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Guest Commentary: Recalling TV’s Greatest Night of Programming

Aug 24, 2008  •  Post A Comment

More than halfway through 2008, it already seems safe to call the television year one for the ages, from strikes to cable’s continued insurgence to presidential campaign coverage. Banner times.
But as noteworthy for what it’s seen is what 2008 represents: The anniversary year of the arrival of some landmark television, including “Sex and the City” (10th), “Roseanne” and “Murphy Brown” (20th), “20/20” (30th), “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” and “60 Minutes” (40th), “Naked City” (50th) and “Texaco Star Theater” and “Candid Camera” (60th). All of it’s worth acknowledging for what it says about what does and still can make TV great.
And then there’s one all-but-forgotten milestone.
This year marks the 35th anniversary of what’s simply known as the Greatest Night of Programming in television history—CBS’ 1973-74 Saturday night lineup of “All in the Family,” “M*A*S*H,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The Bob Newhart Show” and “The Carol Burnett Show,” a quintet of some of TV’s best series in first-run, not just on the same network in the same season, but on the same night. (And yes, it was a Saturday.) A generation after the Golden 1950s, prime-time television didn’t get more gilded than this.
The lineup came in the wake of CBS’ infamous rural expurgation of 1971, as the network reshaped its landscape to reflect changing times and to lure more urban (read: moneyed) viewers. The result was a fortification of its already considerable No. 1 standing. By the 1973-74 season, that yielded the luxury of assembling five of its best on a single night, one it dominated anyway but lacking in compatibility and flow, more by default than by design. (“Petticoat Junction” and “Hogan’s Heroes”?) CBS found both come Sept. 15, with a seamless night of “Must-See TV” 20 years before the phrase was de rigueur lingo.
Imagine (and these days it really does require imagination): “All in the Family” at 8 o’clock (entering its fourth season), “M*A*S*H” at 8:30 (second), “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” at 9 (fourth), “The Bob Newhart Show” at 9:30 (second) and “The Carol Burnett Show” at 10 (seventh). Three of the best hours of TV, back-to-back on a single night, scaling new comedic heights. The season of Edith’s breast-cancer scare and George Jefferson’s emergence on “All in the Family”; of the introductions of Colonel Flagg and Sidney Freedman to “M*A*S*H”; of Lou Grant’s seminal divorce and of Ted Baxter’s introduction to Walter Cronkite on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”; of Bob Hartley’s loss of an IQ race to wife Emily on “The Bob Newhart Show”; of the award-winning trip to Sydney, Australia, for “The Carol Burnett Show.”
Week after week there was an unparalleled blend of 1950s-trained veterans who launched the medium (Lear, Gelbart, Rhine and Tolkin, Schiller and Weiskopf, Fritzell and Greenbaum) and small-screen newcomers (Levinson and Curtin, Patchett and Tarses, Levine and Isaacs, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, Gary David Goldberg, Glen and Les Charles) seeding the landscape to change it. They worked hard for laughs that came from craft and character, not just keystrokes.
(Might today’s comedy writers take a lesson, for the sake of both their longevity and the genre’s?)
The payoff? The lineup claimed an incredible 14 Emmys at season’s end—no fewer than seven for its actors, two for Treva Silverman’s then-revolutionary divorce-themed script for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” called “The Lou and Edie Story,” two for directing (“M*A*S*H” and “Carol Burnett”), comedy series (“M*A*S*H”) and variety series (“Burnett”). Fourteen wins from one night.
Alas, as with most rare phenomena, the CBS lineup of that long-ago Saturday was short-lived, lasting but a season before CBS shuffled its weekly deck. The results were mixed; the Saturdays, not as potent.
Eventually, the night fell apart completely, its 1973-74 class a mere memory. It remained in disrepair for 15 years until it found life first with (and here’s an irony) rural programming and then with a stew of repeats and reality and news programming. But the night never again reached the comic heights of the 1970s.
Thirty-five years on, it’s not unjust to report that the CBS Saturday of 1973 has never been duplicated anywhere. (That’s either a good thing, or not.) There’s never again been that top-to-bottom night-long mix of quality and appeal. (Full disclosure: I worked at the Eye network until recently, but I came to it a full two decades after that starry influential season.)
NBC came close in 1982 with its “Fame”/“Cheers”/“Taxi”/“Hill Street Blues” Thursdays. ABC locked down some impressive Friday blocks that decade as well, but with considerably lesser fare. And Fox scored some Sunday highs in the 1990s with “The X-Files” and its animated series—but never with a night-long block.
No, CBS’ 1973-74 Saturday night was but a brief shining moment of television Camelot, revered then and especially now by those of us compelled by the small screen and all that it can be.
Displayed on a wall of my home, in fact, is a gift of a few years back—a framed collection of five original TV Guide covers circa 1973: “All in the Family,” “M*A*S*H,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The Bob Newhart Show” and “The Carol Burnett Show.” Engraved at the bottom: “Television’s Greatest Night.”
And it was.
Happy anniversary.
Jim McKairnes is senior VP of development and strategic planning for CBS Paramount Television.

5 Comments

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