Television networks never say die. They don't even like to say sick. So NBC put its happiest face forward here in announcing mid-season plans designed to wrest the network from bottom position in the ratings hierarchy.
ABC's Fred Silverman said Wednesday he considers NBC out of the running and predicts CBS will be the second place network at season's end; ABC, of course, is in no danger of losing its grip on first.
But NBC president Robert Mulholland, while conceding "we are far behind ABC," blames the network's most recent slippage on "our football depression" - the NFL playoffs and today's Super Bowl on CBS - and says the network will stage a comeback with a "revamped schedule" and its "four event nights," Saturday through Tuesday. On those nights they will try to hook viewers with multi-part mini-series like "King," the story of the civil rights movement, and "Holocaust," which the network obviously hopes will be the Jewish "Roots." It's to air on the eve of Passover.
The philosophy NBC espoused during its turn at the three-network press tour now winding up here might be summed up as, strut like a peacock, sting like a vodka martini. And to help with the strutting, NBC coaxed a slew of stars to show up for group interviews and press conferences and plug upcoming shows - Fred Astaire! Don Rickles! Angie Dickinson! Jack Webb! Jack Webb? Yes, and others of equal distinction.
Perhaps the most entertaining star on the lot turned out to be Paul L. Klein, NBC's top programmer and a man who knows no fear when it comes to his own convictions. He had TV viewers in stitiches with his impersonation of the laugh track on ABC's "Happy Days." Of course, ABC gets the last laugh when "Happy Days" reduces the other two networks to rubble every Tuesday night.
Klein needled ABC for depending on "jiggling" to lure audiences. Jiggling results, he said, when "women wear limited underwear from the waist up" and are drawn into such dramatic situations as a game of volleyball. There were also predictable and endearingly unqualified Klein pronouncements like, "Television will take a back seat when another medium comes along - not in our lifetime."
The air was thick with phrases like "quality programming," "new concept" and "truly exciting." Some TV writers get right into the spirit of show-biz and say things to each other like, "He's got to be the most prestigious director in the business" and "I just feel that if Lee Remick takes the time to make a film, the least I can do is watch it."
Remick also took the time to participate in a one-hour press conference with Rock Hudson, with whom she will costar in a 10-hour NBC adaptation of Arthur Hailey's "Wheels." This was a humdinger of a hot confrontation.
"Are you pleased with 'Wheels' so, far" a reporter asked.
"Oh yes, very," said Hudson.
"Oh yes, it's just a smashing experience," said Remick.
Outside, it was raining.
There is always a certain amount of repressed hostility between TV critics and networks when the two get together, even over drinks in the "Presidential Suite" of the Century Plaza Hotel. This feeling may be especially intense at NBC since the network is the least successful this season.
And so the outright hostility of comedian-actor Don Rickles, star of the network's near-hit "CPO Sharkey," had a refreshing unfettered honesty about it. Rickles was not in rare form, just usual form.
"It's a pleasure to be here because all you ladies and gentlemen have sky-recketed us to fame," he said with a sneer, while big N's glittered behind him.
"Well, NBC - Paul Klein and his staff, they're not here today. Their balloon broke. They're over in the park walking their dogs. Now you ask about pre-empting 'CPO Sharkey.' Well they pre-empt and they don't pre-empt. At Christmastime they decided that we should be pre-empted by Charlie Goofer and His Dead Mouse or something and then two guys from the network came over to me and they tell me, "Well basically we feel that Charlie Coofer and His Dead Mouse seems to give the public a feel on the ticketron motivation of the show' and the guy that was telling me this was retarded and in a state hospital.
"We're on 170 stations live now and 14 delayed. We do have two more if there's a storm in Indiana and you put a wet wire on your tuchus. Then it lights up.
"HEY LADY (to a woman in the front row), I'm only telling you the way it is. This woman's going, 'WHAT? WHAT?' Look, I gotta lot of heartache, lady. I got a house with two big hunting dogs and they wanna eat meat!
"Now in Miami Beach where my mother lives - where else would a Jewish mother live, Pittsburgh? - in Miami Beach we're not on and suddenly NBC says, 'Gee, we missed Miami!' My mother used to get it from Palm Beach if boats came in with fishermen giving messages and then we used to get it in Panama City. Now if you've ever been there, there's one dead gentile on the highway with an arrow in his neck, and three other black guys going. 'Shoot the Jew and win a prize.'
"So, we've had our problems."
Not all the Rickles potshots at NBC seemed purely in fun, even malicious fun. He said there are "too many cooks, and what we need are more good chiefs," said the young executives at the network have good ideas but "live in fear" and says of the NBC brass that while "they're not dummies" they too often "take a community kind of vote" on decisions and "I think you need a strong leader. Paul Klein may be it. January or February will tell the story of NBC."
Actress Valerie Perrine, who will appear in the NBC mini-series "Ziegfeld, The Man and His Women," says she attends the "Church of Religious Science" every Wednesday night.
The services consist, she says, of the gathered congregation declaring, "Let's get together and make each other feel good and maybe something will happen."
Jack Webb still does the best Jack Webb impression. He walked into a room in red shirt and red socks; he has the huge eyes of a suspicious basset hound and a burning-bush baritone that remains unmistakable. Webb is executive producer of "Project UFO," a new series supposedly about UFO sightings but obviously, from what Webb says, more of a love song to the Air Force as was "Dragnet" to the Los Angeles Police Department.
"The police in 'Dragnet' behaved exactly the way police in Los Angeles behave," Webb said. "We must show that the majority of our police officers are honest, hardwoking men. And they are aren't they?"
Webb said "Project UFO," premiering next month, will have "the aura of believability rather than high fiction" and will consist of "high entertainment coupled with high strangeness." This will not be "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" because all the UFO sightings will be explained away or left unexplained.
Col. William T. Coleman, for five years in charge of the Air Force's controversial "Project Bluebook" on UFO sightings, is the series producer and sat at Webb's side. One reporter asked Webb if his series was going to try to "clean up the Air Force's, act" and Webb said angrily there was no act to clean up. But wouldn't he be portraying the Air Force in strictly a favorable light?
"Well what's a favorable light if I'm telling you THE TRUTH? You don't contest that, do you - that I'm telling you THE TRUTH?" Silence. "Don't." Because I have the documents from our national archives! There's nothing to clean up.
"You know I'm just a little weary, and I'm becoming somewhat spathetic too, with this great investigative race we seem to be creating here. Now let's keep our eyes open. Let's keep our government honest. But just because we've had some very said moments and some heartache recently, our government isn't all-bad, you know. Just because you find an agency or two doesn't mean they're all bad.
"Because if you believe that, then the hell with government. We have nothing to live for, do we?"
A 78, Fred Astaire somewhat resembles a chili pepper. But such an elegant chili pepper. He still dresses immaculately, moves immaculately, and was even rather immaculately gracious about posing for a photograph with a woman reporter.
Astaire was accompanied at this appearance by unctuous predicer Ross Hunter ("Pillow Talks," "Airport") who kept hugging him and saying things like "I don't believe I am sitting next to my idol." Astaire is costarring with Helen Hayes in Hunter's "A Family Upside Down," which airs March 12.
"I just idolize him," said the grinning Hunter. "When Fred said yes to this part, it was the greatest moment of my life."
As is his reputation, Astaire was not particularly expansive. To a question about which was the hardest scene for him to shoot in Hunter's film, Astaire said, "Well I don't think I had a hard scene" and when asked about problems of old people he told a woman, "Sweetie, I'm sorry, I can't answer that."
He doesn't have a particular favorite among his classic musicals, although he concedes that "'Top Hat' worked out awfully well" (it's only a masterpiece, that's all) and says he never watches them on TV. Sometimes one will come on as he is changing channels. "I look at it; I wait a little while, and sometimes I finally have to look in TV Guide to see which one it is."
He talks about dancing along with "Soul Train" ("They're so pure, those kids up there") and recalls the skateboard accident that had him in a cast for six weeks last year. Yes, a skateboard.
"My grandson, the 17-year-old, was very good at it, in my driveway and so forth, so I said, 'Bring me one the next time you come over.' And he said, 'Don't do it,' and I said, 'HUH? WHO? ME?' He said, 'It's too dangerous.' I thought it would be a challenge, I thought the skateboard was a perfectly marvelous little instrument."
He practiced for two weeks without incident, then casually put one foot on the board one day and fell on his immaculate duff. "But they made me an honorary member of the National Skateboard Society for doing so much to prove it's a tough sport," Astaire says. "I told them, 'Thank you, I will be the least participating member of your entire outfit.'"
"You know, our work keeps us all very young," Hunter interjects. "It's creative, it's exciting, and if it comes out on the screen, well that's the hope that we live for, isn't that true, Fred?"
"It certainly is," says Astaire.
But suddently the chatter does take a serious turn. Astaire talks about his life in recent years. "There've been some severe blows, you know, my sister is twice a widow now, we just lost our mother two years ago, and some other relatives, and all sorts of things, but all in all it seems to me an absolutely marvelous life.
"You know, I wrote a song called 'Life Is Beautiful,' and then I thought, 'My God, how, why would I do a song called that?' But if is. It's absolutely beautiful. And things happen and you go on and I sound like a Pollyanna or something but I can't help it. I just have to be nothing but grateful for being able to do things for so long."
Angie Dickinson of "Policewoman" is on her way out of a press conference when a reporter says, "I forget your age."
"So do I," says Angie.