Those ‘70s Shows
Noel Holston - 1/6/2014
In the 1970s, television caught up with the ’60s.
While the times were a changing at warp speed in the decade of political assassinations, protests, pot smoke and flower-power, the Big Three networks were still broadcasting Bonanza, Bewitched and The Beverly Hillbillies. They weren’t so much in denial as they were baffled at the prospect of programming for an increasingly polarized nation.
By the 1970s, as the January 14 resumption of our “Peabody Decades” series will demonstrate, the networks began to figure it out.
These are some of the archived shows from which excerpts will be shown as part of America in the 1970s: Express Yourself, an admission-free, 7 p.m. program in the auditorium of UGA’s Russell Special Collections Library:
The Flip Wilson Show – In retrospect an even bigger breakthrough than it seemed at the time of its 1970 Peabody Award, Wilson’s comedy-variety hour brought to prime time a brand of African-American humor, both street- and church-wise, that was theretofore unknown. It became for a time TV’s “ Church of the What’s Happenin’ Now,” a huge, mass-audience hit. And the achievement is all the more amazing when you consider that just 15 years earlier, NBC had to cancel the mellower, more middlebrow Nat King Cole Show for lack of a sponsor.
All in the Family – One of the first shows CBS green-lighted when its programmers decided their popular rural sitcoms were not the wave of the future, Norman Lear’s comedy pitted blue-collar bigot Archie Bunker against his “dingbat” wife Edith, “meathead” son-in-law Mike Stivic, and a variety of nonwhite and/or liberal neighbors and relatives. It was a political cartoon come to life, with characters bandying real-life epithets and insults that had never been voiced on television. America couldn’t believe its ears – and quickly went nuts for it.
Roots—A melodrama based on Alex Haley’s best-seller about his efforts to trace his ancestry back to pre-slavery Africa, the miniseries became a cultural phenomenon, confronting America with its ugliest history and celebrating the resilience and resourcefulness of those who fought or simply endured it. Roots’ popular success stunned almost everybody, including ABC, the network that commissioned it. It started a conversation about race and made genealogy a national craze.
Free to Be … You and Me – With help from show-biz friends from Mel Brooks to Michael Jackson, Marlo (That Girl) Thomas put together a special about gender stereotyping that was a radical as it was charming.
M*A*S*H – Though set during the Korean War, everybody who watched this brilliant, oxymoronic comedy about warzone surgeons knew it was really a commentary on America’s involvement in Vietnam. It questioned authority, championed individuality, laughed at pomposity and wept at the insanity of war. When it ended its run, 125 million people watched the finale.
In addition to these landmark shows, Express Yourself will include clips of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (the first Saturday morning kids series with predominantly black characters); Liza Minnelli’s showstopper spectacular Liza with a Z; terrorism and tragedy at the the 1972 Munich Olympics; Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who; and an NBC News special bemoaning and investigating the growing “disunity in America.”
As a children’s show host who become an icon in the 1970s might have put it, “Can you say ‘relevant”?”
About the author: Noel Holston, the Peabody Awards’ public relations coordinator, spent three decades writing about television and popular culture for The Orlando Sentinel, the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and New York’s Newsday. His critiques, profiles and feature articles have appeared in more than 100 newspapers and magazines.