How low can TV go?
A look at some of televisions uglier moments, from Geraldo Rivera to ''The Chevy Chase Show''
The quiz show scandal may be the bride when it comes to TV’s darkest moments, but there are plenty of bridesmaids. Here are six champions of questionable taste — feats deserving of our attention…as long as we don’t have to watch them again.
Queen for a Day (1956-60/NBC, 1960-64/ ABC) The ultimate glorification of low self-esteem literally crowned the woman voted most pathetic by a studio audience (sample winner/loser: an unemployed wife, whose husband just left her, whose three kids had the measles). At least the participants in this dignity striptease walked away with prizes (refrigerators, dining sets, and the like); today people degrade themselves just for the airtime. ”I’ve told some subjects, ‘Hey, you don’t have to tell the camera everything,”’ says Brian Unger, who’s received many thank-yous from interview subjects he mocked on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. ”It is reasonable to have some parameters.”
The ‘Heidi’ Game (Nov. 17, 1968/NBC) Okay armchair quarterbacks: If the N.Y. Jets were up 32-29 with 50 seconds to go against the Oakland Raiders, would you…abruptly cut the telecast at 7 p.m. to air the movie Heidi? That was NBC’s strategy, thus denying viewers the thrill of seeing the Raiders score two last-minute touchdowns for a 43-32 victory. ”Ever since then,” says Curt Gowdy, one of the game’s announcers, ”it’s been, Remember Heidi.” Indeed, the Swiss miss casts a long shadow. Thanks to the apoplectic reaction of fans that night, policy was changed forever: A sportscast is no longer ever cut off for entertainment programming.
The Dukes of Hazzard’s Cousins (1979-85/CBS) In the summer of ’82, stars John Schneider and Tom Wopat quit the top 10 Dukes over a contract spat with Warner Bros. Television (they wanted a share in the show’s vast merchandising revenues). Come fall, in one of entertainment’s looniest casting moves, the original good ol’ boys had been replaced by two unknowns. The stars returned in early ’83, but the harm was done: Ratings had plummeted.
The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vault (April 27, 1986) Employing a typically dramatic, self-serious tone, Geraldo Rivera convinced viewers in 30 million homes (a still-unbroken record for syndicated specials) that he was on the verge of a discovery that would make the Holy Grail seem like a missing sock. After two long-winded hours, he finally blew open the mobster’s stronghold to find…a pile of dirt. All foreplay, no money shot.
The Morton Downey Jr. Show (1988-89) It was jingoism all the way: A hybrid of Phil Donahue and Joseph McCarthy, bug-eyed Downey reveled in tossing ”pablum-puking liberals” off his syndicated talk show if they didn’t ”zip it.” Fans of confrontational talk quickly tired of his ranting, however, opting for hosts who left the tirades to the guests. ”He was obnoxious,” says Jerry Springer exec producer Richard Dominick. ”Jerry’s the nice uncle you want over. Morton was the one you wish would leave.”
The Chevy Chase Show (1993/FOX) Fox hyped the ill-suited Chase as the imminent victor over Dave and Jay. But on Chase’s Sept. 7 premiere, everything from the lame jokes copped from 18-year-old SNL bits to an interminable waltz with guest Goldie Hawn proved this guy couldn’t even beat Rick Dees. ”After that first show aired,” says exec producer Steve Binder, ”nobody wanted to look at the positive side of Chevy.” If nothing else, at six weeks (the show was yanked Oct. 15), it marks the longest pratfall of Chase’s career.