Think of the ’70s as TV’s Golden Age of Confusion, 10 years in which the tube searches for its own identity, its place in society. The decade commenced with the father of daytime talk, Phil Donahue, going into national syndication (a sign we were ready — nay, wanted — to see real people get in touch with their feelings, even if we didn’t know the end result would be Jerry Springer). The ’70s ended with Dallas’ ”Who Shot J.R.?” cliff-hanger (a sign that we were ready — nay, wanted — to forget all our national troubles and focus on the maiming of a rich guy in a ten-gallon hat: TV as ultimate escapism).
Really, what a schizo time. Newly aware of its role as reflector of society, the tube presented a ceaseless amount of piping-hot news: the Pentagon Papers scandal; Watergate; Nixon’s trips to Peking and Moscow; Nixon’s resignation; the punk-rock explosion. Surrounding all this, entertainment programming reached new peaks of fluffiness; for every great or groundbreaking series — The Mary Tyler Moore Show and All in the Family spring immediately to mind — there was schlock (albeit memorable schlock) epitomized definitively by The Brady Bunch. This even as reality continued to seep in: Bea Arthur’s character got an abortion on Maude, and miniseries like Roots and Holocaust made us confront our past, present, and future.
In between the bests and worsts, the ’70s gave rise to its share of innovation (everything from the increasingly influential Sesame Street to bleak-comic M*A*S*H to what would come to be scornfully called disease-of-the-week movies, beginning with the quality work Brian’s Song). In the exact middle of the decade, Saturday Night Live premiered, providing the next 20 years with some of the most inspired TV satire and many of the worst movie comedies ever made. And there was a refinement of already-established formats, such as the prime-time newsmagazine (60 Minutes came into its own preeminence) and the afternoon soap opera (All My Children hooked millions with carefully paced and spiced storytelling). On the business side, it was largely a period of steady expansion and consolidation: ABC, CBS, and NBC remained the big guns; videotape replaced film as the primary way to capture TV images; and Nielsen began breaking down its findings into something called demographics. All in all, it was a growing stage for TV — an awkward adolescence for a medium continuing to mature in always unexpected ways.
ABC’S WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS: THE AGONY OF DEFEAT
March 21, 1970
Even the most sports-phobic TV viewer has the image stamped indelibly on the brain: Yugoslavian Vinko Bogataj illustrating the ”agony of defeat” by careening off a ramp during the International Ski Flying Championship in Oberstdorf, West Germany. Bogataj not only survived the hideous spill but went on to become a celebrity thanks to ABC’s Wide World of Sports coordinating producer Dennis Lewin, who inserted the segment into the show’s opening credits. Lewin recalls the U.S. ski-jumping team being none too pleased with his use of Vinko’s tumble: ”They thought we were giving the sport a bad name.” Rank 88
MONTY PYTHON: MINISTRY OF SILLY WALKS
Sept. 15, 1970
Who doesn’t crack a smile just thinking of John Cleese’s goofy leg-jiggles in this classic bit from Monty Python’s Flying Circus? Well, John Cleese, for one. ”I’m very glad you’ve chosen one of my least favorite sketches,” he scoffs. No matter. We think the Silly Walks perfectly sum up Python’s absurdist, pomposity-puncturing sketch show. The brilliant BBC boys have left their silly footprint on every TV skit-fest since, from SCTV to Kids in the Hall to today’s Mr. Show. Rank 76