Julie Sherman (julieswn) Fri 26 Mar 10 14:48
This week we welcome Aaron Barnhart to Inkwell.vue. Aaron Barnhart first started writing about television in 1994 with his pathbreaking Internet zine Late Show News. One of the places he posted LSN was The WELL, where a journalist for the Village Voice spotted it. Aaron's freelance career soon commenced, contributing pieces on the Leno-Letterman wars to the Voice and, later, the New York Observer. He then began writing on television generally for a variety of publications, including the New York Times and Entertainment Weekly. In 1997 he was named the television critic of the Kansas City Star, and moved to Kansas City with his wife, Diane Eickhoff. They reside there and both write for a living. Aaron is a native of Billings, Montana, and holds degrees from Northwestern University and the University of Chicago. Interviewing Aaron is our own <deadeye>, Jonathan Storm: Jonathan Storm has watched television since he was 5 years old. He would wake up early, turn on the TV and watch the test patterns as he waited for The Modern Farmer to begin. Five years later, he began his news career as editor-in-chief of the mimeographed newspaper in Mr. Merrill's fifth-grade class. He spent six years as a true journalist at the Rutland Herald (Vt.) and six more at the Detroit Free Press. He joined The Inquirer in 1982, working as an editor in various departments. In 1987, he edited the newspaper's special sections on the Constitution and a companion four-month series. The package won a national award from the Benjamin Franklin Foundation as best special Constitution coverage by a newspaper. Seeing an opportunity to watch television for a living, he grabbed it and became The Inquirer's television critic in 1990. Since then, he has had the privilege of commenting on such wonderful television as My So-Called Life, Seinfeld, The Sopranos, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Survivor, Ill Fly Away, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, The X-Files, Northern Exposure, Roseanne, Gilmore Girls, NYPD Blue, The Wire, Frasier, Ally McBeal; current faves Glee, Damages, Breaking Bad and The Good Wife and, in the much-too-overlooked category, American Dreams, The Riches, The Flying Conchords and Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia. He has also been forced to watch five cycles of presidential debates, Fear Factor, The Swan, Glenn Beck and Bill OReilly. There is no free lunch in life. His blog, Eye of the Storm, <http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/storm/> probably ranks as the 403d most popular TV blog on the net, as he tries to load at least a couple of items a week into it.
properly sensed out (deadeye) Sat 27 Mar 10 12:44
So, Aaron, here we are again on The WELL. I remember being fascinated with your late-night stuff back in a different era when the price of the phone connection to the Internet could bankrupt a free-lance writer. I wonder how you did it back then. I'm also amazed that the Kansas City Star, where you work, would allow you to use material developed for it in your personal book. Can you outline some of the highlights of that deal and perhaps outline some of the steps you took to find a publisher?
properly sensed out (deadeye) Mon 29 Mar 10 14:06
And a follow-up, as we always say even when it isn't one: With all the writing you produce, what motivated you to write this book?
properly sensed out (deadeye) Tue 30 Mar 10 08:32
Perhaps a bit on the content: I know how much you have written on so many phases of TV. How did you decide what to include in "Tasteland"?
Aaron Barnhart (t-t-tasteland) Wed 31 Mar 10 12:16
Hi Jonathan. Let's answer #2 first. When I started TASTELAND it was a few weeks before the 15th anniversary of LATE SHOW NEWS and I felt that, in terms of anthologizing my work, I had reached a point of no return -- either I did something now or the mass of articles (about 5,000 bylines between freelance, staff writing, newsletter and blogs) would be buried forever.
Aaron Barnhart (t-t-tasteland) Wed 31 Mar 10 12:20
Now, on to #3 and then, in my last response (which will have to wait as I'm on deadline), I'll address your opening Q. So, not only did I have all these articles written -- they chronicled such an interesting time! When I started writing about TV, we saved shows to VCRs (if we didn't screw it up) and our idea of quality drama was "Law & Order." In the years that followed, everything changed -- and I wrote about most everything that did change, not just the technology of TV but what we saw on TV: elections, wars, terrorist attacks, and so on. So by writing about TV, I was compiling my own pop history of the time. Coinciding with the upheaval in technology and viewing choices and world events, my 15 years on the beat saw arguably the largest wave of top-notch television programs ever. And because the world had changed, these programs were all available at the touch of a button -- if only you knew what to pick. It sounds so logical now, but it actually took the better part of a year to cull all those bylines and see the two components of the book emerging: a fast-paced chronology of mediated experience and a reference guide to the 100 best TV shows you can buy, rent, or download. Fortunately, I was working on my own schedule, as I'll explain ... "when we return."
Gail Williams (gail) Wed 31 Mar 10 13:46
VCRs sure sound like ancient history. This is an interesting time in the evolution of the medium as well as the culture, that's for sure.
David Gans (tnf) Wed 31 Mar 10 14:56
Welcome back to the WELL, Aaron!
Barbara L. Nielsen (blnsf) Wed 31 Mar 10 17:32
<So by writing about TV, I was compiling my own pop history of the time.> I was absolutely fascinated by this book, through which I learned a bunch of information about what TV was doing while I was being oblivious those 15 years. Reading it really was like reading a history. I'm almost through the recommendations, which in and of themselves make this book recommendable.
Aaron Barnhart (t-t-tasteland) Wed 31 Mar 10 17:59
Aaron Barnhart (t-t-tasteland) Wed 31 Mar 10 18:09
Hi <tnf>! Re #1, as I say in the Introduction to TASTELAND, I worked it into the cracks of my workday. I do remember a supervisor pulling me aside and asking me if I was online much. (Ameritech charged businesses by the minute, even for local calls, whereas residential paid a flat rate.) I said, "Not much," which was pretty much a bald-headed lie, which I think speaks to the sense of urgency I was feeling about Late Show News, even though at the time my late-night writing was making me all of $300 a month richer. Now, you will notice on the title page (where you can see more of the Greensburg, Kansas, farm where I took the cover picture), it says, "Quindaro Press, Kansas City." Quindaro Press is me and my lovely bride, Diane Eickhoff. http://quindaropress.com Her first biography was our first title, and TASTELAND was our second. The three peeves I have about small publishing are: (a) Many presses charge way too much for books, (b) the quality is often substandard and (c) the authors don't make anything. Since I had the skills to lay out high-quality books, and we both had editing prowess, I felt Diane was better off publishing Revolutionary Heart herself, and I was vindicated when the book sold out its first printing (3,500). What's different this time is that we went POD. I contract directly with Ingram's Lightning Source arm, a b2b printer for small publishers, and my unit costs are low enough that I can offer my book for $12 paperback and still make good coin on every sale. Plus, no more cartons in the basement! The Kansas City Star graciously allows its journalists to anthologize their works, whether the publisher is the paper's book division or someplace else.
Aaron Barnhart (t-t-tasteland) Wed 31 Mar 10 18:12
I should mention that the POD route also means I forego traditional distribution methods (i.e., I fired my distributor). You can't give someone a 65% discount and make money. Instead, I use Amazon to move my books, offering a 20% discount on the assumption (which was proven correct) that Amazon would offer it at 10% off, putting TASTELAND right in the sweet spot of paperback bestsellers, which sell on Amazon at between $10 and $11. I should also mention that much of this wisdom comes from a self-publishing guru named Aaron Shepherd, whose book POD for Profit is required reading for anyone considering doing what I did.
properly sensed out (deadeye) Thu 1 Apr 10 07:04
That's fascinating. One of the many things that has always stopped me in my tracks from doing a book -- the main two are a short attention span and an almost fatal procrastination tendancy that is only mitigated by serial firm deadlines -- is that there seems to be very little chance of making any sort of decent wage from the work. I'm intrigued by your choice to include so many documentaries in your Top 100. Most people, including TV critics (and, now that there is no paper to print on because newspapers have shrunk so drastically, my editors) give short shrift to them.
David Wilson (dlwilson) Thu 1 Apr 10 09:09
I loved your introduction where you made a case for television criticism and your 100 best list. But I don't understand your passion for and extreme focus on "The Tonight Show" and the continuing "late night wars." I admit, it just isn't my cup of gasoline. Could you make a brief case for why you consider it to be so significant. It seems to me that there are other cultural forms(many examples from your 100 best) which capture the dreams, anxieties, obsessions, and the zeitgeist of the mid 20th century through the early 21st.
Aaron Barnhart (t-t-tasteland) Thu 1 Apr 10 09:53
It was where I started, David. It was the type of TV show I loved as a kid -- there was something slightly renegade about staying up late watching Carson as a kid. In college, David Letterman was doing the most interesting TV out there. And then, of course, it's how I got into this crazy business in the 1990s. When I stopped doing Late Show News in 1999, I figured that would be the end of my interest in late-night TV. I don't watch it as much as I did back then. But until the main actors cease to be Leno, Letterman, O'Brien and Stewart -- all people I micro-covered in the early years -- I'll continue to follow their careers and thereby be an expert on them. By the way, there are no late night shows in my 100 best list, because of their ephemeral nature. (For instance, I would love to see a DVD anthology of the "Late Night" years. But I'm not holding my breath.)
David Wilson (dlwilson) Thu 1 Apr 10 14:06
That's a good enough answer for me Aaron. I guess those first imprinting impressions help form your lasting opinions and tastes. I'm assuming I've got a few years on you because I was doing the same thing as you when Jack Paar was hosting the "Tonight Show." I was too young for Steve Allen's tenure there, but I remember him well from his second late night show in the 60's when I was a teenager and could track the action better. By the time Johnny Carson took over I was in college and lost the habit for a time. From what I remember of early television the humor was a hodgepodge of radio, slapstick, burlesque, vaudeville, and Catskills spritzing. Allen, Paar, and Carson were real wits. They came out of some of those comic traditions but they were doing something new. They were improvising. Leno and Letterman haven't altered the form much. What I'm trying to say got me to look up the definition of "Wit:" 3 a : astuteness of perception or judgment : acumen b : the ability to relate seemingly disparate things so as to illuminate or amuse c (1) : a talent for banter or persiflage (2) : a witty utterance or exchange d : clever or apt humor 4 a : a person of superior intellect : thinker b : an imaginatively perceptive and articulate individual especially skilled in banter or persiflage. I think that they all fall into category 3. But Allen, Paar, and Carson enhance it by adding category 4. Leno and Letterman just have good writers.
properly sensed out (deadeye) Thu 1 Apr 10 14:23
People always say, and I agree, that the major character trait that drove Johnny Carson was his mind, which encompasses an older definition of "wit." I feel he was head and shoulders above all the other late night hosts because of being so quick on his feet in interviews. I don't agree with you, totally, Dave, about Leno and Letterman. I think Letterman has a modicum of that same trait. And I don't think Leno has any of it, or any good writers. I'm amazed constantly that people enjoy his show. I know that Aaron has some good opinions about this because I've spoken to him about it, and they're also in his book. BTW: My favorite late-night host is Craig Ferguson, who seems to have taken not a whole new direction but is at least traveling on a different tributary.
Gail Williams (gail) Fri 2 Apr 10 15:23
Ferguson is amusingly original. Carson seemed kinder than anybody but John Stewart, and that helps in some situations, too. "Brat" gets old, which was my trouble with Conan, and now and then with Letterman, too. My guess is that some people like Leno in contrast to Letterman when he originally seemed more comfortable and less bratty. I don't know how else to put it, and I think it was less true over time, but I think that defined the audiences to some extent. Is that possible?
Julie Sherman (julieswn) Fri 2 Apr 10 19:45
I really like Ferguson, though I usually fall asleep when his guests arrive. I like the beginning of the show. In reading your 100 best shows I was struck by how many I havent seen. I caught Arrested Development when it re-ran on Adult Swim and loved it. I never took to the Sopranos, but always watched West Wing.
Aaron Barnhart (t-t-tasteland) Sun 4 Apr 10 19:16
Well, of course, I must join in hurling laurels (which, online, are free) Craig's way. He came out of nowhere, but when I learned he was the personal choice of Peter Lassally, who succeeded Freddy DeCorboda as late night TV's foremost consigliere, then I figured heck, he must be good if Peter sees something in him. What astonishes me these days is how unprocessed his show is these days. He's learning to play the same song with fewer notes. He comes out, does a cold open, comes out again, free-associates for a few minutes with prompter jokes only now and then, moves behind his desk and tells a story, reads viewer mail every night (Letterman only did it on Thursdays), and THEN, only then does the guest emerge. I tried watching it every night for three weeks straight and actually found it getting tiresome. The simplicity of it works against it in that way, I guess. On the other hand, research confirms that most people don't watch those super-late shows more than twice a week, so I think it's a format that works really well for him and he is right to be wary of moving to an hour earlier, where he would almost certainly have to scrap the current format and start over.
Aaron Barnhart (t-t-tasteland) Sun 4 Apr 10 19:21
Sorry, the fumes of rich Corinthian leather overwhelmed me: Freddy De Cordova.
Gail (gail) Sun 4 Apr 10 20:20
So what about the rise of the Colbert Report as a late night option... though not as late as Craig. I was not sure he'd survive the end of the Bush era, since he was so necessary then, and political situations worth ridiculing from a faux-Right-wing direction are much more muddied and less clear cut nowadays. Are his numbers off at all? He's sure entertaining.
Aaron Barnhart (t-t-tasteland) Mon 5 Apr 10 18:13
I had my doubts Colbert would make it out of 2005, just doing nothing but that damn character. But I was wrong. Colbert averages right now about a million viewers a night. That should mark a rise from a year ago, when the average was under a million. Stewart's audience is more in the 1.4 million range but the telling thing is that they both draw 0.5 in the young adult demo, barely behind Jimmy Kimmel. It seems like such a small number, but that's what makes them so successful -- it's very hard to get even half a demo point on cable at a half hour to midnight.
Slowly I Turn (tcn) Mon 5 Apr 10 22:40
Where do you see things going with respect to TV and the Internet now that everyone has some kind of mobile media device in their hands?
properly sensed out (deadeye) Tue 6 Apr 10 17:46
Ratings show a distinct change in generations. People who have grown up with Internet all their lives watch TV differently than those who haven't. People who have entered or who are entering adolescence as cellphone users (and not necessarily i-phones and their ilk) watch much less. Little kids still watch about the same. Still, at this time, some huge number -- is it over 95%? -- watch TV on a device everybody would agree is a TV. Remember when there were cable-ready VCRs? Now, there are computer-ready TV sets, and that will put more pressure on traditional content providers. As an early adopter of almost everything, Aaron, how do you get your TV?
Aaron Barnhart (t-t-tasteland) Tue 6 Apr 10 21:11
There's an art for that, <tcn>. The art, short for article, that I wrote in 2001 and included in TASTELAND reported that early adopters I knew were already telling me they were "definitely" watching more TV because of the addition of a new convenient device, in this case a DVR which used the existing TV display. The takeaway from this, which was not immediately obvious but would be revealed by research, is that anytime an additional device offering a newly convenient way to access TV was unveiled, overall viewing of TV by those adopters would increase. Well, as I see it right now we have several such devices being adopted by different publics. We have the DVR, in 38 percent of homes and rising. We have Flash video making the computer, for many, a cheaper alternative to DVRs (130 million Americans watch some every month, for an average of 3.5 hours a month and growing fast). We have mobile devices like the iPod. And of course, we have video-on-demand through Amazon, Netflix and other services which are the same concept as DVRs if you're one of these persons who waits till shows are out on home video, a window that has shrunk to within weeks of a season finale in most cases. Now, here's the kicker. Just like the DVR, all the mobile video devices are feeding back into more time spent in front of the POTV: http://bit.ly/aTgb05 Obviously, some of that is now multitasked time, but you get the point. Michael Lewis famously predicted the destruction of TV by the DVR in 2001. What he forgot to factor in was (1) how new, cheaper technologies that might be introduced in future would slow down the growth of DVRs, allowing the TV industry to adapt to the changing adscape incrementally instead of drastically; (2) the takeover of the DVR market by cable companies, who have a vested interest in working with the broadcast industry; and last but not least, (3) the fact that people just loves their tv.
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