NAME the oldest TV program you can. Go back 40 years or more if you want to. How about Ed Sullivan? His variety show debuted in 1948, ran some 23 years in one form or another, and came to rest in film libraries and with other keepers of the TV past. Last Sunday that program leaped from storage shelves to a prime-time CBS special. In fact, ``The Very Best of the Ed Sullivan Show'' was only one part of a three-night nostalgia binge that included samples of two other classic CBS series, both marking 20th anniversaries: ``All in the Family'' and ``Mary Tyler Moore.''
They probably would never have made it back to network prime time - especially during ``sweeps months,'' when ratings really count with advertisers - except for a curious turn in TV programming: the medium's penchant for looking at itself. The tube appears to be pausing - amid a morass of topical dramas and trendy sitcoms - to realize it has a history, that it came from somewhere and might even be going somewhere. TV news is constantly examining its navel on panel shows and documentaries. A new NBC series, ``Sunday Best,'' focuses satirically on TV's past and present with clips and comedy routines. A whole cable channel has started up called ``Nostalgia TV.'' Stations are sprinkling their schedules with truly vintage series - like ``The Honeymooners'' and ``Nat King Cole'' - that date back to the '50s and earlier.
And one producer is even trying to put the old Sullivan shows into syndication. If he succeeds, it will not be merely an appeal to the wistful middle-aged viewer but another step toward TV's self-discovery. A program like Sullivan's - seen 40 years after the fact and in the context of modern programming - reminds viewers that this derivative medium has roots, even if they serve mainly as something for TV to reject. When you see Sullivan's show now, you realize it is a transition from the old stage acts that still entertained Americans to the rock stars who would later dominate on MTV and elsewhere. You see how Sullivan, over the years, ushered the modern world of entertainment onto the tube.
It was a odd role for the stony-faced host. He didn't sing or dance. He didn't tell jokes. He did talk, but in a stilted way that instantly became the butt of comics, who even today do the ``Rilly big she-e-e-w'' routine for young audiences with no real idea of what's being spoofed. Comedian Alan King once said, ``Ed does nothing, but he does it better than anyone else on television.'' Sullivan was a TV celebrity at least partly because he was there just when this cool new medium needed a laid-back personality like his.
Seen again, that medium seems far less dominating than it does now. It was a neutral gray channel to a reality outside itself. But by the time of ``All in the Family,'' the screen was becoming the reality. If you weren't there it's hard to grasp the impact of hearing those bigoted phrases on the lips of a TV character. What was a guy like Archie Bunker doing on TV, the national clearing house of social attitudes? The producer - Norman Lear - was not validating the Bunker mentality, which he loathes, but mocking it. But he knew that Carroll O'Connor's performance - now one of the permanent images of pop culture - would save Bunker from being a mere buffoon. Let's look at this man, TV was saying in 1971 - he's a human being.
``The Mary Tyler Moore Show'' was not as jolting, but it did find TV taking up the cause of single working women around 30. As so often with the medium's big steps, the change came in the guise of comedy. Ms. Moore pulled it off because she was a brilliantly accomplished comedy actor who retained an inner truth - plaintive, funny, coping with the Mr. Grants of this world in the unreconstructed days before harrassment became a statutory offense.
As of this writing, just the ratings for ``Sullivan'' are in: It was the second most-watched show of the week - not bad for an amusing but definitely self-searching look. Who knows, maybe the medium is maturing.