When I think of hard-hitting, gritty, relevant TV drama, I tend to think of shows in the 1980's. "Hill Street Blues" is often considered the police drama that blew away the conventions laid down by NBC's "Dragnet" back in 1949, and paved the way for the Law & Order, and CSI franchises. In fact, in the book Brought To You In Living Color by Marc Robinson, Hill Street creators Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll put Fred Silverman, Brandon Tartikoff, and everyone else at the Peacock on notice that their new show would make "Dragnet" look like a nursery rhyme.
But what really made "Hill Street" and it's progeny break away was the addition of multiple story arcs among the various character. "Law & Order" actually marks a return to a more "Dragnet" simpler character arc format, as the soap opera usually takes a back seat to the procedural, and if things do get personal, it's usually the focus of one character per episode. Sure, "Hill Street" added stronger language and put some sexual tension in the squad room, but the blood and guts of police work was nothing all that new. And if you think hot-button issues didn't turn up on prime time until the 1980's, think again.
Let's go back to a simpler time and see what's on WIMA-TV in Lima, Ohio for Thursday August 14, 1969. All programs listed in the Toledo Blade on this date are in color unless otherwise noted. The Blade makes it a point to inform us that WIMA is on "UHF channel 35." And WBGU is on "UHF channel 70." Let's see what's on after the six o'clock news.
6:30 - The Huntley-Brinkely Report. NBC. This was the Big Daddy of evening network newscasts through the '60's, but on this date a change was in the wind. Walter Cronkite's knowledge and enthusiasm during the Apollo moon landing coverage had won over viewers who found CBS coverage more interesting. In few more years, Cronkite would become "The most trusted man in America," while NBC's John Chancellor would be that other guy and Huntley-Brinkley would be as outdated as a Studebaker Lark.
7:00 - I Love Lucy (b/w) Syndication. Episode details are not listed, but I'm guessing it's the one where Lucy gets into trouble and Ricky says something in Spanish. WIMA master control is running a 16mm film that by now is starting to look rather beat.
7:30 - Daniel Boone - NBC. Fess Parker stars in one of the last of the frontier/westerns of the era. Episode details are not available, but The Blade runs a feature article on co-star Patricia Blair who says she likes being on the long-running show. Rosie Grier will join the cast in the next and final season.
8:30 - Ironside - NBC. Raymond Burr stars in the role of a detective in a wheelchair in the days when it assumed a wheelchair meant you were helpless. In tonight's episode, a female officer goes undercover as an unwed mother to catch people performing illegal abortions. The Blade features this episode in its reviews and notes it stays away from controversy. Still, just the mention of the word "abortion" in 1969 must've put some people on edge.
9:30 - Dragnet - NBC. Revived from the 1950's, this era of "Dragnet" is now in color, co-stars Harry Morgan as Friday's partner Gannon, includes the new Miranda warning with every arrest, and has a subtitle for the year of the show, thus the full title is actually "Dragnet, 1968" since this is a rerun of the latest season. Tonight, Friday and Gannon search for the mother of a baby found in a trash can. Good thing we put the kids to bed back when "Daniel Boone" went off.
10:00 - Golddiggers - NBC. Dean Martin's variety show was the number one show in America. Living the lifestyle Quagmire only dreams about, Dino surrounded himself with fly girls dubbed The Golddiggers. In this summer special, the girls host the show without Dino. Musical numbers, dance routines, and cornball sketches fill the hour.
Note that the network takes over at 7:30; the Prime Time Access rule wouldn't come along until the 70's, pushing network prime time back to 8:00 in the East. This rule actually only affected the top markets, but as New York City goes, so goes the rest of the affiliates. In fact, NBC's master control was channel 4 WNBC.
It is assumed that parents control the TV, and they will send the kids to bed at 8:30. This used to be called The Family Hour.
I can find no "Viewer Discretion Is Advised" warnings on the listings.
Two heavy-hitting dramas are followed by a burlesque show. This may seem weird, but the general thought of the day was that Mother goes to bed before Father, who stays up for the news and maybe Johnny Carson. Dean Martin's playboy club type atmosphere appealed more to men.
So there you have it. Sweet, innocent TV from the good old days. Stay tuned for "Laugh In."