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Follow-up: Nielsen’s Top 20 for full 1962-63 season

In response to the Feb. 17 post on the superiority of broadcast network television 40 years ago, and perhaps even 50, reader Steve commented on Nielsen’s Top 10 for the two-week period ended Feb. 10, 1963:

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“The 1963 list is a little tougher to defend, despite the beloved ‘Andy Griffith Show‘ and iconic ‘Gunsmoke.’ But ‘Ben Casey‘ was no ‘House’ and ‘The Beverly Hillbillies,’ well, they were not Lucy or Dick [Van Dyke]. But move a few years forward, to 1967 or 1968, and you can see where we did enter the true Golden Age.”

I replied that the ’63 list doesn’t reflect the depth of a Top 20 grouping, as I had for the snapshots of 1973 and 2013. Combing through the online archives of Variety and the New York Times, I could not find a Top 20 list for the early February period.

I do, however, have a list of the full-season Top 20 for the 1962-63 season, which I assumed would set up a stronger case:

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Of course, the most popular shows of a given season don’t always reflect the best programs on the air at the time. I think that’s somewhat true of the 1962-63 season, though there was plenty to like. The standouts among this group for me would be “Gunsmoke,” “Bonanza,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Ben Casey,” with nods of respect to “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Jackie Gleason Show.”

Gunsmoke

This was Season 8 for “Gunsmoke,” and its second as a one-hour show. Though the 38 black-and-white episodes of that year have yet to come out on DVD (CBS Home Entertainment has announced a street date of May 7), I have seen most of them thanks to Encore Westerns.

Memorable 1962-63 segments include “Collie’s Free,” a tale about a man (Jason Evers) who emerges from a 10-year jail sentence determined to kill Matt Dillon; “Abe Blocker,” featuring a surprisingly effective Chill Wills as a psychotic mountain man on a murderous rampage; and “The Renegades,” one of several showcases that year for new regular Burt Reynolds as blacksmith Quint Asper. “Gunsmoke” effectively used the half-Native American Asper character to explore the theme of bigotry several times. Here, a woman (Audrey Dalton) with dubious ideas about Indians ends up needing Quint’s help when a stagecoach is ambushed.

This era of “Gunsmoke” has been overlooked because for so many years only the color episodes, from 1966-1975, were seen in syndication. Many aficionados believe the first six seasons, half-hour shows later syndicated under the title “Marshal Dillon,” are the best, and that the hour-long shows could be too slow and padded. I would say that this criticism is more true of the years after about 1967, when it did seem to coast to some degree before a stunning final year (Season 20).

During the transitional period of 1961-66, I thought “Gunsmoke” was still very effective at suggesting the constant threat of menace and violence without lingering too long on one aspect of a character or plot.

“Bonanza,” in its fourth season, had really hit its stride. In some ways I think this is an underrated show, for reasons DVD Talk critic Paul Mavis makes clear in his reviews of the first, second and fourth seasons on disc. See his Season 4 reviews here and here.

“It ran that long [1959-1973] for a reason: it was one of the best drama anthologies of the 1960s,” Mavis wrote.

In Season 2 of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” a very good show became great, as creator and producer Carl Reiner, frequent director John Rich and the ensemble cast fully understood what they had and how to best exploit it. In “Bank Book 6565696,” Rob Petrie gets upset when he discovers that Laura has her own bank account.

This is a case where the easygoing Van Dyke persona lends this episode a light touch it might not have had on a show with a blustery lead, like Danny Thomas’ Danny Williams character, or Ralph Kramden.

In “Ray Murdock’s X-Ray,” Reiner’s script  skewers the kind of confrontational talk show pioneered by Mike Wallace, while exploring more shades of the Petrie marriage. When Rob appears on the show, hosted by the provocative Ray Murdock (Gene Lyons, Commissioner Randall from “Ironside”), he ends up making Laura look like a dizzy housewife.

Though it’s been a while since I’ve seen them, I have seen quite a few “Ben Casey” episodes, mostly through trades I made with other collectors during the VHS era. In some ways I think the surly Dr. Casey (Vince Edwards) is a proto-Gregory House, minus the leg infarction, drug addiction, racism, etc. He’s often rude to patients (though always in their best interest), and can be impatient with colleagues. Casey must have stood out as one of the edgiest characters of the early to mid ’60s.

Certainly there were guest stars who chewed up the scenery, but that just made it more satisfying when Casey would tell them off.

Like so many classic TV fans, I wish I could see “The Defenders,” Reginald Rose’s highly acclaimed study of father and son attorneys (E.G. Marshall and the pre-”Brady Bunch” Robert Reed). The A.V. Club’s Todd VanDerWerff wrote this excellent piece on the show and why it has disappeared from public view.

One thing that strikes me about slots 11-20 on Nielsen’s ’62-’63 list is all the panel shows — “What’s My Line?”, “I’ve Got A Secret” and “To Tell The Truth.” All fondly remembered, to be sure, but hard to contextualize if you’re trying to determine what made the season great. Words like “mild” and “genteel” come to mind, thinking about the tone of these programs, a planet removed from “The Biggest Loser,” “Survivor” and any other “reality” shows of the 21st century.

Good shows that didn’t make it into the top 20 for the year included ABC’s “Combat,” “Naked City” (in its final season) and “The Donna Reed Show,”; NBC’s “The Virginian”; and, on CBS, “The Twilight Zone” (in its one-hour form), “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” “Perry Mason,” “Have Gun, Will Travel” (in its last year) and “Dobie Gillis.”

As is clear from the list, CBS won the season handily, topping the weekly ratings for a record 46 straight weeks. In the midst of this dominance, a frustrated NBC decided in February ’63 to combat CBS’ powerhouse Monday night lineup (“The Lucy Show,” “Andy Griffith,” “Danny Thomas”) with a second theatrical film series, “NBC Monday Night At The Movies.” (The network had introduced the concept with “Saturday Night At The Movies” in 1961.)

The blog Television Obscurities has an an illuminating look at Season 1 of “Monday Night At The Movies,” which featured, as the New York Times put it, “relatively new” films from 20th Century-Fox and MGM released between 1955 and 1960, beginning with 1957′s “The Enemy Below.”

Overall, I would say that the 1962-63 season was not as strong as perhaps the next two or three seasons that followed, a theme I’ll return to in later posts. Still, it was very good. I would prefer more of the shows among its 20 highest-rated to those on the broadcast networks in 2013.

But then, that’s why I’m doing a blog like this.

– David B. Wilkerson

Credit must go, once again, to “The TV Schedule Book: Four Decades of Network Programming From Sign-On to Sign-Off,” by Harry Castleman and Walter J. Podrazik, McGraw-Hill, 1984. 309 pp.

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