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?)

London 2012: the opening ceremonies


I think the Olympics are great. I especially like the opening ceremony.



Actually, the opening ceremony is pretty much the only thing I like. I find the athletic events dull. (Over the past few days I have watched bits of volleyball, and cycling, and swimming, and I cannot stifle my yawns.)



But the opening ceremonies – yowzah! They are an opportunity for the host country to tell a story about itself. We all remember the powerfully choreographed opening of the Beijing Olympics, with 2008 drummers in sync with one another, and later the adorable children from all over China, in ethnic costumes. (I vaguely recall that one of the children was lip-synching a song, but let us not speak of that.) I also recall the Vancouver Olympics, with a sort of rippling pool of light in which we saw Native American images, and a huge bear, and fiddlers, and – well, all kinds of things.



The London ceremony was huge, and sloppy, and very endearing. We knew in advance that it was going to be the “English countryside,” and snippy commentators were predicting sheep and cottages. Well, we did in fact get sheep and cottages. We also got the countryside (literally) rolled away. We got the World-Tree ripped from the top of Glastonbury Tor. We got Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” growing out of the floor. We got suffragettes, and the Jarrow Marchers, and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.



Danny Boyle, the director of “Slumdog Millionaire,” did a wonderful thing: he tried his very best to include everything. And I think he may well have succeeded. (I think he put up a posterboard: “What is the UK?” And he, and everyone, put up notes, for days and days. And he included everything that everyone suggested.)



We got music, and weather reports, and Sir Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod,” and “Jerusalem.” We got J. K. Rowling. We got Tim Berners-Lee. We got the Stones, and Cruella de Ville. We got Paul McCartney! We got the Sex Pistols. We got the Queen (the actual Queen!) and her corgis, with Daniel Craig as James Bond. We got allusions to Austin Powers and J. R. R. Tolkien. We got Kenneth Branagh as Isambard Kingdom Brunel.



We got an elaborate salute to the UK’s National Health Service, right in front of Mitt and Ann Romney, and I would have loved to ask them how they enjoyed it.



The Beijing ceremony in 2008 was about unity and power. The London ceremony was about diversity. The choreography – dear God! – was elaborate in the extreme, but it seemed almost random: groups of marchers drifting together, marching through one another’s ranks, and separating again.



One of the Financial Times commentators last weekend said, nicely: “The parts that didn’t work highlighted the parts that did.” Exactly right. The rock-and-roll section was a little long, and maybe Rowan Atkinson / Mister Bean was a little over-the-top, but it all worked. (A lot of people on Tumblr seem to think that the Olympic cauldron, which only came together in the last moments of the ceremony, was the Eye of Sauron. I don’t think so. But – who knows?)



Sadly, I had to watch this ceremony on American television, on NBC. Matt Lauer (whom I thought was smarter than this) treated it as the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, and  giggled and talked through the whole thing. Bob Costas (to whom I am used by now, after many Olympics) thinks he has to do color commentary through the whole thing. My Tumblr idol, wellthatsjustgreat, wrote some wonderfully scathing commentary on Messrs. Lauer and Costas, which I encourage you to read. In effect, they almost ruined the thing, especially the Parade of Nations. (Well, NBC helped; they decided that we didn’t need to see whole chunks of the ceremony, and dumped in a fatuous interview with Michael Phelps. Also, I am told by a correspondent in the UK that the BBC coverage was even worse.)



I have the ceremony on the DVR. I have already watched bits over again. I still haven’t gotten all of the British-culture references. I probably never will.



It was wonderful, nonetheless.


(And now I have to go back and watch the Vancouver ceremony from 2010, because I still don’t have all of that one figured out either.)


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