“I’m not just a little boy in every room in this house!”
Right now, I’m writing these words, and right now, you’re reading them, and those cannot possibly be the same “right now,” and so there is a time distortion in everything that we know about each other.
On Dark Shadows, it’s January 1970. For me, at the moment, it’s September 2016. For you, it’s some impossible-to-predict time in the future — a couple hundred of you today, and a couple thousand of you this week, and then who knows how many, in the long tail of tomorrows to come.
But for Young Danny, it’s June 1986, and Dark Shadows is cancelled.
Back then, the only way I could see the show was at 6:30 in the evening on New Jersey Network, a public broadcasting station that was struggling to define its identity in a crowded field. The network was actually four stations overseen by the New Jersey Public Broadcasting Authority, and it had a huge reach — not just New Jersey, but also New York City, Philadelphia, and parts of Connecticut and Delaware. But NJN was competing with WNET in New York, and WHYY in Philadelphia — two prestige PBS stations that had all the important shows, like Masterpiece Theater, Sesame Street, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
So New Jersey Network needed a way to stand out, and it wasn’t going to happen by showing Jack Horkheimer: Star Hustler and People, Pets and Dr. Mark. In 1983, they added two shows to the schedule that had been successful at other stations — Doctor Who, and Dark Shadows — and those shows became the NJN cash cows.
I first wrote about this a year ago, in “All About That Vase“, and at that time, in early 1897, New Jersey Network was the hero of the story.
There were other local TV channels across the country that aired Dark Shadows reruns in the late 70s and early 80s, but they could only show the first two years of syndicated episodes — from Barnabas rising from his coffin in episode 210, to Laura burning down Worthington Hall in episode 735. Once they reached that point, a station would have to pay a premium to Worldvision Enterprises, who owned the syndication broadcast rights, in order to unlock more episodes.
You see, when a show is first released into syndication, you have to pay a one-time residuals fee for the actors, writers and directors. The cost goes down substantially after that, for everyone, but somebody’s got to be the sucker who shells out for the first time. None of the local stations that had been airing Dark Shadows could afford to pay that premium, so they’d just show two years of episodes and then stop.
We all wanted that mythical Third Year — an amazing run of episodes that included most of 1897, the Leviathan story, and the beginning of 1970 Parallel Time — and the only station that could scrape enough money together was New Jersey Network, the four-headed public broadcasting hydra that was willing to pull the trigger on it, if Dark Shadows fans made it worth their while.
Just in case the concept of “public broadcasting” is foreign to you, in the far-off space year of whenever you are, it was a racket run by hippies and eggheads and do-gooders that broadcast television shows that are in the public interest, free from the sordid snares of commerce. It’s usually a mix of educational shows, local politics, entertainment for fancy people, and miscellaneous. They can actually run pretty much anything they want, as long as people in the audience send them enough money to keep the transmitters running. At the most basic level, public broadcasting stations are saying: please organize yourselves into interest groups, then send us money and a list of demands, and we’ll see what we can do.
And it turned out Dark Shadows fans were eager to participate. The show was just sitting there, locked up tight in Worldvision’s vaults. These days, you can buy the whole series on DVD for around $500 — but in 1986, even if you were willing to pay 500 dollars to see all of Dark Shadows, there was literally no way to give somebody that money and get back a television show. New Jersey Network was offering to take our money, and turn it into Dark Shadows. We were grateful.
The station knew that they had something special, and they went out of their way to woo the Dark Shadows fanbase. In September 1983, there was a Dark Shadows Festival in Newark, and they sent a news crew to the convention, to tape segments for a feature on the nightly newscast that they aired on the night of the show’s NJN premiere. They gave out pamphlets at the Festival, to encourage people to support Dark Shadows by contributing to the station.
And after a while, they started offering special premiums — a black T-shirt with the Dark Shadows logo on it, plus an 8×10 photo of Jonathan Frid. This is what Kickstarter used to be like, in the analog days.
Oh, and they had Jonathan Frid himself, held captive at his New Jersey home, and they wouldn’t let him out until he made a sales pitch, on camera.
These were lovely. They made five different promos between 1984 and 1986, and they played them so often that I knew them by heart. Frid was just perfect — warm and likeable, and absolutely sincere about supporting public TV, but with a twinkle in his eye. He was the former America’s grooviest ghoul, now in semi-retirement, appearing in occasional stage productions and working on a one-man show. He was lovely.
You can see these promos — they’re on one of the discs in the Complete Original Series set — and they’re perfect little snapshots of what life was like for us in New Jersey, watching public television in the mid 80s.
Here’s the script for the first promo, as delivered by Frid:
Barnabas Collins entices people into succumbing to his… you know what. I’m Jonathan Frid, and I want to entice you into pledging money.
You know, Dark Shadows is a unique example of television programming. And how often is uniqueness frowned upon, in this business?
The people at New Jersey Network believe that Dark Shadows belongs here, and I agree. But only your continued support can keep the legend of Dark Shadows alive.
Let them know that you agree, by pledging now. Join New Jersey Network today, and support uncommonly good television.
Now, besides Jonathan Frid being avuncular and gorgeous, what we need to examine here are the precise terms of this ancient truce between the public and the broadcasting. This is crucial to understanding the events that follow.
This isn’t a hard-sell shakedown — send us money, we’ll play your show. This is presented to us in terms of a partnership, based on a shared set of beliefs.
It starts with a playful wink: “Barnabas Collins entices people into succumbing to his — you know what.” So right from the start, we’re acknowledging that this is a rather silly television show. We all know that — you, and Mr. Frid, and the people at New Jersey Network — and everybody’s okay with it.
And then he says, “You know, Dark Shadows is a unique example of television programming.” That opening phrase — “You know” — is doing a lot of the heavy lifting in this proposal. It’s the thing that you say when you’re about to say something utterly preposterous, and you want to lower people’s expectations about how sensible you’re planning to be. “You know, I bet I could fit that entire bowl of M&Ms into my mouth,” you might say, or “You know, people are awfully judgmental about cannibalism.” That’s the kind of “You know” that we’re dealing with.
The word “unique,” obviously, is a euphemism for what “unique” is always a euphemism for. What he really means is “bugfuck insane,” as in, “You know, Dark Shadows is a bugfuck insane example of television programming.” And we agree, because it is.
“And how often is uniqueness frowned upon, in this business?” says J. Frid, who we are suddenly in business with. He has reached out his hand and invited us to cross the footlights, stepping up onto the stage and seeing the world from the artist’s point of view. We are the true artists, really — we few, we happy few, who take this bugfuck insane show, and spin it into dreams.
This places us in a noble but precarious position. We’ve become a part of this unique work of art; our interests and the interests of the show are now intertwined. We are the artist, threatened by the tarnishing forces of lumpen pedestrian commerce. The show’s uniqueness is our uniqueness, and we are frowned upon.
But then, the crucial turn: “The people at New Jersey Network believe that Dark Shadows belongs here, and I agree.” And oh, the simple beauty of that phrase: “the people at New Jersey Network.” The business may be frowning, but New Jersey Network isn’t just another cog in that soulless machine. There are people at New Jersey Network — kind people, with clear eyes and full hearts — and they believe that Dark Shadows belongs here, and Jonathan Frid agrees.
So I ask you: How do you not send money to this station? The people in my own family didn’t understand me the way that the people at New Jersey Network did. This wasn’t a sordid cash transaction; this was a movement. By pledging money to the station, we were joining a growing community of people who deeply and sincerely believed in bugfuck insane television.
So we got the Third Year. Worthington Hall burned, and Quentin turned into a werewolf, and the legendary hand of Count Petofi worked its mysterious will, and we were all one happy family, me and the other outpatients, and the people at New Jersey Network.
But still, we were a little bit on edge, because there was always the Fourth Year. The new syndication package ended mid-Parallel Time, and there’s another eleven months worth of Dark Shadows after that. We still needed a deep-pocketed sugar daddy willing to spend taxpayer money on vampire show residuals. If we could just keep NJN on track, we could unlock the rest of Dark Shadows, for us and for all the other fans around the country.
In March 1986, Jim Pierson — the chairman of the Dark Shadows Festival and general fan-in-chief — wrote a stirring call-to-arms in our flagship fanzine, The World of Dark Shadows.
The piece was titled:
THE LAST YEAR: WE’RE ALMOST THERE
DON’T GIVE UP — GIVE SUPPORT!
And it framed the situation in appropriately evangelical terms.
Considering that only three short years ago there was serious doubt even a second year of Dark Shadows episodes would be released, the events of the past year have been truly remarkable. The exposure and publicity given to DS by New Jersey Network has allowed the show to reach countless new fans and has given a tremendous boost to the Dark Shadows Festivals.
As a direct result of NJN’s success with DS, other Public Broadcasting System affiliates are jumping aboard the DS bandwagon. WVIA-TV in Wilkes-Barre, PA, KETC-TV in St. Louis, WOSU-TV in Columbus, OH, WGTE-TV in Toledo, OH, and WPBO-TV in Louisville, KY are part of the growing number of PBS outlets supporting DS.
In addition to the increasing PBS exposure, DS is also on the rise on commercial stations as well. The show is currently running or will begin soon in such areas as Detroit, Las Vegas, Seattle-Tacoma, Baltimore, Cleveland, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Ocala, FL, Boston, Valdosta, GA, Cape Cod, and other areas. Much of this activity can be attributed to the new availability of a third year of episodes. Without the efforts of New Jersey Network it is likely this resurgence would not be taking place.
And those were the stakes, for the true believers. It wasn’t enough that we got to watch Megan Todd trip over herself as she pinballed her way through the Collinsport antiques shop. Everybody in America needed to see this; it was our shared vision of the way people’s lives should be. Dark Shadows for everyone!
But there was one dark cloud on the horizon.
It is imperative that the present momentum is not lost. If the last year of DS is to ever be seen again it is vital that every fan voice their support by contributing to New Jersey Network immediately. If you contributed last year it is extremely important that you renew your membership now! If you haven’t contributed in the past please do so now!
It is essential that the support of NJN on behalf of DS continues to grow. They received a high level of donations last year which must be exceeded in 1986 if they are to pursue obtaining the final year of DS for broadcast. If the momentum is lost at this time it will most assuredly never be regained and the last year of DS will never be seen.
So… about that. You’ll never guess what happened that summer.
In June 1986 — as the Leviathan monster raged through Collinsport, terrorizing the innocent and destroying everything in its path — the news broke that New Jersey Network was dropping Dark Shadows. The show would continue for four more months, and come to a halt with episode 1006, on October 24th.
The Fourth Year was not happening.
The story as I understand it is as follows. New Jersey Network’s general manager, Hendrix Niemann, quit his job in December 1985 — and he said that he was forced out by the board of the New Jersey Public Broadcasting Authority, because Governor Kean’s office didn’t like NJN’s news coverage of his administration. And this is New Jersey politics, so yeah, that’s probably true.
That summer, Sondra Clark, the network’s interim executive director, asked the Public Broadcasting Authority board if they felt like Dark Shadows should be renewed. This wasn’t really a question that ought to be under the purview of the board, but they still only had an interim ED six months after the last one left, so apparently there was something of a leadership vacuum.
So the board of the New Jersey Public Broadcasting Authority decided that maybe let’s not spend a lot of extra money on the fourth year of a vampire soap opera.
“The show did not fit with the network’s mission to provide cultural, educational, news and public-affairs programming,” was the decree. An in-house network memo said that “prime-time programming of non-public broadcasting material” like Dark Shadows “may unduly distract the public image of New Jersey Network away from its basic public-broadcasting mission.”
Now, I’m about to do something that a True Believer should never do, and think about the situation from the other fella’s point of view. This is treason, naturally, and Young Danny would sneer and call me a FINO*, but I’m a historian now, apparently, and I answer to a higher calling.
* Fan in Name Only.
Because you have to admit that the New Jersey Public Broadcasting Authority kind of had a point. Dark Shadows did not fit with the network’s mission to provide cultural, educational etcetera. It just didn’t.
It brought in money, and it generated public interest. It got people really deeply involved in public broadcasting who would otherwise be watching Star Trek reruns. And it did fit a loose definition of giving the public what we said that we wanted.
But if you want to be taken seriously as a public broadcasting station, then this kind of nonsense is bad for the brand. I mean, when the New Jersey Public Broadcasting Authority goes to the annual convention and talks to all the other Public Broadcasting Authorities, everyone just sniggers and rolls their eyes. The Kentucky Public Broadcasting Authority probably said something terribly cutting last year. Public Broadcasting Authorities have feelings, you know; they’re not made of stone.
So they decided that New Jersey Network needed to drop all this silly extravagance, and focus on their basic public broadcasting mission, which was to try to act more like WNET. And twenty-five years later, NJN was defunded, and they had to change their name and go into receivership, so that worked out great.
Meanwhile, 1986: the fans are heartbroken. The Fourth Year is out of reach again, possibly forever.
And yes, in hindsight, we know that eventually every existing Dark Shadows episode will be broadcast on the Sci Fi Channel, and released on videotape and DVD, and they’re now actually available on YouTube for $1.99 per episode, which is utterly and mind-blowingly insane, from Young Danny’s point of view.
I mean, you, right now — like, seriously, ten seconds from now — you could click on this link, and without getting up from your chair, you could be watching episode 1007. That was the episode that we were all dying to see, on October 24th, 1986. That episode was what we were fighting for. And you probably didn’t even click on that link, because, meh, $1.99. Right?
But that was not inevitable. There was no guarantee that Dark Shadows would ever be released again. I mean, none of the other daytime network soaps are available like that. Let’s say you’re a big fan of General Hospital, and you want to watch all the early Luke and Laura episodes — every episode from 1979 to 1983. There is currently no way that you can do that, and it’s hard to say if there ever will be.
Maybe the technology will continue to advance, until eventually it’s easy enough to digitize, index and distribute every single existing episode of television. That could happen. Maybe ten years from now, we’ll be able to fire up the OmniContent Data Crystal, and watch anything we like.
But right now, there are General Hospital fans living among us, and they would happily pay to watch those episodes, if there was anybody who would agree to take their money. At the moment, it doesn’t seem super likely that anybody ever will. That was how Dark Shadows fans felt, in 1986.
And the really gut-wrenching thing is that the people at New Jersey Network used to believe that Dark Shadows belonged here, and Jonathan Frid agreed.
For the last three years, the people at New Jersey Network have been telling us that we share a common belief system, that this unique example of television programming should not be frowned upon. And here they are, frowning, just like everybody else in this business. This is a betrayal of everything that we used to mean to each other.
So at this point, the Dark Shadows audience goes through the five stages of grief, with a particular emphasis on Anger and Bargaining. Here’s some recommendations, from that Dark Shadows Is Cancelled!! flyer.
A few suggestions on what to say or write:
You won’t renew your membership unless DS is renewed. It’s the only NJN show you support.
It was fraudulent to run on air DS donation solicitations until 6/27 when they cancelled the show on 6/25. Threaten to go to FCC with this, if show is not returned.
Send NJN checks made out to network for amount you’d pledge if DS is reinstated and write across face of check: “–VOID– until Dark Shadows is renewed”
If you already pledged money this year, demand your money back.
Remind them there is only one year left of the series, and that fans across the country will heavily support NJN if DS is renewed.
Dark Shadows is one of NJN’s highest rated and most heavily supported programs. The New Jersey Public Broadcasting Authority Board members are clearly ignoring these facts. As a result, they are not serving the public’s interest.
Dark Shadows makes NJN unique, and sets them apart from other PBS stations. Without programming such as DS, the cable industry’s objections to the overturned “Must Carry” regulation is understandable.
I don’t really know what that last bullet point is talking about, and I’m not going to bother to look it up. I’m sure it meant something, to somebody.
But yeah, I wrote, and I called, several times each. I spoke to receptionists, and left strongly worded messages. It didn’t work.
And that thing about the FCC? That really happened. Here’s the Warren Township Echoes-Sentinel, in October 1986:
According to a prepared release from the Dark Shadows Festival Committee, even though the decision to drop the show was made on June 25, fund raising promotions for the station targeting Dark Shadows viewers aired until June 27.
The release said that on one Dark Shadows-targeted fund raising evening in 1985, a record $18,000 was raised in one hour.
The proceeds from the Dark Shadows Festivals in New Jersey during the past three years were donated to NJN. According to the festival release, enough money was raised to make the festival a “corporate underwriter”.
So they can’t take Dark Shadows off the air! They knew the show was canceled on June 25th, and they were still running those Jonathan Frid promotions for another two days. Therefore, they are dastardly villains, and Dark Shadows is back on the air, the end.
The Echoes-Sentinel called the FCC to follow up, and they talked to a patient man named Thomas Dunlap, who said that they had indeed received complaints from viewers, and that they were requesting information from the network to determine if an inquiry was called for. I forget what happened after that. Probably not much.
But, oh, look at this.
Joseph Carruba, a graphic artist who is on the Dark Shadows Festival Committee, arranged a fan protest of the show’s cancellation on Aug. 16 in front of the statehouse in Trenton and also at the network itself.
The turnout was about 40 fans, although Carruba said he mailed out hundreds of flyers. “We think there was a problem with the mail. I later checked with a few people I mailed them to and five of them never received it.”
Look at these people. Look at how brave and silly and beautiful they are.
Personally, I didn’t make it to the protest, because I didn’t have my own car, and my parents weren’t going to drive me sixty miles to Trenton so that I could march in front of the statehouse carrying a fake coffin. But I wish I was there, to support the cause. These were my brothers and sisters.
Also, the guy in the foreground, holding the “Dark Shadows makes N.J. Network UNIQUE!” sign? Look how hot that guy is. And we had so much in common.
So there’s Young Danny, enjoying the show, all the way up until that fateful day in late October, when I watched the final episode of Dark Shadows that I would ever see in my life.
I wrote down a detailed synopsis in my Dark Shadows notebook, as I always did, and then I sat there on my bed and I thought about life. And then I cried, a little bit. Not much. But this was a thing that I really loved, and as far as I was concerned, it was ruined and gone forever.
So that’s the story of Dark Shadows, for pretty much everybody who watched it between 1972 and 1992.
But there are still people who are experiencing Dark Shadows the way that I did, the way that we always have — in fits and starts, in the wrong order, with weird gaps in the middle. Even now, our content delivery mechanisms fail in unpredictable ways.
Until very recently, Hulu Plus was streaming the first two years of syndication — episodes 210 through 735, just like they saw it in Wilkes-Barre and Dallas-Fort Worth, back in the day. And then a few weeks ago, Hulu suddenly lost a huge chunk in the middle. Right now, they’ve got 210 through 290 — right up to the moment when Julia tells Barnabas that she knows he’s a vampire — and then it skips ahead to 534, for the end of the Dream Curse.
I’ve heard from several people in the comments over the last few weeks, saying that they were caught in that gap. So now they’re catching up by reading this blog and the Dark Shadows Wiki, just like I used to read the World of Dark Shadows episode guides. Somebody ought to show up at Hulu HQ with a sign that says “Dark Shadows makes Hulu UNIQUE!”, just to see what happens.
But we’re in the majority, really, the people who watch Dark Shadows in pieces. Even when the show was on ABC Daytime, there can’t be that many people who watched every episode from 1 to 1245, without missing a single day. Sure, there are people who get the complete DVD set, and faithfully watch every episode in order — but you can’t actually see them all, because there’s a lost episode in the last few weeks.
The master tape for episode 1219 was damaged, and they weren’t making black-and-white kinescopes anymore. So that episode is actually ruined and gone forever — the one day in the Fourth Year that never made it into syndication. The one that we left behind, as a sacrifice.
There are 1,245 steps to complete the ritual. One of the steps is missing. The ritual has only been completed once. After that, it’s an approximation. But everything is, I suppose.
Tomorrow: Another Day in the Uncanny Valley.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
In act 1, when the scene shifts from the secret passageway to the antique shop, someone runs by in front of the camera.
As the watermark indicates, I borrowed the picket line image from the Collinsport Historical Society’s article on the NJN cancellation: “Dark Shadows is cancelled! Again!”
The newspaper article, “Dark Shadows, Uncle Floyd drops trigger FCC request,” was from the October 16, 1986 edition of the Warren Township Echoes-Sentinel. I didn’t mention Uncle Floyd in the article because who even cares.
The fanzine quotes and the flyer are from The World of Dark Shadows, issues 43, 44 and 46.
Here’s a few more quotes from Frid’s adorable NJN promos:
“A hundred and seventy-five years in that coffin would have gone a lot faster for Barnabas Collins, if he had been able to watch all the programming that New Jersey Network provides for its viewers.”
“You know, I never dreamed that I’d become a fan of Dark Shadows. But because of New Jersey Network, I have. I watch the show every night, and I love it!”
“The network also offers some very nice thank-you gifts for your pledge. For instance, there’s this T-shirt, which… well, I was quite tempted by that.”
And just when he’s saying that third quote, there’s a huge boom mic shadow on the wall. These promos might actually qualify as very short episodes of Dark Shadows.
Tomorrow: Another Day in the Uncanny Valley.
— Danny Horn