Burgundy Histories? WEWS-TV “Catch 5!” 1970s promo

Curator's Note

Surfing for material related to this entry, I came across this delightfully antiquated object from local television past: a classic promo (“Catch 5!”) from the 1970s, in this instance for WEWS channel 5 in Cleveland. As suggested on the YouTube post, it seamlessly pre-figures the aesthetic of the funny and silly Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004). Clearly this is part of the allure that has drawn some 45,000 views over the past year.

The bouncy iterative tune, variety show choreography, and strobo-pop colors/animation all could have informed the satirical humor of the Anchorman aesthetic. But there is something here that interrupts a simple economy of simulacra that we might deduce from these cultural referents. Who is that little white-haired lady, the one who assumes such an air of casual entitlement on the set with the helmet-hair, plaid suits, and polka dot shirts of the dudes from happy-talk news?

Within a few searches and mouse-clicks, it was evident that the clip could also serve as a gateway from the local, toward recognizing the expansive and discontinuous histories of mass media. It also made clear how useful the internet can be in researching, demonstrating, and understanding this.

A few highlights:

Dorothy Fuldheim was 54 years old and a seasoned broadcaster when she joined the staff of WEWS in 1947, months before it went on the air as the first television station in Cleveland. Reputedly the first woman anchor to helm her own television news program, Fuldheim delivered news, interviews, and analysis in various formats until she was in her early 90s.

The station was started by press legend Edward W. Scripps, whose newspaper The Cleveland Press centered a large communications conglomerate, and who founded the United Press news service to compete with the Associated Press. With his sister, future philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps, he had helped his brother James E. Scripps start The Detroit News in 1873, where Ellen helped to invent the feature article. (She later founded Scripps College in California, and her home in La Jolla became the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.) Part of E.W. Scripps’ legacy is that he trusted local editors to know best how to run local newspapers.

Today, WEWS is one of ten local television stations owned by The E.W. Scripps Company, now centered in Cincinnati, which also controls twenty newspapers, interactive media outlets, cable lifestyle media brands (such as HGTV, Food Network, etc.), a licensing and syndication business, and Scripps Howard News Service. The company will separate into two corporations this summer. The newspapers, spread across the U.S., feature similar boiler-plate webpage formats in the goal to maintain audience share; The Albuquerque Tribune ceased publication just this past weekend. Scripps Co. no longer owns any papers in Ohio.

I hope even this brief survey might suggest that local television can be the locus for a surprisingly vital and complex understanding of media history, and should no longer remain a largely ignored (abject?) object in television studies. (See a key marvelous new exception to this here.)

When local television is considered, in academia or on television itself, the gesture typically reifies janus-faced pleasures of nostalgia/camp as the essential and perhaps isolating frame of context. While camp in particular fosters an opening of reading possibilities, I want to encourage more possibilities than camp readings tend to engage.

As the clip demonstrates, nostalgia/camp can indeed be pleasureable. (Search other clips with Fuldheim for other examples.) But it isn’t a buzz-kill to suggest that the qualities and attractions of nostalgia/camp can be mobilized toward other kinds of significant historical inquiry, especially via the internet. It may prove useful and fun to seek out projects related to this one - call them Burgundy histories? - that deploy camp to new advantage.

Or might such projects conflict with a possible attendant pleasure of these texts? I wonder whether clips such as this one can seem to guarantee the foreclosure of history-as-inquiry, based upon a presumption that “history” has been confirmed to be linear, dead, and static, a view secured by evidence that confirms an amused sense of satisfaction/condescension?

Let’s push against that grain. I suspect that as in this case, the “evidence” already does.

You stay classy, In Media Res!

Comments

Doug Battema's picture

Interesting clip -- evokes

Interesting clip — evokes similar promos I remember from the New York area at the same time (especially WPIX/Channel 11’s “Eleven A11ive!” campaign). Your excavation of the station’s history, particularly its ownership, raises questions about how the kinds of promotional campaigns illustrated here are designed and executed. In the 1970s, given that any entity could own fewer stations than they can currently, what accounts for the striking similarity of such promotional campaigns across regional contexts (were stations simply mimicking what other, similar stations created and seemed to find successful; were they experimenting with available technology using common/popular mass cultural tropes; were there other explanations)? This clip, lacking Cleveland-specific markers beyond the presumably locally-recognizable characters, seems like it might easily have been created by someone unfamiliar with the Cleveland area; were such promotional endeavors carried out in consultation with regional or national marketing firms, or were they designed and carried out internally?

This then leads me to be curious about the ways in which production contexts and content may have changed in the intervening years, and the state of such promotional endeavors today: does the concentration in station ownership since lead to more homogeneous promotional campaigns (since station ownership groups may push for a cookie-cutter style approach to local news marketing), or does the need for differentiation and diversity in a more crowded viewing marketplace lead to greater investment in promotional campaigns, so they’re more heterogeneous and tailored to the local or regional broadcast area? I honestly don’t know the answer to this, and think Mark is right on in suggesting that scrutiny of local television can provide a phenomenal point of entry for studies of often-overlooked, taken-for-granted elements of television culture.

Mark Williams's picture

Great comments, Doug. I

Great comments, Doug. I don’t know of much scholarship on these pan-local issues, and whether they might bear similarities/differences to network issues. In this case, there may be a network or affiliate context? I recall that the ABC local stations in particular developed similar happy-talk local news formats in some loose or not-so-loose conjunction with one another, often employing the same music clip from Cool Hand Luke as their signature theme. (It’s still freaky to watch that film today, and suddenly expect Eyewitness News to interrupt.) But as you suggest, the ubiquity of something like this style would seem to likely also involve many other sectors of the media and PR/advertising and design communities.

Victoria E. Johnson's picture

Mark, Thank you for this

Mark, Thank you for this great excavation and wonderful use of links to open this clip up to broader investigation and to pose a set of really intriguing questions about place-identity and local media. Your post and Doug’s response suggest entirely new, rich areas for research and also point to my favorite aspect of new media—their ability to crack open a huge archive of “old media” history.

I think your point about tendencies to read the “local” through a “camp” lens or, even, as “failed” aspirant to national-ness is really important to call out.

I have, recently, found local ad time within web-streaming newscasts from across the country to be an interesting source of “authentic” appeal and local-specificity within the stream of news that, often, is packaged elsewhere for a shared station group.

[By the way, I’m so glad to hear someone mention the music from “Cool Hand Luke” and its use by ABC affiliate/Eyewitness News (it’s still used here in LA and still catches me off-guard every time)].

Mark Williams's picture

Thanks, Vicky. I'd love to

Thanks, Vicky. I’d love to hear more about the web-streaming, and whether/how the local address is evident. I know that sometimes this “content” can be excised, at least in the case of streamed local radio. (I used to be able to listen to Packer games online, and the local ads would be deleted, resulting in long gaps of dead air.)

When this kind of decision is made, it highlights the question of how to define/identify these aspects of the overall flow: would it be useful to transpose the notion of this “blank” airtime into spatial terms? as an absent local? a nowhere? an everywhere?

Allison Perlman's picture

Some of my most prized

Some of my most prized possessions (prized, yet sitting in a box at the bottom of a closet) are video-tapes from the 1980s containing hours of prime time programming recorded off of a local station in Connecticut. Though many of the shows are now available on DVD, these tapes include the commercials, station promos, and network promos that are the portions of programming flow excised from the experience of watching television on DVD (and that now circulate, detached from this context, online).

Watching these tapes, my impulse is to read these additional elements alongside one another and the program itself; it is not, in other words, to do the kind of research that Mark’s internet investigation uncovered. Though I don’t mean to suggest any kind of technological determinism, I do wonder how the way we encounter a text structures the kinds of questions that we ask about it and how the development of new means of accessing texts (the internet, DVDs) encourages certain modes of inquiry about them.

Mark Williams's picture

Allison, I love your old

Allison, I love your old school attitude. Be true to your local!

But are we really dealing with an either/or question of how to “research” the local? I suspect it’s both/and, and likely much broader than even this binary we are demarcating.

The local station is the historical backbone of the US broadcast industry, yet is virtually ignored as a category of serious media scholarship. (Three cheers for Vicky’s new book!) I agree that close textual analysis at the level of the local can be valuable, but hope to be raising awareness about the very concept of the local in the broader context of media change and protean formats.

As the clip indicates, there are plenty of isolated segments from local TV available online. The request from In Media Res led me to pursue issues of this availability, if only because they are also the most readily post-able to this journal. So this technology does indeed structure the kinds of questions that I’m raising. And I suspect they are increasingly important questions.

I’m trying to tease out new areas of inquiry about the fact of YouTube, etc., as it relates to the local/regional, and the inherent de-and-re-contextualization of clips online. What might be the advantages of resources such as this, and how might we best realize these advantages? Can we perhaps mobilize what might be the default frames of reference and enjoyment?

Just so you know, I also keep many tapes (and now dvd’s) I have recorded off-air, and very much recognize the potential significance of the components of local address and flow, etc. These kinds of informal or amateur archives are likely quite widespread, and it would be interesting to brainstorm about whether any collective use might be made of them.

These practices are also the source of what is still my favorite quote about television and the surprisingly complex desires that surround it. The mother of a friend once said, many years ago, “There’s so much good TV, I just can’t tape it all.” Talk about archive fever!

Victoria E. Johnson's picture

I think Allison's points are

I think Allison’s points are really interesting, particularly as there is also a high value within collector/fan culture to the TV program “as it aired” having an affective implication of “authenticity” and recreation of that moment of readerly joy. I also felt the need to respond to Mark’s last post because I remain captivated by the “new” media outlet’s (YouTube, et al. but also the iPod etc.) as a means to re-visit or recover the past, transporting oneself across time but also place, recovering the “most” local of texts.

Mark Williams's picture

Vicki's points are

Vicki’s points are well-taken, and even correspond in some ways to her own mini-essay yesterday. (BTW, I think I messed up my reply to that, since it somehow appears before the other responses even though it was posted after. Sorry.)

Historical issues of mobility and the empirical “local” can quickly become prismatic regarding different recording/storage devices and various means of transportation/distribution.

I recall teaching television courses here in the rural northeast before decent cable or satellite access—and certainly before the web carried any tv content—when many students were having family and friends mail them vhs recordings of favorite shows, typically several weeks’ episodes per tape. The interstitial local material that Allison mentions was part of what made it a “care package” from home. (But I wonder if there may have been as much capacity to relish this material as to relish fast-forwarding through it?)

Does this kind of mobility of the text, in relation to the mobility of the viewer, de-center the local station and local community it serves as the key empirical sites of the local? Does the critical “locality” increasingly exist as the site of reception/viewership, and is this de-centering exacerbated by new media tech such as YouTube and iPods, etc?

Maybe this is one reason it struck me as potentially useful to re-articulate the station as a nexus point of media history, and to utilize the web itself as a device for facilitating this.

I still find the logic behind the regulatory emphasis on the local station to be compelling: it should serve the public interest as a critical outlet to inform the public sphere. The relation of a station to the new media environment could supplement this goal, rather than undermine it or make it appear perfunctory. Certainly this promise is still important to what makes local stations so incredibly valuable. (Does anyone have any idea how much money is being poured into local TV and radio stations this election cycle?)

Okay, I think I officially wandered into new terrain and this will likely be my last post of the day. Good chats, folks!

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