Lost Issue: US Television, Elsewhere

A really old issue of Radio Times

Yesterday, at the local supermarket, a line on the cover of Radio Times caught my eye: “The new Desperate Housewives is here!” Since Housewives was the last—come to think of it, the only—dramatic series I had been following since moving here to Britain from the US, I was sufficiently intrigued to do a double-take. Yes, that’s what it said. Then I scratched my head in momentary puzzlement: A new season already, I thought, how could that be? As it turns out (and I tend to read carelessly at times) the line referred to the series Lost, which is being touted, somewhat misleadingly, as the newest US ratings champ in search of a British audience.

Lost, indeed! That show had its US premiere in September 2004. What took Channel 4 so long to land it? This might have meant smooth sailing in the days of Gilligan’s Island; but in an age of online piracy and file sharing, when motion pictures are tossed into the market in near-global simultaneity to counter ticket sales erosion, eleven months at sea seems a dangerously prolonged journey. It’s already been regurgitated on the web and neatly logged for me over at TV.com. So, why hop aboard now?

I grew up with second-hand culture. A TV-crazed kid in my native Germany, I very rarely watched any locally produced programs. Cartoons aside, my earliest memories include watching Hoppla Lucy(Here’s Lucy), Familie Feuerstein(The Flintstones), Lieber Onkel Bill (Family Affair) DieBezaubernde Jeannie (I Dream of Jeannie), Raumschiff Enterprise (Star Trek), and, somewhat later, Drei Jungen und drei Mädchen (The Brady Bunch). All shows were dubbed, of course, but the production values—the home of the Bradys alone—told me that these shows had not been thrown together in my backyard. Although the Bradys were notoriously unfashionable, I took these hand-me-downs gladly.

That didn’t change much during the shoulder-pads decade, when Alexis Carrington Colby Dexter vamped herself to the top of the ratings in Denver Clan (as Dynasty was known in Germany). What did change was that I began to realize I was looking at preserved goods not quite as fresh as they were advertised to me (no, I’m not talking Joan Collins here). The tabloids were already giving away plot developments and cast changes for the months to come and what was left for me to do was to speculate just how the convoluted storylines would end up where I knew they would eventually go.

Melodrama thrives on foreshadowing and you-know-it’s-coming signposting; but these inside scoops were no markers woven into the fabric of the plot. It was almost like watching Psycho after reading Truffaut’s seminal Hitchcock interview—it was impossible for me really to see it for the first time. The experience was second-hand and I was almost forced to be distant and analytic in my reading, rather than engrossed. The feeling that I was untouched by something millions elsewhere had reveled in began to irk me.

Watching US television in the US, I experienced a sense of sharing, of participating in broadcasting events as they were unfolded to the public, even though the fictions I followed were no longer televised live. Now, I once again get the impression that I’m being dealt seconds. Pouting, I decided that, next week, when Lost comes along I’m not going to stand on the pier to watch this inaugural-seasoned vessel dock or sink.

So, when I got home from the market, I put aside the Radio Times, picked up a DVD, and settled down to watch The Shanghai Cobra from my Charlie Chan collection. Old hat and third rate, to be sure, but at least it wasn’t peddled to me as dernier cri.

Listening Away; or, Sound and Soli[ci]tude

Well, I missed Live 8 this weekend; or it missed me, rather. These days, I seem to be catching up with the world instead of living in it. Images of the present are all around me; but they flicker in a sphere of some remove, while the sounds of the past, close up and intimate, continue to envelop and move me. The world of today often appears to be a realm apart, not a reality that is part of me. Even if it calls out to me, I can barely be reached for comment.

So, the spectacle of Live 8 has passed me by. Of course, mass-mediated fund-raising efforts and public appeals are nothing new; they certainly precede television. There was good old Kate Smith, for instance, who raised millions for defense on US radio during the war loan drives of the 1940s. US programs like the Treasury Star Parade staged plays expressly for the purpose of raising awareness—and plenty of dough. Not long after VJ Day, public service announcements encouraged listeners to assist financially in the rebuilding of Europe, to give to those who, not too long ago, were to be thought of as adversaries, as evil incarnate.

War and peace propaganda aside, radio audiences were often urged to contribute to their communities and be socially responsible; they were reminded that careful listening meant responding and interacting, even though the actions to be taken were dictated to them. Undoubtedly, Live 8 is creating the greatest gathering of people in need of a latter-day Borrioboola Gha—an entire continent deserving of their aid, providing said far-away and its miseries will remain distant.

I recall the Band Aid efforts of 1985; I was enjoying the idea of being part of a great musical bloc party, but never thought much about the cause behind it nor made any contribution other than showing up. Today, making a spontaneous donation is as easy as pressing a button on your mobile phone; but can the televised images of spoiled pop stars and starving children assist in making Africa become more familiar, in making millions elsewhere matter here?

Can an image say more than a thousand uttered sounds? Supposedly, the fleeting sounds of live radio appeal to the emotion much more than print or visual media, which encourage closer scrutiny and permit reexamination—the remove of reason. Radio, it has been argued by McLuhan and his followers, is a fascist medium; it unifies by infiltrating the mind and by stirring each listener singly. It is the great sonic leveler—browbeating, cajoling, indoctrinating.

The aural medium strikes me as a more immediate, more readily suggestive propagandistic tool than other mass media. Sure, television or computer screens, too, can reach the multitude-as-individuals with whatever messages are being conveyed; but the eye, opening up a world, keeps it at a distance. We look on, stare or gawk at something other than ourselves; even our own image, once televised or screened, becomes strange to us.

Unlike the eye, my ear brings the world home, making even the infinite seem intimate. Whatever “eager droppings” spill over the “porches of my ear” melt into me, become me. I take sound in, am taken in, and, thus taken, carried away—by force and by choice—from the image empire of today. I am listening, away.

A Soundscape of Britain?

A few days ago I went to the Tate Gallery in London to see A Picture of Britain. This exhibition of paintings, coinciding with a BBC television series, did not exactly get rave reviews. Critics complained that the real Britain was, for the most part, left out of the picture. The works on display mainly feature idyllic representations of what Britain could be or ought to be, according to followers of the Picturesque or romantically inclined artists. In short, plenty of nature, little naturalism. I wonder how A Soundscape of Britain would turn out, if ever there were such a showcase devoted to national noise. What would be the representative sounds of Britain?

In the US, during radio’s so-called golden age, the Columbia Workshop and the later CBS Radio Workshop offered listeners aural snapshots and panoramas of New York, London, and Paris. “A Portrait of London,” for instance, which aired over CBS on 20 July 1956, took listeners to Big Ben, the city zoo, and Buckingham Palace, with Sarah Churchill (daughter of the former Prime Minister) serving as tour guide.

A few weeks earlier (7 July 1956), the Workshop had taken tuners-in to Paris, while “The Sounds of a Nation” (18 November 1956) sonically evoked the history of the United States. Some twenty years earlier, the Columbia Workshop had presented a “Broadway Evening” (25 July 1936), a noisy report from the bustling Big Apple. Other such programs include “Crosstown Manhattan” (8 December 1938) and Norman Corwin’s “New York: A Tapestry for Radio” (14 May 1944).

While more concerned with the spoken word than with the creation of collages in sound, Corwin conducted frequent experiments in bringing faraway places home to the radio audience with travelogue series like An American in England (1942) and Passport for Adams (1943), as well as the ambitious documentary One World Flight (1947), which consisted of interviews and recorded sounds from actual locations in Italy, India, and Australia.

Corwin’s travelogues did not simply revel in sound qua spectacle; they were propagandistic or didactic in nature, designed to glean messages from or impose meaning on bits and bites of sound. As Alexander Pope once put it, the “sound must seem an echo to the sense.” How, then, could one make sense of Britain through sound? What, besides the tolling of Big Ben, or the water gurgling in the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain (pictured above), or the chirping of robins, or the roaring North sea, or raindrops falling on hedgerows, might be A Soundscape of Britain?

Many years ago, visiting New York City for the first time, I walked through the streets of Manhattan to capture the sounds of the sirens, the pedestrians on the pavement, the honking of cars and the hollering of cabbies during rush hour. It gave me immense pleasure listening to these recordings back in the misery that was my home across the Atlantic. I could drown out the silence and loneliness in ways that a few pictures in my photo album could not accomplish. I have always loved wrapping myself in sound’s cape, escaping in sound . . .

“. . . and a small herd of morons”: Fred Allen on Jerrybuilt Entertainment

This morning, The Springer Show had its UK debut on ITV1.  It is the beginning of a limited run of talkshows (if you can call them that) hosted by super-smug US schlockmeister Jerry Springer.  Even though it is recorded at the Granada studios in Manchester, one wonders in what ways this Mancunian version could possibly differ from the Chicago-based original—accents, hairstyles, and chav wear excepting.  Will locals recognize each other and compete over who is going to be trashiest? Sounds like John Waters’s Baltimore.  At least, it would be community service.

Springer recently derided UK television for being “ten years behind” stateside entertainment.  Might that be a compliment? Is it even an accurate assessment, given that many of the post-Springer reality formats—shows that make Jerry seem quaint—were developed in the UK?

No doubt the UK Springer season was greenlighted in response to the highly controversial but hugely successful London production of Jerry Springer—The Opera, which aired earlier this year on BBC1 to a storm of protests. Given the reawakening of the religious right in the West, Springer might still be able to push some holier-than-thou buttons, sanctimonious as his own curtain call commentaries are. Still, it all seems so old hat.

Some fifty years ago, US radio comedian and satirist Fred Allen (1894-1956) had this to say about so-called reality shows, which “became popular with the sponsors long before the listeners at home were conditioned to them,” programs that

appealed to the businessman because they were cheap. Reduced to essentials, a quiz show required one master of ceremonies, preferably with prominent teeth, two underpaid girls to do the research and supply the quiz questions and a small herd of morons, stampeded in the studio audience and rounded up at the microphone to compete for prizes. The prizes generally [. . .] were donated by their makers in return for a mention of their merchandise on the program.

The audience-participation show varied slightly. This pseudo-entertainment consisted of a covey of frowsy housewives, flushed at a neighborhood supermarket, and an assortment of tottering male extroverts gathered from park benches. The purpose of the program was to establish the senility of the participants in the process of playing an antiquated parlor game. These shows not only were inexpensive—some of them became very popular, which justified their existence in advertising and corporate circles.

The commercials have gotten longer, the attention span shorter, and the vocabulary smaller—but the “herd of morons” is forever flocking to the trough.  By the way, just how long do the commercial breaks have to get until we all refuse to chomp? Meanwhile, Fred Allen’s wit is alive and well worth our time.   Just listen to recordings of his popular comedy-variety series to discover how he, along with a small herd of writers that at one time included novelist Herman Wouk, tickled and uplifted the multitude with a verbal virtuosity rarely attempted, let alone achieved, by today’s television entertainers.