So now we’re time-travelling back to the 1975-76 TV season for the short-lived western/spy/con artist series Barbary Coast. We watched the pilot movie a few weeks ago and I thought it was flawed, but entertaining. For the series, Doug McClure took over the role of casino owner Cash Conover, and they seem to have dropped the shtick of him being incredibly superstitious. Bobbi Jordan was back for this one episode as Flame, but no more than this. The actress was committed to a sitcom on CBS called Joe and Sons.
And speaking of sitcoms on CBS, one reason this show only lasted thirteen episodes is that ABC showed it on Monday evenings at 8, opposite the first half of CBS’s juggernaut comedy lineup of Rhoda, Phyllis, All in the Family, and Maude. But as we saw when we talked about the 1968-69 season of The Avengers, networks can’t just give up and they have to try something. So a Western where William Shatner plays a master of disguise is certainly an original idea for counterprogramming, even if it wasn’t a successful one.
It wasn’t very successful with our son, either. He got hung up on Richard Kiel, in his role of hawker – slash – bouncer, yelling at the crowds on the mud-soaked streets to come in to the casino to see the elephant. Since we had to pause to explain that was just banter and nobody who came in seriously expected to see an elephant, the scheme to get a crooked banker played by Pat Hingle to open his vault in time for treasury agents to enter the room to find it full of counterfeit cash was really over his head. I enjoyed it enough for us all, I think.
But I do want to talk about another possible reason, albeit an oddball one, that Barbary Coast was doomed from the outset: there was too much television to watch that season. In fact, I’ll make the argument that the 1975-76 season might just have been American TV’s best year ever.
Despite this being, by the nature of what we’re doing, a nostalgia blog, I try not to think that the media of the past, generally, is somehow more worthwhile than modern popular culture. But we’ve had decades of evidence in the way that consumers approach media – television and music especially – to see that audiences reach a saturation point, somewhere in their thirties. It’s only very rare individuals, and a very small percentage of the audience, who keep tuning into more and more programming as they age. I spent most of my thirties trying to buy at least two new CDs, from reasonably new artists, every month. Eventually I found that I was listening to them maybe twice, max. I’m happier just listening to college radio when I can. I hear new music, I can thrill at the novelty, and hope it sells well to people half my age.
You should definitely check out my blogroll there on the left-hand side of the page. There are some great blogs that dig over old TV. I often don’t agree with the rose-colored glasses some of my fellow commentators wear, but David Hofstede’s Comfort TV had a stunningly good post earlier this month called The De-Valuation of Television which I found quite interesting. In 1975, for example, pretty much every adult in the country knew what All in the Family was, even if they didn’t watch it. Seven out of eight households didn’t on any given night, but one of eight is still an astonishing number. Now compare that with the current media darling The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which I’m told is a very entertaining and funny show. Fewer than one in a hundred watches it, and don’t tell me that pretty much every adult in the country knows what it is.
The honest fact, as we consider television today, is that there’s more media out there to consume than anybody realistically has time for, unless it’s their job. But that’s always been the case. There are nights where most people do not want to sit down and watch television. Yet in September 1975, there were so many good programs on in prime time that nobody could realistically be expected to watch even half of the good ones. And this was before VCRs were commonplace!
Don’t believe me? Well, set aside the second season of Land of the Lost, which probably wins the argument for this being American television’s best year on its own, and look what was in prime time. If Wikipedia’s accurate, and it often isn’t, then here’s what you could watch, new, every night in 1975. For comedy, CBS ruled everything, with the killer lineup of Rhoda, Phyllis, All in the Family, and Maude on Mondays, and Good Times, M*A*S*H, The Jeffersons, Chico and the Man, One Day at a Time, Bob Newhart, Carol Burnett, and Mary Tyler Moore sprinkled throughout the rest of the week. ABC had Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Barney Miller, and Welcome Back, Kotter.
You want cops and detectives? Quinn Martin’s company alone produced Cannon, Barnaby Jones and The Streets of San Francisco. That’s two amusing shows and a fantastic one. You also had The Rockford Files, Ellery Queen, the second season of Harry O, Kojak, Police Story, plus about ten others I either don’t know or don’t care for. Toward the end of the season, there was the brilliant City of Angels, which nobody remembers, but man, they should. The NBC Mystery Movie had its usual entertaining lineup of Columbo, McMillan & Wife, and McCloud. They were joined this season by a show I would love to see. It was called McCoy, because they needed three Mcs that year or something, and it starred Tony Curtis as a con artist. And if you liked con artists, Robert Wagner and Eddie Albert were teamed up in the mostly-forgotten Switch, which ran for three years. My parents loved that show and I would like to see it somewhere other than YouTube one day.
This was also the year of The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, the World War Two episodes of Wonder Woman, David McCallum in The Invisible Man, and that Swiss Family Robinson show that time has also forgotten. And that’s just the American shows!
So that’s my theory on the bigger picture about Barbary Coast lasting only thirteen weeks. There were so many other things to watch that when Monday at 8 rolled around, just about the entire potential audience wanted to take a break from TV and read a book or go jogging or play a board game or something!