Friday, May 13

TV Month 2016 - The Unsolved.

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It was the Summer of 1986, and I was on death's door.

I had the flu. The little kid flu. To this day, it's about as sick as I've ever been. I was riding out a 100+ degree fever on my grandma's couch, sweating straight through to the springs. We didn't have air conditioning, but we did have a box fan that blew humid, recirculated air into my face between punctual bouts of barfing into an ice cream pail I kept by my head.

I slipped in and out of consciousness for the duration of the weekend. I slept, I sweat, I barfed and I watched TV.

It was during one of these comatose, surreal fever dreams when I saw a commercial that I had never seen before. It was advertising a cereal that didn't exist (Circus Fun), but it felt so real. It was like Lucky Charms, but with circus animal marshmallows. It had creepy clay animation and a deranged-sounding carnival barker. It felt like a nightmare broadcast, and it freaked me out something proper.

The whole ordeal was weird enough to convince myself that I had made the entire thing up; a byproduct of being sick as a dog at the age of 4. I never saw the commercial again, I never saw the cereal at stores, and nobody I ever talked to confirmed that the cereal ever existed. Case closed: It wasn't real.

Then 30 years later, this happened.

Well, son of a bitch. It was exactly how I had remembered it.

In the light of day (and adulthood), it's hard to pinpoint why certain, seemingly random things scared you as a child. But you definitely remember the feeling. I remember being afraid of the billboards advertising Jellystone Park, because of the giant, looming visage of Yogi Bear in the night sky. I remember seeing commercials for Time/Life's Mysteries of the Unknown book series and darting out of the room (I then went on to purchase all of them). And I remember this damn Circus Fun commercial, mostly because of the surreal uneasiness. Is what I'm seeing actually happening?

My curiosity always got the best of me; my fear taking a backseat to discovery. I read every book, watched every movie and took in every TV show that frightened me.

My jam was the Paranormal. Anything unsolved. Serial murderers on the loose. And wouldn't you know it, the 1990's blessed us with all of that and then some in the form of Unsolved Mysteries, the scariest television program ever made:

It was pitch-perfect nightmare fuel. The opening disclaimer. The iconic music. The reenactments. The haunting voice of Robert Stack. The way they swayed between journalism and pseudoscience in a way my childlike brain couldn't differentiate. Unsolved Mysteries was the Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of scaring the shit out of me. I remember they did a two-hour special on nothing but poltergeist cases, and I couldn't sleep for days. It knocked something loose, presumably forever. Is what I'm seeing actually happening?

My love for the unexplained moved into the late 90's, as Unsolved Mysteries was followed by its FOX successor, Sightings.

Like Unsolved Mysteries, Sightings was not so much of a news broadcast as it went into the fringes of speculation and sensationalism (ie: bullshit). However, Sightings was all about the paranormal, all the time. Even after being canned by FOX, they moved to the Sci-Fi (NOT SyFy) Channel for the remainder of their run.

Pre-Alien Autopsy, I recall an episode where they attempted to track down the creator of the 'Guardian Tape,' or when they camped out for weeks at the sight of the 'Heartland Ghost,' where a supposed poltergeist was wreaking havoc on a young family. Pre-Internet, this was as far as my rabbit hole could go, and in retrospect, that was all for the better. I would have certainly become a Dale Gribble-type if left to my own devices. I needed to know more. Is what I'm seeing actually happening?

On Halloween night in 1994, CBS paid homage to War of the Worlds with the made-for-TV movie Without Warning. It was a clever film about aliens contacting us, America retaliating with violence (as we do), and the aliens retaliating by wiping us off the map. No problem, right?

Not so fast. While cheesy in retrospect, Without Warning was presented as a live broadcast of actual events as they happened, at a time where such media didn't exist in abundance. Also, while a disclaimer opened the show and bumped in the first few commercial breaks, the announcement did not resurface for the remainder of the presentation. In short, people were taken in and flipped their collective wigs. A lot of people, including myself.

It's not that I thought what I was seeing was actually happening. It's just that it was such a raw example of what could possibly happen if the shit went down, that it jettisoned me directly into an existential crisis regarding our mortality. It looks so ridiculous now, but I can't stress how effective it was on my 12-year old psyche.

I no longer live in a world where I'm fearful of aliens, poltergeists, Robert Stack and cereal commercials. But I am still afraid of the Unsolved. Only now, this manifests itself in the form of xenophobes, homophobes, racists, nationalists and anyone else who acts out of hate and fear, simply because they do not understand thoughts outside of their own. 2016's been weird, man.

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Yeah, I wish.


Thursday, May 12

TV Month 2016 - The Doomsday.

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"We will cover the end of the world, live, and that will be our last event. We'll play the National Anthem only one time, on the first of June [the day CNN launched], and when the end of the world comes, we'll play 'Nearer My God To Thee' before we sign off." - Ted Turner

When CNN launched their 24 hour-a-day news network in 1980, ratshit lunatic billionaire Ted Turner uttered the above words. And as promised, they played the National Anthem when they signed on, but most reasonable people assumed the rest of his quote was hyperbole. At some point, the network would have to sign off before the apocalypse. Or at the very least, they weren't literally prepared to air a specific music number as a nuclear holocaust consumed the Earth...right?

Well, for any of us who followed the WWE/WCW 'Monday Night Wars' can attest, Turner was a man of his crazy, crazy word. However, it wasn't until January of 2015 when a CNN employee actually found the clip Turner was referring to in the archives, and it was legit as promised.

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It hasn't been converted to HD, but hey, it's the apocalypse! Nobody's going to care that much if it isn't in 1080p. Also note that it was very, very important that the video wasn't aired until the end of the world was confirmed, by CNN themselves, no doubt. The last thing CNN wanted was to jump the gun on a casualty. It was like hearing Jules' recite Ezekiel 25:17 in Pulp Fiction; if you saw it, it meant your ass.

But thanks to disgruntled interns, we were given the rare opportunity to cheat death and stare Doomsday right in its blurry, muffled eye:

I like that it was never updated. I like that, logically, nobody would be around to press the button to air it. I like that, logically, nobody would be alive to see it on CNN. I like the transcendental narcissism of Ted Turner, thinking that the masses would be huddled around the TV, watching his network, as the world burned.

In the 80's, it was perfectly rational to fear nuclear annihilation as a result of some Cold War snafu, so growing up, we were inundated with PSAs, made-for-TV movies and various other televised reminders that vaporization was never more than a Red Phone call away. To this day, the Missus freaks out whenever she hears an air raid siren. I don't think she's ever heard one in reality, but years of The Day After and Threads had her permanently on high alert.

(This is a mock-up, but it's fantastic and the real thing would be just as pants-shittingly terrifying. If I ever pulled something like this on my wife, she'd divorce me on the spot and flee with the cats.)

Analog TV experienced their own version of Doomsday in 2009, when it became law that all stations needed to convert their signal to digital. This meant no more antennas (unless you got yourself a converter box) and no more static, which was kind of a bummer for me. It was definitely the end of an era.

Further still, the analog-to-digital conversion made it a hell of a lot harder to hack into a TV station for no other reason than to mess with people, which is exactly what happened to Chicago's WGN and WTTW stations on November 22, 1987. During an episode of Doctor Who, no less.

(This really happened, and the culprit was never found.)

Most networks flipped their digital switch on February 11, 2009, although 6/12/09 became the de facto date after a few changes in legislation. There was concern that not enough people had the opportunity to get their hands on a converter box, and the argument was that TV was sort of a national right that couldn't exactly be taken away from the public, especially in the event of a Doomsday incident where everyone would need to be notified of an emergency at once. I was of the opinion that TV is a privilege, and it's up to you whether or not you wish to own one, so it's not anyone else's responsibility that you have a working one at the ready in case shit goes down.

However, my wife argued with me on this. Because the analog-to-digital conversion made a lot of TVs obsolete, and because this was no fault of their owners, and because this was essentially a government-mandated change, then yes, the government should make sure that everyone at least had the reasonable opportunity to have their TVs up and running smoothly by the cutoff date. I was wrong; she was right. In retrospect, it makes 100% sense. I just wanted to make that public in the event she still thinks I'm disputing her on it. I was being a butthole.

On the night of February 16, 2009, I did something I hadn't done in a while. I stayed up late to watch a channel go off the air. It was our local NBC station in Madison, and it was making the conversion (and channel) leap for good. This was made all the more special for me because my homie Ben worked for the network and made sure to save a copy for posterity.

(Wow, lotta hits. Good for him.)

When Doomsday hit NBC 15, they didn't go with the Ted Turner-suggested 'Nearer My God To Thee.' They stayed traditional and went with the National Anthem. That's because it wasn't really over; in fact, it was just beginning. A new era of TV had begun, and the previous had been scorched clean from the Earth. No apocalypse, no bunker, no food rations or gas masks. Just a brief test pattern and static for all of eternity.

Who wants to be around for the end of the world, anyway?


Wednesday, May 11

TV Month 2016 - The Commercials.

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I'm going to make a brief observation about Pop Culture, and then I'm going to post a bunch of cool commercials that drive my point home. Then we're going to go back about our business.

In my opinion, the most accurate snapshot of Pop Culture at any given time is viewed through the advertisements, more specifically the commercials. Where most film, TV and music strives for some sort of shelf life or timelessness (even the shitty stuff), the commercial is absolutely disposable after no more than a few weeks, which means it needs to tap into the voice of the nation at the exact moment it airs, without as much as a forethought of how it will be perceived in the future. The albums and shows only go so far for me when it comes to true feelings of nostalgia; it’s the humble commercial that truly takes me back to that exact moment in time, reminding me of just what I was doing and who I was.

If you want to break this down a little further, I will propose this theory: The more disposable the method of media, the more specific it is in pinpointing a specific moment in time, and the more instant nostalgia it taps into when viewed years later. Doesn't mean it's 'better,' I just think it's the most effective for nostalgia-only purposes. I feel that it flows like this: Movies - Music - TV - Ads.

I'll give you an example.

Saving Private Ryan is one of the greatest movies ever made. However, when I watch Saving Private Ryan, I'm not instantly nostalgic for 1998. In fact, I couldn't even remember that the film was released in 1998 until I looked it up. This was never the intent of the movie; its release date was irrelevant to Spielberg, as it should have been.

When I hear the song 'Believe' by Cher, it sort of reminds me of being in High School in '98, but you could have told me it was released 2001 and I probably would have believed you. We're getting closer though.

If you showed me a '98 episode of Celebrity Deathmatch, now I'd start to have twinges of a flashback. Late 90's, spending a lot of time in my room, generally being a dork. I'm being transported back to a far more specific point in time than I was with Saving Private Ryan, and ain't nobody gonna tell you that Celebrity Deathmatch was the superior product.

Now, if you showed me this:

Woosh. It's the Summer of 1998. I'm transported right back to my friend Dale's house, and we're wasting away our Summer vacation by watching TV in his non-air conditioned, sweltering barbecue of a house, calling friends to see if they can come over, playing with his dogs and making flamethrowers out of insect repellent cans. The memory is clear as day.

All Pepsi was looking to do was make a commercial that sold soda for six weeks in 1998, tops. And for that reason, they created a time capsule of a Summer that far better captured the feeling than a Spielberg movie, a Cher song and an MTV show. And because it never needed to be aired again, the commercial just hangs around in this 1998 purgatory, while 'Believe' and Saving Private Ryan will continue to move through the years with us on TV and radio.

So which of these four examples best represents 1998? I'd argue the Pepsi commercial.

Nickelodeon aired the above commercial a hundred times a day, every Summer for at least five years. Despite not having seen it in well over a decade, I could recite every word and subtle inflection. Now, I never asked my parents to buy me a Kenmore central air system from Sears, so would it be considered an 'effective' commercial? Hard to tell. The fact that it's stuck in my brain where more important memories should be residing (home address, basic fire prevention) leads me to think that it did its job nonetheless.

This was probably my favorite commercial at the time, and it was effective in that I still remember (and laugh at) it, but also because I purchased several pairs of Airwalks in the 90's as a result of their ad campaign. I also liked the Gen X style of making fun of the very culture you were a part of (and attempting to profit from).

For YOU. Not THEM. This was a picture-perfect example of 90's teen marketing. Adults, parents and authority figures don't get you. They'll never get you. But Bubble Tape gets you, homie.

Cinn-A-Burst basically did the exact same commercial:

And on the other hand, it can all go very wrong...

For all the things that McDonald's gets right with their marketing, we sometimes forget when they pee a campaign directly down their collective legs. The Arch Deluxe was supposed to be McD's version of a 'grown up,' boutique-style burger, and it was advertised as such. In a 90's culture rife with 'parents don't get it,' the Arch Deluxe campaign was all about 'kids don't get it.' They even had a commercial where Ronald McDonald shot pool in an upscale tavern. Not kidding.

What McDonald's forgot was that children were the main reason anyone ever ate at McDonald's. Also, the way McDonald's marketed to kids at the time was so pervasive and ingrained that the Arch Deluxe felt akin to treason. More importantly than anything, the burger was kinda gross. The entire campaign tanked within months, and lore has it that McDonald's lost over a quarter billion dollars overall thanks to the ole' Arch Deluxe. I'm assuming someone got really, really fired.

Ads today sometimes make fun of kids, because my generation continues to be marketed to for some reason, and we're now at the age where we have kids of our own. I guess it sells minivans to 35-year olds.

It was unavoidable then, but we skip commercials now. Ads need to be more sneaky in order to circumnavigate all the technology in place to keep us from having to watch them. They show up before YouTube clips. They appear in the lower-third during every TV show you've ever watched in the last five years. They pop up before you get to listen to another song on Pandora. They're clever at times, but we live in a current climate that scares the shit out of companies fearing a boycott, so it's much more important to be visible in the broadest sense of the term than to swing and miss.

The good ones take me back, though.


Tuesday, May 10

TV Month 2016 - The Obscurity.

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The Prevue Channel was the 8-Track cassette of Television.

For a certain period in the mid-90's, there was a sort of blind spot in TV listing technology. The Internet existed, but the amount of time it would take you to log on and search for what was playing would take no less than 30 minutes, defeating the purpose entirely. Provider-specific guides didn't exist, meaning that there wasn't just a button on your remote that would call it up. TV Guide and newspaper listings still existed, but the papers typically only covered national networks and local stuff (there was no room for cable listings), and TV Guide was already becoming an antiquated subscription magazine.

Fortunately, we had the Prevue Channel, which became the (inadvertent) most-watched network in my house.

The Prevue Channel was an automatically-updating guide of listings in your area (with ads, of course). It moved about a millimeter-per-second, so even with only basic cable, a trip around the horn would take up to 15 minutes. You also couldn't arrow forward to later in the evening; it was just 90 minute blocks at a time.

So let's say that you wanted to see what was coming up on Nickelodeon. You flip on the Prevue Channel, and SHIT, you just missed it. No rewind, no fast-forward, no help. You just had to sit and wait until Nickelodeon cycled back around so you could view the listings. Considering that this happened to me about 10 times a day, and also considering that I would simply watch it when I didn't know what else to watch, I would estimate that I took in about 10 hours of Prevue Channel a week for at least three years.

That's pathetic.

Now, we don't even think about it. 90% of everything I watch is already pre-programmed into my DVR. Channel surfing takes about two minutes for the entire evening and it feels akin to a video game; I just click around and blast everything that looks interesting with the Record button. Furthermore, when you turn on a channel, it automatically tells you what you're watching. Back in the day, you sometimes had to stick around for a few minutes (or through a commercial break) just to verify what it was that you were looking at. It seems absurd in retrospect, sort of like when sports used to be televised without constantly keeping the score on the screen. We lived like peasants, I tell you.

However, in the realm of pathetic TV viewing, nothing holds (or will ever hold) a candle to the viewing of scrambled channels.

I'm pretty sure scrambled TV doesn't exist anymore. It's either on or it's not. To the best of my knowledge, it's a remnant of the Analog Era: If there was a channel you weren't paying for, the cable company couldn't block you from it outright, but they could wreck the signal just enough so it was (relatively) unwatchable. For most of us growing up, our first experience with HBO, R-rated movies, porn and pay-per-view was a garbled-beyond-recognition feed that no doubt permanently damaged our eyesight and cerebral cortex.

The means by which one had to navigate in order to obtain adult entertainment in the pre-Internet days could fill a book that I have no interest in writing, but I'll say this. It was so tough that scrambled TV was one of the best options out there. That's how tragic it was, and how desperate we were (myself in particular).

Every once in a great while, the Television Gods would shine upon you in the form of a cable company error that would mistakenly unlock everything for you, for as long as it took them to realize it. On the extremely rare occasion that this happened, you couldn't leave your room until it was over. It was a rare gift that could (and would) be taken away at any time, and it was your duty as an American to absorb all the accidentally-obtained entertainment you could get your hands on. I always had a VCR with blank tapes on hand, just in case such a miracle would be bestowed upon me. It was like when the ATM kicks out an extra $20.

And hey, it wasn't just adult stuff. I remember watching a scrambled UFC event because I didn't have the money. I remember watching a scrambled episode of Tales From The Crypt. Even the Disney Channel was a premium channel for a while, with seasonal free previews throughout the year.

If your family paid for a Disney Channel subscription, please contact me and let me know why. It was, like, $25 a month. Absurd.

Pre-cable, there were two things that, when I saw them show up on my TV, told me it was time to go to bed. The first was the above 'Intermission' ad. It was a 30-second movie trivia spot with a weekly sponsor. I only remember getting one of these right out of the dozens I recall seeing (a difficulty rating of 2, no less). It was usually the last thing that showed up on my local NBC affiliate before signing off for the night. I used to imagine one lonely station operator hitting the 'Intermission' button and flicking the light switch that killed the power to all of NBC 26.

The other was Jack 'Windbreaker' Horkheimer (a nickname I just made up) and PBS's Star Hustler. Despite sounding filthy, Star Hustler was a usually 5-minute peek into what was going on with the (literal) stars that night, for all the sky-watching amateur astronomers out there. I just remember that it looked super weird, although I'm sure Windbreaker Jack was a good guy (and a Wisconsin native!). Wikipedia sez' that he changed the name of the show to Star Gazer in 1997 because of all the nasty Internet searches. Thaaaat sounds about right.

Damn Internet ruins everything.


Monday, May 9

TV Month 2016 - The Skeptic.

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I've been saying this all month, but it bears repeating: TV was there for me when a lot of people could not. During bleary bouts of insomnia that lasted days or during anxiety-induced agoraphobia where it was a challenge to leave my room, I sometimes had to rely on the Small Screen to keep me company (and sane) when things got weird.

All-night TV watching in the 80's and 90's meant a lot of straight-up garbage. Televangelists, psychics, infomercials and miracle cures for whatever ailed you. The solution to all of your problems lied in one (or all) of these things. You might need God. You might need a glimpse into the future. You might need paint in a spray can to cure your baldness. You might need a knife that can cut through a shoe.

These things only exist (and continue to exist) because the marketing works and people will continue to spend their money on snake oil until the end of time. I'm done fighting it; some people are just idiots who don't mind lying to themselves for a little piece of mind.

It was especially pervasive back in the day, and in the throes of yet another 72-hour stretch without sleep, I sometimes felt my logistical grip begin to slip and started to listen to these charlatans with a longing ear. It never lasted long enough to cause real damage, though. I've always been a bit of a cynic, but began to watch all of this huckstering merely for the entertainment value.

There is no doubt that I have this flood of late-night programming to thank for melding me in a way I would consider positive. They instilled in me a general skepticism of the world that became perhaps the defining point of my personality.

In 1995, I was 13 and living with my mother and her (at the time) boyfriend. He was a Michael Larson-type; not obsessed with work as much as he was obsessed with Get Rich Quick schemes and the promise of untold riches by already-rich people. He had books, books on tape, motivational sayings on the wall and a manipulative business acumen that would have been worth a damn if he had ever gotten any work done.

He heard about a company called Equinox International, and like millions of others at the time, hopped on board. Within days, he was all-in, preaching the wisdom of its CEO and all the lessons he had learned to be a successful business owner with only a few short VHS tapes (and initial investment, of course).

Look it up. Equinox was nothing more than your standard Multi-Level Marketing scam. A less-dignified Mary Kay. Glorified pill salesmen. Nobody outside of Equinox would ever see a penny of their labors, and within a few years, the entire operation was exposed as a fraud and the FTC catapulted them out of the United States to the tune of $40,000,000. The MLM game is a Hydra with an infinite number of heads, but Equinox (and my household) couldn't escape the flood of their own bullshit.

Again, I was 13, and there wasn't a single second throughout the entire ordeal where I didn't think this was the biggest crock I had ever seen in my life. I was never the smartest kid in the world, but I had to watch a lot of adults around me make really, really stupid decisions for many years while I kept my mouth shut as a rule of general elder respect. It wasn't just Equinox, it was a proverbial Scam Buffet of Pyramid Schemes, psychics, lemon cars, real estate and food dehydrators.

Point is this: Adults were supposed to be there to tell me that TV couldn't be trusted, but in reality, TV was there to tell me that adults couldn't be trusted.

Shows like SNL parodied infomercials on a weekly basis. Mystery Science Theater 3000 told me I should never accept what was given to me simply because it existed and had a point of view. The Simpsons satirized organized religion and always made a point to remind you that adults were incompetent at every turn and did not have the answers. The true secret of Adulthood was that everyone was making it up as they went along, and nobody had any goddamn idea what they were doing. I am now 34 years old, and I am doing the same exact thing.

The Idiot Box. The thing that made you stupid. The thing that adults told me would flood my psyche with nonsense. The thing that was supposed to ruin my vision. Truth is, TV allowed me to actively see through the bullshit and reminded me that I wasn't alone with these thoughts (cheaper than Acid, I guess). It wasn’t bad to question everything and not just settle for what was out there. In fact, it had to be done, because most people were not doing it.

In retrospect, the Food Dehydrator was pretty dope.