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Box-Set Collections and TV Themes

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, BiogTV, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2012 by Tom Steward

Despite foetally premature chatter about TV being on its way out thanks to new media-which often forgets that many people use new media to get closer to TV-television is still pervasive in our culture. But it only struck me recently how much the culture and leisure sector rely on and are influenced by TV. During my last visit to the US, I didn’t just get my TV fix from the flatscreens in the many living rooms I patronised as housesitter-cum-benign intruder but from museums and theme parks.  Fascination with TV is widespread and so is the way it underpins our entertainment.

Out of the Box and all over the carpet!

Following an overnight stay in Hollywood where we saw J-Lo and Enrique Iglesias at the Staples Center and lodged in a pre-smoking ban nostalgia-themed hotel, G and I braved the dystopian traffic and anti-social contract of LA driving to make our snail-like way to the Paley Center exhibition ‘Warner Brothers’ TV Out of the Box’. This was billed in the relationship vaudeville program as a ‘me’ act, or as much as a trip that involves a bigger-than-life Lego Conan O’Brien (one of G’s no-questions-asked celebrity one-night-stands) can be. Though the plethora of sets, props and memorabilia from hit network shows and cult classic series and a karaoke theme-tune box have broad appeal for anyone in America with a sense memory and an aerial, for a TV historian this was Porky Pig’s heaven.

You had to have the biiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiig salad!

To my archaeological delight, historical documents-including production memos and patents-were liberally scattered around the exhibition. Other TV treasure chests, such as network preview catalogues sent to local affiliate stations, were also available to view. To say these gave an insight into US TV history would be an understatement tantamount to ‘Clint Eastwood could do with a teleprompter, couldn’t he?’ or ‘That Romney fellow might have a bit of an image problem’. It felt more like a journey into the unknown of how the American TV industry worked, and to some extent still works, with exhibits testifying to the power affiliates, many in anti-progressive states, have to decide what gets made and what doesn’t. It illuminated the little-known and widely ignored facts of TV’s origins, with memos pointing to the attempts of movie studios to control TV from the beginning and beam transmissions into cinemas rather than homes.

It’s funny how such an innocuous and populist-looking exhibition can be so revealing. I have to admit that I had my doubts. I was wary of Warner Brothers’ sponsorship of the exhibition and how it might skew history in favour of the studio. They made their case, though, with a timeline pointing out that they were pioneers of TV drama in the 1950s and led the line on the classic genre fare of the so (not) called (for) ‘vast wasteland’ with the inimitable Maverick. But I also appreciated that the exhibition was a TV playground. Not because it was ‘interactive’ (I hate that word!) but because it let you run around and sit down on your favourite shows.

You are now entering The Tweenlight Zone

Speaking of playgrounds, G and I went on a 16-hour ride-and-dine binge  at Disneyland and its now-with-booze sister theme park Disney’s California Adventure. Disneyland was built on TV in many ways. Its construction in the 1950s was televised in interstitial promotional segments between instalments of an anthology drama series of the same name presented by America’s bigamous uncle, the mouse-loving anti-Communist Walt Disney. While Disney’s canon of seminal animated movies provide the blueprint for most of the rides, as well as the psychological experiments on human endurance which no doubt provided the inspiration for It’s a Small World, TV still gets a look-in.

Disneyland: built on TV!

Nowhere is this more evident than The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a dropper-downer ride (it neither rolls nor coasts) inspired by the classic fantasy horror anthology series produced and presented by Rod Serling, whose voice can be simulated by trying to impersonate Ronald Reagan while whistling. One of the most impressive-looking and exquisitely designed rides at either park, the mock elevator lies within a purpose-built high-rise fitted with a customised exterior made to look like a decrepit Hollywood hotel…though it smelt considerably better than the one G and I stayed at. It’s easily the most disturbing and traumatising (animatronic uncanniness aside) experience available at the parks, and it’s the skilful interweaving of the original TV series into the fabric of the ride that causes such anxiety and fear. For starters, the elevator-attendant attired steward (or ‘death ombudsmen’ as I call them) cranked up the tension by letting fly with a groan-inducing patter of darkly comic puns about ‘dropping off’ the passengers that captures perfectly the black irony and sick sense of humour The Twilight Zone used to deal in. This is the show, after all, that once put the fate of humanity in the hands of the double meaning of the phrase ‘To serve man’ (Spoiler alert; it’s a cookbook!).

‘We’ll be dropping you off soon’

But what really unnerves you is the use of a Rod Serling voiceover (seamlessly cut together from his many introductions) as a prelude to the ride. This narration compels you to sit comfortably as if you were still in your armchair at home and makes you believe you are settling down for the evening snoozily watching some late-night retro TV before the elevator drops the depth of the building without so much as a warning. As you yo-yo through the building, the walls open up, ripping you from the safety of your living room and out into the murderous world that network news warned you about.

Serling’s Gold.

And though I have no hard evidence for this, I’m convinced the designer who created the digitally hyperreal set of the Atlantic City promenade pier for Boardwalk Empire got the idea from Disney’s California Adventure ersatz 1920s-era American fairground, right down to the in-period advertising hoardings. If it was the HBO field trip I’m imagining, then they probably got the idea for a show about conspicuous drinking during Prohibition from mixed messages about consuming alcohol in public places in the Disney parks.

How to Cool Water Digitally

Posted in American TV (General) with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2011 by Tom Steward

There’s an uncorrected myth in virtually everything I read, hear or see about television to the effect that no-one is watching programmes when they’re on. To many observers, the ability of those with access to and knowhow of new technology to watch TV online, as downloads and DVDs, on demand and recorded on to digital storage boxes equates to the abandonment of viewing shows when they appear in the schedule. I’ve always had my suspicions about this, and so do many of my academic colleagues. Just because people can make it happen doesn’t mean they’d necessarily want to, especially when you get vastly inferior images or deeply uncomfortable viewing conditions as a result, as I’ve always found with my ipod when craning my neck to look at a screen where everyone looks like Gary Coleman. The USA was a huge adopter of many of these new platforms for watching TV, to the point where digital recorders and video-on-demand services became commonplace. Devices such as the TiVo were marketed to Americans as a stirring liberation from the chains imposed on viewers (and other TV artists) by network executives and schedulers, as this commercial from the early 2000s demonstrates:

But the fact is digital recording almost didn’t make it in the USA. It took a good few years for sales and uptake to get off the ground, by which time the market was rapidly losing confidence in the technology and considering wiping the slate and starting again. So it’s never just been a case of the ‘the technology’s there-people will automatically leave scheduled TV behind’, even in the countries where digital platforms for TV have been the most successful. From the beginnings of TV in America to at least the 1990s, networks targeted viewers through event television and programmes that would gather communal audiences, hence terms like ‘watercooler programme’ so called because co-workers would supposedly congregate around tubes of clear liquid in the office the following day to excitedly debate the latest plot developments of certain riveting shows. Although many Americans now regularly use digital recording to watch television freely, we also shouldn’t assume that they’re necessarily using it against the traditional model of watching TV in scheduled slots or in ways that are unsociable.

Seinfeld

Seinfeld helped coin the term 'watercooler show'

And so I found when I first went to G’s ‘Glee Night’, where friends and housemates gathered together in her living room to watch TV with snacks and drinks and Glee as the main event. Now what was fascinating about this was that we were coming together on the night the show was broadcast to watch it even though it was entirely possible to do this any night, as the show was being recorded digitally on the set-top box. This gave a certain flexibility as to when in the night the show could actually be watched, allowing for latecomers, ongoing conversations, food being cooked etc. But the point is that watching it in a group on the scheduled evening was still important. There was a commitment to preserving the shared experience and first-run viewing that came with the ‘watercooler’ programme. Rather than using digital recording for timeshifting or creating a customised schedule, as many commentators have claimed we use it for (presumably applying only to those deluded enough to think they actually are high-ranking network executives), here it was being used to bring programmes from different nights the same sense of a communal event, as if it were the ‘watercooler’ show of the evening.

Watching TV as a family

It was just like this...minus the wallpaper

 

So ‘Glee Night’ was also ‘Dancing with the Stars Night’, ‘Millionaire Matchmaker Night’, ‘Modern Family Night’. At least here, digital recording didn’t eradicate the excitement of watching TV as it happens in a large group; it made every show like that. The technology was making TV more thrilling, but not because we were enacting fantasies of the cold-blooded murders of network executives, but because we could do more with the old ways of watching TV. This made it even more sociable as you could stop and replay it if we were all talking and it gave more programmes exclusive treatment, as if trying to recreate the moment it was first broadcast. It struck me that watching TV with Americans wasn’t really that different than it ever was. After all, a televisual quirk of the US time zones means that programmes air at different times of day depending where you are in the country. So shifting viewing an hour or two to make way for a pizza is not exactly the end of television.

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