Thursday, January 19, 2017

The First Episode of 20/20 from 1978!

It's a broadcast ABC execs thought was so terrible they fired damn near everybody associated with the program after its first airing. But is the legendary episode as bad as it's reputed and more importantly - is it really any worse than the stuff network news is puttin' out there nowadays?

By: Jimbo X

June 6, 1978. A date that will live in national broadcast infamy.

It was a Tuesday evening, and that night, ABC premiered it's "cutting edge" newsmagazine program 20/20 (also stylized as Twenty/Twenty because it was the late 1970s and marketers didn't really give a shit about brand continuity until at least 1995.) Today, it's remembered as one of the biggest flops in the history of mainstream TV journalism, and trust me - that's saying a whole hell of a lot. In fact, the suits at ABC hated the final product so much they shit-canned damn near everybody associated with its production, including its anchors. For decades, that one-and-done tape was purportedly locked up in the ABC vaults, with a giant sticker on it reading "do not air for any reason ever." Indeed, had it not been for some early VCR adapters, the infamous broadcast probably would remain "lost media" to this day. Fortunately for us, not only did someone have the good sense to record it way back when, it's even found its way on the YouTube in its entirety - complete with all of the original commercials!

So, what was it about this particular program that the ABC higher-ups thought was so god-awful? Well, howzabout we fire this sumbitch up and find it for ourselves, why don't we?

Our cast of roving reporters include Dave Marash, Sander Vanocur, Sylvia Chase, Carl Sagan (yep, that Carl Sagan), Tom Hoving and - hold onto your britches, folks - GERALDO MOTHERFUCKING RIVERA, back when he had a mullet haircut and a mustache that made him look just like famous Mexican rasslin martyr Eddie Guerrero. Our co-hosts are Harold Hayes and Robert Hughes. Hughes, an Aussie, talks about his credentials and Hayes asks him if he snuck into the country illegally. North Carolina native Hayes rolls out his resume and briefly discusses how much he cares about conservation. 

We get a quick preview of the night's stories:

  • Geraldo exposes the seedy secrets of the greyhound racing business - even if it means going undercover wearing the gaudiest red flannel jacket ever cobbled together by starving orphans in a Malaysian sweatbox somewhere.
  • We have a heart to heart with a teary Flip Wilson, who laments all the times he whooped the shit out of his kids (bonus: all of his kids are sitting on a couch beside him, crying their little eyes out, too.)
  • An exclusive interview with California gubner Jerry Brown VIA SATELLITE, back when that kind of thing was new, exciting and just a little erotic.
  • An in-depth feature on the possibility that ordinary Americans could make nuclear bombs in their backyards. 
  • And last - but certainly not least - a retrospective on the tenth anniversary of RFK's assassination.

Well, that sounds like an awfully respectable line up of material, so clearly, the fault isn't in the content, but the execution. And we get a preview of that historically bad execution with a segment called "The Wayward Week," in which Hughes and Hayes quickly rundown the following international happenings: 

  • A tanker in the British Channel gets blown to smithereens to prevent an oil spill
  • Jimmy Carter blasts the USSR and Cuba at a NATO meeting for monkeying around in Africa
  • The Cuban ballet performs at the Kennedy Center for the first time since Castro came to power
  • Our "tops" of the weeks? The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack is the best-selling record, the top rated TV show is a USO Tribute to Bob Hope, the top novel is Sidney Sheldon's Bloodline and out jock of the week is San Fran Giants slugger Mike Ivey, who bopped a grand slam to beat the Dodgers
  • They found an $11 million diamond in Africa, if that means anything to you
  • Feminists want to replace Lady Liberty on the $1 coin with Susan B. Anthony (sheesh, next thing you know, they'll be wanting the right to vote)
  • Inflation is causing beef prices to skyrocket. "Imagine," Hughes quips will pretending to yank a video cassette out VCR unit, "living to become a hamburger."

Geraldo Rivera, seen here back when he was Perro Aguayo's tag team partner.

Now in today's everybody's got ADD world, quick-hit material of the like is pretty much standard operating procedure for news programs, but back in '78, it was considered retarded as shit. Imagine that: the media powers that were criticizing a broadcast for reducing deep, nuanced global matters into pithy and semi-cynical sound bites ... only to embrace them as the only way to do business 40 years down the line. 

Hey, speaking of things that make you want to pluck your own eyeballs out, we've got a piece by Geraldo Rivera up next, and why yes, he looks just like that evil magician motherfucker from Frosty the Snowman made flesh. You don't need to be a vegetarian to understand the "cruelty" of using live bait for greyhound racing, he says. He lets us know that in 1977, the dog racing business generated a good $2 billion, which in 2017 dollars, is roughly $45 quibillionquizillion. The following segment is "graphic," Geraldo says, so parents my want to ask their kids to leave the room. Immediately afterwards, Hughes gleefully declares "let's watch it!" with the kind of juvenile enthusiasm usually reserved for 12-year-olds getting to see their first uncut Friday the 13th movie.

And we waste no time at all getting into Cannibal Holocaust territory, as we see a real rabbit getting its guts torn asunder by a greyhound. "Jackrabbits are good for nothing," one breeder says. "I don't think there's anything wrong with it, in any shape or form." Another breeder asks why the media gets so upset about "coursing" but don't none of 'em give a shit about all them people getting killed in drag races. In Kansas, we learn the National Greyhound Association hosts an annual "coursing week" - per most trainers, a dog needs at least three or four kills before they understand they need to chase the mechanical rabbit at the racetrack.

Meanwhile, there's this other breeder in Modesto, Calif. who think killing live bait is wrong with a capital "W" so he decided to build his own dirt track in his backyard where he hangs an old animal hide on this mechanical contraption that revolves 'round and 'round. The attraction draws more sensitive greyhound breeders from all over the country, Senor Geraldo tells us. 

A Humane Society rep talks about how grossed out he was this one time a sixth grade teacher brought her entire class to a coursing field trip. Then we get a field shot of Geraldo rocking a plaid jacket and a crimson neckerchief. He shows us the oil fields of West Texas, ground zero for the nation's illicit jackrabbit trade (they usually go for about $6 a critter, in '78 dollars.) They run into this one jackrabbit trader, but he don't want to talk on camera. So, the usual scrupulous sorts they are, they get two cameramen to pretend to be interested in buying jackrabbits and Geraldo and pals hide out in the wilderness and try to capture the deal with night vision cameras. He tells them that as long as they mark the cargo boxes "for eating purposes only," they can ship the rabbits wherever they damn well please. Florida and Kansas are the largest consumers of jackrabbit - naturally, Geraldo just frees the rabbits he acquired back into the wild.

A USDA rep explains how, technically, coursing isn't the same thing as dogfighting, so the feds really can't do shit about it. Bob Dole says he backs a bill that would outlaw public coursing in Kansas, and my goodness, does he look awkward as fuck verbally fumbling to and fro on camera. Shirking objectivity, Geraldo says this is "a petty barbarism" he hopes Congress gets around to addressing sometime soon. 

20/20 is brought to you by American Express. Now who's ready for some vintage old school commercials? Gunther Gebel Williams hawks AmEx with a fucking cheetah on his book. "Michelob Light is what light beer is all about" because "good taste runs in the family."

Admittedly, I've fapped to worse things than nearly 40 year old over the counter drug commercials.

Back to the show. We're used to seeing Flip Wilson "funky and funny," but Hayes wonders why he dropped out of show biz about five years ago. Time for a catch-up interview with him and his three kids in Malibu - he won custody of all of them after a bitter break up with his wife, and every last one of them have the most uncomfortably vacant stares you've ever seen in your life.

"If women are going to be liberated, men have to liberate themselves, also," Flip says. Get ready for some creepy shit when he talks about watching his eldest daughter's "breasts grow," complete with pantomiming an expanding bosom. He also says some stuff about his daughter "asking where's the bubble bath," whose connotation I'm not entirely sure of but nonetheless fairly certain is something you DO NOT want a daddy saying about his daughter on national television.

He's only spanked his kids three, possibly four times. He says he was wrong two of those times. He lays out his spanking protocol (the other two kids are always present to be "judges") and he talks about waking up his youngest in the middle of the night and whipping her and making her recite an apologetic refrain, but since she didn't start crying, he KEPT beating the hell out of her. "It concluded with her saying 'daddy, when is enough?' and that was it. She never cried and I never spanked her again," he said. He just couldn't believe his kids were "that good," he concludes the interview.

Commercial break number two! We've got a Hartford Insurance ad with a deer walking around a worksite. Polaroid POLAVISION motherfuckers! How effective is Ban Roll-On deodorant? So effective you won't sweat while people take pictures of you dressed as a cheerleader at your college's fifth anniversary get-together (side note: good God, late '70s women are just the hottest.) Richard Dawson hosts the fifth annual Daytime Emmys on Wednesday afternoon and Hal Lindon reveals "Are You A Missing Heir" this Thursday at 10 p.m.!

The face of pure evil.

Our word of the week is "exegesis." Actually, they do a word of the week after every commercial break. For the Flip Wilson segment, it was "arcane."

"Building your own nuclear bomb - a fantasy on Spider-Man, but a reality to Joe Owens." Yes, they actually do include brief scenes from that long-forgotten live-action Spider-Man TV show during the intro. We learn about this scrawny mustachioed kid who threatened Orlando with a (non-working) nuclear device in 1970. Surprisingly, he only got a suspended sentence and court-ordered psychiatric help (if he was any shade darker than a Hershey's Cookies N Creme bar, we all know his ass would be sitting in Guantanamo Bay right now.) Owens explains how an unnamed sci-fi book gave him the idea and then there's an interview with former Orlando Police Chief Robert J. Chewning. He recounts getting letters about a dirty bomb and a diagram of a nuke. He sent it to an actual nuclear physicist and he said "yep, all the essential parts are there for a real bomb." Per another nuclear security expert, at least 8,000 pounds of enriched uranium ends up going missing in the U.S. each year. "You're going to need about 12 to 20 for an effective weapon," he said. "You divide that out of 8,000 and that makes an awful lot of potential for nuclear weapons."

There is a quick vignette about the Nuclear Emergency Support Team (NEST), whose job is to root out dirty bombs coast-to-coast. We see clips from a training simulation video on how to defuse atomic devices, and a recount of a threat in L.A. in the mid 1970s - and along with one more empty threat, those are the only incidents NEST has had to deal with (hooray for frivolous use of taxpayer dollars!) According to John Glenn, the problem isn't breaking the news without scaring the general public, but getting them to give a shit that some Iranian fella' might try to set a bucket of polonium on fire with a Bic lighter at the World Series. We'll be showing part two of the series next Thursday (although I'm not entirely sure it did air - I'm sure somebody out there on the Internet with more autism than me can give you the skinny, pending you know the right Google terms to plug in.)

Time for another commercial break! Fuck Aspirin, take Bufferin! Lose your wallet while on vacation? No worries, 'cause AmEx traveler checks will keep you from being thrown into an Egyptian prison and getting gang raped to death. And this Friday night, Ken Norton fights Larry Holmes LIVE on free network TV! Shit, you'd have to do a lot of stumbling through the live streams on Reddit ... I mean, pay the full $54.99 PPV asking price ... to catch a fight of that caliber these days.

We get a montage set to "California Dreamin'" with images of Charles Manson and a topless theater as a segue to an interview with Jerry Brown. They say he wants to run for President in 1980, but California tax reform threatens to shred the state budget by half. Roving reporter Sylvia is with this guy named Frank Lanterman, who has been a state assemblyman of California since the Aztecs got chased out of Sacramento. He says he's calling it quits because Jerry Brown is "the gay troubadour of rhetoric" who sometimes uses upwards of six buzzwords in one commercial.

Is Brown "too California weird?" We go to an interview with Brown's sister, whose married name is literally "Brown Rice." She also rocks this banging chrome pink lip gloss I really wish would come back into vogue. "Well, he is unusual," she says. "The interviewer asks if Brown's platform is politically dishonest sine he uses tautologies all the time - "statements that are true but devoid of any real meaning." Her reply? "I think there is a method to his madness."

Well, if you didn't already hate Jimmy Carter...

The reporters break the fourth wall constantly to talk to the audience. Next up? An interview with Jerry Brown's mama. She says she has "mixed emotions" about her son running for president, which has to be the most ringing political endorsement anyone has ever received: when your own mother is on the fence about voting for you, you KNOW your campaign is going to be a tough 'un. 

Another commercial break! Buy Fireman's Fund Insurance, because our spokespeople wear fireman hats. Here's that Michelob Light photo with all the rich white people on a boat again. Did you know that Red Lobsters has over 30 different choices, prepared just the way you like? And later tonight, ABC is airing Soap, which from my recollections of the reruns, sucked.

A projector screen falls down and here's that heavily hyped Jerry Brown interview - a total four minute snoozer. The best part had to be at the very end, when Brown is asked what he thought of his daddy's advice to NOT run against Carter in 1980 and he aloofly responds "you know, I think that's a good idea." Fuck, talk about anticlimactic!

And here's the infamous Jimmy Carter claymation "Georgia On My Mind" spot, complete with dancing peanuts. This segment pretty much single-handedly got the show's producers shit-canned and damn near got the entire program cancelled, and it's as bad as you'd imagine it to be. Hell, if you think it's weird watching a Play Doh president make out with the moon, just wait until you see him slake his jumbo-sized minstrel show lips on an anthropomorphized map of Georgia!

And here's one last commercial break! Use your "surprisingly affordable" Cannon AE-1 to take pictures of golfers. And here's the Fireman's Fund again. 

Time for a recap of the Arlington National Cemetery ceremony for RFK. Sam Donaldson chit-chats with ted Kennedy, back before he looked like a John Madden impersonator. "He moved mole hills and changed tides," Tedward recounts. "He like to challenged people to be better than themselves. The crappy editing is on full display here. Indeed, it really makes you appreciate Final Cut Pro - seriously, you can make a more professional looking video with iMovie in about five minutes.

"Courage, we're all in it together," Hughes signs off. A Claymation Walter Cronkite makes a paper airplane while the beyond horrendous 20/20 theme song plays, and that is all she wrote, kids.

I, for one, couldn't think of a more fitting backdrop for this particular broadcast.

Well, it wasn't exactly the best hour of hard hitting journalism ABC has ever produced, but with the exception of that gloriously awful Jimmy Carter skit, I really can't think of anything too offensive about the program. In fact, in many ways, its sardonic, quick-hit structure almost seems to portend the modern news program - all emotional appeals, all brusque sensationalism and barely enough information on anything to make anyone even remotely versed on the attempted agenda being set. Sure, compared to 60 Minutes it was a total turd, but compared to what flies for "news" on Dateline nowadays, it's difficult to find anything about this historically bad broadcast that I'd consider less professional than what's being jammed down our gullets right now. 

A holier than thou "outrage" piece engineered to make you despise a fringe subculture? A horribly butchered sit-down with a washed-up celebrity meant to display him as a has-been kook? A scare-piece that trudges up a non-incident from almost a decade earlier as an uneasy segue to discuss an incredibly unlikely national security risk? A catty, cynical profile of a political up-and-comer, clearly meant to break him down before he even gets his formal campaign up and running? All of that shit is part and parcel of what contemporary broadcast journalism is, and in that, the much maligned 20/20 debut - if absolutely nothing else - is noteworthy for giving us a glimpse into the far less scrupulous future of the medium a good half a century in advance. 

Of course, 20/20 continues to chug along today despite that hilarious faceplant of a debut. ABC immediately wedged in Hugh Downs as the show's anchor and with the help of longtime broadcast stalwarts John Stossel and Barbara Walters, turned into quite the reliable ratings grabber throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. While today it's more of a single-issue newscast than the old variety grab bag of yore, you can still feel the show's original spirit of half-assed sensationalism each and every Friday night - and every other night there's some kind of glib newsmagazine broadcast on the airwaves, for that matter. While nothing more than a blatant attempt to ape the success of 60 Minutes, one could argue that 20/20, in the long haul, has had a much greater impact on the business of broadcast news, in a way, setting the medium's current snotty template for info/propaganda delivery.

And to think - the Rosetta Stone of modern broadcast "journalism" has its roots not in the work of Edward R. Murrow or Mike Wallace, but this Shockmaster-level network TV disaster revolving around Geraldo, rabbit torture and claymation Jimmy Carters. Some legacy to be proud of, huh?


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