Archive for February, 2010

The things that divide us.

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

I regularly buy soup from the deli of a large well known supermarket chain, choosing between Clam Chowder, Chili, or Italian Wedding Soup depending on the basic factor of what I feel like at that time, and how well the thing looks to have held up.

One day I was looking over the choices, and someone came behind me and said, “You try the Tomato Soup?”  My answer, “No.”  He then shook his head, and said “Good.  Because, my lord, that is terrible.”

Skip forward a week or two.  I am again looking over my choices.  An elderly lady stands next to me.  Asks “You try the Tomato Soup?”  My answer, “No.”  She then says, “Oh, you should.  It’s wonderful!”

I note that other than these two occurences, nobody has tapped me about any of the choices.  That’s some divisive soup!

the “fourth network”

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

I finished reading this book — The Forgotten Network, on the history of The Du Mont television network, and am currently reading The Fourth Network, on the history of the Fox Television network.  It’s a curious thing that conceptually there are a few ways you can say that they are part of the same story.

Over the past decade, I’ve noticed this springing up of commentary to the effect that Television has actually entered something of a Golden Age.  You can list a long list of programs of a depth that simply would not have been shown previously.  This suggests, whether these commentators fully recognize this or not, and sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t, that there had been a “Dark Ages” for television — not really recognized ass uch.  And I guess there was. 

Definitions are tough, and what we’re ambling for is explanations for how market forces allow and don’t allow for particular efforts to make the light of day — I will put the “Dark Ages of Television” down from the fall of the Du Mont television Network up to the concurrent establishment of Fox alongside the establishment of Cable Television as a viable entity.  This is a somewhat insane proposition — surely the need to dump programs onto that mythical “500 channels” continues the necessary “Vast Wasteland” aspect of television as it had been in three networks.  And I’m giving credence to a television network that, for in the instance, in the mid 1990s filled scheduling holes with such efforts as “When Animals Attack” and “World’s Wildest Car Chases”, and that ilk, and we see them cloning not just one but two new derivations of the already deriviative “Family Guy”.  Surely good programs were pumped out in that 30 year span I defined, and surely today most popular programming includes “Dancing with the Stars”.  But there’s long been something weirdly inorganic about how television operated.  The economics dictated that the most profitable ventures were sitcomes that could hold on for 100 episodes, and thenn be spun off into second run syndication.  Only now is it standard for the possibility that a show can come on the air with a fixed end point (Ugly Betty), and a show that is not popular in the broadest of senses can be spun off into a money making dvd collection — see Arrested Development.

Most importantly, we have come to the breaking point away from the commercial mandate to pull in a 30 share.  Such a thing is an absurd propsosition, but it was the norm and status quo.  For the past few decades, the buzzword has become that the market is “segmenting”.  The thing is, in the era of television being our Mass Media, the concept of how we viewed televison conceptually was a flue, evolved out of regulatory decisions made as television established itself.  To wit, from the Du Mont book:

The number of channels in each market was limited because of the technology by which television signals traveled as electromagnetic waves that operated on particular frequencies, or channels.  It was the FCC’s job to regulate these airwaves and assign frequencies.  In June 1945, the commission decided to set aside only thirteen television channels in the VHF portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.  However, no city had more than seven stations because the FCC could not assign adjacent channels (except for channels four and five) in the same city.  Stations operating on identical or nearby frequencies interfered with each other.  In fact, the FCC found that even stations 150 miles apart had problems if they were operating on the same channel.  FCC engineers understood the only solution was to assign VHF channels that were spaced far away from each other.  So, for example, the commission allocated the city of Washington, DC four stations: 4,5,7, and 9.  Because of the problems of adjacent channel interference, that left Baltimore only three channels: 2, 11, and 13.

Following that came the inevtiable licensing freeze to figure out how to allocate the newly, and as it turns out due to the UHF band’s existence artifically, limited airspace.  Allan Du Mont recognized these harsh strictures, and argued for a more even balance of VHF dominated regions and UHF dominated regions, lest the UHF frequencies become ghettoized.  But the major Radio Corporations — CBS and NBC — had their way.  It was a fait accompli that only three television networks would survive the 1950s, and that CBS and NBC would be two of them.  It was there even money which would be that third network: Du Mont or ABC.  The winner was the network with the more commited minority share-holder corporate partner that would infuse the capital investment at the proper moment.

The book about Du Mont gives way to a run down of its “break-through” television programming.  Captain Video — can you call this good?  It’s hard to figure a kids’ space show that habitually bid time by spotting ten minutes in the middle of the program with the Space Captain hereo catching up on how his “Western Rangers” are doing, ala viewing whatever Western B movies were readily available.  Yet, the revamp brought it the producer with this weird idea that this show should have “redeemable value”, and fielded scripts by the likes of Arthur C Clarke.

The only surviving film of Ernie Kovak at Du Mont (or rather the New York affiliate) is housed at UCLA.  Isn’t the Internet supposed to be the “Information Superhighway” where such cultural artifacts are made available for the lay public?  Well, whatever — it’s described here and there on the Internet, and you can place it alongside oh, this (waiting for the Terry Gilliam animated foot to splat down), or this music video.

The History of Du Mont is the history of a man and his company running up against the buzz saw of an FCC regulatory commission making decisions on the behest of of radio giants CBS and NBC.  The history of the Fox Network is the history of a man and his company (s) charging forward alongside an FCC regulatory commission making decisions beneficial to him and his interests.
Or, so goes my cynical explanation.

In the interim, the Du Mont network never quite went away — though, I guess Allan did.  The constellation of major city VHF broadcast stations remained, Du Mont changing its name to “Metropolitan Broadcasting” and then to “MetroMedia” — to move away from the smell of failure.  As the largest constellation of “independent broadcasters” in the nation, a reach of 23 percent of the nation, that made forays into syndication efforts, it might just have been — by default — the fourth largest commercial television network — still.  Nobody is ever going to write a book about Metromedia.  Their mainstay was what most independent stations were — second run syndications reruns of network shows counter-programmed against network evening news broadcasts, and large supplies of old movies from various outlets.  Its production of new material for broadcast and syndication distribution was sometimes seen as signs that they were trying to create a fourth television network, sometimes simply a matter of trying to create profitable programming.  An example of original programming, a description of a television special from 1970 entitled 1985:

unless social and economic reforms were immediately effeted, the world of 1985 could expect such catastrophes as poer blackouts resulting in “civil war” between police and looters, martial law in Chicago, food and water rationing, DDT poisoning, killer smog, “black plagues” caused by poor public sanitation, and thousands of deaths in Mexico from rampaging dysentry.

Huh.  In the early 1980s, Metomedia made its most concerted and definitive effort to proceed and grow into a “fourth network”.  As so happened, sitcoms had gone out of fashion in the television network universe, and as five year old sitcomes had been a major blood – line for independent stations, Metromedia jumped into the breach with… Small Wonder.

Huh.  One matter of curiosity about these 1980s ventures of trying to formulate a fourth television netowrk — I don’t know where it was determined that the essential first ingredient for a newly launched television network was to be a late night talk show.  Metromeida rolled out its effort, Alan Thicke and “The Thicke of the Night”.  He met with that predictable fate that every competitor against Johnny Carson met.

So when Rupert Murdoch bought Metromedia with the purpose of using these valuable VHF major market channels — and its 23 percent national reach — as the nucleus for Fox — the programming library that came with it was largely a nuisance, though I guess there is value in that Murdoch gets to pocket money whenever a tv retrospect airs about the “Worst Shows in TV History” and shows snippets of Small Wonder — Fox launched with the Late Show Starring Joan Rivers (guest: Pee Wee Herman), to great fanfare and hooplah.  She lasted seven months, just barelymaking it past the launch of Fox’s prime-time line up of Married with Children and, um, a sketch comedy series from a British lady that housed bizarre two minutes clip such as this and this, which the network decided to give a 20 year run for some strange reason. 

Looking at the Joan Rivers situation, I gather she was — in one sense — a qualified success.  She got Fox to launch on over 80 percent of the country, these “independent” station groups willing to throw their weight behind a known enough commodity standing before a promise of future television line-ups that’d be moved into their station as the network expanded.  Indeed, her ratings just might have been marginally passably par, Fox able to claim that they had a “credibile alternative” of counter-programming, but that she cultivated a horrible relationship and got along personally bad and was unbearable with everyone at the fledgling network.  The better counter-programming that turned up that Fox had to kicking themselves for not signing (and still just might be) came as the network rolled through the end of the talk show with guest hosts.  They missed the opportunity when they failed to sign this guy.  Woof Woof Woof.  Had they managed to sign him, they would have avoided that Chevy Chase debacle of a few years later.  (Indeed, I googled to find an answer to a question I had about the creation of the Fox affiliate where I grew up, and see that Arsenio Hall fit the brand so well he tended to be falsely identified as such.  Curious note, if I recollect this right: Arsenio Hall was aired at that dreaded 10:00 time that got Jay Leno into so much trouble.) 

It is there with the history of Joan Rivers –in the distant past now, but the independents that started with Fox still tended to pull in more profit off of their odd assortment of programming than Joan Rivers, and with Chevy Chase that we get the current retiscense to the idea of signing Conan O’brien to do a late night stint.  The Chevy Chase situation was apparently compunded with a strain in affiliate relations that occursed by repercussions when Fox signed the deal to get NFL football — the network was still short of the contractually obligated nationwide reach, and had to make a fast deal with New World to gain a group of stations to close the gap down — which lead to dumping a bunch of affiliates for the new ones.  Murdoch would, ahem, later buy New World when, ahem, further deregulation allowed him to do so — ahem.  And so…

But June 1994 was too soon to convince the stations to look at the big picture.  There was plenty of bad feeling in the room at the annual Fox affiliates meeting.  The dumping of loyal Fox affiliates shook everyone because there was no telling who might be next.  This capped a year that included several high profile flops, headed by the Chevy Chase Show.  Rubbing salt into the wounds was the fact that the New World stations had affiliation deals that granted them more freedom than the standard agreement.  In open defiance of the network — and in particular Salhany, who promised the network had not given up on late night programming — the affiliates voted against any more excursions into late night shows.  Said one executive, “We don’t want it, no matter what it is.” — 170 - 171

If it makes things any better, Conan O’brien has the support of a different network’s affiliate in Portland.  Also it should be noted that Conan O’brien long paid homage in the early years of his Late Night show to the host of Du Mont’s late night program, the oh so wryly named “Ernie Kovacs Rehersal”, building that same sort of bridge to the network’s long history that Letterman has with the “Ed Sullivan Theater”.

Television in the Internet Age

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

Watching this Andy Kaufman interview on the David Letterman Morning show,

as opposed to this other David Letterman morning show,

… tap tap tap…

Forget I posted that.

So, regarding that bit of Andy Kaufman performance art, a simple question: how does it stack up against this bit of a performance act by Madonna on for Jay Leno, in conversation with her in response to the Madonna interview for David Letterman?
It’s kind of the same general theory of artiface, isn’t it? 

Youtube is really distracting.  It’s alarmingly good at culling out any watch-worthy moment out of what are generally humdrum affairs for… oh, 29 years of Johnny Carson’s career, 17 years for Conan…
… if I stated Letterman at his 28 years, I’d be leaving off that Andy Kaufman appearance, as well for that matter his foray into game shows.

And all the rest.

Oh, and if we’re dwelling on late night television personalities, there is also Jack Paar’s toilet humor, and if you really must it’s not too hard to find Tom Snyder talking with Charles Manson.

tap tap tap…

I think you could get the same thing for soap operas if you wanted.

… On that note, let’s all remember when American children started loading itself up on loads of sugar thanks to the DuMont Television network!
(Skip to 11:20 to see the brilliant innovation of the DuMont network in cutting production costs, as Captain Video takes a look at how his “Western Agents” are doing by — cutting over to cheap Western movies.)

Billboard mania

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010


Any particular reasons, or is it just personal?

Thomas S. Wroblewski wrote in an e-mail Saturday to The Associated Press that the billboard is supported “by a number of area businessmen who are concerned about tax and spend politics.”He said the billboard, despite its language, is not meant to allege that Obama committed any particular impeachable offense.

Okay, so it is just personal. This website allegedly provides supposed impeachable bases.  You will also find other ill-defined  supposed Obama Impeachment reasons where you can always find pointless partisan wanking: in the comments section of these news links about this billboard.

This comes off the heels of this billboard put up in some other expanse of the upper Midwest Snow Belt:


The puzzling thing about that billboard was that the people who set it up seem to believe it has a clearly defined message.  If they had no political identity and had the idea that they wanted to put up a rorschach test as a sort of Performance Art, or snuck it to a spot with a particurly strong partisan bent, then maybe there would be some coherency.  As it were, these were pro-Bushies stepping on a message where the current occupant of the White House has an approval rating somewhere between 49 and 51 percent with probably stronger negatives than positives.  At least the “Impeach” billboard has clear definition of message.

A few years ago, I spotted in the Oregonian an obituary for a man whose work you might know if you drive or ride out of this city from time to time.  He had a billboard up on his property.  The obituary held someone say something to the effect of, “Maybe you didn’t agree with the sentiments, but the always made you think.”  I suppose the message “Eco Terrorists are Terrorists Too!” held something, but overall I have the sense that if you close your eyes, you can see the faint sight of an “Impeach Warren” billboard.  And so the quote “made you think” has the rejoinder of “no, not really.”

Ghost posts

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

I do not remember what my point was here, why I thought to post an innocuous enough letter to the Oregonian from an identified seventh grader (now, presumably, eighth grader).  The point of this blog has long fallen to something along the lines of: try to say something mildly interesting about something mildly interesting.  Does it work?  That depends on your definition.  The only time I’ll get comments back when the “something interesting” topic is off-kilter (the “I’m the only one with a blog post about it” idea), or I’ll find a response from a ghost post of over a year ago.

I have no idea.  The only thing I can add is that in the seventh grade, I would not have wanted to have a letter to a newspaper identified as coming from a seventh grade student.  But beyond that, I think there was this cluster of misgivings — a couple of “viral” youtube videos of kids — oh, about fourth or fifth grade — yelling mildly profane and vulgar rants about Bill O’reilly.  But a quick look and it appears to be a conversation had between a Christian and an Atheist through their children, with Bill O’Riley doing a segment about the obnoxious Atheist — not showing the any footage on him or of the Darling Christian.  Not terribly cute or illuminating.  The other item of terrible silliness was the spectre of that 13 year old kid at CPAC, and the question: “Okay?”
Ta-Nehisha Coates had roughly the right answer on that “wunder-kind”.

Recalling the vast expanse of, oh — let’s say roughly seventh grade through high school, and moving past these pockets of pro-marijuana legalization sentiment (can you call that political, really?), I can’t figure anyone much political,  certainly not in any true partisan sense.  The two students I could identify as strongly Democratic and Republican happened to come from parents who were strongly Democratic and Republican — it was funny how that worked.   Myself, it’s almost not worth pegging those things — I think I’ve lost some strideny and absolutism in terms of civil liberties and separation of church and sate.  I recall an eighth grade assignment from the English teacher to draw a political cartoon.  I was not an idiot like a few other students, though I guess I was less of one than my Algebra teacher.  My Algebra teacher said what a great piece of work some student or other’s was — that being a very well rendered copy of an editorial cartoon which appeared in a recent newspaper, and which was spot-lighted at the end of his presentation to the class of various student cartoons with the statement “And here’s three or four examples of plargirism.”  I had the good sense to know the English teacher read the newspaper, and drew for the assignment something which was something of a mash-up of two political cartoons from more obscure sources.

Around my sixth grade so I must have said something negative about the very early goings of the Clinton Administration in one of our trips to our eldest brother.  Because the next time we saw him, he imparted a joke from a Jay Leno monolouge about Clinton, and intoned sarcastically, “But Justin — I hear he doesn’t like Clinton.”  Odd, though punctured more accurately from my middle brother “He’s not so much anti-Clinton as he is anti-Leno.”

Monday, February 15th, 2010

I have become used to seeing topical discussions swirling around my comment spam collection.  It’s a function of our great spam computers.  But usually the comments make immediate sense, in some manner or other

So what does this one mean?

Did Evan Bayh get caught with his willy in the cookie jar?

Evan Bayh is in the news today for deciding, pretty near the last minute, not to run for re-election.  Now, we can ponder the implications for re-election chances, and perhaps suggest he is in the pocket of one industry or another, and I don’t know what this “willy” is nor do I want to think about Evan Bayh’s willy unless I have to, and what the heck the metaphorical “cookie jar” might be in this question…

… to google the question is to come up empty.  I don’t know.  It’s a very good mad lib contraption, I’ll give it that, to piece together a couple of different scandal metaphors into one.