Raising the Dead
Actor Joseph Fotinos Wants to Resurrect Local Television
Most of us keep our monsters hidden under our beds. Not local actor Joseph Fotinos. His are splashed on posters, captured in action figures and toys, and displayed in a collection of horror-movie memorabilia in the "Monster Room" of his South Austin home. He's known to dress up in ghoulishly stylish splendor, wear fake nails sharpened to a V, and talk in a jovially sinister voice. Why? Because he loves horror movies -- no, he loves horror movies.
Actually, Fotinos only dresses this way as his alter ego, Professor Anton Griffin, a friendly, somewhat devilish horror-movie connoisseur. Austinites might remember him as Goodwill Industries' official Halloween Costume Spokesperson and as host of Halloween movie specials on KVC 13 and Fox 7 last year. Fotinos enjoys his appearances as Prof. Griffin, but he has an idea. With the undying persistence of a flesh-jonesin' zombie, Fotinos is working to stir interest in his year-round, locally produced horror-movie television program, The Midnight Shadow Show. Produced with Shane Scott by Franklin/Nasty Cat Productions, the show features Prof. Griffin as host, along with a creature-of-the-night sidekick.
"My grand dream is to bring local [horror] television back to Austin," says Fotinos. "I use the word 'back' loosely, because quite honestly, Austin has never had a late-night horror host."
While it's not strictly true that his would be the first horror movie show in Austin -- Lon Chaney Jr. taped a Halloween movie special here in the mid-Seventies, and retired KXAN veteran Mel Pennington remembers a short-lived horror show hosted by the alleged son of Peter Lorre in the Sixties or Seventies -- the quality of Fotinos' project and his infectious enthusiasm make one wonder: Why not bring the local back to local television?
The answer has more to do with the evolution of television programming than it does with the quality of Fotinos' project. Much more. What was first imagined as a straightforward story about a local guy who wants to make a TV show led to deeper questions about the value of locally produced programming, shifting viewing patterns, and the ongoing impact of new technology on the meaning of "community" and "local."
If the concept of The Midnight Shadow Show sounds familiar, you're most likely over 40 and grew up in a city where horror movie hosts like Elvira, Vampira, Zacherley, Ghoulardi, the Ghoul, Moona Lisa, Dr. San Guinary, Count Gore De Vol, Svenghoolie, and legions of others ruled local television on Friday or Saturday night. Fotinos' personal favorite was Count Harold (aka Harold Gunn), who hosted Boo Theater in Houston in the 1970s.
Back in the Day
For TV viewers of a certain age, Fotinos' project evokes fond memories of staying up past bedtime, watching spooky movies in the dark with the spectral glow of the TV shining on wide-eyed faces. There was popcorn and sodas, and plenty of pillows and blankets to hide under when the featured monster of the evening made its appearance. Fotinos' project also recalls a time when locally produced shows were more prevalent and, some might say, more meaningful to viewers' lives. In Austin, children's shows like Carrascolendas and The Uncle Jay Show, news-talk shows like The Joyce and Mel Show or Good Morning Austin, and lifestyle shows like The Carolyn Jackson Show were local staples (see "Part of Our Day," Lost Austin issue, Jan. 26, 2001).
The ultimate children's show, Bozo the Clown, was another mainstay of local children's programming in some cities. Originally produced by Chicago's WGN (and most recently known as The Bozo Super Sunday Show), it reached its height in the 1960s, inspiring 183 local versions. In August of last year, The Bozo Super Sunday Show was canceled after 40 years on the air.
To a generation of TV watchers, the cancellation of Bozo was the last gasp for what was once a vibrant tradition of local television. Sure, the shows seem quaint and downright hokey by current standards, but was something else lost with these programs? Or is it simply that local TV shows are relics like the 8-track tape player or the Betamax -- amusing, but ultimately of no enduring value?
When television was young, local programmers scrambled to fill airtime when feeds from national affiliates were not available. Not so today. Just try to find a moment of dead air on television.
The Cable Guys
"Back when there were only three channels in Austin, there was a definite audience for locally produced programming," muses Robert Taylor, program coordinator for KVUE. "But when cable came along, and syndicated shows became more available, it was less cost-effective to produce shows locally."
Then came the niche networks, available on cable or via satellite: The Cartoon Network, the Food Network, the Sci-Fi Channel, TechTV, and a host of others poured money into the development and production of a specific type of programming, aimed at specific audiences. When that happened, local versions of similar shows often paled in comparison. Even when the quality of a local show matched the quality of a cable or syndicated show, the cost of producing the local version was often much greater than the return.
For some, including Fotinos, the result was a less colorful television landscape.
"Obviously, I love horror films, I love the genre, and I love what I'm doing," he says. "But the thing that really got me going was that all the local stations that you watch late-night, you see reruns of Friends, Frasier, Seinfeld -- good shows, but what differentiates one station from another when you can just turn the channel and watch a rerun of NewsRadio on another channel? There's no real sense of identity that comes with the stations because they don't have a standout personality. Stations have their personalities, but they're usually newscasters or traffic reporters. They don't have a real character."
The coming of cable didn't so much obliterate local programming as consign it to a limited number of channels. And if it's characters you're looking for, you'll still find plenty on cable access television. Following training at the Austin Community Access Center, anyone can learn how to handle a camera, find his or her way around an editing bay, and produce a show that takes on nearly any topic or theme. In spite of the fact that ACAC is the oldest continuously running access station in the country, it's easy to dismiss cable access television. The production values are often poor, and it has the reputation of a being a playground for those living on the fringe. And why not? Those living on the fringe are the least likely to get the time of day on mainstream sources, local or otherwise. But does cable access television, for all its "power to the people" roots and continuing stance as a candle in the wind of convention, reach a critical mass to the extent that it can be called "local television"? Besides those who can afford a cable television subscription (and those who can't make up an entirely different fringe group), and viewers who watch their favorite off-the-wall cable access shows to "goof on them," just who is watching cable access?
According to ACAC Executive Director John Villareal, an in-house survey was conducted in 1996 to answer that question. ACAC reports on its Web site that "ACAC ranks 5th in local markets, higher than KLRU and KNVA." Unfortunately, there are no figures to define viewers by age, income, or other discrete features, or the frequency with which viewers watch certain shows, and which shows are most watched. Villareal says the station is looking into the possibility of gathering viewer information, much like the Nielsen ratings gather information for commercial television. But even without hard and fast numbers, Villareal is clear in his view that access television, for all its rough edges, fills a much-needed niche in local television programming.
"We provide a conduit for filling the gap of what's not provided on local [affiliate] television. We have the extreme right and the extreme left, and everything in between," he says. "We broadcast what citizens want to produce. For most who come in here, it's an avocation, but the potential to fill that absence of the local in local programming can be met here."
Jerry Avila agrees. Avila produces and hosts of one of the longest-running cable access shows, Prime Time Tejano, and its year-old sister program, Prime Time Latino. A recent first-place Austin Video Award winner for Best Variety Show, Avila reports on his Web site (www.tmetv.com) that Prime Time Tejano's "local target audience is about 60,000 and growing." Although Prime Time Latino is a musical variety show, it also features politicians and community spokespeople who discuss issues not covered in the local news. "I'm very proud of what we do here, because a lot of the Hispanic community don't see their issues on regular television," Avila says.
Another face that has clearly emerged in local TV is Korey Coleman, co-host of The Reel Deal on cable access. For someone like Fotinos, Coleman is in the enviable position of having not one, but two local programs, the second being Behind the Screens on WB affiliate KNVA. The formats are similar, each providing fun and often irreverent reviews of upcoming feature films.
"Frankly, they could probably make more money showing an infomercial instead of us," Coleman says of KNVA. "But to their credit, they were interested in building the character of the station, and that's how we got in. I mean, I think about some stations that run the same infomercial, same time, same week. What does that say?"
In addition to public service, viewers and producers alike find the missing vitality of regular local television on cable access. "When I first started out, the original idea was to [do a show] about local film in town," says Charlie Sotelo, producer and host of The Show With No Name. "Later, I started putting on my own crap because no one cared, and I was like the Robin Hood of 'golden clips.' Now, I'm just fascinated with the whole thing of broadcasting and how it works. There's a voyeuristic quality to it. You can see that something real is happening, you can see behind the curtain." Sotelo's weekly show is not only live, but bravely takes calls from viewers. "People call me up and call me fat. How do I deal with that?" It's all part of the on-your-toes excitement that either invites or repels viewers. With access TV, there doesn't seem to be a middle ground.
Network affiliates' attempts to localize programming are decidedly less "gonzo" than the access approach. "In order to create an idea of community, stations get involved in projects like our [KVUE's] Coats for Kids or Five Who Care," Taylor says. Similar programs include KXAN's Summer Fan Drive, along with their weekly "Food for Thought" segments (citing which local restaurants passed or failed health inspections), and Fox 7's "On Your Side."
On Your Side
Such community-service projects are no doubt well-intentioned, and in some cases provide a genuine public service. But if one takes the stance that the local affiliates, especially in news programming, should hold the public trust of a city, projects, however charitable, cannot replace a sustained, in-depth examination of community issues.
"What the affiliates do well is provide general information," Avila says. "There are some things they cover that we don't and vice versa. But we can go into issues that local affiliates won't touch. With us, it's raw, in-depth, and to the point."
The reality is, fewer and fewer people control the media. Television news at all levels has become infotainment, and entertainment has become news. Local news programming, for all its efforts to "be on your side," has been sucked into the great Hollywood machine, a machine that celebrates conformity, rarely recognizes difference, and in the end, really has no direct and meaningful connection to the local. If there's any doubt of this, think of the now-commonplace local news tie-in to a theme featured in the affiliate network's prime-time programming. Cutting the local news to match the theme of a prime-time show -- particularly during sweeps week -- does nothing more than create a locally produced promotional tool for the affiliate network.
Of the affiliate networks, the one with the most visible array of locally produced programs is PBS affiliate KLRU. Central Texas Gardener, Austin at Issue, and Second Sunday Hotline, not to mention the nationally acclaimed Austin City Limits, are shows that "personalize" the affiliate network to the local community. Although KLRU is not a commercial entity, programming is always scrutinized to determine shows' success in fulfilling the PBS mission and vision, as well as their financial viability.
"We talked to [Fotinos] about his show to see what we could consider," says Maria Rodriguez, senior vice-president of programming for KLRU. "We get calls from producers and distributors from New York to California. There's much more competition than before."
Change, positive or negative, is always destabilizing, and yet inevitable. "Audiences change. Programs do not always hold the interest of audiences that they did in the past," Rodriguez says. If change was not in her job description, it is now. She will help shepherd programming adjustments at KLRU following PBS' announcement that it will change its prime-time fall schedule. PBS' prime time has remained virtually unchanged for over 20 years. So why change now? "Numerous audience and demographic studies and an analysis of current broadcasting trends," President and CEO of KLRU Mary Beth Rogers writes in her July column for the station's program guide. To what extent KLRU will follow the new schedule and the impact it will have on local KLRU favorites will be formally announced in July. All changes go into effect in September.
If you continue to long for television's "good old days," take a seat as you ponder what was reported in an Arbitron/Edison Media Research Internet Study.
"One-third of Americans with Internet access at home would give up television if forced to choose between television and the Internet," the study reported in an article by Michael Pastore, published in February 2001 in Internet.com. "Streaming media users (streamies) and younger Internet users consider the TV to be an expendable source of background noise," and "respondents between the ages of 12 and 24 are more apt to give up television (47%) than the Internet."
Furthermore, "when a TV and a PC are interacting during prime time, the PC is four times more likely to hold consumers' attention than the TV. Eighty percent of those who use TVs and PCs simultaneously during prime time consider the computer to be their primary activity."
If 12- to 24-year-olds are the television viewers of tomorrow, the Arbitron study paints a grim picture. Still, the death knell may be unfounded. Radio didn't die when moving pictures came to town, and the movie theaters didn't go dark with the advent of television and VCRs -- and television is probably not going anywhere either, no matter how sophisticated the Internet becomes.
Still, Fotinos is persistent. He's been stumping for The Midnight Shadow Show for two years, and he's not ready to give up yet. If a local affiliate does not pick up the show, he has not counted out cable access. After all, cult favorites like the former Mystery Science Theater 3000 and The Tom Green Show started on cable access. But it's not fame and fortune that Fotinos is looking for.
Awake in the Dark
"I used to have a ritual," Fotinos says. "The night of Boo Theater I'd rush home from school and do my homework real quick so I could stay up late. I'd have my Lay's Potato Chips, my drinks, and I'd set up the couch cushions on the floor, making my little fort, and just be enveloped by this whole experience. Today, [I'm sure] people think, 'Why should I scan the TV Guide for Son of Frankenstein when I can go to the video store, rent it, and watch it at my leisure?' True, but you miss the whole feeling of event, the identifiable community feeling that comes from watching a local horror host."
Is Fotinos stuck on an idea past its prime? Perhaps. But given the cyclical nature of entertainment preferences, sooner or later the old starts to look new again. In which case, he'll be just in time.