Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Martians and metadata

Just in case you don't know the story:
The War of the Worlds is an episode of the American radio drama anthology series The Mercury Theatre on the Air. It was performed as a Halloween episode of the series on October 30, 1938, and aired over the Columbia Broadcasting System radio network. Directed and narrated by actor and future filmmaker Orson Welles, the episode was an adaptation of H. G. Wells's novel The War of the Worlds (1898).

[Written primarily by Howard Koch who went on to do some other interesting work, but nobody talks about the writer.* ]

The first two thirds of the 60-minute broadcast were presented as a series of simulated news bulletins, which suggested to many listeners that an actual alien invasion by Martians was currently in progress. Compounding the issue was the fact that the Mercury Theatre on the Air was a sustaining show (it ran without commercial breaks), adding to the program's realism. Although there were sensationalist accounts in the press about a supposed panic in response to the broadcast, the precise extent of listener response has been debated.

In the days following the adaptation, however, there was widespread outrage and panic by certain listeners, who had believed the events described in the program were real. The program's news-bulletin format was described as cruelly deceptive by some newspapers and public figures, leading to an outcry against the perpetrators of the broadcast. Despite these complaints--or perhaps in part because of them--the episode secured Welles' fame as a dramatist.
Of course, no one who heard the whole broadcast panicked. The first line listeners heard clearly spelled out what was about to come: "The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air in The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells."

But most of the people who were listening when the show ended hadn't heard the beginning of the show. They had been listening to one of the highest rated acts on radio, a ventriloquist named Edgar Bergen (you might want to take a minute to reflect on the concept of a radio ventriloquist before continuing). About fifteen minutes into the hour, the show cut to a musical interlude and people started channel surfing.

Though we don't normally think of it in those terms, the title of a program is data, as is the author. We feed it into the algorithm we use to interpret what we see, or in this case, hear. People who didn't hear the words  "The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells" tried to impute the genre based on the information they heard when they first tuned in to what seemed to be a reporter covering a disaster.

Check out the first few minutes and think about what you'd conclude.

PBS has a special commemorating the anniversary, but I'm staying loyal to the original medium and recommending this radio documentary produced for KPCC.

* Welles' relationship with Koch in some ways foreshadowed the controversy over Citizen Kane. Here's Pauline Kael's summary.

The Mercury group wasn’t surprised at Welles’s taking a script credit; they’d had experience with this foible of his. Very early in his life as a prodigy, Welles seems to have fallen into the trap that has caught so many lesser men—believing his own publicity, believing that he really was the whole creative works, producer-director-writer-actor. Because he could do all these things, he imagined that he did do them. (A Profile of him that appeared in The New Yorker two years before Citizen Kane was made said that “outside the theatre … Welles is exactly twenty-three years old.”) In the days before the Mercury Theatre’s weekly radio shows got a sponsor, it was considered a good publicity technique to build up public identification with Welles’s name, so he was credited with just about everything, and was named on the air as the writer of the Mercury shows. Probably no one but Welles believed it. He had written some of the shows when the program first started, and had also worked on some with Houseman, but soon he had become much too busy even to collaborate; for a while Houseman wrote them, and then they were farmed out. By the time of the War of the Worlds broadcast, on Halloween, 1938, Welles wasn’t doing any of the writing. He was so busy with his various other activities that he didn’t always direct the rehearsals himself, either—William Alland or Richard Wilson or one of the other Mercury assistants did it. Welles might not come in until the last day, but somehow, all agree, he would pull the show together “with a magic touch.” Yet when the Martian broadcast became accidentally famous, Welles seemed to forget that Howard Koch had written it. (In all the furor over the broadcast, with front-page stories everywhere, the name of the author of the radio play wasn’t mentioned.) Koch had been writing the shows for some time. He lasted for six months, writing about twenty-five shows altogether—working six and a half days a week, and frantically, on each one, he says, with no more than half a day off to see his family. The weekly broadcasts were a “studio presentation” until after the War of the Worlds (Campbell’s Soup picked them up then), and Koch, a young writer, who was to make his name with the film The Letter in 1940 and win an Academy Award for his share in the script of the 1942 Casablanca, was writing them for $75 apiece. Koch’s understanding of the agreement was that Welles would get the writing credit on the air for publicity purposes but that Koch would have any later benefit, and the copyright was in Koch’s name. (He says that it was, however, Welles’s idea that he do the Martian show in the form of radio bulletins.) Some years later, when C.B.S. did a program about the broadcast and the panic it had caused, the network re-created parts of the original broadcast and paid Koch $300 for the use of his material. Welles sued C.B.S. for $375,000, claiming that he was the author and that the material had been used without his permission. He lost, of course, but he may still think he wrote it. (He frequently indicates as much in interviews and on television.)

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