Friday, August 23, 2019

Deep Dive Rewind: The Simpsons, Part Five

Fox could have kept The Simpsons on Sundays where it was running successfully. With the plethora of merchandise flooding into stores on a daily basis, they could have been excused for choosing to keep things the way they were. But this was the early, young and brash Fox. They were trying to establish programming on other days of the week and a hit show like The Simpsons seemed like a good prospect for a different time slot. Fox decided that it wouldn’t be good enough to just plug The Simpsons into a safe time slot- they were going to pit The Simpsons against the biggest hit of the 1980’s- The Cosby Show.

It seemed like a suicide mission; Fox appeared to be purposely killing its biggest phenomenon by placing it against the biggest show. While the show was getting a bit tired, it was still a juggernaut for NBC and something that the other networks never tried to really compete against. Fox was making a bold decision to signal to the other networks that it had finally arrived. While Fox appeared to be confident about its prospects, a few of its licensees were a bit worried about this development. Would Cosby take the wind out of their sails, leaving tons of unsold merchandise on store shelves?

Fox, however, really had nothing to lose. Nobody really expected The Simpsons to truly beat The Cosby Show; Fox just needed to take enough of Cosby’s viewers to put a dent in NBC’s dominance and establish Fox Thursday nights. More importantly, Fox’s affiliate agreement at the time didn’t require the local stations to pick up extra days. They very easily could have refused to air Fox’s Thursday lineup if they chose. Moving The Simpsons to Thursdays virtually guaranteed that every Fox affiliate would air its programming. It might have seemed like a mistake, but it was a genius decision. The entertainment press gave Fox a ton of free publicity, putting Cosby on the defensive.

The faceoff was epic and ended up bringing down The Cosby Show. While The Cosby Show had seen better days, it is doubtful that it would have ended just two seasons later if The Simpsons hadn’t taken it on. Even better, The Simpsons hit its stride during this time, producing some of its best episodes, despite how rushed production was at the time. Due to the show’s lengthy production time and Fox’s initial reluctance to order more than 13 episodes, it would take about two seasons for the show to catch up. During these years, the show was literally finishing episodes right before they aired.

Once the initial hype and novelty wore off, The Simpsons proved that it could stand the test of time. The show’s secret has always been that deep down the family loves each other and there’s always a lot of heart behind every episode. The biggest mistake that the press, 1990’s authority figures and Bill Cosby made back then was to underestimate the show.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Deep Dive Rewind: The Simpsons, Part Four

While Rupert Murdoch hadn’t bet his network on the success or failure of The Simpsons, there was a lot riding on it. The network was waiting for the overnights on pins and needles. When the ratings arrived- jubilation.

While Married... With Children had been a hit for the network, it was a slow burn, becoming a mega-hit only after several years and a misguided attempt by censors to try to shut it down. The Simpsons was a bonafide smash hit from day one.

But still, Fox was a bit unsure of whether the show would truly be a hit. The network hadn’t even tried to merchandise the show. The success of the show, just days before Christmas, meant that any of the show’s new fans would find  Nothing Simpsons-related under the Christmas tree that year. But would they find anything next year? A few merchandisers came calling, but Fox was skittish. It hadn’t renewed the show yet despite its success. Would the success continue? It would.

The show was a sensation. After several weeks, Fox embraced its success, finally ordering season two. The network’s initial skittishness was now causing problems. Stores were besieged with requests for Simpsons merchandise that didn’t yet exist. Fox realized that there was no way it could get new episodes before the Fall, yet the show’s fans were clamoring for more. Luckily for Fox, its young viewers were willing to watch the few episodes that did exist multiple times. Quick deals with JCPenney and other retailers got Simpsons merchandise into stores as soon as possible, though much of it was not the best quality.

For the first few months of its existence, there was probably more bootleg merchandise than legally licensed items. Although it was caught off guard, Fox was planning on making sure there would be plenty of Simpsons merchandise available for Christmas 1990. That wouldn’t be the only surprise it would unleash on the world that Fall. Fox’s first big hit- Married... With Children- had a working title of Not The Cosbys. Its second big hit- The Simpsons- would become The Cosby Killers.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Deep Dive Rewind: The Simpsons, Part Three

In Fox’s early years, very little of its programming gained traction with audiences. Its nighttime talk show featuring Joan Rivers was a colossal failure. Each of its shows were more forgettable than the last.

Mr. Whose-its?

Beans Whats-it?

Fox’s biggest issue at the time was that it wasn’t anyone’s first choice. It also didn’t have an established development team to line up potential projects. Fox was where people took shows that everyone else had already rejected. The only show that got any traction at the time was Married... With Children. Rumors abounded that Rupert Murdoch was planning to pull the plug on his failed experiment.

Thank your father for helping keep this network alive, kids!

Murdoch, however, decided to double his bet that he could create a fourth network out of nothing. If Hollywood wouldn’t bring its best projects to Fox, Fox would make its own. The network scoured Hollywood and its own schedule for fresh talent. One critical bright spot on the schedule was The Tracey Ullman Show. Unfortunately, critical acclaim did not transfer to ratings success. After just a few seasons, the show had run its course.

Go home! No, seriously- please stay!

Ms. Ullman created a treasure trove of characters and Fox executives thought that one of them could possibly be spunoff into a new show. They quickly determined that her characters, while interesting in small doses, would probably wear out their welcome in short order. The cartoon family in the bumpers, however, did show some promise. Matt Groening’s Simpsons seemed like the sort of characters who could attract a younger audience. The show, however, would need some polish. Groening had created a family and an attitude. Keeping an audience interested in the show for thirty minutes at a time would require a city of characters. That’s where Sam Simon came in.

Matt Groening and Sam Simon

If Matt Groening was the father of The Simpsons, Sam Simon was the founder of Springfield. Sam built out the show, adding the various friends, family, neighbors and acquaintances who inhabited Springfield. Despite the fact that no prime time cartoon had been successful in years, Fox greenlit the project and it began production. Due to the huge lead time required to produce an animated show, Fox had to commit to more than just an episode or two in order to make everything cost effective. It committed to 13 episodes, half of the usual season order. The first episode produced was Some Enchanted Evening, which featured guest Penny Marshall as Mrs. Botz, a villainous babysitter.

The episode was a disaster. The animation was bad, even for a television cartoon. It was deemed unreleasable by Fox, but because most of the other episodes were already in various stages of production, it couldn’t afford to scrap the series. Some Enchanted Evening was sent back into production and the series was delayed from its schedule Fall 1989 premiere to a Spring 1990 premiere. As a result, the episode originally scheduled to air as the season finale- the Christmas themed Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire would be the series premiere. A hopefully much improved Some Enchanted Evening would be the finale.

Strangely enough, Fox’s decision to only produce 13 episodes was technically lose/lose for the network. If the show failed, those expensive episodes would be a costly mistake. If the show was successful, it would leave the network with a hot prospect that it couldn’t fully exploit because it only had 13 episodes to run. The decision was made to hold off on making more episodes until the network was fully convinced that the series was a success. As the final versions of the various episodes began coming in from overseas, Fox executives started resting easier. The show, it seemed, was good. But would the world agree? For better or worse, Fox would find out on December 17, 1989.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Deep Dive Rewind, The Simpsons, Part Two

After Fox approved the project, James L. Brooks and Matt Groening began choosing voice actors for the major characters. They didn’t have to look far; Tracey Ullman castmembers Dan Castellaneta and Julie Kavner were chosen to voice Homer and Marge Simpson. While Dan Castellaneta had previous voice over experience, Julie Kavner did not. Most importantly, however, both of them were already under contract to Fox.

Nancy Cartwright had been a veteran voice actor and was brought in to test for Lisa Simpson. After reading the script, Nancy decided that she wanted to be Bart- not Lisa. Despite their original doubts, Matt and Albert knew she was the right voice for Bart Simpson.

With most of the family cast, that just left Lisa Simpson. Yeardley Smith, who had not done much work up until then, was called in to read for Lisa. She had originally thought the role would be a one off, but she quickly realized it would be a much bigger project.

With the main characters now properly voiced, production started on what would become 48 one minute shorts. Crudely drawn and produced, the shorts quickly gained a cult following. As Matt Groening’s Life in Hell fans discovered the shorts, they quickly outshone The Tracey Ullman Show itself. Could Fox turn this crudely drawn filler material into something bigger? They thought they could.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Deep Dive Rewind: The Simpsons, Part One

Australian businessman Rupert Murdoch was attempting the impossible; he was trying to use his then recent purchase of Twentieth Century Fox to setup a new American television network from scratch. Both Paramount and DuMont had previously tried to become a fourth network, but neither had succeeded. Murdoch was hoping to succeed where others had failed by starting small, building up and pursuing a more youthful audience. Originally, Fox only programmed on Saturday and Sunday nights and its initial programming was quite risky. One of its biggest risks was The Tracey Ullman Show, a half hour comedy sketch show starring a British actress who was relatively unknown in the United States.

Produced by television titan James L. Brooks, the show wanted to signal from the very beginning how it was not your father’s comedy show. Fox decided to have animated bumpers that would play before and after commercial breaks that were technically unrelated to the show. After seeing the Matt Groening comic strip Life in Hell, Brooks and Fox knew they’d found an edgy talent whose work could attract the younger audience they craved. Life in Hell was a popular comic strip that was found in alternative newspapers. It seemed like a great fit for the network, so Matt Groening was approached to turn his strip into a series of shorts to be aired on Tracey Ullman.

Matt was surprised to be contacted by Fox; after all, he was just an independent cartoonist at the time. His characters had been a smash hit in the alternative press, but mainstream success had eluded him. Despite his surprise, he still decided to take the meeting. As he sat in the waiting room, panic kicked in, however. The Life in Hell characters were how he made his living. If he accepted Fox’s offer, he would be essentially signing over the rights to the characters to them. How would he make a living if that happened? What if he lost his indie cred as a result of this deal? Matt frantically took out his drawing pad and made a split second decision that would change his life- and popular culture- forever.

Unwilling to sign over his existing creations, Matt sketched out a picture of a strange looking family. There was a mom with a crazy beehive hairdo, a grumpy, bald father and three bratty kids. Best case scenario- Fox picks up these characters he designed just a few minutes before the presentation. Worst case scenario- they reject them, but at least he’d still have his Life in Hell rights. Matt Groening entered the room and history was made.

Fox loved the idea. They quickly signed Matt Groening to a contract and began producing these bizarre cartoon shorts with this bizarre looking cartoon family. Little did anyone know that everyone involved with the show would soon become more successful than they had ever imagined. 

Friday, August 16, 2019

Deep Dive Rewind: The Twilight Zone, Part Five

ong 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, August 15, 2019

Deep Dive Rewind: The Twilight Zone, Part Four

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, August 14, 2019

Deep Dive Rewind: The Twilight Zone, Part Three

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, August 13, 2019

Deep Dive Rewind: The Twilight Zone, Part Two

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, August 12, 2019

Deep Dive Rewind: The Twilight Zone, Part One

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.