Friday, January 16, 2015

While KISS was Their Instrument: American Television the Week KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park Premiered

With the release of my new book, Quentin Tarantino FAQ, due out on March 11, 2015, I thought I would go back to my previous FAQ books for a blog or two. This time around: KISS FAQ and a particular television movie that every KISS fans remembers ....

In KISS FAQ I cover the making and ramifications of the notorious television movie, KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park. The chapter of the book certainly held no surprises to readers in the acknowledgement that the movie contains wooden acting, a bizarre musical soundtrack (namely in the televised version; not as much in the later theatrical one), bad special effects, and a clunky script, but one myth that was put to rest was of KISS Meets the Phantom being one of the highest rated television programs of 1978. NBC certainly wished that had been the case, as they pre-empted a showing of their popular cop series, CHiPs for the movie in hopes of gaining a good chunk of young viewers.

It was a gamble that NBC needed, as they was floundering; the network had only two programs with ratings high enough to place in the top twenty-five programs of the 1978-1979 television season: the family-oriented drama about frontier life, Little House on the Prairie, and the police series CHiPs. Even so, a gamble on using the CHiPs timeslot earlier that October for a two-part showing of Rescue from Gilligan’s Island had earned a 40 share for NBC, making KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park in the same time the last Saturday of October a seemingly good risk.

However, when the ratings came out, KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park was nowhere near the Number One slot. It wasn’t even in the top 25 for the week. It finished at #45, leading to Variety to proclaim “NBC had its worst Saturday of the year,” with the KISS movie being the reason. Its failure in drawing interest as a television movie was only the starting point of concern for those connected to the film, as it was about to be released as this type of filmic albatross in theaters overseas. But that story and other details about the movie can be found in the pages of KISS FAQ.

While the book does discuss some aspects of American network television, there was not much time to focus on what else was happening in television in 1978. After all, obviously another network or two beat NBC soundly that night, but what drove people away from the KISS film? More so, what was the mood of the television landscape at the time the film premiered on NBC? With the aid of that week’s TV Guide, featuring Robin Williams and Pam Dawber from the then-new hot series, Mork and Mindy, I thought readers would like to know – or remember - what else was going on during the week of October 28 (the Saturday night KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park aired) and November 3, 1978.

To put things in better context, one has to remember that it was pretty much an open game for free television in American in 1978. Cable television existed by 1978, but it was still in its infancy and heavily distrusted. The thought of paying for television when you could turn on the television and watch local channels for free sounded like something only an idiot would do, especially when earlier cable would feature sometimes even less channels than available with a good antenna. The only upside was a pay-movie channel, that – unless you had HBO, which wasn’t even available in parts of the country – featured one or two movies a week at the most.

Instead, most cities had an assortment of stations airing free programming and running commercials to pay the bill, as well as at least one public television station that depended on donations and ran programming from the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). Of the commercial stations, there were typically at least one station for each of the “Big 3” networks (ABC, NBC, & CBS), along with one or two “independent stations.” Signals were usually strong enough for people to pick up at least three or four stations near them, with the network-connected ones typically having the strongest signals. Thus, if you wanted to watch television, you usually ended up stuck with one of the networks, especially as the PBS stations ran namely documentaries and British dramas, while independent stations ran reruns, talk shows, bad movies, and even worse game shows and dramas. You didn’t have much of a choice.

Yet changes were starting to emerge in the late 1970s, as this particular issue of TV Guide shows. A major article in the issue investigated the growing interest in video-cassette recorders, with the author, David Lachenbruch, stating that there were VCRs in over half a million homes by the middle of 1978. This was namely thanks to the price of recently introduced VHS recorders, which could record up to two hours of programming and retaining at $1,000, while Betamax were still selling for $4,000 (in 2015 dollars that would be $3,640 and $14,550). As can be seen, the cost was still tremendous, and blank tapes were so expensive that people tended to reuse them when they were done watching whatever they recorded, leading to not much from the 1970s recorded by such players to remain today. Even so, there were a few KISS fans who did have access to such players by 1978, which explains why more than one copy of the original NBC broadcast of KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park has survived intact (or mostly so).

Digging into the week’s programming to see what American audiences had to choose from, each issue of TV Guide featured a weekly article written by famed film critic Judith Crist reviewing the movies being shown on the networks entitled (dully enough), “This Week’s Movies.” Not that you could tell much as to how she became so well-known for her reviews with what little space she had to work with in each one-page article. Furthermore, in this particular week, she was only given one new movie to see for review, and as you may have already guessed, it wasn’t the KISS one. It was instead for a television movie called How to Pick up Girls, which Crist considered a “charming romantic comedy” despite a title “that will turn you off.” As for the KISS film, she simply states, “KISS Meets the Phantom offers Anthony Zerbe as a mad scientist out to destroy Kiss, a rock group.”

Also on that week:

Gator, the 1976 Burt Reynolds movie that was the only movie airing which had seen theatrical release before appearing on television, and it was a repeat from an earlier broadcast. Crist’s review is, “Its only point of interest is Reynolds’ debut as a director – and an uninteresting one it is.”

Devi Dog: The Hound of Hell (“Richard Crenna’s family in the power of their puppy.”) Directed by Curtis Harrington, who also directed Games (1967) and Queen of Blood (1966).

Crash (“Recreates the 1972 crash of an Eastern Airlines jet in the Florida Everglades, with Eddie Albert as pilot.”) Crist failed to mention that the main star was none other than William Shatner. The director was Barry Shear, who also directed Wild in the Streets (1968) and Across 110th Street (1972).

Stranger in Our House (“Linda Blair involved again with witchcraft.”) This film was directed by Wes Craven right after The Hills Have Eyes. Just like the KISS film, it would later be edited and released in theaters overseas with a new title; for this film it became Summer of Fear. It aired opposite Devil Dog, losing to it in the ratings. (Well, who wouldn’t want to watch a movie called Devil Dog, after all?)

Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery (“Louis Fletcher considering it when her husband is permanently crippled.”) It also featured a surly Robert Reed as the husband, with Bert Convy and Wayne Rogers as the guys seeing if they can help Fletcher break a commandment. It was supposed to be the first in a ten-part series of movies dealing with the commandments, but only one more film was made in the series (about killing, as you would expect), so we never got a major television film about keeping the Sabbath day holy.

Outside Chance (“A sequel to Jackson County Jail has Yvette Mimieux and John Lawlor involved with law and disorder.”) The film was directed by Michael Miller, who also directed Jackson County Jail. Yvette Mimieux appeared in Devil Dog that week as well.

Project: Kill (“The CBS Friday late movie, whose theatrical release is unrecorded. Leslie Nielsen plays an escapee from a ‘top-priority murder-for-hire unit’ of our Government, and he’s on the run from the police, a Hong Kong crime syndicate and former colleague Gary Lockwood.”) Directed by William Girdler between Grizzly (1976) and Day of the Animals (1977, and covered in my Armageddon Films FAQ book), this film also costarred Nancy Kwan. It aired several months after Girdler’s death in a helicopter accident. As with any Gridler film, the plot sounds crazed enough to be worth seeing.

Another weekly article covering programming for the week was “The Screening Room,” which did not list a byline. This usually listed specials that interrupted regular programming, such as an episode of PBS’ Great Performances, showcasing a 1977 BBC production of Dracula starring Louis Jordan as the Count that was finally released on DVD in 2007. There was also the first appearance of the cartoon special, Puff the Magic Dragon, based on the song everyone remembers (premiering after CBS’ annual showing of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown), and a well-remembered film starring Kristy McNichol and Bruce Davison, Summer of My German Soldier.

On the musical front, most show airing music, such as talk shows and quirky variety programs, were in syndication and therefore aired at random times of the day and night on the independent stations (one of the few first-run programming they could get, as such programs were fairly cheap to produce). The only exceptions at the time were that of American Bandstand – airing Saturday afternoons after cartoons on ABC – and Midnight Special – appearing after The Tonight Show on Fridays. There was also Soundstage, which aired on PBS and was a grab-bag of various musical styles. For this particular week, viewers had the following options:

American Bandstand, featuring David Gates (“Took the Last Train”) and Tavares (“Whodunit”).

• Brenda Lee appearing on Sha Na Na.

The Lawrence Welk Show, with a Halloween theme.

• The Osmonds performing “Stayin’ Alive” on Donna Fargo.

Twiggy’s Jukebox, with the Real Thing and the New Seekers.

Soundstage airing a well-remembered hour-long performance by Journey, followed later in the week with a concert by Jackson Browne.

Soul Train, with Freda Payne (“Happy Days are Here Again”) and Atlantic Starr (“Stand Up”).

Midnight Special was a repeat from 1973, featuring Jerry Lee Lewis as the host and a number of other performers from the 1950s.

Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert was a “best of” collection, featuring clips of Peter Allen, Chuck Berry, the Brothers Johnson, Kansas, and Bob Marley.

• On a country front, Larry Gatlin was on Hee Haw, Barbara Mandrell was on both Hee Haw Honeys and That Nashville Music, while Kenny Rogers sang with Dolly Parton on her syndicated variety show, Dolly. Mell Tillis was on Marty Robbin’s Spotlight. Tom T. Hall sang “May the Force Be with You Always” on Pop Goes the Country.

The big rating grabbers for the 1978-1979 seasons were typically comedies, with All in the Family and MASH (both on CBS) in the top ten, while ABC was crushing competition on Tuesdays with their two hours of comedies (Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Three’s Company, and Taxi), and doing similar work on Thursdays with Mork & Mindy and Angie. The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, and VEGA$ were doing well for dramatic series on ABC, while CBS kept up with more traditional dramas like Lou Grant and Barnaby Jones, plus turning on the heat with a little show called Dallas that was beginning its long run in 1978. Fantasy was not ignored either, with Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk on CBS, while ABC began airing Battlestar Galactica along with Fantasy Island. You also had programs like The Dukes of Hazzard, Alice, Charlie’s Angels and Barney Miller all in their prime and doing well in the ratings.

And none of them on NBC. They didn’t even have CHiPs to rely on; only Little House on the Prairie that Monday. NBC did premiere two new series that week of the KISS movie, however: David Cassidy – Man Undercover and Diff’rent Strokes. You can guess which of the two became the bigger hit. Yet Gary Coleman’s show wasn’t about to change ratings for the network overnight, and NBC faltered with a big scope of dismal programming that conveniently featured KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park as the cherry on top.

What were the shows KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park competed against that Saturday in October 1978? On CBS, there were new episodes of Rhoda and Good Times (nearly the end of their runs and tanking in the ratings against … CHiPs, actually) and the first hour of the movie Outside Chance, mentioned above. This doesn’t sound like it would give KISS that much trouble, yet on ABC, there were new episodes of Welcome Back, Kotter, Carter Country, and The Love Boat (featuring Vincent Price as a magician) – mostly rating winners at the time. Further, both The Love Boat and the show after it, Fantasy Island, were already traditional viewing for years on ABC, so it is little wonder that an hour of iffy rock and roll shenanigans on NBC during that first hour would have led to many viewers changing the channel to more traditional fare on ABC. Besides, with limited entertainment on television for young people to watch, the weekends usually meant something other than watching a box – it meant going out to the movie, clubs, or just hanging out with friends. Rescue from Gilligan’s Island did better the previous two weeks because NBC only aired it for the first hour on Saturdays and could grab a kiddie audience - just as CHiPs did - that would be heading to bed afterwards, so the rest of the family could switch over to ABC for the rest of the night. The KISS film needed an audience that was not really there, and the scattered few that were couldn’t make it enough to help with the ratings.

Not that it really made much of a dent into the fandom surrounding KISS. After all, the KISS Army quickly came to the conclusion that the movie had to have been the number one movie of the week and nothing was going to change their view on that topic. Yet, even if some fans now correct themselves at to the ratings, it won’t change their minds as to the film itself – you either love it or hate it, but you can always proudly say that KISS had a movie on national television where they played super-heroes. Maybe super-heroes with bad special effects and crummy acting, but super-heroes nonetheless. Just one more reason why the history of the “hottest band of the land” remains interesting after all these years.

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