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sports TV

Careful Tech 098: Like butter scraped over too much bread

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health TV

Careful Tech 095: Kids’ TV limits during COVID-19

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culture TV

Me and Mister Rogers

Neighborhood watch

As a kid, I loved Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

I had reasons to like the star; I was a quiet, gentle kid from southwestern Pennsylvania, and Fred Rogers was a quiet, gentle man from the same area. More importantly, I had precious few male role models in my family life, and Rogers modeled a warm-hearted, happy, self-assured masculinity that didn’t rely on mustering bravado or projecting toughness. Instead, he expressed his feelings, smiled and laughed, and freely shared his vulnerabilities. That gave me hope, as an insecure kid.

Of course, I eventually outgrew the show. Mister Rogers was geared for the five-and-under crowd, and I moved on to other series: Square One, Carmen Sandiego, Batman: the Animated Series.

Still, I retained an affection for Mister Rogers, and I would check in on his show from time to time, even as a teenager. It was reassuring to see his program continue, largely unchanged. Oh, his hair was whiter and his posture more stooped, but he was that same happy neighbor, beaming as he stepped into that familiar, dingy little sound stage.

The trolley, but bigger

My reentry into Fred Rogers’ orbit came from an unexpected angle: a summer job.

In spring of 1999, as my high school graduation neared, I needed to earn cash for college, but I dreaded the thought of another summer spent mowing lawns or slinging quarter pounders at McDonald’s. Fortunately, I had another option: the family-friendly amusement park near my house.

At the brief screening interview, I expressed interest in a “character” role—a park job that that involved performing a script, rather than pushing a sequence of buttons. I secretly hoped to land a job leading tours at the Wild West illusion house, where I’d get to create an over-the-top, old-timey character. (More importantly, I’d spend the summer working with my then-girlfriend, who was returning to that same role.)

To my dismay, there were no open positions at the illusion house. Instead, I was offered a job as the only male trolley driver on the park’s “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe” ride.

Yes, this was a real thing. The thirteen-minute experience piled thirty park guests into a life-size replica of the trolley from Mister Rogers’ show. This electric train trundled through a plywood tunnel and emerged into a humid, sun-dappled patch of forest. The track wound its way through Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe, stopping at King Friday’s castle, the tree house of X the Owl and Henrietta Pussycat, Lady Elaine Fairchild’s Museum-Go-Round, and Daniel Striped Tiger’s clock house.

My job was to “drive” the trolley through the Neighborhood and encourage passengers to engage with its animatronic residents. As our trolley neared, each character would emerge from its set and “talk” (i.e., play back a recording of Fred Rogers himself, in character). Pauses in their delivery were my cue to recite a well-memorized script.

The plot wasn’t exactly Shakespearean; at the first station, King Friday commanded us to invite every character we met to attend an imminent “Hug and Song” party. At each stop along the way, I would dutifully lead the passengers in the prescribed mantra: “Come along, come along, to the castle Hug and Song.”

I spent two full summers driving the trolley, and this routine grew very familiar.

For example, by my calculations, I recited that “Hug and Song” line tens of thousands of time. By the end of my second season, I could have performed the script in my sleep and knew precisely where there was room for improvisation.

By sheer repetition, I had also mastered the skill of trolley-driving: I could stop the massive train on a dime and could tell by feel when the tracks had been recently greased. I knew exactly how each scene was likely to malfunction, too: the Merry-Go-Round would fail to spin open, leaving Lady Elaine to squawk at us from inside. X the Owl’s door would get stuck. Daniel Tiger, true to his shy reputation, would stay hidden away inside his clock. I had even invented ways of explaining away these problems, satisfying curious kids and amusing parents with a knowing wink.

It was a good job, as park jobs go, and it kept me entertained far better than working the carousel or the roller coaster ever could have. Still, the work eventually grew tiresome, and as my second summer drew to a close, I was eager to disembark the trolley—permanently.

Meeting the man himself

There was one perk of trolley-driving I haven’t yet mentioned: we were treated to visits from the show’s stars. For example, more than once, Mr. McFeely (the Neighborhood mailman) dropped by. All fine and good, but that paled in comparison to the time that Mr. Rogers himself visited.

We spent the better part of a week sprucing up the ride for Rogers’ arrival. We swept and re-swept the loading deck, scrubbed down the trolleys, and washed the scene platforms along the track. Park maintenance repaired animatronic malfunctions that hadn’t worked properly for ages. Everything was well-oiled, crisp, and shiny when an elderly Mr. Rogers showed up, slim and hunched but not particularly frail.

There’s not much I can say about Fred Rogers himself that others haven’t written more eloquently. But it’s true what they say: his real-life personality was very similar to the one he projected for the TV audience. I remember that he smiled a lot and that he seemed genuinely interested in each of us college kids working the ride.

We lined up for photos (I still have that snapshot, somewhere) and accompanied Mr. Rogers to a nearby pavilion, where we shared a picnic lunch and said our goodbyes. It was a wonderful way to bookend my summer—and my twenty-year relationship with Mr. Rogers as his “television neighbor.”

Last thoughts

A few years later, I was heartbroken to learn that Fred Rogers had passed away. He had kept his stomach cancer a secret from the public and died soon after his diagnosis, at the age of 74.

Reading through his obituaries, I was astonished to learn that Rogers and I had shared a birthday. That’s a coincidence, of course. But it felt significant to me—one more thread linking me to a remarkable man. ■

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movies TV

Never unintentional: my brain on linear TV vs. Netflix

<!––>We typically spend the late-year holidays visiting my in-law’s home in Pennsylvania. It’s a welcome downshift from our usual, frantic pace. On many of these visits, I’ve watched more traditional, linear-programmed cable TV in one long weekend than I have in the rest of the year combined.

There’s a warm, zombified state that settles in after so watching many Property Brothers episodes. My body falls into sleepy hibernation, lying motionless on the couch for hours on end. My metabolism enters ‘slow burn’ mode, expecting a steady stream of pumpkin pie and sugar cookies. And my brain quiets, barely registering when one hour of bad TV bleeds into the next. The day rolls by.

However, in more recent holiday seasons, these cable TV binges have grown less frequent, for at least two reasons. First, we have a daughter now, and she prefers that her parents be play partners, rather than comatose couch potatoes.

Another reason I don’t binge on cable quite as often? The internet has fundamentally changed my relationship to content, and it’s hard to go back. I’ve grown accustomed to programming my own playlists, and I’ve grown resistant to “choice-less” consumption.

This change isn’t just about Netflix versus cable. Terrestrial radio’s bland playlists and brash commercials also turn me off; give me my podcasts instead. The satellite TV feeds offered on my recent cross-country flights didn’t tempt me in the slightest. I turned to my phone instead, which was chock-full of favorite vlogs, TV series, and movies. Even magazines bore me; why read fluffed-up filler, when I can hand-pick the best of the web?

There’s a huge difference in mindset for these two consumption methods. One, the traditional model, makes me passive and powerless. Someone else steers the ship, and I get sucked into its current. Linear TV puts me at the mercy of the least common denominator; I unintentionally wind up watching formulaic, overproduced reality TV.

In contrast, the internet makes content consumption more purposeful. I watch shows that I actually want to watch. I gravitate to shows with great writing and production values: content that delights me, thrills me, or makes me think. And when a show is bad? I’m just engaged enough that I don’t keep watching mindlessly. Instead I’ll switch and watch watch something else. Or I’ll turn off the gadgets and (gasp!) actually head outside.

(I still bring along the cookies.) ■

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apple TV

Thoughts on Apple’s fired engineer

Apple has fired a radio frequency engineer who allowed his daughter (vlogger Brooke Peterson) to record a prerelease iPhone X, then post the result to YouTube. The offending video has since been pulled (at Apple’s request), but it’s not difficult to find it online.

A few random thoughts:

  • First, let me say up front that I’m sorry that this happened. I can’t imagine how difficult it is for Peterson and her family to deal with the aftermath of this episode, particularly since it all happened in such a public-facing way.
  • Turning to the offending video itself (and on a lighter note), those inside Apple are struggling with the flagship phone’s name, too. Just before the 3:00 mark, the engineer calls it the “iPhone Ex” (i.e., not the “iPhone Ten”).
  • The Caffè Macs pizza looks delicious.
  • Halfway through the video, the engineer reveals that his team is scheduled to move into Apple Park (the company’s spaceship-like new headquarters) in December. I wonder whether he was authorized to announce this, given the level of public interest in the campus. If not, that revelation may have factored into his dismissal, as well.
  • The Petersons unknowingly mirrored Apple’s actual prerelease marketing strategy for the iPhone X: invite little-known YouTuber to Apple’s home turf, give them an exclusive hands-on with the iPhone X, and invite them to publish their thoughts ahead of major press outlets. One blogger even argues that Peterson’s video is more interesting than the officially-sanctioned takes.
  • You would think that the engineer’s internal alarm would have gone off the instant his daughter whipped out her dSLR on campus. Apple’s commitment to secrecy is infamous at this point, and in the past few years, the company has clamped down even harder on employee leaks. It would be difficult for Apple leadership to overlook the (very public) violation without undermining their authority inside the company. So why didn’t the engineer stop her—either mid-recording or before she uploaded?
  • Brooke Peterson has since posted her reflections on the incident. She claims that she was shocked that her “little, innocent video” garnered so much attention, when there were so many other hands-ons already posted online. It’s true that Peterson’s video didn’t reveal much about the iPhone X that we didn’t already know. But at the time it hit YouTube, precious few recordings of the X “in the wild” had leaked—and none of them came from inside Apple. It’s not surprising that this content went viral.

In Peterson’s defense, I doubt that she aimed to sacrifice her dad’s job to boost her YouTube subscriber count. But, whether intentionally or not, that’s what happened. Before her iPhone X hands-on, Peterson had just 87 subscribers; now, barely a week later, she has over 12,000.

That’s a solid base on which to build an internet personality brand, if Peterson goes that direction. At the very least, she plans to continue posting Youtube videos; as she states in her follow-up, “I’ll see you guys at my next vlog.” ■

Categories
apple TV

Does ‘Planet of the Apps’ mean that Apple is bad at producing TV?

On a recent episode of The Talk Show, John Gruber argued that Apple’s potential as a TV content producer shouldn’t be judged by its first two (underwhelming) efforts, Planet of the Apps and Carpool Karaoke. “What was Netflix’s first show?” he asked, “No one fucking remembers, right?”

On the one hand, citing Netflix undermines Gruber’s argument. Netflix’s first original series was House of Cards, whose excellent first season premiered to universal acclaim. Weighed against that show, Planet of the Apps comes up wanting. Apple’s reality show debut hasn’t attracted enough critical attention to be scored by Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes, but those reviewers who bothered to weigh in panned the show.

On the other hand, there is precedent for a streaming service achieving success after mediocre first efforts at original content. Hulu’s first few web-only shows generated hardly a ripple of interest. But The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian drama from Hulu that debuted earlier this year, just won the Emmy for best drama series—the first and only streaming series to win that honor.

Presumably, Apple’s hoping to follow in Hulu’s footsteps. First, produce a few low-budget, under-the-radar web series. Then, once you’ve debugged the content production assembly line, hire more proven talent and pump in the cash. Time will tell whether Planet of the Apps has primed the pump for Apple’s future television success.


For comparison’s sake, here are the Metacritic scores for several streaming services’ first original series:

Company First original streaming series Premiere First season Metacritic rating
Hulu If I Can Dream March 2010 N/A
Netflix House of Cards February 2013 76
Amazon Betas April 2013 69
CBS All Access The Good Fight February 2017 80
Apple Planet of the Apps June 2017 N/A

Categories
internet TV

Letterman’s moving to Netflix. Who’s next?

From a Netflix press release:

“David Letterman, the longest-serving host in U.S. late night television – the original host of Late Night (NBC) and The Late Show (CBS) – is returning to television for a new series for Netflix.

The yet-to-be-named, six-episode series has Letterman combining two interests for which he is renowned: in-depth conversations with extraordinary people, and in-the-field segments expressing his curiosity and humor.”

This makes sense. Letterman has occasionally expressed admiration for Jerry Seinfeld’s highly successful web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (which recently announced its own transition to Netflix).

Conan should have gone online-only when NBC fired him back in 2010.

So… comedians are leading the Internet TV charge. One other star I’d like to see join the fray? Conan O’Brien, who should have gone online-only when NBC fired him back in 2010. Instead, he transplanted his network show to basic cable, where he continues to rehearse the tired late-night talk show model. But his absurd, amazing remote bits would work well as a standalone short-form web series. ■

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internet TV Uncategorized

Frinkiac, the search engine for Simpsons screencaps

Behold, Frinkiac, which takes Simpsons quotes as input and returns the corresponding screencap. I’d echo John Siracusa on this:

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“Towering achievement” indeed.[1] I quickly found Sideshow Bob’s H.M.S. Pinafore performance using the line “He himself has said it.” Want to see Ralph Wiggum deliver his “That’s where I’m a Viking!” line? No problem. Or Homer’s expression while listening to the National Fatherhood Institute’s hold music? Easy. I could spend all day exhausting the Simpsons quotes that repeat viewings burned into my teenaged brain.

If I ran Fox, I’d buy Frinkiac and build its functionality into simpsonsworld.com. Imagine: what if searching for your favorite quote summoned not just the screencap—but the actual video clip? Once you had found your scene, the site would let you embed it elsewhere on the web—or generate an animated GIF (with subtitles) to share on social media. Boom: infinite pageviews.


  1. Here’s more on how this was done.  ↩
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movies TV Uncategorized

Huh. That doesn’t feel like ‘Star Trek’.

On first watch, this trailer bummed me out. Star Trek Beyond feels like “Fast & Furious in Space.” Maybe fans should have expected this—director Justin Lin also helmed four Furious movies. But J.J. Abrams’ Trek reboot already felt too action-heavy for the staid franchise; this trailer doubles down on that approach.

The more I watch the teaser, however, the less its pace bothers me. Remember that the classic Trek films hail from a different filmmaking era—slower, smaller, quieter. Modern, mainstream audiences wouldn’t endure Trek’s glacially-paced naval battles or interminable static effects shots. Replicating that outdated feel could tank the franchise (again). If overemphasizing adventure helps keep Star Trek alive, that’s fine by me.

Plus, even if Trekkies wrinkle their noses at its tone, the trailer offers some encouraging signs. Beyond seems to take place during the Enterprise’s legendary five-year mission. The crew has ventured far from home and finds itself stranded amidst a hostile alien culture. That set-up harkens back to Trek’s episodic TV roots. If the plot is handled well—yes, that’s a big “if”—this movie could be fun.

I do have one beef, though. The trailer shows swarming robots (?) disintegrate the Enterprise; Captain Kirk then laments, “We have no ship!” That could be a red herring—maybe the Enterprise survives the attack. But if it doesn’t, that reveal feels like an unnecessary spoiler. In Star Trek, the ship itself is a character, and you don’t telegraph a character’s demise seven months before the film premieres. By all means, go ahead and wreck the Enterprise, but save that sad plot twist for the theaters.


EDIT: Here’s a Wrath of Khan trailer set to the Beyond trailer’s music (the Beastie Boys).

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internet TV Uncategorized

Streaming TV wins—except on Thanksgiving.

Like many millennials, I don’t subscribe to traditional TV. Cable companies overcharge for an inferior, viewer-hostile product. Once you get used to streaming, you can’t go back to TV’s linear air times, limited programming options, and endless sponsor breaks.

… Except during Thanksgiving. Combine extra vacation time with an extended family’s varied tastes, and streaming has some downsides. Its chief appeal—the ability to choose—suddenly becomes a burden. The tribe gathers around TV’s warm, glowing, warming glow, then spends twenty frustrating minutes browsing Netflix. You scroll hopelessly past shows recommended for you—but not for Grandma Marigold. If someone proposes a program, stubborn vetoes and frustrated groans arise from all corners. Some family members play the passive-aggressive card (“Oh, that movie? Well, I can always go in the other room”). Eventually, the feuding factions brook a compromise: a movie everyone can stomach but no one really likes.


Contrast that to cable, where there are fewer disagreements and no tough decisions. The entire family knows that the shows are trash. Everyone resigns themselves to low-quality entertainment: faux-“reality” TV, bastardized movie edits, over-sponsored sports.

There’s something nice about traditional TV’s limitations. One hour flows seamlessly into the next—often, another episode of the same show. Your brain shuts down, and you table your worries: the dead-end job, the mortgage payment, your lonely social life. TV doesn’t make you feel good, exactly, but it drowns out the bad thoughts. A wired, buzzy sensation sets in; it’s—not happiness, exactly, but close. Combine TV with a steady intake of holiday leftovers, and the experience is kind of wonderful.

Kind of. Eventually, your Thanksgiving bender ends, and the hangover sets in. Your head feels hollow. Your eyes ache. You look back in horror at what you’ve done (“I wasted four days watching Property Brothers?!”). Ashamed, you swear never to binge on TV ever again.

But don’t kid yourself. Christmas break is coming, and that 72-hour Mythbusters marathon ain’t gonna watch itself.