These '70s shows are the real deal for VH1 and IFC

Friday, August 15, 2003

"Wild Kingdom's" Marlon Perkins sunning himself on the Serengeti while his wildlife flunkie, Jim, slaps a sweaty headlock on some clawed creature. Archie Bunker playing a whole casino's worth of race cards. Robert De Niro getting all "you talkin' to me?" loco in "Taxi Driver." Pintos flaring up like California forest fires in August.

Ah, the '70s. Good times. And "Good Times," of course.

VH1 is banking on warm, fuzzy-dice feelings about the decade of "Airport" and Skylab, Pop Rocks and punk-rock, to fuel interest in "I Love the '70s," a 10-hour, week-long sprawl of programming beginning Monday. Meanwhile, beginning Wednesday, IFC, the Independent Film Channel, is saluting the era with the three-part documentary "A Decade Under the Influence" while also showing such classics as "Mean Streets," "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" and "The Conversation."

For VH1, "I Love the '70s" follows on the heels of last December's similar "I Love the '80s," which struck cable-ratings gold, pulling in some 723,000 households, according to the channel. The formula remains the same: interspersing comments from stars of the '70s and the '90s/'00s with vintage clips and commercials.

"The most logical thing was to go back and do the '70s," says VH1 executive producer Meredith Ross. "What we found was that the humor, spin and tone we took was what people were loving. We take a look at nostalgia but put a spin on it from today."

Deciding which celebs, past or present, offered a challenge to the producers. "We had to make sure we had a mixture of current stars and big stars of the decade and we tried to spread as wide a net as possible, based on availability and who our audience connects with," Ross says.

In this mix-and-match pop-culture universe, Erik Estrada, Isaac Hayes, Lynda Carter, Bob Barker, Lou Ferrigno, Lionel Richie and Leif Garrett rub shoulders with the likes of singer Jason Mraz, members of the hip-hop group The Roots, skateboard champ Tony Hawk, and "Six Feet Under's" Mathew St. Patrick.

But the most difficult part was deciding which trends/bands/movies to cover. "There've been many, many rundown meetings where people were throwing things across the room," Ross jokes. "We wanted to make sure there's a good balance -- fashion, music, TV, movies, trends -- but some of the real quality things might get dropped out because we do go for the cheesy factor; that's more memorable."

So "Love Story" gets a segment. "Mean Streets," not so much.

But Ross expects even those who don't remember "Love Story" to find something they like about "I Love the '70s." "You don't have to have grown up in the '70s to get the jokes," she says. "With so much of this stuff absorbed into the pop culture, you don't have to have been around during that time to get it."

Over at IFC, the agenda behind "A Decade Under the Influence" is a bit more serious. Directors Richard LaGravenese ("Living Out Loud") and the late Ted Demme ("Blow") approached the channel about doing something on the '70s, the decade in which the old-line studio/star system was truly buried and independent-minded directors flourished.

"These maverick directors changed Hollywood," says Alison Bourke, IFC's director of original programming and "Decade's" executive producer. "It was clearly a potent time for cinema."

According to Bourke, the filmmakers and their "friends loved movies and these guys would be talking about movies: 'Let me show you this clip from "The Deer Hunter" and wouldn't it be fun to do a movie that captured that spirit.' ... (The film) is really like this big conversation on cinema."

The result is that "Decade" features such younger directors or writers as Neil LaBute ("Nurse Betty," "Possession") and Nick Cassavetes ("John Q") interviewing masters like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Bourke is not worried that younger viewers will not appreciate "Decade." As with Ross at VH1, Bourke says much of the creative output of the '70s has become so emblematic, it doesn't matter if viewers were around then.

"I would say that when (older) people watch 'Decade,' they are reminded of how much they loved 'Dog Day Afternoon.' For people who are younger, there is a cultural awareness of the time," she says. "Socially and politically, the '70s were a time of great change."