1972: The TV Season That Changed How We Watched TV
Gather ‘round, children, and hear of the famous TV sitcom lineups of the 1972 season.
Fifty years ago — believe it or not — as the new season was just getting underway, the television landscape looked vastly different from what we see today. There were still only three major networks, no pay channels, and very rare and limited cable. Plus, there were no VCRs in the average home, and a good number of televisions didn’t have remotes, either.
No need to be frightened — things got better, more or less.
The 1972-’73 season seemed to mark a major evolutionary shift, when — on Friday and Saturday nights, anyway — programmers slithered out of their primordial ooze and, once on dry land and ensconced in their networks’ headquarters on Manhattan’s 6th Avenue, began to realize the true potential of “block” programming, which involved a bit of strategy, promotional aptitude, and even a bit of mass psychology thrown in.
Block programming is the practice of scheduling a string of programs together on a given evening to create a TV palate for which the average viewer would stay put, and not bother to switch channels for the offerings of a competing network. It made more sense long ago, when the aforementioned TV remote had yet to become commonplace, and the Great American TV Viewer hated bothering to get up from the comfy chair to change channels every hour or half-hour.
But even with remotes, and voice-activated Alexa and her digital relatives, block programming is still being used today. Take a look at NBC’s current and massively promoted block of mid-week prime time dramas. You may detect a theme for each of these nights:
8 p.m.: Chicago Med
9 p.m.: Chicago Fire
10 p.m.: Chicago P.D.
8 p.m.: Law & Order
9 p.m.: Law & Order: SVU
10 p.m.: Law & Order: Organized Crime
Block programming has been around for ages; sitcoms would often be grouped together on certain nights of network schedules, as would dramas and other genres. But for the most part, and for the first two full decades of network programming, an evening of prime time often looked a bit haphazard — a solitary sitcom might begin the night, followed by a movie, followed by a detective show — there rarely seemed to be much sense to it, even as we sauntered in our bell-bottoms into the 1970s.
But things began to fall into shape properly with that ‘72-’73 season. Here’s the Friday prime time schedule for the new season 50 years ago, a.k.a the one everyone remembers (even though this lineup was already in place the previous year):
8:00 p.m.: The Brady Bunch
8:30 p.m.: The Partridge Family
9:00 p.m.: Room 222
9:30 p.m.: The Odd Couple
10:00 p.m. Love, American Style
For millions of viewers on Friday nights, it was an enjoyable way to release the pressures of the week, be it from work or at school, and with the whole weekend still ahead.
For the following evening on Saturday, CBS offered this lineup of laughs:
8:00 p.m.: All in the Family
8:30 p.m.: Bridget Loves Bernie
9:00 p.m.: The Mary Tyler Moore Show
9:30 p.m.: The Bob Newhart Show
And to put a cap on this lineup of frivolity…
10:00 p.m.: Mission: Impossible
Wait, really? Where’s The Carol Burnett Show?
Indeed. Changes would soon be afoot, though. Actually, The Carol Burnett Show aired on Wednesday nights at 8 o’clock in ’72-’73, but would take its place at 10:00 p.m. on Saturdays the following season.
All in the Family first aired as a mid-season replacement on Tuesdays in January of 1971, but didn’t see its audience grow until the summer rerun season. It then exploded into the American pop culture consciousness, taking the 8:00 p.m. slot on Saturdays. Aside from its unprecedented influence on situation comedies and TV in general —about which we can go into detail at another time — the show quickly become so popular that before its first full season was over, scheduling restaurant reservations and social engagements were put off until after the 8:00–8:30 time period, and Saturday nights didn’t begin in earnest for millions until the AITF episode ended. It was the show people talked about the next day.
But we can, if we’re being honest, allow ourselves to re-evaluate these shows and conclude that some of them simply were not very good, then or now. The superior sitcoms in each lineup speak for themselves (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show), whether their long-term success is measured via ratings, Emmy awards, or other means.
As for some of the others…
Nostalgia notwithstanding (what a great name for a podcast), if we examine the writing, acting and production values of several of these sitcoms with a cold eye — and with the benefit of several decades — we can’t say that ABC’s The Partridge Family or CBS’s Bridget Loves Bernie deserve to be ranked among the best sitcoms TV had to offer at the time. They are better suited to another list — and not a very flattering one.
Bridget Loves Bernie lasted a single season, thanks to its inexcusable barrage of sledge hammer Jewish and Irish stereotypes. Despite its talented cast, a little of the show (about ten minutes’ worth ) went a long way. It was replaced in its time slot the following season by M*A* S*H.
Back at ABC, the Brady Bunch thrived, and in the decades since its final episode in 1974, seems to have achieved nearly untouchable status as a program inexplicably near and dear to the hearts of a particular sub-generation of baby-boomers. But the show’s family of characters, and their relation to reality in any way, shape, or form was strictly coincidental.
Room 222, while perhaps not a sitcom in the traditional sense, was an earnest attempt to mix humor with drama as it tackled the day’s relevant social issues as seen through the perspective of high school students and their teachers.
The Odd Couple premiered in September of 1970 on ABC. Interestingly, the program wasn’t the only Neil Simon-inspired series to premiere that night — and on the same network! A black cast version of Barefoot in the Park began its brief run (12 episodes)as The Odd Couple’s lead-in.
A few words about Love, American Style, which debuted in 1969 and joined the Friday night lineup in 1971, represented a fascinating shift in content for TV comedy.
Comprised usually of two or three playlets loaded with familiar guest stars each week, plus many more who were still on their way up, we can view Love, American Style in hindsight as a true bridge between the standard, safe, squeaky-clean sitcom humor of the 1960s, and the more permissive themes of the new decade. The comic stories often took on themes such as pre-marital sex, infidelity, the “generation gap,” even light drug use, in ways that weren’t even attempted on prime time TV just a few years before (granted, the 10:00 p.m. time slot may have given Love American Style a bit more leeway that regard). Not all of the sketches reached their full potential, perhaps, and more than a few are, shall we say, “of their time,” but looking back on it now, that’s the charm of the show. And, several TV writers and directors who worked on it were to achieve great success later, such as Susan Harris, future creator of Soap and The Golden Girls.
Whether you loved or despised some or most of the programs forming these lineups half a century ago, nostalgia seems to always win out, as proven by the number of cable channels devoted to “classic” TV — MeTV, Cozi, Decades, Antenna TV, Comet, and TV Land (you have to pay for that one these days). Sometimes creative quality need not be among the qualifications for us to hold a show from years past in a wistful regard.
Until next time…
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