Thursday, March 18, 2010

Culture Shock 03.18.10: Remembering the wild days of cable TV

Once the backwater of the entertainment world, cable TV is now where the action is. But I can't help but think cable has lost something on its long journey toward respectability.

When it comes time for Hollywood to hand out awards, shows like "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad" and "Dexter" — not to mention HBO's late, lamented "The Sopranos" — are always in the running for Emmys and Golden Globes.

That's a big change from just 20 years ago, when cable shows weren't even eligible for Emmy nominations. Instead, cable had its own, separate award, the ACE. And winning one was no big deal.

Flash forward in time, and many of the best shows on television are cable originals, from "Battlestar Galactica" and "Anthony Bourdain" to "Penn & Teller" and "The Venture Bros." Yet when I look back at old video clips on YouTube, I'm struck by what cable has given up.

As creative as cable is now, it's a different kind of creativity than 30 years ago.

Early cable depended on inventiveness born of desperation. And if one crazy idea failed, who cared? No one was watching, anyway.

For instance, search YouTube and you'll find old footage from TBS back when it was still known as WTBS, Atlanta's "Superstation."

The early days of Ted Turner's flagship channel remind me a lot of the 1989 movie "UHF," in which a down-on-his-luck dreamer played by "Weird Al" Yankovic takes over a failing local TV station and programs it with whatever nutty shows he can imagine.

Yes, I just compared Ted Turner with "Weird Al." I bet you didn't see that coming. But it's no stretch, really.

Before it went national, WTBS (originally WTCG) was just another struggling, independent UHF station trying to make a buck.

In the early '80s, WTBS was awash with local Atlanta professional wrestling, 1940s Bugs Bunny cartoons and Three Stooges shorts, and whatever movies Turner could get his hands on. But Turner had in-house talent, too.

Bill Tush had mostly worked behind the scenes before Turner made him the face of WTBS — doing commercials, hosting movies and, most importantly, anchoring a 3 a.m. news broadcast. Tush turned that news program into a screwball mix of news and comedy, and he did it some 20 years before Jon Stewart made Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" a hit with college students.

Tush's newscast gained a cult following, and Turner gave him his own comedy/variety show, which lasted two years and helped give Jan Hooks ("Saturday Night Live") her start in showbiz. Afterward, Tush became CNN's go-to entertainment reporter, a position he held until 2003.

The '80s were wild days for cable TV. WTBS invited in local schoolchildren to read and report the news for a weekday afternoon segment called "Kids Beat," and it aired "Starcade," a game show in which contestants played arcade games like "Donkey Kong" and "Pac-Man."

TBS wasn't alone. Although it's now known for critical favorites like "Monk" and "Burn Notice," USA Network had similar beginnings.

Its early lineup included wrestling, game shows and B-grade horror movies hosted by "retired superhero" Commander USA (aka Jim Hendricks).

It was inexpensive, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants programming, and there was a kind of freedom to it that went beyond just being free of broadcast television's standards and practices.

It was the sort of freedom that comes, to paraphrase the song, with having nothing to lose.

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