Wed. Jul 24th, 2024

Revisit “Turn-On,” the Innovative TV Show That Got Canceled Right in the Middle of Its First Episode (1969)

It may give you pause, at least if you’re past a certain age, to consider the disappearance of the word computerized. Like portable, it has fallen out of use due to the sheer commonness of the concept to which it refers: in an age when we all carry portable computers in our pockets, neither portability nor computerization are any longer notable in themselves. But there was a time when to call something computerized lent it a futuristic, even sexy air. Back in 1969, just a few months before the United States’ decisive victory in the Space Race, ABC aired “the First Computerized TV Show,” a half-hour sketch-comedy series called Turn-On. Or rather, it would’ve been a series, had it lasted past its first broadcast.

Turn-On was created by Ed Friendly and George Schlatter, the producers of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In on NBC. With that sketch comedy show having quickly become a major cultural phenomenon, Friendly and Schlatter used their new project to purify and greatly intensify its concept: the sketches became shorter, some of them lasting mere seconds; the material became more topical and risqué; the humor became more absurd, at times verging on nonsensical.

But Turn-On‘s most striking break from convention was the elimination of the role of the host, replacing them with a formidable-looking computer console that was ostensibly generating the show according to the instructions of its anonymous programmers.

Though its central computer was a fiction, Turn-On really did use technology in ways never before seen or heard on television. Instead of a laugh track, it was saturated with the novel sounds of the Moog synthesizer (whose capabilities had been popularly demonstrated the previous year by Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach). Instead of proper sets, its troupe performed against the kind of white void later associated with Gap commercials; often, that space would separate into comic-strip panels right onscreen. Its dance sequences even made use of an early motion-capture system. Alas, none of these innovations saved the show from being pulled off the air just fifteen minutes into its debut by Cleveland’s WEWS. That decisive rejection set off a cascade, and several stations on the west coast subsequently elected not to broadcast it at all.

Schlatter remains a defender of Turn-On, blaming its rejection on a vindictive fan of the show whose time slot it took, the declining prime-time rural soap opera Peyton Place. Now that both the first and never-aired second episodes have surfaced on Youtube, you can watch and judge them for yourself, assuming you can handle a frenzied disjointedness that makes TikTok videos feel stately by comparison. The objects of these often-absurd salvos  — campus protests, anti-communism, “the new math,” nuclear annihilation, the pill, Richard Nixon — may be dated, but at this historical distance, we can better appreciate what Ernie Smith at Tedium calls a “sharp commentary on an increasingly direct and impersonal culture.” And if we also take Turn-On as a statement on the nature of entertainment generated by artificial intelligence, we can credit it with a certain prescience as well.

via Boing Boing

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How Will AI Change the World?: A Captivating Animation Explores the Promise & Perils of Artificial Intelligence

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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