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CNN’s ‘The Seventies’ Looks Back at Seeds Of Media Revolution

The success of CNN’s “The Sixties” inevitably begat “The Seventies,” which kicks off June 11 with an hour devoted to the TV of the decade, subtitled “Television Gets Real.” Yet what at first blush looks like a demographic pander actually offers a rather timely reminder of how many of the seeds of the modern media revolution were planted during those years.

Indeed, if the ’60s birthed an antiwar movement and sexual revolution that live on in the culture wars and ongoing struggles involving gay marriage and women’s equality, the ’70s unleashed a wave of TV innovations that have mushroomed beyond anyone’s dreams.

Not surprisingly, the special devotes much of its time to the programming itself, to Norman Lear’s enormous impact on the culture with “All in the Family” and its various spinoffs, as well as the battle that ensued over the so-called family hour, a term that often remains misunderstood and abused to this day. There’s also some discussion of the birth of the miniseries – which has additional resonance, given the resurgence of the “limited series” format in its stead – with appropriate nods to “I, Claudius,” “Rich Man, Poor Man” and of course “Roots.”

Less flashy but equally important, however, were the business wrinkles that arose in those years, among them the development of cable TV and the birth of HBO and ESPN. There is, in fact, a hilarious clip of a “60 Minutes” piece in which Mike Wallace frets about the possible unintended consequences, basically, of letting the cable genie out of the bottle.

Another huge moment came with the introduction of “Monday Night Football,” which, with its success as a primetime showcase, paved the way not only for the explosive growth of the National Football League but the escalating rights deals and reliance on sports as a major engine of the TV ecosystem, with the excesses all that free-flowing cash has helped foster.

“Monday Night” also advanced the notion of sports as entertainment, with the sitcom-style pairing of Don Meredith and Howard Cosell. Don Ohlmeyer – who cut his teeth as a producer at ABC Sports – notes in the program that ABC in essence took devoted football fans for granted, setting their sights on marketing the game to everyone else, which helps explain many of the anything-but-the-game innovations on display today.

It took years for all these breakthroughs to mature into the forces they have become, with the value of ESPN alone eclipsing by a factor of nearly three the $19 billion that Disney agreed to pay to acquire the network as a part of Capital Cities/ABC in 1995. And while the cable distribution model that grew around those channels is currently besieged by new technology and alternatives, it’s frankly remarkable how durable it’s been amid the talk of cutting its chords and unwinding its bundles.

Like “The Sixties,” this Tom Hanks-produced series promises to be a sort-of once-over-lightly look at history, with Vietnam, Watergate and the Iran Hostage Crisis among the other chapters. Yet many of the nascent steps that began the march into TV’s future did happen during that decade as well. That might not be particularly easy to condense into a network promo, but for those interested in media, it’s a lot more significant, frankly, than run-of-the-mill nostalgia about “Happy Days” or “Charlie’s Angels.”

 

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