Networking


Not long ago I received an email entitled “The ABC Insider,” with news and views about ABC’s programming season. I glanced through their schedule, and their ads, and their promos, and I found myself thinking: Yeah, it looks like ABC.

And then I stopped and wondered: what did I mean by that?

When I was a kid in the 1960s and early 1970s, we pretty much subsisted on programming from the Big Three: ABC, CBS, and NBC.  Somehow, each network managed to have a personality (we call it “branding” nowadays). I never really thought about it at the time, but I think about it now, and it was real then, and it’s real now.

I managed to put myself into a kind of memory trance to dredge up recollections of programs I watched in those days, and I tried also to remember what network they were on. It was surprisingly easy. (I went through later, using that new invention “The Internet,” to verify my recollections, and I was right in every instance.)  I then looked for a thread that ran through the programming in each network’s case, and in each case I didn’t have to look very hard.

NBC was in those days the sophisticated network: “Laugh-In.” “The Tonight Show.” Later, “Julia” (“brought to you with pride . . . by Jello”). NBC was urban in a kind of wink-wink Playboy Club way, or in a dignified dinner-party way. It was For Grownups, or For Those Who Wanted To Believe They Were Grownups.

CBS churned out variety shows: Red Skelton, Gary Moore, Carol Burnett, Jackie Gleason. They were the home of all those hick comedies like “Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres” and “Petticoat Junction.” And, of course, they were the home of Lucille Ball. CBS was almostvaudeville. I remember when I went to college in Spokane in 1974, the local CBS affiliate’s office still had the old mid-60s network slogan on its facade, “The Stars’ Address.” CBS was all about personalities: familiar names, proven talent. And not just Entertainment, but FamilyEntertainment. No grin-grin wink-wink here; everything was broad and obvious. This was the network that churned out “Hee Haw” a few years later.

ABC was all over the map. “Hollywood Palace.”  “Peyton Place.”  “Garrison’s Gorillas.”  “Alias Smith and Jones.”  “Batman.”  “Bewitched.”  “That Girl.”  With very few exceptions, they were half-hour shows, brittle and jokey, or broad and soapy. ABC was almost the 1960s equivalent of the Fox Network. Most of all, ABC skewed young: bright new faces, chirpy comedies.

All these decades later, it continues. I look at a show like “The Ghost Whisperer,” earnest and cute and mock-dramatic, and I think: yeah, CBS. And I look at something kooky and snapping-fingers hip like “Lost,” and I think: yeah, probably ABC.

But now there’s a channel for everything. (I have a fond memory of the episode of “Married with Children” when they first got cable: “What’s this?” “The Japanese Channel.” Click. “What’s this?” “The Stained Glass Network.”) But a network/channel like that isn’t really the same thing. It’s like a store that sells only Scotch Tape. The three big networks in the 1960s were like full-range department stores, each with a slightly different feel: upscale, midrange, family-friendly, bargain-basement.

(But the deepest mystery of all is this: what in the world is going on inside the brain of a fifty-five-year-old man who has to concentrate hard to remember today’s date, but who can still remember what network “Garrison’s Gorillas” was on, forty-five years later?)


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About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to futureworld@cox.net.

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