WHEN YOU'RE talking about network television, almost any time more than five years ago looks like the good old days compared to what we have now. Let's go back further than that, though--to a random, tattered copy of TV Guide from 23 years ago, the first week of July 1960, to see how TV fare then stacks up against what's on this month.
Lawrence Welk was the cover boy on that issue, and among the ads was one for a foreign car imported by Chrysler, a Simca, that listed for, the ad says, $1,698. Gosh and golly. The "TV Teletype" news pages included this item by Daniel A. Jenkins: "ABC has signed a five-year, $10-million-plus contract to televise the new professional American Football League games."
There were also items about plans for such upcoming or returning network shows as "Winston Churchill--The Valiant Years," to be narrated by Richard Burton; NBC's returning "Wisdom" series, to feature interviews with Somerset Maugham and Clement Atlee, among others, in the season ahead; and the announcement that "Mr. Magoo" would be back with new half-hours in the fall.
As now, summer viewing was dominated by reruns. Some of the programs being rerun the week of July 2-8, 1960, were: on CBS, "Gunsmoke," "Perry Mason," "Have Gun, Will Travel," "G.E. Theater" (a drama series hosted by Ronald Reagan), "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "Father Knows Best," "Hennesey," "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" (with young Warren Beatty as Milton Armitage), "The Millionaire," "Rawhide" (with young Clint Eastwood as Rowdy Yates), "The Twentieth Century" with Walter Cronkite, and "The Twilight Zone."
In addition, there were new live editions of "What's My Line?" and "The Ed Sullivan Show"; comedian Johnny Carson was the guest on "I've Got a Secret"; Charles Collingwood called on Archie Moore and Gene Autry on a new "Person to Person"; a summer mystery series called "Diagnosis: Unknown" premiered (with Tom Bosley and Larry Hagman in its supporting cast); and a new edition of "CBS Reports" offered a one-hour interview with columnist Walter Lippmann.
NBC wasn't lying in the gutter in those days. Its prime-time schedule included "Bonanza," "Loretta Young," "Peter Gunn," the drama anthology "Goodyear Theater," "M Squad," "Wagon Train," "This is Your Life," the drama anthology "Producer's Choice" (that week starring Claudette Colbert), "Arthur Murray's Dance Party" and a new live one-hour play, "Conjure Wife," on the drama series "Moment of Fear." In those days "Meet the Press" aired not on Sunday morning, but Sunday evenings. The guests on a repeat Jack Paar program that week included James Cagney.
Even ABC, always first with the worst among networks, had some eminently presentable shows, including "Maverick," "Alcoa Presents" (an anthology of dramas about psychic phenomena), "The Real McCoys" and "The Untouchables." ABC was in the process of ruining television in 1960 by buying lots of cookie-cutter crud from Warner Bros., including "Sugarfoot," "Cheyenne," "Hawaiian Eye," "77 Sunset Strip" and others.
Still, with all three network schedules considered, this wasn't a bad mix of programs. And by 1960, the "Golden Age" of television definitely was over. Most of the live drama anthologies had expired, and ABC was leading the way to cheaper, repeatable, Hollywood filmed pulp. Incredible as it may seem now, this was the kind of television schedule that only one year later then FCC Chairman Newton Minow, in a landmark speech, labeled a "vast wasteland." Even so, it would be gratifying to be able to turn on the TV set tonight and return to the "wasteland" of 23 years ago, instead of such current canned trifles as "CHiPs," "Alice," "One Day at a Time" and "Trapper John, M.D." Only "60 Minutes" could be considered a great leap forward from what was offered more than two decades ago.
Midsummer 1960 is, indeed, long gone. Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy were yet to be selected as their parties' presidential nominees. TV Guide still had a separate listing for programs that were in color. And CBS still was able to rerun episodes of "Amos 'n' Andy" in the daytime without incurring the the protests of pressure groups objecting to the racial stereotypes on the program.
Fred Silverman was only 22 years old. He hadn't even become a network executive yet.
The point of all this isn't mere nostalgia. It's to illustrate the quality and variety of programming available just from the three networks 23 years ago this week. The week chosen wasn't a milestone week in TV history; it was summer doldrums time, like now.
It's just that they had better doldrums then.
There was no pay TV, virtually no cable. The choices were limited to the three networks and to independent stations. Among the network offerings were plenty of terrible, foolish programs, too. But there were more shows you hated to miss. In 1980, candidate Ronald Reagan suggested voters ask themselves if they were better off than they used to be. Viewers can pick up an old TV Guide, browse through it and ask themselves the very same thing.