I’ve been up at the unplugged cottage the past few days. It’s a good place to put things in perspective — including the strange phenomenon known as summer television.
The simple wood frame cottage was built by my dad and his builder buddy over 70 years ago in 1947. That very year was the dawn of broadcast network television, when TV shows were first scheduled for the hundreds (mainly in New York) who had receivers.
The cottage has been upgraded with an inexpensive flat screen but there is no cable or dish attached. An antenna has been bought off Amazon. It was tested about a week ago and showed hope of pulling signals from Michigan across Lake Huron. Look for a report on that adventure as soon as I get a steady enough ladder.
In the meantime, the only things to watch at present on TV at the cottage are dozens of DVD box sets. Hill Street Blues from Shout! Factory is a favourite and still as binge-able now as anything on Netflix. Man, amidst the chaos of a police precinct, that beautiful counsellor and the Pizza Man worked in a surprising number of hotel room lunch breaks.
Another thing I just watched — again — was “The Beatles First U.S. Visit,” the brilliant 1964 documentary by the Maysles brothers. Hard to believe just one brother on camera and one on sound captured so much of The Beatles’ historic march through America. It seems like there had to be a crew of at least 20.
On the commentary, cameraman Albert Maysles says it wasn’t anything to do with some mid-‘60s technical breakthrough that made the pair’s fly-on-the-wall documentary so intimate. (Quite the opposite — the duo’s camera and audio recorder were synchronized by a pair of matching wrist watches.) It was simple good old fashioned empathy. He and his brothers really liked these four lads from Liverpool. Trust was established on the run. An instant bond was formed. Maysles stuck to available light to minimize the intrusion of the camera into normal life. John, Paul, George and Ringo wanted to share this mid-century madness with Albert and David and an unforgettable record of the moment was the result.
Early in the doc, John Lennon was asked at that first airport press conference the secret to his group’s success. Lennon’s famous quip that, “If we knew that, we’d form another group and become managers,” made front pages throughout North America.
That quote came back to me as I returned to Brampton and jumped back into the full cable television universe. NBC’s new music reality show Songland was viewed. The venture is very similar to CTV ‘s The Launch, a series championed by the Canadian broadcaster’s top programming executive and former Universal Music chief Randy Lennox. Lennox pulled every music string he could to launch The Launch, ignoring much evidence that the air has gone out of the star search balloon. Despite a ton of promotion, the series was largely ignored in Canada.
Hard to get excited about Songland, either, even with big name music talent such as John Legend, Meghan Traynor and the Jonas Brothers (along with Ryan Tedder, who worked both Songland and The Launch) on board. As with The Launch, it just seems harder to convince a seen-it-all by now TV audience — despite thousands of iTune orders placed by desperate record companies — that a hit song has just been created when nobody remembers the song five minutes after the episode has aired.
Lennon’s remark was true: if we knew the formula for success or stardom we’d form another group and be managers. All the spin and promotion in the world won’t fool all of the people all of the time.
The other show I witnessed Wednesday night was one where Ellen DeGeneres, playing her Game of Games, was quizzing people stuck in a big glass tower. When the contestants would fumble a simple question, Ellen would press a button and the folks would plummet several meters to some off-screen air bag.
Ellen, for example, asked one dude to locate somebody’s “pie hole.” The man suggested it was in the butt. This answer was much saucier 50 years ago on The Newlywed Game. The man was flushed down to said air bag.
Now, I get it: summer is the silly season. We’re all looking for mindless distractions to take our minds off the mindless distraction in chief in Washington. I watch, and laugh at, Match Game. Many of these other shows simply aren’t aimed at me.
Take Love Island, picked up in Canada by CTV. Last October in Cannes during the annual international TV trade show MIPCOM I was invited into the ITV pavilion to mingle with the nubile young stars of the hit Brit version of this forced relationship reality series. The message being sold was that this was the next Big Brother and better get on-board the titilation train.
Well, the train was left at the station in America. Love Island is more like Lonely Island, with just 2.68 million catching the premiere last week on CBS. That’s the same lacklustre total, by the way, who were counted as watching Ellen’s Game of Games the same week. Songland also failed to launch, drawing a shockingly low 1.59 million American viewers and a 0.3 rating.
Looks like I’m not the only one who’d rather be at the cottage this summer.