Network television covers the March on Washington – Aug. 28, 1963 (Part II) (UPDATED)

(UPDATE: This post now includes the beginning of CBS News’ continuous coverage of the march, starting at 1:30 p.m. Eastern time  on that Aug. 28, as well as the very end, at about 4:30 p.m.)

Reveal Shot presents Part II of its look at Big Three network coverage of the March On Washington, 50 years ago next Wednesday. In this installment, two of the most fascinating broadcast elements that survive — the start of CBS’ continuous coverage of the march at 1:30 Eastern time, and the first half-hour of NBC’s 4:30 summary of the day’s events.

Read Part I here.

The Aug. 25, 1963 telecast of  NBC’s “Meet The Press” made plain the conventional fears many white Americans had about the March On Washington For Jobs and Freedom, coming up in three days. NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were the guests that Sunday evening, and “Meet The Press” co-creator Lawrence Spivak began the questioning.


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Two things strike me about this excerpt from the beginning of the program.

1) Spivak’s reference to “10,000 militant negroes” and whether or not they could come together without rioting. Aside from the low estimate of a crowd that ended up exceeding 250,000, the notion that the entire contingent would be militant, and that it might be incapable of civilized behavior, is one that would be just as likely to be brought up today, especially on outlets like Fox News.

2) Wilkins, who is clearly aggravated by Spivak’s repeated questions about the “great risks” the march’s organizers are taking, makes it clear that he’s bemused by the turnout estimate, saying he doesn’t know if it’ll be “110,000, 145,000 or 190,000.” I’m sure he knew the number would be closer to the actual total.

The entire program,which was re-aired on many NBC stations on Sunday, is worth seeing, even if only to see how these distinguished black leaders control their anger when reporters question the wisdom of the march and the entire direction of The Movement. King is asked about the Communist ties of Bayard Rustin, deputy director of the March, forcing him into the uncomfortable position of  either having to speculate about Rustin’s affiliations or deflecting the question by pointing out its irrelevance. NBC News reporter Robert MacNeil, later the co-founder of the “MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour,”  irritates Wilkins by pressing him on the possibility of violence, as does Spivak when his turn comes up again. King is asked, inevitably, if it isn’t a better idea to proceed more slowly in the pursuit of civil rights for African Americans. 1

CBS, NBC and ABC present a special report: The March On Washington

The networks readied themselves for the events of Aug. 28, as the march, originally planned as a demand for better jobs and economic opportunity for African Americans, had evolved into a demonstration in support of the civil rights bill President Kennedy had proposed in June, legislation that ultimately became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Variety described it as, “logistically … a Cape Canaveral moon shot, an Inauguration Day and an Election Night bundled into one and topped off by a total measure of unpredictability.” 2

Read More


The original Ironside (Part VII): Cy Chermak remembers (conclusion)

Cy Chermak.

Reveal Shot presents the conclusion of a multi-part interview with Cy Chermak, the executive producer of “Ironside” from 1968-1974. Here, he discusses his final years with the series, and offers his views on the upcoming NBC remake starring Blair Underwood, debuting Oct. 2.

Read the first installment here.
Read the second installment here.
Read the third installment here.

Ironside” sailed through Season 3 (1969-70) as the No. 15-ranked show of the year according to the Nielsen ratings, finally topping time-period nemesis “Bewitched,” before jumping all the way to No. 4 in its fourth season (1970-71), with a 25.7 rating and 39 share, bolstered by its new lead-in, “The Flip Wilson Show,” the second-most watched program on the air (trailing only ABC’s “Marcus Welby, M.D.“)

Barbara Anderson decided to leave the show after Season 4. In Season 5 (1971-72), NBC moved “Ironside” to Tuesday nights at 7:30 p.m. Eastern against ABC’s “The Mod Squad” and “The Glen Campbell Show” on CBS. In “Ironside’s” fifth new episode, “The Gambling Game,” which aired Oct. 5,  Elizabeth Baur was introduced  as Officer Fran Belding, who helped Ironside’s team to nail the gamblers who murdered her father — a cop accused of having worked with the gang. Baur would remain with the series for its remaining three seasons.

The main cast of “Ironside” from Seasons 5-8 (clockwise from left): Don Galloway, Raymond Burr, Don Mitchell, Elizabeth Baur.

Chermak recalls:  I loved Elizabeth, but Ironside used to beat her up a little on the screen. I finally had to take her aside and coach her on how she should react to his sarcasm and intimidation. I did it in two sentences. What I said remains between the two of us. You might ask her. 3

During this period, Chermak was also the executive producer of “The New Doctors” segment of “The Bold Ones,” starring E.G. Marshall, John Saxon and David Hartman. To begin Season 6 of “Ironside,” he produced a two-part crossover episode called “Five Days In the Death of Sergeant Brown.” In Part 1 (aired Sept. 14, 1972), Ed Brown (Don Galloway) is shot in the back by a sniper, naturally triggering painful memories and special concerns for Ironside. Part 2 aired Sept. 19 as a “Bold Ones” episode, with the doctors debating the merits of a dangerous operation that could either save or kill Ed. (For some reason, although Hulu generally only makes the first three seasons of “Ironside” available, it offers both parts of “Five Days In the Death Of Sergeant Brown” — but it calls them “Ironside Pilot, Parts 1 and 2.” Since Seasons 5-8 are not available on DVD in North America (at least as Region 1 releases), it’s a nice, if odd, video opportunity for fans of the show, at least until someone at Hulu realizes the error.)4

Chermak’s schedule became even more hectic when he took on the development of a third show, “Amy Prentiss,” a spin-off from “Ironside” created by his wife, Francine Carroll, who had written scripts for a number of shows including “Ironside.”

The unsold two-hour pilot, “Amy Prentiss, AKA The Chief,” from a story by Carroll and teleplay writers William Gordon and James Doherty, aired during “Ironside’s” seventh season, on May 23, 1974. Jessica Walter guest starred as Prentiss, a police investigator who becomes chief of detectives in the San Francisco police department by having the highest score on a test. Boris Sagal directed. The episode got a very positive review in Variety, which said Walter was “ideally cast,” and that the script provided a “fine showcase” for her talents. It also generated a solid 22.3 rating and 39 share, encouraging NBC to add it to the “NBC Mystery Movie” wheel for the 1974-75 season.

Season 7 would be Chermak’s last on “Ironside.” 5

He recalls: By then Raymond and I had pretty much burned out our relationship, and Frank [Price, head of Universal Television] had a wildfire burning on another stage by the name of “Kolchak, The Night Stalker.” The turmoil on that show has been pretty well documented.6

Joel Rogosin returned to the series as executive producer for the eighth and final season (1974-75).

I had forgotten this when I asked Chermak for his reaction when the show was canceled, abruptly, by NBC in November 1974. The last episode aired on Jan. 16, 1975. Three additional episodes were completed but did not air until the show entered syndication.

Chermak: I was off the show at the time, and this is the first I heard that there were three unaired episodes. I wouldn’t have known because I never saw even one of the episodes [in that final season]. All I ever heard about them was that they didn’t have “my touch.” Which gives me an opportunity to allow my narcissism and egotism to get in a little pitch. On several occasions in my career, I had such a well-oiled machinery going that some untrained executives thought the man at the top didn’t matter. They thought if the machinery is that well-oiled, and running that smoothly, that anyone could do it. Especially someone who thought they knew me well. Surprise!

Reveal Shot: What are your thoughts on the upcoming remake of “Ironside?”
Chermak: I have no problems with them re-making the show, or the star [Blair Underwood]. Based on what I have seen recently, I think it will be more of a shoot-em-up than a cerebral family hour. Remember that the role has [essentially] been played at least once in a feature with Denzel [Washington, who played quadriplegic police forensics expert Lincoln Rhyme in Universal’s “The Bone Collector” in 1999] . Now it will be coming back to TV.

I will leave you with the story that Borden Chase’s son Frank used to love to tell.

Borden’s fame came as the writer of “Red River,” and he freely acknowledged that it was a rip-off of “Mutiny On The Bounty.” The fun started when some people tried to rip-off “Red River” and to get as far away from the cattle drive as possible they set the scene at sea! Then, even though the people doing the second generation rip-off were copying “Red River,” they were sued by the people who controlled “Mutiny on The Bounty.”

 — David B. Wilkerson   

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The original Ironside (Part VI): Cy Chermak remembers

Cy Chermak

Presenting the third installment of a Reveal Shot exclusive: an interview with former “Ironside” Executive Producer Cy Chermak. Through e-mail correspondence, Chermak offered his fascinating recollections of working on the show, and the ups and downs of being a television producer during the 1960s and ’70s.

Read the first part of the interview here.
See the second installment here.

Other outstanding Season 2 episodes included:
An Obvious Case of Guilt,” (aired Nov. 14, 1968) by Brad Radnitz and directed by Abner Biberman, in which Anne Baxter plays one of Ironside’s old flames, who is accused of killing her husband. Throughout most of the episode, Ironside uses his powers of deduction to find reasons to exonerate her, while Ed, Eve, Mark, and the D.A. (Warren Stevens) insist that she’s guilty, and that she’s using Ironside as a shield. Radnitz throws us a curve at the finale, which has fascinating dialogue.

Puzzlelock,” (aired March 13, 1969) by B.W. Sandefur and directed by Allen Reisner, Simon Oakland plays a former cop who kills his wife and creates an alibi so foolproof that Ironside, who knows he did it, cannot prove his guilt. By all appearances, Oakland was having dinner with Ironside at the time of the murder. Ironside must use any means — fair or foul — to trap him.

“Reprise,” (aired Nov. 21, 1968), by Albert Aley and directed by Don McDougall.  Eve is shot, and everyone reminisces about their early encounters with her. It’s a nice reference to what Eve describes in the pilot, about Ironside noticing her powers of observation when she’s a witness to a robbery. We also see, not for the last time, Ed Brown’s mean streak, when he seeks cold-blooded revenge (at least at first) for Eve’s shooting. Douglas Benton produced.

Mark and Ed get spotlight episodes, as well.

In “Rundown On a Bum Rap” (aired Jan. 30, 1969), directed by Allen Reisner from a Sy Salkowitz script, law student Mark takes a real-life dilemma to his class when he tries to prove this former boxing coach is innocent of a murder he is alleged to have committed, and has to overcome the resistance of his attractive African American professor (Janet McLachlan).

Ed isn’t sure what to believe when he tries to exonerate a cop buddy (Linden Chiles) accused of involvement in a drug ring and murder, in “Moonlight Means Money” (aired Feb. 27, 1969), written by Sy Salkowitz and directed by directed by Don Weis.

Reveal Shot: What were the pros and cons of using freelance writers?
Chermak: There are no cons to using freelance writers. I used them exclusively. They are some of the best we have. The main reason freelancing died was because young writers were made low paid producers and either wanted the writing money for themselves, or the studios / networks mistakenly thought or insisted the new Writer/ Producer could do it all.

Additionally, no one is willing to walk into the boss’ office and tell him that his script stinks.  It just doesn’t happen. So the new producer shoots his first draft. And good scripts aren’t written, they are re-written.  But it takes a real pro to be able to re-write himself, and to understand how to get the best out of another writer and still protect the concept of the show.

I think I mentioned earlier that if you didn’t ride close herd on the writers and directors they would unconsciously think of their episode as if it were an entity of its own, standing alone, without a thought of keeping the show on Frank Price’s tracks.

Actors hated me because they spent time learning their lines only to come to the set at 6:00 AM and find new pages with new thoughts and new words. I felt we had to work to improve the script right up until the director said “action.”

Without Frank or me or the others maintaining eternal vigilance the show would not have lasted half a season. That having been said, if I had a show today I would still use that vast store of talent that is going to waste. Not knowing how to use the writing talent available is the great disgrace of the current crop of execs.

Reveal Shot: Can you discuss some of the ways you worked to keep Ed Brown and Eve Whitfield interesting when their story arcs were not as inherently dramatic as those of Robert Ironside and Mark Sanger?

Chermak: Not really. Frankly, all three characters were second bananas.  We tried to dramatize their roles every once in a while, and Ray was the star, so he got most of the good stuff.

Reveal Shot: You had the Academy Award-winning cinematographer Lionel Lindon working on the show. What were the advantages of having someone of that caliber handling those duties? (Also, I understand he was kind of a character. Are there any amusing anecdotes that come to mind?)

Chermak: Curly Lindon and Bud Thackery were both characters, but they knew their business. Lindon hated working with inexperienced directors, and Bud hated working with everyone. I remember once that Bud shot a close-up of a beautiful actress and there was a black triangular shadow on her cheek. I took a clip down to the set and I told him I would like it re-shot. Bud looked and the clip, looked at me, and said there was nothing wrong with that shot. (He didn’t add “sonny-boy” but his tone implied it.)

“Don’t you see the black triangular shadow on her cheek?” I asked. Very patiently, he explained that the source was coming from her profile, and the shadow was of her nose. A perfectly acceptable shot. I asked if he could do a shot with the light coming from the same source, but without the shadow. “Oh well,” he sighed. “Now you are asking for feature film photography. I can do it but you won’t like the time it will take.” “Re-shoot it,” I said. “I’ll give you the extra time to make my stars beautiful and give you back the time somewhere else.” He said we had a deal. Right then was the beginning of our relationship.


Ironside (TV series)

Here is an interesting UPI wire story from Nov. 5, 1968 about the atmosphere on the set during the second season.

Season 2 brought improvement for “Ironside” in the Nielsen ratings. The series ranked No. 16 for the 1968-69 season, with a 22.3 rating and 34 share. ABC’s “Bewitched,” airing opposite the Raymond Burr show in the 8:30 time slot, finished 13th — but “Ironside” was the clear winner among network programs during its second half hour, starting at 9:00, outgunning the CBS movie. 789

Early in Season 3, “Ironside” presented another two-hour episode, “Goodbye To Yesterday,” (aired Sept. 25, 1969) by Sy Salkowitz and directed by Barry Shear. In the first season, Vera Miles, had guested as Barbara Jones, a former love interest of Ironside’s who turns out to be an amnesia victim who has forgotten her husband (Phillip Carey) and children, but finally reconnects with them.

In “Goodbye to Yesterday,” Barbara’s daughter is kidnapped, and she calls on Ironside for help.

Chermak remembers: Wasn’t “Goodbye To Yesterday” a great title?

You know, rumors were always swirling around Raymond’s sexual orientation so I thought it was a good idea to have him involved with a woman whenever possible. I thought he played that role to the hilt.

It was like the rumors that started swirling about him really being paralyzed. People looked me in the eye and told me that they knew for sure that he was paralyzed. So I did an episode [the aforementioned “Reprise”] in which his thoughts flashed back to days when he could walk, and we showed him walking. You know what? That didn’t even help to squelch the rumors.

Barry Shear was one of my favorites. His work on live TV with Ernie Kovacs remains classic.

Next: The final installment in Reveal Shot’s interview with Cy Chermak.

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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.”


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. Read More


The 10 highest-rated Academy Awards telecasts; ’70 show tops list

Former New York Times movie critic Vincent Canby summed up the 42nd annual Academy Awards ceremony as a show about mortality, symbolized by the toupees worn by Hollywood celebrities whose time had just about passed.

On a night that saw the X-rated “Midnight Cowboy” named Best Picture of 1969, heralding the dawn of a new age in film-making sensibilities, Canby was struck by the rugs worn by Best Actor John Wayne, George Jessel, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire and other luminaries of Hollywood’s Golden Age who attended.

“Even those who showed up in what appeared to be their own hair seemed touched by fraud, by an unwillingness to admit the passage of time,” Canby wrote, singling out the then 66-year-old Cary Grant as looking “curiously fictional.”

Canby also had a brickbat for perennial Oscar host Bob Hope, who was also 66 at that point, calling his monologue “limp.”

“This is the year that [Richard] Burton played a king and a queen,” Hope is quoted as saying. Burton played Henry VIII in “Anne Of the Thousand Days” and one half of a gay couple (the other being Rex Harrison) who own a barbershop in “Staircase.”

The mere possibility that “Midnight Cowboy” could be given the top Oscar must have had much to do with the fact that the Academy Award telecast of April 7, 1970, on ABC, garnered the highest ratings of any since 1960, when Nielsen changed its basic methodology in a way that makes pre-1960 numbers unsuitable for comparison.

The broadcast earned a rating of 43.4, with a 78 share of the television audience, according to Nielsen. In the much different TV world of 2012, last year’s show got a 22.6 rating and 34 share.

Ahead of Sunday night’s broadcast of the 85th Academy Awards, here are the 10 highest-rated Oscar telecasts since 1960:

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Variety’s review of the 1970 show noted that it was one of the longest up to that time, at 2 hours and 25 minutes, with no major award handed out before 10:40 Eastern. The show’s producers filmed a series of interviews with important directors, which the magazine said would be “well and good in a documentary, but in the awards show served merely to delay the proceedings.”

Elizabeth Taylor handed out the Best Picture award to end the night:

Though ABC’s telecast was the top-rated single show of the 1969-70 season, the network finished the 30-week period in its usual position for this era — last.

CBS narrowly claimed its 15th straight win in Nielsen’s full-season network rankings, with a 20.0 rating. It was still bolstered that year by programs with a strong appeal to viewers in rural areas, and people over 50, including “Mayberry R.F.D,” “The Jim Nabors Hour,” “The Red Skelton Hour” and “The Beverly Hillbillies.” “Gunsmoke” was in the midst of its late ’60s resurgence, finishing the season as the No. 2 show.

NBC was second at 19.8, with three big guns in “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” (No. 1 for the year), “Bonanza” (No. 3) and “The Wonderful World of Disney” (No. 9). ABC had a 16.4. Only two ABC shows cracked the Top 20: “Marcus Welby, M.D.” and “The Johnny Cash Show.”

Aside from a stint on NBC from 1971-1975, the Academy Awards have been shown on ABC in every year since 1961.

— David B. Wilkerson

New York Times film critic Vincent Canby reviews the 42nd Academy Awards, 1970 [subscription required]

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Golden age of television, yes — but not for broadcast networks

There’s a perceptive article in The Atlantic this month that makes the case for this as a golden age of television.

The argument is that several original series on HBO, Netflix, Showtime, AMC and other non-broadcast outlets are among the best in the medium’s history, partly because the studios are now obsessed with franchises, and television is based upon them.

I agree that this is the best television era, though I would say that it’s because of the choices we have. The very existence of TCM, Encore Westerns, Cloo (silly name notwithstanding) and other specialty cable channels is proof enough, in my mind. And certainly the best serialized dramas of today stack up pretty well with the best in any decade.


Broadcast network television, however, was much better 30 or 40 years ago.

Let’s take a look at the top 20 broadcast shows for Feb. 4-10, 2013, a list dominated by CBS.

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The best shows on the current list, based on what I’ve seen, are “NCIS,” “Person Of Interest,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “How I Met Your Mother.”

Here are the top 20 broadcast shows for Feb. 5-11, 1973. This is Nielsen’s measurement of 70 TV markets, taken from Daily Variety’s Feb. 20, 1973 edition; the final numbers for the 200+ U.S. markets were released the next day, but for whatever reason Variety didn’t print out a full list of the shows and their ratings (though there was an article that mentioned some of them), so I used the preliminary numbers.

There was some difference between these and the final results — “Columbo” finished second, ahead of “Sanford and Son,” for instance. Essentially, though, these are the top 20 programs for that week.

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My votes for best shows in the 1973 ranking would be “All In The Family,” “Hawaii Five-O,” “Columbo,” “Sanford and Son,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Cannon.”

“All In The Family” was then in its third season, a year that included masterful episodes such as the hilarious premiere “Archie and the Editorial,”  “Lionel Steps Out,” “Mike Comes Into Money” and “Archie and The Bowling Team.” The episode seen on Feb. 10, 1973 was “Class Reunion.”

“Hawaii Five-O” was at its height during Season 5. The show had its highest Nielsen ranking in any season, finishing at No. 3 with a 25.2 rating and 38 share. It aired what most fans consider its greatest episodes, the “V for Vashon” trilogy (Nov. 14-28, 1972), along with other standout segments  “The Jinn Who Clears the Way,” “I’m a Family Crook — Don’t Shoot,” the compelling if needlessly complex “Here Today, Gone Tonight” and the episode that aired during the week highlighted here, “Will the Real Mr. Winkler Please Die?”

The Feb. 11, 1973 episode of “Columbo” was “A Stitch In Crime,” featuring Leonard Nimoy as an egotistical surgeon who murders his colleague (Will Geer) during heart surgery and then has to dispatch a nurse (Anne Francis) who has figured out the scheme. Other great episodes from the program’s second season include the premiere, “Etude In Black” and “Double Shock.”

Of course there are clinkers on both lists. “Two and a Half Men” stands out as one of the really bewildering sitcom hits of all time, with or without Charlie Sheen. I never got the appeal of “American Idol,” especially the earlier rounds when so many terrible singers are on display. Admittedly I have a significant bias against the “Five-O” remake, but portraying McGarrett as a smart-ass destroys any credibility it might have had.

Among the ’73 shows, ABC’s made-for-TV “Movie Of The Week” was often mediocre at best; it seemed cool to watch theatrical films like “The Brotherhood” on television, but of course having them chopped up and presented in the wrong aspect ratio was a bad compromise. And there’s a reason why the Bob Hope of this period was so effectively parodied by Dave Thomas on “SCTV.”

Overall, though, I’ll take network TV as it was then. Maybe that’s why I spend so much time watching many of those shows on DVD.

A couple of postscripts:

By the end of the 1972-73 season, CBS finished with a 19.8 rating for the 30-week period, while NBC had a 19.1 and ABC brought up the rear with a 17.5. “NBC’s early-season lead was overcome by the CBS splurge after [the] turn of the year,” Variety said in its May 8, 1973 edition.

CBS was in the latter stages of a 20-year run of dominance that ran from 1956 to 1976.

I thought it might also be interesting to go back another 10 years, so here are Nielsen’s 10 highest-rated shows from the two-week period ending Feb. 10, 1963, eight of which were on the Tiffany Network. (I couldn’t find a list of the top 20.)


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Another valuable source for this post was “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.


— David B. Wilkerson


TV’s 10 highest-rated Grammy Awards telecasts

Art Garfunkel (left) and Paul Simon (right) dominated the 1970 Grammy Awards, which were broadcast live for the first time on ABC in March 1971.

ABC’s broadcast of the first live Grammy ceremony in 1971 remains the highest-rated, according to Nielsen data and archival reports from the trade magazine Variety.

CBS has carried the Grammys every year since 1973, so it may not be remembered that ABC had shown the ceremony during the previous two years.

Here are the 10 top-rated Grammy telecasts, according to Nielsen data:

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The first Grammy Award ceremony was held in 1959. For several years after that, the show was filmed or taped, and highlights were aired during a one-hour NBC special called “The Best on Record.”  In November 1970, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS)  announced that the awards would be held as a live event for the first time.

ABC swooped in to nab the broadcast rights from NBC, in the same year it also outbid the Peacock network for the Tony Awards. After spending the 1950s and ’60s in the Nielsen ratings cellar, ABC felt like it was in position to reach for the top spot, thanks to the success of shows like “Marcus Welby M.D.” and its “Movie Of The Week,” and spent aggressively.

Viewers who flocked to the Grammy broadcast saw a ceremony dominated by Simon & Garfunkel, whose “Bridge Over Troubled Water” won Album of the Year and Record Of the Year. Simon alone won Song of the Year and Best Contemporary Song for writing the title cut.

The show’s’ 31.3 rating and 47 share made it the No. 1 show for the seven days ended March 21, securing an ABC win for that  week. However, at the end of the 1970-71 season, CBS and NBC  were tied for first, and ABC was third yet again.

The second-highest rated Grammy telecast is well remembered as a celebration of Michael Jackson and “Thriller.” Jackson took home eight Grammys, including Album of the Year and Record of the Year. CBS garnered a 30.8 rating and 45 share of the audience, as 51.67 million viewers watched the ceremony.  

— David B. Wilkerson


Updated: 10 highest-rated Super Bowls in television history

Super Bowl XLVII, seen on CBS Sunday night, tied for ninth place on Nielsen’s Super Bowl ratings list with a 46.3 rating and 69 share of the television audience.

TV’s 10 highest-rated Super Bowls, updated through Sunday:

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In Super Bowl XIV, the Pittsburgh Steelers took their fourth world championship with a 31-19 win over the Los Angeles Rams. The telecast helped CBS win the 1979-80 Nielsen ratings battle over ABC, which had been the top network for three straight seasons.

The Ravens-49ers game is tied with the CBS broadcast of Super Bowl XIV, which generated a 46.3 and 67 share on Jan. 20, 1980, as the Pittsburgh Steelers prevailed over the Los Angeles Rams 31-19.

Once again it is clear that no event can galvanize audiences in quite the way that was possible 30-35 years ago when the Big Three networks were at their height, before cable became a true force and so many other electronic diversions were available. This is not meant to disparage today’s TV universe; greater choice has been a significant blessing.

In its Jan. 23, 1980 edition, Variety reported that CBS was propelled by Super Bowl XIV to a fifth straight win in the weekly Nielsen race, with a 22.5 average, with ABC second at 20.2 and NBC, very much in the throes of its terrible Fred Silverman era, at a  distant 16.2.

With the victory, the trade publication said, CBS “occupied first place in the season-to-date averages for the first time in the regular season measurements since April 18, 1976.”

As explained in the last post on Super Bowl ratings, ABC had dominated this period with its family-friendly lineup. However, CBS, which had ruled the TV landscape during a 20-year period before ABC’s rise to the top in ’76, regained its throne in the 1979-80 season, as the newsmagazine “60 Minutes,” which had been on the air since 1968, became the No. 1 show on television and “Dallas,” in its third season, jumped to the No. 6 spot.  All but two of the top 10 shows for the season were CBS programs.




TV’s 10 top-rated Super Bowls; No. XVI (1982) still stands alone

Super Bowls have been setting viewership records in recent years. Last year, an average of 111.3 million viewers watched the New York Giants edge the New England Patriots 21-17 — the largest audience for any program in U.S. television history.


Tenacious Dallas defense forced seven Denver turnovers by halftime of the Cowboys’ 27-10 win in Super Bowl XII (CBS), the oldest of television’s 10 highest-rated Super Bowls.

However, Nielsen’s ratings are concerned with the percentage of TV viewers tuned to a given program. By that measure, the top-ranked Super Bowl remains Super Bowl XVI, as I mentioned in a Reveal Shot item several days ago that focused on conference title games.

Below are the 10 highest-rated Super Bowls, according to historical data from Nielsen. (For best results, click “download” above the .pdf, rather than the magnification icon; apologies for the old-school methodology. It took me a while to find a format wide enough to let me include the announcers.)

Download (PDF, 30KB)

The oldest game among the top 10, at No. 4, is Super Bowl XII (CBS), a coronation for the Dallas Cowboys after their dominating 12-2 season in 1977. This was the first Super Bowl to be played in primetime, and it was easily the most-watched sports event in television history to that point, and the second most-watched TV program of all time, trailing only the concluding “Roots: Part Eight,” which had aired on ABC in January 1977.

Though Super Bowl XII helped CBS win its week handily, ABC was just too much to overcome in the 1977-78 season, with 12 series among the season’s 20 highest-rated, including the 1-2-3 punch of “Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley” and “Three’s Company.”

The following year’s Super Bowl XIII (NBC), for years considered the very best of them all, still comes in at No. 5 on the list. However, in another sign of ABC’s power during this period, NBC could not win the week ended Jan. 21, 1979 even with a 47.1 rating and 74 share for the game. According to Weekly Variety’s Jan. 24 edition, ABC won the week with a 23.5 average, 5 full points ahead of second-place CBS, which meant that NBC finished a distant third.

Interesting to see just one ABC Super Bowl telecast among the top 10; the innovations it brought to “Monday Night Football,” including definitive use of isolated cameras, the first truly extensive pre-game discussions with both teams days before the game to get various insights and much more came rather lately to the other networks. Terry O’ Neil irritated many people when he brought ABC’s techniques to CBS upon arrival there in 1981.

One of those people was Vin Scully, who had been led to believe he would be the main play-by-play man for CBS’s NFL coverage. Former CBS sports chief Neal Pilson explained what the problem was in a 2007 interview with me.