Tag: Television

What’s a TV Show?


Television was widely anticipated for a half-century before it finally appeared in the home. You see it as futuristic science fiction in films like Metropolis, Things to Come, Transatlantic Tunnel, and Modern Times. Someday it would provide to every American a front-row seat at public events, like the inauguration of a president, a horse race, or the World Series. There’d be live remote broadcasts from big city theaters, with dramas, operas, and vaudeville, as in International House, complete with pretty singers, leggy dancers, and black comedians. All of that would eventually come to pass, in one form or another. Live news events, sports, and variety are mainstays of television even today. But when we say the words “Last night I watched a TV show,” what we usually have in mind is different.

There was a blank spot in science fiction writers’ imaginations: scripted entertainment. One simple, obvious thing these tele-viewers of tomorrow never seemed to do in these futuristic visions was spend any couch time watching TV, at least in the sense that we know the term. The futurists of the 1920s didn’t anticipate that very soon we’d have a national habit of hanging out each week with the likes of the Ricardos and the Kramdens. Flash Gordon never kicked back with a cold brew to catch an episode of The Adventures of Superman. Inventing television was hard enough; inventing the kinds of programs and formats that people would want to see, week after week, took another kind of talent. In retrospect, it all happened quickly, but it didn’t happen overnight.

My Conversation with Czeslaw Milosz


Ricochetti have asked me to share more of my encounters with the famous (via my career on public television and as a magazine editor). A while back (in my reminiscence of a catastrophic interview with Terry Jones of Monty Python and author Douglas Adams), I mentioned that I thought most of the tapes had been erased. I told Susan Quinn the same thing about my interview with the philosopher/psychologist Viktor Frankl.

As it turns out, all of the tapes of the eight seasons of “Malone” survive. They were collected and restored by KQED in San Francisco, and they now reside in a joint archive run by PBS and the Library of Congress here.

When the Star Gets Fired


There’s an influential Hollywood website called The Ankler. It gets its name from “ankling”, a word coined by Variety, the ancient Bible of the business side of show business. Someone who “ankles” a studio is laid off, but leaves under their own power; a normal, unemotional job separation. The opposite, in Variety-ese, is getting “axed”—flat out fired, and escorted off the studio lot by security, with dueling lawyers sure to follow. It doesn’t often happen to the stars, but when it does, it’s a big, public, messy deal. This is particularly true when an entire show is shaped around them: Charlie Sheen, Jeremy Clarkson, and Roseanne Barr are recent examples. We’ll get to them.

Some actors are fired because of problems they caused on the set. Others, simply because they were miscast to begin with, or couldn’t seem to give the performance that the film or TV show needed. And with many others it simply came down to money.

The 2 Best Sitcoms of the 1990s


I have been rewatching Absolutely Fabulous, and was actually surprised that a show I once thought was very ghey is actually, to use modern terminology, based. AbFab wasn’t celebrating a decadent, hedonistic lifestyle, it was ridiculing it. And as I thought about it some more, AbFab has a lot in common with the other great sitcom of the 1990s, Frasier.

On the surface, the shows don’t seem very much alike, but in addition to being stunningly well-written and flawlessly cast, both of these are ‘comedies of manners.AbFab chose the object of its humor to be the excesses of high fashion and celebrity (but was definitely not above slapstick), while Frasier went after pretentious intellectualism and psychology. But the two shows actually had quite a bit more in common beneath the surface.

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One summer Robin and I were catching up on Breaking Bad, at that time considered to be one of the most ground-breaking episodic shows on television. We were so into the storyline that we were staying up until 1 or 2 a.m. saying to each other, “Can you do another one? I can do another one? Wanna’ do […]

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Entertainment for Ladies


Radio entered American homes about a century ago. It changed life everywhere. It transformed rural life most of all, giving listeners a tenuous, vital connection to the wider world. At first it offered morning farm market prices, news, prayer, and a separate evening session of music before signoff, which in most of the country came early. Once most local stations were wired into national networks, big advertisers made more lavish programs possible, and what we now call old time radio flourished. Relatively few women worked outside the home in those days, so the afternoon became the traditional time for radio sponsors to reach and entertain them. Women, generally being more sociable than men, were especially glad to have radio’s substitute companionship during long hours of housework. Serial dramas with appealing and/or hissable characters instantly became popular.

Being a homemaker has always been a tough job, but 70-100 years ago it required physical labor to a degree that few of us lucky moderns realize. Hanging the wash, keeping an anxious eye on the clouds, and bringing it in were tiring enough, but the washing was also done by hand, scrubbing on a washboard. Variety had a once-amusing, condescending 1920s term for daytime drama, which it continued to use for three decades: “women’s washboard weepers.” That general line of midcentury wit is where the term “soap opera” comes from.

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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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.