciano (this series was controversial in southern markets for obvious reasons). At 2200 was “A Public Affair: Election ’72,” a magazine on the election campaign produced by the short-lived (thanks to Nixon pulling funding) National Public Affairs Center for Television from WETA in Washington, presented by former NBC reporters Sander Vanocur and Robert MacNeil (the latter who would become co-presenter of PBS’ nightly news bulletin in the 80s) and criticized by some as too middle-of-the-road and bland. Wrapping up WNET’s evening at 2230 was “Playhouse New York,” a new title for the long-running “NET Playhouse” (referring to PBS’ predecessor), this week presenting the BBC production of “Home” with John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. Noteworthy programmes on the other PBS channels included “International Performance,” a series of European cultural programmes that was one of many 70s series underwritten by oil companies wanting to spruce up their PR image after Mobil’s success with “Masterpiece Theatre” (and leading wags to call PBS “the Petroleum Broadcasting System”), and “The Advocates,” a debate series with attorneys cross-examining witnesses for the topics of discussion that was one of the first nationally networked public TV programmes, originally screening on Sunday nights with the American premiere of “The Forsyte Saga.”

Victor Field 16 November 2017 at 4:40 am

I do find it interesting that American daytime soaps have never really caught on in the UK (as opposed to the nightime variety, to the extent of the BBC greedily taking “Dallas” AND “Dynasty”). Thanks to having family in Canada I remember seeing an edition of “TV Guide” covering the Vancouver area – bringing in what we’d call “regional variations” since they also picked up US channels alongside CBC, CTV et al.

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