A Summer With the Big Three

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(Pictured: Gina Lollobrigida in 1968. Va va va voom, as they said back then.)

There’s a list at Wikipedia that shows weekly TV ratings from 1948 through 2014. The page shows the top-rated show of most weeks and links to a source with a more detailed list. Alas, a lot of the links go to paywalled sites (which renders the page less than completely useful as a research tool), but as a high-level look at what we were watching over time, it’s pretty interesting.

In 1977, the TV season ended in April. (The May ratings sweeps that extended the season did not exist yet.) In any summer, until the new season began in September, the vast majority of primetime network programming would be reruns. Sometimes, popular episodes of the top shows would be similarly popular in reruns—with no home video or streaming, reruns were the only place to catch episodes you missed—but oddballs would often break through, too. The 1977 summer ratings winners were quite the smorgasbord. Some observations follow:

—Before the wide availability of premium cable and the advent of home video, network television was the only place to see Hollywood movies once they left theaters. (Few were important enough to get theatrical re-releases.) The network TV debuts of Gone With the Wind in 1976 and The Godfather in 1977 were enormous cultural events, but lesser theatrical films regularly drew big numbers, sometimes big enough to win the week. In the summer of 1977, the weekly ratings were topped at various times by High Plains Drifter, The Cheyenne Social Club, The Scalphunters, Breakout, and Buona Sera Mrs. Campbell—three westerns, an adventure set in Mexico, and, oddly, a 1968 Italian comedy starring Gina Lollobrigida. (The latter looks to have won almost by default during one of the lowest-rated weeks of the entire summer.) Theatrical movies would never again win as many summer weeks as they did in 1977.

—Muhammad Ali was at the peak of his boxing fame in 1977 and was a big-enough TV star to win the ratings. In May, he won a unanimous decision over Alfredo Evangelista, a fight so dreadful—Ali out of shape and barely trying, Evangelista basically a tomato can—that Howard Cosell apologized to the ABC audience during the broadcast for having shown it. Nevertheless, it drew 17.7 million viewers to rate #1. In September, Ali would have the #1 show on TV again, winning his last successful title defense against Earnie Shavers, a fight Shavers very nearly won.

—Although a lot is made every year about the terrible ratings for the baseball All-Star Game, NBA Finals, and World Series when compared to past years, such games still tend to rate well compared to the other stuff on network TV in any given week. (This year, the All Star Game ranked third for the week, behind two NBA Finals games.) So it was in the 70s, when the All-Star Game was routinely the #1 show of the week, as it was in 1977.

Charlie’s Angels had premiered in the fall of 1976, but it didn’t reach #1 in the weekly ratings until the summer of 1977, when it was the most-watched show of the week seven times. Its 1977 season premiere in September also won the ratings race, but it would hit #1 only one more time, with its 1979 season premiere.

—The oddest show to top the ratings in the summer of 1977 was Man From Atlantis starring Patrick Duffy. The show had premiered in the spring as a series of TV movies. The fourth movie was #1 for the week of June 20, 1977—a first-run program bobbing to the top in a sea of reruns. The movies were successful enough that Man From Atlantis was permitted to dock on NBC’s regular fall schedule, but it soon sank without a trace.

Somebody else will have to do a scholarly examination of ratings and trends—I’m just poking through the wreckage of the 1970s looking for shiny stuff. So there are completely different posts I could write. For example, in 1975, reruns of All in the Family were #1 in most weeks, just as the first-run episodes had been during the regular season. Stuff that barely registers today was must-see TV: in 1975, 1976, and 1978, the Miss Universe pageant was the #1 show the week it was broadcast, beating even the All-Star Game in 1975.

In a gazillion-channel universe, with cable and streamers and YouTube, you go looking for something to watch and you generally find it. In the three-channel universe, we watched whatever was on, and if that turned out to be two hours of Gina Lollobrigida, then hell yeah.

Watch this space for more summer-of-1977 content later this week. Also: a new Sidepiece went out this morning. Check your spam filter. 

7 thoughts on “A Summer With the Big Three

  1. mackdaddyg

    If I ever really feel like showing my old man side, I’ll bring up how in my day we only had three stations to watch, four if you included PBS.

    And yeah, it was a big deal when some of these movies were being shown on tv.

    Were summer replacement shows still a thing in 1977?

    1. Chris Herman

      Yes, but they were less present since the parent genre from which they sprang–the variety show–was steadily disappearing from network schedules. One summer replacement show in 1977, CBS’s Starland Vocal Band Show, featured David Letterman as a writer and performer. Years later, when Letterman was hosting Late Night, he did a “Summer Replacement Show” episode which combined his usual talk show format with the typical variety show shtick you saw on most summer replacements. It even had Ken Berry (a former summer replacement show host) as a performer.

      The movies aired by the networks during the summer were either repeat viewings of popular older films they were trying to squeeze the last bit of ratings-juice from or films that had too limited appeal to be shown during the main part of the TV season (i.e., September through April/May). Usually, the only reason these movies ended up being shown on network TV was that they were part of the package deals the networks made with the studios and summer was the only time of year they could afford to meet their contractual obligation to air them. Much of the time, these “limited appeal” movies were “limited appeal” because they were dogs that flopped at the box office. However, it was possible for good films would be categorized as “limited appeal” if they were considered too off-beat, too unusual, or too niche. Nonetheless, sometimes these movies ended up doing surprisingly well when they aired on network TV mainly because most viewers had already seen everything else on TV that night and wanted to give them a try. From there, cult favorites were born.

      1. mikehagerty

        I programmed an independent TV station in Phoenix from 2004-2008 and learned about how movie packages for TV worked (at least then). You can’t break them apart. You can’t cherry-pick. Any deal you do for 52 movies (one a week) will get you 20 that won’t embarrass you, 10 that are pretty good and five that you think you should probably promote hell out of.

    2. mikehagerty

      I can relate, mackdaddyg. When we moved from Los Angeles to Bishop in 1965, my mom, freshly widowed, thought $6 a month for cable TV was an extravagance. Given that it’s $52 in today’s money, I see her point.

      And so we passed on the cable my dad helped string up the Owens Valley after World War II and settled for the UHF translator service—exactly four snowy (interference, not precipitation) channels…two of which were CBS, one from L.A., one from Reno.

      A couple of years later, our fortunes had improved somewhat, and we had moved to a house where the translators were worse. Mom sprung for cable, getting us the ABC, CBS and NBC stations from Los Angeles, the CBS (about to switch to ABC) in Reno and four L.A. independent stations (KTLA, KHJ, KTTV and KCOP).

      That was it. It was years before PBS was even added to the cable in Bishop…by which point I’d moved away.

  2. So many bright shiny things in these TV ratings list. Snowbeast! James at 15! Terraces!

    If I approved of mindless clickbait it would be fun to compile a list of 10 Shows that Topped TV Ratings in the 1970s. Just cruise the Wiki page and pick ten silly ones. (Snowbeast, and nine others.)

    I have also, through this post, been introduced to the concept of the Nielsen black week, when there were no ratings:
    https://www.tvobscurities.com/articles/nielsen_black_weeks/

  3. Wesley

    Here’s one summer series of the 1970s fact that I love: Dan August was a flop cop series on ABC from 1970-71. However, it starred Burt Reynolds, who became a movie star in 1972 thanks to Deliverance. So CBS picked it up to run in the summer of 1973, and its ratings were so strong that CBS kept airing it into October, by which time most new series on the networks had debuted. CBS did the same thing in 1975 to a lesser success.

    Also, it was during the 1975 summer season that 60 Minutes caught on as an audience attraction and became a hit thereafter.

  4. mikehagerty

    One more small town story. In Bishop, those TV premieres of movies were a big deal. We had one theater, with one screen, and an owner who would not pay big-time exhibition fees for “event” movies.

    “The Sound of Music” aired on NBC before it ever showed at the Bishop Theater.

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