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The Clown Prince of Chicago Kiddie TV: Part 2

Our conversation with Bill Jackson continues. See Part 1 here.

Beachwood: During the mid-1970s, the federal government started pushing the requirement that all children's programming be "educationally-themed." How did that change your show?

Jackson: Kaiser Broadcasting purchased WFLD-TV in the mid-seventies and had no intention of continuing any type of kid show, let alone one with the production values of Cartoon Town and B.J. & Dirty Dragon. So, for the second time (but not the last) after coming to Chicago, I was given a termination slip (fired). Pressure from the FCC and Peggy Charren's Action for Children's Television (ACT) requiring stations to offer educational/worthwhile children's programming signaled the end of local kid shows as we knew them. Imaginative entertainment had been my goal, but I had always laced worthwhile values into my programs, and especially pushed the concept of creativity. However, the overall look of Cartoon Town and B.J. & Dirty Dragon was taken as merely entertainment (no offense taken), which rendered me unemployable. Pondering my future while sitting in the sun on my tiny Arlington Heights patio, I slowly formed the format for The Gigglesnort Hotel. WLS-TV, looking to satisfy both the FCC and Peggy, agreed to the production values I requested and what its promotion department touted as the most successful kid show in the station's history was born.

Beachwood: If it was possible to say that there was a time when B.J. & Dirty Dragon jumped the shark, my vote would be when it turned into Gigglesnort Hotel. No disrespect intended, but what in the world was someone thinking?

Jackson: That someone twas I. See the answer to your question about "educationally-themed" shows. B.J. & Dirty Dragon didn't become Gigglesnort - B.J. & Dirty Dragon ended, as did the era of entertainment kid shows. I feel good about Gigglesnort - educational/worthwhile shows can be dry as dirt. I made the series as entertaining as I could and still qualify for the new edict. Gigglesnort won the industry award as the best locally produced kid show in the nation. I'm happy to add, so had Cartoon Town in its day.

Beachwood: How would you describe your relationship with the powers that be at WFLD at first, and where was that relationship when you left?

Jackson: My relationship with management for all the time the station was owned by Field Enterprises, which also owned the Chicago Sun-Times, was excellent. When Kaiser Broadcasting took over the station, I was escorted to the door in a cordial, but not quite transparent, manner.

Beachwood: At what particular moment did you decide it was time to walk away from it all for good?

Jackson: I pursued doing something with the puppets into the early eighties, but to no avail. The exact "walk away" moment came when I encountered the program director for KTTV-TV, Los Angeles, as I was walking out the door of a restaurant. He had encouraged me to pitch a show he would show his manager, but it turned out his manager was the same manager installed at WFLD-TV by Kaiser Broadcasting. Acting as if the rejection hadn't occurred, the program director smiled and asked, "How are the puppets?"

I replied, "I don't do that anymore." And I didn't.

Beachwood: Kaiser Broadcasting seems to have been a malevolent, dark cloud over your professional life. I'm sure you must have reflected upon it over the years, so what do you imagine your future might have been had Field Enterprises never sold out to Kaiser Broadcasting?

Jackson: More than once my original director of Cartoon Town, Dave Dillman, has mused about what might have happened if WFLD-TV had been purchased by Metromedia, a huge conglomerate of radio and television stations that prior to Kaiser had shown an interest in the station. Metromedia had the ability to produce shows on a network scale. Hmmmmm.

Beachwood: You seem to have adjusted well to life after TV. Did that happen by plan or by accident?

Jackson: By God's plan. He blessed me with a marvelous career in children's television. I had nothing to complain about.

Beachwood: It's 1969. If we could listen in on a conversation over a few beers between you, Frazier Thomas, Bob Bell, Ned Locke and Ray Rayner, what sort of conversation do you think we'd hear?

Jackson: Dagnabbit, that never happened, but I would've enjoyed it. No doubt there would have been some grousing about the gathering dark clouds threatening pure entertainment shows, but after the second round had been ordered, we would've regaled each other with the hilarious bloopers and mishaps we'd had on live television.

In the old days, hosts did commercials, and I would've told about the hand-picked, highly hyped, cowboy-attired Little Johnny who stood ready to assist me on the live Twinkie commercial. His job was just to go "Yum! Yum!" when I broke open the goodie to show its creamy inside. When the glorious moment arrived, Little Johnny took one look at the goop foaming from inside and threw up on my foot. I hopped around like I'd stepped in pigeon poop. I don't think we sold many Twinkies that day.

Beachwood: You also spent many an afternoon on Chicago TV helping sell boatloads of cookies for your sponsor, Maurice Lenell. Did that intrusion of on-air commercial sponsorships ever annoy you? Or was it just something TV hosts accepted as a basic, inescapable fact of TV life?

Jackson: I didn't mind at all doing commercials if they were for worthwhile products and certainly Maurice Lenell was that. Cliff Braun, the program director, allowed me to select what commercials I would do, an extremely unusual permission for a station to grant. No copy was ever provided for the Maurice Lenell spots; all were presented extemporaneously and the sponsor was delighted.

Beachwood: You spoke of the "gathering dark clouds," which you suggested were on the horizon when you were first hired at WBBM-TV three years before WFLD first hired you for Cartoon Town in 1968, and Peggy Charren and ACT even surfaced. Knowing that, exactly what was it about BJDD (other than perhaps fewer "Bucky and Pepito" cartoons) that needed more "educational/worthwhile" value in order to toe that line and survive?

Jackson: The "gathering dark clouds" loomed for children's programming as it had existed before Newton Minow's chairmanship of the Federal Communications Commission. When I came to WBBM-TV, the FCC already was pressuring local television stations to offer more educational television to children or face possible rejection of license renewal. Actually, I have this threat to thank for my getting to come to Chicago at all. The FCC particularly focused on network Owned-and-Operated Stations of which CBS's WBBM-TV was one. To answer this demand, the station decided to create a new show, which it placed under the supervision of its Community Affairs Department. An educational consultant was hired to suggest educational topics and related material. I succeeded in getting the station to allow me to bring humor into the features and eventually won the approval of the producer and the consultant to create my own segments.

I'm not aware of any such FCC pressure being put on WFLD-TV, probably because it was a small, struggling Ultra High Frequency station, which, when I came aboard, was a signal unavailable on a large percentage of Chicago television sets.

Beachwood: In a nutshell, what was the basic "educational" difference between Gigglesnort and BJDD?

Jackson: Gigglesnort fell more under the "worthwhile programming" mandate rather than "educational." BJDD, intended wholly as entertainment, contained worthwhile threads woven into my brand of fun. For all I know WFLD-TV may have included some of my features within its Community Service report to the FCC. On Gigglesnort each program had a "social value" theme, was titled as such, and tried to make its point as entertainingly as I could make it. Let me emphasize that stations no longer were producing their own entertainment shows and had shifted to syndicated programming. WLS-TV hired me to provide a kid show meeting the FCC demands, allowed me to create all aspects of the show, and provided extensive production support for three years, after which a new station manager from New York arrived and pulled the plug.

Beachwood: Bozo's Circus - which probably had the least "educational" content among B.J. and Dirty Dragon, Ray Rayner and Friends and Garfield Goose - somehow survived basically intact until it was canceled in 2001. How so?

Jackson: It is much to the credit of WGN's management that the show continued as long as it did. WGN took legitimate pride in its version of the franchised Bozo and made it one of the best kid shows in America. The show served as a valued image for the station and to this day it produces specials commemorating the memory of that golden era.

Beachwood: In the grand scheme of things, is there any single person or entity to blame for the disappearance of kiddie TV?

Jackson: Kiddie TV as you remember it from your childhood indeed did disappear, and the reason ultimately leads to the industry being a business, which means that the best way for a station manager to stay a station manager is to fill the coffers. Providing you can maintain ratings, cutting costs builds profits. If a station's bottom line is the bottom line as opposed to creating quality programs, you eliminate the cost of producing your own shows and buy syndicated off-network reruns that long ago paid their creators' fortunes. The toughest competition I ever faced was when WGN threw reruns of Batman and The Flintstones against me. Today, most stations create a few "keep the hounds at bay" community service programs, but otherwise limit their production to bare bones standbys, meaning News, Weather, and Sports.

Beachwood: Still, it wasn't just locally-produced Chicago kiddie TV that died. It became extinct in Rockford and Peoria, and in markets both massive and tiny from coast to coast. I find it hard to fathom that one woman [Peggy Charren's Action for Children's Television] was responsible for the evaporation of an entire industry which was - as you stated in your interview with Jason Rimkus during the 2005 Silver Circle Awards - "going gangbusters." So on the whole, did it occur virtually overnight, was it just a slow death-by-leeching that ended once enough people stopped giving a shit about producing programming like yours, or was it something(s) else?

Jackson: There has been a nationwide, slow, unstoppable erosion of local studio production that continues today. Kid shows were the first to go, studio-audience talk shows soon followed, even simply produced cooking shows were axed. Stations have been bought up by big companies and the bottom line has become a station manager's bottom line if he or she is to retain the position. Today's studio production almost totally is automated. Dehumanized. No camera operators, minimal lighting and sound, fewer stagehands, fewer engineers, and practically no one but a lone "director" operating a remote control board that switches the cameras to about three basic shots. Profits dictate and the ledger's bottom line has taken the heart out of locally produced programs.

Beachwood: You've said that the kind of children's TV we knew through the 1970s will never be seen again. Why not? Pee-Wee's Playhouse was very successful nationally during the 1980s, even after the government educational requirements were in place. And couldn't the best things about local children's TV translate to other media forms where there's less government influence, such as Internet broadcasting?

Jackson: You're right. One should never say never. Some adventurous soul with money in his pocket could tap into an Internet market. I would hope it would be an imaginative show, several cuts above Uncle Baggypants hosting cartoons.

Beachwood: If the president of the United States appointed you Children's Programming czar today, what would be the first thing you'd do? And what could children's programming look like when you were done?

Jackson: Children' Programming Czar? Makes my head spin. Do I get to attend cabinet meetings?

Well, I wouldn't "dictate" anything. However, I would spearhead a search for the most refreshing, imaginative writers, directors, and performers you could find. I would seek private funding for the production of three separate series, seven shows each. As yawn-stifling boring as they are, I would attend business meetings and court advertisers to cover the cost of production. And then I would ask PBS to air the results and let today's children decide if all this effort had been worthwhile.

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Part 3: Sideburns and carnivals.

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Comments welcome.

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1. From Gary Borg:

I wasn't a very sophisticated kid but (as I recall from the late '50s and early '60s) I could readily distinguish between a local host or hosts putting their heart into a live TV performance and something canned, with snappy network-grade production values. Guess which I preferred at the time and have exquisitely fond memories of today? No matter how well-intentioned, content-neutral, high-minded and talent-rich, there's something about mass-produced educational television that smacks of phoniness, or indoctrination. Not that any indoctrination is necessarily intended. It just has that air. Which is why, I suppose, when Sesame Street in its early years was charming the pants off many adults, I was left cold. Now I very much regret that my daughter will never have the unique delight of becoming acquainted with the likes of Bill Jackson.



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Posted on April 28, 2010


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