PopCult Rudy Panucci on Pop Culture

The Little Newscast That Couldn’t

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It’s official, the WB30 Newscast has been cancelled. Thursday night’s 6 and 10 PM broadcasts were replaced by an unscheduled home improvement show, and, unless it gets re-written, the station’s Wikpedia entry already reports that the broadcast has “been axed.” Also, the latest controversy seems to have stirred things up over at the fake Tom McGee Myspace Page (not really work safe, folks). Late Thursday afternoon, according to this entry at LiveJournal, the news operation was shut down. There are full details in this morning’s Gazette.

It’s not too hard to figure out what to make of the latest developments. I’d been hearing rumors for some time that the Portsmouth faction of WHCP was undermining the efforts to establish a successful newscast and move the station to Charleston. Evidently there’s a lot of resentment there over the move. The physical ejection of lead anchor Tom McGee on Tuesday was an indication that the end was near. McGee’s story is that he was standing up for the reporters that he helped the station recruit in a dispute over health insurance and parking. It looks like McGee may have been the hero of this piece. WHCP hasn’t made a public statement yet, and as of Thursday night their website still had the 6 and 10 PM newscasts listed on their schedule, along with several other programs that weren’t on Thursday evening. The internal memo that was posted on an industry message board blamed “recent events within the organization as well as the apparent unwillingness of the advertiser community to support our news products.”

And so, the newscast is done and I’m betting that lawsuits will start flying in all directions. With so many lawyers on the Charleston end of the equation, things don’t look good for WHCP. I’m also guessing that the station won’t be moving to the West Side, after all. I hope I’m wrong in that assumption. If you could manage to sit through the newscasts, it was obvious from the poor quality of the commercials that WHCP didn’t have a sales staff that could sell advertising here in Charleston. A local newscast should be a cash cow for a TV station, but all that WHCP could manage were really awful commercials for businesses in Portsmouth and Ironton, promos for RCW wrestling and public service announcements. They really should have hired experienced ad sales reps before they started the newscast. A move to Charleston might have forced them to produce better work.

It’s too bad this didn’t work out. Even with the relative inexperience of the news crew, it was nice to have an alternative to the slick, professional newscasts that the other local stations air. Plus it’s hard to beat the sheer entertainment value of watching reporter Mike Karr’s stammering, “deer-caught-in-the-headlights” reaction every time one of the anchors asked him a question. Plus, it would have been nice if the news division managed to drag the technical quality of the station up from the sad levels that they are now.

The bottom line is that we nearly lost the Duchess Bakery for nothing! Reportedly, the investors from Charleston are going to take another shot at local TV, maybe with a more willing partner, this time. It’d be sweet if they can make it happen quickly, and then hijack the new CW Network away from WHCP. Maybe if that happens, Charleston area viewers can watch those surviving WB and UPN shows in stereo, with a decent broadcast signal, for the first time.

Chances are that if you were a kid during the 1970s, you were aware of MEGO action figures. These were little 8-inch tall figures that started out as a wildly popular line of Superhero figures, featuring both DC and Marvel characters. After mining that trend for a couple of years, MEGO started acquiring licenses to produce action figures based on hit TV shows of the day, like C.H.i.P.S, The Dukes Of Hazzard and Happy Days.

The MEGO figures were made like the old-style GI Joe, with an articulated body held together with elastic bands, and cloth uniforms. The head sculpts were a bit clunky, but that was part of the charm. Collectors go nuts over these figures. MEGO went belly-up in the early 1980s, after famously passing up the chance to make toys based on a little movie called Star Wars, but the company’s 8-inch action figures left quite an impression on the collective pop culture psyche of the children of the polyester decade.

Today, a new company has resurrected the classic MEGO-style action figure. Classic TV Toys began producing reproductions of some of the most-beloved MEGO figures last year. They’ve also picked up the license to make action figures in the MEGO style for other TV shows that didn’t have their own action figure lines back in the 1970s. Happy Days, The Munsters, The Brady Bunch, Married With Children and Space 1999 are just a few of the action figure lines they have available. They’ve even produced a MEGO-style figure of Andre The Giant.

These figures are very close reproductions of the body types used by MEGO back in the day, and they’ve even designed the packaging to look like the old blister cards that we used to see hanging in K Mart. If you have some older MEGO figures in distress, they also sell new replacement parts.

Classic TV Toys has also recreated several of the “generic” MEGO figure lines as well, with new figures of Pirates, Monsters, Cowboys and Knights. This is a huge nostalgic rush for those of us who had these toys when we were kids. Priced between 10 and 15 dollars, they’re inexpensive enough for today’s kids. You can order Classic TV Toys action figures, and check out their full assortment, at their website.

Doogal’s Strange Path To The Screen

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Animated Discussions
by Rudy Panucci and Melanie Larch

The movie Doogal opens this week, and this story of a dog on a quest has one complicated pedigree. For openers, this movie was not produced in America. The Weinstein Company brought it over from another country, dubbed in American voice actors, and is releasing it with a new title. That may not seem like such a big deal, except for one point: The “other country” is The United Kingdom. Doogal was released in Great Britain last year as The Magic Roundabout, and boasted a voice cast that included Joanna Lumley, Jim Broadbent, Robbie Williams, Kylie Minogue, and everyone’s favorite “Dr. Who,” Tom Baker. It was already in English.

We don’t know whether they were spooked by the failure of Valiant, or if the distributors thought that the new voice cast would have more box-office appeal, but some of the replacements seem a bit odd. Zeebad, the villain of the movie, was voiced in the original British version by Tom Baker, who can be quite menacing. In the American version, Zeebad has the voice of Jon Stewart. The lead character is voiced either by Daniel Tay or Saturday Night Live’s Kenan Thompson, depending on when you check the official website. We guess they’re still making their mind up on that one, and the movie opens in two days as we write this.

Even more strange is how the movie, which only had the soundtrack changed for its domestic debut, now has a different director listed. Butch Hartman, who was brought in to supervise the new voice recordings, gets to walk off with a sole director’s credit. Dave Borthwick, Jean Duval, and Frank Passingham share the director’s credit for the British version, which to reiterate, is the same movie. It looks like Hartman, who created The Fairly Oddparents for Nickelodeon, found an easy way to get a feature film credit under his belt.

This sort of cross-cultural confusion is par for the course for The Magic Roundabout. Created by Serge Danot as a stop-motion-animated children’s program in France in the 1960s, the show was brought over to the United Kingdom where it was chopped up, scrambled, and translated into entirely new stories that had a large measure of adult humor added. They bore little resemblance to the French version. The show was wildly popular in the ’60s and ’70s. After fading from the public’s memory, the show was revived last year as a feature-length movie.

The show was rarely seen in the United States, so this CGI revival didn’t have the nostalgic boost that the movie had in Britain. We can understand the title change, since American’s don’t know what a Roundabout is, but we’re puzzled by some of the new voice casting. Joanna Lumley, who has high recognition due to Absolutely Fabulous, was replaced by Whoopi Goldberg. While they evidently can’t decide who will voice Doogal, the trailers show him singing with Robbie Williams’ voice, from the UK version. Kevin Smith is listed as providing a voice for the movie, but he’s not on any of the cast lists we’ve seen, so he may be another late addition.

Aside from all the confusing history and voice-cast quirks, Doogal looks like it might be a fun little family movie. There are a few pop-culture jokes in the trailer, and the animation is worlds beyond the primitive mess that polluted Hoodwinked. Doogal might be a fun way for animation fans to pass the time while we’re waiting for Ice Age 2.

Music Blogging: ‘Late Winter Noodling’

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It’s been a while since I’ve posted any new music here at PopCult. The reason is that it’s been a while since I had time to write anything new. Just last night (February 21, to be exact), I had a spare half-hour, so I pulled out the Midi program and knocked out this little tune, Late Winter Noodling.

Originally, it was a percussion track, but I started playing around with it to see how it would sound played with brass and strings. Now it sort of sounds like Philip Glass, with a head wound, trying to write background music for NFL Films.

Just click on the song title, or right click and hit “Save Target As”, so you can download it and treasure it forever.

The Fall Of Radio Shack

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radio-shack-45-logoNews broke over the weekend that venerable electronics retailer, Radio Shack, would be closing between 400 and 700 stores after posting disastrous earnings last year. This came to light after their CEO, David Edmonson, became embroiled in a scandal over padding his credentials. He stepped down Monday. It’s clear that Radio Shack needs a drastic new direction if they want to stay in business.

I’ve got a suggestion: How about actually having stores filled with electronics and the parts needed to repair them, and hiring sales people who care about what they’re doing and have a clue about what they’re selling?

Thirty years ago, Radio Shack was one of the best stores in the country in terms of customer service. You could buy all sorts of tiny and obscure electrical components. The sales people knew what you were asking for without requiring a four-hour explanation. You could join the “Battery Of The Month” club and get a free battery every 30 days. Heck, even their advertisements were fun, with Lewis Kornfeld’s “Flyer Side Chat” and amusing asides in their catalogs.

About twenty years ago, that all began to change. The corporate culture creeped in and, in the name of boosting the bottom line, the informative flyers were cancelled; the Battery Of the Month Club was discontinued; the inventory carried by each store was slashed to a fraction of what it had been; the sales people were replaced with immobile doofi who don’t the difference between a capacitor and ham sandwich.

If you walk into a Radio Shack store now, one of two things will happen: You will either be ignored completely, or you will be harassed about buying a cell phone. Once you make it clear that you’re not there to buy a cell phone, then you will be ignored. If you manage to get the attention of one of their new sales people, and you ask them for something simple like a phono-plug adaptor, they’ll look at you like you just started speaking Chinese. All they seem to care about is pimping their cell phone plans and pushing their tiny little remote-control cars. I would wager that you can probably walk into more than a few Radio Shack stores, ask for a radio, and walk out empty-handed.

The only reason this bothers me is because I liked Radio Shack so much when I was a kid. I hate to see it wind up as just another carcass along the side of the highway that we call “progress.” Sure, you can get any tiny electrical part you need now on the Internet, but who wants to pay five bucks shipping for a transistor that costs a quarter? Maybe, just maybe, the board of directors at Radio Shack will gamble that a return to their roots will be the salvation of the company. Radio Shack should be the place for the electronics do-it-yourselfer. As it is now, they’re just a lame cell phone store with crappy service and lousy prices. They could be so much more. They could sell raw computer components, build-it-yourself DVD players, VCR repair kits. You can buy cell phones anywhere! I miss the old Radio Shack. It’s time for Radio Shack to get back to what made them cool….in a nerdy sort of way.

Toy Week: Time To Play The Games

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For over a century, board games have been the one toy that both children and adults can enjoy. While the board game market is dominated by Hasbro, which owns both Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers, there are several entrepreneurs who have created their own board games with hopes of leaving a lasting mark on America’s leisure time. Here are a couple worth exploring:

ROUNDABOUT

Not at all based on the song by YES, this board game, made by Otero Games of San Diego, California, is a basic strategy game, sort of like a cross between Chess, Chinese Checkers and Roller Derby. The object is to move your pieces one full rotation about the circular course. This goal is complicated by the fact that you, and your opponent, have pieces that move in both directions, and you can block each other’s path. Having completed one full rotation, you remove that piece. This continues until one player has no pieces left, and is declared the winner. It’s simple, yet challenging. It reminds me of Sudoku, in that respect. The rules are easy to understand, and their are all sorts of different ways to play. Two-to-four players can while away the time with this fun little diversion. While the game is rated for ages 10 and up, some younger children can probably grasp the mechanics of Roundabout.

You can order Roundabout directly from Otero Games. They’re still trying to build a network of retailers, and haven’t yet reached our area. For 15 bucks, it’s a great value.

POLITICS

No, not real politics. I’m talking about a board game. Employing a game concept not unlike Monopoly, Charles J. Smaltz, the game’s inventor and founder of Chum Chum Games (gotta love that name) have developed a board game for ages 8 and up that allows you to experience the highs and lows of a political career. From mayoral races to the president, the game of Politics lets you act on your delusional ambitions for power without actually doing any real damage. Think how much better off we’d be if some of our current leaders had gotten their political ya-yas out with this board game, instead of buying their way into office for real. This is a great way to pass an evening with friends, especially if they are of a different political persuasion than you, as the game allows you to needle them about it all night.

You can order POLITICS directly from Chum Chum Games on their website, or call 1- 888-542-5925. The game costs under $40, but you can also get a deluxe edition, autographed by the inventor, as well as T-shirts. One other nice feature of the game is that you can download additional scoresheets, rules and other paper items directly from the website, so you don’t wind up having to make your own scoresheets when you run out, like you do with Clue.

That wraps up Toy Week, where I tried to bring you some of the real “best toys” available, instead of the same paid endorsements that the rest of the mainstream media passes off. This year, if you saw any Toy Fair coverage, I’m sure you saw the same items: The Dancing Barbie, the inflatable Superman outfit, the robot horse and the radio controlled bug-car. Since the coverage of the toy industry has become so predictable, I’ve decided to do what I can to rectify that. Starting next week, I’ll bring you a new regular feature, “PopCult’s Cool Toy Of The Week,” spotlighting the smaller toy companies that can’t afford to pay for media coverage. Check back next Friday to see what I pick for the first installment.

Toy Week: Toys For Kids

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Admittedly, the first few entries in PopCult’s Toy Week survey haven’t exactly been kid-friendly. The Cthulhu plush is great for babies to play with, but I don’t think many parents are reading Lovecraft to their kids at bedtime. The Warmachine action figure is really meant more for teens who play the game. Yesterday’s Bobbie Doll pretty much falls in the the realm of “adult novelty.”

So to make up for that, today we’re going to look at three toys for kids, from smaller toy manufacturers. Although these are kid’s toys, adults are allowed to play with them, if they ask nicely.

Puny Planes

Yep, the name cracked me up. On further investigation, the toy is pretty cool. Puny Planes are little foam airplanes that soar like gliders. Under 3 inches long, and made of soft foam, these are a great indoor toy. Puny Planes are made by Poof-Slinky, who also make Slinky, of course. They also make a lot of other cool toys, ranging from kid’s toys to neat reproductions for adult collectors. This year, Poof-Slinky is introducing the Puny Planes Aircraft Carrier Launcher. For under 12 bucks, you get three Puny Planes and a cool launcher, shaped like an aircraft carrier. Your kid can fire off these little aerodynamic bits of flying foam fury, and you don’t have to worry about anything getting broken. The Puny Planes Aircraft Carrier Launcher will be available from many major retailers, or you can order it directly from Poof-Slinky.

Sesame Street Action Figures

Palisades Toys is a small Maryland-based toy maker that burst on the scene a few years back making collectible action figures of independent comic book characters. Since then, they’ve established themselves as a top-notch toy company player with a series of major licenses like The Muppets, Pink Panther, Ren And Stimpy and Adult Swim. This year they’re introducing an action figure line based on classic Sesame Street characters. The first assortment will be hitting stores soon, and includes Ernie, Oscar the Grouch, Guy Smiley and the Two-Headed Monster. Palisades has done a great job of bringing collectors toys with tremendous detail and loads of accessories, and their toys are also sturdy enough for kids. It’ll be interesting to see if these toys wind up in the hands of the current Sesame Street fans, or if the adults who grew up watching the show hoard them all. Look for these at major retailers sometime in the next few months.

Radio Control For Kids

Kid Galaxy has developed a line of R/C vehicles for the very young. This year they have two new entries in the “GoGo Auto” line of “My First R/C” cars: The GoGo Auto School Bus and the GoGo Auto Skid Loader. Both feature softer plastic construction, rounded edges and a sturdy, two-button radio controller. These are perfect for the car-obsessed toddler who isn’t quite old enough to play with the remote control cars that the big kids have. The GoGo Autos sell for under $25. Locally, I know that Kid Country carries Kid Galaxy products, so if they don’t have them, they can probably order them for you. There are two risks with R/C cars that any parent should be warned about: First, these things will eat batteries. Stock up, or get a recharger. Second, at some point after you get the toys up and running, you will have to let the kid play with it, no matter how much fun you’re having.

Tomorrow we wrap up Toy Week with Board Games!

Toy Week: The “L” Doll

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When you gaze upon the vast expanse of politically-correct dolls across the toy industry landscape, you’ll find all sorts of special varieties so that little girls can have a doll with whom they can identify. You’ve got your ethnic dolls, handicapped dolls, dolls with learning disabilities, dolls that can’t see straight. There are dolls representing every religion (excepting those that forbid dolls), race, occupation, and most combinations that you can imagine. But until now, they didn’t make any lesbian dolls. Sure, we all had our suspicions about Midge, but there were never any openly gay female dolls until Bobbie came along.

Produced by Dykedolls, which is basically a one-woman venture started by S. Perdomo, Bobbie is a 13-inch tall fashion doll, with a decidedly different take on fashion. You can buy Bobbie dressed in your choice of three outfits: “Doc Holliday,” Western gear, now that the world has been made safe for gay cowboys; “Rockabilly,” with sleeveless white T-shirt and leather jacket; while “Diesel” sports a sleeveless denim shirt and trucker’s wallet. Some Bobbie dolls also come with what can best be described as “adult accessories,” so be warned, this is probably not a doll that you want to give your five-year-old, no matter what vibes you’re picking up. Bobbie is strictly an adult novelty. She might be a great gift for a teen struggling with their sexual identity, but it’d probably be inappropriate coming from anyone other than a loving parent.

And even then, the “accessories” might be a bit much. Still, it’s about time that lesbians had a doll that they could call their own. Gay men have Billy, and as far back as the 70’s, they had Gay Bob, who was sold in a box that looked like a little closet. Before that, they had Ken. So isn’t it time that inclusion hit the toybox, and everyone gets their own doll? Bobbie is available from select bookstores and gift shops, or you can order her here.

At between $40 and $50 a pop, you pretty much have to see Bobbie as a toy for adults. Tomorrow we look at toys that are actually intended for kids.

Toy Week Intro: Small is beautiful

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This week the International Toy Fair takes place in New York City. All the major and minor toy companies show off what they hope will be the hot toys that fly out of stores for the rest of the year. I’ve been writing about toys for over a decade, so this is a big deal for me, but there are a few things about Toy Fair that can very annoying.

The coverage by the mainstream media has never been particularly good, and has been getting worse every year. Rather than go to the convention center and actually investigate the toys — and give air time to the ones that they think are the best — most reporters just lazily report to the media desk. They are given a handler, who takes them around to the same group of toys by the same toy makers who have enough money to throw a few “product placement” dollars at the media handlers to make sure that the “right” toys get showcased.

Even after a major article in the New York Post exposed the fact that “Toy Consultant” Chris Byrne primarily consulted by taking payola from toy companies to steer reporters in the right direction, lazy reporters still use the guy and quote him liberally in their reports. They’ve allowed him to reposition himself as a parent’s advocate, even though he’s still working for the toy companies. The reporters don’t take the subject matter seriously enough to care.

That’s why, rather than seeing well-done reporting about real trends in the toy industry, we get the same giggling run-through with the same toys on every news program, and the same stock wire report where only the names are changed. How many years in a row are we going to have to read about how this is the year that toys go high-tech? How many more times are we going to get stories about Barbie’s love life, instead of reports about how the new Bratz figures have eaten away at Barbie’s market share? Why do the toys based on big-budget movies get so much air time on the major networks when the toys based on movies have largely been failures for years?

As a result of this kind of reporting, the smaller companies don’t really get much of a chance to get any exposure. The homogenous coverage has also prevented the emergence of another “breakout” hit, like Tickle Me Elmo a decade ago. Now that the coverage is money-driven, the major toy companies put their marketing muscle (and payola) behind toys that they feel “need” the extra push. They do this instead of promoting what may be their best toy, in favor of the toy that they think will be more profitable.

The toy business is not as much fun as a person might think. And that’s a shame, because it should be all about fun, and not maximizing shareholder value.

This year, since I have the platform of the PopCult blog, I’m going to do what I can to fix this. Each day this week, I’m going to bring you details about a new toy from a small company. These will be toys that you won’t see on the major news programs or cable news channels. Being me, of course, the toys may seem a little strange. But at least they’ll be different!