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NBC: 75 years of change

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter   |   May 2, 2002 at 9:38 PM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, May 2 (UPI) -- NBC looks back at 75 years in the broadcasting business with a three-hour TV special Sunday that not only celebrates the past, but also calls attention to how radically different the medium has become since the glory days of the big three networks.

The Peacock Network will kick off its celebration on Friday, when New York's 49th Street is temporarily renamed "NBC Way" between 5th & 6th Avenues. Following that, Bill Cosby will be inducted into the NBC Walk of Fame.

Sunday's telecast -- hosted by Cosby, Michael J. Fox, Kelsey Grammer, Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld -- is the centerpiece of the network's month-long diamond anniversary celebration. It features performers from NBC's past including Don Adams ("Get Smart"), Sid Caesar ("Your Show of Shows"), Diahann Carroll ("Julia"), Robert Culp ("I Spy"), Ted Danson ("Cheers"), Angie Dickinson ("Policewoman") Barbara Eden, ("I Dream of Jeannie") David Hasselhoff ("KnightRider"), Peter Falk ("Columbo"), Jack Klugman ("Quincy") and Don Johnson ("Miami Vice").

They will mingle with the casts of "Friends," "Will & Grace" and "ER" -- current hit shows that deal in subject matter the older shows would never dare go near, using a vocabulary that would have gotten producers of the '70s and '80s in trouble with network censors, and might have cost producers their jobs in the '50s.

The NBC publicity department has recently been making network stars such as Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Ed McMahon, Kent McCord and Mr. T available for a press interviews to talk up the diamond anniversary celebration.

Reiner suggested that the celebration would be more meaningful if the people who started the networks were still alive.

"I cant remember which shows are on which networks now," he said. "The only thing I can remember is the 'bing bong bong' (NBC chimes) and being paid by them for seven or nine years. Would anybody have noticed the 75 if the network people hadn't mentioned it to us? It's not like landing on the moon."

Reiner, 80, remembers listening to NBC radio when he was a child.

"That 'bing bong bong' meant quality in my household," he said. "Look what it evolved into. Communication and transportation in the 20th century has just been unbelievable. I was 5 when Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic. I remember looking up into the sky and seeing an airplane."

Now, the creator of "The Dick Van Dyke Show" marvels at the Internet.

"There was an ad in the paper for something called 'M-Mode.' Two pages," said Reiner. "A preview page -- 'Wait till you hear about this! I turn the page, I read the second page -- I still don't know what they're selling me."

Reiner is amazed at what kids can do with technology 50 years after he partnered with Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca and Howard Morris to create the legendary "Your Show of Shows." But he wonders whether it is being put to wise use.

"Sadly, a lot of them don't know who Hitler was," he said. "You ever watch Leno? He talks to college students -- they don't know anything."

Caesar -- a TV icon -- said that when he and the others were mounting a 90-minute comedy-variety show every week for 39 weeks a year, no one ever stopped to think about the company celebrating 75 years someday. Then again Caesar insists even now that he has no sense of his own place in America's cultural history.

"I really don't know where I fit in," he said. "I fit in someplace in comedy."

Like other veteran performers, Caesar said he is not happy with the looser standards that apply to network programming.

"I long for the days when the whole family could sit down in front of the television set and watch the show and not be afraid," he said.

One of the shows that took a battering ram to old taboos was "Hill Street Blues," which managed to push the envelope by also offering some of the best writing and acting on TV in the 1980's.

James B. Sikking -- who played the trigger-happy SWAT team leader Lt. Howard Hunter -- said the show also came on at a time when NBC had little to lose.

"In 1980, if you check the history books NBC was not only No. 3 of the three networks at that time, it was in the toilet," he said. "Seven years later when 'Hill Street' left the scene, it was the only show that had been on NBC for seven years. Everything else had changed."

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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