Dr. Stuart Samuels, original writer/producer of Night Flight returns

By on May 9, 2015
Dr. Stuart Samuels is one of the original members of the Night Flight team and is joining us at Nightflight.com as a contributor and producer of an exclusive podcast. In his time away from Night Flight, Samuels has directed and produced numerous award-winning films. His latest project is co-producer on Ron Howard’s recently announced authorized documentary about The Beatles.
photoStuart Samuels at Cannes Film Festival in 1973, Photo courtesy of the author

My connection to Night Flight began in 1981 when I met Stuart Shapiro, creator of Night Flight, who asked me to join the Night Flight team to create television programming around a new visual medium–exploding all around– the 3-5 min. music video.

It was a time I changed my life direction. In 1981, I shifted careers. From 1968 to 1981 I was an Ivy League academic–armed with a Ph.D from Stanford and post graduate work at Oxford University, I started teaching in the history department of Penn (University of Pennsylvania). My course was: History 374: Film as Social and Intellectual History,

The underlying premise of the course was that feature films, movies, cinema were a manifestation of the belief system of their life and time. I looked at cinema in the context of social and cultural history.

By the time I came to Night Flight in 1981–leaving the hallowed halls of academe for the dark edit rooms of a NY post production house–I already had a career and a focus on how popular culture reflected the life and times, and now I was in a position to help make that culture –to go from theory to practice. I became one of the few Dr’s, Ph.D working in the world of rock and roll.

For the next 5 years I helped produce, write, edit, create 1,000’s of hours of music television programming on the USA Cable Network.

A 5 day a week, entertainment news program -RADIO 1990 (“the new tv” -at 5:30–that featured stories about music, the latest music video releases, exclusive interviews by Lisa Robinson, and up to date entertainment news presented by Kathrine Kinley and Al Bandiero.)

We produced primetime music specials, mingling classic videos of the past with the new videos of the present, telling the history of pop music through the videos archives then and now. Night Flight became my programming focus. My job at Night Flight was to program the music videos and interviews , write scripts, edit programs and generally create an approach to late night programming that represented a new look and new content for this new cable network. USA Network was carried on Cable- 32 million homes- but unlike HBO–it was free. We had a prime television window, a space to present the Night Flight approach and DNA to alternative television.

Night Flight aired from 11 midnight to 7 AM—on Friday and Saturday night on the USA Cable Network.

In the beginning years, there was no time shift- the show in New York was seen in primetime-8PM- in Los Angeles.

Anyone, any age, who had a cable connection could just tune in–and what they saw–had a particular point of view, a defined visual and aesthetic programming DNA.

Night Flight started three months before MTV and soon enough both were broadcasting on the Late Night weekends. But there was a big programming difference between them. MTV played music videos- but like a radio playlist they were repeated, rotated throughout the day, and limited only to hit records. The music videos were there to sell records. It was like visual wallpaper-on 24 hours–everyday.

Night Flight took an opposite approach. We took this new visual product and celebrated its unique cultural moment by creating programming around the videos, held together not by hit, but by content, by visual style, by genre, by music form, by new sounds, rhythms–all driven by the new music and its new format the 3 to 5 min mini movie–the music video.

My approach to programming was built on the foundation I had built at Penn; to look at the relationship of films, movies, cinema in the context of social and intellectual history. Night Flight programming celebrated a new visual product, a new visual language, a new cultural shorthand–that changed the way we look at the world, at music, at narrative, at the revolutionary new connection between sound and image.

Let me quote from an article I wrote in 1984–in the SPOTLIGHT section of New York’s Backstage edition of May 18, 1984:

“Music videos started as a cultural curiosity, developed into a clever promotional marketing tool and have become in less than one year a new major force in the mass entertainment industry…the first new mass entertainment form to come out a generation weaned on TV.” “Music videos–with their loose narrative structure, rhythmic editing, little recognizable story lines tied to a thread of visual logic– appealed to a generation (12-25) who spent a large part of their waking hours in front of the TV. For this group of video literates, making sense and having fun with them was easy …Music videos were the next step for a generation hungry for visual overload, a generation whose attention span has dropped to less than 6 seconds, and a society whose consumer tastes were dictated by provocative visual symbols and slogans rather than by fact or reason. (Stuart Samuels “Music Video: The Story So Far.” BACKSTAGE: NEW YORK: SPOTLIGHT: May 18, 1984.)

This new generation was Night Flight’s audience. Night Flight became a magnet for alternative narratives that were spreading like a stain throughout mass culture entertainment. We took this new visual product, linked them thematically, combined them with off the wall bizzare, counter-culture visuals from public domain archives, bloopers and other visual elements, and turned this mash up of materials into an wildly entertaining, often shocking, sometimes unnerving, but always compelling narrative late night alternative programming.

TV Guide in the 1980’s, called Night Flight “the most entertaining late night show on cable TV, ” and USA TODAY wrote that “Night Flight is to late night cable television what underground radio was to rock music in the late 1960’s.” Music videos was the product of the 1st generation weaned on TV. The Internet is the new product of a generation weaned on computers. Content shifts from the big screen to TV, to mobile devices. Today we live in a cyberspace filled 24/7 with real time simultaneous connected images .

The rebirth of Night Flight on the Internet marks a new opportunity to tap into and explore the Night Flight Dna culture–as it was manifested in the past and what it connects to in global digital present

A mix of Counter-Culture, the Bizarre Intelligent, filled with New visual narratives A Celebration of the new, the distruptive, the transformative NightFlight.com is an opportunity to re-connect to the unique mix of music, comedy, new wave, cult, off the wall- explore oneself the essence of the Night Flight DNA.

Nightflight.com is aimed at a new media landscape.

In the 1980’s the programming was one direction. We had little idea about impact of the show- that a large part of our audience were under 12, ( with their parents out- they stayed up watching tv, flipping through the new cable landscape For the living room audience was a one way street.

Today’s media landscape demands a new kind of relationship between content and audience. The aim is to re-tribalize. To build a cyber community based on content. On an alternative mindset. A counter culture look at the world around us. This website will became a new space to put on the Night Flight 3d glasses and “go back to the daze” of NF and immerse yourselves in a new kind of Pop culture collective.

Drop into NF’s video vaults and become part of NF today. As my contribution to this rebirth, this dialog, I will be putting together podcasts that will help connect the NF past to the web based present By drawing on my past NF programming, as well as my post NF life –as a feature documentary filmmaker.

Samuels directed “Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream” in 2005, featuring interviews with David Lynch, John Waters, George A. Romero and more

As part of the new NightFlight.com I plan to create a new series: Dr. STUART SAMUELS “POPCASTS”

This is a new arena for me, a new platform to express my ideas about pop culture and social and intellectual history–to shine the light of my approach to pop mass entertainment onto this all encompassing information bubble we live in.

I will use my past works–from academia to music television, to movies, from television to home video–from books, from my extensive production archives (VISIONS OF LIGHT: THE ART OF CINEMATOGRAPHY; HOLLYWOODISM: JEWS, MOVIES AND THE AMERICAN DREAM; MIDNIGHT MOVIES: FROM THE MARGIN TO THE MAINSTREAM; RASTA: A SOUL’S JOURNEY (Bob Marley) – new interviews—I will be producing a series of podcasts–that connect the pop cultural expression of the 1980’s to the digital space we live within today, and what still resonates from that period to our digital world.

Glad to be Back.

About stuart

Dr. Stuart Samuels is an acclaimed academic (Univ. of Penn: 1968-1981),and a film and television producer, writer, and award-winning documentary filmmaker. (Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography; Midnight Movies: From The Margin to the Mainstream). His works explore the relationship of popular culture to the broader historical context of their times. Stuart was one of the original writers, Producer, and creative partners on Night Flight. He is developing a Night Flight Series of PopCasts coming soon.