Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Serious Business: Perry Mason and the Skipper

Before he was the skipper on Gilligan’s Island, Alan Hale, Jr. played two different characters on Perry Mason. His first character is actually the real killer who is badgered into confessing by Perry Mason himself.

In his second role on Perry Mason, Alan is the victim. A rare set of Perry Mason roles in which an actor played both a killer and a victim.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Happy Days: A Sitcom By Any Other Name...

Today, syndicating reruns of television shows is standard business in Hollywood. It is a known and expected method of generating revenue from a television production. Back in the early days of television, however, most TV programming was seen as ephemeral. It wasn’t meant to be seen after its first viewing and few thought that anyone would want to re-watch something that they had already seen. Visionaries like Desi Arnaz and Walt Disney, however, saw the value in their back catalogs. When other producers saw that extra money could be made by syndicating reruns, they weren’t entirely certain that this “free money” wouldn’t cause other problems. Many thought that viewers would be confused by syndicated repeats and ratings for new episodes would plummet, thus “Syndication Titles” were invented.

Syndicators would create new titles for the syndicated repeats, like Andy of Mayberry instead of The Andy Griffith Show or Happy Days Again instead of Happy Days.

Laverne & Shirley & Company as well as Laverne & Shirley & Friends were used as syndication titles for Laverne & Shirley. Thus viewers could discern new episodes from repeats. This tactic didn’t work out too well when it came to minimizing confusion. Audiences didn’t quite understand why these shows had different titles. Even more importantly, reruns actually gave first run episodes higher ratings. Since audiences could use repeats to catch up on episodes they’d missed and discover shows that were new to them, repeats were a benefit to first run episodes, not a detriment.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Toon In: In The Beginning, Part One

While children’s television is possibly not as educational as it could be, it was a wasteland in the 1950’s. Advertisers at the time were trying to figure out how to use television to their advantage, but on the road to figuring out what might work, they had to make a few assumptions about their audience, many of which were eventually proven wrong. The biggest mistake they made was assuming that since kids have no money it was not worth targeting them with advertisements. Thus children’s television was seen as an afterthought.

“Hey kids, I’ll be in your nightmares tonight!”

Children’s programming was cheap and dreadful. Most channels considered it to be more of a service to harried mothers who needed to distract their children for a few hours while they prepared supper. Thus it was seen as an afterthought, hosted by terrifying clowns and filled with cartoons, purchased on the cheap from movie studios desperate to make cash in a world where their biggest competition was free each night.

Since most movie studios had not yet learned the hidden value in their back catalogs, many of them were selling anything not nailed down for quick cash. Even Warner Bros. had little respect for its animated catalog. (Jack Warner once famously derided his own studio’s animated product by saying the only thing he knew was that his company produced Mickey Mouse cartoons, which was obviously not true.) Warner Bros. sold off its entire catalog of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies for a relative pittance, only getting them back in the 1990’s after it purchased Ted Turner’s Company.

While children’s television was littered with cheap programming, there were a few people who saw that it could be much more than it was. That’s a story for next week. Toon In next time!

Monday, April 15, 2019

Georgia Engel, 1948 - 2019

Happy Days: “Pig Sty”

The success of the syndicated series Star Trek: The Next Generation and of the brash startup Fox Network made a lot of people at the Paramount lot take notice. Paramount had produced a ton of high rated programming for others, maybe it was time to use the launch of the next entry in the Star Trek franchise to setup a network of its own. The decision was eventually made; Star Trek: Voyager would launch UPN: The United Paramount Network.

Of course, a television network can’t consist of just one television show, so Paramount had to build programming around Star Trek: Voyager. Unfortunately, the studio’s television production arm wasn’t fully on board with the idea of UPN. So instead of shifting some of the higher profile programming it was developing for other networks to UPN, it tried to make something out of the programs that had previously been rejected and were just sitting in the Paramount dumpster. Thus America was treated to Pig Sty.

The classy title sounded like it came out of a rejected Saturday Night Live sketch as did its premise. A bunch of twentysomething guys lived together in a New York apartment (the titular “Pig Sty”) and did all the crude things that Hollywood thinks straight guys do when they live together, sanitized for mid-1990’s broadcast television.

Adding to the mix was a hot superintendent, who the guys would leer at while using double entendres and drinking beer. That was the “clever” part of the premise; after all, this was a *woman* who was fixing things! One can imagine the studio executives patting themselves on the back- after all, a lady was fixing things like a man! That ought to silence those women’s libbers!

The 1990’s!

This crude, mess of a show lasted just one season. As a matter of fact, the only show that survived UPN’s disastrous first year was Star Trek: Voyager.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Making Our Dreams Come True

“Nothings gonna turn us back now
Straight ahead and on the track now
We're gonna make our dreams come true
Doin' it our way!”

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Love in the Afternoon: Say Don’t Show

Despite being on television five days a week, daytime dramas typically have to establish a lot of exposition in a limited amount of time. On the long running daytime show General Hospital, producers took advantage of the hospital setting to establish a gossipy nurses station that would provide a realistic reason to supply and re-supply exposition about what’s going on in the show to the audience.

The gossipy nurses were always filling in other characters (and the audience) about the latest happenings in town. Network executives knew that many viewers would not be able to watch every episode. Before VCRs and DVRs, viewers might stop watching the show altogether if they couldn’t keep up with the action. So the gossip sessions were mostly provided for the occasional viewer’s benefit; they could easily get up to date with the various affairs and scheming with a quick rundown given by a nosy nurse.

Now that there are multiple ways to keep up with the dramas- DVRs, streaming, on mobile devices, etc. the nurses station doesn’t have to provide as much exposition as before. Nowadays, the shows are more likely to use exposition to quickly establish new and recurring characters. For example, other characters can talk about how smart and successful a district attorney might be, even though the lawyer in question always seems to accuse the wrong person and can’t ever get a successful conviction. We are assured, however, that they are amazing just because the other characters keep saying that they are. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Toon In: Why Does This Exist?

Looking for a good late 1980’s film franchise to make into a cartoon for children? Obviously the best choice would be the ultra violent film RoboCop! Wait, what? (If this was a 1980’s movie trailer this is where the record scratch would go.)

B-words Leave!

RoboCop was the ultra violent movie about a dystopian city where the bullet mangled body of a nearly murdered policeman is literally scavenged from the morgue and melded with robot to make a remorseless killing machine. The film’s original cut had been given an X rating due to its extreme violence- a rarity, since the prudish MPAA typically reserved X ratings for films with sexual content. Producing a cartoon out of that seems ridiculous today, but was apparently seen as viable to Orion Pictures in 1988.

Want me to ‘k’ this ‘a’, boss?

The show’s violence was toned down a bit from the film; instead of the dystopian setting of the film, the cartoon had more of a Sci-Fi feel. Regular guns became laser blasters that seemingly always missed. Despite these changes, the 1980’s decided that FINALLY somebody had gone too far. The show died a quick death, lasting just two months. The memories of the time that several allegedly sane executives greenlit a show for children based on an R rated motion picture remain, as well as twelve episodes of this bizarre endeavor.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Serious Business: NCIS and the Back Door Pilot

In 2002, the CBS television show Jag was long in the tooth. The show, which CBS resurrected in the mid-1990’s after NBC had canceled it, was looking old fashioned compared to the science based procedurals that surrounded it on the schedule. CBS asked Jag creator Donald Bellisario to meld Jag with CSI. He decided to accommodate this request with the 2003 back door pilot Ice Queen.

A back door pilot is a way to slyly use an existing television show to launch a new one. Typically this involves introducing the new characters and premise on an existing show in a way that will encourage viewers to want to watch the new potential program. The back door pilot for NCIS, however did none of these things. In fact, it almost seemed as though Mr. Bellisario wanted the show to fail.

Instead of introducing the new characters in a positive light, Bellisario chose to have them accuse a beloved Jag character of murder. Loyal viewers of Jag had seen Harmon Rabb fight for truth and justice for seven seasons. They knew nothing about any of these NCIS characters who come off as complete jerks throughout the entire episode. In fact, the NCIS team acts like the sort of investigators who would be the arrogant outsiders who get everything wrong on a regular crime show and get schooled by the familiar investigators. Looking back, it’s amazing that the show got picked up, much less become the monster hit that would eclipse Jag.

The show tries to mitigate this somewhat by having Harmon Rabb forgive NCIS because they were only doing their jobs, but the Jag viewers would still leave the episode with a negative view of NCIS. CBS would still pickup the show with minor changes. In the end, NCIS would fully eclipse its older sibling.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Happy Days: Drew Carey’s April Fools

The Drew Carey Show was known for its various stunts. The show staged elaborate dance numbers, broadcast live and even had special improvised sequences. In 1998, the show’s regular broadcast fell on April first, which provided Drew Carey and the producers with an idea- what if the show worked in intentional mistakes for viewers to find?

ABC loved the idea and decided to make it a contest. Viewers could keep track of the mistakes during the show, then enter them into a special website. The contest would especially reward frequent viewers who had an obvious advantage because they would know what was and wasn’t normal. By announcing the contest several weeks in advance, the show’s ratings could benefit from new viewers doing “research” into what was normal.

ABC took advantage of audience interest by having “Mimi” from The Drew Carey Show host segments on TGIF to give hints and show viewers what the various sets normally looked like. The episode was hugely successful. Subsequent airings of the show revealed- in “Pop-Up Video” style- where the official mistakes existed.