Videopunk, or, The Zen of KLCS

Not long ago, I wrote an article singing the praises of the Public Broadcasting Service. Today is the day to shed some light on PBS’s darker side. I speak, of course, of KLCS.

My first acting job was for KLCS. When I was three months old, my mom tried to get me acting work, but it wasn’t happening. Luckily, my dad was transport commissioner, so I got to be in a documentary about the rebuilding of the Southland’s public transit infrastructure. My mom and I were the token white people on the blue line.

KLCS is the official television station of the Los Angeles Unified School District, and as such most of its programming was exactly like Look Around You, except that instead of 1978 it was 1993. Its creepy dullness and retrograde production values hypnotized many young children who grew up to become videopunk artists– aficionados of the VHS aesthetic. It’s something understood by everyone who spent their childhood savouring the first tear into the gold wrapping paper of a fresh Matsushita JVC cassette.

A typical day’s programming would start off with some ancient educational films, seemingly all of them about the history of mathematics. But that was before dawn; what most people first saw was a blue screen with a list of programs and the current time. There would always be music in the background: usually Sting or Maxi Priest, which they could get away with because the programming was “for educational purposes only.” The music was always loud enough recognize, but not loud enough to enjoy.

Suddenly, you’d be treated to live video footage from the Los Angeles School Board. In effect this meant three hours of parents complaining about the quality of their kids’ education and being shouted down by a very bored-looking old black lady. Noon is where things got freaky, starting with animated tags so terrifying they put the old Talkback Thames logo to shame:

Don’t get me wrong, all TV production company logos in the ’80s were creepy. The difference here is that the shows themselves were like that too. First was a quietly radical talk show called Tony Brown’s Journal. Look it up on YouTube lest my comment section get too ridiculous.

After that was a surreal yet technical kids’ mystery show called Ghostwriter that had a surprising number of prestigious guest stars. Like many shows of that time, everybody I knew thought they were the only person who watched it, but it’s found a new life on the internet.

Finally the day concluded with some even more surreal documentaries on the LAUSD itself. It’s possible that they were all the same film because they always included the following things:

  • A scene of kids in Watts dancing to New Jack Swing in a school auditorium.
  • A shot of the train passing through LA’s South Side.
  • The narrator raving pessimistically in monotone.
  • “Candid” on-the-street interviews of people staring blankly at the camera and speaking in a similar monotone.

Clearly, the LAUSD had made these videos, but it was impossible to tell why. They were extremely critical, and there was no intended audience or even a detectable reason to make them.

Personally, I think it was genius. I think it somebody woke up one day in the late ’80s and said. “Kids these days have long, boring lives ahead of them. I’m going to make them crazy. Someday they’ll thank me.”

This has been a rare moment of uncritical ’90s nostalgia.

Being Colonial: Why I Love PBS

Originally, I was going to post about why, in the words of Sean Lock, “You should never read the bottom half of the internet.” (Here’s a post from Sally O’Rouke about why maybe sometimes you should).

But that’s not a uniquely American phenomenon and in any case everybody knows that. Instead, I’m going to talk about British television in America.

British TV has always been popular in the United States, but because of cultural cringe we tend to be undiscriminating. Ask an otherwise cultured American his or her opinion of EastEnders and try not to vomit from the praise.

Because six-episode series are too short for major networks to broadcast, most UK content ends up on PBS, the national broadcaster. PBS isn’t like the BBC, it’s way less powerful and critically underfunded. It’s also locally run, so programming can vary wildly from town to town. Most programming consists of travelogues, local interest shows, bizarre ethereal documentaries (the subject of a future post) and material purchased from the UK. The affiliates tend to broadcast the cheapest shows they can get the rights to, and so it was that Keeping Up Appearances was a staple of my childhood.

Our local PBS affiliate was the inept-but-somehow-still-prestigious KCET, which went under a couple of years ago. Now we get Orange County’s KOCE. The station is owned by the Orange County Register, a paper that makes the Wall Street Journal look like Pravda, but it’s a shining example of what public television should be. The production values and imported content are on par with BBC2 at the very least. They even broadcast the original version of The Office (PBS doesn’t have to worry about censorship past 10PM because there are no advertisers to scare away).

Like the BBC, PBS is stereotyped as a niche network for highbrow audiences, though in reality everybody watches it. Television ratings are the province of commercial networks, so not many people know that PBS actually regularly outperforms NBC, the CW, and in certain markets even CBS. When the second series of Sherlock premiered last month, it was watched by 5.5 million people. On Sundays, a night already crowded with prestige shows, it was third in its timeslot!

PBS, you see, can always be relied upon for event programming. It gave the world Ken Burns, who isn’t so much a man as a genre. It’s the network of Sesame Street. And while a lot of their original content is dreadful, the journey is always interesting and I’ve never regretted watching it (with the sole exception of Barney). Even though so much of it is imported from the UK, there are few better ways at understanding American culture.

Being Colonial: Sport

Being a child in the 1990s, which was not all that different from the 1950s, you kept hearing that baseball was “America’s favourite pastime.” In fact, it’s a British invention, was always a northeastern and midwestern sport, and has not been all that popular in recent decades.

The most popular sport officially is American football, an extraordinary game. Nobody on earth actually knows the rules; a fact that “experts” on television conceal by screaming incoherently. As it is, talking about football is actually more popular than football. The second most popular sport is Auto racing, but I fail to see the appeal.

This being a huge country, preferences aren’t the same everywhere. In California, the most popular sport is Basketball. Now there’s a sport for me: lots of scoring, easy to understand, it’s the only one of the big three sports that actually originated in America, and my local team is one of the best: the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers are consequently one of the most hated teams in the country, but not nearly as hated as the Miami Heat, for many, many reasons.

Hockey is not that important in America. Despite a brief Disney-inspired fancy in the nineties, most American hockey teams are token players in a Canadian game, even when, as happened two weeks ago, the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup for the first time.

Which brings me to association football. Oh boy. It’s a common cliché that Americans hate soccer, though this is not actually true: we just hate American soccer. The World Cup has been a nationwide event ever since the 1994 games concluded only two miles from my house. A month ago every pub in Downtown Pasadena was packed by noon while thousands of people cheered on Chelsea against Bayamón. Americans will gladly support Chelsea, Barcelona, and Dortmund, but MLS (the main soccer league) is less than twenty years old and comprises obscure teams like DC United and Real Salt Lake. When David Beckham joined the Los Angeles Galaxy, it was big news because it was considered a step down. And while we’re on the subject: when are you guys going to take him back?

The Dandy Warhols – “The Coffee Tea and Wrecks”

When: 22 November 2008
Where: San Joaquins en route south
Who: Assorted strangers
Weather: Cold
Book: More Information Than You Require by John Hodgman

The first time I went home from San Francisco, I was more nervous than I’d ever been. The bus connecting me to the station at Emeryville left the ferry building downtown at 4:00 AM, and I’d booked it not wanting to lose any time during Thanksgiving Break. I didn’t want to be late; in high school I had recurring nightmares about missing the bus which, to be fair, only came once an hour, and it was still in my system.

My answer to this was to wait until the last minute to leave my dorm, catch the last M Car, chill out in the subway station for the next three hours until it was time to go. The station closed at 1:00, so I was left to sit outside. It was Embarcadero Plaza, on the water, in the middle of the night in November. It was freezing and terrifying. I passed the time listening to Radiolab and reading More Information Than You Require under whatever light I could find. Finally the bus came. It started to get light in the East Bay, and I was on the train almost immediately.

I’d heard this song before, but found it conducive to the fast-moving bucolic landscape between SF and LA. I’d be home in time for lunch.

Next: Meet the Roommate

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – “Red Eyes and Tears”

When: After dark, 15 October 2008
Where: Stonestown Galleria
Who: Nobody
Weather: Cold, foggy

The situation with Caitlin hadn’t gone well. I’d invited her to see Christian Lander in the Haight, but she never got back to me. To SF natives, the Haight is the most loathed neighborhood in the city, not because it’s dangerous, but because relatives from out-of-town will always ask you to take them there, and there isn’t much to see. Christian Lander was super-cool.

My rebound lasted about half as long as my first relationship, and even then we never saw each other. It’s a peculiarity of this short window of time that I had the lingering confidence to hold onto her for so long, but for no real reason. My dreams of dating a Jewish girl were dashed, and my thoughts returned to Jeannie, constantly crossing my path, refusing to fade into myth like the others, and I always fell into the trap of pining for her all over again.

Instead, I decided to take on some of the music of San Francisco, something that would cheer me up, and naturally I picked Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. The first time I listened to the album, I had extreme difficulty picking it up again, but I could never forget that initial spin. I took a walk outside, unprepared in my windbreaker for the cold and dark of the furthest, most inhospitable edge of San Francisco that one could imagine. I wandered into the mall, not seeing anyone or anything of interest, The words repeated over and over I began to feel sick before the song descended into a dark, dizzying jangle of mad guitars.

Next: A dream of Thanksgiving

The Dandy Warhols – “The Gospel”

When: 25 October 2008
Where: Cole Street south of Haight
Who: Christian Lander
Weather: Somehow not as cold as September

Caitlin first met me on the platform at the SF State Muni station. I don’t remember what exactly we talked about, but she was charmed enough to give me her email address and ask me out… to the first meeting of SF State’s Hillel.

How did she know!? I wondered, as even I had kind of forgotten I was Jewish. But a date’s a date, so I followed my instructions to go to 33 Denselowe Street. Nothing, these were just people’s houses. Thinking she’d got the number wrong, I continued, door to door, all fruitlessly.

When I got back to my dorm, I found an email reading, “It’s not Denselowe, it’s Banbury.” Son of a bitch. “Maybe next week,” she said. This pattern continued for six weeks, until finally, I made an offer. I was going to see Christian Lander read from Stuff White People Like in the Haight, would she like to go? She had to check with her parents, casually noting that she was 17, and I never heard from her again. But I went anyway and had a great time.

This was my Dandy Warhols phase, and Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia is still excellent. I felt alright after meeting Christian Lander. Things were going to get better.

Next: It gets worse.