Special Feature: The stories behind each chapter title
Copyright © 2016 by Walter J. Podrazik and Harry Castleman (see also authors’ bios)
Each chapter of Watching TV captures the essence of its slice of history by focusing on key programs, personalities, and events of that era.
To set the tone, the individual chapter titles themselves are a mix of allusions to pop culture, literature, music, and history. As an online special feature (not appearing in the book itself), here’s a peek behind each chapter title.
Introduction: “Three Stars in the East”
To open the entire book, this title conveys a sense of a significant moment in history by lifting and mixing images from the Christian tradition surrounding the birth of Jesus. The story is of the three “magi” (kings) following a star in the East to the location of “the new king of the world.” Here, the arrival of a new U.S. President, Lucille Ball’s real life son, and the fictional Lucy Ricardo’s son within one twenty-four-hour period in 1953 symbolizes a pivotal moment in pop culture history.
Chapter 1: “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise”
Title is a reference to the 1919 song “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise” (words by Eugene Lockhart; music by Ernest Seitz), originally popularized by Isham Jones and John Steel in the early 1920s, and then revived in 1951 as a chart-topping success by Les Paul and Mary Ford. Here the symbolism refers to a world waiting for a revolution in communication technology.
Chapter 2: “Shadows in the Cave”
Title alludes to Plato’s concept of how difficult it is to understand a situation by simply looking at shadows cast on a wall, rather than seeing the participants directly. Without seeing things first hand, you can only guess the details. At the beginning of the television era, people had no idea how TV would turn out and so were similarly in the dark. The title also appropriately reflects the fuzzy, indistinct, and shadowy images that filled the TV screens in the early experimental days.
Chapter 3: “The Dawn”
Straightforward reference to the beginning (the dawning) of the new TV era.
Chapter 4. 1944-45 Season: “We Want to Find Out First Where TV’s Goin’”
Title is a quote from James C. Petrillo, president of the American Federation of Musicians, explaining the reason for banning all television appearances by his union musicians. The line also captures a more general mix of curiosity and skepticism in the very early TV age, as individuals wondered just what this new medium would deliver.
Chapter 5. 1945-46 Season: “After the Storm”
Title is evocative of a sense of calm following the end of World War II. Now, anything can happen. So, too, after the stormy start-and-stop beginnings of television. Though still in its early days, television is starting to learn what works. And that people will watch.
Chapter 6. 1946-47 Season: “TV Gets the Green Light”
Title refers to the practical effect of a March 1947 FCC ruling that, in effect, opened the floodgates for TV growth. The FCC said that CBS’s proposed system for color broadcasts (in the UHF range, channels 14 to 83) was not yet ready for commercial use and thus black and white transmissions could continue on channels 2 through 13 for the foreseeable future. This was taken by businesses as a “green light” for aggressive investment and growth.
Chapter 7. 1947-48 Season: “Vaudeville Is Back”
The William Morris talent agency used the title wording as its headline in a May 1948 ad placed in Variety touting plans for the Texaco Star Theater, which (hosted by Milton Berle) became television’s first big smash. The phrase is also a reference to the style of comedy-variety used in that show. Vaudeville style entertainment had long been considered passé on stage, but with television it was back, in millions of TV homes.
Chapter 8. 1948-49 Season: “The Freeze”
Straightforward reference to the action by the FCC “freezing” station applications while working out a variety of technical issues. The flip side comes in Chapter 11 with “The Thaw.”
Chapter 9. 1949-50 Season: “Behind the Ion Curtain”
Title plays with the cold war phrase “behind the iron curtain,” which referred to the political line of demarcation at the time that divided Europe between the Communist forces of the Soviet Union and the Western democracies. In a completely different arena, there was a technical divide in the U.S., a technical “ion curtain” between those cities that had television stations and those that did not.
Chapter 10. 1950-51 Season: “What’s My Crime?”
The question in the title applies to two different situations in the chapter. First, those affected by blacklisting could ask that question in puzzlement and frustration because they often faced guilt by mere accusation. The second is a play on the title of the popular game show “What’s My Line?” and alludes to the evasive nature of the figures called to testify before the Senate committee holding televised hearings on crime, in a setting not all that different from the “mystery guests” on the game show.
Chapter 11. 1951-52 Season: “The Thaw”
The FCC ends its freeze on processing station applications (begun in Chapter 8, “The Freeze”), opening the door for the next great spurt of growth for television.
Chapter 12. 1952-53 Season: “Grade-B TV”
In the pre-TV glory days of Hollywood, the film studios churned out a high volume of less expensive, formula movies to fill screen time in between the front line titles. These second-tier offerings were known in the industry as “Grade-B” films. By the early 1950s, the TV industry had begun to copy that same concept, with filmed series such as Fireside Theater plugged in more to fill a slot than to compete as top shelf material.
Chapter 13. 1953-54 Season: “Point of Order”
During the much-publicized Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 (which were all televised live), Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy frequently interrupted other Senators by raising arguably procedural objections, using the parliamentary term “point of order.” McCarthy used the phrase so much that it became a national catch-phrase meant to imply that McCarthy was more interested in making his own points than in addressing any mistake in procedure.
Chapter 14. 1954-55 Season: “Showbiz in a Hurry”
This was the season in which NBC’s Pat Weaver presented his latest plan to invigorate television, the “spectacular” broadcasts. These consisted of mammoth ninety-minute theatrical and variety productions (averaging about one per week) all aired live. The title is a colloquial expression describing the general method of turning out such “spectaculars” so quickly and so often.
Chapter 15. 1955-56 Season: “The Road to Reruns”
In the 1940s, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby starred in a series of light-weight comedy-adventure films which all used “The Road to…” format in their title (beginning with “The Road to Singapore” in 1940). The chapter title is a play on those movie titles, alluding to the fact that the television industry was abandoning its live New York roots and moving towards a more film-based Hollywood production focus. Practically speaking, filmed series could be easily rerun over and over again, to help defray the costs of production.
Chapter 16. 1956-57 Season: “It’s Been a Tremendous Strain”
The title is based on a quote from quiz show contestant Charles Van Doren just after he was dethroned as champion on NBC’s Twenty-One. The quote is symbolic for three reasons. First, at the time, it would seem odd for someone who earned so much money and fame as Van Doren did to complain about the pressure of the quiz contests. Second, in hindsight, after the revelations emerged about how the shows’ producers rigged the outcome to keep Van Doren on the air, the quote almost seems like a subconscious admission of what Van Doren was really feeling during the time. Third, the quote is an apt summary of the effect of the rise and fall of quiz shows on the TV industry.
Chapter 17. 1957-58 Season: “Oh, Dem Oaters”
In Hollywood insider slang, Western films had often been dubbed “oaters,” referring to the oats on which the omnipresent horses usually munched. When Westerns began popping up on TV, the nickname came with them. The title is a rhetorical raised eyebrow at the sudden overload of Westerns that filled the TV schedules this season.
Chapter 18. 1958-59 Season: “Dotto Goes Blotto”
Entertainment industry publications such as Variety and the Hollywood Reporter have their own shorthand style, especially for headlines, which can be both blunt and lyrical. This title is in that spirit. Dotto was the first program to be taken off the air because of the erupting quiz show scandal. “Blotto” is a slang phrase that usually means being stinking drunk. Here, with poetic license, the word is used with a more general meaning of being out of service or ceasing to operate.
Chapter 19. 1959-60 Season: “Adventures in Syndication”
In 1959, ABC featured a bland filmed series, Adventures in Paradise, starring Gardner McKay (later referenced in the 1983 Jimmy Buffet song “We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us About”). While never particularly successful in its three-year network run, Adventures in Paradise subsequently turned up in local rerun syndication for almost twenty years after it left the air. It was a nearly timeless commodity. The series can also be seen as the harbinger of what far too many filmed (rather than live) television series would become: merely the filler that could be rerun endlessly around ever-changing lineups of commercials.
Chapter 20. 1960-61 Season: “The Vast Wasteland”
Newton Minow, Chairman of the FCC under President John F. Kennedy, coined perhaps the most famous phrase about the TV industry in his May 1961 address to broadcasting executives when he referred to it as a “vast wasteland.”
Chapter 21. 1961-62 Season: “I Still Have the Stench in My Nose”
A quote from Rhode Island Senator John Pastore, a vocal critic of what he saw as TV’s lax moral standards in the early 1960s. He was referring to being unable to shake from his memory the December 1961 episode of ABC’s Bus Stop that featured teen singing sensation Fabian as a crazed killer.
Chapter 22. 1962-63 Season: “CBS + RFD = $$$”
Another Variety style showbiz headline, boiling down the then current state of television into a simple mathematical equation about early 1960s TV. At the time, CBS’s aggressive mining of rural sitcom themes resulted in the network earning enormous profits, giving it the largest over-all lead in ratings throughout the day that any network had yet enjoyed. “RFD” stands for Rural Free Delivery, which was a U.S. Postal Service term from the end of the nineteenth century for the then-new concept of delivering mail to rural citizens free of charge, just like they did for city dwellers. CBS’s Andy Griffith Show (one of its original rural comedies) eventually was known as Mayberry R.F.D.
Chapter 23. 1963-64 Season: “Hands Across the Ocean”
Title refers to the British invasion of U.S. culture in the mid-1960s on multiple fronts: musically (led by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones), in movies (led by the James Bond films), and on television (led initially by spy series such as The Avengers and Secret Agent and, eventually, in U.S. hits such as All In The Family and Sanford and Son, modeled after U.K. series). As long-time fans of the Fab Four, we were also subliminally influenced by a “hands across the water” reference in Paul McCartney’s song “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” on his 1971 album Ram.
Chapter 24. 1964-65 Season: “The Unloved Messenger”
In ancient days, before direct communication between cities and regions, breaking news came to powerful leaders via messengers. According to storytelling tradition, there were instances in which rulers or military figures, angered by hearing bad news in this manner, would sometimes take out their frustrations by killing the messenger, although the messenger had no part in causing the calamity reported. This concept appears in such works as the Sophocles play “Oedipus Rex” and Shakespeare’s “Henry IV.” The analogy here is to the TV news industry that, in the mid-1960s, kept bringing unhappy news to the American people, whether it was about the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, or the changing social mores of the younger generation. It was at this point that the very presence of TV news began to be actively resented and disliked by many Americans.
Chapter 25. 1965-66 Season: “The Second Season”
A reference to ABC’s programming strategy initiated in January 1966, in which it replaced failed fall series with brand new programs in the winter, promoting them as if there was a brand new season beginning. ABC called this the “second season,” and the name stuck.
Chapter 26. 1966-67 Season: “Same Is the Name of the Game”
Conveying the same essential message as the title of Chapter 19, this refers to NBC’s “Fame Is the Name of the Game,” one of the first made-for TV movies (as Name of the Game, it later became a ninety-minute weekly series). While far better than Adventures in Paradise, “Fame Is the Name of the Game” did help pave the way for a slew of fairly interchangeable made-for-TV films that quickly became network programming staples.
Chapter 27. 1967-68 Season: “The Whole World Is Watching”
This was the chant of some protestors at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, well aware that reporters were filming the violent confrontations between them and the Chicago police force that was desperately attempting to keep order. The phrase succinctly captured the essence of the new world order in communication: a local event that previously would not have affected many outside the region where it occurred now could become a national (or even an international) phenomenon simply by being transmitted via television.
Chapter 28. 1968-69 Season: “The One Punch Season”
An industry nickname given to this season because of the pressure put on producers to reduce the violence in police and Western series. To counter the rise in criticism of the effects of TV violence, industry insiders complained, it seemed as if stories were effectively allowed just “one punch.”
Chapter 29. 1969-70 Season: “Effete and Impudent Snobs”
Vice President Spiro Agnew’s caustic description (delivered in November 1969) of the powers behind the TV news industry.
Chapter 30. 1970-71 Season: “Totally Committed and Completely Involved”
A variation on CBS’s incessant hyping of its silly fall 1970 series Storefront Lawyers. The phrase is also symbolic of TV’s fervent attempts this season to make it appear as if it were keeping up with the whirlwind of social change going on in America.
Chapter 31. 1971-72 Season: “Not Just Another Pretty Face”
A reference to the lead characters in such series as Cannon and Columbo, among the first successful departures from TV’s belief that all leading men (at least in cop/detective shows) had to embody the image of a classically handsome Hollywood star.
Chapter 32. 1972-73 Season: “Ideological Plugola”
Picking up on the sentiments expressed by Vice President Spiro Agnew (title of Chapter 29), this term is from President Richard Nixon’s aide Clay Whitehead, who was describing his view of the general content of TV network news and public affairs programming.
Chapter 33. 1973-74 Season: “The New Centurions”
Another nod to departures from Hollywood’s long-standing image of classically handsome and often flawless heroes (similar in spirit to the sentiments behind the title of Chapter 31). The reference here is to distinctive “new wave” crime fighters such as Kojak and Shaft, as well as to innovative series such as Police Story. The chapter title is literally taken from the title of a book (later turned into a movie) written by Los Angles policeman-turned-author Joseph Wambaugh, who created Police Story.
Chapter 34. 1974-75 Season: “Affirmative Access”
A play on words, combining two key concepts. One comes from the political term “affirmative action,” meant to describe steps government, educational institutions, and industry could take to advance the progress of previously-disadvantaged minorities. This was reflected in television in the mid-1970s by the growth of series starring minority performers. The other concept in the title refers to a new variation of the FCC’s “access’ rule, meant to increase opportunities for independent program producers. This season, it resulted in an effort by the government to mandate the types of programs that could fill a few segments of prime time.
Chapter 35. 1975-76 Season: “Freddie or Not?”
Wordplay on the children’s game phrase “ready or not?” Here, the question refers to whether or not ABC’s sudden rise to #1 ratings status was the result solely of the efforts of its new programming boss, Fred Silverman. Or was Silverman simply lucky in inheriting a lineup poised for success that just needed fine tuning?
Chapter 36. 1976-77 Season: “The Big Event”
Literally, the title refers to a new NBC series that season, The Big Event, a revival of the Pat Weaver “spectacular” concept from the 1950s. More elliptically, the title refers to ABC’s mega-hit Roots, which broke all TV ratings records over eight nights in early 1977, ensuring that ABC would win the season’s ratings contest while cementing the viability of the miniseries format.
Chapter 37. 1977-78 Season: “T & A TV”
In crude showbiz parlance (especially on stage and in movies), “T&A” refers to a low-brow style of entertainment featuring as much revealing comely feminine anatomy as it can get away with, focusing especially on chests and derrieres. Here, it is a swipe at one aspect of popular TV programming at the time, ranging from ABC’s Charlie’s Angels and Three’s Company to NBC’s soapy miniseries The Moneychangers and Aspen.
Chapter 38. 1978-79 Season: “Born Again Broadcasting”
The title is a reference to the apparent (and sudden) change of programming strategies by Fred Silverman upon leaving ABC for NBC. One of his first acts at his new network was to dump a planned sexy series on stewardesses for the medical documentary series Lifeline. This was not the Fred Silverman the TV industry had come to know. Instead, he seemed more like a reformed sinner, “born again” and embracing a new approach to TV.
Chapter 39. 1979-80 Season: “Gleam in the Eye”
Since the early 1950s, the CBS corporate symbol had been the “eye” logo, so the network was often dubbed the “Eye” in industry parlance. The title, then, refers to CBS’s stunning rebound in ratings performance this season (fueled by Dallas and The Dukes of Hazzard), as the network nosed out ABC in a down-to-the-wire season victory.
Chapter 40. 1980-81 Season: “The Strike”
A strike by actors (lasting more than two months) delayed production of the fall 1980 TV series and threw the entire season into confusion.
Chapter 41. Transition: “Stop and Start It All Again”
This is the title of a 1972 song by folk-country artist Jonathan Edwards. It also refers to the object of this chapter: to stop the narrative flow for a moment, to go back, and to focus on alternative access to the airwaves and to the beginnings of cable television. Then, to start the narrative again in 1981.
Chapter 42. 1981-82 Season: “Freddie’s Blues”
Hill Street Blues was in the vanguard of a revival of NBC’s prime time fortunes, though at first it made a greater impression among critics than the general public. Accolades for this high-class series (and for NBC) often conveniently overlooked the fact that it had its debut (and received its crucial first renewal) during the NBC administration of Fred Silverman, who was still thought of more as the champion of Charlie’s Angels, not innovative, high-quality programming. A second meaning for the title is more direct: despite such efforts, Silverman was fired as head of NBC.
Chapter 43. 1982-83 Season: “Send in the “A” Team”
Literally, this refers to The A-Team, NBC’s most successful new series this season. More generally, it also refers to the impressive list of other new series that all debuted on NBC, including such A-list titles as St. Elsewhere, Family Ties, Cheers and Remington Steele.
Chapter 44. 1983-84 Season: “After M*A*S*H”
This refers both to the era immediately following the end of M*A*S*H, one of television’s most successful sitcoms ever, and to the specific spinoff series on CBS, AfterMASH.
Chapter 45. 1984-85 Season: “We Are the World”
The title of the U.S. charity single recorded in early 1985 to raise funds for those starving in Africa, a follow-up the successful U.K. song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Another interpretation of the title refers to the audience on several continents who watched live TV coverage of the Live Aid concert of July 1985 that raised money for the same cause.
Chapter 46. 1985-86 Season: “Isn’t That Amazing?”
On the corporate ownership side, the title refers to a series of sudden upheavals in the broadcasting status quo: the sale of the ABC network, announced plans for a brand new network (Fox), and NBC at last winning a season outright for the first time in almost thirty-five years—followed in the next breath by that same network’s sale to GE. On the programming side, the title refers to the surprising reemergence of the anthology format in prime time, led by the Steven Spielberg-produced series Amazing Stories.
Chapter 47. 1986-87 Season: “Finally a Fourth”
After decades of the FCC (and the TV industry) saying it would be good for viewers to have available a fourth national commercial TV network in the U.S., one at last appeared this season in the form of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox network.
Chapter 48. 1987-88 Season: “The Boomer Years”
The immediate title reference is to ABC’s finely-crafted sitcom, The Wonder Years, which debuted this season. More generally, the reference is to the coming-of-age of the “baby boomer” generation, now inheriting some of the upper echelons positions in the entertainment industry.
Chapter 49. 1988-89 Season: “The Goddess”
Title alludes to Roseanne Barr’s sarcastic self-references in her stand-up act, in which she described herself as a “domestic goddess.” This season, the success of her hit ABC sitcom accelerated the trend of stand-up comics transferring to lead roles in TV comedies.
Chapter 50. 1989-90 Season: “Mmmm … Doughnuts”
Primarily, this refers to the often-expressed love of Homer Simpson (of Fox’s animated The Simpsons) for doughnuts (or any other tasty junk food). It also alludes to the equally-strong admiration by FBI agent Dale Cooper (of ABC’s Twin Peaks) for the local snacks he found in town (although he tended to prefer the pie at the diner to the doughnuts and coffee at the sheriff’s office).
Chapter 51. 1990-91 Season: “The Live Storm”
Continuing the use of storm analogies for warfare (see Chapter 5), this title refers to the live coverage (largely on cable) of the start of the invasion of Iraq (dubbed “Operation Desert Storm”).
Chapter 52. 1991-92 Season: “The Sax Man”
During the 1992 presidential election campaign, Bill Clinton displayed his “cool” side by donning dark glasses and playing the saxophone on the syndicated Arsenio Hall Show. He subsequently won the election and became the first baby boomer president
Chapter 53. 1992-93 Season: “Nothing Much”
The usual thumbnail description of NBC’s sitcom Seinfeld was that it was “a show about nothing.” In this, its fourth season, Jerry Seinfeld’s show at last became a hit.
Chapter 54. 1993-94 Season: “The Truth That’s Out There”
Debuting on Fox this season, The X-Files told viewers each week that “The Truth Is Out There,” pushing the show’s central premise that there was a high-level governmental conspiracy to keep disturbing truths from the American public. For the TV industry, the truth out there hit closer to home: the ground rules for the business of television were changing rapidly. There were new networks, new laws, and growing strength by cable TV, which was becoming an increasingly significant player.
Chapter 55. 1994-95 Season: “In the Blink of an Eye”
In the span of just one season, CBS (the “Eye” network) fell from #1 to #3, suffered the loss of key affiliates, and ended up being sold. On a completely different stage, in the trial of O. J. Simpson, the prosecution’s case suffered irreparable harm in the blink of an eye when (on camera) Simpson tried on a pair of gloves found at the murder scene, held up his hands, and showed that they did not seem to fit him.
Chapter 56. 1995-96 Season: “Ready For Reform”
Since the 1800s, outsiders running against entrenched urban political “machines” (such as New York’s Tammany Hall) presented themselves as “reform” candidates. In 1955, when Chicago’s Mayor Richard J. Daley defeated one such opponent, ward boss Paddy Bauler triumphantly exclaimed, “Chicago ain’t ready for reform!” Here, the title specifically refers to the regulatory reform coming to the television industry as a result of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. However, there’s a hint of sarcasm present because some of the “reforms” heralded in the new law would not end up achieving the spoken goals behind the new statute. Instead, the changed legal landscape ended up allowing large media conglomerates to expand further and to centralize their empires. Appropriately, a more sweeping interpretation of the title would be that in the eyes of its critics, the television/entertainment industry was truly in need of (ready for) reform.
Chapter 57. 1996-97 Season: “All Around the Dial”
On a straightforward level, the title signals the major topic of this chapter: a look at the tremendous number of offerings now available on the many cable TV channels, providing enough for an evening’s entertainment without once turning to the broadcast networks. At the same time, the chapter title also alludes to a pair of songs that evoke a sense of loss in a changing world. “Around the Dial” by The Kinks (from the 1981 album Give the People What They Want) is the lament of a radio fan over the disappearance of a long-time favorite DJ from the airwaves. Another song, “Sidewalks of New York (East Side, West Side)” also laments the loss of familiar sights, with its refrain “all around the town” describing New York City, circa 1894.
Chapter 58. 1997-98 Season: “Devil with the Blue Dress On”
Title of a song originally released in 1964 by Frederick “Shorty” Long, who co-wrote it with Motown producer William “Mickey” Stevenson. The more popular (and far more frenetic) version was recorded in 1966 by Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels, pairing it with Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly,” evoking the image of a young woman whose irresistible allure is heightened by the breathless descriptions of the observing male. The energetic duality of this song makes the title particularly appropriate as an allusion to the highly-charged coverage of the relationship between President Bill Clinton and “Miss” Monica Lewinsky.
Chapter 59. 1998-99 Season: “Sex and Violence”
Over the history of commercial television, two topics have consistently raised the ire of critics and watchdogs of the medium: sex and violence. With a deliberate sense of irony, this chapter title embraces those twin lightening rods of criticism as it focuses on two enthusiastically praised cable series: Sex and the City and The Sopranos. Despite the fact that they pushed, respectively, sex and violence to new levels of explicit detail for television, they were also touted as representing some of the best that TV had to offer.
Chapter 60. 1999-2000 Season: “Not the Final Answer”
As part of its contest routine, the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire would ask contestants, “Is that your final answer?” to confirm their chosen selection. The twist on that phrase used for this chapter title hints that ABC’s embracing of the quiz show as a quick fix to weak ratings will not prove to be the “final answer” to its woes.
Chapter 61. 2000-01 Season: “Reality Is Bad Enough”
The title of an album released in 1968 by folk singer Patrick Sky, this expression carries an implicit sense of puzzlement here. Why turn the escapist, entertainment side of television into an attempt to recreate “reality”? Isn’t reality itself sometimes a bad enough experience on its own? Still, from reality game shows to series that blur the lines between news and entertainment, television in this chapter seems irresistibly drawn to an odd amalgam of self-proclaimed slices of the “real world.” Yet it is actually only a heartbeat away from a sobering dose of true reality on September 11, 2001.
Chapter 62. 2001-02 Season: “Ground Zero”
A direct reference to the most commonly-used description of the site of New York’s World Trade Center buildings after they were destroyed in the hijacked airplane attack of September 11, 2001. The phrase “ground zero” first came into general use when describing the epicenter of a nuclear bomb explosion.
Chapter 63. 2002-03 Season: “Go Pound Sand”
This title quotes an aggressive colloquial expression meant to indicate that the speaker has vanquished an opponent and defiantly, almost profanely, taunts that opponent to either fight back or walk away in abject defeat. In this context, the expression can be aptly applied to the desert battlefield conflict between the United States and Iraq, and then further to mirror President George W. Bush’s post-war urge to the U.S.’s remaining opponents in Iraq to “bring it on.” On a more literal level, it also refers to the military bombardment occurring in Iraq. Closer to home, the same sense of stand-off defiance also applies to the competitive TV talent stage in such shows as American Idol.
Chapter 64. 2003-04 Season: “Game Change”
Flowing directly from Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Super Bowl, this title refers to the changes by the National Football League in its half-time shows. Also on the business side, it references government actions on issues of “objectionable programming,” including greatly increased station fines. More broadly, the title recognizes the everyday assumptions about programming sources increasingly held by a majority of viewers, who made no distinction between channels originating as broadcast stations and those with pure cable roots.
Chapter 65. 2004-05 Season: “ZigZag and JibJab”
These two alliterative slang terms refer to two striking turns this season. First, on the programming front, while most of the networks were pushing the latest trend of low-cost reality shows and cookie-cutter procedural crime shows, low-ranked ABC took an entirely different course (they zigged while the others zagged) by bringing forward more expensive scripted fare, including Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy and the densely written Lost. Meanwhile, on the political front, the changing options for making political points was evidenced by the viral popularity of an animated musical short poking fun at presidential candidates George Bush and John Kerry, which came from the on-line production company JibJab.com, founded by Evan and Gregg Spiridellis in California in 1999.
Chapter 66. 2005-06 Season: “Here’s the Deal”
Literally, the title refers to Deal or No Deal, NBC’s most successful new show of the season. More generally, the reference encompasses the changed ‘deal” between TV networks and TV viewers. After decades of having to pretty much take whatever the networks chose to offer, audiences were increasingly able to exert their independence as the old exclusive pipeline of video distribution had been broken. Viewers now could choose from a myriad of entertainment sources and largely watch what they wanted when they wanted to.
Chapter 67. 2006-07 Season: “What Else Is On?”
No matter the quality or variety of programming offered through an increasing number of available channels, the state of television captured by the chapter title reflects fickle viewer impatience with whatever is currently on the set and the assumption that there has to be something else (hopefully better) to be found elsewhere on the dial. In the new status quo of television, there are countless “elsewhere” destinations.
Chapter 68. 2007-08 Season: “Called Third Strike”
For the third time since the 1980s, negotiations between show producers and television writers came to an impasse and resulted in a strike. Apart from a literal description of this labor action, the title also symbolically alludes to the exasperated state of a hitter in baseball called out just watching the deciding pitch sail past for the out, much as the media industry watched the financial and technological upheaval at the time continue to affect the underpinnings of every stage of the production and distribution process.
Chapter 69. 2008-09 Season: “Change Is Now”
Focusing on the hard fought 2008 political contest for the U.S. presidency, this chapter follows the myriad of media platforms in play for the campaign. The title also alludes to the popular posters of Barack Obama during that race, bearing the word “Change,” a dominant theme of his campaign. It also directly references the changeover from one administration after eight years in power, ending with the election and inauguration of Barack Obama as the first black president of the United States.
Chapter 70. 2009-10 Season: “The End of the World as We Know It”
This title was used by the group R.E.M. for its spirited 1987 apocalyptic song that subsequently became a musical signature for moments of pop culture upheaval, most famously as part of the 1996 alien invasion film “Independence Day.” Appropriately, this chapter marks the over-the-air changeover of American TV to digital from the analog transmission system that had been in place for more than 70 years. At the same time, the indisputable dominance of other means of content distribution, from cable and satellite to online streaming, meant that going forward the world of television would be following its new paradigm: always there, always on.
Chapter 71. 2010-11 Season: “Bloodlines”
Chronicling multiple vampire productions with roots stretching back to the original Dracula novel, this chapter explores the bloody mystique of those tales, embodied by such series as True Blood on HBO (whose promotional efforts included background documentaries under the umbrella “True Bloodlines”). In a dramatically different focus, the chapter also looks at the “bloodlines” within such storytelling series as Game of Thrones, and in real life international conflicts.
Chapter 72. 2011-12 Season: “Pay Me Now or Pay Me Later”
By the early twenty-first century most U.S. households faced monthly charges for television programming which often covered far more channels than most viewers desired. This chapter tracks that lucrative set up for the industry, and the opposing desire by consumers to reduce or eliminate those charges, while also attempting to escape exposure to ads. This was an unsustainable audience expectation that directly clashed with the business model of the conglomerates that controlled most of the modern media landscape. If cable subscribers opted to “cut the cord” they would still likely wind up paying money to the same conglomerates via Internet access fees and streaming subscription charges. The specific chapter title comes from a popular 1970s Fram oil filter commercial campaign that warned drivers about possible costly repairs awaiting them if they tried to skimp on auto part expenses by going with a lower quality product.
Chapter 73. 2012-13 Season: “Apocalypse How?”
The title, a play on the 1979 feature film “Apocalypse Now” about the inexplicable horrors of war, alludes to a powerful story-telling element of the zombie horror series The Walking Dead: not providing a comforting explanation or solution to that world gone wrong. In addition, the chapter follows continued altered arrangements in the television industry, led by the online success of Netflix, as well as the increasingly unbridled U.S. election process, fueled by ever-escalating funding levels that threatened to turn even successful campaigns into exhausted victories.
Chapter 74. 2013-14 Season: “Keep Your Eye on the Ball”
Chronicling live sports as the only contemporary programming type to consistently draw audiences willing to sit through commercials, this chapter offers the familiar coaching admonition of the title while it recounts the ever-escalating payments and commitments by networks for the increasingly valuable television rights to popular sporting contests. The networks had to really pay attention to the world of sports if they wanted to remain competitive in the TV media landscape.
Chapter 75. 2014-15 Season: “How to Get Away with Everything”
This chapter follows technological and corporate upheavals in television that simultaneously created opportunities for new media players, as well as the leverage for established businesses to consolidate control. The title also directly references the art of exploiting narrative chaos in the new Shonda Rhimes legal drama How to Get Away with Murder, while the chapter’s wrap up on Matt Weiner’s Mad Men shows another route to “getting it all” by using pure uplifting commercialism.
Conclusion: “On Beyond Zebra”
Title of a 1955 book by children’s author Theodore Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss), in which he postulates that there are letters in the alphabet that follow “Z.” We just never hear about them. In classic children’s alphabet books, where each letter “stands” for some object beginning with that letter, “Z” usually stands for “zebra.” Here the chapter title is used metaphorically to indicate that, even with this concluding chapter, there is much more to follow in the story of television. We just have not seen it yet.
Now that you’ve read the stories behind the chapter titles, pick up a copy of Watching TV: Eight Decades of American Television to follow the complete story, from beginning to end.
Copyright © 2016 by Walter J. Podrazik and Harry Castleman