Thursday, June 30, 2011

I do to youtube what UHF used to do to me.

It seems that youtube, a website you may have heard of, is a kind of spiritual successor to what low rent and late night television was pre-informercial. Well, at least the way I use it. Seems to me the only way to really indulge that time-wasting URL is with open ended mazes of related clips of old glitchy ephemera. Essentially anything recorded originally on video tape, then converted to digital. Most other shit I don't care about, but if you get into the good stuff, it's maze like . And what kind of stuff was originally taped by video enthusiasts and then posted on da web? Some home videos, but mostly weird shit from TV! And their used to be a lot of weird shit on TV, sometimes right in plain view, other times squished to the margins. And generally, the odder the airtime, the odder the programming. I'm pretty sure it still so happens that most television channels switch to a block of paid for advertisements in the wee hours. That or a repeat of the daytime programming. I don't have cable, so I'm basing this on my visits to the abode of the 'rents and their 500 channels. I wonder what the Bruce Springsteen of 89 would have thought of 559 channels and nothin's on, but I digress. Back when broadcast television was the norm and cable was the exception, most stations (broadcast and cable) went off the air. Preceding and following that nothing was another weird sort of nothing. This was television for the not-worth-it. And so the cheapest programming available was the standard of late night broadcast television. Late night movies became synonymous with the forgotten or unsellable. "The Late Show" and "The Late Late Show" were cultural signifiers of the insomniac, or the obsessive movie fan who needed to see that old piece of celluloid that no one sane cared about anymore. Movies were sold to stations in packages, with more tantalizing titles at the top and the unsellable tacked on the bottom. when else to show Zontar but when no one but miscreants were watching? This seems akin to the current cultural idea of the late night internet rat. Y'know, nerdy, sleepless and lonely. The main difference, obviously was that it was a oneway info-feed.
"The Late Show" as it was popularly known, was a format used by network television to provide affordable filler for said insomniacs and movie buffs. Affordable=cheap! CBS called this "The CBS Late Movie" which ran from 1972 to 1993, being a network and all, the programming tended to be a bit classier than the smaller stations. Along with the expected horror films (including The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, The Valley of the Gwangi) current TV movies and reruns of contemporary prime time CBS shows. The other networks left these "Late Show" programs in the hands of affiliates, with varying names e.g. The Bedtime Movie in KTTV in Los Angeles.

For UHF stations the daytime was cruddy enough as these were independently owned stations without powerful broadcast signals and little money to spend on what was beamed to the masses. They had their own package movie programs for Prime Time and Weekends which was where the top their stuff went, so you can imagine what was put out on air in the early morning or late night, when only lowlives were watching. (Of course this ties in with the phenomena of the local Horror Movie Hosts which is covered in depth in the great documentary American Scary. I also wasn't exposed to such hosts back in the day (UGH) so I won't go into that here).
Sign offs, test patterns and static filled the wee-est of the hours, but bottom of the barrel flix after the main feature and rubbish cartoons at 6am book ended the negative zone with hard to trace ephemera. All of these stations had a sign off time which made the return of SOMETHING, ANYTHING to be special. When you can't sleep at your friend's cableless slumber party and the television does nothing but throw snow at you, you are gonna be pretty fucking happy when any goddamned thing comes on the air. And thus, when something did finally show up on that cathode ray, you watched it. Or I watched it, at my friends' slumber party, in league with some angry loners and unemployable folk. This often meant (especially on Sunday) local public affairs shows. Not fun to watch, but I sat there anyway. Sort of reminds me of the way I sit and stare at my computer screen sometimes looking for some abstract digi-human contact.

Any connection with something alive felt good when all of your annoying friends were snoring with cheezball induced bellyaches 10 feet from you. You might also come across sitcoms you weren't aware existed or cartoons that seemed to have originated from another planet. This kind of seemingly interplanetary cartoon exposure might have blown me away had it not been for the fact that cartoons from who-the-fuck-knows populated most of the morning and afternoon blocks of the local UHF stations...along with public affairs programs and old sitcoms. It was just that at 6am, the otherworldiness was bit more extreme. The beauty of UHF was that it was semi batshit even in it's prime hours. This is how I grew up, watching Boston's WLVI 56, WSBK 38 and WFXT 25 (and that mysterious channel 66). Being a young clueless kid in the 80s, I didn't realize that a lot of my favorite shows were from the 70s. I dug the hot current live-action shows like Knight Rider, Diff'rent Strokes and A-Team but I connected alot more with the re-runs being played on the UHF stations like Three's Company, The Brady Bunch and Good Times. In contrast to how those shows and others from the 70s became linked to a specific nostalgia, I had no idea they were old or incongruous with current trends. This lack of recognition of the period of origin of fave showz was even more intense with cartoon reruns. A big part of this was that many of the hottest new cartoons were playing in syndication on UHF channels completely in the mix with "picked up for cheap" relics from the past. In this way you the viewers cultural collage was picked out for them. This stream of consciousness folded in on itself with the airing of Looney Tunes and Rocky and Bullwinkle which were fast paced mind fucks on their own! What was a young mind to make of all this besides revel in it? Well, revel in it, I did...thank god.

This also worked with the movies, as I was lucky enough to be a viewer of the weekday afternoon program "Creature Double Feature." This was WLVI's double feature of late-night monster movies, but aired just after the network Saturday Morning Cartoons ended. In other words it was the perfect schedule for young couch potatoes like myself. I was scared out of my wits 6 year old watching Japanese rubber suit monster movies and creaky old mummy movies, and it was fucking great. Again, I had no idea that these movies came from another time or another place beyond that mysterious realm of weirdo TV. It was a twilight zone, essentially. Weird how they use a little of Emerson, Lake and Palmer's "Toccata" for the theme. Did they get permission?

With state of the art televisions being out of the price range of many American families, a lot of us non-cable households were stuck with dials and no remote control. This meant that changing channels required dedication and a sense of purpose. And when you have only 6 other stations, channel 56 is probably gonna be your best bet anyway. So we were fed our stimuli, and we (or at least I) thoroughly absorbed it. The scattershot images received, from refracted and nebulous origins helped create a neurological hive of ghostly transmissions. I'm freely willing to admit that my exposure to such stimuli was in my formative years and so, probably a bit inflated in the contrast to anyone other than myself, but whattayagonnado? The strangest phenomena of all in the realm of UHF for me personally was the use of Public Service Announcements especially by the aforementioned WLVI 56. FCC regulations of the day required a set amount of time set aside for public service, a standard that has been eroded to nearly nothing once the Communications Bill of 1996 was signed into law. Broadcasters had usually dealt with this regulation by relegating the public service programming to a time when they knew very few were watching, a la "The CBS Late Movie." This is why we had locally produced public affairs shows playing out on early Sunday morning as I mentioned earlier. WLVI seemed to take a different tact, which was to play PSA's during their mid-morning and afternoon cartoon block. What made this so strange was that a few of these spots were contemporary, most were recycled from the late 60s and onward. This created a stark contrast when some puppets shot in grainy late 60s style were telling you to save electricity during a commercial break from the latest episode of The Transformers. Many questions abounded the head of young WLVI viewers...who were these puppets? Where did they come from? Why are they telling me to shut off my record player before leaving the house? Why does this look so different from Masters of the Universe adverts? The stealthiness of these relics was of course increased when they existed amongst such contemporary PSA action like a break dancing werewolf telling you to eat school lunch and robo-anthropomorphic foodstuffs teaching nutrition. What was new and what was old? And more importantly; what does it mean to be modern and what does it mean to be old? Watching the old cartoons amidst the new (and still digging them!) made you wonder why kids at school weren't carrying Herculoids or Mr. Magoo lunch boxes. It wasn't until I was an adult that I realized that the episodes of the Bozo the Clown show that I watched so feverishly as a tiny person were actually taped in 15 years before I had seen them, though my envy of the kid contestants as they fought for the treasure chest full of toys and giant Tootsie Roll was as in the moment as the quickly soggifying bowl of cheerios in front of my 3 year old self. The blend of the new and the ancient made for a certain delicious combination that sets a fire my belly all these years later.

As cable became more popular, the stream of consciousness became much more in the hands of the viewer. The cable box and it's companion remote control was for me and most everyone I knew the first way in which a viewer could sit on a couch and aimlessly switch around stations. Yes, a big appeal of cable was the leaving behind of the knobs and surrendering the large console to the tiny box with buttons and a digital display. Now, this is really where the youtube comparison comes into play. I don't know about you, but when I go on that there website, I get sent on a mystical journey not so much determined by purpose, but by a flow of images. I look up one thing, and then tempted by another image on the sidebar I click, sent on another voyage. Now in parallel with other UHF stations needing cheap programs, such is the case with a lot of cable stations. The difference being that with cable, you had a viewer guide channel that would tell you what you were watching and what was up next, and what was on all the other channels...if you had the patience to sit and watch the slow text scrawl. In the daylight hours, one could generally use this information to center yourself: "Yes, I am paying for a children's station called Nickelodeon and they are playing a pretty weird British Sci-Fi show called 'The Third Eye.' Seems odd, but I will look for something more suited to my taste." Once the nighttime comes, the viewer is on his/her own, a voyager amidst the detritus of human entertainment. In the daytime and prime-time, you knew your fellow man was awake also basking in the glow of the warming box. But at 2am, what a creep you are! Trolling for softcore porn and only finding nudity in low rent drama's or teen sex comedies, you are the leaky crust of humanity and you feel alone and disturbed. This isn't like the old days where the networks and the UHF stations signed off! Some of these cable stations stay on all night, and what the fuck is this movie playing? Often at night, the channel guide scroll wouldn't be too accurate or complete. WTF, awesome! And just like UHF on a large scale you had a cavalcade of old and new shows that first and foremost forced the "WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS?" question.

Most exciting though, was the USA Network's program Night Flight which unfortunately I have only experienced recently on tape and on youtube. The late night show ran for long blocks (four hours for a majority of it's run) from 1981 to 1988. A syndicated version ran in the 90s, but I don't recall seeing it in any of the stations in my Cablevision package. Night Flight took an underground approach to twilight TV, playing oddball animated shorts, cult films (like Fantastic Planet!), new wave and punk videos, and tons of the other stuff all mashed together. It's a real trip and I highly reccomend checking it out. When it left the air, it was replaced by USA's Up All Night which was my source for weird/crappy movies when I was a teenager throughout the 90s, which was a real boon to me, but I really wish I saw Night Flight as a runt.

Well, of course what happened was that the cheapest available programming for anyone was programming that paid to be there, which where infomercials came in. Back when these things first started appearing I watched them often, laughing at how suckers must be born every nanosecond if the sales pitches were working. But I must have been right about the nanosecond thing, cuz these half hour shit-spiels filled vast amounts of programming space. And shit, it was the same couple of fucking product pitches over and over. Where once was the untraceable, was now the homogenized.
This is youtube, or at least how I experience it. All alone, late at night, looking at images that seem to have been ignored for decades. The mouse is the remote control to the cable box of sad mysteries and grainy educational puppets. Sneaking upon the hidden domain of film-making efforts forgotten with reason. Forgotten because they wanted to be forgotten. They live in the late night like ghosts haunting a castle hallway. Creeps like myself keeping the memory alive by continuing to look. Does the element of control in the hands of the viewer take away or give more to the experience? I'm not so sure. It definitely seems less magical in a way, but I'm sure that a lot of this has to do with my age, being an old codger of 32 now. But the magic is lingering. Maybe it's just that I choose to look at such things on this here website that gives me the same feeling, but hell, when I'm on here I'm possessed to look at such things. In fact I often find myself on the computer in the dark lonely hours, looking at the PSA's that were the staple of WLVI. Maybe I'm just the crazy one.
T hat being said, I'm still try to keep the magic alive, as are the freaks who take the time to digitize and upload their old tapes to the web. Even I'm too lazy to do that! And I have a lot of tapes!


1 comment:

charlie charlie whiskey said...

I watched Night Flight back in the early 80's...a time when HBO actually 'signed off' at night.