This Week: TVparty

Television is, of course, right up there with pornography and celebrity as a topic of Web fixation. There are hundreds, probably thousands, of fan sites devoted to individual shows and their stars, as well as genres, eras, history, technology, etc. But one of the most amusing and thorough is Billy Ingram's TVparty. It looks at TV history through individual features, such as Jackie Gleason's worst show ever, or early commercials integrated into the TV shows themselves, or when announcers lose their cool and spout off. But Ingram doesn't just write about these shows, he delivers video clips as well so you can actually see and hear the TV history as it was being made. It makes for a site that's fascinating to both nostalgia-seekers and television-history researchers. Amazingly, Ingram doesn't even own a TV set. The 40-year-old writer/artist/producer is currently based in London where he's also working on a book based on TVparty.

Looking at your site, one would assume you're a TV-watching fanatic.
Is that an accurate assumption?

That's the first question I usually get asked in interviews and EVERYONE hates the answer I give—I should start telling some big lie about how I sit around all day watching stuff on the tube. Truth is, I haven't watched more than 200 hours of TV in the last 20 years! And if you discount The Simpsons, you could probably cut that number in half.

I was too busy when I was working in the film biz and just don't have any interest in modern TV. I got cable for a few months a couple of years ago so I could finally see what TV Land and Nick at Nite looked like, but the only show I ended up watching was Dark Shadows on the Sci-Fi network.

How did you learn about TV programming history?

I loved TV as a kid. When I moved back to North Carolina I rediscovered a treasure trove of material I collected during that time and found it kind of interesting.

I lived in L.A. for 15 years where I (among other things) worked designing major motion picture movie ads and posters. I always read the Times in L.A.—that's just about the best crash course in the entertainment business you can get. That and working in the crazy biz. I bounced around doing all kinds of things, music, TV, film, publishing, you name it. I really enjoy being in the thick of things and learning all I can about how things are done and why.

What was your first favorite TV show and why?

Lost in Space. It might still be my favorite. That and Match Game. I would probably subscribe to cable if it the Game Show channel was available, just for that one show. Of course, I haven't seen even a moment of it since I was a kid, so maybe it's best to leave it a memory…

What areas of TV programming do you find the most interesting?

Local children's programming, the kind that disappeared in the mid-'70s. I'm fascinated by the guys who hosted these daily excursions into the subconscious. It's indicative of how much television as a business has changed over the years.

How did you come up with the idea for TVparty?
When did it launch?

I came up with TVparty in 1994, I wanted to create a website to demonstrate my skills as a web designer. I wanted to be in on the latest hot thing, you know.

I chose TV as a subject because I figured that was the one thing that we all have in common, and it could also offer the added bonus of possibly having a life of it's own, which it did. The reaction TVparty got was immediate, and before long I was receiving hundreds of emails a day.

How has the site grown?

It's mutated rather than grown, really. For one thing we service 300,000 users a month now as opposed to 5-6,000 a month 5 years ago.

Do you have a staff, or are you the sole worker?

Unfortunately, no one gave me tens of millions of dollars to turn TVparty into a bloated cash toilet. So I have to do it all, but the cool thing is, people send in submissions all the time, video and stories about the wild teen years of television. So I have collaborators all over the world, I'm just not able to pay anybody.

How has going to a partially fee-based system worked out?

I hated to do that. I really want TVparty to be complete and free for everybody, and it was for six years. I think it really sucks to pay for content on the web. I also thing it really sucks to have to pay for meals in restaurants...

That being said, it solved my two problems—bandwidth for servicing all of those users for free was killing me. That's no longer a a problem because 90 percent of the site's content is now pay-for-view (two months access for a mere $8.45). It also provides a small income, which I combine with advertising and affiliate revenues, along with our deal with Columbia House Video, to scrape up enough money for a few drinks and some ecstasy pills on the weekend.

What makes for a great TVparty feature?

Something that comes from the heart or something that is revealing of our advertising culture in some way. Shocking things like the Flintstones hawking cigarettes and booze, or Dole Banana using their product as a sexually suggestive tool for selling fruit. One of my favorite features is our salute to Wonderama host Bob McAllister. After he died, people he worked with and watched him on TV wrote in with thoughtful essays on how important he was in their lives. I never saw the guy before or the show, but I think it makes for fascinating reading.

Where do you get the clips for the shows?
How many do you have online?

People send me this stuff. When I started the site, I didn't have much video material to work with, people from all over the country were excited to see something like TVparty and were anxious to share their favorites with me. FGilmn collectors and archivists Jeff Vilencia and Dan Wingate have been particularly giving and I'm really grateful for the opportunity to see some of the rare footage they've saved, and equally grateful to be able to share it in some way with the public in general.

How do you find rare clips for unusual stuff like "Outrageous Outtakes"?

Honestly, I don't remember off the top of my head. I'm just now putting the finishing touches on a Best of TVparty book that will be out this fall and I've been doing 16-hour days, seven days a week for two months, so I'm mentally exhausted…

Have you hit copyright issues with the networks that own the shows?

Not really, surprisingly. No company would have dared start something like this because of the legal issues, but I've got nothing to lose, really. Everyone I've been in contact with has been extremely supportive, it makes their properties cool again. Who cares about most of this stuff on its own? If I can create a modern context for this material, then it may actually HAVE value down the line. I think they also see it's done with respect, for the most part, and with humor.

Much of the stuff on TVparty is in the public domain, film fragments and such, so that skirts a lot of problems.

Is there a rare show that you're dying to find a clip for?

Several. Wish I could remember them now. Mostly it would be daytime stuff—I'd love to program an entire week's TV watching to be exactly as it was 30 or 40 years ago, commercials and all.

You must get a lot of mail from nostalgic TV viewers.
What were some of the most extreme or unusual reactions to your site?

I once got a detailed death threat from this guy because he didn't like the review I wrote of The Rifleman, his favorite TV show. He went into excruciating detail describing how he was going to put a shotgun (make and model listed) in my mouth and how I was going to beg for my life, excrement and urine running down my pants, etc, etc. And I wrote a GOOD review of the show, at least I thought I did!

Of course, I did what anyone would do. I tracked him down and killed him first, but with time off for good behavior, I was able to get back to work in no time.

You've expanded the site beyond TV with rare Cher recordings.
Why did you choose Cher's music to do so?

Because it was there...? Cher is an interesting character—is she a recording artist, TV star, or film star primarily? Did she ever really care about the records she put out? When she did care, or pretended to, her choices were really interesting. I would love to look at other TV stars who had similar recording careers but there aren't any!

Do you think television programming is getting better, worse, or staying pretty much the same as it ever was?

From what I've seen, it's apples and oranges. Television isn't the same beast as it was 50 or even 25 years ago. Television as an appliance is better than ever, there is a wealth of programming that was not available before the proliferation of cable channels. Now you can watch sports or documentaries all day long, that was a dream for many in past years. But, as I discovered during the few months I had cable, you can have 70 channels to choose from and there's still not a damn thing on…


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