Tag: Television

Shadow on the Land


I’m about to introduce you to one of the strangest, longest-forgotten TV projects ever launched: a December 1968 television movie for ABC made to pitch a weekly series called Shadow on the Land. The grim, Twilight Zone-like premise: the U.S. is ruled by a dictatorship, and has been for decades more than anyone realizes, backed by the Federal bureaucracy and their Gestapo-like ISF, the Internal Security Forces. The nation’s churches have been cowed or intimidated into submission. A small band of freedom fighters emerges within law enforcement and government, and their never-ending secret struggle of sabotage against their own agencies is the plot of the TV movie, and of the following series that was never to be.

This wasn’t The Man in the High Castle; no foreign invasion, no defeat in a war was necessary, it’s something we did to ourselves. One of the most disturbing and effective things about Shadow on the Land was a deliberate choice of the filmmakers: its normalcy, an America with freeways and shopping centers where you can drive a Pontiac, smoke Luckies, and fly TWA. Where even the men walking the halls of secret police headquarters look like the ad agency staff in Mad Men, with a visual background of typing pools and office Christmas parties. There are no futuristic props at all, nothing that suggests that what we’re watching is anything but today’s world. Wild stuff, huh?

What’s a Movie Producer?


In the popular imagination, though movie producers act like big shots, they’re merely fast-talking con men, like Max Bialystock, the crooked Broadway impresario of Mel Brooks’s The Producers. To classic-era screenwriters, producers are treated in their biographies as greedy capitalists and script-butchering philistines. To film directors, who screenwriters generally regard as their sworn mortal enemies, producers are generally treated as meddling, movie-altering oafs disguised as white-shoe country clubbers.

Real-life producers laugh this off, but they do resent it. And they’re used to it. Being a producer is a real job and a hard one, whether you’re on the money end of it, the production end of it, or both.

A producer is the prime organizer of a film project. It’s a two-headed eagle of a job with different skill sets for each side of it: getting the money and spending it efficiently. Many producers are entrepreneurs who do both. They originate a project, often well before a director is even hired, and work with a writer or a team of writers to present a script that can win a production deal from a studio. These deals are complex and sometimes involve securing outside money as well, from a bank or an individual. Locking those deals in, and making them stick throughout the long period of production, is a specialized, full-time business skill all by itself. Some producers are valued strictly for that expertise.

Locast: The Cord Cutter’s Friend


Digital television can be both a blessing and a curse. A digital signal is a cleaner, clearer, and more pleasant experience for the consumer. But it is also much more fragile. The slightest interruption in the steady stream of ones and zeroes can make something unwatchable. Where the analog signals of NTSC yesterday slowly faded away with the curvature of the earth into “A,” “B” and “C-grade” signals, digital television signals just fall off the table.

When the conversion was made almost 12 full years ago, those with cable or satellite service never noticed the changeover. For the many millions who relied on over-the-air signals, they quickly became either winners or losers. The winners not only kept their channel lineup but gained dozens of digital subchannels riding piggyback on the main network stations. The losers, especially those who lived in the B-grade areas, ended up subscribing to some kind of service. And in the long run, many of those services became ridiculously expensive.

What Killed the Dinosaurs! And You Don’t Look So Terrific Yourself.


In 1978, Harlan Ellison published a fine collection of his short stories, called Strange Wine, with an Introduction entitled, “Revealed at Last! What Killed the Dinosaurs! And You Don’t Look So Terrific Yourself.” This was Harlan’s classic broadside against the watching of television.

I was reminded of him while reading a news story headlined: “Almost 40% of university students surveyed are addicted to their phones.” Harlan could have easily updated his Introduction against all of social media. (If you’d like to read the full version of the Introduction, go to Strange Wine on Amazon Kindle, click on the “Look inside” cover image, and scroll down.

Alt Images: Smooth Sorcery


In 1984, I was one of a lucky handful of people from the LA film festival who were invited to pay a secret visit to Douglas Trumbull’s anonymous, windowless special effects stage and laboratory. Located in an industrial area down at the marina, it was many miles away from the movie studios that paid Trumbull to create magic for films like Columbia’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Warner Bros. Blade Runner (1982). Trumbull called us there to make a dramatic demonstration of his new process, Showscan, which he claimed would grow into much more than just a technical improvement, becoming a profoundly deeper artistic and psychological experience than moviegoing had ever known.

It sounded, I have to say, like an absurdly pretentious claim. But for weeks after that screening, whenever any of us got together, I heard Twilight Zone-like stories of the experience of having those hypnotic Showscan moments merge into their own memories and dreams. 37 years ago, we were among the first to experience the peculiar, uncharted subconscious world of HFR, high frame rate moving images.

‘50s Broadcast Tech Tales


The UK had gone through hell during the Second World War, and its early postwar years were bleak. “Austere” was the accepted, understated way of putting it. Food and heating fuel were expensive and scarce. In 1952, Princess Elizabeth became Queen when her father died. This was formally confirmed in elaborate rituals throughout England and Scotland, leading up to her grand coronation in June 1953. It had been eight years since the end of the war. The UK economy was finally looking up. The English were ready to kick up their heels a little. So they staged what amounted to the first worldwide television spectacular.

With the Queen’s acquiescence—in fact, her insistence—the BBC’s cameras were permitted to observe almost all of a ceremony once held to be all but sacred. Announced long in advance, the Coronation resulted in the purchase of millions of TV sets, no longer exclusively associated with the upper classes. The live television signal was microwaved across the Channel to France, where it was broadcast in Paris and relayed onwards to Holland and Germany, whose viewers also watched the ceremonies in a growing number of fortunate private homes, and thronged the many bars and meeting places that already had television sets.

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As many readers may recall my wife and I celebrated our fourteenth wedding anniversary last week.  This past weekend, owing to an inability to fall asleep I got into thinking about how my wife I don’t watch television together anymore.  Watching television together used to be one of the main touch points of our relationship.  […]

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With 10 million people filing unemployment claims in March, and 6.6 million of those in the final week of the month, the coronavirus’s economic impact begin to rumble around the country. The guys discuss what can be done, what the political impacts for Trump and Biden will be and what’s going to be the best way to get out of it and get the country back on track.

With everyone in a state of quarantine, the group discusses what they’re watching, listening to and what video games they’re playing (if any) as well as how they’re getting their sports fix.

TV Spies of the ’60s


Fifty-three Christmas Eves ago, I first saw an episode of an exciting new show that hadn’t yet caught on with viewers, despite great reviews in TV Guide and elsewhere. Mission: Impossible was the final entry in what had been a mid-Sixties spy craze on TV and in the movies, all of them of course due to the huge success of James Bond. Spies had never been big box office before Bond, but for a few years they were as common as Star Wars rip-offs would be fifteen years later. Mission: Impossible was unusual for the new genre; no sex, very little violence, jumpy editing that was too fast for most casual TV viewers a half century ago, with complicated, half-explained plots that you had to follow closely to figure out. Above all, its main characters were quite deliberately left blank: you didn’t really know who they were, all you ever knew about them is what they did. Yet Mission: Impossible became by far the most successful and long lasting of all the TV spy shows of the ‘60s. Variety raved, “It looks like CBS finally found its U.N.C.L.E.”, referring to NBC’s hit spy show, then in its third year.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E., debuting in 1964, was the first of the TV spy bunch, boldly announced as “Ian Fleming for television!”, a claim that NBC and its producers, MGM, were forced to hastily retract after Bond’s producers and Fleming’s estate threatened to sue. That claim was a lie, or more forgivably, an awkward exaggeration, and like Mission, U.N.C.L.E. was slow to find an audience. But once it did, it was a huge, if short-lived pop culture phenomenon. Its stars, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, were mobbed everywhere they traveled. They got bushels of fan mail every week. MGM even happily publicized hundreds of fan letters addressed simply to “The Gun”, U.N.C.L.E.’s custom-crafted handgun, accessorized with a custom stock, barrel extender, silencer, even an infrared sniper scope. Millions of plastic replicas were among the most popular ‘60s Christmas toys for American boys. Could you imagine the reaction to that today?

TV History 10: Face-to-Face Television


1927 Illustration, Wagner Magazine, Germany: Women of the year 2000, flying their personal airplanes to meet friends at lunch.

Drinking in midday and smoking as casually as men, both women at the table are distracted by the little video screen in their hands, paying more attention to it than to each other. In one woman’s case, she’s looking in on her child, and on the other’s tiny round screen, a man, a lover in all probability. There’s a lot of fashionable, imaginative conjecture here in one picture, but nearly a century later, minus the aviatrix hats, wouldn’t this be a pretty close 2019 approximation of two young women at lunch, wearing earbuds, using FaceTime on their phones? For almost 90 years this idea looked futuristic. Now, the liberated lifestyles of those modern ladies of leisure and the pocket “mirrors” of their hand-held video screens are commonplace 21st century reality.

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The United States Open is the ultimate conservative golf tournament.  Let it sink in for a second.  I know what you are thinking.  What about The Masters?  I am not saying it is not great, if not the greatest golf tournament in the world.  I am saying The U.S. Open is the golf tournament a […]

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TV History 9: Surveillance Television


In the late 19th century, when television was first imagined and written about, no one talked about television as broadcasting at all, because the concept of one voice or image speaking to many others in remote locations didn’t exist. It wasn’t even widely understood that there would have to be a camera sending you the picture; many early sketches imagine it as an electrified super-telescope, able to randomly focus in on distant events. Even as late as 1933, Paramount Pictures produced “International House”, a zany, racy comedy about a Chinese hotel full of scheming global businessmen competing to buy “Radiovision”, a television invention that can form an image of entertaining events anywhere in the world.

Historically speaking, the mid-Thirties is pretty late in the game to be presenting TV as a fantasy, because after what was then about fifty years of speculation and anticipation the world was about to see the real thing—TV as we know it: One camera, millions of viewers. Programs, sponsors, station identification. Show business. Mass media.

TV History 8: High Definition Television


Ask any critic: We’re living in the era of Peak TV, when major cable and streaming projects have become as important and glamorous in our world as theatrical films are, sometimes even more so. Television’s been an important part of our lives for seventy years, but other than for live events, it’s always been the (relatively) family-friendly, 21 inch-wide, generally low prestige cousin of the movies. That all changed in this century, and this post will claim it’s partly due to a non-artistic advance that’s supposedly “merely” technical, as if anything is “merely” technical: The stunning quality, size, and affordability of today’s high definition home screen.

The traditional movie theater is increasingly reserved for spectacle; your living room flatscreen is now your movie screen, just as your laptop or tablet has become your kitchen table TV, and your mobile phone became your daily, carry around computer message center. Just considering sheer cultural impact, “The Sopranos”, became “The Godfather” of our era, and “Game of Thrones” has been “The Lord of the Rings” of the past decade. It’s hard to recall how recent this all is. Even a quarter century ago, you’d have to have been a Hollywood millionaire with a 35mm home theater to see a picture anywhere nearly this good in your living room. Now you only need $500, and 55 inches (diagonal) of wall space. The story of how video reached film quality, and is now approaching the limits of human eyesight, involves enterprise, decades of backdoor deals, art, science, the politics of the Sixties through the Eighties, and a high money stakes engineering fight with Japan; which we won. Here’s how it happened.

First, Be Good


I hate to admit this, but MacGyver is not good. I’m not referring to the unwatchable reboot currently withering away on CBS. No, I mean the original Richard Dean Anderson vehicle of awesomeness which aired from 1985-1992.

Dat dat dat dat dat dat daaaaa, dat dat daaaaa. The theme song gets you pumped, right? It makes we want to go rifling through the kitchen junk drawer, grab the broken can openers and fashion a defibrillator, just in case we need one. Or take the mercury out of those unused curly cue light bulbs (still in the four-year-old box, because they suck) and make…something with mercury, and batteries!

MacGyver was more than a hero, he was a superhero. In the days before Captain America, comic book superheroes were lame. Heroes were more grounded in reality: “The A-Team” (a bunch of guys with guns and explosives), “Knight Rider” (a guy with a tricked out car), “Walker, Texas Ranger” (a cop with a good roundhouse). But MacGyver was more than all that; he became a verb. Younger folk might not understand, but I’ll bet every GenXer knows what it means to “MacGyver the crap out of (something).” Amen?

The Winds of War: Herman Wouk Dead at 103


He was many things. A gag writer, a sailor at war, a novelist, the grandson of a rabbi. But above everything else, he was a storyteller. Herman Wouk has died at age 103.

He is best remembered for his breakthrough novel, The Caine Mutiny, and an epic pair of television mini-series The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. Caine won the 1951 Pulitzer and was made into a classic film starring Humphrey Bogart as the mentally unstable Captain Queeg.

His parents were Russian Jewish immigrants who settled in New York. When his maternal grandfather joined them he took over the boy’s education in the Talmud. Although he resented it at the time his faith would become an integral part of his writing. In an age when it was fashionable for writers to look skeptically at religion or dismiss it entirely, Wouk embraced it. He would later call his grandfather and the United States Navy the two most important influences in his life.

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A favored televisions series grows on the viewer.  One relates to characters, often eventually seeing them as old friends.  The end of a favorite series causes a period of mourning of sorts.  Not like the loss of a loved on beloved pet, but there is a sense of mourning nevertheless.  My wife made an interesting […]

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Google’s presentation of its impressive new game streaming service began with images of boardgames, arenas, sports stadiums, and concert halls to show how entertainment has provided a social glue throughout history to bring people of different backgrounds and beliefs together in joy. Hence the name, Stadia.  “Create + Scale + Connect” are the three goals […]

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In August 1973, my girlfriend (and future wife!) wanted to visit some friends in Maine, so we drove up there from New York. She loved all this healthy air and the break from living in a city. Me, I was … less enthusiastic about a week or so of rural life, but damned if I […]

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