Saturday, September 6, 2008

Rod Serling at the University of Missouri

Yesterday, I posted some excerpts from interviews conducted for the campus radio program University Close-Up in the late 60s and early 70s. One interview was so good that I transcribed it in full (except for the questions, which were summed up by a narrator anyway and are summed up even more by me). So here it is:

Rod Serling on University Close-Up - April 30, 1970

"My two teenage daughters informed me, and continue to inform me, that my taste in the muse are decidedly anachronistic. 18-year-Jodi makes the point with almost deadening repetition and consistency that only Rod McKuen speaks to the moment and at the moment. She eschews everything written back to the time of the Greeks as irrelevant. Oddly enough, or perhaps not so oddly, these teenage daughters have somewhat pointed the way towards what I ought to talk to you about tonight, and that's the relevance of the arts and the mass media to the times. I find motion pictures currently being judged by college students not necessarily by what they say or how they're said, but rather - 'do they relate to the time?'
Now relevance is indeed a perfectly legitimate criteria by which an reasonably intelligent college student or for that matter anyone else can sit through a film or a television play, but where I part company with the young generation - and this includes my daughters - is when I find relevance is becoming the only criteria by which they come up with a qualitative conclusion. Now I imagine that 'Ode to a Grecian Urn' has no relevance to today's ghettos, and William Shakespeare even with his prescience can hardly be quoted in any debate having to do with 20th Century social disorders.
But because they aren't relevant does not necessarily mean they are unimportant, or that they are not craftsmanlike, or that they do not contain both truth and honesty. Simply that if we are to worship at the shrine of relevance, and assume relevance is scotch-taped to a calender, we consign to ignominy some inspiring literature written over the years that may tell it like it was, and in doing so come very close to telling it like it is. See if you can distinguish between the agony of a young man in uniform in 1942, say, with the agony of his father or older brother twenty years later.

Not too long ago, I was conned into seeing a film called Easy Rider. Once again, that beloved bane of my existence daughter Jodi assured me that not since the Old Testament has anything been written that is so altogether world-shaking, important and so uniquely definitive. So at her behest and at the behest of my own students, I went to see Easy Rider. And as much as said to Peter and Dennis 'do with me as you will, young men. Move me, titillate me, doing something to me.'

Well, they did something to me. They left me with an unalterable feeling that Mr. Hopper and Mr. Fonda should open up a Honda agency in Beverly Hills and get out of acting business."Mr. Fonda, who is an altogether charming and attractive young man, rides back and forth across the screen with all the facial mobility of a cigar-store Indian." Mr. Hopper, conversely, it seems, has a Vocabulary numbering about 16 English words, all of them prefaced by quote 'like, man' unquote.

And through the welter of this pretentious, dull sameness, I did manage to detect a plot, a theme if you will. Young men who ride motorcycles carrying heroin to pedal in southern cities and are put down by Southern bigots in lunch counters have a special, tragic stature. They represent the generation of the deprived and the misunderstood. Well, I'll grant you that beards and the longhairs and the peace beads are indeed misunderstood, and they are short-changed, and they are put down by an older generation that has neither the patience, the understanding or the sensitivity to read the pulse of the young and to understand that their sense of honor is no less real than ours."

But to devote an hour and fifty-odd minutes to a prolonged motorcycle ride through scenic countrysides and idyllic communes while they cart addictive drugs across state lines turns me on not a whit. I can sympathize - and do sympathize with the victims of legitimate prejudice, but to shambling, smarmy repetitive men like Captain America and his sidekick I can't conjure up even a short sob, let alone place them in the hallowed halls of legitimate, tragic personages. But I make a prediction here that ten years from now, Easy Rider's contribution to the cinematic art will be just about as vague as Abbott & Costello or an old March of Time or a vintage newsreel.

Now not all contemporary films that are so-called relevant are Easy Rider. Midnight Cowboy is a classic example of a movie with a point of view. And while I'm not familiar in real life with anyone similar to its leading characters, I felt for them. The Graduate is another such film, Z is another one, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is yet another. Now each one of those films talked of people and often of places that were literally outside of my experience. Their success, their honesty, lay in the fact that they made me care, that I was somehow able to feel and understand.”

Question from the audience – Given its dependence on sponsorship, would do you think TV could speak out against those same advertisers?

"For the same reason that newspapers feel no compunction about putting in an editorial against the US steel company raising its prices. Should television show any comparable timorousness in laying claim to some points of view of their own? We have so historically become wedded to a concept of sponsor and program that we have allowed sponsor to take over the thematic value of any program. It is, of course, part of the strength of a program that they can relate it to a product - The Kraft Music Hall, The Dinah Shore Chevrolet Hour, etc. 

But that is incorrect and it's improper. The entertainment portion of a commercial television show should be absolutely unrelated to the advertising portion thereof. And indeed, one of the problems, one of the things that has proven such a desperate drawback to all television is that we are currently sharing the stage with such a foreign entity. You can put out the greatest Arthur Miller play on television, and 12 minutes into it, out come dancing rabbits with toilet paper. 

I recollect most vividly, for example when ABC put on The Robe and about 30 seconds after the crucifixion, out come the Dove commercials. Where does taste stop? They are so concerned with offense. They don't want to offend with controversy. But they don't mind a whit offending with a distortion and with a tasteless intrusion of a commercial product with a religious experience." 
Question – Why do you feel that movies showing the youth of today in communes, as flower-children, and showing human love and 'doing your own thing' are not relevant?

"I don't say, mind you, young man, that I'm right and you're wrong. You might be right and I might be miserably wrong. All I submit to you is, at this stage, at this conjure in our society, we cannot respond to the evils of Earth by putting ourselves in a shrub-enshrouded commune. Nobody's gonna cure cancer that way. Nobody's gonna bring up world peace that way. Nobody's gonna respond to poverty that way. It's grand, doing your own thing. God love them. Let them do it. But don't go through this pretense of being God's Loved Ones, because that's simply not true. You're copping out, you're retreating from reality, and you're not facing reality (Applause)."

Question – Could you share your thoughts about the television ratings system?

"I think ratings system is some sort of mad house arithmetic that has no bearing on anything. When the ratings service represented by the Neilson services, etc. etc. went in front of the Federal Communications Commission in Washington two years ago with charts that looked like something out of NASA explaining how they can interview ten people and have that statistic reflect the taste of ten thousand. And throughout all this welter of charts and arithmetic and insanity, certain clear-headed members of the commission said 'what do you mean by that?' and they literally could not answer and walked away tails between their legs making an admission that it was balderdash, it was nonsense. And yet, that was on a Friday and on Monday they were still quoting ratings.

Case in point, and altogether interesting of late - look at the two shows that were just canceled by CBS, The Red Skelton Show and Petticoat Junction. Now, I yield to no man in my admiration of Red Skelton, as a comic, as a mimic, etc. But I thought it was getting pretty tired. And Petticoat Junction I refuse to allow to be shown in my home. I have a queasy, aged stomach that responds a little negatively to these kind of thing. Now my kids can go over to the neighbor's and watch, but I don't want them to watch it in my house.

Now, these two shows, apart from their questionable entertainment value - or indeed, say that they're entertaining - had massive ratings, both of them. And it's conceivable that Red Skelton could have gone on ad infinitum. So why did they take them off? Because suddenly the network begins to realize that the arithmetic approach to television is not the key concern. It's who watches, who buys the product.

That's why they're losing shows that appeal to the middle-aged and the older. Who's buying nowadays? It isn't them. You don't buy much on social security. From 25 to 35, that's the group, get them. And they're not watching Red Skelton. Which is suddenly - the ratings suddenly, whether they exist properly not or authentically or validly isn't the question anymore.

Another great case in point, the most singularly, historically, popular show ever done on television, in terms of percentage of people watching , was I Love Lucy. On the night Lucy had her first baby, it had literally the largest audience - larger than the moonshot, larger than the Presidential Election, larger than everything - Lucy having her baby.

On the night they took that rating, it so ran away with competition that historically in terms of percentage of people watching we've never come close to it. And yet, during that period, the sponsorship's sales - Philip Morris, they were the sponsor - their sales dropped. Figure that one out!"

Friday, September 5, 2008

University Close-Up

So I found out earlier this week that the University Archives here at Mizzou house a complete run of a fifteen-minute campus radio show that ran in the late 60s and early 70s called "University Close-Up". I looked through the show list the other day, requested several episodes, and spent a couple hours earlier today listening to them. Many of those segments are, naturally, campus figures talking about campus issues like new developments in the School of Agriculture and the revolutionary use of motion pictures in a "Family Life" class.

Most of the shows I listened to were interviews with or speeches from some prominent figure who visited the university. Here are some highlights -

Singer Andy Williams in 1968 talking about how much things had changed in popular music recently: "For a band singer, like me - that's what I call it, a band singer - it used to be you went into a studio with an arranger, and he picked out the songs, maybe twelve songs. You recorded maybe four songs in a session, and the sessions were three hours long. You can't do that these days; The Beatles changed everything. They spend four months in the recording studio, and they do all kinds of sonic tricks, and we can't keep up. And all of the young singers now are writing their own music. I used to call myself a pop singer, but I'm not that anymore. . . . I did just meet with the Beatles. I was in London - not for a meeting, but for something else, but while I was there, I met with them. I'm doing some specials this year, and I met with the Beatles about maybe doing one of them together."

That didn't happen, obviously, but it blows my mind that it might have.

New York Times humor writer Russell Baker in 1968: "Washington is the biggest factory town in America, and like in any factory town, every time you get a new boss, you get a new way of doing things. Every time there's a new president, you change your whole way of life in Washington. When Kennedy was elected, everyone started hanging French Impressionist paintings in their houses. 'Kennedy loves French Impressionism,' they all said, so they hung up French Impressionist paintings. And daiquiris. Everyone started to drink daiquiris. That gave me heartburn. I was drinking scotch & soda - we all got to drink scotch & soda under Eisenhower - and someone said to me, 'What are you doing? Kennedy likes daiquiris. We all have to drink daiquiris now.' So for me, the Kennedy administration was three years of heartburn. And you had to learn how to fall into a swimming pool with your tuxedo on and come up smiling. Head colds. Well after that we got Johnson, so everyone took down the French Impressionist paintings and replaced them with buffalo heads. I burned my buffalo head right before I left. It had begun to get fleas."

Also Baker: "Every day I go into a big giant box, get into a little metal box, go up seven floors and sit in a box all day. When the day is over, I get into a box on wheels, drive miles out in the country, go into a box, where I take off my tie, put my feet up and watch a box. Why do I this? Why am I living in boxes, waiting for the final box?"

That Girl star Marlo Thomas in 1970 talks a lot about helping out with underpriveleged youth and a star's responsibility to do what she can to help society. It's about what you'd expect from Marlo Thomas, but I really like the bit where she says "I'm crazy about the teenagers. They aren't creeps or law-breaking people. They just need something to do, and if you ask them to help with the smaller children, they will. Like everyone else, they need something to do."

Talk show host David Susskind in 1970 talking about the Vice President of the United States and his tendency to blame television for society's ills: "Television is blamed because it's so visible. When Agnew wants someone to lash, it's a good visible target. So are movies with the new permissiveness with nudity and obscenity."

[At this point, the interviewer brings up a quote from another news personality saying, essentially, that Agnew is evil and will destroy television.]

"I don't agree. You need Agnew. He's welcome. American mediocrity has a face to it. It's all in one face now. Spiro Agnew is all that's lousy and wrong in American life. Before, it was a theoretical proposition."

2001 author Arthur C. Clarke in 1970 predicting what life will actually be like in the year 2001: "Satellite communication will be everywhere, and everyone will connect through satellite hookups. Cities as we know them will no longer exist, because they won't be necessary."

I was hoping he was going to say more on that subject, but he really didn't. He mostly just talked about how 2001 doesn't have any messages, because he doesn't believe fiction should have any, saying "If you have a message, send it Western Union. Fiction should tell a story."

Anyway, I hope you got as much of a kick out of that stuff as I did. I transcribed one interview in full, but I'm saving it for tomorrow because it deserves a full post.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Sophomore Sprawl

I’ve been watching The Wire: Season Two lately, which reminded me that I never posted about a TV-related theory of mine. I’ve never seen another name assigned to this before. If you have, by all means, point me to it. I dug through TV Tropes for some time, but I couldn’t find anyone documenting this phenomenon.

As you may have guessed from the title, I call it Sophomore Sprawl. Technically, I suppose, it’s a variation of the Sophomore Slump, but it’s more specific. Sophomore Sprawl occurs when a series which is tightly focused in its first season tries to do too many things in its second.

The Wire is a perfect example (spoilers follow). In the first season, everything – absolutely everything – revolves around the investigation of drug dealer Avon Barksdale by a Baltimore Police detail. We get plenty of character moments along the way, but we’re watching either the cops or the criminals at all times. It was about as pure as a narrative can be.

Season two, on the other hand, is all over the place. We’re following Barksdale and his associates both in and out of jail, getting up-to-date with the members of the police detail (who begin the season scattered at various jobs), and watching a new set of characters working at a shipping dock. It’s not that the show is worse than it was in season one, necessarily. It’s just juggling several different stories, which it didn’t try to do before.

Other examples abound. Veronica Mars season one is about Veronica tracking the murderer of her best friend Lily. Season two is about Veronica trying to figure out who caused the bus crash, and also who killed a gang member, and also about the aftermath of the arrest of Lily’s killer. Lost season one is about the survivors of a plane crash on a mysterious island. Season two is about a group of people living on an island where they have a fully-stocked research station in the ground, and a creepy other group who have apparently lived on the island for several years.

All my examples are recent, you’ll notice, and the reason for this is simple – until the last decade-and-a-half or so, TV shows didn’t have much scope at all. They established a formula and stuck to it. That’s not a criticism; it’s just true. Only recently have things shifted to a model where the status quo is expected to change.

But it does point to a possible explanation for the prominence of sophomore sprawl on TV these days – shows aren’t built to last forever anymore. The storytelling engines (to borrow a phrase from John Seavey) of these shows are designed to tell one story. (Lost excepted, of course. It’s more likely that storytelling engine was designed to leave many unanswered questions when the show fell victim to early cancellation.)

The first seasons of these shows are very carefully crafted – the creators likely spent years developing the concept to their satisfaction. For obvious reasons, the second season can’t have the same luxury – it has to get out there. This is often the cause of the “sophomore slump”. But why, specifically, does it cause sophomore sprawl?

When developing the second seasons, the creators have to deal with threads leftover from the first season as well as move the story forward. Consequently, they don’t have adequate time to fully address anything and the shows give off the appearance of having bitten off more than it can chew.

Again, I certainly don’t mean to imply that sophomore sprawl indicates a complete loss of quality. Rather, it usually amounts to a creative wobble early in the season before producers figure out how to effectively balance all of the storylines. Lost recovered quite quickly, as did The Wire.

I’ve been using the same few examples repeatedly in this post, and that’s where you come in. Is this not as much of a trend as I think it is? Can you think of other examples of sophomore sprawl?

Monday, September 1, 2008

AT&T is humanity's worst enemy

If you're reading this, chances are high that you use the internet. You might, then find this Vanity Fair article interesting. It's an oral history of the internet, told by those involved. I was assigned it for class, but it's a good read.

The early parts, where yound bearded scientists do things like link one computer to another for the FIRST TIME EVER, are a little dry. It gets really interesting around part five, where average people start using the internet. The founders of sites like Amazon, eBay, and Craigslist all show up and offer a nice behind-the-scenes look at something I'd never really thought about before.

Sorry about all the links recently. Tomorrow I'll have actual content, I swear.