“The End of Vintage Cable Box”

I started the Vintage Cable Box series at the end of August, 2015. The series bowed with entries for Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing, the Rodney Dangerfield vehicle, Easy Money, and the Citizen Kane of teen sex comedies, Porky’s, directed by Bob Clark, who would later, inexplicably, bring us A Christmas Story (though both movies shares a nostalgic connection in their themes). Over 200 essays later, it’s finally time to pull the plug, and I thought I’d take this time to answer some questions and fill you in on my thought process. Cable television was an incredible oasis at the time; we’re talking 1984 through 1986, two short years. Growing up poor in Cincinnati and then Philadelphia, my Mother had a job opportunity in Tennessee, the State of her birth, and she thought we should live near some family at that time, so we moved down there in the late Spring of 1984.

Attack of the comically-oversized condom.

Philly had no cable in certain neighborhoods, usually anything below Broad Street in the “historic” sections of the town. Cable lines were considered unattractive and would detract from the beauty of the older neighborhoods. This has since been rectified with underground lines, but back then all you had were roof antennas, rabbit ears, and aluminum foil to improve reception of the 12 channels you were granted, three of which were VHF networks, and the rest were independent UHF sources. Add to that the fact we didn’t get our first VCR until probably 1986, so the television was practically a miracle sent down from heaven. We had a 19-inch RCA Colortrack on a rolling stand until I spilled chocolate milk into the back of it, and then all of our television came from a 12-inch black & white Sylvania. It cost $200 to have the television repaired (back then you had to have your electronics repaired), so we took it down to Tennessee with us, and then my Mother invested $125 in a used 25-inch Magnavox color console. It was magnificent.

No cable for you!

This is how I close every Vintage Cable Box article:

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.

So we come from a place with only 12 channels to a place with over 30 channels. Imagine the switch-over. This was the premium package. Compare it to today. I was looking at the cable box channel guide the other day. It isn’t just one HBO channel, it’s six. It isn’t just one Cinemax channel, it’s six. It’s East Coast feeds, and West Coast feeds. Forty sports channels. Twenty cooking channels. It’s countless news channels. In 1984, we were overwhelmed. In 2018, we’re drowning in entertainment options. I only wished we had a VCR, because I felt then (as I do now) the analog picture and sound was perfect. Cable television picture quality was much better than VHS/Beta quality. For a time, we had HBO and Cinemax, and The Movie Channel, which was probably my favorite for offering an incredible assortment of films and film festivals. This was my film school education. Every filmmaker would say if you wanted to know how to make films, just watch films. Technique comes from another place; the source of inspiration and style built somewhere in your psyche, and you can’t learn that in a school setting.

The Precious.

I dug in, and this is where my love affair with movies began. I make it a point to watch every movie I choose to include. Some movies were more difficult to find than others. Some movies were so terrible I didn’t want to continue watching, but I stuck it out for the sake of veracity. As I write this, I’ve just finished writing my review for 1981’s Rollover. I have a good set-up in the bedroom for watching old videotapes; a big-screen CRT* and a 4-head (admittedly mono) Sansui VHS VCR. Sometimes if a movie is available in a superior format, and reasonably priced, I’ll grab it, but I do try to stay as close to the time period as I can. I’ve given some movies much more time than they deserve (i.e. Screwballs, Jekyll & Hyde Together Again, They Call Me Bruce?). Other movies (personal favorites) were written on “auto-pilot” because I knew them so well. I could quote dialogue and remember key edits. There is also the sad fact that some movies get more promotion and rotation than others, and continue to be enjoyed today, while others disappear down a rabbit hole of bad production deals, shady financing, and limited distribution (i.e. Get Crazy, Somebody Killed Her Husband).

The obscuring haze of nostalgia.

I’ve received an enormous outpouring of praise from readers, as well as suggestions. I do take suggestions, but it’s usually when I’ve forgotten a title that did play endlessly on cable television within that admittedly brief window of time and, more importantly, when I’ve actually seen the movie in question. Vintage Cable Box is mostly about my remembrances of those years. On occasion, a reader will suggest a title, and it will not be representative to me of a movie I remember in the rotation of cable television. There were tiny little movies that played constatntly on cable television, like The Sender or Midnight Madness. There were big box-office blockbusters. There were the flops. As I write this, I’m reviewing Smithereens and Rollover, two very different movies. In that brief time period (1984-1985) cable television was an incredible, eclectic, diverse collection of unique entertainment, and most of it was exceptional. Sadly, it isn’t like that anymore. Cable television is a thousand channels, a lot of it prescribed in an algorithm-like fashion, designed to cater to the entertainment needs of a vast audience that does not include the likes of me. It’s so boring. Or perhaps, because there are so many choices, I’m not in a hurry to watch. In the old days, we didn’t have a VCR, so we had to be there – at a specific time, tuned to a specific channel, to watch a movie.

Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper too?

Consider the VCR. We laugh at VHS and Beta now. I did a whole series about the history of home video with David Anderson. In those days, it was the quite the coup to have all three Star Wars movies on tape playing through your old CRT. It mattered. Now we laugh because we have high definition, big screen. A movie theater in your living room! It’s amazing. How soon we forget. We also forget that too much of anything reduces value and appreciation. Now that we have so many choices, we stop caring about times and places. We won’t rush home so we can have dinner ready and watch our favorite show. Instead, you program the DVR, and take your time doing whatever you want to do. A couple of buttons pushed and I can record a whole series. In case I forget to record a whole series, I can just watch anything I want “on-demand.” No wonder we’re all getting fat!

There were titles I had considered reviewing but ultimately decided not to review. Tom Cruise comes to mind. He would be an obvious choice to evaluate because his work was crucial to the early days of cable television. He had a small role as Steve Randle in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders. After that, he appeared in Losin’ It (which I did enjoy) with Jackie Earle Haley and Shelley Long, and then Risky Business and All the Right Moves made him a huge star. Cruise wouldn’t explode in his popularity until the mid ’80s with Top Gun, Rain Man, and Born on the Fourth of July. He was little more than a teen heartthrob at the time I was watching cable television; the time-line of that very small window was crucial to my choices for the column. I think the ’80s was a time of Dudley Moore and Steve Guttenberg, teen sex comedies and slasher movies, John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg (though I don’t recall reviewing any Spielberg movies for Vintage Cable Box – it was another matter of time-line). Obscure titles were what I sought out originally. I thought about The Buddy System and Nate and Hayes, WarGames and Psycho II, Get Crazy and Rhinestone, not Tom Cruise.

Sorry, Tom.

I learned a few things, too. I learned that the (comparatively) smaller brain of the eleven or twelve year old child compared to that of a forty-five year old adult is much more willing to fill in the blanks of a shoddy narrative or a bad performance or a balls-out terrible movie than viewed through the narrow, rigid scope of maturity. I find I have very little time in my life now to throw caution to the wind and look at every movie coming out. My prejudices will extend to comic book movies and big-budget blockbusters; those movies are simply not made for me. In fact, I tend to look upon those my age who enthusiastically watch comic book movies with some degree of either pity or derision. Where I was willing to give a movie like Screwballs a chance when I was twelve, I won’t even watch a new Jurassic Park movie these days. I just don’t have the time to waste on dinosaurs, or talking raccoons for that matter. It all feels so ridiculously disposable. That’s what has happened to movies today. They’ve become disposable.

No thank you!

We come to the end of the journey. I did this for fun, but then I discovered I had regular readers. I want to thank each and every one of you. If there was one grievance from yours truly, it would have to be that I, in my estimation, wrote some really good material that wasn’t popular with readers because the movie I was writing about was not that popular. I could get big numbers on a title like Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (in 3-D!), and tumbleweeds for The Big Chill, which I considered one my best written reviews. I don’t understand how that works, but thanks for reading all the same!

VINTAGE CABLE BOX: “Soggy Bottom U.S.A.”

“These backwater hicks are an ignorant lot, but I’ll say one thing for ’em.  They … sure have a way with lemonade!”

Soggy Bottom U.S.A., 1980 (Ben Johnson), Gaylord Productions

Alligator! Oh wait, I think it’s a crocodile. Nevermind. Crocodiles … oh damn, it is an alligator. Somebody get Robert Forster on the phone! The deck of Soggy Bottom U.S.A. is stacked with a lot of names in the credits I recognize: Ben Johnson, Don Johnson, Anne Wedgeworth, the great crazy-eyed Jack Elam, Severn Darden (thanks to my wife’s Monkees Vs. Macheen articles), P.J. Soles, Dub Taylor, Brion James, and many more! I was thinking about this the other day. They don’t make decent “redneck” movies anymore. Nowadays, you get Deliverance variations where we get a bunch of Northerners, or “carpet-baggers” coming down to the swamps to partake of that fresh air, and being menaced by the locals.

Soggy Bottom is an unusual town, dominated by the marsh, and you have to navigate with a boat instead of a car to get to most places.  I always wonder why people would choose to live there.  Maybe the property taxes are really low.  Who knows?  The town is populated with eccentric characters.  Ben Johnson’s Sheriff is being harassed by a loud and angry Federal agent (Anthony Zerbe) investigating unpaid taxes and wise-ass moonshiner Cottonmouth Gorch (Taylor, a fixture in westerns and comedies for decades) during the Prohibition era.  Dingbat young inventor Don Johnson wants to marry childhood sweetheart Soles, a fledgling singer.  The Sheriff  tries to hold his relatively peaceful little Louisiana swamp town together during the popular 10th Annual Coon-Dog Race while trying to keep his girlfriend (Lois Nettleton, possibly best remembered for her turn in the classic Twilight Zone episode, “The Midnight Sun”) happy.  She wants Ben to make her an honest woman, but he thinks he’s too old to be her husband.  Their relationship is rather sweet.

Seems everybody comes out for the Soggy Bottom Coon-Dog Race.  The grand prize is enough cash for Don to get investors for his unusual swamp fanboat design.  Wedgeworth (I remember her from Three’s Company) plays country music star Dusty Wheeler, and she brings her prize-winning dog, Lord Byron, to the race.  Dusty makes eyes at the Sheriff, inspiring the ire of Lois.  It’s unusual to see Don Johnson (just before he became a big star on Miami Vice) playing such a small, subordinate role in a cast of genuinely interesting characters.  I don’t get the impression these characters exist merely in service to the story, but that there happened to be cameras rolling and gravitating effortlessly to the most intriguing narratives.  Dusty’s shifty manager, Smilin’ Jack, cons P.J. into selling her song for $20 without any stipulation for royalties.  This is like a good Robert Altman movie.

It takes a while before we get back to our central story – the race.  Most of the running time is taken up with ambiance, character development, and humorous episodes, but I’m not distracted as much as I was with the truly dreadful Screwballs.  I like these characters.  Soggy Bottom U.S.A. was a movie that received endless play on cable, particularly The Movie Channel.  I think it might’ve been part of a Ben Johnson retrospective.  I’m reminded of movies like Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (a movie I enjoyed) that take great pains to capture the mood, feeling, and affection for nostalgia of Soggy Bottom U.S.A. – consider the name of the band George Clooney and his friends make up when they cut their hit record: The Soggy Bottom Boys.  In the end, Lord Byron wins the race while Ben’s old dog, Sissy, breaks her leg.  The town bands together to help Ben’s dog, and Lois stays with Ben.  In a double-wedding, Ben marries Lois, and Don marries P.J.  I’d love to see a cleaned-up and letterboxed version of this movie.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: The Ratings Game

“In trucking, I only had to deal with thugs, hit-men and goons. But these network guys are scary.”

The Ratings Game, 1984 (Danny DeVito), Viacom Productions

There was an episode of Family Guy a couple of years back where Peter Griffin gets it into his head to steal all the Nielsen ratings boxes from a van. A few hours later, he has rigged the boxes to collect information from his viewing preferences. Peter then realizes he has a kind of power to manipulate the television broadcasting system to his peculiar standards. As a result, all kinds of ridiculous programming is produced. Tired of having his ideas rejected by the Hollywood elite, Danny DeVito’s Vic De Salvo devises a scheme to garner high ratings for his unsold pilot, Sittin’ Pretty (a kind of Three’s Company knock-off starring himself) by sending Nielsen families off on a cruise while he has friends break into their homes and watch his pilot, thus inflating the numbers.

Anyone who has ever had to deal with creative labyrinthian hurdles, heirarchies, and systems of exclusion will understand DeVito’s problem.  He’s an outsider who has gotten fed-up with playing by the rules, so he takes matters into his own hands.  In a way, he reminds me of madman moviemaker Tommy Wiseau and his truly appalling The Room, even to the point where Vic is deluded as to his own talent.  Sittin’ Pretty, while a terrible example of a television pilot, is in keeping with most television series produced at that time (and many these days) so it’s resulting success (or failure) is inexplicable.  Rhea Perlman is a low-level statistician at the ratings company.  While courting her, she gives him the idea to hijack the families.  Either, he was unaware of the need for high ratings, or the (admittedly clever) teleplay is required to educate the audience, or both.  A particularly funny scene aboard the cruise has these bored Nielsen families (no television is permitted on the cruise) engaging in lively discussion about a recent Dynasty episode.

The Ratings Game works brilliantly as a satire of not only the culture television shows stimulate, but in turn the entertainment our culture inspires.  If you believe that television is a pop culture wasteland (excluding the McLuhan argument that television is merely a catalyst for that wasteland – an argument I agree with), the movie will, at least, provide a foundation for that belief.  The Nielsen ratings exists as a kind of sample pool of viewing habits.  The percentages of viewership are based on a small sampling of “Nielsen families”.  For example, if ten people watch your television, Nielsen will estimate a thousand people (who do not have the ratings boxes in their homes) watched your television show.  It’s not an exact science and has caused consternation through the years as people have seen their favorite shows cancelled due to weak or low ratings.  Networks and syndicators take those figures and charges advertisers varying rates for commercials that will air during those shows.

First-time director Danny DeVito, working with a WGA award-winning script by Michael Barrie and Jim Mulholland, and perhaps drawing on his own experience in television, crafts a deliberate, mocking parody foreshadowing his later work.  The cast is made up of a wonderful mix of television and character actors: Gerrit Graham, Kevin McCarthy, George Wendt, Allyce Beasley, and in early roles, Jerry Seinfeld and Michael Richards.  DeVito would go to direct (mostly) unusually dark comedies like Throw Momma from the Train, The War of the Roses (a personal favorite), and Death to Smoochy.  The Ratings Game was produced for the Showtime cable television networks and aired on The Movie Channel.  HBO (Home Box Office) started producing original films a year earlier with The Terry Fox Story.  Made-for-cable films would become an industry unto itself after these first few experiments.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.