For anyone with a memory or a mind, the present informational landscape where there are hundreds of cable and streaming channels, and thousands of news and culture related websites and blogs, the phrase “mainstream media” has to seem pretty hilarious. There is no single audience all pointed in the same direction nowadays. There is no single voice speaking to the public, putting out a unified message. The concept that there is such a thing, which is propagated so vigorously by the Far Right and the present Presidential administration reveals a sensibility that is not rooted in present reality, but in a long ago past, a time before cable, the internet, talk radio, and, frankly, Fox News. The concept seems to me to be devised by, of, and for, old dudes, from that long ago era when there were but three tv networks (plus PBS) along with the print media, which was more diverse and numerous than today’s print media, but vastly more limited than the thousands of constantly updated options available today on the internet. I remember that time. And it is largely because I do that I scoff at the claims of the alt-right and the Trump administration that there is anything like a “MSM” in the world today. Today I will do something that may surprise you. I am going to bash the Main Stream Media — of the late 1970s.
There have been monopolies and cartels in certain industries in America’s past. And America’s Two-Party political system can be said to be a sort of duopoly (although that seems likely to change in the not-too-distant future). Well, the first three decades of American television history were a sort of triopoly, a broadcast landscape cut up three ways by CBS, NBC and ABC. And it was toward the end of that period when it was at its maximum worst. By that stage, it had grown complacent and arrogant. The networks took their audiences for granted. Where else could anyone go for entertainment and information? Nowhere. There was no incentive for television to be smart or innovative or take risks. So it just got dumber and dumber and dumber. The new bottom became shows like Charlie’s Angels, The Love Boat, and Fantasy Island. A term was coined for the genre of shows that had sexy young women at their center: Jiggle TV.
But at the same time, there was a counter-trend. Certain television creators did want to tap the power of the medium to do work they deemed virtuous. This movement shared a quality with the lowest common denominator stuff: a kind of arrogance. An attitude of “Take what we’re dishing out and like it.” I am talking about the historical moment when situation comedy became situation sanctimony, when the top-rated sit coms collectively began to cede their mission of producing laughter to a new mission of instructing their audience in better ways to behave. But not by using the time honored medicine of satire — but rather by overtly, directly, bluntly preaching directly to the audience about such issues as addiction, rape, the environment, etc etc etc.
The transition happened in two phases. The first phase was brutal, callous and painful for many in the industry and much of the audience as well, although it did achieve many positive outcomes in the short term. It happened at CBS. The revolution was intentional and impossible to miss, with ramifications so huge that the moment now has a name: “The Rural Purge.” The change is attributed to a CBS executive named Robert Wood, who circa 1970 decided that though much of CBS’s traditional programming was extremely popular with audiences, the demographics (older, more rural) were undesirable because advertisers didn’t like them. Despite the fact that the shows were all profitable! Advertisers preferred to target younger, more urban audiences. The shows weren’t all rural themed, although many of them were. Others just skewed to the tastes of older folks, or more conservatives ones. Among the casualties were plenty of old vaudevillians. The shows that got the ax included: The Ed Sullivan Show, The Red Skelton Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, The Original Amateur Hour (the same show that had earlier been hosted by Major Bowes and Ted Mack), Here’s Lucy, The Doris Day Show, The Dean Martin Show, The Jim Nabors Hour, Hee Haw (it went into syndication), The Lawrence Welk Show (also went into syndication), Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, Mayberry R.F.D., Lassie, Family Affair and Hogan’s Heroes.
Now, what makes this moment complicated is that the new shows that replaced the cancelled ones were often not just terrific, but some of the best tv shows of all time. They included M*A*S*H, All in the Family (and its spinoffs Maude, Good Times and The Jeffersons), The Mary Tyler Moore Show (and its spinoffs Rhoda and Phyllis), The Bob Newhart Show, and The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour.
This all happened within the span of a couple of years (roughly 1970-73). No wonder certain people felt, rightly or wrongly, that their culture was being stolen from them. Can you imagine ALL your favorite television shows suddenly disappearing all at once and being replaced by shows designed to appeal to someone else? Would you be irate? My screams would raise the roof!
What was especially unfortunate (rather insidious really) about this moment was that the broadcast model of television distribution created a situation of artificial scarcity. It was not a proper competitive environment like we enjoy today. It truly was monopolistic, even if the snake did have three heads. Only a few huge corporations could afford the infrastructure for these national networks. Airspace was limited. Thus to make room for the new, the old had to be cast aside. As I happen to love all those new shows CBS introduced, I am glad they were brought into being. But how much better it would have been if the older shows could have been retained at the same time, because I also love those. TV variety, heir to vaudeville, was effectively killed dead by this historical moment, and that’s to be regretted.
At any rate, this first phase is not really the one I’m talking about, although it did create the conditions for the second phase. This first phase can be called revolutionary, and there were positive aspects to the revolution. Television was now freer, more topical, more contemporary, more pointed, more responsive, more in tune with changes in the culture. ABC and NBC made their own similar changes to reflect the moment. With Saturday Night Live, which premiered in 1975, NBC even leapfrogged over CBS in innovation.
But during the second half of the decade things changed. I have a good sense of when all the good shows started going wrong, but have had a harder time on figuring out why they did. As near as I can tell in most cases, the stars of the shows became too big for their britches. They won awards, they were on the covers of all the magazines, they got huge salary increases, and then they started getting creative control over their shows. I’m still somewhat at a loss as to why the actors’ mass madness took the same form all across the board, this humorless didacticism, the need to be “dramatic.” But it could be simply that there is a very funny elephant in the room. Because when I find myself asking the question, “Is it possible that actors are egotistical? Self-indulgent? Consumed with self-importance? Megalomaniacs?” Well, there’s your answer. Those qualifiers practically form part of the textbook definition of the word “actor”. They want to be taken seriously. And so, across the board, most of the stars of these shows started either transforming their characters into Christ-like saviors, or turning their programs into pulpits.
Also perhaps to a certain extent these new situation comedies attracted a different kind of star. The new breed were not the Buddy Ebsen/Lucille Ball/Jackie Gleason/Red Skelton type vaudeville clowns. Most of the new stars were college educated, had gone to drama school, been in improv and other theatre and sketch troupes, and appeared in lots of legit theatre. They didn’t just know who Shaw and Ibsen were, they had performed in such serious drama. They scorned old school comedy as “corny”; they were much more concerned with what they called “truth”. I remember reading interviews with Alan Alda in which he complained about episodes from the first season of M*A*S*H that had more farcical plots (e.g. “Tuttle” or the one where Frank Burns gets gold fever.) Fans happen to love these episodes; Alda however tends to favor dramatic episodes from the later years, but we’ll return to that.
When is the shift? It all happens gradually, but there are certain bellwether moments. It isn’t all heinous, at least not at first.
For example, in 1971 Marlo Thomas ended her five year ABC series That Girl with a women’s lib movement episode, and followed that up in 1972 with the seminal women’s-empowerment-for-kids special Free to Be You and Me. From this juncture her activism began to supersede her acting career. In 1980 she married groundbreaking talk show host Phil Donahue, and they became a sort of super-liberal power couple
The issues-oriented television movie started to become a kind of outlet for some tv sit-com actors who wanted to showcase their acting chops and send an important message. In 1971 Sally Field (Gidget, The Flying Nun) played a teenage runaway in Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring. Elizabeth Montgomery (Bewitched) played a rape victim in A Case of Rape (1974). Dick Van Dyke played an alcoholic in The Morning After (1974). Eve Plumb (The Brady Bunch) starred in 1976’s Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway and its 1977 sequel, Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn. Carol Burnett would later star in many of these sorts of movies, as would Mary Tyler Moore. In all of these cases, these were career moves as much as anything, high profile demonstrations of the actor’s abilities to tackle drama after long associations with light comedy. But they all seemed to send a message that comedy was less valid. The real summit for an actor, they seemed to be saying, was melodrama.
These tv movies-of-the-week were all cases where comic actors tried to enhance their reputations after leaving their popular comedy shows. But there are also cases where the sit-com actor decided to transform his sit-com in situ, while the hit show was still running.
A principal case in point was Carol O’Connor, star of All in the Family (1971-1979) and its successor Archie Bunker’s Place (1979-1983). As originally conceived and created by its producers Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin, All in the Family was an explosively hilarious powder keg of a show, unleashed when divisions over the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, and President Nixon were tearing the country in two. O’Connor’s character Archie Bunker was a Queens bigot who said and did the most appalling things as a matter of course, and much shocking humor was derived from his slurs and from the cruel, thoughtless way he treated his brow-beaten wife Edith (Jean Stapleton) and his Polish-American son-in-law Mike (Rob Reiner). Towards his daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) he was more loving and indulgent, but he also infantilized her and belittled her feminism. The show was a smash hit, and won many Emmys. In the fifth season, O’Connor and the producers had a contract dispute. Starting around season six (1975-76), the show starts to change. Archie become more human. Family things happen. A baby gets born. Edith gets raped! Edith dies of a stroke! That’s not what anyone signed on for! Archie softens and makes grudging friendships with Jews and African Americans! That’s not the point of the character! The point of the show was to comically dramatize the roiling generational conflict going on in the country, not tell heart warming stories about the ups and downs of a family from Queens! That’s another show! Learn and grow somewhere else! Not on a show where a man calls his wife a dingbat and makes her run for beer! You saw O’Connor’s hands all over the thing. He felt a need to soften the edges off his character so you wouldn’t hate him so much. A liberal actor, he didn’t like being identified with an irredeemable bigot, so he gave him little liberal epiphanies and revelations and moments of growth and enlightenment. But the entire comic point of the show was hating Archie. It became unwatchably unfunny very rapidly when the dynamic changed. Watch episodes: the studio audience is laughing uproariously in the first several seasons; after the changes in format, the assistance of an unconvincing laugh track is required. I don’t care if the show lasted until 1983. I don’t know know a single soul who was watching it in the “Li’l Joey” years or after.
M*A*S*H turned sour as well (get it? sour? mash?) , although much more abruptly than All in the Family. The left turn happens in season six (1977) after original producer/creators Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbert left the show, creating a vacuum that was largely filled by the series’ star Alan Alda, who now wrote and directed many of the episodes and served as executive producer. On top of this, there were cast changes. The most significant was the loss of Larry Linville, who as Frank Burns, was the show’s primary comic engine, and lightning rod for plot conflict. That, in and of itself, largely killed the show. This was on the top of two major departures the previous season: McLean Stevenson and Wayne Rogers, both of whom chafed at having to play second fiddle to Alda who had emerged from the ensemble as the show’s star. As in All in the Family, all of the edges were softened, and there was no longer a comic villain. Harry Morgan and David Ogden Stiers did excellent work as the show’s new cast members, although Stiers’ character, while often hate-able was not a fruitful source of conflict in the plots as Linville had been. Mike Farrell, Rogers’ replacement, also undercut the show’s edge by being nice and clean-cut and unassuming, Where, tell me, is the comedy in that? Likewise, all of the edges were filed off the show’s other traditional villain, Hot Lips Houlihan (Loretta Switt), who ceases to be mean, and eventually becomes friends with all other characters. Meanwhile, the show became all Holier-Than-Thou about the things had originally kept it going. I’ll never forget the anti-alcohol episode: “I’ll take a drink when I want one,” intones the former martini-swiller Hawkeye, “Not when I need one.” Similarly Alda, an epic womanizer onscreen as Hawkeye, was one of the country’s most vocal feminist activists offscreen, and the show began to reflect that sensibility, despite the fact that it was set in the early 1950s. Hawkeye and his fellow doctors cease to be ordinary sinners who are just trying to get through their ordeal so they can go home to their normal lives. They become crusading knights in shining armor, and “the best surgeon I’ve ever seen.” Angry Generals frequently come to the base prepared to crack down on the anarchy, but invariably walk away converted as though they had kissed the hem of Jesus. The doctors go from being anti-heroes to heroes. Heroes aren’t funny.
Meanwhile, after The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended in 1977, one of its main characters, Lou Grant (Ed Asner) got his own series. And on Lou Grant (1977-1982), the producers decided what the hell, let’s not even pretend it’s a sit com any more. They made it a dramatic series, about the trials and tribulations of a big city newspaper editor as he and his paper tackle the world’s problems, be it nukes, the death penalty, prostitution, and what have you. The Mary Tyler Moore Show had managed to keep from getting too ponderous. The most memorable serious episode had Mary facing jail time for not revealing a news source. But here and in later shows they wisely kept it light. Lou Grant was a comic character, gruff and cutting. His nastiness was a source of humor. “I hate spunk” he famously said in the show’s first episode. But on Lou Grant, he’s noble. He represents all editors in their pure mission to get to the truth to the people, with a different hot button issue every week. The Odd Couple’s Jack Klugman had made a similar jump the year before, eschewing comedy for the dramatic milieu of Quincy, M.E. (1976-1983), a coroner who somehow not only managed to solve crimes, but also confronted major social ills plaguing the nation. Both Quincy and Lou Grant were always taking on polluters, crooked politicians, various exploiters of one sort or another. A far cry from Lou Grant yelling at Ted Baxter for screwing up his pronunciation. Offscreen, Asner was and is an outspoken political activist. He served as President of the Screen Actors Guild from 1981 through 1985. He has always contended that the cancellation of Lou Grant was due to his political views (he was highly antagonist towards the Reagan administration).
As the ’80s rolled on, the country experienced a sea change. It’s not that significant numbers had ceased to be sympathetic to liberal causes. But rather, one imagines, that they were tired of self-righteous melodrama masquerading as entertainment in the time slots where their comedy used to be. It’s a question of proportion. There is a perfect analogy in the career of John Lennon. Imagine (1971) may be his greatest album. Sometime in New York City (1972) is unlistenable. You’re only effective if people are drawn to you and you can hold them. But these performing artists had got rid of the spoonful of sugar and were now only offering spoons full of medicine.
You’re misconstruing me if you think the intended takeaway is “do away with liberal messages” or “any messages” for that matter. I am all in favor of moral instruction being embedded in a script. Constituting the entirety of the script is another matter. And I hasten to point out that I loved (and love) all of these actors. I didn’t just love them; but studied them. But only from the early seasons of these shows. In the late ’70s something turned, an unpalatable self-righteousness and a loss of faith in the efficacy of comedy as a efficacious tool was abroad.
Interestingly, all this was happening by the way just as much other tv was reaching new heights (or depths) of triviality: escapism (The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, Fantasy Island); nostalgia (Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley); farce (Three’s Company); and sex (Charlie’s Angels, The Love Boat). Were our preaching thespians offering us a laudable corrective away from junk? Not if we didn’t watch their message-laden shows, as I didn’t after a point. I’d much rather watch entertaining crap and navigate the moral shoals of life on my own than to be spoonfed homilies. Anyway, for a while there in the late ’70s, those were your choices: mindless crap or some some shrill, screeching civics lesson by smug actors.
By the mid ’80s millions of Americans had acquired cable tv and were no longer dependent on a mere three choices. They now had, as Springsteen sang: “57 Channels (and Nothing On)”. By the time of the advent of Fox in the 1990s it became possible to spend your entire life in a conservative bubble. But the myth of liberal hegemony in the media lingers. I think a major factor in that shibboleth, at least among people in their ’50s and older, is a memory of that time when the biggest stars were all trying to pour castor oil down our throats.