Friday, October 12, 2018

TV Deep Dive: The Zone Legacy

Long after other shows from its era have been long forgotten, The Twilight Zone remains a popular part of television history. With so many iconic episodes and famous characters, the show continues to be watched and enjoyed around the world.

The show’s continued success is a testament to Rod Serling’s vision and talent. Even today, the show feels fresh and new. Mr. Serling wanted to tackle the important issues of the day like racism, divisiveness and the constant threat of nuclear annihilation that we’re still grappling with today. By giving these themes a sci-fi veneer, Serling was able to discuss the things that many Americans wanted to ignore or sweep under the rug. In the end, Serling wanted us to realize that most of the time we are the real monsters.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

TV Deep Dive: “Room for one more, honey!”

Room for one more, honey!

The Twilight Zone was a rarity in the world of television. Beloved by viewers and critics, the show has proven to be an evergreen classic that still feels fresh sixty years later. This was by design. Rod Serling wanted the show to have a timeless quality and he felt that the show could both entertain and teach its audience. It is impossible to cover every classic episode in this space, so we’ll share some favorites.

What you need.

What You Need was an early classic. Ernest Truex played a kindly peddler who always seemed to have exactly what his customers needed. Steve Cochran played a pushy con man who tries to take advantage of the peddler and learns an important lesson- sometimes what you want isn’t what you need.

Time Enough At Last

The classic episode Time Enough At Last features poor Henry Beamish, who isolates himself from the people around him to read. Neglecting his job and his wife, he really just wants to be left alone to read. He survives a catastrophic apocalypse and is pleased that he no longer has to worry about finding time to read. He has “Time Enough At Last” to pursue his reading hobby. Sadly for him, the episode ends with an ironic twist.

Living Doll

“Talky Tina” seemed like a cute little toy, but this doll was more than she seemed. Evil and vindictive, the doll begins to say some unnerving things and seemingly plots to murder the one person who suspects she’s more than she seems. 

Most shows would be lucky to have just a handful of classic episodes like these. We’ve just scratched the surface today and will conclude our look at this classic show tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

TV Deep Dive: Where is Everybody?

When The Twilight Zone premiered in 1959, CBS had high hopes for the series. While initial ratings were decent, they were much lower than expected. After the first few episodes aired, several sponsors were considering bailing on the show, which would have killed it before it had a chance. CBS allayed their fears, insisting that things would improve after the show’s hiatus. They were right. The Twilight Zone would win its time slot from that point on.

Considering that it would be one of the least viewed episodes of the season, it was ironic that the first episode was titled Where is Everybody? The episode would begin like many that would follow; the main character and the viewers would be thrown into a situation and we would all have to figure out what was happening. It was classic Twilight Zone.

So what made a classic Twilight Zone episode? Stay Tuned!

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

TV Deep Dive: “A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination.”

When CBS picked up The Twilight Zone, it was just the beginning for Rod Serling. He insisted on writing most of the episodes. The anthology format used by the show was especially difficult; every week was a blank slate. The production had to start from scratch. For a standard show like I Love Lucy, the writers could start by coming up with a situation then fitting its familiar characters into it. The audience’s familiarity with the characters allowed the writers greater freedom in crafting stories. Serling would have no such luxury.

Each week would tell a different story, with different characters. Serling would masterfully take advantage of this, throwing the audience into each week’s story without context. By fashioning his show like this, the viewers were left to imagine what was going on. Sometimes viewers would guess correctly, other times not at all, but each episode of the show challenged viewers to use their own imaginations to figure out the puzzle laid out before them. It was an amazing endeavor; but what would CBS viewers think? Stay Tuned!

Monday, October 8, 2018

TV Deep Dive: “The Twilight Zone”

As the television industry began to grow up in the 1950’s, a few writers and producers sought to utilize the medium in ways that they couldn’t in film. Certain topics were seen as being off limits at the movies; not because of censorship or the Hayes Office, but because of the huge costs involved in producing a major motion picture. The studios would purposely avoid making films that covered American social problems for fear of alienating audiences and reducing the box office. Television’s smaller budgets should have allowed for more experimentation, but the medium’s reliance on advertisers and local affiliates watered down any possible experimentation.

Rod Serling had embraced television and found great acclaim writing for many of the biggest anthology series of the time. He soon found the medium’s restrictions to be too creatively confining. Sponsors would take too active a role in each script, making changes both petty and severe. Lines that might be seen as referring to a competitor’s product would get cut. References to racial issues would definitely get removed because they might offend white viewers in the south. Serling found these restrictions stifling.

Serling eventually thought he’d figured out the key to producing the sort of programming that he thought could change opinions and improve the world- by dressing up his morality studies in supernatural and science fiction themes. He came up with the idea for an anthology series that would feature science fiction and fantasy themes which paralleled modern issues and social problems. He wrote a pilot script- The Time Element, but it initially gained little notice. The script was about a man who went back in time to try to warn the United States about Pearl Harbor. The script was shelved until the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse needed another hour of programming. The script was chosen and became one of the highest rated hours on television that week.

CBS took notice of Serling’s success. The Twilight Zone was finally given a pilot order. 

Friday, October 5, 2018

TV Deep Dive: “It’s A Great Legacy, Charlie Brown”

Prior to the Peanuts specials, television animation was seen as being cheap and disposable. Walt Disney wouldn’t even touch it and what did air was mostly repackaged theatrical cartoons. Charles Shultz didn’t want to make cheap specials that wouldn’t be remembered thirty minutes after they aired. He was looking to create something special that would outlive him. While Coca-Cola and Dolly Madison were most likely delighted that the special would have legs, they probably hadn’t expected that the specials would still be watched and enjoyed 50 years later.

Much of the credit for that goes to the team that was assembled to produce the show. Bill Melendez, who produced the animation and Vince Guaraldi who produced the score had the same high standards that Charles Schulz championed. They wouldn’t talk down to kids or assume that quality didn’t matter because the specials were “just for kids”.

It was this attention to detail and quality that made these specials live long past the expiration date of other less ambitious productions from the same time period.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

TV Deep Dive: Hands-on Charlie

Unlike other cartoonists who often just collect paychecks when their creations are adapted for television, Charles Schulz took an active role in the Peanuts specials. He wrote the script, inserting some of the more iconic scenes into the special. He also handpicked Bill Melendez, who had become a trusted friend, to produce the animation. The partnership had earned them an Emmy for A Charlie Brown Christmas and they had high hopes for the Halloween special.

While still somewhat of a ratings success, the followup to A Charlie Brown Christmas- Charlie Brown’s All-Stars- was seen as a lesser effort. Schulz wanted their Halloween outing to dazzle.

Oddly enough, despite CBS’ original admonition that A Charlie Brown Christmas was too religious, Charles Schulz decided to go with a suspiciously religious seeming storyline. Linus is depicted as believing in a mysterious figure who never actually shows up. Despite everyone’s doubts, Linus fervently believes in the Great Pumpkin. The audience is taught that one can have faith in something that they can’t see or hear.

Despite the seemingly obvious religious overtones, Charles Schulz insisted that he didn’t intend for the Great Pumpkin to be considered a metaphor for God. He saw the Great Pumpkin as being a Halloween version of Santa Claus, though he wasn’t too upset if people believed that the Great Pumpkin was a stand in for God.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

TV Deep Dive: Brought to You By Coca-Cola

To understand why Charles Schulz was willing to incorporate such blatant advertising into his specials, we must look back at how American television was funded in its early years.

 In the beginning, most programming was presented by one sponsor. This was a holdover from radio, which used the same method for financing programming. On these shows, advertising was directly inserted into the shows. For example, Texaco’s Star Theater might feature a song or skit extolling Texaco’s virtues. The line between program and advertisement was therefore extremely blurred. Even more concerning to creators was that the sponsors had a ton of control over show content. A representative for the sponsor would sit in on every meeting with full veto control.

By the mid-1960’s, however, this method of sponsorship had lost favor with both the television networks and the advertisers. The networks could gain more freedom over their own production slates by selling 30 & 60 second slots to multiple advertisers who were removed from the production process completely. Advertisers enjoyed the freedom to spread their advertising dollars around instead of putting all of it in one basket. Some advertisers still liked the old method, however, so a hybrid was formed. That was the method used for the Peanuts specials.

This hybrid sponsorship typically had one or two “named” sponsors, in this case, Coca-Cola and Dolly Madison. In addition to getting featured in the opening title sequence as part of the animation, the brands would be featured in all CBS advertising in the run up to the airing. Additionally, there would be a handful of traditional slots divvied up among the two sponsors. The remaining inventory could be sold by CBS, who could pocket the proceeds as their share of the program’s profits. CBS was restricted from selling ads to Pepsi or Hostess Snack Cakes, But could otherwise sell the slots as it wished. It was a win for everyone involved.

At first, CBS had viewed a Peanuts special as being too risky and expensive. With builtin sponsorship, the network became more comfortable with airing the programming. If Charles Schulz hadn’t already brought along Coca-Cola and Dolly Madison, he might have never been able to produce the show at all. That he was able to produce such high quality programming without too much commercialism creeping into the content was cause for celebration.

Monday, October 1, 2018

TV Deep Dive: “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”

The origins of the Peanuts on television began in 1959 with the production of a series of animated commercials for the Ford Motor Company. The commercials were produced by Bill Melendez, whose work attracted the attention of Charles Schulz. Schulz and Melendez became fast friends, so when Schulz was approached by Coca-Cola to create a series of specials he instantly chose Bill to produce them. 

Good, grief- it’s a Ford!

Charles Schulz, center. Bill Melendez, right.

The first special produced would become an instant classic- A Charlie Brown Christmas. The special was initially seen as being too religious by the network, but audiences embraced it. The irony behind the production was that it was sponsored by Coca-Cola and Dolly Madison snack cakes yet had a strong anti-consumerism message. A second special was commissioned- Charlie Brown’s All-Stars- that didn’t do as well as the first one. It performed good enough to warrant a third special, one tied to an up and coming holiday- Halloween.

Coca-Cola and Dolly Madison quickly signed off on the production. Halloween was a good fit for their family brands and they doubtless hoped that tying themselves to it might get their products served at Halloween parties. Bill Melendez was the only one Charles Schulz trusted with his creations and everyone involved hoped that he could create another evergreen classic like A Charlie Brown Christmas.