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Television: Due Bills

4 minute read

Searchlights swept the Manhattan sky above the old Ed Sullivan Theater on Manhattan’s West Side. Autograph freaks gaped at a parade of celebrities. The atmosphere was as neon as a Hollywood première in the ’20s. Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell—the first live TV variety series since the Ed Sullivan Show rode out in March 1971—was under way. It lived up—and down—to expectations. Roone Arledge, the hard-driving Barnum of ABC Sports, who developed the latter-day vaudeville along with Cosell, had burbled, “We want people to feel, ‘Boy, I better not miss this tonight because Lord knows what will happen.’ ” But Cosell, master of ceremonies, treated the show as another episode of N.F.L. Monday Night Football. “Look,” he said, shrugging, “this is not a meeting between Rabin and Sadat with world peace being in the balance.”

This modest disclaimer was belied by the show’s publicity and the ill wishes hurled at it by Cosell haters and rival NBC and CBS offices. The detractors could count on the fact that Cosell and ABC were running a high risk. A live prime-time show is so out of the ken of the current TV generation that most people have forgotten its limitations. Timing each act to the nanosecond becomes vital; the stars’ ability to ad-lib gracefully and wittily is crucial; many stars, accustomed to the adjustments of video tape, regard live performance as a jump without a net.

Moreover, Arledge and Cosell refuse to recycle the intramural chaff that passes for conversation on talk shows and taped variety series. “We hope to attract guests who are not normally seen on television,” explains Arledge. Adds Cosell: “Are you happy with the pretaped Hollywood shows which have a floating crap game of guests with McLean Stevenson this week, Tim Conway the next week, moving between Carol Burnett and Cher?” Instead Arledge and Cosell scheduled “acts”—performers doing a full turn. ABC has money to book the best: each show is budgeted at around $250,000 and, as Howard says, “I got a lot of due bills out to people.”

Call This Show Jaws. Among those handing in due bills on opening night were the cast of the hit Broadway musical The Wiz, parading down the theater’s center aisle singing Ease on Down the Road. “Aren’t they fantastic?” intoned Howard. Briefly, the ghost of Ed Sullivan seemed to fill the night air. At a funereal pace followed the nonsinging Frank Sinatra, who dropped by to wish Howard luck (“Why don’t you just call this show Jaws?), John Denver (who dedicated a song to Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau) and Shirley Bassey. Via satellite, Howard visited a midnight concert given in London by the Bay City Rollers (TIME, Sept. 22), a tepid teen-age group hyped erroneously as the Beatles’ successors. A more worthwhile satellite trip to Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Hotel exhibited the magic team of Siegfried and Roy briskly turning lions, tigers and panthers into each other and thin air. The evening’s worst-called play featured Nonstop Composer Paul Anka accompanying Tennis Star Jimmy Connors in his crooning debut. Jimmy’s voice cannot compete with his two-fisted backhand; he had to be helped by a taped track. Howard fatuously added, “This was a great magical moment in musical history.”

A funny thing happened on the way to the debut. Patty Hearst surfaced. “This is the kind of newsbreak we want on the show,” crowed a staffer, but ABC failed to hustle her parents on camera. Instead, Arledge had to make do with Howard being joshed, on tape, by Senators Edward Kennedy and Lowell Weicker. Monday-morning quarterbacks will have their greatest field day with Howard’s uncharacteristic tension. “Our show will have a different feel with Howard,” Arledge had boasted. But alas, even Cosell’s talent for sardonic invective was dulled. Obviously reading from cue cards, he made his finest hour seem 90 minutes long. Sinatra was not punning when he predicted: “This will be a millstone on American TV.”

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