inkwell.vue.380 : Aaron Barnhart, "Tasteland"
permalink #0 of 43: Julie Sherman (julieswn) Fri 26 Mar 10 14:48
This week we welcome Aaron Barnhart to Inkwell.vue.

Aaron Barnhart first started writing about television in 1994 with his
pathbreaking Internet zine Late Show News. One of the places he posted
LSN was The WELL, where a journalist for the Village Voice spotted it.
Aaron's freelance career soon commenced, contributing pieces on the
Leno-Letterman wars to the Voice and, later, the New York Observer. He
then began writing on television generally for a variety of
publications, including the New York Times and Entertainment Weekly.

In 1997 he was named the television critic of the Kansas City Star,
and moved to Kansas City with his wife, Diane Eickhoff. They reside
there and both write for a living. Aaron is a native of Billings,
Montana, and holds degrees from Northwestern University and the
University of Chicago. 

Interviewing Aaron is our own <deadeye>, Jonathan Storm:

Jonathan Storm has watched television since he was 5 years old. He
would wake up early, turn on the TV and watch the test patterns as he
waited for The Modern Farmer to begin. Five years later, he began his
news career as editor-in-chief of the mimeographed newspaper in Mr.
Merrill's fifth-grade class.

He spent six years as a true journalist at the Rutland Herald (Vt.)
and six more at the Detroit Free Press. He joined The Inquirer in
1982, working as an editor in various departments. In 1987, he edited
the newspaper's special sections on the Constitution and a companion
four-month series. The package won a national award from the Benjamin
Franklin Foundation as best special Constitution coverage by a

Seeing an opportunity to watch television for a living, he grabbed it
and became The Inquirer's television critic in 1990. Since then, he
has had the privilege of commenting on such wonderful television as My
So-Called Life, Seinfeld, The Sopranos, Buffy the Vampire Slayer,
Survivor, I’ll Fly Away, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, The X-Files,
Northern Exposure, Roseanne, Gilmore Girls, NYPD Blue, The Wire,
Frasier, Ally McBeal; current faves Glee, Damages, Breaking Bad and
The Good Wife and, in the much-too-overlooked category, American
Dreams, The Riches, The Flying Conchords and It’s Always Sunny in

He has also been forced to watch five cycles of presidential debates,
Fear Factor, The Swan, Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly. There is no free
lunch in life. His blog, Eye of the Storm,
<> probably ranks as the 403d
most popular TV blog on the net, as he tries to load at least a couple
of items a week into it. 
inkwell.vue.380 : Aaron Barnhart, "Tasteland"
permalink #1 of 43: properly sensed out (deadeye) Sat 27 Mar 10 12:44

So, Aaron, here we are again on The WELL. I remember being fascinated with
your late-night stuff back in a different era when the price of the phone
connection to the Internet could bankrupt a free-lance writer. I wonder
how you did it back then. I'm also amazed that the Kansas City Star, where
you work, would allow you to use material developed for it in your
personal book. Can you outline some of the highlights of that deal and 
perhaps outline some of the steps you took to find a publisher?
inkwell.vue.380 : Aaron Barnhart, "Tasteland"
permalink #2 of 43: properly sensed out (deadeye) Mon 29 Mar 10 14:06

 And a follow-up, as we always say even when it isn't one: With all the
writing you produce, what motivated you to write this book?
inkwell.vue.380 : Aaron Barnhart, "Tasteland"
permalink #3 of 43: properly sensed out (deadeye) Tue 30 Mar 10 08:32

 Perhaps a bit on the content: I know how much you have written on so many
phases of TV. How did you decide what to include in "Tasteland"?
inkwell.vue.380 : Aaron Barnhart, "Tasteland"
permalink #4 of 43: Aaron Barnhart (t-t-tasteland) Wed 31 Mar 10 12:16
Hi Jonathan.  Let's answer #2 first. When I started TASTELAND it was a
few weeks before the 15th anniversary of LATE SHOW NEWS and I felt
that, in terms of anthologizing my work, I had reached a point of no
return -- either I did something now or the mass of articles (about
5,000 bylines between freelance, staff writing, newsletter and blogs)
would be buried forever.  
inkwell.vue.380 : Aaron Barnhart, "Tasteland"
permalink #5 of 43: Aaron Barnhart (t-t-tasteland) Wed 31 Mar 10 12:20
Now, on to #3 and then, in my last response (which will have to wait
as I'm on deadline), I'll address your opening Q.

So, not only did I have all these articles written -- they chronicled
such an interesting time!  When I started writing about TV, we saved
shows to VCRs (if we didn't screw it up) and our idea of quality drama
was "Law & Order."  In the years that followed, everything changed --
and I wrote about most everything that did change, not just the
technology of TV but what we saw on TV: elections, wars, terrorist
attacks, and so on.  So by writing about TV, I was compiling my own pop
history of the time.  

Coinciding with the upheaval in technology and viewing choices and 
world events, my 15 years on the beat saw arguably the largest wave of
top-notch television programs ever.  And because the world had changed,
these programs were all available at the touch of a button -- if only
you knew what to pick.

It sounds so logical now, but it actually took the better part of a
year to cull all those bylines and see the two components of the book
emerging: a fast-paced chronology of mediated experience and a
reference guide to the 100 best TV shows you can buy, rent, or
download.  Fortunately, I was working on my own schedule, as I'll
explain ... "when we return."
inkwell.vue.380 : Aaron Barnhart, "Tasteland"
permalink #6 of 43: Gail Williams (gail) Wed 31 Mar 10 13:46
VCRs sure sound like ancient history.  This is an interesting time in
the evolution of the medium as well as the culture, that's for sure.  
inkwell.vue.380 : Aaron Barnhart, "Tasteland"
permalink #7 of 43: David Gans (tnf) Wed 31 Mar 10 14:56

Welcome back to the WELL, Aaron!
inkwell.vue.380 : Aaron Barnhart, "Tasteland"
permalink #8 of 43: Barbara L. Nielsen (blnsf) Wed 31 Mar 10 17:32
<So by writing about TV, I was compiling my own pop
history of the time.>

I was absolutely fascinated by this book, through which I learned a
bunch of information about what TV was doing while I was being
oblivious those 15 years.  Reading it really was like reading a
history.  I'm almost through the recommendations, which in and of
themselves make this book recommendable. 
inkwell.vue.380 : Aaron Barnhart, "Tasteland"
permalink #9 of 43: Aaron Barnhart (t-t-tasteland) Wed 31 Mar 10 17:59
inkwell.vue.380 : Aaron Barnhart, "Tasteland"
permalink #10 of 43: Aaron Barnhart (t-t-tasteland) Wed 31 Mar 10 18:09
Hi <tnf>!

Re #1, as I say in the Introduction to TASTELAND, I worked it into the
cracks of my workday.  I do remember a supervisor pulling me aside and
asking me if I was online much.  (Ameritech charged businesses by the
minute, even for local calls, whereas residential paid a flat rate.)  I
said, "Not much," which was pretty much a bald-headed lie, which I
think speaks to the sense of urgency I was feeling about Late Show
News, even though at the time my late-night writing was making me all
of $300 a month richer.

Now, you will notice on the title page (where you can see more of the
Greensburg, Kansas, farm where I took the cover picture), it says,
"Quindaro Press, Kansas City."  Quindaro Press is me and my lovely
bride, Diane Eickhoff.

Her first biography was our first title, and TASTELAND was our second.

The three peeves I have about small publishing are: (a) Many presses
charge way too much for books, (b) the quality is often substandard and
(c) the authors don't make anything.  Since I had the skills to lay
out high-quality books, and we both had editing prowess, I felt Diane
was better off publishing Revolutionary Heart herself, and I was
vindicated when the book sold out its first printing (3,500).  

What's different this time is that we went POD.  I contract directly
with Ingram's Lightning Source arm, a b2b printer for small publishers,
and my unit costs are low enough that I can offer my book for $12
paperback and still make good coin on every sale.  Plus, no more
cartons in the basement!

The Kansas City Star graciously allows its journalists to anthologize
their works, whether the publisher is the paper's book division or
someplace else.  
inkwell.vue.380 : Aaron Barnhart, "Tasteland"
permalink #11 of 43: Aaron Barnhart (t-t-tasteland) Wed 31 Mar 10 18:12
I should mention that the POD route also means I forego traditional
distribution methods (i.e., I fired my distributor).  You can't give
someone a 65% discount and make money.  Instead, I use Amazon to move
my books, offering a 20% discount on the assumption (which was proven
correct) that Amazon would offer it at 10% off, putting TASTELAND right
in the sweet spot of paperback bestsellers, which sell on Amazon at
between $10 and $11.

I should also mention that much of this wisdom comes from a
self-publishing guru named Aaron Shepherd, whose book POD for Profit is
required reading for anyone considering doing what I did.
inkwell.vue.380 : Aaron Barnhart, "Tasteland"
permalink #12 of 43: properly sensed out (deadeye) Thu 1 Apr 10 07:04

 That's fascinating. One of the many things that has always stopped me in my
tracks from doing a book -- the main two are a short attention span and an
almost fatal procrastination tendancy that is only mitigated by serial firm
deadlines -- is that there seems to be very little chance of making any sort
of decent wage from the work.

 I'm intrigued by your choice to include so many documentaries in your Top
100. Most people, including TV critics (and, now that there is no paper to
print on because newspapers have shrunk so drastically, my editors) give 
short shrift to them.
inkwell.vue.380 : Aaron Barnhart, "Tasteland"
permalink #13 of 43: David Wilson (dlwilson) Thu 1 Apr 10 09:09
I loved your introduction where you made a case for television
criticism and your 100 best list.

But I don't understand your passion for and extreme focus on "The
Tonight Show" and the continuing "late night wars."  I admit, it just
isn't my cup of gasoline.  Could you make a brief case for why you
consider it to be so significant.  

It seems to me that there are other cultural forms(many examples from
your 100 best) which capture the dreams, anxieties, obsessions, and the
zeitgeist of the mid 20th century through the early 21st.
inkwell.vue.380 : Aaron Barnhart, "Tasteland"
permalink #14 of 43: Aaron Barnhart (t-t-tasteland) Thu 1 Apr 10 09:53
It was where I started, David.  It was the type of TV show I loved as
a kid -- there was something slightly renegade about staying up late
watching Carson as a kid.  In college, David Letterman was doing the
most interesting TV out there.  And then, of course, it's how I got
into this crazy business in the 1990s.  

When I stopped doing Late Show News in 1999, I figured that would be
the end of my interest in late-night TV.  I don't watch it as much as I
did back then.  But until the main actors cease to be Leno, Letterman,
O'Brien and Stewart -- all people I micro-covered in the early years
-- I'll continue to follow their careers and thereby be an expert on

By the way, there are no late night shows in my 100 best list, because
of their ephemeral nature.  (For instance, I would love to see a DVD
anthology of the "Late Night" years.  But I'm not holding my breath.)
inkwell.vue.380 : Aaron Barnhart, "Tasteland"
permalink #15 of 43: David Wilson (dlwilson) Thu 1 Apr 10 14:06
That's a good enough answer for me Aaron.  I guess those first
imprinting impressions help form your lasting opinions and tastes.  I'm
assuming I've got a few years on you because I was doing the same
thing as you when Jack Paar was hosting the "Tonight Show."  I was too
young for Steve Allen's tenure there, but I remember him well from his
second late night show in the 60's when I was a teenager and could
track the action better.  By the time Johnny Carson took over I was in
college and lost the habit for a time.

From what I remember of early television the humor was a hodgepodge of
radio, slapstick, burlesque, vaudeville, and Catskills spritzing.  

Allen, Paar, and Carson were real wits. They came out of some of those
comic traditions but they were doing something new. They were
improvising.  Leno and Letterman haven't altered the form much.

What I'm trying to say got me to look up the definition of "Wit:"

3 a : astuteness of perception or judgment : acumen b  : the ability
to relate seemingly disparate things so as to illuminate or amuse c (1)
:  a talent for banter or persiflage (2) :  a witty utterance or
exchange d : clever or apt humor
4 a : a person of superior intellect : thinker b : an imaginatively
perceptive and articulate individual especially skilled in banter or

I think that they all fall into category 3.  But Allen, Paar, and
Carson enhance it by adding category 4. Leno and Letterman just have
good writers.

inkwell.vue.380 : Aaron Barnhart, "Tasteland"
permalink #16 of 43: properly sensed out (deadeye) Thu 1 Apr 10 14:23

 People always say, and I agree, that the major character trait that drove
Johnny Carson was his mind, which encompasses an older definition of "wit."
I feel he was head and shoulders above all the other late night hosts
because of being so quick on his feet in interviews.
 I don't agree with you, totally, Dave, about Leno and Letterman. I think
Letterman has a modicum of that same trait. And I don't think Leno has any
of it, or any good writers. I'm amazed constantly that people enjoy his
 I know that Aaron has some good opinions about this because I've spoken 
to him about it, and they're also in his book.
 BTW: My favorite late-night host is Craig Ferguson, who seems to have taken
not a whole new direction but is at least traveling on a different
inkwell.vue.380 : Aaron Barnhart, "Tasteland"
permalink #17 of 43: Gail Williams (gail) Fri 2 Apr 10 15:23
Ferguson is amusingly original.  Carson seemed kinder than anybody but
John Stewart, and that helps in some situations, too. "Brat" gets old,
which was my trouble with Conan, and now and then with Letterman, too.

My guess is that some people like Leno in contrast to Letterman when
he originally seemed more comfortable and less bratty. I don't know how
else to put it, and I think it was less true over time, but I think
that defined the audiences to some extent.  Is that possible?
inkwell.vue.380 : Aaron Barnhart, "Tasteland"
permalink #18 of 43: Julie Sherman (julieswn) Fri 2 Apr 10 19:45
I really like Ferguson, though I usually fall asleep when his guests
arrive. I like the beginning of the show. In reading your 100 best
shows I was struck by how many I havent seen. I caught Arrested
Development when it re-ran on Adult Swim and loved it. I never took to
the Sopranos, but always watched West Wing. 
inkwell.vue.380 : Aaron Barnhart, "Tasteland"
permalink #19 of 43: Aaron Barnhart (t-t-tasteland) Sun 4 Apr 10 19:16
Well, of course, I must join in hurling laurels (which, online, are
free) Craig's way.  He came out of nowhere, but when I learned he was
the personal choice of Peter Lassally, who succeeded Freddy DeCorboda
as late night TV's foremost consigliere, then I figured heck, he must
be good if Peter sees something in him.

What astonishes me these days is how unprocessed his show is these
days.  He's learning to play the same song with fewer notes.  He comes
out, does a cold open, comes out again, free-associates for a few
minutes with prompter jokes only now and then, moves behind his desk
and tells a story, reads viewer mail every night (Letterman only did it
on Thursdays), and THEN, only then does the guest emerge.

I tried watching it every night for three weeks straight and actually
found it getting tiresome.  The simplicity of it works against it in
that way, I guess.  On the other hand, research confirms that most
people don't watch those super-late shows more than twice a week, so I
think it's a format that works really well for him and he is right to
be wary of moving to an hour earlier, where he would almost certainly
have to scrap the current format and start over.
inkwell.vue.380 : Aaron Barnhart, "Tasteland"
permalink #20 of 43: Aaron Barnhart (t-t-tasteland) Sun 4 Apr 10 19:21
Sorry, the fumes of rich Corinthian leather overwhelmed me: Freddy De
inkwell.vue.380 : Aaron Barnhart, "Tasteland"
permalink #21 of 43: Gail (gail) Sun 4 Apr 10 20:20
So what about the rise of the Colbert Report as a late night option...
though not as late as Craig.  I was not sure he'd survive the end of
the Bush era, since he was so necessary then, and political situations
worth ridiculing from a faux-Right-wing direction are much more muddied
and less clear cut nowadays. Are his numbers off at all?  He's sure
inkwell.vue.380 : Aaron Barnhart, "Tasteland"
permalink #22 of 43: Aaron Barnhart (t-t-tasteland) Mon 5 Apr 10 18:13
I had my doubts Colbert would make it out of 2005, just doing nothing
but that damn character.  But I was wrong.

Colbert averages right now about a million viewers a night.  That
should mark a rise from a year ago, when the average was under a
million.  Stewart's audience is more in the 1.4 million range — but the
telling thing is that they both draw 0.5 in the young adult demo,
barely behind Jimmy Kimmel.  It seems like such a small number, but
that's what makes them so successful -- it's very hard to get even half
a demo point on cable at a half hour to midnight.
inkwell.vue.380 : Aaron Barnhart, "Tasteland"
permalink #23 of 43: Slowly I Turn (tcn) Mon 5 Apr 10 22:40
Where do you see things going with respect to TV and the Internet now
that everyone has some kind of mobile media device in their hands?
inkwell.vue.380 : Aaron Barnhart, "Tasteland"
permalink #24 of 43: properly sensed out (deadeye) Tue 6 Apr 10 17:46

Ratings show a distinct change in generations. People who have grown up with
Internet all their lives watch TV differently than those who haven't. People
who have entered or who are entering adolescence as cellphone users (and not
necessarily i-phones and their ilk) watch much less. Little kids still watch
about the same.

Still, at this time, some huge number -- is it over 95%? -- watch TV on a
device everybody would agree is a TV. Remember when there were cable-ready
VCRs? Now, there are computer-ready TV sets, and that will put more pressure
on traditional content providers.

As an early adopter of almost everything, Aaron, how do you get your TV?
inkwell.vue.380 : Aaron Barnhart, "Tasteland"
permalink #25 of 43: Aaron Barnhart (t-t-tasteland) Tue 6 Apr 10 21:11
There's an art for that, <tcn>. The art, short for article, that I
wrote in 2001 and included in TASTELAND reported that early adopters I
knew were already telling me they were "definitely" watching more TV
because of the addition of a new convenient device, in this case a DVR
which used the existing TV display.  

The takeaway from this, which was not immediately obvious but would be
revealed by research, is that anytime an additional device offering a
newly convenient way to access TV was unveiled, overall viewing of TV
by those adopters would increase. 

Well, as I see it right now we have several such devices being adopted
by different publics.  We have the DVR, in 38 percent of homes and
rising.  We have Flash video making the computer, for many, a cheaper
alternative to DVRs (130 million Americans watch some every month, for
an average of 3.5 hours a month and growing fast).  We have mobile
devices like the iPod.  And of course, we have video-on-demand through
Amazon, Netflix and other services which are the same concept as DVRs
if you're one of these persons who waits till shows are out on home
video, a window that has shrunk to within weeks of a season finale in
most cases.

Now, here's the kicker.  Just like the DVR, all the mobile video
devices are feeding back into more time spent in front of the POTV:

Obviously, some of that is now multitasked time, but you get the

Michael Lewis famously predicted the destruction of TV by the DVR in
2001.  What he forgot to factor in was (1) how new, cheaper
technologies that might be introduced in future would slow down the
growth of DVRs, allowing the TV industry to adapt to the changing
adscape incrementally instead of drastically; (2) the takeover of the
DVR market by cable companies, who have a vested interest  in working
with the broadcast industry; and last but not least, (3) the fact that
people just loves their tv.


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