Saturday, November 01, 2014

TV Watch: "Town to town, up and down the dial" -- welcome back, "WKRP in Cincinnati"!


It looks like hell in this format, stretched and squashed into that tiny screen, and the voices sound kind of peculiar too -- has the pitch somehow dropped? Still, I think this may be my favorite WKRP episode: "Baby, It's Cold Inside" (Season 3, Episode 8). On this frigid, heatless morning, the station staff, which I describe below as "one of the great ensemble casts in TV history," is thrown into confusion by the unexpected early-morning appearance of Mrs. Carlson (Carol Bruce), media-mogul mother of station manager Arthur "Big Guy" Carlson (Gordon Jump). Under the influence of what Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman) is passing off as brandy, Mother Carlson -- "the Ice Queen," to Johnny -- takes uncharacteristically to reminiscing to receptionist Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson) about her hulking hunk of a husband, Hank, telling us almost everything we know about her past and (I think) everything we ever learn about the Big Guy's late, all-too-breakable father. Eventually, the whole crew has a turn with the Ice Queen, until finally Arthur arrives -- and I'm blown away every time.
Baby, if you've ever wondered,
wondered whatever became of me,
I'm living on the air in Cincinnati,
Cincinnati WKRP.

Got kind of tired
of packing and unpacking,
town to town,
up and down the dial.
Maybe you and me
were never meant to be.
Just maybe think of me
once in a while.

I'm at WKRP in Cincinnati,
Cincinnati WKRP.
-- Steve Carlisle's lyrics for the WKRP theme song

by Ken

I was a latecomer to WKRP in Cincinnati for what seemed to me at the time the excellent reason that I had, and have, no interest in rock 'n' roll. So I couldn't imagine what interest there could be for me in a show about a bottom-of-the-ratings radio station with a dead-and-dying listenership switching from whatever the hell its old format was (dead 'n' dying?) to, you know, rock 'n' roll.

Then somehow or other I happened to watch the show, and I discovered what interest there could be: the characters, the actors, and of course the writing. What creator-showrunner Hugh Wilson put together was four seasons' worth of writing as good as anybody's ever done for TV, one of the great ensemble casts in TV history (not to mention 90 episodes' worth of top-notch guest performers), and a behind-the-camera team -- which all together made WKRP one of the enduring great achievements in the medium.

The show barely made it out of its first season, and in fact struggled to make it through four, with one conspicuous exception. "When the show first went on,” Wilson told the Toronto Star's Bill Broux in an interview that appeared just this week, “it was struggling in the ratings in the U.S."
But the ratings in Canada were great right from the beginning. I've never understood that, but I’ve always been super grateful for it.
He used the strong viewership in Canada in pleading his case for survival with CBS programmers. Clearly there was an audience for the show.

"You know, we were never really that popular," Wilson told KSITE-TV interviewer Craig Byrne in June, just before a cast reunion at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. "But I thought we were kind of smart." Then something remarkable happened.
When we went into syndication, we did way better than any other MTM show -- Mary, Phyllis, Rhoda, Hill Street. . . . We were the king of syndication, which means that people were still finding us, and hopefully we did a couple of memorable things.
They did almost nothing but memorable things. It turns out that probably the most remembered thing they did was based on a real event, told to him by the manager of Atlanta radio station WQXI, Jerry Blum. Wilson asked about funny things that might have happened at the station, he told Craig Byrne.
He said, "Well, we threw a turkey out of a helicopter once, and that got someone fired." And I said, "Stop. Start from the beginning." I was writing this down, because that's found gold.
That became "Turkeys Away," Episode 7 of Season 1, perhaps most memorable for the running on-air commentary on station manager Arthur Carlson's (Gordon Jump) brilliant promotion provided by multiple-Buckeye Newshawk Award-winning newsman Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) in full Hindenburg-catastrophe mode -- yes, including an "Oh, the humanity!" Either that or Mr. Carlson's immortal, er, post mortem: "As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly."

Speaking of real people, Hugh Wilson explained to Craig Byrne in June how WKRP program director Andy Travis (Gary Sandy) got his name -- from a cousin Wilson worshipped.
"He was a retired Miami-Dade County policeman. He retired to the panhandle of Florida, where he fished every day for the last 15 years. He died about a month ago. Andy was my hero, so I gave kind of a shout-out to him. He was my cousin, a couple of years older than me, and I thought he was like a demi-god," Wilson recalled. Did people come up to him and make light of his name? "I think after a while he'd get a little tired of it," Wilson laughed.


Because Shout! Factory has just brought out a 13-DVD set of the complete WKRP in Cincinnati (one disc devoted just to extras), and amazingly, it's almost is complete -- unlike the ill-fated 2007 20th Century Fox DVD set of Season 1.

The problem was the music. Not surprisingly, in a show set in a rock radio station, there was a lot of it -- coming into scenes, going out of scenes, playing in the background of scenes. Bill Broux writes:
WKRP caught on and artists and record companies started lobbying to have their music played on camera. "I felt like I was a station manager," says Wilson, who recalls receiving countless albums, posters and record store displays. [Howard] Hesseman, who played trippy DJ Dr. Johnny Fever, and [Tim] Reid, soul jockey Venus Flytrap, also got pitched. "I mostly let them pick their own music," says Wilson of the two actors, "unless I was using [a certain song] as part of a story or a joke."
All of the music was, of course, legally licensed, but the licenses were limited, and while they weren't much of an issue while the show was struggling through its four-season run, and music-industry types were cheering it on, the rights holders clamped down when it became a big deal in syndication. Beatles and Rolling Stones songs disappeared quickly, and in time so did most everything else. Which meant that the songs were either replaced by generic material or simply cut. Where they did feature in the dialogue of a scene, that too had to be edited out in the syndicated version.

Which is the way 20th Century Fox issued Season 1. "They tried to cut it up to get the music out of it," Wilson told Craig Byrne.
They sent me one to look at. I watched about seven minutes of it and said, "I can't do this. I'll be a good soldier and say to please buy the DVD," but they brought it out, they took us out to New York -- Loni Anderson, Tim Reid, Howard Hesseman, and myself -- and we went on the Today Show to hype the thing, and then we went and we were interviewed by DJs all over the country, and boom! All of the deejays came on and said, "Hugh, they screwed up your show!" Every big-time morning guy in the country was yelling, "Don't buy this!"
This is discussed endlessly on various online forums. (You can get a healthy taste of it in the Amazon comments.) And when plans for the Shout edition of the complete series were announced, it was assumed by the faithful that it would be more of the same. Many of them took to the Intertubes to spew venom about a product they didn't know anything about. In fact, Shout managed to negotiate clearances for something like 85 percent of the music.

As you may have guessed, the loss of the music wouldn't have been a huge issue for me, though I'm sure replacing prime-artist material with generic stuff would affect the texture of the show, even when the music wasn't actually incorporated into scenes. For most of the WKRP faithful, however, it's a paramount issue. Even with the 85 percent or so clearances, there are fans screaming online about the music that couldn't be cleared. There's one who rants frequently -- in all caps, naturally, that Shout didn't even try to get the music, and simply didn't want to spend money. (When you clear 85 percent of the music, though, it doesn't sound to me like you've been stinting on either effort or money.)

Most of the WKRP online obsessives are a pretty sensible bunch, and are duly grateful to have all 90 episodes, not just with the restoration of most of the music, but with the restoration of the average 2½ minutes' worth of show chopped out in the cutdown for syndication. A year ago nobody would have dreamt such a thing might ever be possible.

My copy is on order. I may have more to say after it arrives.



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