(Pictured: Suzanne Pleshette and Bob Newhart banter at the Emmys in 2002. She died in 2008; he celebrated his 93rd birthday earlier this month.)
Fifty years ago tonight, on Saturday, September 16, 1972, The Bob Newhart Show premiered on CBS. It was in a comfortable slot, following The Mary Tyler Moore Show and preceding Mission: Impossible. (The Carol Burnett Show would not move to the 9PM Central timeslot until December of ’72.) I have been rewatching it lately, and it’s better than I remember. The show changed a lot between the pilot and the debut. The pilot aired as the ninth episode in November 1972 and it’s vastly different: Bob and Emily are trying to have a baby (something Newhart himself would veto later in the series’ run) and Emily is a ditzy sitcom wife, and not Bob’s intellectual equal, as she would become. The show that emerged afterward is a much better one. The first episode that aired is one of the series’ best-remembered: Emily joins Bob’s fear-of-flying group.
(Premiering on the same night as The Bob Newhart Show was Bridget Loves Bernie, a sitcom about newlyweds played by Meredith Baxter and David Birney, who later married in real life. She’s Catholic, he’s Jewish, and comedy flows from the clash of cultures. Slotted between All in the Family, the #1 show on television, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, it became a smash hit. But Bridget Loves Bernie faced criticism from Jewish groups almost immediately, and one of them organized an advertiser boycott. Although it ended up #5 in the ratings for the entire 1972-1973 TV season, CBS canceled it. I have seen a couple of episodes of Bridget Loves Bernie in recent years but have not deliberately sought them out. My suspicion is that after all this time, what offended religious leaders in 1972 would look pretty tame now.)
The next night, on Sunday, September 17, 1972, another new show premiered on CBS: M*A*S*H. It aired at 7PM Central, between Anna and the King, with Yul Brynner in a sitcom adaptation of The King and I, and The Sandy Duncan Show, a retooled version of Duncan’s 1971 series Funny Face. I wonder if the CBS scheduling people understood what the network had bought. The first episode, in which the surgeons raffle off a trip to Tokyo with a nurse, is remarkably raunchy for its time; it would have presented a jarring contrast with Anna and the King‘s comedy of manners and Sandy Duncan’s wacky cuteness. The first three seasons of M*A*S*H are filled with the same dark, cutting comedy. Certain episodes from those seasons do a better job of conveying the meaning and meaninglessness of war than later, more acclaimed episodes that more consciously strove to do that. I have seen some of the earliest episodes 20 or 30 times, and the best of them still hold up.
(Earlier in the same week, CBS also premiered Maude and The Waltons. The network’s development department had a very good year in 1972.)
M*A*S*H, The Bob Newhart Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, and The Carol Burnett Show are still running, on broadcast TV outlets, cable channels, and streamers, 40 years and more after leaving the air. (Maude and The Waltons too, although they’re a bit harder to find.) They are not merely old, but “classic.” Fans of each were part of a mass audience sharing a communal viewing experience that lasted several years, even after the shows left network air, and the shows and their characters still resonate today.
That doesn’t really happen anymore, and to the extent it does, it’s on a much smaller scale. There’s just too much TV now, and audiences are splintered. Nothing can achieve the mass audience that old-fashioned “classic” status requires. In the 70s, hit shows routinely attracted 20 million viewers or more. Last month, Better Call Saul had the most talked-about series finale of the last several years, but the talk translated to 2.7 million viewers. (Ask a random person at your office if they saw it. Odds are they didn’t.)
In the future, there will still be “old” shows, and they are likely to find a home on some streaming service years after they go out of production. But they will not be classic in the sense that we apply to many beloved shows of the 70s, 80s, and 90s.