You often hear the complaint that modern television is terrible, followed up by the question: “Why can’t they make good programs like they used to in the old days?” Most often this lament is linked to the prevalence of reality programs. While I completely agree that there’s a great deal of bad TV on the air right now, I have to snicker at the second part of the comment. TV? Better in the old days? You must either be 19 years old or have a very short memory.
TV, at its core, has always served the basest instincts of the public. Deep at heart. people like to watch train wrecks. They like seeing celebrities being celebrities, and they also like seeing ordinary people being ordinary people. They’d much rather tune into something like Dancing with the Stars than they would to something such as I, Claudius. This is true now, and it was true in the past. Reality programming has been around for a long time.
The late 1970s and early 1980s, as an example, was rife with this kind of television. The most egregious trend of the decade involved lining up a slew of well-known stars for special programming in hopes that people would watch just to see their favorites. It mattered not how good the program actually was. The more stars, the more people who would tune in, and the more advertising dollars the networks could charge. Thus we get programs like Playboy’s Roller Disco and Pajama Party. This 1979 special featured not only multiple stars but also scantily clad women, and then it threw in the Village People just for fun. There was nothing “redeeming” about this program. It was pure sex and pure exploitation. Go on, watch the clip. I dare you.
Let’s also not forget Battle of the Network Stars, where TV stars competed against each other in sporting events. It first aired in 1976 and from 1977 until 1984 ran twice a year. My favorite memory of the show is when they pitted the obese, middle-aged Ed Asner against the still young and fit Dionne Warwick in a long-distance run. I don’t have to tell you who won. I still remember seeing Asner chugging away on the track, looking like he was a few seconds away from a heart attack. Unfortunately I couldn’t find that clip, so here’s one involving several well-remembered 70s stars in a tug-of-war.
For an extra bonus, here’s a clip of Robert Urich sending Daisy Duke, aka Catherine Bach, into the waters of a dunk tank. Yes, dunking shapely women in water was one of the sports in Battle of the Network Stars. It was one of the more popular segments of the show, especially among men. If you look closely at how Bach’s wet swimsuit clings to her at the end, you’ll understand why.
There was also Circus of the Stars, which, well, you guessed it, featured stars performing circus-like stunts. The show began in 1977 and ran to 1994, airing 19 episodes in all. Here’s a neat clip from 1981 of William Shatner showing off his sword skills. Go, Bill!
NBC’s Real People ran from 1979 to 1984. This show featured everyday people who had unusual talents or skills or who were just otherwise out of the mainstream in some manner. Here’s a clip of Fred Willard attending a Miss Bald event, where women shaved their heads for fun and profit.
ABC aped the success of Real People with That’s Incredible. Airing 1980 to 1984 it also showcased people with unusual skills and talents.
So next time anyone says TV was better in the past, link them to this page. It will quickly prove them wrong. Bad TV and reality programming have been around for quite some time, and it’s doubtful they’ll go away anytime soon.