If A TV Show Turns 50 And No One Notices... David Bianculli laments the silence that greeted the golden anniversaries of classic shows such as My Three Sons and The Andy Griffith Show -- and wonders why TV doesn't have an equivalent to Turner Classic Movies.
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If A TV Show Turns 50 And No One Notices...

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If A TV Show Turns 50 And No One Notices...

If A TV Show Turns 50 And No One Notices...

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(Soundbite of music)


Our TV critic, David Bianculli, recently looked ahead at what the networks had to offer for the fall season. Today, though, he's looking back - way back, half a century or more. And he's wondering why some TV programmers aren't doing the same.

(Soundbite of theme song, "My Three Sons")

DAVID BIANCULLI: That music may not conjure up any memories for you, especially if youre under 30, but to most older listeners - ones about my age - that's instantly recognizable as the theme song to TV's "My Three Sons." It's a tune all but guaranteed to start your toes tapping - and it may even conjure up long-dormant images of the animated opening credits, where cartoon toes were tapping.

There's value in these old shows, not just because the best of them were and are entertaining, but because they provide a snapshot of what we were, what we accepted and what, in some cases, we aspired to become.

I mention this, not because of a general wave of nostalgia, but because of a very specific wave: Last Wednesday, "My Three Sons," a gentle ABC sitcom starring Fred MacMurray as a single father raising three boys, turned 50 years old. I would say it celebrated its golden anniversary, except I couldn't find any celebration.

Not on ABC, which wasn't about to waste valuable prime time on a show that premiered before the oldest person in the network's coveted 18-to-49 demographic was even born. Not on TV Land, which you would think would be a natural - or even on Nick at Nite. No. Even on cable networks devoted to vintage TV, vintage, these days means "The George Lopez Show." And I'm not kidding.

"My Three Sons," by the way, is by no means an isolated case of TV disregarding for its own past. Last Sunday, CBS's "The Andy Griffith Show" - one of TV's most durable, popular and iconic weekly programs, turned 50. TV Land, at least, showed a four-hour block of episodes that day to honor the event - but it made sure the celebration was over before prime time.

"The Flintstones" turned 50 last week, and only the Boomerang cable network seemed to care. ABC's "Beulah," the first TV sitcom to star an African-American, turned 60 last weekend - but not even BET bothered to present an episode.

And yesterday was the 60th anniversary of the delightful game show hosted by Groucho Marx, "You Bet Your Life" - and I bet your life you didn't know that.

Next month is the golden anniversary of one of the most important TV documentaries ever shown - Edward R. Murrow's "Harvest of Shame," about migrant workers, originally shown Thanksgiving weekend on CBS. It's been out on video for years - but if no one sees it, that's the same as being lost and forgotten.

The same goes for a show that turns 60 next Tuesday, a CBS series that was the pivotal missing link between vaudeville, radio and what evolved into the TV sitcom: "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show."

This was when both George Burns was relatively young - TV too. The stage sets of George and Gracie's house had only three walls, so studio audiences could see the stars. Mentions of the commercial sponsor, Carnation Evaporated Milk, were folded right into the show's dialogue; Gracie, effortlessly bringing to TV, her radio role of a ditzy dame, would wonder how they managed to get milk from carnations.

But the central DNA of television situation comedy is all here: the neighbor who bursts in unannounced, the schemes that don't work, the husband who thinks he knows best but often doesn't. And after 60 years, the comedy is still funny.

For example, the scene where Gracie visits a friend in the hospital and returns home with a bouquet of flowers - and yes, they're carnations. It always gets a big laugh from the college students in my TV history class.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show")

Ms. GRACIE ALLEN (Comedic actor): (as self) Uh-huh.

Mr. GEORGE BURNS (Comedic actor): (as self) Why, what beautiful flowers.

Ms. ALLEN: (as self) Aren't they lovely and if it weren't for you I wouldnt have them.

Mr. BURNS: (as self) Me?

Ms. ALLEN: (as self) Mm-hmm.

Mr. BURNS: (as self) What did I have to do with this?

Ms. ALLEN: (as self) Well, it was your idea. You said when I went to visit Clara Bagley to take her flowers, so when she wasnt looking, I did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURNS: (as self) Gracie, I, I, look...

Ms. ALLEN: (as self) Well, isn't it good...

Mr. BURNS: (as self) I said for you to stop...

Ms. ALLEN: (as self) Well, isn't it good they're carnations, dear? I'll put them in the refrigerator and we'll milk them later.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURNS: (as self) We'll milk them later. Well, I guess if she made sense, I'd still be selling ties.

BIANCULLI: So where is this going to be shown on TV next week? So far as I can tell, nowhere. And that's a shame. For movie fans, Turner Classic Movies is the perfect cable network. It shows films unedited and uninterrupted, and has a host on hand to put things in context. It even has a weekend showcase called "The Essentials," where Robert Osborne and guest host Alec Baldwin present certain movies, and talk about why they love them.

Where's the TV equivalent, when more programs are celebrating key anniversaries every year? If we forget our TV history, we're doomed to no repeats.

GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TVWorthWatching.com, and he teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.

You can download Podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "Meet the Flintstones" theme)

GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, the new world of campaign finance and the new shadow GOP created in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizen's United decision. We talk with Peter Stone of the Center for Public Integrity and Ken Vogel of Politico.

Join us.

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