Happy New Years: When the World Partied Like It Was 1999

It seems like an eternity has passed since the world rang in the new millennium on Dec. 31, 1999. (Let's just say that a lot has happened in the world since then.) But it has only been eight years. Nonetheless, the news coverage from that night is something that has already become an interesting historical account of what the world was going through at that time. These three video clips feature some of the news coverage from NBC from that final New Year's Eve of the 20th century.


Merry Christmas from Chris' MediaLog

For your yuletide pleasure, a clip of the famous WPIX-TV (New York) yule log. Back in the '70s, WPIX put an image like this on the air on Christmas Day and just let it run, so it would seem as if viewers had a real yule log in their living room. It caught on and became sort of a local institution, and ran every Christmas for many years (don't know if they still do it today). Enjoy a little Christmas fire, and music, and have a very Merry Christmas!


This Week on "Dateline: 1971": Mail-Order Catalog from 1970

This week's post on "Dateline: 1971" is a really interesting Flickr gallery of a mail-order catalog from 1970. Filled with knick-knacks and other '70s-era household objects, it triggered nostalgic memories on my part, and will likely do the same for anyone who grew up in the 1970s.


Film Review: "The Dark Knight" (2008)

The first film of the rebooted Batman franchise, 2005's "Batman Begins," was leisurely, methodical, and exacting in its establishment and exploration of the origins of its nocturnal hero--and it is a masterpiece. The sequel, last summer's "The Dark Knight" (out on DVD this week) is cacophonous, convoluted, and scattershot in its advancement of Batman's story and its attempt to establish Batman as a (to use NY Times critic Manohla Dargis' term) "postheroic" vigilante--and it is not a masterpiece.

It is perhaps unfair to judge "The Dark Knight" by the high standard that director Christopher Nolan set for himself with "Batman Begins," but I don't think it is out of bounds to remark upon the new film's violation of many of its predecessor's tonal and dramaturgical tenets. This is not all bad: "The Dark Knight" works effectively in many respects as a manic, schizophrenic, morally ambivalent, and apocalyptic counterpoint to the painstakingly-constructed, character-building, world-establishing "Batman Begins." The problem is that "The Dark Knight" attempts to cram too much mania, moral ambivalence, and apocalypse into its nearly two and a half hour running time while insufficiently developing its potentially powerful themes of the chaos of a society held captive by terror and the schizophrenia (the two-facedness, if you will) required to survive amongst such chaos.

At the center of all of this, of course, is Heath Ledger's Joker, a performance that is undeniably strong and virtuosic, but that seems to be colored by the real-life tragedy of the actor's death this past January. Visually, aurally, bodily, Ledger inhabits and interprets the Joker in a way that no other actor has--as a greasy, truly psychotic, unpalatable, and mentally unhinged terrorist trickster. Much of the performance's effectiveness derives from the inevitable intertextual comparison that nearly every viewer must make between Ledger and the suave, bright, cartoonish Joker of Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton's "Batman" (1989). The Joker of "The Dark Knight," though, quite separate from Ledger's skilled portrayal, is as unhinged dramatically as he is mentally. The only glimpses of backstory or psychological motivation we get for the Joker are the bogus explanations he gives of how he got his hideous trademark smile scars and crumbs of personal details that turn out to be red herrings for directing the police to his next scene of mayhem.

The inscrutability of the Joker's characterization by Nolan and his screenwriting partner brother Jonathan is meant to establish the clown's potency as a figure of terror. The fact that we know not what makes the Joker tick supposedly makes his ticking bombs that much more terrifying. But by obscuring the origins of the Joker's psychosis and of his clownish modus operandi, the filmmakers abdicate what could have been an even more powerful exploration of the nature of terrorist acts and of the motivations for their criminal application. Instead, we get with the Joker a dramaturgical thrust that is wildly uneven, at times lurching, and hard to reconcile with any recognizable motivations.

The absence of any treatment of Joker's origins in "The Dark Knight" is important because the exploration of origins has otherwise been such a strong component of Nolan's Batman films. (It is also, of course, a central conceit of superhero comics in general and the movies adapted from them.) Virtually all of "Batman Begins" was dedicated to establishing the psychological and personal motivations that led Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne to become a caped crusader, as well as to the acquisition of the specific skills and tools required for the success of such an endeavor. "The Dark Knight" itself contains a mostly successful such origin story in the transformation of District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) into the villain Two-Face.

Indeed, as much as anything else, "The Dark Knight" could be considered to be the story of the rise and fall of Eckhart's Two-Face. This is a story in which a powerful and righteous figure (the crusading D.A. even briefly manages to bring Bruce Wayne under his thrall) suffers a horrific loss (the death of fiancee Rachel Dawes, here played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) and undergoes a physical transformation (the catastrophic burning of half his face) that makes concrete his pain and suffering. Two-Face's story is a powerful and effective one because the psychological underpinnings of the character's transformation are made clear. In contrast, the story involving the Joker suffers because of the opacity of the character's motivations and the ultimately directionless course upon which it takes the movie as a whole. Because of these issues, "The Dark Knight" fails in large part to accomplish progressing the powerful story set in motion by Nolan in "Batman Begins."


The MediaLog MediaFix: "Sam and Friends" (1950s/60s) featuring proto-Muppets

The Muppets are some of the best known and most beloved characters ever created. They have appeared in countless TV programs, films, and other forms of media for over forty years (for a listing showing just how extensive these appearances have been, click here). This MediaFix is a very early, pre-"Sesame Street" look at some Muppets, including Kermit the Frog, from Jim Henson's local Washington, D.C. show called "Sam and Friends." "Sam and Friends" was a five-minute program, airing at times once daily, at times twice, from 1955 to 1961.

The segment, called "Visual Thinking," is an early classic of Henson's Muppetry. Kermit is a square fellow who can't think creatively and is tutored in thinking "visually" by a hipster character with a voice that is familiar from later Muppet characters (although I can't now think of which ones). Clever effects, including some use of the letters and numbers that the Muppets would promote so effectively on "Sesame Street," make the piece irresistibly enjoyable. Henson apparently realized this, as he created additional "visual thinking" segments in later years (such as this from 1966 and this from 1971).

If you like this, here is another series of segments from "Sam and Friends," including a promo and a short skit in which Kermit interviews the Muppet doppelgangers of newsmen Chet Huntley and David Brinkley.

(Length: 2:48; video source: YouTube)


Dateline: 1971, Blogging the Year of My Birth

In addition to "Chris' MediaLog" I have another blog called "Dateline: 1971." "D:71" features items related to the year 1971, the year of my birth. My general fascination with history, especially cultural and pop cultural history, finds more specific form in looking for things connected to 1971, to better understand the world and the culture I was born into. "Dateline: 1971" has (and will have, as it is just starting up) video clips and images, links to historical items related to U.S. and international events, and other miscellany, all related to 1971. To broaden the scope a little bit (and perhaps also the interest level of readers), I will probably include some stuff related to the early-1970s more generally.

I intend to make a posting to "Dateline: 1971" about once a week. This week's posting is a video clip from a 1971 "Tonight Show" episode guest hosted by Burt Reynolds. If you're a child of the 1970s, like me, you might find it interesting.


Book Review: "TV a Go Go: Rock on TV from 'American Bandstand' to 'American Idol'" (2005) by Jake Austen

Television and rock and roll rose to national prominence at about the same time in the 1950s, and so the two have always had a sort of symbiotic development. That history of rock and roll music on TV is traced with great detail and skill in the book "TV a Go Go: Rock on TV from 'American Bandstand' to 'American Idol'" by Jake Austen. Austen offers an exhaustive account of rock music on television in an accessible but still substantive fashion in this enlightening book.

The chapters in "TV a Go Go" follow a roughly chronological pattern--with some overlap from chapter to chapter where subject matter dictates. The first chapter is an exploration of "proto TV rock" in a period (mainly the '50s) when rock and roll was itself still prototypical. Television musical acts such as Nat King Cole and others lead into the first appearances of rock and roll acts on shows such as "The Steve Allen Show," "Stage Show," and "The Ed Sullivan Show." Highlighted, as might be expected, are the Sullivan appearances of Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Austen does more than most authors with these signal performances, though, offering important context and showing how they fit into the pattern of rock acts on Sullivan and other shows of the 1950s and early-1960s.

The book proceeds with chapters on every major movement in rock music and its intersection with TV. These include: dance shows, beginning with Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" (and a perceptive assessment of Clark's place in the history of rock on TV) but also including several important local dance programs; the phenomenon of "fake bands" on TV, such as the Monkees and the Partridge Family; rock and roll cartoons, including such acts as the Archies and Alvin and the Chipmunks (as well as others of this surprisingly large contingent); a penetrating examination of black music on TV, with a history of "Soul Train" and background on several other obscure yet significant shows; the 1970s trend for live concerts on late-night TV, most famously on "Midnight Special"; an intriguing look at punk rock on TV; the birth and growth of MTV and music video; and rock and roll reality television of the 2000s, including the indomitable "American Idol."

The final chapter of "TV a Go Go" is a fascinating case study of one figure who has been central to rock on TV and for whom TV has been central: Michael Jackson. Here Austen provides a year by year chronicle of Jackson's TV appearances, performance by performance, event by event. This chronicle begins during the Jackson 5ive years of the late-1960s and early-1970s, continues through Michael's first solo appearances in the latter '70s, reaches a crescendo with the landmark performance on the Motown 25th anniversary show in 1983 and the same period's pioneering music videos, traces MJ's post-"Thriller" career in TV performances and music videos (including such incidents as the controversial "Black and White" video of 1991), and concludes with the reality-TV like saga that Jackson's life and career has become since his 1993 accusations of child molestation. Through the story of Jackson's TV appearances, Austen manages to provide a microcosm of the preceding account of the development of rock on TV.

"TV a Go Go" is a veritable encyclopedia of rock performances on TV. Austen is a dedicated aficionado of rock music and of TV and offers exhaustive analyses of particular appearances and particular moments of importance to rock TV. These discussions treat forgotten and obscure shows (such as "Kiddie a Go Go," a dance show for the grade school set, or "Inside Bed-Sty," a local show in New York City featuring black musicians), as well as the subject of rock music on non-musical shows, most interestingly punk rock on 1970s series such as "Quincy M.E." and "CHiPs." The book has a surprisingly light emphasis on music video and the development of MTV, which leaves somewhat of a hole in Austen's analysis, but this is forgivable due to the subject's relatively thorough treatment elsewhere.

"TV a Go Go" is not a scholarly book, although it will appeal to scholarly needs due to its exhaustive historical accounting of rock music on American TV. This historical work will be of interest to anyone with a deep interest in either TV history or in the history of popular music.


Happy Thanksgiving from Chris' MediaLog

Chris' MediaLog, in the form of this vintage Thanksgiving newspaper ad (courtesy of the blog "Held Over! Newspaper Movie Ads"), would like to wish the blogosphere a very Happy Thanksgiving!


Film Review: "Flashdance" (1983, directed by Adrian Lyne)

By 1983, a couple of years into the MTV era, movie studio executives apparently began to wonder what would happen if the principles and forms of the music video were applied to a full-length feature film. "Flashdance" is what happened.

I could say that "Flashdance" is the story of an aspiring dancer who works as a welder by day but calling what happens in the film a story is being a bit generous. Over the course of the film there are characters, who do stuff, and talk to each other, and get into conflicts, some of them romantic in nature. The result, though, is not really a story but rather an accumulation of the kind of vague narrative vignettes that became common accoutrements to music videos: dramatizations that serve no dramatic purpose but exist simply so that there are dramatic-looking moving pictures to see while (or before, or after) the music plays. "Flashdance," as a result, does not have a very coherent plot. Indeed, much of it unfolds as if there wasn't in fact any script at all.

The film has become famous for the imagery of Jennifer Beals sweating and strutting in her dance performances. Beals, who plays the aspiring dancer, Alex, puts in a career-making performance, not because of its quality, but merely because of its notoriety. The supposed dramatic tension in the film derives from Alex's desire to be admitted to a fancy dance school, but this entire arc is introduced flaccidly and just left hanging for much of the film. Alex is surrounded by a cast of stock characters: a best friend, an aspiring ice skater who can't skate and instead becomes a stripper; a wisecracking male sidekick, a short order cook who is an aspiring, and embarassingly bad, comedian; a tall, dark and handsome love interest (her boss at her welding job, played by Michael Nouri); a loving and encouraging grandma who dies on her (an underutilized Lilia Skala).

As hackneyed as the narrative elements of the film are, the visual imagery, as might be expected of a feature-length music video, is relatively stronger. The cinematography (by Don Peterson) has an intriguingly gritty feel that does a good job of exploiting the quasi-story's Pittsburgh setting (especially as Alex bicycles all over the city). A few of the dance sequences are striking, such as Alex's opening number featuring cascading water (see picture above) and a later, new-wavy performance with a glowing TV screen, black light, and Alex in whiteface.

These visual strengths, though, combined with the film's famous music--the iconic title song by Irene Cara, Michael Sembello's "Maniac," in addition to a synthesizer-happy score by Giorgio Moroder--only serve to accentuate the film's narrative weaknesses. In the broader scheme of American cinema, "Flashdance" was nonetheless successful in marrying MTV visuals and popular music in a fashion that could inhabit a feature film and appeal to 1980s audiences. Other films would soon follow that did this kind of thing much better--"Footloose," for example--but "Flashdance," in spite of its glaring ineptitude, has the distinction of having done them first.


MediaLog MediaLink: Retrolounge

Retrolounge is a voluminous compendium of pop culture nostalgia links on subjects ranging from advertising and television to architecture and transportation. The sheer number of items in this directory is staggering: over 230 links for photography, a similar number for paperback books, almost 200 links for music, and almost 100 transportation links. Interestingly, the site has comparatively fewer links for what might be called the customary popular culture arts--only 50 for TV and radio, and "only" 100 for cinema.

The site might have been a more mundane links directory if not for the impressive presentation. The lists of links are presented as flash animations, meaning that the links in each category can be navigated through laterally with relative ease and by avoiding loading new pages. A stylish retro hostess welcomes visitors to the page sporting a 1940s (I think) dress ensemble and perky hat. The site contains a copyright notice naming one Patricia Gaspar as the responsible party, and is hosted by Bitlounge.net, Gaspar's server, but other than that the origins of the site are a mystery. Retrolounge is a delight to explore nonetheless, and poses a serious threat to the time management of any retro or nostalgia fan who encounters it.


The MediaLog MediaFix: "Hot Hero Sandwich" (1979)

As I (sort of) promised last week, this MediaFix is the final installment of the great 1970s trilogy of kids shows with the word "hot" in the title and having something to do with food. (See also, "Hot Dog" from 1970 and "Hot Fudge" from c. 1976.) "Hot Hero Sandwich" was, in the words of YouTube user 70sKidVid (who posted the clip), "a kind of Saturday Morning Live, it was taped at the same studio as SNL, the show featured comedy sketches, musical performances, as well as interviews with various celebrities."

The celebrities certainly were varied. The episode from which this excerpt is drawn featured the incredible celebrity guest line-up of Loretta Lynn, Leonard Nimoy, and Richard Pryor. This clip is the show's extended opening credits sequence, naming the regular cast as well as the guest stars (alas, it contains none of the actual show itself, though). "Hot Hero Sandwich" aired for only a few months, between November 1979 and April 1980, on NBC at noon on Saturdays.

(Length: 2:20; source: YouTube, user 70sKidVid)


Book Review: "The Sweeps: Behind the Scenes in Network TV" (1984) by Mark Christensen & Cameron Stauth

"The Sweeps" is another in the genre of TV books that I like to call "industry snapshots." These are books that provide an inside (or as the subtitle here indicates, "behind the scenes") look at the state of the TV industry at the time of their writing, offering a variety of perspectives from executives, creative personnel, and contemporary press accounts. Other books in this journalistic "snapshot" genre include Sally Bedell's "Up the Tube" (1981), Martin Mayer's "About Television" (1972), and the more recent "Desperate Networks" (2006) by Bill Carter.

"The Sweeps," published in mid-1984, chronicles American television in the spring, summer, and fall of 1983, as programming decisions were being made and then implemented for the 1983-1984 television season. Christensen and Stauth follow a number of different TV-industry personalities during this period, charting their fortunes over the course of the year and gaining their insights about the TV industry going into the mid-1980s. At the time "The Sweeps" was published, these observations were current and reflected the state of the TV art; now (as in all books of this genre), they provide a valuable historical "snapshot" of the TV industry and its practices at the time.

The personalities featured in "The Sweeps" cut across a broad range of TV industry types. These include early-1980s TV superstars such as Ed Asner, who was going through a career crisis due to his controversial political views, and then-up-and-comers who would become TV stalwarts, such as Harry Anderson and Ted Danson. Particularly interesting are Anderson's irreverance as he books game show appearances and magician gigs as hedges against the failure of his new sitcom "Night Court," and Danson's insecurity as "Cheers" struggles to hang on and Danson wins a nomination but not the award itself for Best Comedy Actor in the 1983 Emmys.

Equally intriguing are fringe figures such as Larry Colton and Corky Hubbert. Colton, a washed up pro baseball pitcher with little TV industry experience, takes a gamble by becoming involved in the development of a scheme to franchise a soap opera format to local TV stations (which for him means becoming a producer on a show called "Pillars of Portland"). Hubbert, a little person known at the time for a memorable appearance in the movie "Under the Rainbow," had fallen on hard times and throughout 1983 was flamboyantly trying to land acting gigs that would catapult him back to relative stardom. The stories of these two provide a counterpoint to those of other, established but still struggling TV industry figures.

One of these such figures is writer-producer Allan Katz. Katz, who cut his TV industry teeth working on shows like "M*A*S*H," "Rhoda," and "Laugh-In," was in 1983 trying to juggle several different incipient projects: a sitcom pilot called "The National Snoop" that was considered but not picked up by NBC for fall 1983; a play, "Kaufman and Klein," for which he was trying to cast Ed Asner and/or Walter Matthau; and his baby, a feature film project called "The Hunchback of UCLA," which he also wanted to star in despite the fact that he'd never acted in his life.

Perhaps the central story of "The Sweeps" is that of aspiring TV writer Tony Colvin. At the beginning of 1983 (and in the opening chapter of the book), Colvin was giving up a successful career as a bank executive to break into TV writing by working as a gofer for the "Cheers" cast and crew. By the middle of the year (and the middle of the book), Colvin had landed a job as a story editor on the new sitcom "Just Our Luck." By the end of the year (and the end of the book's last chapter), he had lost that job (and his best chance at a TV career) due to the show's cancellation and, having given up his banking career, was in exile as a rental car salesman.

As it tells the story of all these personalities, "The Sweeps" also tells the story of several of the new and returning shows of 1983. It is fascinating to read about the anxieties of the cast and crew of the now-venerated "Cheers" (Danson chief among them) as its future in 1983 (its second year on the air) was anything but secure. "We Got It Made," starring the voluptuous Teri Copley and created by the deposed network programming chief Fred Silverman, is one of the new 1983-84 shows prominently chronicled in the book.

The entire slate of new NBC shows for fall 1983 is given special attention, including "Manimal," "Boone," "Bay City Blues," "Jennifer Slept Here," and "Mr. Smith." The network struggled unsuccessfully with these shows in 1983-84 in an attempt to raise itself out of a years-long ratings slump under new president Grant Tinker and new programming chief Brandon Tartikoff. (One of the great ironies of reading this particular "snapshot" book now is knowing that not long after "The Sweeps" was published the slump would end in a big way with the premiere of "The Cosby Show," which would soon become TV's number one program.)

In general, "The Sweeps" presents a detailed and fascinating snapshot of American TV circa 1983. Some persistent problems hamper the book's ability to do so, though. For one, some of the stories seem a little disjointed from the book's main thrust of chronicling the TV industry. Corky Hubbert's story, while compelling enough in and of itself, seems detached from a consideration of TV, due to the fact that most of Hubbert's previous experience and 1983 aspirations and acting gigs concern the film industry rather than television. Also, Christensen and Stauth's writing has an odd (and distracting) stylistic proclivity towards sentence fragments that at times makes it seem unprofessional (and just plain bad writing).

These quibbles do not, ultimately, overly detract from the value of "The Sweeps" as one of these "snapshot" tomes. As I've said before, these kinds of books are media scholarship's equivalent of prehistoric insects trapped in amber, and as such they offer crucially important and insightful looks at what the American media was like in a particular place at a particular time. "The Sweeps" fulfills this function for the American TV industry in 1983.


The MediaLog MediaFix: "Hot Fudge" (c. 1976)

Earlier this week, the MediaFix featured a quirky early-1970s kids' show called "Hot Dog." Here's a dessert serving of the same kind of show, from a little later in the '70s, called "Hot Fudge." "Hot Fudge" was a somewhat different show, perhaps even more in the "Laugh-In," quick cuts, non sequitur style I mentioned in the "Hot Dog" post. "Hot Fudge," which was syndicated from 1976-1980, also borrowed significantly from "Sesame Street," namely in the puppet characters here called "Mits." The show's first season, from which this excerpt is drawn, also featured a "Laugh-In" cast member, Arte Johnson, just as "Hot Dog" did (with JoAnne Worley).

The excerpt begins with the opening theme segment for "Hot Fudge" ("It's the Hot Fudge Show comin' on!"), proceeds to a short bit with a couple of Mits, continues with a viewer-mail segment called "Write On!" (don't groan, it was the '70s) that features a Mit that looks and acts like Groucho Marx (complete with cigar), and closes with Arte Johnson presenting some "Hug Awards."

Not all of the shows from this subgenre had "hot" in the title, although I may have to complete the trilogy next week by trying to find a clip from "Hot Hero Sandwich"!

(Length: 5:42; video source: FuzzyMemories.TV via YouTube)


Cinerama Holiday: The Original Widescreen Process Returns

Cinerama, the original widescreen motion picture format, has made something of an encore this year. This is largely due to the special-edition DVD release in September of one of only two narrative feature films made in Cinerama, "How the West Was Won" (1963). In the wake of this release, Rebecca Paller, a curator at the Paley Center for Media (a major media archive), blogged about Cinerama; and journalist Keith Phipps has written about Cinerama on Slate (comparing its brief use for narrative films in the early-1960s to the similar potential today for IMAX).

Both of these writers make useful observations about Cinerama. (Readers not familiar with the widescreen format can study up here, here, here, and/or here.) Both offer personal stories about viewing Cinerama, Paller about seeing it when it was first available in the 1950s and 1960s, Phipps about experiencing it during an unlikely Cinerama revival in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio, in the 1990s. These anecdotes point up a terribly important feature of the experience of Cinerama--that is was an experience. As Paller recounts, her family travelled many miles to a theatre in another town to attend Cinerama films, and as the title of her piece ("Put on Your Sunday Clothes") indicates, this was the kind of experience that people anticipated for days if not weeks, dressed up for as if going to church, and bragged about to their neighbors afterwards. I know from my own research that theatres featuring Cinerama advertised and tried to attract patrons from a very broad geographical range, due to the limited number of Cinerama-equipped theatres and the uniqueness of the experience.

The importance of Cinerama, especially to film exhibition, cannot be underestimated. It was important for several reasons: First, it created a cultural sensation in the early-1950s that reignited public interest in movies and moviegoing, after it had slumped for several years post-World War II and had begun to be affected by competition from television. Second, it established a new technical standard, that of the wide screen, that invigorated film exhibition in the early-1950s (precipitating CinemaScope and all the other widescreen processes of the 1950s) and introduced widescreen as a means of viewing visual media that continues to reverberate today with the diffusion of widescreen TVs. Next, it transformed the stylistic palette of cinema, requiring filmmakers to adapt to creating moving images for a wider screen. Finally, it introduced a new mode of moviegoing--what came to be known as "roadshow" or "hard ticket" exhibition (due to the fact that patrons needed reserved seat tickets), that included advance ticket sales, printed programs, intermissions, and a new lease on life for picture palace movie theatres, which were well-suited for the kind of film viewing experience provided by Cinerama.


The MediaLog MediaFix: "Hot Dog" (1970)

Much of the TV programming from the late-1960s and early-1970s looks very strange to us now, and the children's show "Hot Dog" certainly qualifies. There was a wave of kids' programs during this period that featured short (often comic) bits, animation, non sequiturs, and other "Laugh-In"-inspired segments. ("Sesame Street" is perhaps the most influential such show.) "Hot Dog" was a program that featured segments explaining how different things worked, such as this excerpt about how a baseball glove is made. Jonathan Winters and Woody Allen (for whom "Hot Dog" was his only regular TV series) were series regulars, and both appear in the clip above. (JoAnne Worley, best known from "Laugh-In" itself, was another regular.) As far as I can tell, the series title, "Hot Dog," is simply a goofy name meant, I guess, to appeal to kids. The show only lasted a single year, airing midday on Saturdays on NBC, from the fall of 1970 to the fall of 1971, winning a Peabody award in 1971.

(Length: 4:27; source: Google Video)


MediaLog MediaBrief: GSN Revamps Logo/Slogan (Again)

"Maybe This One Will Stick" Dept.-- The New York Times' TV Decoder blog is reporting today that cable network GSN is about to undergo another revamping of its image. The network will soon have a new logo (nine small squares in a variety of shades of orange and red, with the initials G, S, N in the middle three squares), under which is a new slogan, "Play Everyday." This will replace the current logo, a black box with the network's initials in the lower half (sometimes with the box and initials taking on different colors) and slogan, "The Network for Games."

I'm not sure how long the network has had its outgoing logo/slogan, but by cable network standards it hasn't been very long (a couple of years I think). GSN, of course, started in the mid-1990s as the Game Show Network, an identity it maintained for its first decade or so (with a couple of different logos). The current logo/slogan was adopted (along with the elimination of the network's original name in favor of its initials only) when it attempted to broaden its appeal beyond repeats of old TV game shows. The outgoing slogan, "The Network for Games," and the contraction of the network's name to its initials, were meant to indicate that game shows (including a sharp increase of new original shows) had become only part of the channel's offerings. These expanded to include any kind of programming that was game-related, including reality-competition shows (such as repeats of "Dog Eat Dog") and poker and bingo programs (the latter have been especially emphasized in recent months).

Over the last year or two, GSN has increasingly been emphasizing the online games that are available to play on its website, and it is this feature of the network that the new logo/slogan seems to be highlighting. These games are versions of classic game shows such as "The Price is Right" and of current GSN original game shows, as well as more garden-variety games such as solitaire and bingo. The aim, it seems from the TV Decoder article, is to strengthen the link between the on-air programming and the online offerings. Creating a strong link of this kind between a network's programming and its website is smart business these days, as cable and broadcast entities of all kinds (e.g. news providers) are more and more becoming "multimedia platforms" rather than strictly TV networks. The relatively frequent changes of logos, slogans, and emphases of GSN, though, seems to indicate that the network has had problems making an identity stick.


Edward R. Murrow's "Person to Person" and the Birth of Personality TV

Recently I took the opportunity to view for the first time some segments of the 1950s celebrity interview program "Person to Person" with renowned newsman Edward R. Murrow. One of Murrow's several endeavors for CBS in the 1950s, "Person to Person" was on the air from 1953 to 1961 (hosted until 1959 by Murrow, then by Charles Collingwood). Although the show never cracked the season-end top 20, it became a fixture on CBS's Friday night line-up.

"Person to Person" is sometimes dismissed as a lightweight show, portrayed as fluff that Murrow tolerated doing because it allowed him to engage in more substantive journalistic work. Certainly, this was the impression given in George Clooney's film "Good Night, and Good Luck." It also seems to be the conventional wisdom in most TV histories and Murrow biographies. I would like to argue, though, that "Person to Person" represents a terribly important step in the evolution of television culture, one that is probably best called "personality TV."

A typical half-hour episode of "Person to Person" consisted of two quarter-hour segments each of which was a mostly light interview with a popular celebrity. While Murrow sat in a TV studio (smoking one of his signature cigarettes), the interview subject appeared by live remote hook-up in their own home. At the time, this set-up was an important technological breakthrough, and this kind of remote interview (from all variety of locales) has become a staple of news and "infotainment" programming.

Viewers in the fifties, though, probably appreciated "Person to Person" more for the aspect that has become an equally important staple of TV, that of the celebrity allowing TV cameras into their home. Think of all the ways in which this technique has since been put into practice: "in-depth" celebrity interviews by Oprah Winfrey and Barbara Walters; a host of "personality" segments on a host of programs on a host of networks (broadcast and cable); even with presidential candidates (a recent TV interview with John McCain, for instance, featured a location interview at his Sedona, Arizona, ranch). The strategy with these kinds of interviews is usually two-fold, combining seemingly contradictory aims: allowing viewers a look inside a celebrity's supposedly glamourous personal world, while at the same time making the celebrity seem accessible and normal.

Some examples from "Person to Person" illustrate how Murrow and his staff operated and how the celebrities of the fifties interacted with Murrow. In a 1958 interview, Dick Clark, then just reaching his first peak of fame as host of "American Bandstand," talks to Murrow from the modest apartment his family still lived in near Philadelphia. Clark introduces his wife and toddler son and gives a tour of his personal record collection (which is stuffed into a small closet). Perhaps the most fascinating thing in Clark's interview is his engaging defense of teenagers. At a time when the term "teenager" still connoted juvenile delinquency to much of the population, Clark--who certainly had a vested interest in the teenage audience, but who also had a unique claim on understanding them--sincerely and earnestly urges intergenerational understanding.

Equally fascinating is a 1953 interview with then-Senator John F. Kennedy and his then-new wife Jacqueline. Also still living in a modest apartment (in Boston), the Kennedys speak of their recent wedding and the senator talks about and shows mementoes from his service in World War II, then still very fresh in the nation's minds. Senator for less than a year at the time of the interview, this episode of "Person to Person" was probably many viewers' first introduction to the politician who would become president several years later.

These two interviews are somewhat uncharacteristic of "Person to Person" in that the subjects' homes are hardly glitzy or glamourous. More typical of a "behind the scenes" look at celebrity lifestyle is a 1957 interview with Art Linkletter. Linkletter at the time was one of the most popular television personalities in the country. His interview with Murrow is the perfect example of simultaneous domesticity and celebrity glamour, as he and his wife, in eveningwear, show off both their five children (ranging in age from nine to twenty) and the majestic chandelier in their two-story foyer. Murrow oddly compliments Linkletter for remembering the names of his own children (perhaps suggesting that many celebrities of such stature might not be able to), before Linkletter shows off mementoes (including an Emmy statue) from his varied television and business career.

Later practitioners of this kind of "personality TV" altered elements of the technique. "Person to Person" utilized the remote hook-up as a central conceit of the show; once the technological novelty of this method wore off, this kind of segment was just as likely to be taped or filmed for later playback. Murrow, sitting casually in a TV studio, puffing on his cigarette, seemed (and was literally) detached from the interviewees; later masters of the form, such as Winfrey and Walters, joined celebrities in their homes and have been more engaged with their interview subjects.

Although it would almost certainly disappoint him, the kind of "personality TV" Murrow presented in "Person to Person" is probably as significant a legacy for him as his contributions to "hard" news and to broadcast journalism. Look around at the television landscape today--which seems to have greater sway over the TV industry and TV culture? The kind of investigative journalism Murrow practiced? Or the kind of celebrity journalism he also pioneered on "Person to Person"?


Mad About "Mad Men"

One of the MediaLog's favorite current TV shows is the brilliant "Mad Men." From the meticulous (and meticulously analyzed) early-1960s period atmosphere to the exquisitely drawn characters--both by the show's writers and directors, as well as the actors--"Mad Men" might just be the best show on television right now. (According to the TV academy it's the best drama of this past season.)

At a later time, I may do more involved analyses of the season's remaining "Mad Men" episodes (a summer cable series, the current season has only a few episodes left, ending in late-October). For now, let me just feature some of my go-to commentaries for discussion of "Mad Men" episodes:

• "Time" magazine TV critic James Poniewozik offers his "'Mad Men' Watch" each week on his TV and media blog "Tuned In" (which I recommend in general for good, incisive TV and media commentary).

• TV critic Alan Sepinwall (not sure for what publication) also offers weekly "Mad Men" commentary on his blog "What's Alan Watching?"

• Finally, Chicago Tribune TV critic Maureen Ryan does a weekly recap of each "Mad Men" episode on her blog "The Watcher." Her posting from today features a couple of clips from last night's episode for anyone wishing to sample (or relive) the latest episode.


Music Television Without the Music

Rick Porter on Zap2It offers a perspective on how the demise of MTV's "TRL" ("Total Request Live") represents the final abandonment by the network of any connection to music. (MTV announced this week that the venerable weekday-afternoon music request show will leave the air before the end of the year.)

Like Porter, I am not going to further lament the fact that the "M" in MTV no longer has any meaning--that train has long since left the station. Personally, I have not watched MTV in years and years, so the final nail in its musical coffin is not going to affect me one iota. I had already abandoned the network before "TRL" ever took to the air in the first place. Still, it's a notable development that this pioneering cable network (established in 1981) is making the last step in a complete transformation that makes it virtually unrecognizable from what it was at its inception. The long transformation began in the late-1980s when the game show "Remote Control" became the first traditional program on MTV, accelerated in the early-1990s with the additions of "Beavis & Butthead" and the pioneering reality TV program "The Real World," which began a long shift towards such programming on MTV, and will end now in 2008 with the expiration of "TRL."

The evolution of cable networks is an interesting phenomenon, one that I think is begging for more analysis and research. Porter makes the perceptive observations that ESPN (the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network) no longer has any connection with the "E" in its name (if it ever did) and that A&E (Arts & Entertainment) has abandoned its commitment to the "A." Other cable networks have evolved more radically and abruptly: witness last year's transformation of TNN (first The Nashville Network, then The National Network) into Spike, and this year's change of Court TV into TruTV and Discovery Health into Planet Green. In comparison, its been a slow evolution from MTV into just plain TV.


The MediaLog MediaFix: "The Hollywood Palace" (1968)

Today's MediaFix is a portion of an episode of the 1960s variety show "The Hollywood Palace." A stalwart of '60s TV, "Palace" premiered in January of 1964 and lasted slightly over six years, ending in February of 1970. It's interesting how these dates correspond so neatly with the career of those icons of 1960s culture, the Beatles, who first appeared in America and on American TV a month after the "Palace" premiere and broke up not long after the final "Palace" episode. The corollary to this is that whereas the Beatles' music and career continue to figure so prominently in our ongoing perceptions of the '60s, who outside of a few diehard TV historians and buffs have ever paid much attention to "The Hollywood Palace" as a part of 1960s culture? (The program from which this clip comes is the first episode of the show that I have ever watched.)

Yet this variety show probably represents the 1960s in a manner as important (if not as prominent) as do the Beatles. The Beatles were the vanguard of popular culture, the progressive voice of the '60s youth counterculture. "The Hollywood Palace" was an element of the old mass culture that the Beatles and their like were countering. The show is as mainstream, old-style, vaudeville-inspired TV variety as you can get. This clip is the beginning segment of an episode from November 1968 (right about the time that the Beatles' "White Album" was on the charts), hosted by Sammy Davis Jr. ("Hollywood Palace" had no permanent host but rather used different guest hosts every week, some of which, like Davis, hosted multiple times over the show's run.) Sammy enters to a flourish of music and dancers, albeit wearing a striking muu-muu (a demonstration that the mainstream culture was loosening a little). The remainder of the clip features a song by Sammy, with lyrics adapted to the setting, a badly lip-synched performance by the now obscure pop group Spanky and Our Gang--and a couple of original, 1968 commercials for floor wax (can't get any more mainstream culture than that).

(Thanks to the blog "Classic Television Showbiz" , where I first saw this episode posted, and to YouTube user "denbobboy" for the original posting of the episode. The remaining parts of the episode can be accessed by visiting either of their pages.)


Nostalgia Alert: Fisher Price Movie Viewer ad, 1980

The MediaLog was the proud owner (still is, actually) of one of these Fisher Price Movie Viewers from circa 1980. This is one of those items that when I encounter it--say, happenstance in an image on Flickr--strong, warm feelings from childhood are evoked. Such is the definition of nostalgia, I reckon.

I did not have the more elaborate one in the upper right with the small, Movieola-like screen, but rather the handheld one that the kid--who might have been me--is enjoying. I even had (and have) the same cartridge, "Lonesome Ghosts," a Disney cartoon featuring Mickey, Donald and Goofy as Ghostbusteresque sleuths. The handcrank motion of the Movie Viewer allows you to play the movie in slow or fast motion, or to go forward or backward a frame or two at a time. Reflecting on it, I think that my experience and fascination with these capabilities of the Fisher Price Movie Viewer set in place a foundation that would later blossom into my interest in studying and analyzing films.


Collected Works of George Carlin (R.I.P.)

Rather than post links to tribute articles on George Carlin, who died Sunday at age 71, I thought that perhaps it would be better to post several of his performances--since his legacy is so completely wrapped up in his presence as a stand-up comic and in his unique style and comic delivery.

This first piece will be a bit disorienting to those that only know Carlin as the bearded hipster that he was for most of his career. Here, a clean-shaven Carlin--in suit and tie!--makes a 1966 appearance on the Johnny Carson "Tonight Show." Featured is his "hippy dippy weatherman" character that was his best-known comedy bit in the years (early to mid-1960s) before his comedy became more counterculture and controversial in nature.

This piece from 1967 is apparently an excerpt from one of Carlin's record albums, and it is another good example of how anodyne Carlin's humor was prior to the late-1960s. It's a parody of a newscast in which Carlin does all the voices, for broadcasters with names like Al Sleet (weatherman) and Biff Burns (sports). (It's also a good example of how comics recycle material, as this piece includes the same joke about ICBMs as in the previous Carson show clip.)

Here's another Carlin segment from the "Tonight Show," this time from 1972 and featuring a more familiar-looking George, who welcomes Johnny to L.A. after Carson's recent transfer of his show to the west coast from N.Y.C. The highlight of this clip is Carlin's "hair" poem, in which he lampoons square late-1960s/early-1970s attitudes about long hair (if you want to skip right to it is at about the 5:30 mark).

Carlin's most enduring contribution to American comedy (as some commentators--including Jerry Seinfeld--are noting in tribute) was probably his "Seven Words You Can't Say on Television" (although Seinfeld claims not to have ever liked it much). Nonetheless, it remains a groundbreaking bit, and this 1978 clip features some riffs on it.

Finally, I can't resist posting just one link to a Carlin tribute, as it's a good one written by Richard Zoglin, whose recent book "Comedy on the Edge: How Stand-Up in the 1970s Changed America" discusses Carlin's influence.


Appreciations of Journalist Tim Russert (1950-2008)

On Friday afternoon, when I saw the headline "Tim Russert dies at 58" on the website MetaFilter I thought it was facetious. I quickly found out that I was sadly wrong.

Russert, considered by many within politics and the media to be the "king of Washington" due to his vast political knowledge and analytical skills, was the longtime host of NBC's "Meet the Press." At 17 years the longest-tenured host in the sixty-year history of television's longest-running program, Russert (a spokesman for N.Y. Senator Daniel Moynihan and N.Y. Governor Mario Cuomo before entering journalism) was a respected and, by some politicians, feared political journalist. He was one of those figures in broadcasting that seemed like he had always been there and seemed like he always would be. And now he's not.

The encomiums to Russert have been flowing over the weekend. Here are some of the best ones that I've found around the web:

As Russert was considered a master of the nexus of politics and television, the Washington Post offers tributes from its premiere political columnist, David Broder, and its premiere TV columnist, Tom Shales.

Time Magazine offers a pair of tributes also, from political correspondent (and close Russert friend) Joe Klein and from reporter Richard Stengel.

The New York Times has a column by conservative commentator William Kristol, a piece by political reporter Adam Nagourney about Russert's pre-journalism career as a N.Y. Democratic political operative, a round up of what political blogs have been saying about Russert, and a detailed running commentary on the news and reactions of Russert's death from Friday on its Caucus blog.

Finally, two video clips from NBC--the first one is the opening minutes of Sunday morning's episode of "Meet the Press," moderated by Tom Brokaw (who emotionally gave the first on-air announcement of Russert's death on NBC on Friday), and featuring several panel members who worked closely with Russert; the second one is a "Today" show interview from this morning with Russert's son Luke.


Apple's iPhone 3G and the Unified Mobile Device

Yesterday Apple unveiled its next-generation iPhone (dubbed the iPhone 3G, after the faster 3G cellular network that will replace the slower EDGE network used for the original iPhone). The device represents a substantial improvement over last summer's original iPhone, not only in the upgrade to 3G but also in the addition of GPS capability, the ability for third-party applications, and, significantly, in a much lower price tag--at $199 for an 8 gb model, half the price of the original edition.

Speculation has become rampant already that this new and improved iPhone will continue to be a category killer, and in even more categories. The iPhone is now: a digital music player; a portable video player; a camera and digital photo display; a mobile web browser; a portable GPS unit; a personal digital assistant (PDA); and, oh yeah, a mobile telephone. The fact that the phone capability can seem (even if jokingly) like an afterthought, yet remains the foundation of the device, is a sign of how powerful the concept of a unified mobile device might end up being.

The linchpin of this new iPhone and its promise as such a unified device is its shockingly low $199 price tag. When you consider that separately an iPod Nano costs $149, a PDA can cost a couple hundred, a digital camera another $150-200, and a portable GPS unit around $200, you begin to sense just how revolutionary such a unified device could be--and how powerful will be the company that provides that device. Apple is seeking to be that company.

In addition to all of the things such a device could be are all of the things such a device could allow one to do. There are already predictions that the 3G iPhone might make portable GPS devices obsolete. Services such as Loopt and Facebook will be able to utilize the iPhone's GPS capability in new and interesting ways. The concept of mobile social networking has begun to gain some traction, and the iPhone is seen to be instrumental in its realization.

The long and short of the new iPhone is that regardless of whether or not one actually has an iPhone per se, all of us will probably eventually have one unified mobile device that fulfills all of the functions enumerated above. And just as the web in general revolutionized what can be done with a computer, so will this kind of device revolutionize what can be done while mobile.


Appreciations of Sportscaster Jim McKay (1921-2008)

ABC Sports met its death a couple of years ago (as the MediaLog remarked upon at the time). Now, the man who personified ABC Sports more than any other, Jim McKay, has also met his death at age 86.

For a couple of generations of viewers, McKay was the voice and face of ABC's pioneering Olympics coverage. The high point of McKay's Olympic hosting career (even if it was a low point for the Olympic movement itself) was the tragic massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Games in Munich, where McKay uttered the immortal words "They're all gone." He was probably equally well-known as the host of ABC's "Wide World of Sports" from its inception in 1961 until its end in 1998--his was the voice that intoned about "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat." He was instrumental (second in importance only to Roone Arledge probably) in the longtime success of ABC Sports.

Appreciations of McKay and his contributions to TV sports that have appeared in the past few days include a blog post by Time Magazine TV critic James Poniewozik in which he comments upon having fond memories of watching McKay's Olympic coverage as a child--sentiments I share; USA Today sports television columnist Michael Hiestand trying to explain to today's kids why McKay was so important to TV sports; and on-air tributes from ESPN by fellow sportscasters Keith Jackson, Brent Musberger, and Don Ohlmeyer.

More meaty material on the career and legacy of McKay include an oral history interview with McKay at the Archive of American Television, a wonderful resource for anyone interested in any aspect of television history; the entry for McKay at the Museum of Broadcast Communication's online Encyclopedia of Television; and the Wikipedia entry on McKay. For a little more information on the history and demise of ABC Sports, see this earlier MediaLog post.


The New Netflix Box and the Allure of Instant Movie Streaming

Edward Baig, USA Today's tech columnist, today reviews the new Netflix set top streaming video box the web DVD rental firm will soon be offering through manufacturer Roku. As Baig says, the box has some deficiencies but is already attractive enough to interest diehard Netflix subscribers (such as the MediaLog!).

Pros: pretty darn good streaming quality (although not yet in HD), relative ease of use for the interface (although selections must still be queued up on the website using a browser on a PC), mostly problem-free WiFi capability, no additional charge for streaming movies and TV shows (beyond the box's $100 cost and the monthly Netflix subscription fee). Cons: minor technical glitches (which will probably decrease and will never completely disappear), absence of cool DVD extras that most fans have come to expect, and, for now, a limited (and, according to Baig, "eclectic") selection of available movies and TV shows (which, for now, does not include new releases at the same time they're put out on disc).

I think the "for now" part regarding the lack of DVD extras and limited selection is key. This is without question the direction that Netflix is looking at moving their business model towards, and it is arguably the way that the entire home video industry and viewing experience is going to go as well. Just as they were with the general dissemination of DVDs, Netflix looks to be prescient again in terms of making movies and TV shows available through a streaming set-top box and anticipating that this is how viewers are going to want to access and experience them. The selection of movies available through the Netflix box (which are the same ones available for its "Watch Now" feature on computers) is only going to increase. Distributors, once they realize that this is the way the industry is going (which, granted, could take a while with them), will beg to strike deals of some kind for new releases. And where the movies go, the DVD extras will follow.


The MediaLog History of Presidential Political Ads: 1952

Following last night's clinching of the Democratic presidential nomination by Barack Obama, the MediaLog introduces the MediaLog History of Presidential Political Ads, a regular series of video posts highlighting political ads from presidential campaigns since the dawn of television. Through periodic postings over the summer and fall the series will progress from what is considered to be the first "TV election" in 1952 right up to the present contest in 2008.

In 1952, many areas of the country did not yet even get TV signals, and the TV industry had just emerged from a station freeze (imposed by the FCC to sort out TV frequencies) that had lasted since 1948. NBC and CBS were the powerhouse TV networks (as they had been in radio) and ABC was a noncompetitive also-ran, at the time smaller and less influential than even the DuMont television network (which would cease operations in 1955). Television production was still centered for the most part in New York, and emphasized live dramatic anthology programs, public affairs and panel programs, and vaudeville-based variety shows. The top shows in '52 were "I Love Lucy," "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts," and "Texaco Star Theater" with Milton Berle.

Nonetheless, presidential aspirants were beginning to appreciate the promotional potential of television. Of course, their use of television in 1952 conformed to the conventions and limitations, as well as the quirks and idiosyncrasies, of television of the era, as the following two videos demonstrate. The Republican nominee in '52 was Dwight Eisenhower, who traded on (and won the presidency based on) his stellar reputation as the Allied commander in Europe in World War II. Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson, who reluctantly entered the race at the behest of outgoing president Harry Truman, was the Democratic nominee.

This ad by the Eisenhower campaign is a charming example of many of the characteristics of 1950s TV advertising: whimsical animation, a light and catchy jingle, the beginnings of slick and concise branding of a product (which here just happens to be a presidential candidate). The ad mixes the jovial "Ike" persona that became Eisenhower's political "brand" and which he exploited at least as much as his military credentials with a stiltedness that marked the political use of a still-nascent medium--evidenced by Eisenhower's awkward entreaty for "good Americans" to "come to the aid of their country":

If the above Eisenhower ad is an exemplar of 1950s advertising techniques, the following Stevenson ad is a catalog of surrealistic elements that are astounding to witness today. Eschewing the kind of techniques utilized in the Eisenhower ad, this spot instead consists of single medium-zooming-to-close-up shot of a woman singing a bizarre campaign song to the tune of the Christmas carol "O Tannenbaum." The strange choice of music, the song's ridiculous rhymes for "Stevenson," and the unsophisticated visuals mark the ad as a true oddity of political advertising--but also as an indicator of how primitive presidential political advertising still was in the early-1950s:

Video source: YouTube.


Book Review: "The Cool Fire" (1976) by Bob Shanks

The MediaLog has an affinity for books that when they were originally written and published were meant to be up-to-date overviews of their respective media industries (i.e. TV or film), but when read now are woefully and sometimes comically out of date. Of course, the reason why such books are interesting now is because they provide an excellent historical "snapshot" of the industry as of the time they were written. I've been a fan for a long time of books like Levinson and Link's "Stay Tuned" (1981) and Mayer's "About Television" (1972), both of which fit into this category. "The Cool Fire" (subtitled "How to Make It in Television") by Bob Shanks, from 1976, also fits firmly within this tradition.

Shanks was at the time an executive at ABC, in charge of, among other things, the network's late-night "Wide World of Entertainment" series. He'd had a lengthy career dating back to the 1950s, starting as a bit part actor (he jestingly recounts having been killed on several different shows) and progressing through stints as a talent booker on the Jack Paar "Tonight Show," a producer on the "Merv Griffin Show," and an independent television producer. His take on the television industry circa the mid-seventies is informed by this varied experience and the book (indicated by the subtitle) takes the shape of an advisory tome for those interested in television careers.

Whether or not the book serves (or more accurately, served) as an adequate such advisory I cannot say, but it is fascinating to read now to see the nature of the advice Shanks gives and more so in the different areas of television industry operations he covers. Remember, this was a time when the three broadcast networks (CBS, NBC, ABC) were at the peak of their power and influence and reigned nearly unchallenged in their purchase on the attention of American audiences. Fox and the other smaller broadcast networks were still a pipe dream. Television syndication was fledgling compared to what it is today. This was a pre-home video, pre-cable, pre-internet and pre-video gaming era. The expectations were vastly different than what they are now. Shanks mentions several times in the book that for a TV series to survive cancellation it needs to post ratings of at least a 30 share--ratings that even the top programs today would kill for! Interesting too is Shanks' take on how to navigate the network bureaucracies in order to get programs sold, and he offers several examples from his own career, regarding now-quaint shows such as "Great American Homes" (a syndicated effort hosted by E.G. Marshall) and "Great American Dream Machine" (a magazine-format show aired on PBS). (Not all the shows Shanks produced had the word "great" in their titles.)

Equally interesting, because they are the most obsolete, are the chapters on the production process and on technical issues related to TV production. Shanks takes the reader step by step through the TV production process, here incorporating examples mostly from his experience producing the Griffin show. Detailed descriptions of TV equipment in all phases of production are provided, even to the extent of suggesting which models of cameras, etc., are the best. The result, as with the book in general (as, indeed, with most of the books in this category as mentioned above), resembles that of a prehistoric insect trapped in amber: a look at how the TV industry operated at a very specific moment in time, available for us now to examine and utilize in understanding American television history.


Appreciations of Director Sydney Pollock (1934-2008)

Appreciations and appraisals of film director Sydney Pollock are appearing regularly after his death earlier this week. I cannot say that I have ever been a particular fan of Pollock's, but as these items suggest, his career was marked with a respectable--and probably underappreciated (while he was alive)--consistency (in terms of reliably entertaining work) and diversity (in terms of the variety of types of films he made).

A.O. Scott of the New York Times offers an appraisal of Pollock's work that remarks upon his position as a positive throwback to a kind of director that was common in the studio era (Scott compares Pollock to William Wyler) but has now, regrettably, almost completely disappeared.

Dana Stevens of Slate, in an obituary of sorts, likewise assesses Pollock as an excellent journeyman director (and prominent character actor) whose work had a remarkable range.


From the Blogosphere: Discovery Home Becomes Planet Green

Time's James Poniewozik, in his Tuned In blog, observes that Discovery Home becomes Planet Green this week. Discovery Home is one of those cable networks that most people probably didn't even realize they have, up there in the upper reaches of their digital cable tier.  And this is part of the point Poniewozik tries to make: Discovery Home never established an identity for itself, trying to be "a little cooking, a little home design, a little lifestyle" (all market segments already served by other networks).

The phenomenon of cable network transmutation has been active in the past year or so.  At the beginning of this year, Court TV mutated into TruTV; the Outdoor Channel (I think) mutated into Versus; and a little further back TNN (originally The Nashville Network, then in a misguided mutation designed to avoid getting new initials, The National Network) turned into Spike. The phenomenon has even occurred with networks that were arguably even more obscure than Discovery Home, evidenced by the mutation of INHD (a network I liked very much even though I don't have HDTV) into Mojo (a network I have no use for whatsoever).

This kind of cable network transmutation, while probably a sound business strategy (maybe), seems to me to accelerate the increased mushy similarity of cable channels, as every one of them tries to latch onto a (cable-sized) hit like History Channel (in one of the more inexplicable programming choices) has with "Ice Road Truckers." Likely, in most cases, the effort is futile--I for one, never watched Discovery Home and probably will never watch Planet Green either.