If variety is the spice of life, then this fall's new television season will serve up the spiciest prime time in years.
ABC with Dolly Parton and the Lifetime cable network with a cast of unknowns will try to liven up living rooms across the country with the first full-scale variety programs since "Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters" went off the air in 1982.
And Fox Television, buoyed by its critically acclaimed "skitcom," "The Tracey Ullman Show," also is planning to introduce a traditional variety series, starring Nell Carter, early next year.
"People miss 'The Ed Sullivan Show,' " says Joy Behar, a New York club comedian and the host of Lifetime's new variety program, "Way Off Broadway," which debuted Monday. "How many sitcoms can you watch with that canned laughter? I'm sick of it."
The word around the television industry had been that what audiences were sick of was variety shows.
In their heyday, variety programs starring Arthur Godfrey, Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, Dinah Shore, Danny Kaye, Carol Burnett, the Smothers Brothers and Flip Wilson had been among the highest-rated shows on television. But no variety show has cracked the Top 20 on a season-ending ratings list since "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour" in 1973-74.
Theory had it that in the modern era of slick production values, the old-time potpourri of celebrity guests, music, song, dance and slapstick shenanigans had become a television relic.
"The networks get fearful if the word is that something is dead," says Ted Harbert, an ABC Entertainment vice president. "We de-emphasized comedy several years ago because of that. But all it takes to correct any of those ideas is to put on a good show. Look what NBC has done with comedies."
Nonetheless, he concedes that his network's two-year, $40-million commitment to "Dolly" is not the result of renewed faith in the variety genre. It's just that ABC, still languishing in last place in the network ratings game, is convinced that what people want to see on TV is Dolly.
"We don't think of it as putting on a variety show," Harbert says. "We think we're putting on Dolly Parton. If she wanted to do a sitcom or a drama, we would have done that. We're just excited to have her on the air."
"Dolly" (premiering at 9 p.m. Sunday) will emphasize Parton's down-home personality and rapport with her guests and the average person watching at home.
"I just don't believe it's true that variety television is dead," Parton told reporters this summer. "I think people would like to see music and comedy and fun things again on TV."
Parton will sing, star in comic sketches and entertain famous guests, especially during one planned segment called "Dolly's date," in which Parton will chat, flirt and dance with the likes of Johnny Carson and Tom Selleck.
The show will have its share of country singing, but Parton and her producers intend to present all types of popular music. Little Richard, Patti LaBelle and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have already been booked and she hopes to lure Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan to Sunday night television. (Her guests on the premiere, however, are familiar TV personalities: Oprah Winfrey, Pee-wee Herman and Hulk Hogan.)
One reason for the decline of variety shows is that the rigid segmentation of the music business discouraged potential musical guests from appearing on a show hosted by someone who was identified with a different musical genre.
Pop stars, for example, did not want to sing on a primarily country music show. And eventually audiences simply grew bored with the same small circle of guests who hopped from show to show doing the same old thing.
Today, Harbert says, there are few national venues for music acts. "American Bandstand" and MTV expose singers and bands to large audiences, but the ratings on those programs are minuscule compared to what "Dolly" will get in prime time even if it is a horrendous flop.
With Parton's manager, Sandy Gallin, a man who for years has managed some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry, serving as the show's executive producer, and with Parton's stable of friends, the program's celebrity-studded status should be ensured for at least two seasons. Among future guests will be Whoopi Goldberg, Burt Reynolds, Neil Diamond and Linda Ronstadt.
But even if the times seem ripe for one successful Dolly Parton-hosted variety show, no one can find any documented evidence to suggest that television viewers actually miss the old-time variety format. There is, some fear even at ABC, that variety may have fallen off the television schedule for a good reason--and that reviving the genre may simply be another example of the cyclical, jump-on-any-new-bandwagon folly that often passes for television programming.
"I really don't think we know if the audience will accept it," says Garth Ancier, senior vice president of programming at Fox Broadcasting. "A few years ago, people gambled that going back to Westerns would draw an audience and that didn't work out so well."