"7:30 Live" was a terrible show but local television is much worse off without it.
Ironically, the program got the axe just as the city magazine concept in TV seems about to boom. Even as "7:30 Live" was dying last week. Baltimore's WJZ-TV was readying its own "Evening Magazine" show for the same early evening time slot. Mondays through Fridays starting Aug. 29.
The soft news "magazine" format seems an ideal link at 7:30 between the nighty newcasts which have just ended and the onset of prime time, with its three hours of aggravated escapism.
Moreover, because it is locally produced, the city magazine show would appear to be just what the FCC ordered when it cooked up its prime-time access rule in 1970. That brain-storm took the 7:30 half hour away from the networks and gave it back to local stations, and this was supposed to engender a golden era of local initiative.
Instead, we got blitzed with bears and bores. Most stations squandered the time on syndicated game and animal shows. Some were better than others but there were too many of both. If looked like a hearty leap forward in Washington when WJLA announced "7:30 Live," which was to be for and about Washingtonians and not just fly-by-night packaged pap.
So why did "Live" die less than one year later Producer Adam A. Villone went through the postmortems after the final telecast. "There were a lot of reasons," he said. "If we'd been given more time to prepare it, it might have helped. And I think we should have targeted an audience, aimed for a specific group. We were trying to grab everybody at once."
Villone concedes "7:30 Live" was no masterpiece. "The operation was a success, but the patient died. I don't think anybody around here feels the show was a failure but it never lived up to anybody's expectations, mine included."
Ballyhooed as "the end of ho-hum television," the program proved heavy with the ho's and the hum's once it got on the air. The concept was wrong from the start: it was just a gussled-up talk show with long, statie in-studio interviews and occasional awkward cut-aways to often irrelevant remotes, like people standing in front of a movie theater waiting for the picture to start.
As weeks wore on, less and less of "7:30 Live" was live anyway. The half hour was stuffed with film and tape inserts, some of them bright strong and inventive and others - like the occasional pop star interviews - insufferably gimmicked and amateurish.
The last two nights of "7:30 Live" showed the program at its best and worst. It worst included an interview with staff reporter Betsy Ashton, who covered and made drawings at the Hanafi Muslim trial. The substance of this chat was that Ashton found court-room facilities personally inconvenient for her.
"The bathrooms are absolutely disgusting," Ashton told host Chris Curle. "I took a roll of toilet paper with me every day."
"It's like going to Europe," ventured Chris.
But the swan-song show included a sensitive Paul Berry interview with the widow of an executed guerrilla and a neatly edited montage of highlights from the show's run. It wasn't enough, but it was something to cling to.
Indeed, "Live" might have pulled through if, when all else failed - as it often did - there had been a strong personality to carry the show and give it life. Curle, host from the start, remained, almost belligerently wooden, distant, cold and corny.
Frank Getlein, originally a cohost whose role was later sharply reduced, never appeared comfortable before the camera. His squinting and bumbling made him virtually unintelligible.
Milton Hoffman, the 31-year-old producer of WJZ's upcoming "Evening Magazine," thinks it was probably a mistake for the "Live" show to bother being live at all. His show, in fact: it will be taped at least a week in advance. "It's a magazine," he says, "not a newspaper." It doesn't have to be up-to-the-minute. Just up-to-the-month.
The model for the show. "Evening Magazine" on KPIX in San Francisco, is taped three weeks in advance and will be 1 year old on Aug. 9. While not a gangbusters smash, it's earned respectable ratings and it is drawing the kind of toney, "prestige" advertisers drawn by print magazines in such cities as Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia. The source of income will probably prove a key to the success of future local magazine shows.
"Evening Magazine" was invented by KPIX and later adopted by the four other Westinghouse-owned television stations (all of them network affiliates). WJZ is the last to get its show going. The programs trade some material city-to-city, and the project does have the air of a Kentucky-Fried TV franchise, but producer Hoffman insists the shows have their own personalities as imposed by their home cities.
KPIX has three minicam-equipped vans to tape features around San Francisco. WJZ will have two. WJLA had only one portable unit at its disposal and it was rarely used with anything approaching ingenuity. All the Westinghouse magazine shows send their performers out into the city to do their pieces; there's no home-base studio set and none is needed.
Of course there were many backstage problems with "7:30 Live." Insiders say station management was not as supportive as it should have been. Pleas to delay the show's premiere until it was truly ready for air were summarily denied.
And "7:30 Live" should never have been trapped under the thumb of the station's news department, which apparently treated it as an afterthought - perhaps as a dumping ground for whatever didn't fit into the regular newcasts (although "7:30 Live" did have its own, separate staff). The WJLA news operation isn't particularly distinguished or successful in the first place. At the Westinghouse stations, the magazine show comes under programming, not news.
WJLA executives always expressed public faith and patience in "7:30 Live" when questioned about the perpetually troubled show, but it's doubt-fl they put those lofty sentiments into action and really got behind the program. When it became obvious that its revenue-producing potential was small, it sunk to the bottom of the priorities list.The show was torpedoed forever last month not long after station spokesmen had issued yet another declaration of commitment.
One can only hope that the failure of the show will not be an insurmountable deterrent to other Washington stations tinkering with an early evening magazine idea, thus putting to better use the time now given over to screaming-meemie game shows and Death Valley critter fritters.
"7:30 Live" was a terrible show, but I miss it.