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Copyright © 2001 by John Zipperer.

Some of these columns first appeared, in edited form, on TVBarn or elsewhere as noted.

From the Birth of Bart Simpson to the Death of Crow T. Robot
Sci Fi Channel's Barry Diller Struggles to Reach the Top
By John Zipperer

(3/15/01) Barry Diller keeps getting close to the highest levels of power in the media world without ever quite reaching that top spot. The chairman and CEO of USA Networks Inc., who will be giving a keynote address at the Internet World Spring 2001 trade show and conference in mid-March, has a record that runs through traditional media (though in non-traditional ways) through the new-media of the 1980s (cable) to the new-media of today on the Internet. Along the way, heís changed the way all of them work, but heís still not reached the level of ubiquity as Disneyís Michael Eisner or AOLís Steve Case.

The irony is that at least some of the waves of change these competitors are riding were first created by Diller. In just the past year, weíve seen significant convergence between old-line media and new media. The most obvious example is the merger of Time Warner with America Online, but that may be the most unusual in that it was actually the purchase of old-line Time Warner by the new-media AOL. But whatever the exact weighting of the two sides, they are becoming increasingly just media -- but in a new way. But go back 30 years, and things did not change that quickly; arguably, they were stagnant, waiting for someone to come along and change them through force of vision and the pressure of circumstances.

It is hard to describe Dillerís rise in entertainment without calling him a wunderkind. He was at ABC in 1969 when, after having spent a few years in such work as negotiating rights to feature films, he became vice president for feature films and program development. He was still in his twenties at that point, but he made a name for himself by creating the ABC Movie of the Week, which not only established the made-for-television movie as a winner but helped the number-three network climb up the ratings scale.

Note that Diller also did the unconventional in subject matter, something that would be repeated later in his career at the FOX network. Diller didnít invent made-for-TV movies, but he did tear them away from conventional topics and instead covered such issues as the Vietnam War, homosexuality, and drugs. Itís a sign of Dillerís impact that those topics are rarely noteworthy on TV today, but back in the early 1970s they were blazing trails for ABC.

In 1974, when he was only 32 years old, Diller became chairman of Paramount Pictures. He guided that studio for a decade, overseeing such successes as Saturday Night Fever, Grease, and the first two Indian Jones films. Dillerís Paramount also had a number of hits on the small screen, including Laverne & Shirley and Taxi.

But that wasnít enough for him. Nor, arguably, was it enough for the entertainment consumer. The 1970s and the early 1980s were a time when people had a fairly static view of their media titans. Thatís natural, because the media titans were fairly static. The same basic movie studios churned out most of the films; though behind the scenes, the independent film scene was developing such future creators as Wes Craven and a slew of people working in the Roger Corman film factory, this indy scene didnít have the popularity or the big-money cache that it enjoys today with such hits to its credit as the Blair Witch Project.

But even more static than the film world was the television world, where -- with the exception of shows such as All in the Family or Maude that pushed the envelope with controversial material -- programs were a creative sleepytime and it looked like things would remain the same forever. We had three big networks that practically printed money and a loose network of public stations that couldnít make money if their lives depended on it. That world began to crumble with the rise of cable television, where people began to realize two things: first, television didnít have to be sanitized and boring, and second, the Big Three networks were vulnerable. Barry Diller rode those two issues for the next decade.

Diller left Paramount and joined Twentieth Century Fox, where from 1984 to 1992, he served as chairman and chief executive officer. In 1985, Rupert Murdoch purchased the studio, and two years later Diller and Fox launched the Fox television network to directly challenge ABC, CBS, and NBC, albeit only on two nights of the week. That slowly expanded to a full week, and the little network developed a reputation for alternative fare, something Diller already knew about from his ABC TV film days. Low-cost television spam such as Cops shared the schedule with innovative programs such as the Tracey Ullman Show and something called The Simpsons. Things were clearly changing on television, and Diller was the driving force behind them.

But then in 1992, Diller jumped ship, leaving Fox and taking a stake in the QVC TV shopping channel. Though it initially made people think the mogul had taken himself out of the limelight, his strategy became clearer the next year when he launched an ill-fated bid to take over Paramount. He lost that struggle to Viacom, which recently bought CBS to become one of the giants in world media. He soon left QVC, but he hasnít left behind his dreams of empire. He hasnít even left behind television shopping, having served as chairman and CEO of HSN Inc from 1996 to 1998.

His current position at USA Networks gives him control of a number of new and traditional media outlets, ranging from the Sci Fi Channel (which under him has expanded greatly its offerings of original programming, though to his discredit it also cancelled the excellent Mystery Science Theater 3000 series) to USA Network, USA Films to the HSN properties, Ticketmaster Online-Citysearch to Electronic Commerce Solutions.

The New York Times quoted former Disney movie chief Joe Roth calling Diller ďthe smartest, most astute business man Iíve ever worked with.Ē Heíll need those smarts if heís to come out a champion over upstarts such as AOLís Steve Case or Viacomís Sumner Redstone. The alternative is that he will just build himself a lucrative position controlling key niche channels like the ones noted above. But thatís unlikely for someone whose track record shows heís been aiming for the top spot in the industry all along.

(This article was published in edited form in the Internet World Show Daily for the Internet World Spring 2001 trade show and conference in Los Angeles in March.)


Finding the Good Stuff 
By John Zipperer

(1/7/01) After nearly a year of living in Manhattan, Iíve come to the realization that this city has a couple positive traits. Iíve been amazed that this is the only city Iíve lived in in which a movie theater can attract lines around the block of people waiting to see new films from Taiwan or France, where thereís standing room only for a Woody Allen film, where an art cinema will have multiple theaters showing a collection of independent films. In short, itís a place where thereís actually an audience for the out-of-the-ordinary. People here will actually wait in lines to see films that are different and that may even disturb them.

Thatís extraordinary. As someone who seeks out foreign and independent films, Iíve always looked for those one or two theaters in each city in which I live where Iíll be able to view such films. Chicago was pretty good, with the beautiful Fine Arts cinemas downtown near the Art Institute, as well as a cinema in the Institute itself, and there was always my favorite place, the Music Box theater on the north side. During my nearly two years of exile in Indianapolis, my refuge was a small theater on the south side that regularly showed films that would have been incomprehensible to the average, sweet-natured but unchallenged Indy resident. Madison, Wisconsin, had some good outlets on the University of Wisconsin campus, but their offerings were uneven and for more reliable fare one went to the Majestic Theater off the Capitol square. And for those completists among you, Du Pont Circle residents of Washington, D.C., can easily head over to Georgetown to get their dose of French and British films.

Why the list of such places? Iím just pointing out that there is a market for films that tell stories in ways that are different from the standard, homogenized Hollywood way. The vast majority of films released by American film studios take you through their plots step by step, each plot point foreseeable well in advance, signaled by the ever-present and overbearing musical score. Worse yet, each film has a recognizable plot, as if thereís only one way to tell a story, and it always ends nicely wrapped up.

Thatís not by accident. At a science fiction convention here in Manhattan last fall, several writers from the 1970s science fiction series ďSpace 1999Ē talked about how Hollywood has a system for story breakdowns, and it actually runs writers through weekend retreats where theyíre taught how to do the beat-by-beat plotting of a story. The homogenization is intentional, so if people stay away from such films, then Hollywood deserves it.

But a second disturbing thing about this development is that these wonderful foreign films coming from mainland China, France, Ireland, Germany, Iran, and other places, are telling wonderful and gripping stories about economic polarization, village life, love, selfishness, and much more. No, thatís not disturbing the disturbing thing. Whatís disturbing about it is the absence of the type of film that is in many ways most suited to exploring these ideas. Shouldnít more of these foreign and independent films be in the science fiction genre? Isnít science fiction supposed to be the genre of ideas, of challenging and wondrous concepts and visions? Thatís arguable, of course; there are plenty of people who like SF because it is escapism and nothing more, and Iím sympathetic to the need to relax and sometimes not challenge your mind. But that shouldnít be the standard of most film or television fare.

Most of itís Ö well, itís crap. Countless films bore me before theyíre even halfway over. Too much SF TV is the same, though itís formulaic in a slightly different way than, say, the brain candy of ďBuck Rogers in the 25th CenturyĒ was 20 years ago. Whereas those old shows followed a guide that rarely did anything to change the fundamentals of the show and never let the characters mature or evolve, today's shows have eagerly adopted the new freedom they have to kill off major characters and throw their characters into amnesia or marriage or the afterlife or whatever promises a boost during sweeps month.

Thatís a nice development, but it usually leads to a more exciting bit of nothingness. And we're left with the same gap.

So where are the ideas? Whereís the originality? Some of the originality is there in Sci Fiís ďExposureĒ series. There are little bright spots here and there elsewhere, especially if you have the Bravo or IFC channels on your cable system. But itís far too little, and I find myself watching fewer and fewer television shows -- science fiction shows, but also of every kind. For me, itís back to the books to find those exciting and challenging ideas, and Iíll hope television catches up someday.

(Thanks to reader Michael Jones for correcting a previous version of this article.)


More "X-Files," less Duchovny 
by John Zipperer

(10/31/00) With a revamped cast and high expectations, "The X-Files" returns to Fox this Sunday with new episodes. And word is that the show will be scarier, less mythology heavy, and will spend less time exploring humorous side stories. That all sounds good to long-time X-philes. But we'll still have to wait until November 5 to see how the show's new makeup works.

By now, everyone knows that star David Duchovny has left the regular cast as FBI agent Fox Mulder; he will be returning in a limited number of episodes to carry on the story of his own abduction. Taking his place as the partner of agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) is Robert Patrick, who has had a big-screen career that includes the UFO pic "Fire in the Sky" and kiler cyborg flick "Terminator 2." His character will be a by-the-book agent named John Doggett.

TVGuide Online is running an interview with David Duchovny in which he "doesn't entirely close the door on a ninth season" of "The X-Files." Though it reads more like he didn't want to give the interviewer a brush off than that he is actively pursuing appearing in another season of the series, Duchovny does appear to be enjoying his part-time involvement with the show, along with the greater opportunity it gives him for film involvement and for spending time with his family. So though he says he "wouldn't rule it out," Carter would do best to nail down an agreement earlier rather than later, so he can build it into his story arc plans.

Creator Chris Carter claims that he resisted doing another season of "The X-Files" simply for money. "I want the event of Mulderís disappearance to be an important event," he told Horror Online. Presumably, the show remains challenging for him now that he gets to weave Duchovny's appearances into the new working relationship between Scully and Doggett. "How does it work between the three of them?" he asks. "I donít know necessarily that it will be competitive (between Mulder and Doggett). In fact, it might be a symbiotic relationship."

Other news and views 

This week, Sci Fi Channel is repeating "Farscape" episodes in its 9:00 p.m. timeslot. Tuesday, November 14, will be "Look at the Princess, Part II: I Do, I Think" (part I aired on Monday). Wednesday is "Look at the Princess, Part III: The Maltese Crichton"; Thursday is "The Way We Weren't" and Friday is "The Ugly Truth."

Reader mail: Last week, I wrote about the "Star Trek: Voyager" episode in which crewmembers Paris and Torres were engaged. Don Porges points out something that was so quick it escaped me. " You know, this was treated so lackadaisically I can't figure out if it was an intended sucker punch or just odd, but it's not just that they agreed to get married -- between the proposal and the final scene they are married, totally off-screen, no sweeps event or anything! It took me a second to register that the Delta Flyer has 'Just Married' sprayed on it at the end."

Another reader had written in asking about the canceled USA/Sci Fi series "GvsE." David Meek writes " I don't know if someone has already pointed this out,  but the Trio cable channel ('Dramas - Documentaries -  Films' -- http://www.triotv.com/) is now airing GvsE on  Sunday nights at 9:00 p.m. EST. I don't know when they got it, or if they will air the episodes more than once. But it's on now." Thanks for the tip; unfortunately for "GvsE" fans, I don't think many people get the channel. But that's why we've all memorized the line from cable commercials telling us to "contact your cable company and ask them to carry..." 

On the newsstands: Last week, I mentioned the appreciation many gay fans have for "Xena: Warrior Princess" because of its friendliness toward gay themes. In the December issue of Starlog magazine, "Xena" star Lucy Lawless relates the tale of the filming of the musical episode "Lyre, Lyre, Hearts on Fire." Seems that a record company executive was offended by a perceived lesbian "touch" between the show's two stars. "The great irony is that scene was all about homophobia," says Lawless. Playing this week on the Independent Film Channel is "The American Nightmare," a documentary by filmmaker Adam Simon examining the social and political issues of the 1970s that were reflected in such independent horror films as "The Brood" and "Night of the Living Dead." I've missed the earlier airings, but after reading a short interview with Simon in the November issue of Fangoria, I'm going to try to catch the next showing. The December issue of  Cinefantastique magazine is one of those 126-page double issues showcasing whatevertheheck tickles the publisher's fancy. Luckily, this time it's a retrospective of the "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" series, which publisher Frederick S. Clarke calls "the finest of the 'Trek' series, old or new." Check out next week's TV Guide for a cover story preview of the new season of "The X-Files." And, last but not least, the December issue of Britain's SFX magazine goes into the way-back machine to interview Lindsay Wagner about her starring role in "The Bionic Woman." 


Sci Fi tries again with new "Blair Witch" 
by John Zipperer

(10/24/00) Sci Fi Channel is doing its part to capture lightning in a bottle a second time. To that end, it is airing a one-hour special this week (including 8:00 p.m. Tuesday) called "Shadow of the Blair Witch."

The faux-documentary tells the story of Jeff Patterson, a young man in the town of Burkittsville, Maryland,  who is charged with murder. In a style that apes modern TV investigative reports very well, the show presents the forthcoming theatrical film, "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2," as a dramatized version of Patterson's story, interweaving scenes from the movie with interviews of local historians, scholars, law enforcement representatives, and others in which they discuss whether or not Patterson was responsible for the crimes for which he was charged.

In real life, "Shadow of the Blair Witch"  exists to promote "Book of Shadows," which is itself the sequel to the phenomenally successful "The Blair Witch Project" film last year. "BWP" was made for somewhere around $100,000 and pulled in more than $100 million. That film starred three unknown actors as three student filmmakers who get lost in the woods near Burkittsville while making a film investigating a local legendary witch. Though the film was fairly obviously not a genuine nonfiction piece, many viewers believed it was just that, thanks to the work its producers had done, artfully using the Internet to build word of mouth. They also turned some unused footage into a special that aired on Sci Fi. That program is credited with helping to convince people that the movie was, in fact, the lost footage of the three young people who got lost in the woods and came to a dark, tragic end.

Everyone knows by now that "BWP" was fiction, and the producers of the sequel, "Book of Shadows," dealt with that head-on by acknowledging that fact. So, we now have "Shadow of the Blair Witch," a fictional story that tries to tell us that a forthcoming fictional film is the nonfiction story of a local teen who got caught up in the local legend of the Blair Witch. (On top of all that, of course, is the fact that there is no legend of the Blair Witch; that was concocted by the first film's producers.) Got that?

Will it work? The "Shadow of the Blair Witch" special is pretty smoothly done, though its mixing of fictional "Blair Witch" nonsense with real murder tragedies such as the Manson clan and the San Diego Internet cult (that ended with its members' mass suicide in the early part of this decade) may disturb some. But I'm probably not the best judge of whether the ticket-buying public will also buy this story. I walked out of "The Blair Witch Project" one hour into the movie -- bored.

Other news and views 

Say "bye-bye" to "Xena: Warrior Princess": its final episode will air next summer, ending five years on the air. The show, filmed in New Zealand and starring Lucy Lawless, was a spinoff of the "Hercules" series that ended production last year. As the BBC seemed determined to point out in its report, the show has become iconic among gays and lesbians, thanks to the wink-wink relationship between lead Xena and her sidekick Gabrielle. I don't know why that was the only noteworthy thing the BBC found to report, but it's not really the Beeb's kind of show, is it? The show's producers have stated elsewhere that when they found that the audience was reading a lesbian subtext into the show, they begin to play it up. Ten years ago that'd have been noteworthy. But today, it's "Will & Grace's" world and we only live in it, so it just becomes one more welcome sign of American society's slowly opening mind. Bye-bye, Xena.

UPN affiliate evening news promos for last week's "Star Trek: Voyager" episode "Drive" promised info on what it called the surprising ending of that hour's story, an ending that was kept from even the actors until the last minute. The problem is that anyone who saw previews of the episode knew clearly what the "surprise" was: crewmembers Paris and Torres finally agreeing to get married. It's a nice development to be sure, but hardly unexpected. 

Speaking of "Star Trek: Voyager," UPN is crowing about the seventh season premiere three weeks ago. The premiere, the conclusion of the "Unimatrix Zero" two-parter, saw an increase of 15 percent in total viewership over the sixth season's premiere and gave the show its best ratings in more than three years among the key demographic of males aged 18-49, according to UPN. And they didn't even have to throw in any wrestlers. Naturally, that's good news for the Paramount network and to the "Trek" staff in particular. The season premiere, which was smartly broadcast immediately after the episode's first part (rather than making us wait a week between the two halves), was a fairly good show. Not spectacular by any measure; "Voyager" has done better many times in the past. But it was not as weak as many conclusions of two-parters often are, and it managed to be jam-packed with enough twists that it kept one watching.

Author, essayist, and television scribe Harlan Ellison and his wife are forming their own publishing company to produce new and old works of his. According to the Harlan Ellison Web site, the company will be called Edgeworks Abbey, and will continue the "Edgeworks" series of Ellison reprints, beginning with his classic books of 1960s and 1970s television criticism, "The Glass Teat" and "The Other Glass Teat." (They're worth reading for many reasons, not least because you get Ellison's firsthand account of seeing the previews of the then-brand-new 'Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "All in the Family." But you also get the mix of politics and other opinions that made the writer a target of the Nixon Administration.) 

"The Crow: Salvation," another sequel to the cult hit "Crow" film, will be going directly to videoland. Fangoria reports on its Web site that some "Crow" fans are trying to boycott Miramax in protest. Miramax is a sister company of Dimension, which produced the film. Both, of course, are somehow a part of the Disney conglomerate. 

I'm behind on answering e-mail, thanks to various trips and assignments. Yvette Walker wrote to say she missed the USA/Sci Fi series "Good vs. Evil." Says she, "I enjoyed the bizarre scenes and cool relationship between the title characters. True, the morlock makeup looked pretty silly, but I could forgive that. Hey, I even liked 'Doctor Who!'" I have to admit not being able to watch a single episode of "GvE," having no stomach for retro 1970s styles. Nonetheless, though Sci Fi has become somewhat a home of last resort for dead or dying SF or fantasy series, I don't believe "GvE" had enough of a following to resurrect it yet again, on Sci Fi or elsewhere. If anyone knows otherwise, lemme know.

Oh, a quick thank you to Diane Denesowicz, who pointed out an error in my SF TV listings several weeks ago when I wrote that Sci Fi's excellent "Farscape" series was preempted for the entire month of October. Well, unfortunately, it IS preempted the whole month, at least in its regular Friday night timeslot. But as Diane notes, there was a four-episode marathon aired on October 1. I hope you folks caught it. I can't say enough good things about this show, and I'm pleased to see that many other viewers and writers seem to share my high opinion of it. It makes it all the harder to go through a month with no Moya and her crew.

Speaking of series, did any of you catch the first few episodes of "Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda"? What did you think? I was, well, underwhelmed, but I tend to have high expectations and maybe I need to learn to view it as the fun shoot-em-up it's apparently intended to be. 

The final words...

"You can work in television for a year and then say that you have a year's worth of writing experience, but you've really just spent a year writing the same thing."
óJ. Michael Straczynski, interviewed in The 11th Hour


"Voyager" launches to good numbers
By John Zipperer

(10/10/00) UPN is crowing about the seventh season premiere of it's flagship series, "Star Trek: Voyager," last week. The premiere, the conclusion of the "Unimatrix Zero" two-parter, saw an increase of 15 percent in total viewership over the sixth season's premiere and gave the show its best ratings in more than three years among the key demographic of males aged 18-49, according to UPN. And they didn't even have to throw in any wrestlers.

Naturally, that's good news for the Paramount network and to the "Trek" staff in particular. The season premiere, which was smartly broadcast immediately after the episode's first part (rather than making us wait a week between the two halves), was a fairly good show. Not spectacular by any measure; "Voyager" has done better many times in the past. But it was not as weak as many conclusions of two-parters often are, and it managed to be jam-packed with twists that it kept one watching.

"Unimatrix Zero," parts I and II, brought back popular "Trek" villains, the Borg, a cyborg race that takes over other civilizations and turns their peoples into mechanized drones. Now, the Borg have been done and done again in "Voyager" and its predecessor series, "Star Trek: The Next Generation." It gets pretty hard to figure out what twist the writers can give us that we haven't already seen with these villains. (If you're interested, Trek Nation's bulletin board includes a discussion thread about whether or not "Trek" has done the Borg to death.)

The hive-like Borg all share a mind that is controlled by the Borg Queen. So the difference between them and the free-spirited (but amazingly ideologically non-diverse) human Federation is clear; the only logical way to go is to have the humans try to infect the Borg with their individuality. The "Next Generation" crew played with that idea in one episode in which they captured some Borg, deprogrammed them, and then figured they'd send them back to the Borg to teach them the wonders of committee meetings and op ed pages.

"Voyager" takes the infection idea further, using the story device that some of the drones had a mutation that allowed them to "sleep" and in their dreams retain their individuality. The Voyager's resident former Borg, Seven of Nine, also happens to have that mutation, and through her Captain Janeway and her crew are drawn into a plot to defeat the Borg Queen's attempt to hunt down and destroy the mutants. In the process Janeway hopes to spread the "contagion."

At the end of the episode, there are some renegade Borg, who have managed to retain their individuality even outside of the sleep state. They head off to rendevous with others of their ilk, promising to try to stay in touch with Voyager's crew. Time will tell if "Voyager's" newfound audience will stay in touch in this, the show's final year.

Other news and views 

I'm behind on answering e-mail, thanks to various trips and assignments. Yvette Walker wrote to say she missed the USA/Sci Fi series "Good vs. Evil." Say she, "I enjoyed the bizarre scenes and cool relationship between the title characters. True, the morlock makeup looked pretty silly, but I could forgive that. Hey, I even liked 'Doctor Who!'" I have to admit not being able to watch a single episode of "GvE," having no stomach for retro 1970s styles. Nonetheless, though Sci Fi has become somewhat a home of last resort for dead or dying SF or fantasy series, I don't believe "GvE" had enough of a following to resurrect it yet again, on Sci Fi or elsewhere. If anyone knows otherwise, lemme know.

Oh, a quick thank you to Diane Denesowicz, who pointed out an error in my SF TV listings when I wrote that Sci Fi's" excellent "Farscape" series was preempted for the entire month of October. Well, unfortunately, it IS preempted the whole month, at least in its regular Friday night timeslot. But as Diane notes, there was a four-episode marathon aired on October 1. I hope you folks caught it. I can't say enough good things about this show, and I'm pleased to see that many other viewers and writers seem to share my high opinion of it. It makes it all the harder to go through a month with no Moya and her crew.

Speaking of series, did any of you catch the premiere of "Andromeda"? What did you think? I was, well, underwhelmed, but I tend to have high expectations and maybe I need to learn to view it as the fun shoot-em-up it's apparently intended to be.

The final words...

"Being a witch is quite good. But I think wizards have more fun."
óEsk, the first female wizard in Discworld, in "Equal Rites"