This weekend’s CBS Sunday Night Movie is a Grease singalong and it just seems… not right. (And not for same reasons that have Broadway fans unhappy.)
As you may have noticed, America’s Most Watched Network has been trotting out the war horses in recent weeks to take the place of the Sunday night dramas that were forced to abruptly end their seasons early when COVID-19 struck. We’ve gone decades back in time, and that’s not a reference to the film that introduced John Travolta to Olivia Newton-John and Brylcreem.
CBS’s retro bumpers are a callback to the Eighties, the heyday of TV movies, when ABC, CBS, and NBC had movies on two or three nights a week. But it was different then, and to understand why the difference is telling, we need to back up to the Seventies, when TV networks started buying the rights to the latest box-office smash hits and broadcast them for the first time. Almost half the country (!) tuned in over two nights to see the TV premiere of Gone with the Wind. Blockbusters like Jaws, The Godfather, Patton, and Rocky were some of the most-watched television programs of all time, even with all the commercial breaks and edits to please the censors.
Grease was a Seventies film (1978 to be exact). It’s been shown on TV for decades, so CBS is adding a fun special effect with singalong lyrics on the screen, like an old Mitch Miller special or Amazon ad.
But here’s the difference. That movie-theater-to-TV trend only lasted through the Seventies. By the Eighties, cable channels were buying up the rights to most of the blockbusters and using that to siphon audience away from the networks. Plus, videotape happened. So the networks by doing more movies and making the things themselves. By 1986 — the year NBC, ABC, and CBS all had a Sunday Movie from 8 to 10 p.m. — three-fourths of the movies were “originals.”
I’m now going to list for you (courtesy of Brooks and Marsh’s Complete Directory to TV, ninth edition) the all-time, most-watched, made-for-TV movies. The rating refers to the percentage of TV-watchers that were tuned to that movie.
The Day After, 1983 (46.0 rating)
Little Ladies of the Night, 1977 (36.9)
Helter Skelter, 1976 (36.5)
The Burning Bed, 1984 (36.4)
The Night Stalker, 1972 (33.2)
Notice a trend? Other than The Night Stalker, which was about vampires, these movies were all topical. They were about teen prostitution, domestic abuse, a truly terrifying murder rampage, and of course, the ultimate social issue, nuclear annihilation. People had no trouble watching entertainment about troubling news of the day. Heck, The Day After spawned a big national conversation on whether America had too many nukes. By the end of the decade we were starting to negotiate a drawdown in weapons with the Russians.
Now, I’m not going to question CBS’s decision, which was probably made a month ago at the height of the pandemic, to continue catering to hunkered-down audiences with mindless films like Grease. But suddenly this summer doesn’t feel like any other summer I’ve experienced. It feels like what people told us 1968 was like. Yes, I know there was a lot of silly stuff on TV back then, but it was also a time when America was reeling from multiple assassinations and a brutal war that took a big chunk out of the young male population. It was a time when a single news anchor could convince a sitting president that he was done. And, interestingly, it was when the Smothers Brothers were getting great ratings on CBS… on Sunday nights… protesting the war, mocking racists, and basically daring the network to take them off the air. (Which it did.)
Most importantly, it was a time when TV news organizations responded to the seemingly nonstop big-news events with live broadcasts and documentaries and talk shows and special reports. It was in the fall of 1968 that CBS carved out an hour of its precious prime-time schedule for, of all things, a newsmagazine.
I am pleased to see that that show, 60 Minutes, will be airing all-new episodes this month. That doesn’t happen in June most years. So kudos to CBS for that. But I would suggest that it’s time to double down on news, not dusty old crap from the Paramount vault.
One way in which COVID-19 has been a strange crisis is that we still don’t know much about it. That isn't true for the crisis being unleashed by George Floyd’s killing. There’s a lot of history and a lot of context — police-community relations, mass incarceration, the corrosive effects of poverty and “blight flight,” and so on.And in these dog days of summer, it seems to me thatCBS could be using some of its traditionally low-watched prime time hours to help peoplemake sense of all the news. (This crisis is going to bleed, hopefully not literally, right into the fall election.)Just telling people to stream CBSN isn’t good enough, because frankly, CBSN isn’t good enough. This is a network with talent like Gayle King, Bill Whitaker, Norah O’Donnell, and John Dickerson, who can use interviews and seven decades of CBS news footage to illuminate issues of the week.
Stakes are high, so when something pops up in social media culture, it deserves more than a mention on a newscast. A prime-time show could air this Mike Wallace interview of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., then ask guests on to deconstruct it. There are a lot of people just on my Facebook feed who think they know what MLK thought about rioting, but they don’t… In this moment, this teachable moment, they’re willing to listen.
CBS is that rare network with the resources to help people right now. It’s not like CBS is going broke, unlike AMC Theatres, our Kansas City treasure that will be the next casualty of the pandemic unless Netflix or Amazon swoops in. CBS can do it. It’s not comfort TV — quite the opposite, it’s uncomfortable TV. And the audience for it may never be bigger.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.