Saturday, 25 August 2007

The Weekly World News Is Alive and Well in Kalamazoo

The supermarket checkout counter might never be the same. With its August 27th issue, the Weekly World News. the outlandish tabloid that featured stories about aliens and Elvis, will cease publication. It will still be available online, but the Weekly World News will no longer haunt the supermarket checkout line.

The Weekly World News was founded by American Media, after the National Enquirer had changed to colour printing, as a means of keeping the Enquirer's old black and white press in use. The tabloid inherited more than the Enquirer's old printing press. Before 1969. when the National Enquirer shifted its focus to celebrity gossip and human interest stories, the National Enquirer basically two sorts of stories. The first, for which it was most famous, were lurid tales of mothers eating their own babies and madmen slicing up their dates and storing the remains in a freezer. The second were outlandish stories of alien beings, UFOs, and creatures such as Bigfoot. It was this second sort of story for which the National Enquirer had been known that the Weekly World News made wholly their own. While the mainstream media might focus on politics and government and other tabloids might focus on celebrity gossip, it was the outre that was the speciality of the Weekly World News.

Over the years the tabloid had featured a number of bizarre headlines. Aliens were a favourite with the Weekly World News. The paper reported that several U.S. Senators were, in truth, aliens. At various times it also reported various aliens visiting important dignitaries. Naturally there were the tales of alien abductions. But the Weekly World News covered more strange creatures than aliens from outer space. Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, the Abominable Snowman, vampires, and a variety of other odd critters got their due in the tabloid.

For the most part the Weekly World News eschewed the sort of stories other tabloids might report about the rich and famous. When it did cover famous individuals, the stories were clearly too far fetched to be believed. One issue from the Nineties reported that Hilary Clinton had adopted an alien baby. Another reported that Abraham Lincoln was really a woman. The Weekly World News perhaps got more mileage out of Elvis Presley than any other celebrity. Following his death in 1977, the tabloid would regularly proclaim that Elvis was not dead. In the Nineties, it would print the "news" of Elvis's "real" death, Of course, it must be kept in mind that, according to the Weekly World News, not only did Elvis live beyond the time that history tells us he died, but so did Adolph Hitler, Marilyn Monroe, and John F. Kennedy.

The Weekly World News also created its own recurring characters. Perhaps none gained as much fame as Bat Boy. Bat Boy was a half human, half bat creature discovered in a cave in West Virginia by Dr. Ron Dillon. Bat Boy first appeared in the pages of the Weekly World News in 1992. Over the years he has enrolled in college, been knighted by Queen Elizabeth, ran for governor of California, and endorsed Al Gore as president. Bat Boy proved so popular that an off Broadway musical based on the character, entitled Bat Boy, was produced in 1997.

Another regularly featured character was P'Lod. P'Lod is an alien from another world who seeks to advise politicians on Earth in order to insure our continued well being. Not only did P'Lod advise politicians, but he could apparently pick the winner of any presidential campaign. The Tabloid also reported that P'Lod had an affair with Hilary Rodham Clinton.

In its 28 years in existence, the Weekly World News became very much a part of American pop culture. In the movie Men in Black it is cited as having "the best damn investigative reporting on the planet"--the characters in the film actually use it for leads on their cases. On the TV series Supernatural the heroes not only impersonated reporters from the Weekly World News in one episode, but figured importantly in another episode (as publicity for the show, the Weekly World News even interviewed its fictional heroes). A short lived Sci-Fi Channel series, The Chronicle, about a tabloid that investigates strange stories (which also happen to be real) was obviously based on the Weekly World News.

Ultimately, it is difficult to say what caused the demise of the Weekly World News. It is possible that the paper suffered from competition with the World Wide Web. Let's face it, if one want to read about aliens these days, all he or she has to do is google it and he or she will have several different web sites to choose from. Indeed, I have no doubt that there are probably blogs out there that specialise in what was once the World Wide News's stock and trade.

I must admit that I have never had much use for supermarket tabloids. I have little interest in the private lives of celebrities and, even if I did, I would have little reason to believe the stories printed in the Enquirer or the Star. That having been said, I always loved the Weekly World News. While its stories were no more true than those of other tabloids, its stories were also so outlandish that they could not possibly be true. In some respects the Weekly World News was not so much a tabloid as it was a parody of a tabloid. I mean, who could not get a laugh out of the Bat Boy being hunted by the FBI or Elvis was living in Kalamazoo, Michigan or P'Lod having an affair with Hilary Rodham Clinton. The Weekly World News could be funnier than most sitcoms. I am guessing that is why the tabloid's demise is receiving so much coverage. And why I will miss it. People got a laugh out of the Weekly World News and loved them for it. Is it any wonder then that people are mourning its passing? I doubt the Enquirer or Star would be so mourned. No, the supermarket checkout counter won't be the same.

Friday, 24 August 2007

Vip, mio fratello superuomo (Vip, My Brother Superman)

It is sad a fact of life that most Americans are not aware of the good, even great, foreign films that have been made since the advent of film. This is even more true of animated feature films. Indeed, for the most part I seriously doubt the average American can even name very many animated movies beyond the Disney oeuvre, a few Ralph Bakshi titles, and more recent films from other studios.

Nowhere is this fact more tragic than with regards to an Italian, animated feature released in 1968 entitled Vip, mio fratello superuomo (Vip, My Brother Superman to we Anglophones). Vip, My Brother Superman was the second feature film made by animator Bruno Bozzetto. Born in Milan, Bozzetto is Italy's greatest animator, his fame having spread far beyond his native country. Bozzetto is known throughout Europe, not just for his feature films but for his most famous creation, Signor Rossi (Mister Rossi to we Anglophones). The star of seven shorts and three feature films, Signor Rossi is as well known in Europe as Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse are in the English speaking world. In the United States, Bruno Bozzetto is perhaps best known for the feature film Allegro non troppo, his 1977 homage/parody of Disney's Fantasia.

For those who have seen Allegro non troppo, Vip, mio fratello superuomo does for superheros what that film did for Disney movies. Quite simply, it is a hilarious send up of the genre. In Vip, My Brother Superman, the Vips are a line of superhumans who have defended humanity throughout the ages. The last of the line are two brothers: Supervip, who looks like the typical superhero complete with such powers as superhuman strength and the ability to fly, and Minivip, who is near sighted, short, and lacks any sort of super powers beyond the ability to fly a few feet off the ground. The Vips stumble upon a nefarious plot by the crazed supermarket tycoon Happy Betty, a plot which could threaten the entire world.

As might be expected, Vip, mio fratello superuomo gets a good deal of mileage out of parodying superheroics. Minivip not only lacks any extraordinary powers, but is not particularly the most agile person around either. Supervip is about as straight laced as they come, so much so that a kiss from a pretty girl can drive him up the wall. Indeed, it is the relationship between the two brothers that makes much of the movie so enjoyable. Although they look nothing alike and one of them lacks super powers of any sort, Supervip and Minivip are very close and compliment each other perfectly. Quite simply, while Supervip is the brawn, Minivip is the brain.

It should also come as no surprise that Bozzetto doesn't save all of this barbs for the superhero genre alone. Indeed, while Vip, My Brother Superman is perhaps best described as a supehero parody, its fiercest attacks are made on our consumerist culture and the mass production it takes to maintain that consumerist culture. Of course, Bozzetto also takes aim at a number of other targets, among them psychiatry, commercialism, and celebrity worship.

Vip, mio fratello superuomo is certainly a departure from the Disney style of cel animation to which most people are accustomed. Indeed, Bozzetto's style at this point in his career is decidely late Sixties. There is such an array of textures and colours that the film could almost, but not quite, be described as "psychedelic." In fact, one of the best things about the movie is the design of its characters and its backgrounds. That having been said, in some respects its animation is also the downfall of Vip, My Brother Superman. At times it seems a bit too limited. Here it should perhaps be kept in mind that Bozzetto was not working with the sort of budgets that Disney had on their films. Given what he had to work with, it may be a wonder that the animation is as good as it is.

Sadly, Vip, My Brother Superman is not widely available in the United States. I found it on one of those dollar DVDs so common at WalMarts and supermarkets. In fact, I think it is available on more than one dollar DVD, one of them under the title The Super Vips (a title under which it was released here in the States at one point). For those who want a much better DVD of the movie, the official version is available through import (complete with English subtitles).

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Cinema Killed the Radio Star: How Elvis Presley's Movies Nearly Ended His Career

I don't think there can be much argument that Elvis Presley was the biggest music star to emerge in the Fifties. Elvis wasn't exactly an overnight sensation. He had spent two years on the legendary Sun Record label making records that had little initial impact before switching in RCA. It was his first record at RCA that would be his breakout hit. "Heartbreak Hotel" spent eight weeks at #1 on the Billboard singles chart and sold over a million copies. For the next several years Elvis would have a string of hits that was unmatched in the United States. Even a stint in the Army could not dethrone a man who would be dubbed "the King of Rock 'n' Roll."

While the Army caused no lasting harm to his career, it is a common belief that Elvis Presley was at the top of the rock 'n' roll game until the Fab Four arrived from England, after which Presley's career languished. Actually, this is not entirely true. "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was released December 26, 1963. The Beatles made their legendary, first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964. And yet Elvis still had four top twenty hits and one song that went to #1 ("Blue Christmas") on the Billboard chart in 1964. While Elvis's career wasn't what it used to be (in 1957 every single he released went to #1), it was hardly languishing. I think that while it is safe to say that The Beatles probably had some impact on Elvis's popularity, it was not what nearly brought his career to a halt.

The question, then, is that if The Beatles and the other British Invasion bands did not nearly crush Elvis's career in the Sixties, what did? I think the answer most likely lies in a place far from Liverpool, a placed called "Hollywood." Quite simply, Elvis's very own movies had more of a negative effect on his career than The Beatles ever did. It was quite natural that with Elvis's unprecedented success in the mid-Fifties that the film industry would seek him out. It was in 1956 that producer Hal Wallis, a Hollywood veteran who had produced movies from Casablanca to My Friend Irma, saw one of Elvis's performances on Stage Show (the first TV show on which he ever appeared). Wallis was convinced the young singer could become a movie star and contacted his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. After a screen test, Wallis signed Elvis to a three movie deal. His first film, Love Me Tender, was a Western about the Reno brothers in which Elvis occasionally sings. Released on November 15, 1956, Love Me Tender did very well at the box office, despite mixed reviews.

Although the image in the minds of most people of Elvis Presley movies is that of films set in exotic locales with situations contrived just so Elvis can sing (usually to animals or small children), this was not the case with his earliest movies. Although, with the exception of King Creole and Jailhouse Rock, none of Elvis's films probably qualify as classics, his earliest films were of a more serious nature than his later ones. Following the lead of Love Me Tender, his films Jailhouse Rock, Loving You, King Creole, Flaming Star, and Wild in the Country were all dramas with musical interludes. The story lines in Elvis's early movies could be quite good and his roles in those films actually gave him a bit more to do than sing. And often the films featured some great musical sequences. Indeed, the sequence for the song "Jailhouse Rock" in the movie of the same name is arguably one of the greatest of all time.

With Elvis's success in films, it was quite natural that not long after his return from the Army in 1960 he and Colonel Parker decided to concentrate on the singer's film career. In some respects it must have seemed like a win/win situation. After all, the movies could earn money at the box office while the singles and soundtrack albums associated with the films could burn up the Billboard charts. Unfortunately, this is not the way it turned out. The turning point was a movie released in 1961, Blue Hawaii. Blue Hawaii would be Elvis's highest grossing movie of all time. It also set a precedent for the majority of Elvis Presley movies to come. Indeed, it was the first of what Elvis would call his "travelogues." Quite simply, it was a musical comedy set in an exotic location (Hawaii) with a plot that was more or less an excuse for Elvis to sing at different points in the film. As to the music, the soundtrack of Blue Hawaii featured no outright, rock 'n' roll numbers, although it would provide Elvis with two memorable songs ("Can't Help Falling in Love with You" and "Blue Hawaii"). Sadly, most of Elvis's films for the next several years would follow the lead of Blue Hawaii. Most of them would have contrived plots in exotic locales with an absolute minimum of rock 'n' roll numbers. While there would be exceptions (such as the Western Charro, in which Elvis doesn't sing), the majority of the films Elvis made in the Sixties used Blue Hawaii as a template.

Even relying upon the Blue Hawaii formula, Elvis's career might not have suffered as badly as it did were it not for a decline in quality of the films and, worse yet, the songs in those films. It was arguably the movies whose quality slipped first, with such weak entries as Girls! Girls! Girls! and Fun in Acapulco. Even then the songs could be quite good. "Return to Sender" came from the soundtrack for Girls! Girls! Girls!, while "Bossa Nova Baby" came from Fun in Acapulco. Unfortunately, the songs would begin to decline in quality as well. Signs of this could be seen as early as Blue Hawaii, which featured one of his worst numbers "Ito Eats." Sadly, "Ito Eats" would be more a sign of things to come than either "Can't Help Falling in Love with You" or "Blue Hawaii." In fact, as the Sixties continued, songs such as "There's No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car (from Fun in Acapulco)," "Do the Clam" (from Girl Happy)" and "Signs of the Zodiac (from The Trouble with Girls)" would become increasingly more common in Elvis's films. In fact, by the time of Elvis's final two movies (The Trouble with Girls and Change of Habit), one would be hard pressed to find a good song in an Elvis movie.

The decline in the quality of Elvis's songs was reflected in their performance on the Billboard charts. In fact, a decline in Elvis's performance on the singles charts can be seen before The Beatles came to America. From 1956 to 1962, Elvis would have at least one #1 single a year, sometimes more than one. In 1963, however, Elvis did not hit the #1 spot on the Billboard singles chart at all. His songs still did respectably well that year ({"You're The} Devil in Disguise" went to #3 on the chart, while "Bossa Nova Baby" went to #8), but it was perhaps a sign of erosion in Elvis's career. In 1964 Elvis would have only one #1 hit, "Blue Christmas." From 1964 to 1969, Elvis would not even have one single to go to #1 on the Billboard chart. Worse yet, as the Sixties wore on Elvis's singles would be hard pressed to even make the top ten, let alone hit the #1 spot on the Billboard singles chart. The lowest point in Elvis's musical career could well have been the years 1967 to 1968. Of the four singles Elvis released that year, only two hit the Top Forty, and, for an artist who once had multiple #1 hits in a year, I don't think it can be said that either those two songs did particularly well. "Indescribably Blue" only went to #33. "Big Boss Man" did even worse, barely cracking the Top Forty at #38. Nineteen sixty eight would be even worse. Out of six singles released, only one would break the Top Forty--"U.S. Male" at #28. If at any point in Elvis's career could he have been called a "has been," it would have been the years 1967 to 1968.

It seems to me that the decline in Elvis's musical career in the Sixties was directly linked to the quality of the songs in his movies and even the quality of the movies themselves. With "Blue Hawaii" a formula was hit upon in which Elvis could simply be placed in a situation in an exotic locale, no matter how contrived, and still sell movie tickets. With the movies growing poorer and poorer in quality, it would only be a matter of time before a lackadaisical approach would be taken in the choice of songs for Elvis's movies as well. Quite simply, the quality of any given song did not matter as much as the fact that Elvis was singing it and it fit the particular movie it was in. This was probably made even worse by the fact hat Colonel Parker and Elvis had decided to concentrate on making movies instead of recording. By the mid-Sixties the only songs Elvis was recording were for his movies. This meant that Elvis was recording fewer songs than he ever had before. Fewer songs meant fewer chances to do well on the Billboard charts. When combined with the fact that the songs Elvis was recording for his movies were often sub par, the chances that Elvis could have a hit single were reduced considerably.

While it is simply not possible that Elvis Presley could ever have been forgotten, I rather suspect that if his career had continued upon the course on which it had been set in the Sixties, he would have eventually been viewed as a washed up, formerly great, rock 'n' roll singer. Fortunately, an event in 1968 would change all of that. It was in October 1967 that Colonel Parker entered negotiations with NBC for a Christmas special featuring Elvis to air during the 1968-1969 season. Colonel Tom Parker thought it should be a typical Christmas special of the sort so popular in the Sixties in which Elvis would simply sing various holiday tunes, similar to those made by such big names as Andy Williams and Bing Crosby. On the other hand, executive Bob Finkel and director Steve Binder thought the special was a chance to return Elvis to something of his former glory. Quite simply, they wanted to use the special as an opportunity to display Elvis's talents performing some of the greatest hits of his career. The special, eventually titled Elvis (but afterwards referred to as "Elvis's '68 Comeback Special" by most people), aired December 3, 1968 on NBC. Not only was the special widely lauded by critics, but it was one of the highest rated programmes for the 1968-1969 season.

I think it is safe to say that the TV special Elvis revitalised Elvis Presley's career. Nineteen sixty nine would see Elvis hit the charts with three top ten hits ("In the Ghetto" went to #3, "Suspicious Minds" went to #1, and "Don't Cry, Daddy" went to #6). Although not seeing the success he had in the Fifties, Elvis's name was regularly seen on Billboard charts in the Seventies. That same year saw Elvis return to making live performances, breaking records in Las Vegas. He would also take up touring once more, making a number of live appearances across the United States from 1969 to 1977. After 1969, the worst that could be said about Elvis is that perhaps he was a bit out of touch with the rock music of the time.

In the end the movies Elvis made in the Sixties would not bring an end to his career, although it seems likely that they could well have. As the quality of his films declined, so too did the quality of his songs. Worse yet, the only songs he recorded from the mid-Sixties onwards were for his movies. As a result Elvis nearly disappeared from Billboard charts. Sad as it might seem, the man who was once the King of Rock 'n' Roll could not even hit the Top Ten on the Billboard singles chart in the late Sixties, let alone score a #1 hit. If the TV special Elvis had never been made (or if it had been a typical Christmas special, as Colonel Parker had planned), then it seems possible that the career of the former King of Rock 'n' Roll could have languished until the end of his life. Fortunately, that was not the case.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

A Change in the Summer Movie Season

Traditionally the summer movie season ran from Memorial Day to Labour Day. This was the time when Hollywood would release their biggest movies. That having been said, for the past several years it has seemed more as if the summer movie season has ran from early May to July 4, with very few blockbusters being released after that (I wrote about this phenomenon last year). That having been said, this year has been different. Not only have movies that could be considered blockbusters been released in August, but movies have actually done better in August than they have the past several years.

Generally speaking, the past several years late July and August have not been a period when big Hollywood movies have been released. More often than not it has consisted of smaller films and family comedies; however, this year has been different. The Simpsons Movie, widely expected to do well, was released in late July. This summer also saw the release of threequels in two different franchises (The Bourne Ultimatum and Rush Hour 3). It saw a well done fantasy movie with a good budget (Stardust) and a "teen" comedy set in the Eighties that would actually seem to appeal more to people in their thirties and forties (Superbad) as well. None of these movies are typical fare for August

What is remarkable is that many of these films did remarkably well. While none of them quite matched the numbers generated by the summer's earlier blockbuster releases (Spider-Man 3 and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End), some of the movies have done very well at the box office. So far The Simpsons Movie has pulled in $165,271,443. The Bourne Ultimatum has earned $164,694,690. Rush Hour 3 has made $87,676,529. This weekend Superbad did very well at the box office for a late summer comedy; it earned $33,052,411. These are fairly remarkable numbers for late summer movies. particularly when one considers that the box office winner of the same weekend last year, Snakes in the Plane, only earned $13,806,311 for that weekend

Of course, not every movie released late this summer has done well. Stardust, based on a Neil Gaiman novel and featuring such heavyweights as Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer, has only earned $19,493,894 in two weeks. The Invasion, just released last week, only earned $5,951,409 this weekend. It would seem that this summer is not so different from other summers that every movie is going to do respectably well this late in the season.

Still, the box office numbers for films from The Simpsons Movie to Superbad are far higher than those have usually been seen late in the summer for the past many years. Enough that I have to wonder that the movie summer season is not changing again. While the success of such early films released in early May as Twister, The Mummy, and Spider-Man have insured that it will never again begin as late as Memorial Day, I have to wonder that in the coming years we won't see the end of the summer movie season shift back to Laobur Day weekend or, at least, the end of August. Speaking as someone who has always enjoyed going to the movies, and who has not liked seeing every single big movie concentrated in the months of May and June, I can certainly hope so.

Monday, 20 August 2007

Nothing with a Tree: Madison Avenue's Obsession with Young Urban People

For the past thirty years or so, Madison Avenue has pursued a demographic of individuals 18 to 49 years of age, preferring those who live in urban areas the most. Given the dependence of the television networks upon Madison Avenue for their revenue (most of which comes from advertising), the networks naturally started to cater to those who were aged 18 to 49 years of age living in cities.

I am not sure how Madison Avenue decided that individuals aged 18 to 49 living in big cities were the most desirable demographic at whom to direct commercials and TV shows, but it had to be decades ago. When Oliver Treyz was president of ABC (the American Broadcasting Company) from 1956 to 1962, he constantly used demographic data to show that ABC was the network that appealed the most to individuals in the 18 to 49 age group. He campaigned for Nielsen to not only keep ratings on the number of households viewing shows, but to start keeping demographics of how old the viewers were and where they were from. Treyz argued that viewers in this age group were more likely to spend money on a variety of items. Unfortunately, I don't know if Treyz had developed these ideas on his own, or if he was simply following the ideas of the advertising agencies on Madison Avenue.

Regardless, in maintaining that demographics should have an impact on television broadcasting, he would seem to have had some influence. From the beginning of network broadcasts in 1946 well into the Sixties, Nielsen did not keep demographics on viewers.Until the late Sixties they simply measured how many households were watching any given show. And until the Sixties advertisers did not target their commercials to specific groups of people. By the late Sixties, however, all of this had changed. Nielsen started keeping track not only of how many households watched any given show, but how old those people were and where they lived. And advertisers would start creating advertising campaigns with specific demographics in mind.

Sadly, this would have an immediate impact on network television. The first sign that demographics were starting to matter in television broadcasting came in the 1969-1970 season. The Red Skelton Show had been on the air for nineteen seasons. It also ranked #7 in the top rated shows for the season. The Jackie Gleason Show had also been a mainstay of CBS for years. And while its ratings were not as high as that of The Red Skelton Show, they were still respectable. Regardless of their ratings, CBS cancelled both shows due to the fact that Skelton and Gleason's viewers were simply too old. Most likely the expense in producing both shows probably played a role in their cancellation (indeed, Red Skelton's contract stipulated that he received a salary raise each year) as well, but there can be little doubt that CBS would have dealt with the expense of the shows if they had appealed to a younger demographic. The Red Skelton Show would return that fall on NBC, only to be axed again at the close of the 1970-1971 season.

While the 1969-1970 saw demographics used as an excuse to cancel two shows, it would be the 1970-1971 season that would make it clear that demographics were playing as much of a role, if not more, than the ratings. What is worse is that the 1971-1972 season would see the implementation of the FCC's Prime Time Access Rule, issued in 1970.The Prime Time Access Rule reduced the amount of network programming that local stations could air in prime time. Whereas for most of television's history until that time the networks would air three and half hours worth of network programming (7:30 PM EST/6:30 PM CST to 11:00 PM EST/10:00 PM CST), they were now restricted to three hours worth of network programming (8:00 PM EST/7:00 PM CST to 11:00 PM EST/10:00 PM CST). The FCC believed that the Prime Time Access Rule would increase diversity on local stations, allowing them to air different sorts of shows in 7:30 PM EST/6:30 PM CST time slot. As history shows, this did not happen, as the 7:30 PM EST/6:30 PM CST time slot has been a haven for game shows and network sitcom reruns ever since. Regardless, because of the Prime Time Access Rule, the networks had to cancel many more shows than they ever had before.

Unfortunately, CBS in particular decided to rely upon demographics to decide which shows stayed and which shows left. The 1970-1971 season was the year of what has become known as "the rural purge." It was during that season that CBS cancelled nearly every one of its remaining rural oriented shows: The Beverly Hillbillies, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, Green Acres, Hee Haw, The Jim Nabors Show, and Mayberry R.F.D. Not only were shows that skewed more to a rural audience cancelled, but so were shows whose audiences were older: The Ed Sullivan Show, Family Affair, and Hogan's Heroes. At the time CBS Vice President of Programming, Fred Silverman, said of the mass cancellations, "The time has come to go big city as opposed to hayseed." Others saw it differently. Pat Buttram (who played Mr. Haney on Green Acres) commented, "It was the year CBS killed everything with a tree in it." CBS was not alone in cancelling shows because they believed their demographics to be undesirable. ABC cancelled The Lawrence Welk Show because its viewers were simply too old.

While none of the cancelled shows pulled in the ratings that The Red Skelton Show had in the 1969-1970 season, some of them were still doing quite well. Mayberry R.F.D. and Hee Haw ranked in the top twenty shows for the season. And history shows that both Hee Haw and The Lawrence Welk Show were obviously still popular. Both shows went into syndication immediately following their cancellations. Hee Haw would run for another 21 years. The Lawrence Welk Show would run in original syndication for eleven years before its reruns started appearing on PBS in 1986, where it has been ever since. Of course, I don't guess I need to mention that many of the reruns of many of the shows would go onto very successful syndication runs; The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Hogan's Heroes have been a staple of local stations and cable channels ever since.

Since that time viewers would be hard pressed to find shows meant to appeal to either rural folks or older people on network schedules. Not long after the rural purge had taken place, The Waltons was a big hit for CBS. Later in the same decade there would be The Dukes of Hazzard (a show which probably owed more to city people's stereotypes of Southern, country folk than country folk themselves--I have never liked that show). More recently there has been King of the Hill, Reba, and My Name is Earl. Shows featuring older people have been much, much rarer. Off the top of my head, I think the most recent shows whose lead characters are older have been The Golden Girls, Murder She Wrote, and Matlock.

Of course, I assume that most people would be like me in wondering why Madison Avenue and the television networks would so covet the attention of young, urban audiences. Well, there actually are reasons for it, even if I believe those reasons to be flawed. Much of it has been the view expressed by ABC President Oliver Treyz way back in the early Sixties, that young urban viewers are more likely to spend money on a variety of items. Unlike older people or people living in small towns and the country, they have less of a sense of brand loyalty; that is, they are more likely to switch brands. Another view that has consistently been expressed by Madison Avenue and the networks is that young, urban viewers have more disposable income. That is, they have more money to spend on various items. Finally, they are believed to be more likely to buy things on impulse than either older people or people living in rural areas.

The problem with this is that it doesn't seem to hold true. Indeed, I remember when I was in college being puzzled by the idea that young, urban people had more disposable income than anyone else. As a college student and later as a young twentysomething, I did not have the money to blow on items that I did not absolutely need. And it seemed to me that my fellow twentysomethings were all in the same boat--none of us had money to spare on a large array of commercial products. It just seemed to be common sense to me that people above the age of thirty, even above the age of sixty, would have more money to spend than people in their teens and twenties. What made Madison Avenue's insistence that the 18-49 age bracket was the demographic to pursue even odder is that, insofar as I know, neither Madison Avenue nor the television networks have ever conducted studies or surveys to prove any of this. It would seem that the one industry in America that thrives on studies and surveys never bothered to conduct either to prove one of their firmest convictions!

Indeed, of late there have been several studies which show what many of us already knew from common sense--the individuals who have the most money to spend are actually older. As executive vice president for research and planning at CBS, it is David Poltrack's job to keep track of those demographics important to the networks and Madison Avenue. And over the years he has concluded that Madison Avenue and the networks have been wrong in pursuing the 18 to 49 year old demographic to the exclusion of all else. Quite simply, older people buy more items than younger people. The demographic Madison Avenue and the networks should want the most is then the exact opposite of the one they do want--they should be going for the people over fifty! Currently it is individuals over fifty who have the most disposable income. In other words, rather than making commercials and TV shows for Generation Z, the advertising industry and the networks should be making commercials and TV shows for the baby boomers.

Of course, there is still the matter of brand loyalty. It could be that younger people are more likely to switch brands than older people, but to what extent I am not sure that anyone can say. In fact, I rather suspect that brand loyalty develops while people are still very young. I know that while I was still a child I determined that I preferred Coca Cola to Pepsi and Nestle to Hershey. I assume many of my readers have read about the recent study in which three to five year olds overwhelmingly identified food coming from McDonalds bags as tasting better than anything else. While I suspect that a young person is more likely to change brands than an old person, it seems to me that in both cases they are already loyal to certain brands and not that likely to change brands regardless of advertising.

So far I have simply dealt with the issue of age; there is still the matter of Madison Avenue and the television networks preferring urban dwellers to country dwellers. Just as younger people are supposed to have more disposable income than older people, so too are city folk supposed to have more disposable income than country folk. Indeed, I have even read claims that the fans of the rural shows of the Sixties could not afford the items advertised on those shows! Now I will admit, there are probably more millionaires living in cities than in rural areas, but then it seems to me that most of the commercials on network television are directed towards the middle class, not the wealthy. After all, when was the last time that an ad for Bentley or Cartier aired on prime time network television? Most of what is advertised on television are common items that nearly every American uses and can afford: soap, food, clothing, and so on. It seems to me that most of the items Madison Avenue shills on network television are as easily affordable for people living in rural areas as they are for people living in cities. There has also been the claim that people living in rural areas are less likely to change brands than people living in urban areas. Again, I seriously doubt that given how early brand loyalty is developed in Americans.

Now I suppose that there might be those who will argue that more people live in cities than in the country, moderately sized cities, and small towns, but it seems to me that this could well be untrue. Indeed, I have always suspected that even now more people live in moderately sized cities, small towns, and rural areas than big cities (or simply put, urban areas). I am not sure at what point the average American considers a city to have ceased being a moderately sized one and become a big one (that is, an urban area), but for me it happens when a city has a population of over 100,000. I will admit that to a degree for any given person what is considered "urban (that is, a "big city")" and what is considered "rural (the "country")" is largely subjective.

At any rate, to test my theory, I checked the percentage of people living in cities above the size of 100,000 to the total population of people of three different states (Iowa, Illinois, and New York). It turns out that only a little over 10% of the entire population of Iowa live in cities over 100,000 in population (not surprising, as there aren't many cities over 100,000 in Iowa). That means the majority of Iowans live in moderately sized towns (of which there aren't many in Iowa), small towns, and rural areas. Illinois has a higher percentage of city dwellers than Iowa; 28% of all Illini live in cities over 100,000 (and most of those live in Chicago), still fewer people than living in moderately sized cities and rural areas. Even in New York, home to the New York City (still the largest city in the United States), the majority of people live outside urban areas, although it is a greater number than either Iowa or Illinois. In New York 47% of the people live in cities over 100,000. This means that over half of all New Yorkers live in moderately sized cities, small towns, and rural areas as opposed to big cities.

While I will admit that my approach was probably not the most scientific (perhaps I should have checked the populations of all 50 states, although that would be time consuming), but I think it could point to a possibility that the United States is not as urban as we have been led to believe. Quite simply, it seems to me that the majority of Americans live in moderately sized cities, small towns, and rural areas, areas most people would not class as "urban." Since very few TV series in the past thirty years have even been set in moderately sized cities, let alone small towns or rural areas, I think it is safe to say that Madison Avenue and the networks have been ignoring the majority of Americans (in fact, sometimes I think that they are ignoring everyone living outside New York City and Los Angeles). Now I am no businessman, but I would think this is foolish. By creating shows that appeal to individuals living in moderately sized cities, small towns, and rural areas, both Madison Avenue and the networks could increase their revenue dramatically. Let's face it, 100 people living in a small town, with a moderate income, each buying a bar of soap will raise more money for a soap manufacturer than one person living in a big city, with a huge income, buying one bar of soap.

It seems to me that Madison Avenue's idea that those between the ages of 18 and 49 living in urban areas are the most desirable demographic is then fundamentally flawed. This would not be so sad if it was not for the fact that it has had a dire affect on network television in the past thirty years. Two of my favourite TV shows were rural shows from the Sixties (The Andy Griffith Show and The Beverly Hillbillies), and I love King of the Hill. Sadly, rural shows on network television have been few and far between. And while I do fall into the 18 to 49 year old demographic, I must say that I have enjoyed shows featuring older people (The Golden Girls numbers among my favourite sitcoms). Of course, shows featuring older people have been ever rarer than those set in rural areas. In fact, it seems to me that Madison Avenue and the networks often skew their commercials and TV shows to the youngest people in the 18-49 year old demographic, if not younger. After all, I rather suspect that all those teen dramas that aired on the WB (now the CW), not to mention Grey's Anatomy, are not made for people my age.

Of course, all of this may be besides the point. Shows such as The Beverly Hillbillies, The Golden Girls, and King of the Hill have lasted for a reason. Quite simply, they are good shows. In fact, I rather suspect that many people living in big cities watch King of the Hill and many people under the age of 50 watch The Golden Girls. Rather than creating shows to appeal to a specific age group, then, perhaps the networks should simply concentrate on creating quality TV shows. If they are any good, then young people in urban areas will watch them, regardless of the ages of the characters or where they live.

At any rate, regardless of the impact it has had on network broadcasting, I honestly believe that in directing commercials and TV shows to people living in urban areas and between the ages of 18 to 49 is simply bad business. In targeting commercials and TV shows to people between the ages of 18 to 49, Madison Avenue and the networks have been ignoring those people who really have the disposable income to buy a wide array of items--those over the age of thirty and especially over the age of fifty. In creating commercials and TV shows with appeal to urban dwellers, they have ignored the majority of Americans, whose sheer numbers are really too large to ignore. It seems to me that if Madison Avenue and the networks want to make more money, then they are going to have to change their approach. They are going to have to give up targeting those between the age of 18 to 49 living in urban areas.