June 26, 2011

Nick Charles, R.I.P.

The battle ended Saturday for Nick Charles, the longtime "Sports Tonight" anchor for CNN, who was finallly claimed by The Big C. Story here. I wrote about him earlier this year here. Not really much to add, except that I always enjoyed his work, liked him as far as I could know him through the small screen, liked him that much more as I read about him, and take solace in the thought that finally his pain and suffering is over. Safe journeys.

UPDATE: One reason I didn't write more: Joe Posnanski, who would make any such effort appear even more feeble.

June 23, 2011

Jon Miller, then and now

Baseball fans recognize Jon Miller as the longtime voice (until this season) of ESPN's Sunday night telecasts, as well as the play-by-play man for the Baltimore Orioles (formerly), and the San Francisco Giants (currently). As baseball announcers go, he's one of the best.

But how many knew that at one time, Jon Miller was the voice of American soccer? I sure didn't, until I came across this footage* of Miller broadcasting the North American Soccer League (NASL) game of the week for TVS in 1978.

*Not that you can actually go directly to it. TVS's online archives don't give you a share link, so you have to go here, page down to "Soccer," and select one of the NASL games. This one, in case you're really interested, was San Jose vs. Los Angeles.

A few notes on TVS: the TVS (for TeleVision Sports) Sports Network, founded in 1960, was best-known as the dominant syndicated sports network in the business, having come of age with its telecast of the historic Houston-UCLA basketball game in 1968. For many years TVS was the national home of college basketball, providing regional coverage of almost every major conference, as well as broadcasting the first round of the NCAA tournament. But that wasn't all TVS did: in 1973, they went to China with a team of college basketball all-stars; in 1974 they covered the fledling World Football League, they picked up the rights to several college bowl games along the way, and eventually entered into a joint production arrangement with NBC to provide national coverage of college basketball, an arrangement that ended when CBS won the rights to the tournament.  TVS itself disappeared from the scene when founder Eddie Einhorn moved on to CBS, and later to ownership of the Chicago White Sox.  I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that, as a kid who loved sports and loved television, I loved TVS. They always broadcast the games I played in my imagination.

And now, a few observations on our soccer match:
  1. Jon Miller had a lot more hair back then. And a little less face. But then don't we all?
  2. If you watch the video, you'll notice Miller consistently refers to the upcoming match as a "ball game." Any soccer fan will tell you that this is akin to calling the Mona Lisa a "chick." But in their efforts to sell Americans on this foreign sport, I'm sure Miller was told to make it as American-sounding as possible.
  3. But Paul Gardner, I always thought, was a very good commentator.
  4. The American brand of soccer at that time was quite different from the rest of the world. The offside rule, for example. Today's MLS plays by the international rules, which I think is for the best.
  5. On the other hand, they've got a pretty good crowd there, no? We have to remember that back in the late 70s, when Pele and Beckenbauer and Chinaglia led the way, soccer was a pretty hot sport in this country. It didn't last, though - the roots weren't that deep. For all that, I think the sport in America is probably stronger than ever.
  6. The 70s really were a bad time, weren't they?

June 14, 2011

Conference Who, or "Haven't I seen you somewhere before?"

You may have seen this recently, but it seems as if the Mountain West athletic conference has introduced a new logo, to capitalize on the new image they want to create with several new schools (including football power Boise State) joining the conference.  Here's a look at the new logo, along with the one it replaced:

Now, if that new logo seems slightly familiar to you, let me draw your attention toward the British Isles (or BBCAmerica, at least):

Hmm. Interesting, huh? Of course, I'm not the only person who's noticed this, nor found it somewhat ironic. I guess imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But when you're doing battle with a Time Lord, it's probably best to remember that anyone who can go back in time can surely wreck havoc with your conference.

To be fair, however, we should recall that this isn't the first time something like this has happened.

June 10, 2011

Interview: JFK assassination archivist David Von Pein

It is often said that television truly came of age with its coverage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I think that can be a bit overstated, but there's no question that, almost 50 years later, the "As It Happened" coverage, coming as it did like a lightning bolt out of the blue of an ordinary Friday afternoon in November, remains absolutely riveting.

Until the advent of YouTube, access to this video coverage, which tells you the story in a way totally unlike the history book or the newspaper, was relatively hard to come by, limited mostly to video traders and online dealers. Today, however, anyone can call up hours of footage, not only from the three networks but also from local television and radio.

Of the various sites devoted to the JFK assassination, few come with the video treasure that can be found on the sites run by David Von Pein. An outspoken believer (as am I) that Lee Harvey Oswald was the one and only assassin of Kennedy, Von Pein has amassed an incredible amount of video history on JFK - not just the assassination, but various tributes, documentaries and movies, not to mention rarely seen clips from Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign. As someone who has spent more than a few hours with my own JFK collection, I thought David would be an outstanding choice for the inaugural It's About TV interview.

Q: David, thanks first of all for your time. We're going to be talking about collecting old television shows on DVD, because you have an amazing collection, not just of the JFK assassination, but all kinds of TV series and movies. Do your friends and family think you’re kind of, uh, nuts for doing this? Because I know some of the looks I get, I have to go into this long academic discussion about how this is all historical research, in order to justify what is probably really a guilty pleasure.

A: No, I don't think my family thinks I'm TOTALLY crazy. Just a LITTLE bit. ~wink~ My brother, in fact, runs a fairly popular TV website himself. You can find it here. He was kind enough to link to some of my sites from his "Showcase" TV website (even a page for my JFK stuff).

June 6, 2011

Philip Glass on Sesame Street? (1979)

The blog Brain Pickings isn't a television site per se, but as a culture blog it strays into television from time to time, and we've linked to it over at Our Word. So I couldn't pass up this article on Philip Glass' collaboration with Seseame Street in 1979.

Philip Glass is one of the most contemporary of contemporary composers. I'm not the fan of his that Maria is (nor am I a fan of Sesame Street*, but that's for another day), but I find some of his work quite extraordinary, particularly his opera Satyagraha, which I'm really looking forward to seeing on a Met Opera broadcast next season. (He's also a very engaging personality when interviewed, which helps.)  He's done music for movies, and probably even for television commericals, but I didn't know he'd worked with Seseame Street before. Perhaps it was all just part of a plot to turn our children into minimalists, or maybe it was all a hypnotic spell with some secret message contained (Bauhaus is good!), but I think it's still OK to have fun with it. Here's the last of the four pieces - it is striking, isn't it?

*Not including the Muppets.  Particularly Ernie and Bert. And Cookie Monster. I'm a big fan of them.

June 3, 2011

The ABC Evening News, circa 1969-1970

For some reason, I've found myself watching a good number of news videos on YouTube lately, which (as you might expect) means a lot of them will probably find their way to the blog. They're fascinating to watch not only to show how much things have changed, but how much they've stayed the same.

Take these promo pieces for the ABC Evening News. Many of you probably haven't seen them before; not many people watched the evening news on ABC back in the day. The two news giants, NBC and CBS, had dominated coverage for years, with NBC's Chet Huntley and David Brinkley leading the way up through the mid-60s, and Walter Cronkite steering CBS into first place by the end of the decade.

In response, ABC tried a number of things, all of them failures. John Daly (of What's My Line? fame) anchored the news up to 1960; Ron Cochrane was there through JFK's assassination; Peter Jennings, at 26, became the anchor in 1965, and was still there when the 15-minute broadcast expanded to a half-hour in 1967 (three years after the other two networks had done so). Bob Young, Frank Reynolds, and Howard K. Smith followed.  When Chet Huntley retired from NBC in 1970, ABC must have thought they had an opportunity to make inroads, and they hired Harry Reasoner away from CBS.  Later, they would team Reasoner with Barbara Walters in a disasterous match, before finally striking gold in the late 70s when Roone Arledge came from the sports side to take command.

The first clip here is probably from 1969, when Reynolds and Smith were the anchor team. Very fast-paced, quick-cutting, perhaps an attempt to demonstrate vitality in the face of the warhorses at CBS and NBC.

The second clip would likely be from 1970 or so, when Reasoner had come over from CBS to replace Reynolds. The graphics are quite similar, the music connotates the seriousness of news. This news means business!

The point here is not just to take a look back, although that's always a lot of fun (and a great timewaster). But look at the headlines that the 1969 clip uses: Congress and taxes are right at the top; for Vietnam and Cambodia, you can substitute Iraq and Afghanistan, and Israel and Egypt are still in the news. Back then "Liberation" stood for women's lib, but today it could be gay marriage. The USSR is called Russia today, but they still dominate world affairs, as does China with the world economy. The Mideast is still a complete mess, "Ecology" is now the environment and it's even bigger than it was then, and how many predicted abortion would become as dominant as it is today? The economy, Holy War, politics - the whole friggin' thing is still the same! Some of the old issues have disappeared, replaced by new ones, but what's sobering is that for the most part we're still fighting the same battles we were fighting 40 years ago.

That's not really meant to sound depressing. What it really means is that history is what it is, as is human nature. The danger is that utopians try to tell us that the world's problems, or at least some of them, can be solved, when history tells us they probably can't. Lyndon Johnson thought he could wipe out poverty in ten years, Richard Nixon declared the economy could be managed to ensure continued growth, Jimmy Carter tried to bring peace to the Mideast in our time. Oftentimes the social engineering policies of the government produce the very problems they were designed to solve, or at least create ones that hadn't been foreseen.

Of course these issues are still with us. Nature, and the news cycle, abhors a vacuum. It doesn't mean we shouldn't continue to try to solve our problems - indeed, we must - but there is no such thing as heaven on earth. So when you look at these clips and think how little has changed, ask yourself this: should we really be surprised?

June 1, 2011

So what does TV do to you?

A couple of weeks ago, Ben Berger put up a provocative article on National Review Online entitled "Tocqueville and the Tube," and since this deals with both television and culture, I suppose I ought to have a few thoughts on it. And, of course, I do.

In parsing an article like this, one needs to avoid two assumptions. The first, on the part of the writer, is that television is all-bad, or at least a necessary evil to be watched as little as possible. The other, on the part of the reader, is to assume that every serious article written about television is going to bash it.*

*Which reminds me of an old Peanuts cartoon - Lucy is reading an article about television, and asks Linus if he agrees with the premise that TV can be harmful to your health. His reply: "I don't know - I've never had one fall on me."

Berger's start is not promissing on either level.  He begins with a flat declaration: "Television makes us fat, lazy, inattentive, unsociable, mistrustful, materialistic — and unhappy about all of that. It cheapens political discourse, weakens family ties, prevents face-to-face socializing, and exposes kids to sex and inures them to violence." I notice he didn't include the national debt, the bad weather in the South, or the rise of Bin Laden - but perhaps I wasn't reading closely enough.

OK, so I'm being a little flip there. Truth is, I agree with much of what Berger says in that paragraph - with reservations.  Like most things, television itself is neither good nor evil, but neutral. The same goes for watching television. Yes, you can watch too much, in the same way that you can eat too much chocolate, or spend too much time in the sun. The effects aren't going to be good for you.

Television is best used not as replacement, but as an augmentation, for human interaction, if you allow the exchange of information that one gets from television to become an interpersonal, interactive activity. I've often argued that I learned more from watching Alistair Cooke's brilliant television series America than I did from the high school classes I was taking at the same time. A smart teacher (of which there weren't many in the high school I attended) might have found out a way to integrate that program into the classroom, to use it as a springboard for learning and discussion about topics that Cooke didn't cover.

Berger does not deny that the quality of television you watch can make a difference, acknowledging that "moderate viewing is not so bad" (and that "[h]igh-quality programs may enrich us,") - but the problem is that we do not watch in moderation. "According to the Nielsen Company, in 2009 the average American watched more TV per day (over five hours) than ever before." But was not thus always the case? The March 18, 1961 issue of TV Guide notes that according to a Nielsen survey in January 1961, "people in the average home put in six hours a day in front of their TV sets. This is the highest level in three years, just short of the all-time peak of six hours, six minutes which was hit two months in a row in 1958."

Now, I suppose there are subtleties embedded in these statistics. For example, we seem to work longer hours that we did in the 50s and 60s, and more women have jobs today than they did then, which means we may be spending a larger percentage of our disposable time in front of the tube. And there's no denying that families don't watch TV together the way they used to, which when added to the likelihood that every room in the home has a television leads one to suspect that our six hours a day are in fact spent alone, or at least with fewer people around us than there used to be. The DVR, and the introduction of "on demand" viewing, makes the shared experience of television one step further removed.

Hmm. Suddenly, I seem to have talked my way into agreeing with Berger, or at least part of his premise. And from there, of course, things get more complicated.