MARVIN MORD, whose name may make him sound like a villain out of Dickens but who is instead vice president of research services for ABC Television, said recently in Birmingham that success in TV programming is still a chancey thing and that "the elusive question of what makes a hit continues to defy any scientific formula."
OH IT DOES, HUH?
Our man Mord must not have been watching Tuesday night when an ABC television program that was surely produced according to a scientific formula captured a 50 percent share of the viewing audience in Los Angeles and 45 percent of the viewers in Chicago and New York, according to Nielsen overnight ratings. The show was called "Vega$" (dollar sign theirs), 90-minute pilot for a new series that is now almost certain to pop up on ABC's forthcoming fall schedule.
The program's success can be reduced to the same formula that critic Pauline Kael noted on a foreign movie marquee advertising a James Bond picture in the most elemental possible terms: "Kiss kiss bang bang." Actually, since the "bang bang" has been largely ruled out by new TV standard on screen violence, the ingredients can be listed another way: guns, gals, gasoline, guest stars and a big galoot.
Most of these sure-five viewer-pleasers were present in each of the show's six acts. The big galoot was Robert Urich as Las Vegas private eye Dan Tanna (a name borrowed from a Hollywood restaurant where a friend of mine once got punched in the nose) and he was, of course, the program's least variable constant. The gasoline? Well you didn't actually see that, but the show couldn't have gone far without it, since every two minutes or so Danny boy hopped into a yellow Sting-Ray or a red '57 T-bird and drove around Las Vegas, always to the choonk, ka-choonk, ka-choonk-choonk,ka-choonk (gesundheit) of Dominic Frontiere's sloppy-boppy rock.
One of Frontiere's principal themes for car [WORD ILLEGIBLE] street consisted of five notes ascending and descending the scale, like this: A-B-C-D-E, E-D-C-B-A.
In radio, "drive time" refers to the period when most listeners are in their cars, commuting. But television has drive time, too.Did you ever see Barnaby Jones walk anywhere? For a total of at least six minutes on "Vega$," the hero just drove. There was also 30 seconds of fly time, when "Special Guest Star" Tony Curtis, who was on screen for less than two minutes, took a helicopter to fly from the roof of one Las Vegas hotel to the roof of another.
Now the gals, God love 'em, they're of course an indispensable ingredient in a formula show like this, and "Vega$" didn't waste any time marching them out. Within the first two minutes we were treated to a perky little cutie in a filmy nightie. Dan entered with his hairy chest exposed - the networks are answering charges of exploiting women as sex objects by giving men their chance as well - and soon pulled a GUN out of his glove compartment (less than four minutes into the show) and then not one but two GALS kissed him - though one, it turned out, was supposed to be his sister.
Soon Dan was burning up the gasoline and, after arriving at one of the innumerable Las Vegas hotels plugged during the program, announcing his life's credo: "I don't pull any punches and I only work one way - my way."
Good for you, Dan. This happens to be the exact same credo of every other private eye ever on television.
Several times during the program the camera zoomed in on hotel signs like "Hilton" and "Riviera" and "Sahar." Norman Henry, the executive in charge of the program at Aaron Spelling Production in Hollywood, says those mentions were not plugs and that the producers were not compensated in any way except with friendliness during location filming.
"We got tremendous cooperation from the entire community of Las Vegas," Henry says. "They're very much interested in their image, very concerned with their image. If you go in there to do a story about the Mafia and Las Vegas, they don't want anypart of you, but we depicted the people of Las Vegas as being a little more, you know, real, not just gloss and facade. They like that.They like that very much."
Thus does Tony Curtis the special guest star tell our man Dan in th fifth act of the show, "I sure love Las Vegas. It's an honest town."
Talk about your tell-it-like-it-is television!
Henry says the hotels did not pay anything to have their signs shown on TV. "It's possible to go in and get something like that, but you have to put a disclaimer on the screen, a disclosure that you got money from somebody. If we do this as a series, we'll probably make a deal with some hotel where we'd get free services for mentioning them, free rooms and things like that, but we'll have to say so on the air or we'd all go to jail."
Before the program aired, Henry said no "weapons" would be shown on the screen, as part of the crackdown on violence. In fact Dan's gun turned up several times. "Yeah," Henry said later, "I didn't think he'd be waving the gun around that much. You couldn't tell it from the script. But you notice, he never did shoot it."
Nope. Dan never shot it. But there are ways of keeping viewers titillated by the prospect of violence, without actually rearranging a face. When Dan realized he was being followed, he pointed a gun at the head of the man following him, the fellow was sitting in a parked car behind a burlesque joint. When the follower started to reach for something in his glove compartment, Dan said, "Don't do that. By the time you reach that glove compartment, there'll be a .37 Magnum in your ear."
And then Dan explained what would happen if he went on to pull the trigger: "Your skull would explode," he said, "and then I'd have to . . . have your brains removed from my jacket . . ."
Dan Tanna proved as infantile a male wish-fulfilment fantasy figure as ed as infantile a male wish-fulfillment fantasy figure as by beautiful women dying to do his bidding. A girl named Angie in pink peekaboo shorts kneeled at Dan's feet while he talked to a singing star on the telephone and purred, "I'd do ANYTHING to get his autograph." Soon Dan was out of his shirt again and exchanging flirts with Angie. While Dan shaved his Marlboro Man face in the mirror, a gorgeous hunk of blond leaned on his bare shoulder. Angie reappeared later in a tight blue bathing suit and, again kneeling before the master, fed him soup while he talked on the phone.
She spilled the soup on his jeans and then dutifully dried it off. "Are your shorts wet?" she asked Dan, and the man on the other end of the phone, overhearing, said, "No, sweetheart . . . they probably should be but they're not."
And so it goes for Dan.Into the car and out of the car. On the phone and off the phone. Off with the shirt and on with the shirt. A real man who stalks his prey through the streets of Vegas shouting, "I'm the Lone Ranger, and I'm gonna nail you!"
And just in case the guns, gals, consumption of gasoline and exposure of the big galoot's hairy chest don't keep viewers glued to their davenports, ABC leads into each commercial break with quick film clips from the show: the stalking galoot, some showgirls and then the big set-piece action number of the opus, a truck smashing through the picture window of a house. This was meant to be a climactic moment near the end of the film but, carefully following the formula down to the last millimeter of overkill, ABC played the scene at least four different times as a teaser to keep viewers viewing.
It was also featured in approximately 1 zillion promotions for the program that aired in advance.
"The chemistry of a hit remains elusive," said Marvin Mord of the research department. One must, he said, have "research input" into the creative process from the earliest stages of TV production. But whoa there, just a mo', Marv baby! If the assembly line that turns out things like "Vega$" gets any more efficient, ABC might as well just put the research on the air and save everybody the trouble of making or watching the program. The snaring of millions of TV viewers with programmed escapist rituals may have been reduced to a science, but eventually folks are bound to get wise to the nature of what they're watching. Watching "Vega$" was like watching porno for robots.
No doubt it's another darned old wave of the future. CAPTION: Picture 1, Robert Urich and Tony Curtis in the premiere of Vega(c) Picture 2, no caption