Category Archives: Television

A 1950s TV Western Inadvertently Predicts Donald Trump and His Wall

trackdownby Legendary Lew

The 1950s TV series “Trackdown” is about to be pulled from the obscurity of an ocean of TV westerns airing in the 1950s and 60s to conspiracy theory heaven.

One episode of the show, “The End of the World,” airing in 1958 was discovered by Marcy Brafman to have some strange unintentional connections to today’s politics.

In the episode, a traveling huckster named Trump (played by Lawrence Dobkin) warns the villagers of a Texas town that the Earth’s end is near unless they follow his advice–building a wall around their homes!

Further deepening the creepy factor is that Dobkin’s character has a slight resemblance to the president-elect’s father, Fred Trump, about whom Woody Guthrie wrote a scathing tune. That song is “Old Man Trump” and has a reference to “Trump’s Tower.”

(l.to r.) Lawrence Dobkin playing "Trump" and the real Fred Trump

(l.to r.) Lawrence Dobkin playing “Trump” and the real Fred Trump

 

Watch the condensed version of the show below. The TV show Trump was stopped by Texas Ranger Toby Gilman (Robert Culp), but in the deepest of ironies, television boosted another one to the highest office in the land.

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Chris Wallace’s Reaction to Trump’s Intelligence Briefing Question is One for the Media Ages

by Legendary Lew

Donald Trump’s interview on Fox News Sunday is noted because he stated he’s a “smart person” in response to criticism that he doesn’t want daily intelligent briefings. However, that part, to me, is not what’s going to live on in my mind forever. It’ll be host Chris Wallace’s reaction.

A little history of news anchor reactions. Here’s Frank Reynolds of ABC News just learning that Reagan was indeed wounded in a 1981 assassination attempt (earlier reports stated the bullet missed him):

And here’s Walter Cronkite’s reaction to man landing on the moon:

Wallace’s reaction could have been missed if you weren’t paying attention, so I’m here to help you out. This is a screenshot of the Fox News Sunday host at the very moment Donald Trump told him daily briefings were unnecessary because of his own personal intelligence:

chriswallacedread

This is a face of near total regret for ever having to carry water for Fox News only to lead to this moment.

This is a face of a man who desperately wants to scream, run around the studio and pull his hair out by the roots.

This is a face of existential dread.

This is a face that should launch a thousand memes, so I began the process.

donaldtrumpcalled

 

 

 

 

 

Boy, oh boy, this is going to be one interesting week.

Hey everyone, the GoFundMe for us is still going on until the end of the year, so if you’d like to contribute to our equipment fundraiser, please feel free and spread the word. It will continue for the rest of the year. Thanks for all your continued support!

Here is our GoFundMe link: www.gofundme.com/HelpTUGM

 

 

Netflix Can’t Duplicate Anything from the Video Store Experience

Chicago's Odd Obsession Movies, one of the indie video stores still surviving despite Netflix and cable

Chicago’s Odd Obsession Movies, one of the indie video stores still surviving despite Netflix and cable

by Legendary Lew

Film School Rejects recently posted an interesting article by Colin Biggs, who advises Netflix to take on staff recommendations for movies instead of relying on analytics for viewer’s next entertainment choices. It’s an interesting idea and one that Netflix could perhaps give serious consideration.

I’m a former personal video consultant (yes, that was actually the title of the job I had at a video store) of almost twenty years in three different video stores. I’ve helped film and TV fans choose entertainment from 1998-2016. One of the three video stores I’ve worked in failed miserably and closed in less than two years. The other two  struggle to keep on, but they have done so, even while Blockbuster Video has collapsed all around them. So I think I can give some insight regarding Netflix and having paid employees make thoughtful recommendations to customers.

My main thought on this is, “It’ll probably suck.”  Why? Allow me to give several reasons for what would be an almost certain failure:

1.  Netflix was Built on Dehumanizing the Viewing Experience

You can argue that Blockbuster Video separated viewers from the movie theater, but Netflix took the idea one step further in this ingenious, creepy ad. Note how the Netflix customer sits comfortably, relaxed and alone in his chair while various unfocused others in the background scramble to reach the video store that shutters and darkens like a prison.

Of course, there could never be a mention that you could actually meet other film fans face-to-face in video stores or that, due to different circumstances, late fees could always be negotiated or waived. I’ve done that plenty of times to keep customers.

This personal viewer isolation was definitely in Netflix’s DNA–so much so that you could not phone nor visit Netflix regarding DVDs lost or broken in the mail. You could only email to unseen, unheard associates. Even if you wanted to work at one of Netflix’s distribution centers  across the country, finding their locations was like a search for government hangars performing interplanetary alien autopsies.

2. Any Paid Video Consultants Would Probably Not Be Allowed the Freedom to Suggest Their Own Movies and TV Choices

Netflix is now in the business of producing streamed entertainment. Despite strong attempts to de-emphasize their rent-by-mail service, the company still offers it and acknowledges the die-hards who stick to it. However, DVD subscriber membership is dropping yearly to less than 5 million today–down from almost 15 million in 2011.

Thus, it should be no surprise when DVD.com (Netflix’s mailing service) releases a YouTube ad in April and garners less than 700 hits in five months. Note how the approach is much more subdued than the 2004 ad above. There’s even a lack of voice over. Stay awake if you can.

If Netflix were to hire its own “personal viewing consultants” to guide you through different choices, what do you think the chances are they will compel employees to suggest only Netflix programming? If they are like any other place I worked for that had competition, those chances are pretty darn high.  You can also bet those unlucky consultants could only suggest what’s currently available:

“Sorry, Mrs. Haggerfield. We love that movie too and highly suggest it. However, we just removed that film from our catalog yesterday.”

Suddenly, Mrs. Haggerfield feels no less frustrated than the late video return customers in that 2004 ad.

3. Video “Clerks” Would Need to be Redefined and Respected

This point is most crucial. I will always contend that Blockbuster Video’s greatest failure was not its powerlessness against Netflix and cable. It was the lack of good, expert customer service. Yes, I am sure that many former Blockbuster clerks knew their stuff, handled unruly customers well and were competent retail employees.

However, Blockbuster Video did not value the extra knowledge of eclectic or rare finds. It didn’t make much sense for me as an employee to apply my expertise on films if a similarly positioned co-worker had no idea who the world famous filmmaker Fellini was. Knowing the “top ten” movies and having enough new releases to please every customer was enough. Eventually, though, any film fan with an ounce of curiosity will seek out something different, and the Big Blue was ill-prepared for that.

With media becoming cheaper to produce, many more independent works are being created. It’s truly impossible for anyone alive to take in all good movies and TV shows, so the knowledge of unknown or unappreciated works has more worth. Consuming so many different films from different countries over the span of 100+ years takes an enormous amount of time and money. Theater ticket prices are expensive. Include Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon, HBO and a host of other online/cable offerings and it all adds up. (No wonder piracy is popular). Paying a college-aged clerk minimum wage won’t cut it. Nor is it respectful of customers’ demands.

One reason Biggs’ suggestion falls short is because there’s no mention of the context in which films are viewed. As a personal video consultant, I had to answer questions like, “What film would you recommend as a suitable Halloween movie for my two sons aged 10 years and younger?” This was an actual request I fulfilled for actress Joan Cusack. (She and I eventually agreed that Jason and the Argonauts was good for her adventure-seeking boys). I’ve had rental requests for DJ dance parties, Thanksgiving family entertainment, dating–straight and gay, art galleries, business meetings, depression cures, frat parties, teachers’ research projects and more. These specific types of demands are the ones that really test you.

So what would Netflix need to have satisfactory staff recommendations? It would need very well-paid experts on different genres of film. Those persons would take no other responsibilities for Netflix, except to watch as many films/TV show  in their designated categories as possible. They would need to have the freedom to suggest works Netflix doesn’t carry, but another service might. They would need to know local independent films with limited DVD/online releases. And they would need excellent customer service savvy to care about each individual’s particular need. Netflix has a legendary business growth plan currently, but given its past history with vast catalog mail rentals, they would be foolish to try inching back. You’d be better off going to independent video stores that survived the Netflix onslaught.

lew-win_20160713_205425Legendary Lew is the co-founder of The Underground Multiplex and former personal video consultant of almost 20 years. He’s a writer, producer and host of the podcast “Mediatrocities” and the upcoming “Vital Media” series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

RIP James Best, Actor on “The Dukes of Hazzard” and Cult Favorite, “The Killer Shrews”

The late James Best, more than just Roscoe

The late James Best, more than just Roscoe

by Legendary Lew

James Best, the actor most known for playing the hapless Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane on “The Dukes of Hazzard” TV show, died at the age of 88.

Despite his playing a southern hick in one of the most pointless TV series ever to exist, Best was actually pretty influential outside the set as a well-respected acting teacher, especially of motion picture acting techniques. He ran a Hollywood school of this type of acting, supposedly the first of its kind, in the 1970s and ran it for 25 years, working with such people as Teri Garr, Burt Reynolds and Quentin Tarantino.

But the most fun watching James Best was as the lead in the ubiquitously found public domain horror film, “The Killer Shrews,” which co-starred legendary Hollywood director Sidney Lumet’s father, the Yiddish theater great Baruch Lumet and also “Gunsmoke” regular/horror film director Ken Curtis.  You know that movie–the one with fur pasted on the tails and snouts of dogs to make them look like gigantic rodents?  Haven’t seen it? Well, here it is. Enjoy:

Remembering Leonard Nimoy’s Other Great TV Series

isonimoy1by Legendary Lew

When you bring to life one of the most indelible characters in the history of television, it’s tough to come up with an encore.  Leonard Nimoy, who will forever be known for his portrayal of Mr. Spock in the original “Star Trek” series and franchise, had a decent follow-up for two years on “Mission: Impossible” after the sci-fi series was cancelled. He even had a fine memorable role in a very good remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1978.

But the befitting subsequent TV series for the man with the great authoritative baritone was “In Search of,” the syndicated hit TV series which had its primary run from 1976-1982.  As the narrator, Nimoy presented examinations into strange occurrences and phenomena, such as The Bermuda Triangle disappearances or the discovery of Atlantis. It was a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream.

What I loved about “In Search of” was that all the topics were given equal weight, regardless of perceived veracity, whether it was climate change (mentioned in those terms back in 1978!) or Bigfoot. One of my favorites was the search into The Amityville Horror, the story of which was discovered to be completely bogus.

That particular episode began (as all of them did) with the famed intro:

“This series presents information based in part on theory and conjecture. The producer’s purpose is to suggest some possible explanations, but not necessarily the only ones, to the mysteries we will examine.”

With scenes of the recent hit horror film, The Amityville Horror, playing as background, Nimoy states seriously:

Most people think The Amityville Horror is a good, scary ghost story…what is not commonly known is that the film is actually based on fact. It is a true story.

I love me some good hucksterism and this particular episode, as some others, were hearty entertaining laughs. I just about lost it when the great Nimoy, describing the weirdness of the house, delivers the following solemn line:

“then they puzzled over a toilet that, when flushed…”

The sentence is unfinished. Instead, on the screen we see an opaque liquid make a flooded mess of the bathroom floor.

This series was a sort of continuation of the conspiracy exploitation genre, which pumped out popular 1970s movies like Beyond and Back and The Lincoln Conspiracy.  “In Search Of” was like a mini-version of those movies made better by editing out the fat that the feature films would leave in.

Leonard Nimoy’s performance as Spock was so transformative for him as a performer that he could record several albums of badly sung music and narrate an exploitative TV series without ever doing damage to his career. In fact, they simply added to his legend.

Watch the unintentionally hilarious “In Search of” episode, “The Amityville Horror”:

Comcast to Chicago’s Public Access TV Stations: Just DIE Already…Like the Other Thirteen We’ve Killed Off

comcast2

by Legendary Lew

The deadline has now passed for the extension of Comcast’s contract for CAN-TV and no agreement has been reached. This means that CAN-TV is in great danger of being shut down like thirteen other stations in Illinois that Comcast allowed to die.

Executive Director of CAN-TV Barbara Popovic and Kartemquin Film‘s Gordon Quinn were recently on WBEZ’s Morning Shift discussing the conflict:

Comcast is not doing you a favor by providing public access TV stations. It is fulfilling an obligation. This is most important to remember when discussing the issue of funding these low-fi stations. Comcast is candy-coating their press releases with the usual language of how they are best working with local communities to provide crucial programming for them while at the same time allowing stations to close in Illinois over the last decade.

This attempt to veer away from public responsibility is nothing new. I’ve produced and directed public access TV shows in Rochester, NY back in 1994 and I can tell you the major cable company there at the time,Time Warner, fought tooth and nail to keep from their commitments to provide public access TV stations. They finally had to relent to public pressure due, in part, to the public’s low opinion of their service. Sound familiar?

Adding insult to injury, the conglomerates, when they finally did oblige and provide stations, routinely saddled them with outdated equipment prone to constant breakdown and insufficient staffing for training and public outreach. These are money-stuffed giants willing to provide only the bare minimum for local communities to have active voices on the air and then claiming they exist to provide “choices” for subscribers. It might be cute and quaint for public access TV shows to look like “Wayne’s World,” but the lack of technical aesthetic with the stations is not an accident. It’s by design. Cable conglomerates do not want public access TV shows to compete with paid programming, because they think what Honey Boo Boo does is much more important to you than what your local elected officials do.

With today’s technology, independently produced media can muster up great and important television on public access. CAN-TV provides such programming. I’m a proud board member of Elephant and Worm TV, a public access show that was nominated for a local Emmy last year for outstanding children’s programming. An Emmy-nominated public access TV show may seem extraordinary, but it could become more common if stations were allowed to upgrade. All of Elephant and Worm’s videos presented to CAN-TV actually had to be downgraded for television broadcast.

Would it really cut into Comcast’s massive profits to help upgrade stations to HD, instead of keeping them more than a decade out of date? They’ve done so in Portland, OR. Why not here? Does Comcast think public access TV stations are part of the ratings game? Comcast is gutter-dwelling in customer service rankings and taking on an evil reputation for their bids to “fast-track” the internet. You would think they would want to do right by the public after we allow them to run their infrastructure in our communities and pay nothing to us for the privilege. But then, you may be thinking more of your local community than Comcast is.

 

 

 

Is Comcast Trying to Kill Chicago’s Public Access TV Stations?

Comcast

by Legendary Lew

Comcast is Chicago’s largest cable provider and wants to renew a 10-year contract with the city. Part of the licensing renewal agreement, if agreeable to the city of Chicago, would be to provide air space on their spectrum for public access.

This has always been a pesky little matter for cable giants, because providing public access stations gets in the way of important things like profits from vital, universe-changing programming like Duck Dynasty or disputing reports of their incredibly low-ranking customer service ratings.

Well, negotiations for a renewal, including budgeting for CAN-TV (Chicago’s public access TV stations) have now been going on for over a year with no agreement. Seriously. Comcast can’t seem to get it together enough to promise to do right for Chicago with a guaranteed budget to keep CAN-TV operating. The current contract with Comcast was extended for three months and expires on June 15, 2014.

That means that, conceivably, Chicago could be without public access channels after that date. This would be a travesty and would totally undermine the original goals of serving the public interest promised by the cable companies.

Comcast made $6.82 billion last year. Current operating costs for CAN-TV run about $2.7 million dollars total. The cable companies don’t even provide all that money, some of it comes from fundraising and donations, etc.

Even if cable companies were to provide all the $2.7 million. That means in terms of just Comcast’s income alone from last year, it would amount to .04% of those earnings.  This is a pittance to ensure a great service for the community.

Forty-three Aldermen signed a petition to Comcast asking the cable company to stop dragging its feet and provide for the services Chicago needs to keep CAN-TV operating at its best potential.

In a time when the cable giant is willing to put up the bucks to purchase Time Warner for $45 billion for a super cable conglomerate, it’s ludicrous to believe Comcast can’t cough up enough to provide basic, vital community programming for its local viewers.

As part of the production team of the Emmy-nominated Elephant and Worm TV show (my public disclosure), I’d like to call on others to join CAN-TV in contacting and thanking their Alderman for taking the right stance with Comcast. You can find the list of those who signed the petition here. (Find your Alderman here). If your Alderman did not sign, please ask him/her to do so.

Also, call CAN-TV and tell them you support their programming and ask how you can help. They need to hear from you, Chicago, if you value the true choices in programming that the cable lobby always promises the public.