"The Third Annual TV Guide Special" -- does anybody remember the first two? -- comes to us, an announcer says, from "the television capital of the world," which is not the Sony plant in Tokyo but our old friend Hollywood. A presentable and occasionally amusing two hours, the special is nonetheless largely apologia and public relations, not so much for television as for the television industry, which is something else altogether.
Lee Remick (wearing a king's ransom in jewelry), Robert Guillaume (of "Benson") and Dick Cavett (aspiring to Gatsbyhood in an old tuxedo) host the program, which has about 20 segments on topics pertaining to the 1981 television year, from the population boom in video games to TV news coverage of assassination attempts on Ronald Reagan and the pope and the murder of Anwar Sadat.
A "Life Achievement Award," previously announced, goes to Sylvester L. (Pat) Weaver, the former NBC executive who invented the "Today" and "Tonight" shows and innovated his head off during the '50s.
Cavett visits the sets of "Hill Street Blues" and "Taxi" and has a brief, warm audience with Walter Cronkite, who is introduced as "the dean of American newsmen" and "the most influential person in the field of broadcasting," both overstatements. Cronkite demonstrates again, though, in these candid moments, what people saw in him that made him an American institution and symbol of trust. He comes across as an uncommonly good common man.
In the category of "moments I handled badly" on the air, Cronkite places his 1968 interview with Mayor Richard Daley during the Democrats' ill-fated Chicago convention: "I really didn't ever lay a glove on him." He defends an occasional display of emotion by a TV reporter and confesses, "I'm a teary guy." He also seems to be making a reference to Dan Rather when he refers to "the old shoe business -- you don't like the new pair as well as the old."
A certain amount of bilge on the program is passed off as fact or analysis. It is suggested that the public concurred with TV Guide's erstwhile movie critic, Judith Crist -- that devoted opponent of organized thought -- and that movies she liked won high ratings. Of those mentioned, however, "Kent State" and "Of Mice and Men" scored very poorly. A clip alleged to be from the Jack Paar "Tonight Show" and mistakenly labeled "1954" is actually from Paar's later prime-time series.
Genuine highlights of the viewing year, like John McEnroe's Herculean defiance at Wimbledon and Tom Snyder's riveting go-round with Charles Manson, are preposterously cited as "low spots" in self-righteous drivel written for Howard Hesseman to deliver. Earlier, Guillaume begins the segment by saying, "Whenever we get too sanctimonious about television as an art form . . . " Which "we" is this -- the editors of TV Guide, trying to inflict their willful naivete' on viewers who know better? The program's lofty idea of what television is could only hold water in the cloudiest of cuckoo lands.