That Wacky Redhead

Discussion in 'Alternate History Discussion: After 1900' started by Brainbin, Nov 18, 2011.

  1. Brainbin Kingpin of the Cultural Cartel

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    The Roots of the Mini-series

    At the dawn of television, in the established media of the time, two separate, yet equally important serial formats had achieved widespread popularity: the continuing series, imported from radio, and the limited serial, which was a product of the movies. Television would eradicate both of these formats as they existed in their native media: by the 1960s, dramatized productions of any sort were essentially absent from American radio, and virtually all films were stand-alone, any sequels being made on a discretionary basis. When it came to motion pictures, of course, film serials were far from the only format to be rendered obsolete by the rise of television. Newsreels and shorts were also a thing of the past, though many cartoon characters did find new lives on the small screen. From the very beginning, though, television seemed more interested in bringing over the production model from radio, wholesale (up to and including its entire stable of stars), with producers preferring longer, continuing series. In the 1950s, most programs ran for 39 episodes per season. This had declined to as little as 22 episodes per season, in some instances, by the late 1970s (though 26 remained the standard). Across the Pond, on the other hand, the tendency had always been to favour runs of shorter episodes, and indeed, many such programs were not picked up for additional seasons (or series) of production. Thus, the mini-series (as it would become known in American parlance) became a standard format there. The United States would not follow suit until the 1970s.

    The catalytic incentive was, unsurprisingly, also ultimately derived from other media.
    The “new freedom of the screen” that so defined the American motion picture industry in the 1970s – the “New Hollywood” era, as it were – did have an impact on television, though a more subtle and incremental one. But the desire to take more creative risks was certainly not limited to the movie studios – their television divisions, along with the networks, felt the urge to spread their creative wings as well. Television was as an ideal a medium for the adaptation of epic works of literature and histories as was possible. Though it lacked the sheer scale achievable in motion pictures, as well as the intimacy of the stage, it was also able to provide enough elements of each of these and avoid having to make tough sacrifices a classic “jack of all trades” situation which had paid great dividends in the past, and would by all appearances continue to do so in the future. In fact, it had been in the 1950s – the decade during which television market saturation increased from 8% to 87% (its growth rate was declining, to reach a plateau of 98% by the late 1970s) – that the cinema had attempted some rather brazen methods of audience retention in the face of the first real challenge to its supremacy. Some of these tactics, such as the wider screens, would be so well-received that they would become mainstays; others, like 3D, became highly dated and almost nostalgic fads, the likes of which would surely never be seen again [1]; and then there were the outright fiascoes, like “Smell-O-Vision”, about which the less is said, the better. But it was clear that, from the very beginning, television and motion pictures have been inexorably linked.

    Everything would finally come together in full force with Roots,
    the brainchild of Alex Haley, an African-American writer who had also collaborated with Malcolm X in the writing of his autobiography. Like many writers, he refused to let strict historical accuracy get in the way of a good story. Indeed, Haley even coined the term faction – a fusion of “fact” and “fiction”, to describe his work. However, Haley may have gone a bridge too far after it became apparent that he had plagiarized numerous passages from the 1967 novel The African, written by folklorist and anthropologist Harold Courlander, who had sought legal action against him for doing so (a settlement was eventually reached out-of-court).

    Roots
    , the novel, epitomized the proud tradition of the multi-generational historical familial epic; so too did the mini-series adapted from it cement the legacy of the lengthy, sprawling story which the strengths of television as a medium were uniquely suited to present. The story of Roots began with that of Kunta Kinte, a purported ancestor of Haley, who was born in West Africa in the mid-eighteenth century. As a youth, he was captured by white slavers, and was taken on the Middle Passage to what was then known as British North America, specifically the Thirteen Colonies thereof, eventually being purchased by a plantation owner in Virginia. After numerous escape attempts – culminating in the amputation of part of his right foot by his brutal taskmasters – he would eventually marry and start a family of his own, with the narrative then following the story of his daughter, who was in turn also said to be a direct ancestor of Haley, and her own children. The author claimed that the Kunta Kinte story was a long and cherished one passed down through the generations of his family; but between “borrowing” from The African, and actually traveling to The Gambia and claiming to speak with someone knowledgeable in the oral traditions of the area, this claim was highly dubious. This strong African connection perpetuated a dominant theme in black culture of “re-connecting with the Motherland”; interestingly, many black people in fact had longer lines of ancestry within the United States (as the slave trade had effectively ended by the turn of the 19th century) than many white people (who were descended from waves of immigration originating throughout Europe in the mid-to-late-19th century and beyond).

    The veracity of
    Roots, though it did not withstand even the slightest scrutiny, was considered important because of the Black History which it represented, as it was intended to symbolize and detail the entire struggle of the African-American people throughout the history of what would become the United States of America. There were plenty of real people whose lives painted the tapestry of triumph and tragedy that epitomized them; the use of these ahistorical characters was controversial, but in the grand scheme of things, it was the impact which Roots would have on popular culture which would cement its legacy. The mini-series was also timely – it came along at about the same time as low-budget Blaxploitation was giving way to more “stylistic” and “serious” black-interest pictures such as Finney and Progress, which represented a creative epiphany. The New Hollywood renaissance was breaking the colour barrier in grand fashion. Many mini-series prior to Roots had achieved considerable – even significant – popularity, but Roots saw unprecedented ratings, emerging as the highest-rated dramatic telecast of all time, beating the nearly six-year-old record held by the series finale of Star Trek (aired in July, 1971). [2] People of every creed and colour tuned in to watch Roots, marking the zenith of the mini-series as a genre of American television.

    Roots
    aired for eight consecutive nights in late January, 1977, with episodes varying in length between two hours (ninety minutes of content, plus commercials) and one hour (forty-five minutes of content). [3] Of the eight episodes, three matched or exceeded the 47 rating claimed by “These Were the Voyages” in 1971 – episodes five, six, and eight. The eighth episode, the grand finale, which featured Haley himself narrating in the closing moments as he traced the line of descent directly from Kunta Kinte to himself, scored a whopping 52 rating, with an estimated 37 million viewers. [4] At the 29th Emmy Awards that May, a mere few months later, Roots performed a clean sweep, winning all nine Emmys for which it had been nominated. [5] This shattered the five-Emmy record set by Rich Man, Poor Man, beating it in yet another regard.

    Rich Man, Poor Man, which had aired in the previous season, was a clear antecedent to the success that would be enjoyed by Roots, but it lacked those certain qualities which might have propelled it into the status of a true popular culture phenomenon akin to Roots. Nonetheless, it had finished at #2 overall in the 1975-76 season, behind only Rock Around the Clock. Like the later Roots, this mini-series placed a great deal of emphasis on family, though it chose to approach the concept from a distinctly different direction; likewise, it visited the concept of migration, though voluntary rather than involuntary, and from the New World back to the Old.
    However, the plot focus was more on sophisticated, literary themes, as opposed to the raw, primal, and more universal appeal of a historical fiction piece based on a very palpable struggle. Perhaps this lack of universality explained its lack of lasting impact when compared to the utter juggernaut that Roots had already become in the very short time since it was first broadcast.

    Nevertheless, the resultant sea change would prove a massive harbinger indeed for television and the movies. Prior to the late 1970s, the big money
    – and the big ratings – could be found in television broadcasts of Hollywood films. Less than a year prior to Roots, NBC had been the first network to air one of the most popular movies ever made: Gone with the Wind. Divided into two parts, given its great length, both of them had been a smash sensation, earning a cumulative 46 rating, just behind the series finale of Star Trek as the second-highest-rated telecast of the 1970s, up to that point. [6] However, this broadcast was met with considerable resistance on the part of the increasingly influential and vocal black community, who naturally objected to the finer details of that film (as they had done in 1939, at which time they were willfully ignored). Many critics and cultural observers saw Roots and its success as something of a “response” to GWTW (including a number of people who were actually involved with the production), but it would be a better fit to call one the end of an era in telefilms, and the other a new beginning. The motivations behind television deciding to abandon pre-made motion pictures in lieu of original telefilms would only become more clear as time went on, given the key technological breakthrough which would revolutionize viewing habits as nothing had done before[FONT=&quot]

    ---

    [1] Remember, in the late 1970s, there had only been one 3D wave: the original, in the early 1950s. IOTL, two would follow: the first revival of the early-to-mid-1980s, and the second (and sadly, ongoing) revival of the late-2000s onward. Note that all three of these waves are timed with major technological changes that have threatened the movie-going experience as the acme of entertainment: television, home video, and high-definition home viewing, respectively.

    [2] IOTL, that record was held by the two-part telecast of Gone with the Wind, on November 7-8, 1976 (less than three months before).

    [3] Note that the ratio of content-to-commercials has by now declined to a level more familiar to modern audiences (approximately 3:1), down from Classic TV levels (5:1).

    [4] Episodes five and six did not break the 47.0 threshold set ITTL by [/FONT]“These Were the Voyages” IOTL, but they did ITTL, largely because overall ratings for the mini-series were higher. This is also reflected in the rating for the final episode, up from 51.1 IOTL (which is still good for third-highest-rated telecast of all time, by the way).

    [5] IOTL, 1977 was the first year that the Emmys were moved to September (where they continue to reside IOTL); this has been butterflied ITTL.

    [6] Perhaps because the dissenting voices are slightly stronger, GWTW fares slightly worse than IOTL, just enough so to fall beneath the threshold set by Star Trek, meaning that only the final episode of Roots ranks above it in all-time ratings (up to this point).

    ---

    And now, we witness the arrival of that which finally dethroned
    “These Were the Voyages”: Roots! As IOTL, this mini-series became a landmark production that can be measured more in its impact than its content (which is what defines popular culture, after all). A reminder that a ratings point (a rating of 47 is also that many points) represents one percent of all television-owning households in the given market (always the United States for the purposes of this timeline, unless stated otherwise).
     
    Last edited: Nov 2, 2012
  2. vultan Defying Gravity

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    Very interesting analysis on the alternate Star Trek episode, Brainbin! Sounds very zeitgeist-y. Very much reads like a Memory Alpha article. :D

    EDIT: Ah, and now we get an update on the miniseries. Double the pleasure, double the fun!
     
  3. NCW8 Just Chilling

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    I think so. He also created the first British TV Soap Opera - The Grove Family - in the 1950s.

    Cheers,
    Nigel.
     
  4. NCW8 Just Chilling

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    Thanks to the BBC, that isn't the case in the UK. The Archers is still going strong and there are other dramas - including the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, The Adventures of Superman and Doctor Who (featuring Jon Pertwee's last portrayal of the role in 1996).



    A tendancy, yes, but of course there are always exceptions. The adaption of The Forsyte Saga in 1967 ran for 26 episodes, and The Brothers ran for seven seasons.

    Does LeVar Burton still make his debut as Kunte Kinte ?

    Cheers,
    Nigel.
     
  5. Falkenburg CMII

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    Intriguing Update, Brainbin. :cool:

    As ever, an exemplar of internal consistency and coherence.

    I didn't register the broadcast of Roots at the time but I have a perception of the series, despite never having watched the whole thing.
    That old process of cultural osmosis seems to have done its job.

    Falkenburg
     
  6. NCW8 Just Chilling

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    It did make an impact at the time, even in the UK. It was parodied by The Goodies, which is usually a good indicator of what was big in Seventies British popular culture.

    Cheers,
    Nigel.
     
  7. Andrew T Kick 'em when they're up!

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    And this dovetails nicely with the previous discussion of WKRP; in explaining the atom, Venus says that the suffix "-tron" is Swahili. Later he confesses that it's Latin, but adds that "Black kids seem to learn better when they think it's about their own culture."

    That episode aired in January of 1981, meaning that the script was written in 1980... just three years after Roots. So that's a pretty graphic illustration of just how much and how quickly Roots influenced social norms -- such that within three years it was taken for granted that African Americans considered African history to be "their culture."
     
  8. Thande Toujours Phrais

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    Interesting update. As I've said before, 'miniseries' means something rather different over here.

    It's good that you point out the correlation of the 3D fads with cinema being threatened by stay-at-home alternatives: I used to think this was obvious, but there are lots of people out there too young to remember the earlier 3D waves who are astonished when I tell them this. There was also an abortive minor one in the early 90s, probably caused by cinema panic-reacting to the VCD before it turned out that the VCD wasn't a threat.

    So this isn't an unambiguous utopia then :p
     
  9. Thande Toujours Phrais

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    I always find it one of those strange 'wait, did I slip into an ATL?' moments when Americans (and I suppose Canadians) talk about radio. Though you can debate the chicken and the egg, I think the different fate for radio across the Atlantic somewhat defines a difference in national psychology (or perhaps reflects one). The North American view seems to be that television displaced radio as its superior successor, the sort of idea that leads to things like (as mentioned above) cinema being paranoid that they're going to be 'replaced' by TV or VCRs or whatever. Over here, of course, national radio is still almost as mainstream as television: the ceiling audience viewing figures for non-soap or -special TV shows these days is about 8-9 million, and there are radio shows with listening figures of 7 million. So British views are somewhat informed by the idea that the old can coexist with the new rather than the new necessarily displacing the old. Or I might be talking out of my arse, but it makes sense to me.

    Indeed, I find parody and satire shows are a very good guide when judging the contemporary impact of different programmes or news stories etc.--it shows you what was talked about enough for jokes about it to work. And as I've previously discussed with Brainbin, contemporary parodies of things like Star Trek or Wars are often very illustrative because they often lack the built-up memetic jokes we're familiar with now, and instead may poke fun at completely different things we'd never think of.
     
  10. krinsbez Well-Known Member

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    Hrrm, who was in it? The same people as IOTL?
     
  11. phx1138 Bocagiste troll

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    OK, that update sucked. Seriously, "The Roots of the Mini-Series"?:eek:

    :p

    Nicely done, as usual. More teaser, IMO, than anything, tho...or should I say, backstory? I can't help wonder what's next...

    I also know I have scant chance of guessing what you're going to do, so I won't.;)

    One question: how did that 47 share translate into viewership?

    As for miniseries, just to show how backward we were out here, the first one I recall seeing was "Centennial"--& we didn't even really understand what a miniseries was.:eek::eek:
    Thx.

    Also, FYI, thank TCM for trivia again. Former cinematographer Karl Freund, director of "The Mummy" (& 9 other films, before he went back to cinematography), did the first 159 episodes of "I Love Lucy"...
     
    Last edited: Nov 1, 2012
  12. Orville_third Banned

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    It should be noted that one influence of "Roots" crossed racial lines- the interest in genealogy. Could we see an earlier, "Who Do You Think You Are?"
     
  13. NCW8 Just Chilling

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    Its interesting that BBC Radio production fits in well in a world of audio books and podcasts. Looking at the ITunes charts for the top 10 podcasts by country, BBC Radio occupies 8 out of 10 positions in the UK.

    Cheers,
    Nigel.
     
  14. Thande Toujours Phrais

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    I'm wondering if history might now repeat itself with TV. A lot of the Ameri-youth act, again, like the rise of web video is going to displace TV altogether, because they have the core assumption that there is nobody in charge of TV who has investment in the preservation of the medium for its own sake rather than just to make money. So perhaps we could see TV fading away in North America but surviving here as a slightly less mainstream than before but still prevalent media form, because of the BBC.
     
  15. Brainbin Kingpin of the Cultural Cartel

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    Thank you all for your replies to my latest update! And now, as always, for my responses...

    Thank you, vultan - I'm lucky that Memory Alpha seems to have an editorial policy of formal exposition, which seems to mesh with my own writing style very nicely! :D

    That reminds me - I really need to decide if even my tastes are esoteric enough to focus on commercials ITTL.

    I'm well aware of the continuing popularity of dramatic programming on the radio over there - and applaud it, of course. There have been a few sporadic stabs at reviving the genre stateside, including (most intriguingly) The Zero Hour, an anthology series hosted (and sometimes written) by Rod Serling IOTL (it does not exist ITTL, due to his continuing commitments with Night Gallery until his death). But on the whole, radio dramas seem to be the exclusive province of (unsurprisingly) public radio.

    Indeed there are. Though you haven't mentioned Doctor Who, far and away the most well-known exception of them all!

    I knew this was coming. The answer, sadly, is no - the young Levardis Burton, Jr., went to film school ITTL, hoping to work behind the camera as part of the "Black New Hollywood" movement of the late 1970s. Who knows if he'll get that far - maybe he'll settle on television directing instead ;) The role of (young) Kunta Kinte is played ITTL by an earnest but rather limited young man who was never quite able to transcend the shadow this role cast over his career, and fell into obscurity.

    Thank you, Falkenburg, even if your saying so was merely an excuse to partake :p

    I appreciate that you notice I've been trying to keep everything cohesive! It's not always easy, but I think the benefits are self-evident.

    Perhaps, but unfortunately, one of my regulars has informed me that he had never heard of Roots before my update, which perhaps indicates that its influence is waning with younger generations. Or the individual in question simply has exceptionally large blinders on... I lean toward the latter option ;)

    This is an excellent point - and it's something that started with the Black Power movement in the 1960s, resulting (among many other things) in the name of Lt. Uhura on Star Trek: the character was originally conceived as a man named Solo, but Nichelle Nichols (who knew Roddenberry after having worked with him on his prior series, The Lieutenant) auditioned for a part with her book, Black Uhuru, in tow, and the rest is history. Uhuru is Swahili for "freedom" or "independence". IOTL, the fanon choice for her first name (which, after 40 years, prevailed in canon), Nyota, means "star". Another early fanon candidate which prevailed ITTL, Penda, means "love".

    Thank you, Thande! And yes, I specifically added that "in American parlance" line for your benefit, having recalled our previous discussion :)

    Ah yes, one that I can remember from my own childhood in the early 1990s. Though in retrospect, it seems to have been more of an ironic nod to the two previous 3D fads (both of which had ended in a whimper); then again, that could have just been Parody Retcon on the part of executives who were embarrassed at having jumped the gun.

    Sadly, I think getting rid of the increased advertising minutes is ASB :(

    I'm strongly inclined to agree with you on that one.

    Glad you're still reading, krinsbez! And in answer to your question: among the older cast, yes, by and large. For example, Ed Asner appeared as the slaver ship Captain, replicating his OTL feat of appearing both here and in Rich Man, Poor Man, and winning Emmys for both roles.

    I find your lack of appreciation for puns disturbing :cool:

    Thank you, and we shall indeed see what Roots hath wrought!

    As noted in the update which featured the episode in question, a 47.0 rating (not a share) translates to 28.25 million viewers, as of the 1970-71 season.

    Or, instead of thanking TCM, you can thank TWR - I referenced that connection in the very first update :cool:

    That's an excellent observation. Though bear in mind that "Who Do You Think You Are" is a British import, and the British in general tend to be (or are at least stereotyped as being) more interested in genealogy, as it is integral to their ancestral class-based society, which existed before Roots was even set, let alone aired.

    I don't see this happening. I've been hearing this argument for close to a decade now, but more people are watching television now than ever - they're just far more divergent in their viewing habits than they used to be (Super Bowl notwithstanding, of course). Look at the proliferation of cable channels offering lavishly-budgeted and acclaimed programming - ten years ago it was basically HBO and nothing else, but now, even the former "rerun farm" channels are getting into the game (sadly, as it now means that reruns of classic television series are harder to come by). Internet productions don't have anywhere near the sheer economies of scale to supersede television as of yet. Now, they certainly might, at some point in the future, but what's far more likely is some kind of "fusion" between television and the internet (which, technologically speaking, is much closer to a reality now that analog transmission is a thing of the past). I do agree that the UK has more of a cultural attachment to television as an institution, though.
     
  16. The Blue-Eyed Infidel The Once and Future Westralian

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    A bit late to the party, but ...

    I never saw Roots - too young - and, living in Canada, it was less of a cultural touchstone. I remember reading the novel while I was in university and thinking it was OK; having read For The Term Of His Natural Life shortly beforehand, I perhaps had a surfeit of saintly protagonists being transported across the seas to endure sadistic treatment.

    it will be ... intriguing to see the history of the mini-series ITTL; Shogun, The Winds of War, and The Thorn Birds, to name a few, were written well after the POD.

    TB-EI
     
    Last edited: Nov 2, 2012
  17. Falkenburg CMII

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    I would've gotten away with it, if it wasn't for that pesky Brainbin! :D

    Well I only really paid it more than cursory attention a few years ago with, IIRC, the documentaries and such around the 30th anniversary. :eek:

    Mind you, it could be a sign of the maturing multi-cultural society.
    In the case of Roots, maybe the African-American communities have moved beyond securing public consciousness of their Story.

    Or maybe the younger element of the 'Public' believes it knows all it needs to about the subject and adopts that infuriating indifference that can be so maddening?

    Falkenburg
     
  18. Thande Toujours Phrais

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    It's interesting that you bring this up, because the stereotype here is pretty much the opposite: that Americans, being a nation of immigrants, are obsessed with their genealogy (and the negative side of the stereotype is the idea that they're hypocrites who bang on about republicanism by day but by night are constantly trying to prove that they're descended from monarchs or nobles).

    Whereas here until recently there just wasn't that much interest precisely because of the class system: the upper classes already know their (and each others') family trees inside out, everyone else can look it up in Burke's Peerage, and thus nobody needs to talk about it--while the working classes are peversely proud of being the opposite. 'I came from nowhere me, peasant stock, born with a plastic spoon in my mouth, I don't know who my great-grandfather was, none of this obsession with blue blood for me, I made my own path, I worked to get where I am today, none of these advantages of birth', etc. You actually see a bit of the latter attitude sometimes with some of the people from more working-class backgrounds they have on Who Do You Think You Are? and it's a revelation to them when they find out their ancestry is more complex than they thought. My point is that stereotypically the only British people obsessed with genealogy in such a way are Hyacinth Bucket social climber types trying to prove they're descended from the third illegitimate son of the 13th Duke of Wybourne, who are viewed with contempt both from above and below.

    Who Do You Think You Are? is remarkable because it has changed this, setting a trend to make looking into your family history more socially acceptable by emphasising it as a tool to understand social history better--so it's not just putting yourself on a pedestal but a way of understanding your place in the country and its history.


    I think I'm just sceptical of this because I've been hearing it constantly from futurist types since the early 1990s and it never seems to happen. Though of course that might just be people predicting something too early, before the technology has caught up. And back then it was more expecting that internet would be merged into TV rather than the other way around...

    Probably so, although transatlantic differences are easy to overstate. It's a bit difficult to describe what I mean, but I always get a bit surprised whenever I see Americans talk about television as a united national institution (e.g. that Whose Line episode which was a 'Salute to American Television') because we're so used to thinking of American TV as 'a bunch of disconnected corporate networks only interested in making money without a molecule of romantic attachment/loyalty to their programmes, their medium or their country in their bodies'. Which I may have unfairly perpetuated slightly in how I phrased my comment above, in fact. To my untrained eye it does seem that the sort of national-medium idea was more prevalent in the USA in the 1950s and 60s and today when people nostalgically look back at that period, which of course leads neatly back to the point of your TL.
     
  19. phx1138 Bocagiste troll

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    I find your appreciation of them alarming.:eek::p
    :eek: I missed that...:eek: In my defense, tho, I've never been able to keep straight a share point & a rating point...:confused::confused:
    I could, except Robert Osborne just mentioned it the other night, for everybody who isn't reading this.;)
     
  20. NCW8 Just Chilling

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    If you do, there were plenty of good memetic commercials in the UK in the seventies - the PG Tips Chimps, the Hovis Bread ads, Fred the Homepride flour grader and the Smash aliens.

    I thought you might be :D. I'd just like to mention an unusual case. In the 1990s, the BBC remade a 1930s American radio series - the Marx Brothers Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel - using scripts that had recently been rediscovered in the Library of Congress. It was recorded before an audience, with the main stars made up as Groucho and Chico, and they even dressed the Spot FX man up as Harpo.

    Well, I was trying to think of examples that could be classified as mini-series.

    Interesting. From what I've seen of his directorial work on ST, he should do well.

    Cheers,
    Nigel.
     
    Last edited: Nov 4, 2012