March 6, 2019

The "It's About TV" Interview: Fred Smith, the man behind YouTube's "FredFlix"

If you've spent any time at all watching classic television videos on YouTube, you've probably seen the work of Fred Smith, aka FredFlix. His videos, which run the gamut from television to movies to celebrities to commercials (and celebrity commercials) and are, by turns, funny, nostalgic, and even poignant, are guaranteed to result in at least one "I remember that!" comment per minute.

I've been a fan of FredFlix for a long time, and recently I had the chance to get to know Fred better. and to find out more about the programming genius behind the greatest television network around, WFLS. I'm confident you'll enjoy this look as well!

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It's About TV: At the end of each video, you announce that you're not a network, just a guy. I'd say you're selling yourself short there, but tell us a little about this guy.

Fred Smith: I'm a 64-year-old single father who's retired from the newspaper business. I wrote a daily TV column for The Post in Courier (the oldest daily newspaper in the South) in Charleston, SC, from 1978 to 1984. I was then the paper's chief film critic from 1984 to 1991. I also was a copy editor and award-winning page designer. I'm the author of The Occidental Husband, a comical memoir about my marriage to a Chinese woman. It's available at EveningPost Books (cheap plug for a cheap book).

I've always enjoyed making videos as a hobby. I started even before video, making Super 8 home movies with plots and special effects. (For one movie we filmed the end first and everything backwards; then showed it backwards so it would appear forward.)

When I bought my first Betamax in 1977 (for the still-outrageous price of $1,300) I started recording TV and stringing clips together. I tortured my friends for years by making them watch my "productions."

As the computer age evolved I somehow got tech savvy enough to use computer software to edit my videos. Then one day in 2014 I noticed the "upload" button on YouTube. The rest is history.

The obvious question, at least to me - where on earth did you get such a huge collection of video odds and ends, much of which (network promos, for example) probably hasn't been seen since it first aired?

I have a collection of close to 7,000 TV episodes from the '50s and '60s alone. I have about 2,000 movies from all eras. I have complete collections of Popeye, Looney Tunes, Three Stooges and all manner of cult fare. I have probably 2,000 vintage commercials. The various odds and ends, as you call them, come from my collecting interesting video tidbits for over 40 years. I have over 1,200 music clips from the '50s to the '80s that I can't run on YT (in full) due to copyright restrictions.
However, when making a video, if I don't have a clip I need, I don't mind downloading it from YouTube. YT clips make up about 25 percent of FredFlix videos.

Have you always been a fan of "classic" television and movies, or have you simply kept a soft spot in your heart for the things you grew up with?

I do have a soft spot for the things I grew up with, as most of us do. But movies, TV, comics and music WERE better back then.That's not just my opinion. Historians will tell you that the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s was a special time for American pop culture. It was also a time when, for the most part, the father made enough money without the mother having to work. Kids were not stuck in daycare after school. They played outside (with real games, not virtual ones) without supervision and when they came home they had a home-cooked meal instead of fast food. The family ate at the table without devices and actually talked. And when you went to school the next day, everyone was talking about the same show because there were only three channels. It was a great time to be a kid.

Your series of "Day in the Life" videos goes back in time to show how you spent a particular day growing up—TV shows, stories, movies, all kinds of wonderful things that bring back memories for anyone who was around during that era. How did you get the idea to do that, and what was it like putting these memories together?

I got the idea because I probably think about my childhood too much, particularly the culture. So I made a four-part series covering the four seasons through different years. I didn't think anyone would care but those videos touched a nerve and became my most popular videos. So, I stared making more. I don't mind admitting they are all random memories. I put them together into one day to create a coherent story. As far as what it's like putting the videos together, it's a lot of fun and I get transported back just like the viewer.

It’s the first time you really interject yourself into your videos, and as it goes on, you interject some very personal recollections as well—your father’s suicide, an eating disorder. What made you decide to get that personal and was it a difficult decision to make?

It was a little it difficult but I didn't want all of the day in the Life series to be sweetness and light. That's not how life is. Actually, I've only touched on some of the tragedies and failures in my life. But that's as far as I'm going to go. Some things are better left unsaid. The last one about my eating disorder was made several months before I posted it. I didn't know how people would react to it. But the comments have been overwhelmingly positive. And my goal, as always, has been to make them not so much about my life, but what life was like back then; the products we used, the shows we watched, the music we listened to the things we did.

Do you have a favorite video, one that you’ve done that you sit back afterward and think that this really said what you wanted to say, or one that you just really get a kick out of watching, that brings back a lot of good memories?

I do watch my own videos, because I only make videos that interest me. My favorites are anything with good music. I can watch those over and over. But I have trouble keeping them on YouTube because of copyright restrictions. There is a 50-year span from the mid-1930s to the mid-1980s during which popular music was brilliant and will never be topped. I'm including everything from movie theme to hard rock.

One of your most recent videos takes a look at classic movie and television networks that have, for lack of a better word on my part, betrayed their original mission—networks like American Movie Classics and TV Land. That really presses my buttons, because I see these networks as starting out with something really different, and now they’ve all pretty much blended together. I mean, how many different stations have to carry In the Heat of the Night? And do you really need to see five or six episodes of NCIS back-to-back-to-back?

I don't blame the networks because their Baby Boomer audience is dying out and Generation X or whatever is taking over. I get it. Showing stuff from the '80s and '90s is nostalgia fare for the younger generation. They're fine with it because they grew up with it. I didn't.

What gets me is that you take some of these shows, they’re shown twice a day, back-to-back, five days a week. At that rate, a series that produced 100 episodes, the benchmark for going into syndication, you go through the entire run of the series in about ten weeks, which means, if you choose, you can watch every episode five times a year. Is that really what people want, or is this just lazy programming?

Well, I think the people running the networks are scared and they've run out of ideas. There are so many channels and options, the audience is fragmented and leaving cable altogether so they just really don't know what to do. And yes there is some lazy programming. But if you only need a million or so watchers, you can be lazy. In my day a million viewers wouldn't cut it. Not even 10 million.

You mention that these changes don’t necessarily make the networks better or worse, just different from what they were. But there must be one of those changes that really burned you up!

AMC going to commercials bothered me the most and commercials in general are a horror show in themselves. Especially on the channels that cater to the senior set: They're all for Viagra and catheters and "Phil Swift here for crazy glue." it's very annoying and we probably now get only 20 minutes of show and 10 minutes of commercials. There oughtta be a law. And there probably is. What I do now is I deliberately go on my computer or take a shower (often at the same time...ha ha) and then I come back to the show and use my DVR to go back to the beginning. Then I skip past the commercials. It's the only way I can stand to watch.

You use the lyric “The World We Knew” a lot—do you feel as if this a world that no longer exists? And do you think movies and TV shows are getting better, as some people think, or has the quality fallen off from the world we knew?

The world I cover on FredFlix no longer exists. In some ways that's bad and some ways it's good. Movies have gotten worse by a lot. Where are the fresh ideas? it's all milking something that's already been done. But if you pick your TV carefully, there's a lot of great stuff out there. But none of it is as special as the TV shows of the '50s, '60s and '70s were to my generation. First of all, with only three networks, you had to be good to get on. Then there was the sense of community. Everyone watched the same thing. Lastly, shows came and were gone. No home recording. You didn't decide what to watch when. THEY decided.

Is there anything you’d still really like to see, a kind of Holy Grail video that you might have heard about but has eluded you so far?

Little by little, all the old shows, commercials, movies, music, etc. I remembered so fondly have found there way into my grubby little hands. Some clips and themes I waited 30 or 40 years for. There is one commercial about a "summer cold" by Contac featuring a balloon type monster in a field...that has eluded me. "A summer cold is a different animal, an ugly animal, it hits you in the stomach when you've got lots to do" went the lyrics. I can't find it.

Out of everything, do you have a favorite show, a favorite singer, movie, actor, actress?

Sure. Favorite old show was The Outer Limits. Newer show; Seinfeld. Recent show: Breaking Bad. Other shows: Rifleman, Star Trek, Adventures of Superman...so many. Untouchables. Monday Night Football. SNL. Movies: Mad Mad World, Clockwork Orange, A Hard Day's Night, Black Lagoon, Enter the Dragon, Sweet Smell of Success, among many others. Singer: Sinatra. Band: Beatles. Comic book artist: Jack Kirby (I have another channel on YT devoted solely to him called Kirby Continuum). Actors: Bogart, Jack Nicholson, Vincent Price, Robert Culp, Nick Nolte, McQueen, many more. As for actresses, I have to admit it's mostly about their looks.

Finally, what’s in store for WFLS in the future? Something spectacular that we can look forward to?

I've got 60 videos waiting in line. The ideas come faster than I can make them. I don't know where the ideas come from. I'll be driving and like, I'll think, Hmmm... Tall Tales of the 1960s. I made that yesterday. I like to make the comedy ones even though they don't get a lot of views. I really enjoy mashing up trailers such as Creature From the Blue Lagoon and The Incredible Shrinking Ant Man. But few people watch those. They want serious tributes to their past icons. Anyway, I've got a special month coming with "The 31 Days of FredFlix" for March 2019. A new video every day that month.

Fred, you’ve given us hours of viewing pleasure over the years, as well as bringing back happy memories of our own, and I’m sure I speak for everyone out there that subscribes to your YouTube channel when I thank you for allowing us to relive those times of our lives.

Well, Mitchell, I never imagined I'd get to 50,000 subscribers. FredFlix has taken on a life of it's own. It's sort of a big responsibility now. People want good videos and I don't want to disappoint them. So I'm working harder than ever but it's a challenge I like and it's been very rewarding. I always read the comments. I try to answer everyone who has a question or just says "Thank you." I appreciate it.

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Thanks again, Fred; what a pleasure talking with you. What an interesting man, don't you think? Nostalgic, but a dry-eyed realist at the same time. I thoroughly enjoyed this interview, and learning more about what goes into putting everything together. I hope you enjoyed it as well, and if you're not already subscribing to FredFlix—well, what are you waiting for? TV  

5 comments:

  1. Great interview with a great guy. I've been viewing Fred's videos with old commercials, promos, etc., and more recently I've enjoyed his "Day in the Life" videos, where he's brought back poignant memories from his past and mixed them with some great music.

    Fred's also, like you & me, a big TV GUIDE collector, and he has a great base of knowledge about the magazine. Since he's older than you & I, he has more memories of the great tv that's gone now, but as you stated in a previous column, "The Past Brought to You by the Present", it's still available for our review thanks to modern technology & the Internet. As far as the changing missions of tv cable networks go, I'm most disappointed in the changes in TV Land & GSN, but Me-TV & Buzzr still show a level of respect for what we used to enjoy on tv, and they continue to share it with us now.

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  2. Thanks for this great interview! Fred Flix is one of my favorites....

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  3. Fred, I was born march 28, 1955 in Atlanta GA. Had not thought about some of your stuff in a long while although I have many, many memories of that great time to be a kid. Still have my Schwinn Sting-Ray bike and Aurora HO scale slot cars. Great stuff you have put together. Ross Billingsley

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  4. Fred, are you on Facebook? Will you ever show your face? I haven't watched all your videos but I have alot of them. You and I had a similar upbringing. Me born in 53, Nashville. Anyways, I'm so sorry about your dad. He sounded like mine. Mine went to a barn to get tools for who knows, and got bit by a black widow spider. He lived but it scared us kids (myself and two brothers). We had a local "pop" owned store, after dad lost job because he only had a 3rd grade education, Jack let us run $worth of credit until he found another one.
    Heck,I could talk all day.
    If you want to email feel free.
    You may be "just a guy really" but you have entertained me with great memories of my own. It's a great present for any baby boomers..like me. Thanks, Kathy G

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  5. just want to thank you for doing this for us baby boomers it's so good to see all these videos. I miss this world we had.

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!