“Live”-Blog/Review | 20/20 1.1

I don’t normally do this on Gloryosky, but in June 2015, a YouTube video surfaced of 20/20’s first episode. I wrote about this episode in a Carleton University course in 2003, yet never saw the episode until September 20, 2015. The first episode of 20/20 is considered a milestone in bad television, given the speed in which ABC News retooled the show. Thirty-seven years later, is the debut of 20/20 as bad as history suggests? An Australian and an American are here to guide the curious.
0:2520/20 wastes no time introducing its correspondents. 20/20’s initial set is a two-story, open-concept house with a giant window area. Anchors for this episode are former Esquire magazine editor/New Journalism champion Harold Hayes, and art critic/writer/historian Robert Hughes. The show has Hayes and Hughes talk about their accomplishments. Hayes, it should be noted, is one of 20/20’s producers at the time of 20/20’s debut.

Hayes and Hughes aren’t bad hosts. Their banter is forced, although Hughes is allowed a few snippy lines. The rest of the time, 20/20 wants the viewers to warm to Hughes. Americans love curmudgeonly Australian art critics.

3:10 – “The Wayward Week” debuts, a two-minute summary of the week’s top stories. It’s overly gimmicky, and ends when Hughes ejects a tape from a top-loading deck. A red 20/20 banner drops down end-segment (sieg heil!), which means it’s time for Geraldo Rivera’s piece about greyhound coursing. The 20/20 banner makes for a chintzy-looking prop.

5:22 – Rivera’s piece features the mauling of jackrabbits by greyhounds. The harsh treatment of unpromising and old greyhounds is briefly touched on, yet Rivera focuses mostly on coursing, the act of training a greyhound to race using live bait. Rivera’s style of sensationalist investigative reporting became one of 20/20’s trademarks.

It amazes me how reviews of 20/20’s first episode focus on the “fast-paced” aspect of the show, when the first long-form piece lasts ten minutes. The world had not yet experienced the shallowness of Entertainment Tonight.


15:45 – Kansas Senator Robert Dole appears. In 1996, one of Barbara Walters’ 20/20 interviews asked who “the real Bob Dole” was, as Dole geared for a US Presidential run. I guess he should have talked about walling the Muslims out of America, and pretended that was “the real Bob Dole”.

18:23 – Words: “arcane”. 20/20 wants to be your word-a-week calendar.

18:30 – The Flip Wilson piece’s big “revelation” – keep in mind, no one wanted to take credit for the piece – is that Wilson feels sorry for spanking his children with a belt. The piece notes that he gained custody of said children from first wife Lovenia Wilson. Am I supposed to hate Flip Wilson for wanting to raise his children better than his parents raised him? I don’t understand the point of this segment. I suspect the devil made shoddy edits.

20:39 – Flip Wilson watches his daughter’s concern about “watching her breasts grow”. Wilson’s a bit too creepy here.

26:23 – Words: “exegesis”, as in “the exegesis of Roone Arledge ranting about how he put crap on Wide World of Sports until ABC landed the big contracts”.

26:36 – We go from word definitions to nuclear terrorism. The segment begins by showing a clip from CBS’ The Amazing Spider-Man. It’s strange to see a Spider-Man reference on 20/20 now, given that Marvel and ABC are now part of The Walt Disney Company (although Sony wants a stranglehold on the film franchise for as long as humanly possible). The piece mentions the NEST program. It’s the closest the first episode of 20/20 gets to proper television journalism, Sander Vanocur being well-versed in the field.

38:20 – The Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” plays, as 20/20 focuses two segments on California Governor Jerry Brown’s bid for the 1980 Democratic Presidential nomination. The first segment has 20/20 correspondents interview Frank Lanterman and members of Brown’s family. Said segment is surprisingly harsh on Brown, focusing on things like Brown’s “weirdness” factor and the assumed foolishness of running against then-incumbent US President Jimmy Carter. The Brown piece was allegedly championed by Hayes as a fawning profile, while 20/20 investigated Ted Kennedy and his role in the Chappaquiddick incident. Take notes. This comes into play later.

49:59 – Hayes: “We’ve got something for a change of pace – a little fun.” Yes, 20/20 is now something out of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The Robert Grossman/Craig Whitaker/”James” Picker stop-motion short, Jimmy the C (1977), follows.

20/20 doesn’t mention Jimmy the C’s 1978 Academy Award nomination for Best Short Film (Animated). That would feign competence, so viewers wonder why they’re watching claymation Jimmy Carter lip-sync to Ray Charles. Bob Shanks could get away with this shit on a freeform show like The Great American Dream Machine, not on a would-be 60 Minutes beater.

53:58 – Sam Donaldson interviews Ted Kennedy about his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, on the tenth anniversary of RFK’s assassination. It’s tame, last-minute filler.

Roone Arledge allegedly buried a completed 1985 20/20 Sylvia Chase piece on the Kennedy family’s relationship with Marilyn Monroe. Geraldo Rivera publicly spoke out about 20/20 spiking the Kennedy/Monroe piece, leading to Rivera’s termination from ABC News that year. The reasoning was that Arledge was friends with the Kennedys. I think I realize why Hayes and Hughes were turfed after one episode.

56:37 – Hughes signs off with “Courage. We’re all in it together!” I bet he found his courage in a bottle.

56:40 – Dear Lord, the initial 20/20 theme has lyrics. “So courage, everyone/(we’re talking to you!)/a long life and fun/(is all we wish for you!)/TWENTY-TWENTY VISION!” are among the breezy lyrics. I’m sure the show wishes warm fuzzies on its viewers after reminding them of death.

Hayes and Hughes amble around the 20/20 den for a minute, before leaving the set for the first and last time. Hugh Downs takes over anchor duties on June 13, 1978, as ABC News beats on 20/20 until it resembles something credible. Downs lasts twenty-one years as 20/20 anchor.

57:03 – A Walter Cronkite stop-motion segment, presumably made by Grossman/Whitaker/Picker on commission for 20/20, ends the mélange. Don’t ask me why an ABC show has a parody of CBS’ then-best-known employee. The short film abruptly appears after end credits.

57:25 – Another abrupt cut, as Ernie Anderson’s distinct voice promos 1968: A Crack in Time.

After its summer run, 20/20 became a once-a-month show from September 1978 to May 1979. By the end of 1979, 20/20 had a new logo and set, a stable format, a weekly timeslot (Thursday at 10:00 PM ET/PT, which it gained May 31, 1979 and held until 1987), a new hire in Tom Jarriel, a permanent executive producer in Av Westin, and its classic theme. 20/20 moved to its now-familiar Friday at 10:00 PM ET/PT timeslot on September 18, 1987. 20/20 is currently most well-known for Geraldo Rivera, John Stossel, Barbara Walters interviews, airing an exorcism, and its “exposé” on professional wrestling.

Is the first 20/20 episode as bad as its reputation suggests? No, but it’s not very good. One of 20/20’s problems in its first episode is its jarring tone shifts, likely from the excess tampering Roone Arledge put it through before broadcast. Thomas Hoving and Dr. Carl Sagan, mentioned in the opening credits, don’t appear until later in 20/20’s first season. There are good ideas stuck in a show that has no idea which demographic to aim at.

In the end, 20/20’s initial failure is one of inter-office politics. Bob Shanks and Harold Hayes were allowed their vision of the show until the last minute, when Arledge decided the inmates were running the asylum and gave 20/20 his attention. I’m not saying Shanks’ version of 20/20 is unviable, yet it suffers from bad assembly and overwriting. At least 20/20’s not the very essence of hubris in 1978. That would be Rolling Stone Magazine: The 10th Anniversary.

20/20 logo from ABC All Access. ©2015 ABC News. All rights reserved.

C. Archer
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